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Stem the Tide, Point the Blame

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Once upon a time there was a Green Man, magicked up from someone else. He was a trick played on a court of people better-than-you-are by a witch of the fairies with dark eyes and lofty ideas. Once upon a time he was seven feet tall and a knight and he laughed and he laughed and he laughed as he swung his green axe and rode his green horse and bleed his green blood. Once upon a time he turned other knights into nothing. He reduced them to memories of great bravery. Once I was a goddamn flower of earthy chivalry they would think as they cried their better-than-you-are tears and the Green Knight that broke them would laugh and laugh and laugh as he returned to the witch and she straightened his collar and rattled his armour. Once upon a time he let other knights kiss his wife because it was all part of the game and girls were just girls and the knights would kiss him too in the end. Once upon a time he stopped being a knight he went back to being just a Man.

The Green Man painted pretty and art nouveau in colours like nature on swinging signs outside pubs and inns that were named after him too. He vomited vines and flowers and leaves and he bathed in beer and he revelled because that was what was expected of him and that was what they worshipped him for. And he weaved and dodged his way through everything and he changed and stayed the same until he was what he is now. A mascot for all the pretty little fraternities in pretty little towns. A sharp-toothed mentor steering them to drink and bleeding green down everything. Almost any interaction was a drunk interaction because that was how it should be and he made deals and played tricks and won games because it kept him real. Real in a nervous laughing sort of way. Real in a maybe-we-will-win-the-final-if-I-sell-my-soul-to-the-Green-Man sort of way. Half jokes and fear. But really, he was much more real than that, he was something for alters and candles and pentagrams, he was something to pray to. And sometimes he answered, and sometimes people disappeared, and sometimes people were forever changed.

 

Afterwards, Professor Charles Xavier would argue that he had been in a rut. Not out loud or with people, he would argue with himself about it. It was just a moment of boredom-inspired, rut-fuelled madness, a split second to start everything and really, that was the sort of excuse that made sense. People did all sorts of stupid things because they were bored. People bought classic cars and developed interests. His just happened to be a little more unbelievable than most.

To be fair, Charles hadn't coped well with the end of his University career, almost a year before everything rut-breaking and stupid happened. It would be the last time he graduated, it would be the last of a lot of things, and he missed all of them. He thought about classes wistfully even though when he'd been taking them, they had seemed little more than ways of figuring out the days of the week. Markers so he didn't slip out of time.

Ultimately, without classes, he just stopped caring. It wasn’t a negative feeling, it was total indifference, and he wandered around town and drank beers and flirted in a lacklustre, doomed-to-fail sort of way, because that was all he felt he had to do.

Raven fought him tooth and nail, when he slept in until three before heading into town with beer on his mind, because that was her job. But she didn't know anything, she had only just finished high school and she had an excellent fake ID. And of course the other children were always lurking in the back of his mind when he was feeling responsible. Xavier's Home for Troubled Youth didn't run itself, even though he had only reopened it in an attempt to combat this lack of feeling and even though there were only three troubled youths so far.

The mansion that housed them all had been his parents, and now it was his. Tucked up into a strange, empty area of the city, just far enough away from the bright lights and bars that he felt separate from it all, like town was where his rut was housed and the mansion was something else, slightly more alive, sprawling and almost entirely empty. His father, who Charles had been close to, had insisted on the continuation of the Xavier Home for Troubled Youth, and that promise had eventually been kept. His mother, who Charles had not been close to, had insisted on a large staff of maids, butlers and chefs, and currently they had only one; an old and confused cleaner who came in on weekends.

Charles was good at housing the kids, all of them around Raven’s age and all of them male, and he liked them for their troubles and the way they didn’t really fit in anywhere, just like him. But they had all just finished high school (except for Hank who had just finished his first degree) and would probably be leaving soon. If Raven decided to go too, as she had every right to do and as she often threatened, then it would just be him, and he was scared that he’d never be able to escape and instead would stick to the mansion, buried under dust and paper and stained glass windows and be forgotten for always.

And so Charles went to bars and he drank these thoughts away, and it was there that he learned, among other things, of his inexplicable inability to flirt. Despite being used to it, it still didn’t make sense to him that no one ever fell or his words-of-charm. Not girls, not boys. He’d learnt from the best after all, from suave spies and swingers in 60’s film and it always worked for them. He told himself over and over that he was an old soul, that was his problem, as he watched Raven easily flirt her way through a crowd and tried not to feel jealous. She had an uncanny ability to be whoever she knew they wanted and it scared him how easily she employed that skill. Charles himself had nothing like that, but he always knew when whatever attempted conquest had failed. He could read rejection in their eyes like Raven could read desire and occasionally it shook him out of his indifference long enough for him to feel a little bad about it.

“This is terrible, let’s go.” He pulled Raven away from a hot-eyed, broad-shouldered boy with arms. It was Friday night and Raven had turned up at the bar Charles was drinking at. He had just made the mistake of using the word groovy in his description of a red-headed girl he recognised from some university paper or another, but he wasn’t entirely sure it was just that which had caused the frantic glare and clicking heels as she stalked away.

“No way, it’s early and I’m having fun.” Tonight Raven was the perfect flipped-hair pastel-coloured girl to match the letterman-boy.

“Right, well the key is in its usual place.” And Charles left, closing his eyes to the words that followed him.

"You know that guy?" Deep voice, scorn-filled.

"He's my brother, he watches a lot of movies." Charles could hear her roll her eyes and it made him feel sick. Even though he knew this was a part of pastel-girl, he didn't like hearing words like that from Raven. Raven who understood him better than anyone even when she was yelling at him, and liked the movies he watched and assured him that he would find the right person and to definitely not stop using the word groovy because it would probably be a good indicator of true love. But sometimes, especially times like this, he wondered if that was the real Raven, if his Raven was the real Raven (and if such a thing could exist), or maybe she was pastel pink and powdered with an expensive fake ID and he'd just been too caught up in old thoughts of brother-sister bonding, just-the-two-of-them, all of that crap, to notice that she'd grown up different.

He kicked at the road as he trudged home. He tore leaves off trees, he scraped his knuckles on brick walls, he glared into the night-time. This was Charles rebelling; three beers warm in his stomach, fuzzing up his eyes and his thoughts. He needed less confidence, that was it, he needed to realise that no one was going to fall for a raised eyebrow and a cheesy pick-up line, he needed to find a real way to relate to the people he wanted to fuck. No, not fuck, have a relationship with. He needed to stop thinking that a boy or a girl would dig him out of the hole he’d buried himself in.

~~~

The children weren't the sorts to be out all night at bars, although part of that was because Raven wouldn’t tell them where she got her ID and besides, troubled youths weren’t allowed alcohol. But they were still awake when Charles drifted into the small sitting room everyone liked best, all books and cushions and fire, without a word.

"Pathetic." Sean muttered, narrowing his eyes at Charles. "It's 10.45."

"Well passed your bedtime then, isn’t it." Charles retorted sleepily, slumping into one of the over-soft couches. Sean Cassidy was redheaded, freckled and prettier than he realised. He had been sent to the mansion because he'd been getting drunk most days, doing drugs most nights and screaming more than his widowed mother could handle. He'd arrived thin with needles, sheepish and confused and he hadn't lost any of those traits, though he'd replaced needles with an irritating nervous habit of chewing anything plastic that could fit in his mouth. He liked plastic spoons the best, and he could reduce a pen into a pile of tiny plastic splinters with alarming efficiency.

"Did you have a nice night?" Hank was more polite, peering at Charles over horn-rimmed glasses and flipping the page of his thick, leather bound, probably-science book.

"It was terrible." Charles said honestly. "But I'm feeling nicely full of beer."

“Well done.” Hank McCoy was brilliant. One of the most intelligent people Charles had ever had the pleasure of meeting, he spent a lot of his time inventing and creating and exploding and rebuilding, and the rest of it reading. Quiet and nervous, he was the newest member of their little group, only a month in and still getting his bearings. Charles was still trying to figure out why exactly Hank was troubled, his parents hadn’t said a lot except with their panicked eyes, but it seemed to involve a rather explosive temper and extraordinary strength. Raven liked Hank a lot because he was quiet and nervous and because his eyes were ever so blue behind his glasses, but so far she’d only hinted and he’d either been too scared to do anything in return or hadn’t actually noticed.

Finally there was Alex Summers. Alex looked like the kind of boy that Raven was flirting with at that very moment, all-American, blonde haired and blue eyed, but Charles' thought that he was perhaps the most troubled of all of them, if those sorts of things could be measured. The only one of the group who had been incarcerated for his troubles, he’d been released into Charles’ care because it was convenient and his father’s excellent reputation apparently still stood for something. He’d been sent away originally because he’d hurt his older brother. They had never really got along and one day Alex’s vicious temper had got the better of him and Scott Summers had been hurt first and had then disappeared. Alex was adamant that he had nothing to do with the disappearance, but he acknowledged the 27 stitches across Scott’s collarbone were down to lightning reflexes and metal-in-hand.

“Raven’s with some new boy.” Charles sighed then because the silence was lasting too long and because when he was around them he felt this inexplicable need to play the same games that they were. Be a teenager, troubled, sullen, all of that, and they let him because he was the closest thing they had to family and because they had noticed how nothing he had been lately and wanted to help him like he had them.

In actual fact, the children saw him like their father, like the King Arthur to their Round Table. They assigned themselves characters and played at being knights instead of troubled youths because knights didn’t have troubles and because they were young enough and crazy enough that it wasn’t a completely stupid thought.

Charles noticed because as well as being their King Arthur, he was also their shrink, not to mention how vividly excited Raven would get when he so much as laughed at one of their jokes. She wanted them to be a family and he was terrified it would all end. But he let them play their games because they were young and such hurts might be easier for them, and because he knew all about pretending you were someone else.

As a child he’d only had his father to talk to, and they had been the best of friends. Then Raven had arrived, just one of the messed up kids Charles’ father looked after, but one that had nothing else and no one else, one who fit in so perfectly that they adopted her. And their father had died and Charles and Raven had clung to one another because Sharon Xavier was too busy clinging to other boys and bottles. That was the first time Charles had felt responsible. Eleven years old and holding her hand when they crossed the road and making her sandwiches with the crusts cut off and playing monster trucks with her because barbies were for girls, real girls, proper girls. Not. Like. Me.

Already too old, Charles had stepped into the role easily. He was the father, the guardian, the role-model, and he was so tired. That was why he tried to act like their friend instead of their father, and that was why he failed every single time.

“You look crazed.” Alex observed, because he almost never spoke but when he did, it was always right.

“I feel crazed.” Charles replied but it wasn't quite true. He felt sort of like you do when you come back from the beach, stretched out with salt and more tired than anything. Too tired to be properly alive.

“Go to bed, daddy Charles.” Sean babied, leaning forward to palm Charles’ hair into his eyes. Because sometimes children recognised that their fathers needed help too. “We’ll talk to Raven.” His eyes glinted wickedly and Charles gave a weak laugh,

“Good luck.” He managed before he shuffled, zombie-like toward the stairs and his bedroom. He was exhausted, so sick of everything in the real world. He wanted a bubble, the mansion and everything that came with it, but nothing else. He wished he could remember a time when he wasn't so tired but all it did was make his eyes heavy and he fell asleep with the effort it took to try.

~~~

“What was the film?” Charles asked curiously. It was December thirty first and him, Alex and Sean were sitting outside the mansion in bright sunlight. Sean was emphatically explaining some strange film with fevered cheeks and wide gestures. A mostly-destroyed coffee stirrer hung out of his mouth, gripped fiercely between his teeth making his mumbling almost unintelligible and Alex watched him with quiet eyes, all sun filled and trying-not-to-look-as-happy-as-he-felt.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, I’ll give it to you. The important thing is that it could be real, right? There could be tiny like...bugs under our skin or in our blood. Government bugs. Like, robot bugs.” Sean glared at Alex as he spoke because he knew what the older boy was thinking, and he knew what that tiny smile meant and Charles-is-on-my-side-so-I-win-anyway.

“I suppose so.” Charles mused and Sean raised an eyebrow in triumph. Alex turned away to hide the smile Sean probably thought was a scowl.

It wasn’t that Charles was encouraging Sean into paranoia and fanaticism. It was more that he had the same sort of thoughts, a hundred different what if’s that rolled over and over in his head. But unlike Sean, he didn't latch on to the most absurd, he spent time investigating all possibilities.

“But, it is a movie, so that sort of thing is probably more likely. Fiction is more sensationalised, after all, because...it’s fiction.”

“You’re not supposed to think the characters are right.” Alex said quietly, the first time he’d contributed to the conversation. Sean looked fierce,

“You don’t know.” He retorted and Alex shrugged.

“It’s all in their mind then? Self generated paranoia is far more interesting.” Charles nodded slowly, his eyes flicking between spots in midair, points in space that represented each of his thoughts. “What are your thoughts on the Kennedy assassination, Sean?”

Charles wasn't a conspiracy theorist as such, it was mostly just that things fascinated him. He was one of those people who learnt and learnt and wouldn’t stop, quite possibly because they couldn’t, but also because it simply never occurred to them. Learning and living were synonymous. Charles was the person at the party who would react to stories or words or sounds with long and emphatically explained tales of his own where no one would really understand the connection but he knew exactly what was going on. I-am-talking-about-Carl-Jung-because-you-made-a-noise-that-reminded-me-of-a-song-I-was-listening-to-before-my-analytical-psychology-exam-oh-by-the-way-I’m-Charles. He didn’t really go to many parties.

So he wasn’t the slightly scary gun-polishing guy with intense eyes who talked about the government a lot while he cracked his knuckles, but he would listen to those sorts, and he would nod his head and be genuinely-interested-not-condescending because he recognised their need to tell stories. And maybe some of them would turn into spree killers or even white-collar-votes-the-right-way types and that was fine, they were just more people for Charles to figure out. Because under it all he was pretty certain the moon landing actually did happen and maybe not everyone had government-planted microscopic robots under their skin, and people were the most interesting element in all of that. Sometimes maybe he even thought that things like Nessie could be real and even normal, a future mutation or some remnant of the past, it didn’t matter, it was all just more to know.

And it was learning that gave him some noise. Interesting thoughts in his head to block out the grey. Sometimes if he found out something new he would be lit up like a spark, just for a moment, alight with the possibility of a new field of research. And that would last a little while, and Raven would be feverish with hope, and then Charles would hit some sort of snag, like a series of words that fit together wrong or something he had already known and discounted, and this new knowledge would lose it's something and he would be back to normal.

On New Year’s Eve he found something like that, a tower in the middle of a lake at the end of furious research about Sean's various theories. It didn't matter how he got there, but this church spire in the middle of a lake all frozen for winter, captivated him. There wasn't much to know, but he wanted to know all of it. And he talked manically about it all evening as he got drunker and drunker and Raven rolled her eyes. He didn't sleep at all and in the morning the children went off on some sort of haphazardly panned picnic and Charles stayed at home reading. Reading more now about other fourteenth century churches because that was how it went. And he was still slightly drunk (just as the children were still slightly hungover, alcohol having been allowed in the house for-one-time-only because it was New Years and Raven would have torn out Charles' fingernails if he had refused), and he thought that cold rooms and small text and things-he-didn't-know-yet might match that leftover-party feeling and really it was probably perfect.

The mansion was always strange when it was empty, ideally it would be full of people, running around the laughing and talking and crying and yelling. It had been like that when Charles’ father was in charge and though all the people who were laughing and yelling and whatever, had been troubled youths, Charles had always felt like he was a part of one big family. When it was quiet he was reminded that they weren’t his children, that they weren’t really anything other than just some people that he didn’t want to leave. But these sort of feelings matched perfectly the dull rasp at the back of his head and the words that moved excitably under his eyes.

But the words soon blurred instead and before he knew it he was waking up to the sound of rain outside, crackling air and a figure silhouetted in the doorway. Bright sunshine, dark shadow. Charles squinted,

“Who is that? Alex?” And the thing stepped into the light.

It was male, but he wasn’t Alex. He was very tall and very thin and he walked straight and fast toward Charles. He smiled, his mouth curling into a savage grin and his hair plastered to his face by rain. He dripped on everything. But most strikingly, he was green. It wasn’t only that he was dressed entirely in green, dark trousers, a loose shirt unbuttoned at the cuffs, scuffed boot, but the entirety of him was green. From the whites of his eyes, to his bared teeth, to his dripping hair. Even his skin. And it wasn’t the not-really green you go when you’re ill or scared it was green like you get on leaves. Emerald, moss, fucking chartreuse.

“Is...is anyone else seeing this?” Charles looked around wildly, wanting, needing to see an explanation for this absurdity in someone’s face. But, of course, he was alone. He’d forgotten. And suddenly this sinister, looming and leering thing was even more threatening. And that was before he saw the axe. The green axe. Charles swallowed and stood up,

“Can I help you?” It took every ounce of his strength not to shriek the words out. It was almost impossible to look at the man’s face, it was so blank, so utterly emotionless. His eyes were empty, like there was nothing behind them, no memories, no fears, no desires, it made Charles feel ill. This wasn’t human, this was empty space.

“Actually, you probably can.” Started the Green Man, stepping forward, grinning like the Cheshire cat, his mouth almost too wide for his face. “You see, I’m looking for gambling types, ace of spades, tumbling dice sorts to play a game with me. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, I just needed the right...people.”

“Uh. I don’t think I can help you actually.” Charles said hurriedly. “I’ve never been one for games, I’m not good at them, I’m really quite busy with other things.” He babbled and twisted his hands and wished any one of his kids were there to let their troubles out at this man, to scream and rage and crush him even if that was completely unfair to them and an irrational reaction to fear. Besides, so far the Green Man hadn’t actually done anything, despite the green and despite his words and despite the axe.

“That’s where you’re wrong, kitten.” He cooed, his smile going hard, cold, taking on a strange, gritted-teeth look that, combined with such dead eyes, made him seem almost robotic. “I think you, in particular, are perfect for my game.”

“No, I think you’re –”

“I’m what?” It smirked. “Come here, darling.” Green Man crooked a finger at Charles and automatically he stumbled forward. What was it? Certainly not human, certainly something that he’d read about, some boogie man from a story, some conspiracy come to life, the Green Man from campus stories. The Green Man.

“Alright then, what is this game?” Charles asked, his voice, his hands, all of him was shaking.

“Basically...” There was an ominous pause as Green Man shifted so he was standing behind Charles. He moved like a jungle cat, a panther, wary and slick and deadly. And then he spoke like one, a ragged whisper into Charles’ skin. “You hit me, with this axe, as hard as you like, anywhere you like, preferably across the neck.” His tone of voice suggested this was the only option available.

“What? I-that's not a game, that’s...murder.” Charles choked out, looking around wildly as if he expected someone to come leaping out screaming April fool even though the year had only just started. He wanted someone else there, someone who would do more than he felt he could.

“Assisted suicide at best and I haven’t finished, pet.” One of his green hands gently caressed Charles’ neck, the other traced footsteps up his arm. “Then, in exactly one year, you find me and I get to do the same to you.” His breath tickled at Charles’ throat, hot and metallic.

“So you want me to kill you...and then you get to kill me.” Charles pulled away, turning to face the Green Thing, giving him the most derisive look he could muster. “That’s absurd.” He wished he could remember the legends, the stupid fraternity stories that he’d only heard in passing. Mascots on flags.

“It’s not that absurd, really. And rather terrible things will happen to you if you don’t play.” He cocked his head to one side, his smile lazy, and there was Raven, leaning into him, his fingers savagely digging into her arm, and there was Raven with red-stained hair, Charles’ sister dead and gone and dead and gone.

“What the fuck was that, where is Raven?” He charged forward, ready to steal his imaginings of Raven back, ready to save the day, ready to push the Green Man to the floor and kill him with that stupid, fucking green axe. Instead, the Green Man held up a hand and Charles was stopped as soon as he began. “You fuck.” He spat desperately and in return all he got was a smile.

“Your sister is fine. And she will stay fine if you play my game. Besides, if you just think for a moment, darling, what have you got to lose? You kill me and nothing else happens, right? You’re already imagining it, aren’t you?” And Charles was beaten. What did he want? Suicide without guilt? Well fine. But more so his mind was clicking over and over and over and he was realising that his heart was racing, that his hands were shaking and that he was feeling more than he had in forever. In ever.

“Give me the goddamn axe.” And without a word, it was handed over. It hung limply in Charles’ hand, green leather soft on his skin, it felt perfect. Obligingly, the Green Man stood in front of him, tugging down his collar slightly, revealing more of his forest-skin. Time stood still. And then, in one smooth movement, Charles hauled the axe up over his head and slammed it into the Green Man’s neck. He expected a gush of green blood, an awful sound, a scream of pain, he got none of that.

The head fell to the floor, but his body didn’t follow. Instead, the head smiled, and the body crouched. The Green Man picked up his head by its hair, and then the axe off the floor where a numb Charles had dropped it.

“See you in a year, babe.” The decapitated smile widened. He tucked his head under his arm and it winked outrageously. “It’ll be great, we’ll have a party.”

~~~

For almost a week after the encounter, Charles spent every waking moment going over all the easiest-to-stomach possibilities; that it had been some bizarre waking dream, or that he had been drunk-hallucinating on residual gin, or that it had been real. He obsessed over the Green Man, he surveyed, he interrogated, he googled. Through Hank, he discovered the fraternity mascot, the green face all writhing with leaves and vomiting green who granted wishes and made deals. Rumours and legends. Charles spent a lot of his time writing furious letters to various scientific magazines and Important People that never got sent. Sometimes the letters descended into whispered text that trailed off into smudges, because he got caught up in the enormity of what had happened. Proof of the supernatural? Proof of something. Sometimes the letters were full of all this misplaced guilt he had for killing a man. Even for killing a man who went on living. He’d done it thinking the Green Man would never get up. He’d done it forgetting about afterwards and the title of Murderer. He burned the letters and breathed in the smoke like they were a spell to cure him of that name and to make everything normal.

He started to drink more, staying in at evenings and staring at screens and slurring his speech as he talked to himself about fairy tales being ridiculous and only-Raven-read-them-anyway-this-shouldn’t-have-happened-to-me. Everyone took this sudden bout of solitude as sulking, although no one could remember doing anything to offend him particularly this time, they only ever saw him when he had his weekly troubled-youth chats, and that meant he was sulking.

It also meant that he wasn’t entirely aware of the Alex-and-Sean-thing (as Raven called it), but as soon as she pointed it out (after barging into his room with cold waffles and a fierce glare), it became obvious. The way Alex’s eyes seemed to follow Sean around, the way he moved in response to Sean, his body reacting and correcting and reacting and correcting, like he only felt alright when he was in sync with his red-headed friend. Sean was completely oblivious of course, though they had become close almost immediately upon meeting. Alex was the only person he would share cookies with when he had them (sometimes even his milk), and they would always argue over anything they could think of. Alex quiet and fierce and Sean loud and brash. Their first kiss (a vicious attempt by Alex to stop an argument) resulted in a fist fight that Charles had, luckily, been near enough to break up, and the resulting bruises seemed to prove to everyone else (as well as to the shocked-out-of-oblivion Sean) that they were, at the very least, something more than friends.

It was this surprising revelation, as well as an intervention by Raven that got Charles somewhat back to normal. Instead of offering him sub-par waffles, she barged into his room like it was hers, glaring in advance for maximum effect. Charles was sprawled out on the floor, staring up at the ceiling with eyes like bruises, a pile of books stacked next to him. He blinked at her and she knelt down to read the spines of the books. Modern Mythic Figures, Tales of the Supernatural, a hundred other similar titles.

“What the hell is up with you? I mean, you were always weird, but you never did the tin-hat crazy thing.” She tipped the book stack over, wrinkling her nose, then sat down next to him.

“I’m not crazy, I’m tired.”

“Yeah, because you don’t sleep. You forget that your room is above mine. I listen to you pacing all night and it’s scary as shit.”

“I’m fine Raven.” He propped himself up on his elbows. “Just tired.”

“No. I don’t accept this. Get the fuck up.” And grabbing hold of his wrists she tugged him to his feet, grinning at him as wide as she could in response to the irritation etched across his face.

“Leave me alone.” He groaned, his shoulders slumped, his wrists limp, all of him drooping with misery. Raven laughed harshly,

“Like hell, big brother, you’re snapping out of this now.” And she clicked a finger violently in his face. And again. And again. He blinked and flinched and batted her hand away with weak swipes.

“Stop it.”

“God, Charles, will you grow up?” This time there wasn’t anger or amusement in her voice, this time she sounded tired. “I don’t know why you’ve been so sad lately, but you should know that wallowing in this cave and drinking all day isn’t healthy. You should know because it’s what you teach everyone here not to do, Hank and, and Sean and Alex. You’re their role model and you’re being an asshole.” Charles spent a moment trying to formulate some savage and biting retort, but instead he just felt sad.

“Yeah.” He managed finally, the word slipping out as a whisper. “Yeah.”

Yeah.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Good.” She ruffled his hair absently, leaning into his chest and letting him sling an arm around her shoulders. “And look, I know you’re not whatever, not fixed by some half-assed pep talk but, at least stop being so...shit and start looking after yourself.”

“I will. Thanks Raven.”

“You’re welcome, kid.”

Seeing the children was strange, they looked at him like he wasn’t human, with squinted eyes and mocking smirks. Sean broke it all by holding out an Oreo cookie, which Charles took gladly.

“Breakfast is soon, stop asking.” Was his greeting, prompting Alex’s smirk to turn genuine and Hank’s to take on a slightly anxious cast. Sean merely turned back to the stove where he was carefully poaching eggs.

“Did you, uh, find out everything about...” Hank’s hands plucked nervously at the air and Charles nodded,

“Everything is, indeed, found out.” Alex offered him a nod. Everything was fine.

Around breakfast they talked and jostled for attention. Sean proclaimed his eggs, the best in existence and Alex hissed at him about manners. Hank inhaled food like he agreed and Charles watched it all in a sort of daze. He had missed this. This comfortable, no-one-on-the-outside-would-understand sort of dynamic where everything that was said was an in-joke and it all moved too fast to really understand, but at the same time it made perfect sense.

He watched Alex and Sean in particular, and he smiled at the way they kept touching and trying to make it look casual. Alex reached for the salt and dragged his fingertips across Sean’s wrist. Sean elbowed Alex at every chance he got. Hank ate more food and tried desperately hard not to notice because Raven wasn’t even talking to him at the moment. He had been brave, he had told her that her boys made him wild and she had flounced and stopped talking. He knew it was his turn, even if turns made no sense and even if Raven was being a child, but he had never particularly liked games.

And the day went on and it was nice and fine and everybody was happy and Charles felt prickly about it. He had been without air for too long and the way Raven watched him constantly and the way everyone was smiling made him need to be out. So as it got darker and he got braver, he decided he would go for a walk. Which is how is first night of acting-like-a-human-being-again, or even of actually-being-a-human-being-again almost ended in disaster. Raven and the children watched him go with hawk's eyes and, though there was no evidence, Charles was almost certain she had sent Hank to spy on him. He was a terrible choice, Alex would be best, he was quiet enough without espionage. But no one stopped him and he wandered around the campus breathing in just-starting stars and skeleton trees and frost-pain in your lungs that hurts you perfectly.

And there it was, something to destroy his evening stretched across a twilight-white wall of some random university building. Acid green paint forming a stretched out, extra-jointed figure. A Green Man dripping vivid vomit from a gaping, sharp toothed mouth. Charles stared at it, transfixed and horrified, remembering the thud as its head hit the floor, the green axe gleaming in the darkness, its voice low and seductive and full of wicked humour. His shoes slipped on the wet grass and he almost fell in his haste to get away.

He ended up in a strange bar because he was scared and tired and just needed something to still his panic-stricken heartbeats. And he was halfway into his second beer when a voice cut through his thoughts, low and ragged and, for a moment, utterly terrifying.

“You, who are you?”

Charles turned warily toward the voice. It was a man, tall and thin and hunched over the bar. Dark messy hair falling into dark messy eyes, sharp cheekbones and a wide thin mouth curled at the ends. A jaw line that could kill.

“In what sense?”

“Real fucking cute. What is your name?”

“Charles.” Beers were buzzing in the back of his throat, warm and familiar and making him feel like talking. Talking away the Green Man.

“Charles.” He rolled the name around in his mouth like he was tasting it, he dragged his tongue through his teeth and then nodded. He offered nothing else, just turned back to his drink, the line of his back rigid and final, telling Charles that their conversation was done and done.

But after five minutes of this silence, the man got restless. His shoulders clenched and unclenched and he turned back to Charles.

“Seriously?” He demanded, his eyes clicking over Charles like he was filing him away. It made Charles feel wrong, those eyes, and suddenly his ragged sweater, messy hair, pristine pea coat were all clashed and mixed and made him up into some horrible patchwork person. Around clenched teeth, Charles swallowed.

“Yes.”

“Okay Charles, I need your help.” His eyes were so earnest and pleading they felt dangerous.

“Well, what’s your name?”

“Not important.” He hissed, the words ripping out of his mouth so suddenly he looked vaguely confused. There was a long pause and he seemed to fighting with himself over something. “Actually.” He said finally. “I’m Erik, I need you to be my wingman.” Charles almost spat out his beer. Erik seemed to be nursing an orange juice.

“Your what?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, you’re Charles who doesn't know what a wingman is?”

“I know what it is, I just don’t want to help you seduce some poor girl.” The word seduce came out slightly twisted and Charles frowned, suddenly aware of the heavy rapey vibes Erik was giving off.

“No, look, it’s fine, you just have to deliver a note.” He slid a scrap of paper across the bar toward Charles who looked at it for a long time without picking it up.

“How old are you? Are you really asking me to pass notes for you? Does it have boxes she has to tick?”

“Don’t be stupid.” His hand shot out, fishing the note back in and Charles laughed quietly as he scribbled something out.

“Just look at her, she’s a...she’s a babe and all that.” Erik glanced surreptitiously across the bar and Charles followed his line of sight to a dark haired, dark eyed gypsy looking girl. She certainly was beautiful, tumbling hair, floral dress, bare shoulders. Strangely, Erik’s enthusiasm seemed somewhat stilted, like he was playing the playboy, his eyes over-bright and his smile a little bit too leery. “Look, will you help me or not?” And he gave Charles such a bright eyed smile that he almost relaxed. It was a genuine smile. It was the sort of ruffle-haired smile you saw in romantic comedies from the foppish main character. A more savage version of Hugh Grant.

“You just want me to deliver the note?”

“Exactly.” Erik’s eyes glowed.

“Jesus, okay.” He agreed because he wanted something stupid, something mindless to distract himself from everything else. And because he was two beers in and hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Besides, this was how the game was supposed to go, battle of the sexes, all of the stuff Charles wasn’t good at. Perhaps he could learn by example. And, laughing quietly at the thought, he grabbed the note offered to him by Erik and headed towards the girl.

Erik Lensherr didn’t know what he was doing. All he knew was that he was looking into the bluest eyes he had ever seen and they tugged at something in his head that made it difficult to breath. It was probably stupid of him, it was definitely stupid of him, letting eyes get him distracted. Letting eyes make him spit out words before he even realised what he was doing. But it definitely wasn't the worst thing he’d done, and that placated him a little. The worst thing he’d done had nothing to do with eyes and everything to do with other people. Maybe the worst thing he’d done had something to do with Moira. Or with all the others. Or maybe every single thing he’d ever done was the worst. It didn't matter really, it didn’t change anything, he’d already done it and Charles Xavier’s bluest-eyes-in-the-world were smiling as he delivered a note to a girl Erik had no interest in whatsoever.

The girls name was Georgia, and it wasn’t that Erik failed in seducing her, it was more that he seemed, suddenly, to lose interest. Charles watched as she swooned and Erik laughed and leaned forward at all the right moments and complimented her perfectly. Charles got drunker and drunker and Georgia smiled wider and wider and Erik flirted professionally. She even talked to Charles himself and he slurred something about knowing Erik from his college days and you’re just his type. And then something happened or nothing happened and Charles had scrawled his phone number on a napkin and Erik had just left, blowing lopsided kisses to the wind and waltzing out. Georgia looked confused and offended and it was Charles' turn to laugh, though he had the presence of mind to hide his behind his hand. He stumbled home feeling like he’d spent the night with a friend, even if he hadn’t, even if Erik was actually just a stranger who had been playing some game only he knew the rules to. Charles didn’t care, because a mist of rain touched his skin as he walked and he cared, because he was drunk and it was pleasant, because he didn’t feel half dead.

~~~

Raven attempted another check-up in the morning, slightly concerned that Charles had just turned all-day-at-home drinking into all-night-in-a-bar drinking. But he was awake and out of the room before she could even knock. He passed her in the hallway and she couldn’t hide her surprise. This was the first morning she could remember seeing him before midday.

“I was just coming to get you.”

“Why? I’m up. Is there breakfast?”

“Yeah uh, are you alright? Where were you last night?” She wasn’t even trying to sound casual and Charles grinned as he took a step backward,

“Just out. Don’t worry, I wasn’t getting hammered or slitting my wrists or anything.” He brandished his wrists at her with a roll of his eyes and she glared at him,

“That’s not funny.”

“It’s a little bit funny.” He retorted, infinitely satisfied when her face split into a grin, even if it wasn’t her acknowledging the humour in his joke. Even if it was just her being so happy that he was out and about and alive and alive.

“It’s good to see you in the daylight.”

“You too, kid.” And he smiled as she rolled her eyes and sashayed off down hallway.

He wasn’t sure if it was the fact that she was a girl, or the fact that he was only just remembering what had happened that night, or the fact that he was just a little bit hungover, but suddenly he felt slightly ill.

“Hey Raven?” He called out and she turned back, looking automatically dubious. Worried that he would burst her bubble with all of his stupid words.

“Yeah?”

“What would you say to a guy who passed you a note in a bar, flirted with you and then disappeared?” Raven looked ice cold for a moment, then thoughtful,

“I would call him a motherfucker for being such a tease, but really, what girl would fall for a note? Is he fifteen?”

“Interesting.”

“Why? You didn’t do that did you?” She looked staggered and amused and he felt kind of like he was disappointing her by being a part of it all.

“Well...I wasn’t the seducer, I delivered the note.”

“Oh my God, you motherfucker.” She shrieked, throwing her hands up, tossing her hair, eyes so blazing that Charles took a step back, and then deadly still and serious. “That’s pretty juvenile Charles. Don’t you have any class?”

“Thanks Raven.” Charles choked weakly.

“Who tricked you into this?”

“I don’t know. Some guy.”

“A stranger? Well fuck Charles, I think we’re going to have to have a little talk about how dangerous and stupid strangers can be.” She was playing her games again and her eyes were grave and her mouth was tight at the corners and she seemed, all of a sudden, far taller than she was in actuality. She was playing a parent the way she’d seen in movies but never really known in real life because Brian Xavier had died a year after Raven had been adopted and Sharon Xavier had never seen Raven as her own and was far more interested in anything else.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

“Only if you’re sure.” Her eyes were wide and earnest, her lips pursed, exuding sarcasm. It was terrifying and Charles gave an uneasy laugh and an uneasy wave and stumbled down the hallway toward breakfast. “You tell me before you go out again!”

Chapter Text

For weeks Charles kept the Green Man in some tiny place in the back of his mind, a squeaking, tiny, raised-hand kid that he could ignore, and focussed on helping the children study and talking and listening and being the best damned troubled youth looker-after ever. And they were so glad to have their King Arthur back, their surrogate father, their person-who-kept-Raven-under-control. Raven was just happy that Charles seemed back to normal, even if normal was still blank and grey and nothing.

He didn’t give much thought to the fact that his back-to-normal was largely due to one manic night of playing wingman to a stranger. He instead gave all of the credit to Raven who actually deserved it. In return, though she admitted that fear for her brother had caused it, she stopped going out every night, she stopped breaking her heels and the boys. She even talked to Hank more, smiling and flirting and laughing when he blushed. They were the family that Raven strived for and the friends that Charles needed and secretly and separately they all decided to stay.

Of course, there was the back-of-the-mind thing, like a night with a stranger and a Green Man, that told Charles over and over he wouldn’t even be alive in a year, when everyone was staying and settling and being a family. He knew he would have to one day soon, but he didn’t want everything to break just yet. Besides, they wouldn’t believe him.

He had been through denial and anger and everything negative, all that was left was suburban-perfection, the fear of death making him want to be everything to the people he loved because maybe he wouldn’t be around for long. Definitely. Definitely maybe.

Oddly enough he was okay with that. He worried about the logistics of it all, he sorted out his Will, he left Raven everything, but when he thought of actually dying, he was eerily calm. Or rather, he was eerily blank about it, and he was okay with that. Maybe it would hit him at the exact moment it happened. Maybe he would have his flash of life or terror or desperation as the axe came down.

So wrapped up in logistics, and in suburbia, and in perfection, was he, that he forgot Erik Lensherr entirely until a phone call brought it all back.

“Ha!” The voice barked, sounding gleeful and smug. “You gave me your real number.”

“Who is this?”

“Erik!” And it took Charles a minute to realise what that meant.

“Oh.” He said carefully.

“Don’t sound so appalled. I’m charming. I must have charmed you or you wouldn’t have given your real number.”

“I didn’t have the presence of mind not to. Besides, I was drunk. What do you want?” Charles tucked the phone under his chin so he could tie his shoelaces. He was supposed to be meeting an ex-girlfriend, one of two he had, and one of the three total ex-relationships he’d had ever, but he was dreading it because she would simper and sigh and pity him.

“Oh, touchy.” Erik’s voice was raggedly offended, all scared amusement, but only for a moment. “Okay, so my shop girl quit, I don’t know, something about appropriate workplace behaviour, and so...”

“You have a new prospect and need a wingman?” Charles deadpanned, and he liked the idea that the muffled sound from the other end was Erik grinning

“No, I need a new shop girl.” It was just too funny, laughter bubbled up from Charles’ mouth and his shoulders shook and the phone fell from nerveless fingers. Slightly breathless with laughing he picked it up.

“And you thought of me? I’m touched.”

“I knew you’d like it. Can you come in now?”

“Hold on Erik, what exactly do you do?”

“I own the pawn shop on Garnet Street.” There was pride somewhere hidden under his gruff voice and again Charles smiled.

“I’m afraid I’m actually busy right now.”

“Blow it off, this is more important, this is a career prospect.” Charles’ head dogged side to side as he weighed up his options. Awful, awkward ex-girlfriend vs. strange, probably insane new boss? It only took him a moment.

“Alright, I’ll be there in twenty minutes.” And he snapped his phone shut. For several moments, Charles just stared at his shoes, slowly he untied them, tugging them from his shoes before restringing them carefully, methodically and tying them up, perfectly matched. He smoothed down the fabric of his jeans, he sighed and his breath shook with something strange, he picked the phone back up.

Lil was understanding as always, and her breathy, knowing, knowing, knowing voice felt like broken glass in his head. He had loved her once, but now she seemed too big for him somehow. Shrill and jarring and too beautiful to look at. He tolerated their yearly meet-ups because once upon a time she had been soft and fierce and perfect and occasionally he would catch a glimpse of that somewhere still and the familiarity felt nice to him.

But that was before, when being familiar had been something he held on to. Now he didn’t want to have to tolerate anyone. His encounter with the Green Man and, to a lesser extent, his encounter with Erik Lensherr, had thrown him right out of any need for familiarity and he wanted to live some other life. Suburbia, perfection, that would be his life at the mansion. Working at a pawn shop with a potentially-insane, mostly-stranger would be his other world, his living-life world, the final push he needed to escape cloud-smothering ruts and the running-through-sand difficulty of everything.

Charles found the store with ease, on a side street a bit too wide and light to be called an alley. The shop itself was narrow and tall, all one level with a high ceiling and stuff lining rickety shelves all over the walls. It was called Saint Expedite.

Inside seemed more than a little dangerous and Charles was forced to pick his way around piles of furniture, antique toys and stacks of strange paintings in stranger frames to get to the caged counter. Sprawled in a chair that seemed very out of place, leather and stark and modern, his shoes propped up on the desk in front of him, was Erik.

He didn’t seem fazed by Charles’ sudden appearance, sort of unfolding to his feet before unlocking what seemed like five thousand different locks and appearing out from behind the counter.

“I didn’t do anything, you know. I mean, she had it in for me or something, I’m not going to try anything.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sasha, the old shop girl, inappropriate workplace behaviour. I don’t want you thinking I’m going to, I don’t know, force myself on you in dark corners or anything.” Charles laughed because he felt like it might disguise his blush. Dark corners were very prevalent in the store and that only made it funnier.

“I’m not worried about your professional conduct.” Charles smirked and Erik’s smile was wicked and gone in a second. His hands plucked at the air as he spread his arms wide, in a way that Charles might have mistaken for nervous if his gaze wasn’t so determinately confident. He took in the whole store with his hands,

“Now, pressing matters, contracts and signatures, your employment.”

“I haven’t agreed yet.”

“You’re here aren’t you?” Erik raised an eyebrow like a fullstop. “Now, this is my shop. You know how pawn shops work? People with no money sell me their shit and I give them some time to pay me back, plus interest, or it belongs to me forever and ever and I sell it to the people with money. Sometimes people just want to sell their shit.” He tangled his fingers into the wire cage behind him.

“How will I know how much to give them for it?” But Erik ignored him, the only indication he gave that he’d even heard Charles was the way his eyes narrowed fractionally.

“This, is the cage.” He tugged at the wire, which stayed firm and unmoving. “It’s very important to stay behind it lest our dear customers get savage. We sell guns here and, I mean the cage won’t stop goddamn bullets, but I can’t afford the shit that can and it gives you some idea of our clientele. As for valuing, you know shit all about that so you get me until you’ve studied the blue book, which is a book that is blue and will teach you about everything. How much Antique’s Roadshow have you watched?” His fingers brushed down the side of his jaw and he looked like a snake. “I bet it’s a lot. It won’t help you.”

Charles didn’t say anything because he did watch a lot of Antiques Roadshow, and the thought that maybe it would help him when people brought in pretty tea sets and Mickey Mouse memorabilia had crossed his mind. His cheeks were warm and he looked away from Erik’s glee.

“So, what do you think?” And it was a genuine, serious question. Charles looked at the shop, and the haphazard assortment of jewellery in dusty cases and battered musical instruments. He looked at Erik, at his sharp and earnest eyes and he let all of his breath out at once and nodded.

“I like it.” He said truthfully and Erik beamed.

 

That first day became a template for the days to come. Charles would arrive some time midmorning, Erik would nod a greeting and snarl if he was tired or rave and rant and laugh if he wasn’t. Then they would settle into their roles which mostly involved Charles spinning around on a battered computer chair (Erik dragged his expensive leather chair into the back office) and reading books and Erik listening to loud music through awful tinny speakers and barking random orders when he got bored or felt crazy.

And all of a sudden they were friends. Charles didn’t quite understand it, but there an almost audible click in his head when he realised it. They were friends. His experience in that area wasn’t so dire that he didn’t recognise it for what it was.

Erik was loud and impulsive and knock-you-down honest. His voice could change from the most stomach churning derision to butter melting softness in seconds, and all of it would be true. Raven very loudly proclaimed, as soon as she’d decided to major in psychiatry (following in her big brother’s footsteps but already far better with people thank you very much), that it was an abusive relationship and-

“If you hurt my brother I will break every single bone you have and don’t even think I don’t know anything about medieval torture devices because you know I do.” And Erik bared his teeth and secretly Raven approved. Not that him and Charles were dating, and not that the thought had even crossed either of their minds. But it had Raven’s.

She watched them carefully because as well as being loud and impulsive and knock-you-down-honest, Erik was also sweet and funny and very easy to fall in love with. Raven saw them as they jostled and laughed and were best of friends and flitted between wanting to protect Charles from imagined heartache and wanting to cheer him on. But she didn’t say anything because she was the younger sister and because of something in Erik that told her it really, really wasn’t a good idea, and everyone remained friends.

Naturally sometimes Erik was a bit hard to cope with. Like when he dragged Charles on field trips to the local dump where they would sift through old, rotting furniture and mangled curtains and the most unlikely piece of crap would have Erik in fits of glee.

“I think I saw a rat.” Charles was perched at the highest point he could find, on top of a wardrobe painted with a fading solar system.

“No shit, Sherlock, we’re in a dump.” Erik smirked, brandishing a brass door knocker. “What about this?”

“No.” And he tossed it over his shoulder. A box lay at Erik’s feet, already half full of quality shit, Charles.

“What do you care about rats anyway, mouse?” Charles just rolled his eyes. Mouse was a new nickname Erik had been trying out since he found Charles curled up in the back room (where most of the quality shit inevitably ended up) on a pile of carpets reading like-

“Fucking Brain, you know?” Which made so little sense that Charles just raised one eyebrow and declared that, obviously that made Erik Pinky and somehow Brain had turned into Mouse even though the former was far more appropriate. Not that Charles was complaining.

It was a strange feeling, being close enough to someone for nicknames. It made Charles think about how they were also close enough that Erik didn’t even blink when he announced a dump trip. Not even after he’d discovered where Charles lived and everything that went with that. Charles had never met anyone like Erik, Erik who didn’t ever drink alcohol and who made Charles a better person while simultaneously making him the worst, and before he knew it, the year was practically gone. Distracted by life, the Green Man had been forgotten amongst quality shit and nicknames and pawn-shops.

It was a letter that broke everything. A letter written in spidery green ink on thick paper and hidden under Charles’ pillow.

 

Darling,
I do hope you remember our upcoming engagement. I am looking
forward to it, but I wondered if you had forgotten. It’s alright,
I don’t blame you a bit if you did. But I thought it might be useful to write down
some instructions in case you forget more important things.
1. Our party will be on the first of January.
2. Don’t forget!
3. Don’t bring anyone else.
4. Leave on the twenty sixth of December. Just leave, don’t mess about with directions, you’ll get there, don’t worry about that.
5. If you don’t come you will never, ever, never see your sister again.
6. Don’t fuck up!

A line of kisses finished it, the spindly lines scratched out across the bottom of the page like road deaths.

~~~

Even though he knew he should have a long time ago, he couldn’t bring himself to tell the children, tell Raven. He flitted about her, around and around, and bought her obscenely expensive presents to give her on Christmas. A motorbike, designer sunglasses, a new computer. He put bows on them and wrote long explanations in hallmark cards that he screwed up over and over again. He did give her the presents though. And a set of encyclopaedia for Hank, chef’s knives for Sean and an easel, canvases and oil paints for Alex. All inappropriate gifts for his wards, but he didn’t care anymore. Days were just numbers now.

Three, two, one and three, two, one and three, two, one days until he left. Three days until six days until death. Three days until six days until something-he-couldn’t-even-think about. Day number three he assigned to Erik because day number two and day number one were for Raven and the children. They would work together, they would be the same as always, they would have one last day before everything was gone. Charles had already asked for leave, everything was taken care of.

But Erik wasn’t himself. He blinked furiously at Charles when he arrived in the morning, but didn’t say anything, his eyes were red-rimmed and his hands shook and he looked as pale as death.

“Are you alright, Erik?”

“Fine.” He clipped the word off like it hurt to speak and he disappeared into the back office.

Occasionally he would appear, mumbling under his breath, manic and upset and strange, and at midday he closed the store entirely.

“You should go home.” He whispered, stooping close to Charles’ face and rasping the words like a man dying.

“Definitely not.”Charles had been getting increasingly worried about his friend as he watched him trip in and out of the office, as he watched his eyes so red and his smile so bitter. “You should tell me what’s wrong, so I can help you.”

“Okay, so hey, um Charles.” Erik leant heavily against the counter, his face lit up with some new expression, some sort of epiphany. “I was thinking we might get really uh...get drunk, you know?” The word sounded strange on Erik’s tongue. Erik the teetotaler, Erik who had only ever had just-a-beer once in his life and who had never shown any interest in alcohol.

“You don’t drink.”

“Yeah, but what if I did?”

“But you...” Charles’ mouth twisted hard around the words. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing a little alcohol couldn’t fix, right?” Erik brandished a fistful of cash at Charles with a manic gleam in his eye. “One of everything, please.”

So Charles snatched the money from his hand and left. There was a liquor store down the road and carefully Charles picked one of everything from the shelf. It was scaring him, Erik’s strange behaviour, because apart from a few instances of inexplicable sulking, Erik had never once changed like this. He was typically weird, but not in a frightening way, not in a too-white-and-too-red, coming-off-something sort of way. Charles dragged a fingernail around the edge of the label on a bottle of vodka, and as it caught the corner of his flesh, the soft bit under his nail, the sudden split second of pain that went with it, he realised what was happening. Why his heart was beating double time and he couldn't breathe for fear, and he stared at his hands in horror.

He went back laden with bottles even though he knew he shouldn't because now his stomach was churning and his hands were shaking and he kept having to shut his eyes because of all the noise in his head. But even though this was the moment, that awful, sick-making, heart-pounding moment when you realise you like someone more than they like you, he would have his final day with Erik. Especially for those reasons. So he broke out the glasses and Erik cheered and Charles sat as far away as possible and they drunk themselves into oblivion.

As it happened, Erik was a lightweight. Alcohol seemed to hit his blood immediately and after half a beer he was slurring his speech as he muttered about how bitches don’t know how sensitive I am. Charles almost thought he was faking until he actually stumbled and hit himself in the eye. It would probably bruise, but Erik thought it was hilarious.

And it hurt him, the way Erik was so earnest and the way he leant against Charles as he explained exactly why he started a pawn shop. I'm gonna be one of those old guys, the thin ones with tans and muscles, Indiana Jones all grown up, I’m gonna be one of them who knows everything. The pawn shop guy who you come to for advice on anything. And the way he punctuated everything with a touch, pressing his hand down on Charles’ shoulder in the serious parts, climbing his fingers up Charles’ neck as he got excited, gripping at his collar. And it was torture, but Charles matched him drink for drink because both of them were experiencing something and neither of them wanted to be without the other.

Erik walked him home. Or rather he ducked and weaved across the pavement and Charles laughed and ran, doubled over like a battering ram. But as soon as they got to the mansion, Erik was gone, disappeared in a giggling mess into the night-time and Charles was too wired to be worried.

As Charles lay in bed that night, still floating, he realised that everything felt different now. He wanted to share Raven and the children’s numbers, tomorrow and the next day, with Erik. He wanted to explain everything, give some dying confession of a crush or of some kind of love. Only-a-little-more-than-best-of-friends love, not cross-my-heart-hope-to-die love. He just wanted more time.

These thoughts were still in his head when he woke up, too early and hungover. So he ventured into early morning darkness, coffee in hand, to Erik’s apartment that he’d never been allowed to visit. Not chic and modern like his beloved office chair. Not some expensive loft, but a tiny apartment on a high up floor with a swinging-on-its-hinge 11a on the door.

Charles knocked. And knocked. And smiled at the foul language that floated through the door. And held his breath as it opened.

“Mouse?” Erik was bleary eyed and mussy haired and furious looking. He had a black eye. He was shirtless.

“Um.” Charles started, unable to look away from smooth skin and hard muscle and.... “Can I come in?” His voice came out small and shaky. A mouse’s voice, just like Erik had said. He wanted to die.

Without a word, the confused Erik stepped aside. Inside Charles recognised everything from the dump turned into real-life-things. Quality shit turned into beauty. His floor was covered in various rugs and carpets all vivid colours where they were once rotting and ruined. His furniture looked like it was put together with pieces of everything, jigsaw furniture that somehow looked like that was how it was meant to be.

“Uh, I’ve brought you coffee.” Charles brandished a thermos in front of him.

“Does it have booze in it?”

“No.”

“Get out of my house.” And only Erik’s disarming grin and the fact that he didn't drink kept Charles from turning on his heel and disappearing. He would give the children back their days. He would never speak to Erik again. But it was difficult because the bloodshot eyes and shaking hands were for a different reason this time, and Erik seemed back to normal.

“Erik, uh...” It was going to be easy, he would be sensible, he would explain everything in clear terms with clear language, he had a crush, it was normal, just a messed-up, heart-burning, breath-stopping crush. “I’m going to die.” What?

Erik didn’t say anything, he just regarded Charles for a moment with hooded eyes before disappearing into another room. Charles wriggled with discomfort and chewed at his wicked tongue for betraying him. Only in his bedroom did Erik panic. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think, he didn’t want these sorts of confessions, it would score him with too much guilt. More guilt than he could stand. But he couldn’t leave Charles, even if he desperately wanted to. He painted his face serious, he put on a shirt, he walked back out.

“Why are you going to die, Charles?” He had a psychiatrist’s voice on, Charles recognised it because he’d spent a long time cultivating one of his own. But his was a real one with qualifications to back it up, thank you.

“Can we sit down? I didn’t mean to say that, I meant to say something else but...this is probably...can we sit down?” He was feeling desperate. Words were slipping out, reckless and all wrong. He wasn’t used to this. He almost always knew what he was going to say before he said it. He was a planner, Charles Xavier, even when he flirted wrong or got too drunk or watched too many movies, he always kept very careful control over what he was saying. But not now. Not in the early morning with confessions behind his tongue and death around the corner. Not with Erik Lensherr.

Erik nodded at one of his puzzle-piece couches and sprawled across it. Too casual for such conversations, Charles thought, and he perched himself at the very edge of the piece of furniture, as far away from Erik as he could get.

“Okay Charles, why are you going to die?”

“Can you not patronise me, Erik?” Charles sighed, glaring at his fingertips because that was easier. “I am going to die.”

“I’m not trying to patronise you, I just want to know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“There is this...have you heard of the Green Man, Erik?” It was the first time he’d really said it out loud and it felt ridiculous, made worse by this newly found feeling, this awful tugging at his chest whenever Erik spoke or moved or breathed. For a moment Erik’s expression was completely blank, then slowly he seemed to regain awareness, he sucked air through his teeth, he blinked his eyes rapidly and he took a long gulp of coffee.

“Yeah, it’s just some weird university thing, right? Like skull and bones but really stupid.” His smirk made Charles feel irrationally angry. “Have you pissed off a fraternity?”

“What? God, no.”

“What then?”

“The Green Man came to my house a year ago and now he’s going to kill me.”

“Oh, right.” Erik leant backward, steeping his fingers and gazing up at the ceiling. “Today?”

“No, in a week. I have to go to him so he can chop my head off with an axe.” And for a blinding moment, Erik thought that maybe he could fix all of this. Convince Charles that he just didn’t have to go. And the Green Knight wouldn’t really care, would he? Because all he cared about was heads on a plate, and Erik could find him someone else, someone less important than Charles had become.

“You could...not go.” Erik spoke the words so simply that Charles could only stare. He didn’t know anything, that was it. He didn’t know what it was like to be confronted by something so completely alien and to have no choice but to follow.

“I have to.”

“You don’t.”

“He’ll kill Raven.”

“He won’t.” Erik scoffed. “Things like this don’t happen, Charles, you’re never in an impossible situation. It’s some idiot with a mask, call the police or something.”

“You’re wrong.” Charles said stubbornly. “I just wanted to say goodbye anyway. I’m leaving in...two days and I have to spend that time with Raven and the others.” He was cutting Erik off like this because he didn’t want the hope it was giving him. Could it really be so easy to just not go? But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t risk Raven’s life like that. Not even if there was only the tiniest, nothing, nothing, nothing chance that she was in any danger.

“Does this mean you’re quitting? Because, I was going to give you some sort of Christmas bonus and shit, but if you’re quitting...”

“Erik.”

Charles.” He was burning fierce. “You’re not going to die.”

“I have to go.” It was too hard to argue with fire. He stood up, he tried so hard not to look at anything, not the haphazard furniture, not anything but the door. Charles wanted Erik to say something, to believe him, to make everything alright again, but Erik said nothing and Charles left.

Of course it didn’t work. Of course not, Erik. Charles’ thirst for knowledge would drive him to the block and Erik was far too weak to stop him, really. As soon as he knew Charles was gone, he slammed the door so hard the lock splintered and he went to see Moira.

~~~

Raven was wired and waiting, sitting on the doorstep outside when Charles returned. Her eyes were bloodshot and she looked ready to kill.

“Where the fuck were you.” She hissed, getting to her feet as he trudged up the driveway toward her.

“What?”

“You weren’t in your goddamn room. At five in the morning, you weren’t in your room. You’ve never been out all night before, and you look...you look dead, Charles.”

“Can you sit back down, Raven?” He asked, his voice so shattered that she stopped looking angry and instead looked terrified. She slumped down onto doorstep and he followed. “Okay. Okay, Raven, I need to tell you something, and you have to not...”

“Not what, Charles.”

“Not...lose your shit.” And she wasn’t scared enough that, that didn’t make her angry, and the emotion tore across her face like a knife.

“Fucking tell me.”

“This uh...this guy I know, me and him, we made a sort of deal. What it means that in a couple of days, the twenty sixth to be exact, I have to leave for awhile. It might be a long while, actually, it might be...but everything is sorted for you guys. Everything will be alright, I’ve done all the paperwork and you’ll all be alright.” Raven was silent, her face drawn quiet and grim.

“Is this Erik? Because I’ll fucking kill him.” Charles almost laughed because it sort of made sense and of course she would think it was him. Anyone would.

“It’s not Erik.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Probably not.” As he said it, he knew it was true. He couldn’t help it, even if it was selfish and awful and they deserved more, he couldn’t listen to anyone laugh. Maybe Raven wouldn’t because she could see his face, but the others would because they didn’t know him enough to know that something was off. So he lied and Raven stormed off and Charles sat on the step and picked frost off his shoelaces.

~~~

Raven banned Charles from Christmas. With cold fury she announced to the children that he was abandoning them, that he didn’t deserve turkey and crackers and dessert-for-miles. And they blinked because he was head-of-the-table Charles, but they didn’t say anything because she was woman-behind-the-man Raven. He left his presents for them under the tree and didn’t even flinch when Raven dragged her ones out into the cold and left them there. He sat in his room alone and thought about what would happen in the morning. He packed a bag and pretended that everything would be alright.

He followed the instructions down to the letter, terrified of the closing words and the way his mind kept tripping over Raven’s blood. And when it wasn’t on that, it was on him dying for his sister, or dying for stupidity. Blood and blood and blood filled his mind until he couldn’t think of anything else. He left early because it made him restless and because the children and their hovering were making him jittery.

Even Raven came down to farewell Charles, and the four of them lined up across the driveway, each silently and separately berating him for taking a satchel as his only luggage. It was packed to bursting but it was in no way appropriate for whatever he was about to embark on. Whatever that was, Charles didn’t know what Raven had told them.

“We get the house if you don’t come back, right?” Sean asked, his voice full of nervous humour. Alex’s fingers were curled under the hem of his un-tucked shirt, taking comfort in his lover’s warm skin.

“Raven gets the house.” Charles corrected quietly. “But, you know, I recommend you let them stay.” And Ravens stricken expression softened slightly.

“Thanks.” Sean simpered, leaning his head on Alex’s shoulder, tangled hair mussed up against his neck. “Daddy Charles.” And it was all a bit much and Charles had to screw up his face in the most scornful expression he could muster to stop tears leaking out and fixing him there.

“Bye.” And he shuffled off down the driveway.

“Don’t even think I’m going to do it!” Raven’s voice came screaming down after him and he turned. She was stock still, her fists clenched and her face frozen in fear and love and so much anger. He didn’t say anything, he watched her hair as it tangled around the wind. “Because I’m not. I’m not going to run after you, I’m not going to give you some shitty fucking hug at the last minute that forgives this. I’m not.”

“I didn’t expect it.” Charles muttered under his breath, knowing she couldn’t hear him.

“You better fucking come back.” And she turned, and she was gone.

He turned back and all at once he knew he was no longer on his driveway, in his world. It was like looking through frosted glass, he couldn’t focus on anything, the air slid under his gaze like water under oil. It was vague impressions of greenery and phantom sensations of biting wind and bitter cold. It was like walking through fog and Charles was damp and irritated after only a moment.

Slowly the fog cleared and he was given a clearer impression of his surroundings. Even the air felt alien, prickling his skin and burning him cold. It was like an Arthur Rackham painting, all dark purples and burnt browns. Spindly skeleton trees that looked like they had limbs and faces and fingers, smudged dense bush with white flowers like stars, perfect fruit with rotten middles. All of it was beautiful and horrible and none of it felt familiar.

He walked for hours through the otherworldly forest, muttering to himself, small snatches of songs in his head or angry things he should have said to Raven. Sad things, explanations he should have given Raven. He did it to keep the silence out, because nothing moved in that forest.

Erik was in his mind too, as much as Charles tried to fight it, as much as he tried to breath in the sickly sweetness of decomposing fruit to stop his thoughts entirely. It just made him retch, and Erik would be back in his head a moment later. The curve of his smile, too many teeth, his friendship. Everything had become different in his head now, memories were more fond with romance behind them, Erik’s hand on his wrist when he’d been talking so animatedly he’d almost walked into oncoming traffic was now a gallant act of chivalry, Erik had saved his life with a touch. The time they’d taken the children to the beach and argued about ice cream and Erik had gone swimming and Charles hadn’t and the water on Erik’s skin hitting sunlight made him shiver now and the whole scene seemed so domestic.

He hadn’t thought he would have to sleep in this fairytale, nightmare forest, but it grew dark and he was exhausted from thinking and walking and feeling, and he settled himself at the foot of a tree and dreamed and sparked and burned the night away.

His dreams were tainted with blood and he woke up to blood. The forest had changed, and something warm-red and rusty trickled through his hair, dripping from the trunk like sap. Everything was red and Charles crawled through gore and filth up to his wrists, bile burnt his throat but he had nothing to bring up, and he blinked and it was gone. He scrubbed at his hands with dirt until they were scraped raw, he choked and choked and choked until he fell and his face smashed into the ground from lack of oxygen. He inhaled sand and grass and earth but it wasn’t blood so it was better. And when everything was done and he had stopped breathing like he couldn’t, and his hands were bleeding but it was better than everything else, he stood up, and he continued.

It was just a jungle again, but Charles’ eyes flicked with memories of his dreams. His more-than-dreams. He stumbled through the wild, through puddles and bugs and everything made him flinch away because everything was something else now. He yelled a lot, he swore oaths to the sky and he sneered at the trees. But secretly, underneath it all, he prayed for rescue. He didn’t think he could survive five more days of this.

But, as it happened, rescue was something Charles could have done without. It shook him so badly he wanted to curl up and never, never wake up because it was just so perfectly awful. Initially it really had looked hopeful; in the middle of all the jungle, all the bugs and fucking puddles and all of those other awful, horrifying things, was a house. Not a cabin, not a rundown jungle house, but a two storey, pastel coloured, straight-out-of-suburbia villa. Ringed by a white picket fence and grass-is-greener green grass to keep the wilds out. And in front of the house stood a couple.

They both looked like something out of the movies Charles watched, sharp suits and full skirts and floral and pocket-squares. The woman was beautiful, her eyes dark honey, her mouth sad at the corners, not a hair out of place, everything just so. And the man. The man with eyes that would have been devastating if they weren’t so flat, so dead, so predatory. The man, the man, with his hands clasped behind his back and a carefully blank face. Erik.

Charles stood before the gate, his hand resting on the latch, stuck in the moment when he realised that everything had gone to Hell, far worse than blood stained forests. No one moved. No one breathed. The jungle, the house, everything was dead and still and frozen.

“Charles.” And his voice broke the spell and Charles’ eyes blurred, and he stumbled in his haste to throw the gate open. He wanted to charge up to Erik, to throw him to the floor, to bloody his mouth, black his eyes, to destroy him for destroying everything. But it went wrong, and instead he was screeching incoherently, half-words and violent gestures and Erik just watched him, his face twisted and sad. And finally, real words,

“Why are you here?”

“I...you have to stay here until...” Erik shrugged awkwardly. “It’s just something I do.” The woman watched them with sad eyes, but Charles wasn’t ready to deal with her yet.

“The Green Man, I told you about him and you, I...we were friends.”

“We are friends.” Erik insisted fiercely, but Charles was shaking his head,

“No. We’re not.” He squinted up at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I’m Moira, Erik’s wife.” She beamed, and Charles managed to crawl two steps before throwing up in the pristine grass. Burning bile and what little he had eaten in the past day scarred his throat and cleared his head. He slumped there for a moment, gasping for air, and then he stood up, brushed down his clothes and turned to face the pair.

“I suppose I’m stuck here then.” He couldn’t help addressing his words mostly to Moira, the sight of Erik made him want to be sick again, and he didn’t have anything left to throw up. Her smile was perfect and he was reminded of stepford-wives, of robotic remnants of older decades, of bodies snatched. At the very least, Moira didn’t seem entirely human. And Erik? Erik just made him hurt.

With slumped shoulders he followed them into the house. Inside he felt trapped in a hundred different ways, but he was too bone wary to care. Too tired to even paint over the hurt and betrayal and devastation that he knew was scored into his face. Neither Erik nor Moira gave any impression that they knew or cared what Charles was feeling, and he didn’t notice the way Erik’s hands shook. He felt muted in this house, like he’d lost a part of every one of his senses.

“We’re glad you could make it.” Moira smiled as they wandered down a hallway. She turned on her heel to shake his hand, walking backwards, her heels clicking prettily, and her skin was all milk and honey soft as he shook it. She was delicate, even tailored perfectly and primped, and her eyes were so hooded and vulnerable he felt like she might break under a hard enough look, so he tried a smile, hoping it wouldn’t jar and twist on his lips.

“I wish I could say the same.” He offered and her eyes crinkled at the corners.

They followed Erik inside where he led a sort of haphazard tour. It was a strange house, of course, with more staircases, rooms and levels than the outside suggested. Rooms upon rooms upon rooms, everything tacked on to everything else, Charles’ felt that every time he left a room, something changed behind him. Thoughts of a prison where you were forever looking for an impossible way out entered his head and he had to clench his fists at his sides to keep from losing his mind and running away. But it didn’t make sense that they would trap him, obviously there was a reason he had come here, obviously it was set up by the Green Man. Erik’s presence proved that.

“So, what’s it like journeying to your death?” Erik asked in a harsh voice, like he was being cruel because he didn’t know what else he could do. Charles remembered the last time they had talked and it almost made sense. Erik had tried. He had tried and now he was here and Charles was...

They were climbing a staircase that spiralled up from the centre of a dusty, book-smelling library room. Moira had left at some point, smiling and waving and teetering and making Charles’ stomach churn at the thought of being alone with Erik.

“I’m keeping optimistic.”

“You’re totally fucked, you know.” He opened a door. “You can stay in here.” And Charles knew immediately what he was trying to do. He was acting the asshole because he wanted Charles to attack him and abuse him and scream like he was supposed to, so Erik could feel better. But Charles wouldn’t take the bait and Erik dithered for a moment before trying again.

“You brought all your stuff in a satchel, that’s how I know you’re fucked.” He pointed out, looking at his leather bag with a strange expression halfway between outrage and amusement and Charles didn’t rage and yell and spit, he just shrugged,

“It’s all I had.” They had stopped in a bedroom, clean lines and a window seat. Stained glass and half dead air.

“Well it’s spelled out your doom.” Erik sighed wistfully, “No one with a satchel wins shit.”

“It’s not like I’m fighting him.” Charles said flatly, sinking down on to the bed. “We’re not on equal footing or anything.” And he would remember the expression on Erik’s face for a long time afterwards. A brief flash of utter horror, the realisation that Charles, his best friend, his actual, real, only friend, was going to die.

“And in a flash, optimism is replaced by realism. Good choice.” He recovered quickly, playing blank again and stalking out of the room. “Food in an hour.” Came floating back up the stairs.

At dinner, Moira did almost all of the talking, and Charles was relieved. He didn’t know if he could handle explanations from Erik, and it was impossible to pretend he wasn’t interested in what was being said. He needed to hear these things, he needed connections and links and sparks to make all the questions in his head quiet down. Not that they did. Not that any of it was entirely adequate to all of everything.

“We call him the Green Knight.” Moira started immediately, nodding along as she served a salad. “Because that’s his name and all...I think. Erik can tell you more about that, I imagine.” And Erik glared at his plate and didn’t move. Moira was nonplussed,

“He lives in a chapel around the corner and, I mean ha ha, you know, it doesn’t fit him, but he’s always been there and it’s difficult to question him without getting into some sort of game.” She laughed nervously and Charles forced a smile,

“I can imagine.” He lived in a chapel, he called himself a knight, everything about this was a joke, an awful trick at Charles’ expense. Funny for everyone but him.

“So you’ll stay here and we’ll look after you until the right day, and then you’ll go to the chapel.”

“Where I’ll be viciously slaughtered.”

“Exactly.” Erik took a savage bite of steak, baring his teeth around the blood. Charles looked away.

“Don’t be an asshole, Erik.” Moira sighed, tapping the back of his hand with a perfectly manicured finger. Swearing didn’t suit her and Erik rolled his eyes at her and they looked so married that Charles wondered how the hell the whole past year had even happened. How had Erik kept away from his wife all year? How had Charles never even met Moira? Nothing worked. All of this place was broken.

Except that parts of it worked like before, like messed up clockwork and Charles absolutely hated it. Like in the evening, when Erik sloped into his room and sat on his bed, breathing raw and scowling at the duvet for the longest moment and Charles just held his breath and waited. Erik unfolded, he blinked like he had never seen, he stretched like a cat and he lay back across the foot of the bed. He didn’t say anything and Charles didn’t offer anything and after about fifteen minutes Erik left. It hurt Charles’ head too much to even think about what that meant, if anything, so he just lay there feeling out of breath and angry and ridiculous.

Charles was a little disappointed to find that Erik wasn't even in the house when he woke up. He wanted to shrug and roll his eyes at him with hard indifference before flouncing out and into the wilds. He wanted Erik to know that he wasn't going to mope or weep or swoon, instead he was going to be proactive and find the Green Man and talk to him and convince him that this was all a horrible mistake and that he probably didn't even wantto cut off any heads at all and yeah, they had a deal, and yeah, Charles would honour that, but let's not do something we'll both regret, whaddaya say? But Erik wasn't there to be indifferent to, just Moira, and she smiled passively and he ignored the plastic-looking-perfect-looking breakfast table and stalked out.

"He works, you know that." Her voice like ashes followed him and he knew at once that she wasn’t talking about the Green Man. He kicked out at a small table and was outside.

The wilds were different this time around. There was a path and everything made a little more sense because of it. While it was still strange and awful and it still smelt like salt and rust, like blood and bones, he wasn't tripping into the gore this time around and all of his desperate thoughts gave him a vicious edge that made him brave. Of course, the chapel still came out of nowhere and the sight of it destroyed all of his bravery. Tall and thin and spidery. And green, naturally. There was no clearing for it, the path didn't open out onto a field where it stood in the centre, the path just spluttered out and there it was. Overgrown with vines and ferns and horrible hanging fruit, only the spires were free of vegetation, taller than everything and far too narrow to contain anything but empty space. Like chimneys with tiny round windows. Green glass. Bottle glass. The door was mossy iron, woven close together like a basket, like a jail, and Charles glared at it as fiercely as his lack of bravery allowed him.

With squared shoulders he walked forward, pretending he didn't know what he was walking toward and looking dead ahead so he didn't notice the hunk of stone just visible next to the door. Stained and scored. He thought hard about the final time he would walk toward this building because it would be so much worse and he forced himself to relax.

The gate wasn’t suitable for knocking so Charles just stood, squinting through the pinprick gaps, and waited. It was the air, the prickling strangeness of it all that told him he wouldn’t be waiting long. Out-of-nowhere Green Men came with the territory and when the gate opened abruptly, Charles didn’t even stumble.

“Oh Kitten, you’re early.”His voice whispered out of the darkness and with closed eyes, Charles took a step forward.

“Just having a look around.”Charles sounded quiet and muted and the booming laugh that followed dwarfed everything.

“Is that so?”And then there he was. The dark made him loom and he seemed as tall and thin as the towers above them. The green was even more shocking, acid and weird and Charles’ breath hitched at the back of his throat. “Looking for anything in particular, or will I do?”

“You’ll do.”Charles managed a wry sort of smile and the twisted face smiled back at him like it was a competition.

“Well, I’ll have to, the place is a mess.” And he marched forward and Charles stumbled backwards and green skin in bright sunlight looked like Hell and somehow it made him even more imposing. “What do you want, then?”

“Nothing, I...this was a mistake.”

“Yes. It was.”

“I’ll go then.” Charles began to walk away, careful not to run or trip or cry.

"Wait, wait, wait." His voice tripped Charles up and spun him round and the Green Man was looking thoughtful. "You've lost it all haven't you."

"What?" Charles knew the answer was probably yes.

"You had a little bit of it, some tiny fragment of hope, but it got all burned up when you arrived and saw scary, scary Erik."

"Oh. Hope." Charles looked down. "Yeah, well hope is pointless."

"Maybe." And it sounded exactly like he wanted to play more games but Charles wasn't in the mood. Even if it could save him, it wouldn't and Charles would be left deader than before, unable to even lay his head on the block he was so weak from hoping.

"No deal."

"Who said anything about a deal?" Even his laughter sounded green, like acid or poison apples. "I'm just trying to put a little spring in your step, there are tricks, there are trinkets. It's not all so hopeless, you know."

"But it is."

"But. It. Isn't." And it was done now, the seed all planted in Charles' head just like he'd wanted it. Growing green and hopeful and making Charles want to spit he was so angry. What tricks, what trinkets? He turned to leave again and he could hear the smile curling across the Green Man's cheeks and more words to be said and he really, really didn't want to turn around please don't make me. "Just one more thing, pet, I want to talk about your sister....."

“I’m here, Raven is irrelevant.” He hissed, anger destroying fear and making him almost lose his footing he was so ready to tear throats out.

“Actually, you want to know a secret? Drunk and desperate sisters are my favourites.” The Green Man stared up at the sun as he spoke, and the light made his voice ragged and warm and Charles couldn’t stop trembling. “That’s what she is, Charles, and that’s why you’re here. She was joking a teensy bit, but the thought was there, please Mr Green Man, fix my brother. You really ought to have kept her away from college boys, kitten.” His voice was her voice and Charles opened his eyes wide so he would feel everything, so he would remember everything.

“You’re lying.” He managed finally, and the Green Man’s laughter cut over his words immediately.

“She was just so pretty, all lips and hair, that I thought I’d surprise her. I didn't tell her I’d picked you, that would be too boring, but when you never come back and she realises...I can’t wait.”

Charles ran because he didn’t know what else he could do. He didn’t see the path, the forest, he didn’t see anything and the Green Man’s laughter followed him. It was Raven, it was Raven, his little sister, his favourite thing, the thing he loved most in the world. It was too awful, and he was so wrapped up in those thoughts, in just how awful everything was, that he didn’t notice Erik until he’d crashed into him.

“Charles? Are you crying?” Erik staggered to his feet, brushing off his trousers, frowning at Charles who was shell-shocked on the grass. Charles dragged a sleeve across his eyes,

“I don’t know.” He said, speaking clumsily around a swollen lip, bitten in the fall. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“I took a mental health day, it isn’t the same without a lackey.” He smirked and Charles’ stomach twisted. “What’s wrong, then?”

“Nothing. I...I went to find the chapel and...” He got to his feet, shrugging weakly and Erik’s eyes were dark and light and hard and soft. “He told me that Raven asked for all of this, I didn’t know, she doesn’t know, I...” Erik looked confused and sad and angry,

“Fucking hell.” He snarled the words out like an accusation and Charles nodded sharply in agreement,

“Exactly.” There was a strange silence where they were both stuck in some mutual emotion, angry and breathing hard and clenching their fists. And their eyes met and Charles looked away first because they were acting friends again and he hated that.

“So, what do you do around here for fun?” Charles looked at his shoes, all grass smeared and dirt-stuck, and then moved away quickly when he realised he was close enough to Erik that he could see his shoes too.

“Nothing. There’s nothing here.” Another silence stretched. Charles edged further away, thinking that maybe, if he edged far enough, he could make a run for it and lock himself in the bedroom before Erik thought to chase.

“Charles.” Erik warned and Charles skipped further backwards. “Stop that.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Are you really going to spend your last days alive pouting in silence in your room?”

“Fuck you, I already said goodbye to you.” Charles’ kicked at the dirt and twisted his body around but couldn’t bring himself to leave. He wanted to be close to Erik. He wanted to share air. “It’s not fair, all of this, it’s...it’s wrong.”

“I know.” Erik shrugged. “But there’s nothing either of us can do about it. What do you say we...I mean we can’t put it all on hold, but we can be civil until you fucking die.” Charles hated it so much that Erik wore his emotions written so clearly on his face, because he always did it and because it always made it harder. This time Erik looked so completely desperate that Charles could only scowl at his abused shoes and chew the insides of his cheeks and try so hard not to sound sullen.

“An almost truce.” He said glumly and Erik nodded fervently,

“Exactly.” He held out a hand but Charles brushed all that aside with a nod and went inside.

It was nothing like before, as much as Erik tried. Charles was awkward, moving around like he couldn’t get comfortable and always with such suspicious eyes. Erik made jokes and his voice cracked and Charles played with his hands a lot, clenching and unclenching and threading them through whatever he could find. He did it because without the distraction he would find his eyes drifting, focusing on some tiny detail of Erik’s movement, the way his eyes caught the light or the way he tugged his tie loose at his throat or the way his smile took over his whole face.

At dinner Erik kept it up, talking more than Charles and Moira and ploughing through his food enthusiastically, grinning at everyone with his mouth full, all teeth and excitement. Charles would smile weakly in return and Moira would nod politely but Charles could tell she was worried. He was getting manic and Moira kept touching him, tugging on his sleeve or tucking hair behind his ears but he seemed oblivious to it all. Charles was worried too, even if he didn’t want to admit it. Erik was drifting into feverish territory and Charles didn’t particularly want to experience that again. He needed Erik to be completely alright so that he could spend all his energy trying to remain indifferent to it all. He shouldn’t have to worry. But Erik kept drifting and eventually Moira hustled him away up some stairs, briefly shooting Charles a strange look all full of glass that made him want to cry.

In his room Charles set about methodically destroying every single little unattached thing he could find, a glass swan, a little doll made of coarse dried grass, an alarm clock radio, until the floor was littered with debris. He went to sleep and dreamt of green and of Raven and of Erik.

Chapter Text

“Want to play a game?” Erik asked lazily, peering at Charles over the arm of the couch. It was the next morning and Erik had resumed his cheerful act of normalcy from the get go. Charles was wary, carefully placing himself on a separate piece of furniture lest Erik get chummy and start punching him in the arm or ruffling his hair.

“No.” Charles said stiffly. “The last game I played involved an axe.”

“The last game you played involved being my wingman.” Erik retorted, misjudging the situation entirely. Charles froze and fixed his eyes to the floor and silently, apologetically, Erik waited for him to thaw.

“What’s the game?”

“Well there won’t be axes. Basically, whatever I get at work today, trinkets or whatever, I’ll give to you, and in return anything you get given today, you can give to me. Deal?” Charles didn’t respond for a moment, unable to get passed how cute it was. It made him angry. Erik wasn’t allowed to be so cute when he was such an asshole really.

“That’s not really a game, it’s just exchanging gifts.” He pointed out, probably a little more aggressively than he should have. Erik looked fierce,

“Well, I’m a nice guy like that.” He spat out, taking some of the anger that Charles was feeling for himself, all of a sudden completely un-jovial. “Besides, I didn’t get you anything for Christmas.” And he sounded so bitter and full of self-loathing that Charles couldn't speak. All he could think about was how unfair all of this was. It had been bad when he finally realised his crush days before he had to leave. It had been bad when he was going to have to die with some unrequited whatever. But now, to have Erik thrown in his face, to realise that Erik had known all about this and hadn't said anything, to realise that Erik had never ever been on his side, it made him want to scream. And worst of all, he couldn't turn off the way his stomach dropped when Erik looked at him, the way he wanted to smile back when that terrifying grin crossed Erik’s face, equally wide so he could feel like they were friends again, like everything was normal and they could share something. Instead, all of that was lost and Charles kept his voice dead and agreed to the game.

“Alright, deal.”And Erik grasped Charles’ hand before he could move away, warm skin, long fingers, bringing goosebumps up along the back of Charles’ neck. “I’m going to lie down.” His voice came out breathless and ragged and he was on his feet like a shot and out the door even faster. Erik watched him leave, his expression full of a hundred things at once, none of them discernable, all of them tearing him to pieces.

“I’ll see you this evening then.” He called out after Charles. “And we can exchange gifts.”

Charles headed straight to his bedroom. It was full of thoughts about real bedrooms, the sort of thoughts that told him he was safe there, even scattered with pieces of radio, away from shark’s smiles and...eyes, just eyes. It had been alright before this, while he hadn’t resigned himself to the possibility of death, he was close to accepting it, he was close to acknowledging that it could, would, would happen, and now he was flung loose again. At least he’d resigned himself to the fact that the crush he had on Erik wouldn’t matter anymore. But Erik had wormed himself into this too, and his presence was taking away all of the focus he’d cultivated; he felt exhausted after just that short conversation. God knows what he would do when they had to swap whatever-we-get-given at the end of the day. And of course he wondered if Erik knew exactly what would happen, what he would be given and what he would give. It was probably all part of the Green Man’s game and it scared Charles deathly.

Although, the more he thought about everything, the more it seemed alright. He would wait it out. He would see as little of Erik as possible. He would make small talk. He would be given nothing because who here would give him anything? He would take whatever Erik gave him in silence. It would all be alright. It was just a stop-gap, it was just waiting for death.

But then Moira brought him lunch and everything changed. For a second her appearance seemed normal, she was holding a tray with a bowl of soup on it, thick slices of bread on the side, she was acting the hostess. But everything slowly fell apart under Charles’ scrutiny and suddenly everything seemed too many kinds of wrong. She was wearing a corset, that was what he noticed first. Behind the apron and the tray and the smile, she was dressed in black leather and lace and spiked heels and underwear-as-outerwear and so-tight-she-must-have-been-stitched-in. Her smile was painted on scarlet, seductive and smooth and her eyes were smouldering and dark and completely dead.

“Moira. To what do I owe the pleasure?” He was unable to stop the shaking in his voice and shiny red-slicked lips curved into a plastic looking smile.

“The pleasure, is all mine.” She cooed mechanically, swaying forward, placing the tray on the bedside table, delicately and theatrically untying the apron. “Charles, I have thought of nothing but you since the moment you stepped into the house.” She spoke the words with no emotion behind them, like a bad actress and she seemed to blur slightly under his eyes.

“Oh? That’s surprising.” He shut his eyes for a moment, thinking maybe this was a dream and that was why it was so bizarre, maybe everything would go away when he opened them. But he did, and she wasn’t. The vision in black lace and hooded eyes was there to greet him. He pressed himself against the headboard of the bed as she came closer. Her eyes were warm honey and he wanted nothing to do with them. “Look, Moira?”

“I know you want it too, Charles.” She purred, and she was on the bed, crawling up toward him with jerking, disc-skipping movements. “I can see it in your eyes.” Charles wondered how good her eyesight actually was, because he knew his eyes were full of terror. He knew that she was something separate from reality, that she wasn’t human, that she was a product of her insane environment and that maybe she wasn’t doing this because she wanted to, but that didn’t stop him wanting to run away. In fact, it probably made her even more terrifying.

“No, Moira, you’re very, very wrong about that.” He couldn’t possibly get any further away from her, he was in pain he was pressed against the bed so hard. “Seriously.”

“But I need you.” She whispered, her hand stretching out to caress his face. He flinched violently, cracking his head against the wall and swearing viciously.

“No, for fuck’s sake.”

“Kiss me.” She demanded, fierceness etched into her eyes, her mouth pushed forward and hard and her eyelashes casting spiky shadows across her cheeks. She looked like a sexy demon. Her fingernails were digging into the mattress, he felt like a kiss was the only way he could get out of everything else with his face intact.

“Just a kiss.” He conceded and she bounded toward him with a sparkly grin, and in one smooth movement pressed her mouth to his. Cold skin, the taste of lipstick. And with a wink and a toss of her hair, she was gone. Charles wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, glaring at the slash of red it left behind. Why me? He thought, for possibly the millionth time on this trip. And probably less importantly, but far more present in Charles’ mind, what would Erik say?

When Erik walked in that evening, Charles almost leapt out of his skin. He’d been so on edge, waiting all day, that he’d been starting at every noise, and Erik’s actual presence was enough to start some heart attacks. Automatically, he shifted closer to the arm of the couch, pressing himself against it like he’d pressed himself against the headboard earlier, but for markedly different reasons.

“Evening, Charles.” If Erik had noticed the nervous ball of energy Charles seemed to be embodying, he didn’t mention it. “Do you want to see what I’ve brought you?” He sat, draping his arms across the back of the couch, casual and smooth and...

“Do I?” The words sounded harsh coming from his mouth, an attempt at talking away the thoughts in his head, thoughts of forgiving Erik because he sounded so casual and smooth and... He hoped Erik hadn’t actually brought him anything, so it wouldn’t look so bad when Charles came up empty handed. No, that was wrong, he didn’t have to do anything, this was a stupid game and Charles refused to play.

“Course. Look, it’s a little mouse.” And from his closed fist he revealed a mouse, carved from some sort of dark wood, fitting perfectly on the palm of his hand. “I gave the customer fucking top dollar for this piece of shit because it reminded me of you. All little and...like a mouse.” Gingerly Charles plucked the figurine from the man’s palm, inspecting it with narrowed eyes. It was an actual tiny statue of a mouse. This was ridiculous. He felt like he was falling to pieces and he stared at the mouse so he didn’t have to look at Erik.

“Er. It’s lovely?” Charles said, pushing fond memories away and tucking it into his front shirt pocket, because what the hell else was he supposed to do? He glanced up and away immediately because Erik was smiling and he didn’t want to see that. He refused to say thank you.

“What’ve you got for me then?” And in that moment, Charles knew exactly what he was going to do, even if his brain and his anger and Erik was an asshole told him otherwise. So, with a sort of furious and insane idea of vengeance, and hidden thoughts that told him that he wanted to do this even though Erik. Was. An asshole, he threw himself forward, falling into the kiss that he justified as being given to him by Moira. His fingers tangled themselves in Erik’s hair, mussing it, pulling him as close as he needed. It was clumsy, it was confused, Charles’ knee was pressed into Erik’s stomach, his elbow uncomfortably sandwiched between the couch and warm bodies, it was electricity and lightning strikes and when they separated Charles was breathing hard and Erik was frowning at the air just above Charles’ head. There was silence. Charles’ wondered if Erik could hear his heart beating because to him it sounded like (felt like) gunshots. Erik’s eyes narrowed at the patch of air that seemed to be causing him some concern. And then he was grinning,

“Did Moira give you that? Jesus, I didn’t realise she was that crazy.” And quietly he laughed at his wife kissing his...Charles. “You’re pretty dedicated to the game, Charles, I’ll give you that. No wonder you’re actually going to fight this green bastard.” And Charles was so stunned that he just sat there, wondering why it didn’t matter that Erik’s wife had kissed him, and wondering why it didn’t matter that...Charles had just kissed him. So, because there was nothing else at all he could do without far too many regrets even for someone who was going to die, he left the room.

When Moira found Charles later, she was different again. Back to being less-of-a-robot even if she was still slightly Stepford in a circle skirt and pearls. She couldn't meet his eyes and it was reassuring that there was something in her that might have been guilt. He wanted her to be something-okay because he wanted to use all of his anger and sadness and misplaced, beyond stupid, romantic-thoughts on Erik. So she smiled awkwardly and he smiled back with everything he had and followed her to dinner.

Erik was there already, staring at his plate with a sort of savage determination. As Moira and Charles entered he stood up, quick and straight. He looked wired, his eyes bloodshot and his hands shaking at his sides,

“Moira kissed you.” He said to Charles, his voice like ash. Moira took her place at the table, she began to eat, cutting everything up into tiny pieces that she chewed overlong. She didn’t look at either of them.

“I thought...” Charles froze in place. It was some sort of delayed reaction, Erik was correcting himself.

“My wife.” He stood up and strode around the room, he brandished his fork like a weapon and Charles edged toward the door. Moira’s knife slid through a piece of steak. Blood oozed. “And my best friend.”

“Erik, will you put the fork down.”

“It’s fine though, isn’t it.” Erik swung the fork between his fingertips like a pendulum. “Now we can be real friends again because we’re equally awful people.”

“No, Erik.”

Yes, Charles.” Charles sat down at the table and began to eat. For a brief moment him and Moira met eyes, and in that split second he realised that she was as trapped as he was.

“Pass the salt please, Moira?” He asked quietly, and she slid the glass shaker across to him. The sharp sound of metal hitting glass rung loudly through the room as Erik threw his fork down onto a plate, and left the room. Charles and Moira ate in silence.

~~~

Charles didn’t see either of them the next morning. Over and over he drifted through the library thinking maybe Erik would show up, to talk, to explain, to apologise, but every time it was empty and after several hours he went back to his room. It wasn’t like he didn’t get what Erik had tried to do. He wanted to make them even, make Charles’ apparent betrayal equal to what he had done. But it wasn’t. Not anywhere near, and both of them knew it.

He was half expecting Moira that afternoon because everything here seemed like a game and he still had three more days to live, why not make them as awful as fucking possible? She was dressed in white this time, no leather, no lace, just floating, swirling chiffon that made her look like she was surrounded by smoke. Her feet were bare and her face was freckled and smiling and free of makeup. But she was a robot again and her eyes seemed made of glass.

“I went about this all wrong yesterday.” Charles could smell cotton candy and he tugged his knees up under his chin and watched her as she moved toward him with pigeoned toes.

“Is that so?” He mumbled into the fabric of his jeans and she blinked so slow and sweet and nodded with her lips pressed together like she cared so much about what she was saying that she had to let it out slowly. Carnivalesque, a joke.

“I mean, I’m not like that. I don’t even know where I got that outfit.” She blushed prettily and Charles was biting his knee now just to keep his mouth shut. “This is better, this is much more me.” She perched herself on the edge of his bed and his fingernails were digging into the flesh of his hand he was curled up so tight.

“Moira.”

“Charles.” There was steel in her voice, like she knew that he knew that he couldn’t escape this but he was definitely contemplating it. Like she knew what he’d seen in her eyes at dinner. Like she knew that a part of him wanted to jam an elbow through that window over there, stained bruise-blue and yellow, and throw himself into space, but another part of him still wanted to know everything and another part of him wasn’t sure the house would even let him. Both of them knew about the final part, the broken glass part in his head where he wanted a happy family, him and Erik and broken-up-and-put-together furniture and Raven-on-her-motorbike-with-her-wicked-mouth, but Moira wasn’t in the position for a heart to heart and Charles wasn’t talking.

He slid his legs down away from his mouth, and Moira crept forward and kissed him like a feather and he nodded and pulled away and quick-as-anything she kissed him again, longer this time because he was numb and hadn’t expected it. She left in a whirl of candy and glitter and he curled back up and contemplated broken glass.

And later, Charles was grimly satisfied as he realised it was two kisses this time. He almost choked on thoughts of what would happen when Erik got home. Anticipation rose in him like a wave leaving him breathless and angry and almost glad that he’d been kissed twice. Ridiculous. He waited in the library because it seemed right even though he didn’t like to think that anything to do with Erik was right. Groaning, Charles threw himself back into the couch, flailing his fists around half hoping to catch himself on the eye, bruise some sense into his skin, but all he managed was a light breeze.

“Are you having a seizure?” He heard a voice ask. Erik’s voice. Slow and low and full of humour, apparently over his tantrum from the night before. Charles opened one eye,

“What if I am?”

“Our Knight wouldn’t be impressed if you fucked yourself up, you know.” He moved across the room to sit next to Charles.

“So you’re on his side then?”Charles didn’t even know why he was asking, he didn’t know why his voice came out so petulant, so keening, and he scowled at the sound. Erik cocked his head to one side, looking at Charles with an almost blank expression, his eyes quiet and his lips slightly parted.

“Why do you care?” He asked, and his voice amongst the dust and the books and the silence made Charles’ blood run fast and hot.

“I-it doesn’t matter.” He managed after almost a minute of struggling with words that wouldn’t sit right in his mouth. “I don’t.” And all the tension dropped. Erik started rummaging in his pocket.

“You won’t believe it but fuck it, you know? Mice everywhere. People try to sell me this shit, I’ll just give it to you.” And he pulled out another mouse. This one was bronze and heavy, just a lump of metal with a thin curling tail out one end and a point for a nose at the other.

“More mice.” Charles mused, inspecting it carefully. “I like this one better. I can use it as a paper weight.”

“For all the days you have left on this earth.” Erik grinned lazily, waving his hand through the air like he was holding a cigarette. Smoke and dust. He dropped down onto the couch, close enough to smell.

“Fuck you.” Charles sighed, shoving the metal mouse in his pocket.

“What have you got for me then?” And Erik’s eyes were suddenly pin-sharp, he stared at Charles’ with intensity through the dim light. Charles slumped back on the couch and tip-toed his fingers up his crossed arms.

“You won’t believe it but fuck it, you know.” He whispered, his voice mumbled and quiet enough that Erik just frowned and leant closer,

“What?” And he was already there and all Charles had to do was tilt his head up and their mouths met. Again Erik was blank and unmoving, and again Charles was desperate and angry, and again it was over in a moment. Erik pulled away like lightning but Charles had two kisses thank you very much and his hand shot out automatically, hooking around the back of Erik’s neck and pulling him back for the briefest, brush of dry lips, a scratch, a slash, a scar.

Erik left the room without a word. Charles stayed for a long time, trying hard to keep his mind quiet, feeling like the stained-glass, filtered light, muted and empty.

At dinner nothing felt right. Charles squirmed in his seat and Erik stared at his plate and Moira chirped nervously about nothing. Charles could barely hear what she was saying it was so rapid and high pitched and wobbly, so he focussed on the food and on not thinking of anything and he tried not to flinch when Erik left with sharp lines and clean silence.

~~~

Charles was definitely expecting it the next morning, after Erik had left without being seen again, but Moira was different still. She was dressed in worn-out jeans, an oversized grey sweater with leather patches at the elbows. Her hair was messy, her makeup smudged, but she was still a robot. She smiled at him wanly and he blinked at her and licked his chapped lips.

“Hey.” She wasn’t the dominatrix or the lolita or the whatever-you-want-me-to-be, she was a false version of normalcy.

“Hi Moira.”

“You know it’s going to be three kisses today, don’t you.” Her hair dripped over her shoulder as she cocked her head to one side and grinned.

“I suppose I do.”

“It’s cute that you’re so resigned to it all.” She sat next to him on the bed, leaning back on her palms and smirking up at the ceiling. She was Raven when she first started high school, with skinned knees and a baggy uniform and untied shoelaces. He hadn’t realised Moira was so young, and everything about her tugged at his heart.

“It isn’t really.” He said after a pause. “It’s actually quite awful.”

“Oh well. Pucker up then, Charlie.” And she nudged at him with her shoulder before kissing him chastely on the lips. “One.” She tugged playfully on a loose strand of his hair and kissed him again, longer and warmer. “Two.” She whispered, and she pounced, wrapping her arms around him and laughing into his mouth. “Three.” She choked out afterwards, still breathless with kisses and laughter.

“Splendid.” Charles sighed and she nodded in agreement.

“Oh but Charles, it’s not quite finished.”

“What else could you possibly have to give me, Moira?” He was so tired of it all. He wanted it finished. His head cut off because that was always what was going to happen. Death and death and death because he had spent too long already not caring and there was no other way. Until, suddenly, there was.

Moira pulled what seemed like a worn length of thin green leather from her pocket, wrapping it around and around and around her hands like a boxers wraps.

“This will save you, Charles, if you let it.” She held up her hands, twisting her wrists until the leather fell in loops to her lap. It was a belt, dark green with a dirty brass buckle. “If you wear this, you won’t be hurt, not by an axe, not by anything.”

Charles plucked the belt from her lap and turned it over in his hands. It was just a belt, it would have been boring if it wasn’t green, it didn’t feel like it had life saving properties. It felt like worn leather and warm hands. He thought of Erik.

“You know what you’re doing by giving me this, don’t you.” He said quietly. He was thinking of Raven and the children, of sunlight and of his mansion all dust and filtered light. He was thinking of starting everything over again, a new life, out of his rut and into reality. He was thinking of life and of his head staying attached. He was thinking of his deal with Erik and how little it seemed to matter in the face of immortality.

Moira didn’t say anything, but she changed. Completely. Everything shifted in her face, relaxed, lost that taut, hyper-smooth quality and became imperfect. Now he could see faint lines at the corners of her mouth, fanning out from her beautiful eyes, smiles in everything and exhaustion in everything. She looked like a girl from a movie, the one who is so young but older than everything in the world. And she wasn’t a robot, she was undeniably human then, in that moment, and she sighed.

“So that’s done then?” And she sagged into the cushions of the bed and Charles imagined her smoking with her old eyes, jaded and jaw-set and done. All that he could feel was the metallic taste of her, his mind was static.

“What?” He managed finally and her real life, real person smile was sad.

“It’s done. The kissing, the-” A nervous laugh escaped her mouth. “-all of it. I am so sorry. I am so sorry.” Her voice shook and her eyes were fixed on some point in the air because it wasn’t Charles. She looked briefly at the belt and then away.

“What?” Charles was all attention now, staring at Moira, suddenly aware that seeing her like this, as a human instead of something alien and sinister, was far scarier than everything else.

“It’s a thing I have to do. It’s something I have no control over and...if it helps, I’m not...I’m not me when I’m...that, that thing. I’m not me.” She was losing her cool, the smoke and the old eyes and the set jaw were all gone and she was left alone, stranded amongst stuffed-too-full cushions.

“What do you mean?” Charles shifted so he was facing her, so he could watch as she explained all of this away. Swapping kisses for mice and robot eyes. And life saving leather.

“I mean, I have a deal too, Charles. Me and him.” A ripple of movement ran through her like she was swallowing something unpleasant. “I have to do what he asks, just like you have to be here, now.”

“The Green Man? Does Erik know about this?” He asked because that would mean Erik expected the kisses, that would mean that Erik had started the game because he wanted the kisses, he wanted the kisses.

“No.” Moira shook her head fervently and for a tiny, insane moment, Charles felt disappointment. “Erik doesn’t know anything about anything. Erik is just...”

“Your husband.”

“Well, no.” A tiny smile crossed her lips and she looked at him directly for the first time. “Not my husband.” Charles could tell that she knew. He didn’t know how, but her smile and the hard look in her eyes told him that she knew exactly how he felt about Erik. First he was angry, he was white-hot and bitter and he wanted so badly to run. But more overwhelming was how much he wanted to know.

“Why are you here, Moira?”

“A million inadequate reasons.” She smirked. “Except I called him to me. I called him and he asked me to cut off his head and he filled my head with death and I didn’t care. I had nothing and I had no one and I called him because I wanted to die. Could we just skip the year and you kill me now? I actually asked him that. He laughed at me and I cut his head off and something about me made him come back the next day and change everything. He asked for my life in return for anonymity and I accepted.”

“And then what?” Charles wasn’t going to pet her and he bit his lip hard to stop sympathetic words from slipping out.

“He brought me here.” Her eyes dared him to pity her, but she was so hard and he had seen that expression on Raven’s face enough to know that it wouldn’t fix her. “I’ve been here seven years and...sometimes Erik would turn up and I figured he was in the same sort of position. He kept me from blowing my brains out, you know? He’s my best friend. He’s my only friend.”

“Mine too.” Charles whispered, knowing that the anguish all sketched out across her face would be mirrored in his.

“Think about the belt, Charles. This is me saying it, not...her.” She said finally, standing up and walking toward the door. “It shouldn’t be a hard decision.”

And it wasn’t, not really, even though it should have been. As soon as Charles felt everything lift, felt hope like fresh air and cut grass and Raven smiling, he knew he had to do it. There was a small part of him that told him it was just another trick, there had been so many of them, why wouldn’t this be one too? But he didn’t care. He had spent so long rejecting his life, being indifferent to everything around him, and if some scrap of green leather made that all go away, then it didn’t matter if it was a trick. He rolled the belt up and put it under his pillow.

He would take his three last kisses and that would be all.

~~~

Erik arrived looking wild, as falling-apart as he had been the day he got drunk for the first time, just before Charles left. Without a word he handed Charles the contents of his pockets. Things spilled to the ground, delicate gold chains, guitar strings and a miniature switch blade. Beads and jewelled pendants and a tiny little metal box. Everything fell, skittering under the couch or down Charles’ sleeve, but Erik made sure he kept the mouse held still. Clockwork with glittering eyes and a key in its back.

“It’s broken, I think.” He said miserably, tipping it into Charles hand properly, the only thing that would stay. “Everything else is compensation.”

“Oh.”

“I suppose you’re going to kiss me.”

“Not if you don’t want me to.” Charles muttered under his breath, knowing Erik wouldn’t hear. He didn’t actually care if Erik didn’t want him too. This was the end, this was all there was. And he carefully placed the switchblade and chains and strings, and the mouse, on the arm of the couch and leant forward.

Almost immediately Charles knew it was different, he felt it under his touch, something broke or splintered or burned and after a mid-air jolt of panic, Erik pushed forward. His lips parted and a rush of warm breath dampened Charles' mouth. In surprise he pulled back, but still Erik pushed, pinning him down with both arms and pushing with all of him. Long and lean and forceful. He tasted like lemons and like smoke. They were both breathless when they finally parted and Erik's eyes didn't waver where Charles' skidded over everything because what was happening and this is all I want.

“Three...” Charles was pushing his luck but he didn’t even care. Without a word Erik moved again, long fingers gripping Charles’ arms hard enough to bruise, and teeth and lips and tongue all clashing and warm. This time Charles acted properly, less from shock and more from desire. He kissed back and his skin prickled with heat and his body reacted to all of it and they were fumbling with each others clothes before either of them really realised what was happening.

Erik pulled back first, a hiss of surprise escaping his mouth as he fell back to the other side of the couch, pulling away so suddenly that buttons caught and thread snapped. Charles’ hand still tingled with the warmth of Erik’s skin. All Erik could taste and smell and see and feel was Charles.

“Three.” Charles whined, moving forward and not caring what it looked like because he ached for touch. Looking almost like he was in physical pain, Erik leant forward one more time, the last kiss, the last kiss, and pressed his lips to Charles’ for just a heartbeat, and left the room. Charles fell back into the cushions,

He didn’t go to dinner that night, his last night, but he didn’t sleep either. He just lay in his room and tried not to hope that Erik would come and see him. It didn’t change anything though, and he wrapped the belt as tight as he could around his knuckles until it burned. Erik had kissed him back and he would leave tomorrow. Erik had kissed him back and it didn’t matter. Erik had kissed him back and he wouldn’t be decapitated, he would live with Raven and the children and Erik didn’t matter.

When he finally did sleep, in the early hours of the morning, he dreamt of everything awful. Green things and bloody things and teeth and he woke up with his head all filed down and torn up. He put the belt on with pinned and needled hands. Erik wasn’t at breakfast, Erik wasn’t anywhere, just Moira who watched him as he didn’t eat.

“You’ll be fine.” She said and he dragged his thumb across the belt’s leather.

“Yeah.”

“You just have to kneel, that’s all you have to do.”

“Yeah.” He just had to kneel.

“You only got one swing so he only gets one swing. It won’t work. He’ll let you go.”

“What about after, what about Erik?”

“It doesn’t matter. You won’t...you shouldn’t even want to see him again.” She sounded desperate, and if he didn’t feel so sick, so numb, he probably would have asked her more questions. Why and who and what. But he just nodded as he tore a piece of bread to pieces.

Moira didn’t kiss Charles goodbye, but she did smile, and she did shake his hand. He’d given up on Erik just appearing out of nowhere, some sort of declaration, let down your hair and we’ll be off. But he’d packed the little mice in his bag so carefully. He trudged toward the chapel and his feet were light like they wanted him there faster, to not-be-decapitated, to leave all of this behind.

The Green Man was waiting, as terrifying as ever, stood next to the block and swinging the axe at his side. Charles wouldn’t kneel. Not to this piece of shit, this snarling, laughing demon. He walked forward and he stood square and he tugged his collar aside and he didn’t waver.

"You want to watch while I do it?" Ever smiling, it growled. Charles didn't reply, just remained still, eyes fixed on nothing but green. "Brave little soldier." But he was biting out the words like he didn't want to say them, like he didn't want any of this to be happening, and Charles' thought you and me both and tightened his mouth grimly. He felt he ought to be crying or begging or kneeling, but though his eyes burned and his throat ached and his knees wavered, he trembled with the effort of doing what he shouldn't. Brave little soldier. He thought of Raven and he squared his shoulders. The Green Man lifted his axe.

There was no flash of life, time didn't slow, the axe cut through the air and ripped a strangled gasp from Charles' throat as his face finally crumbled into tears. And it stopped, cutting a perfect line into the soft flesh of Charles' neck but not going further. A smeared slash of red but he was alive and the Green Man had stopped smiling. Neither of them moved, Charles concentrated on his breathing because, as far as he was concerned, these were all extras. But why had he stopped? Was it the belt, did it bring out feelings of empathy? Some sort of conscience for the inhuman. His eyes were blurring and he rubbed at them until they hurt and the pain was the best thing he'd felt, and when he could see again, the pain was the worst thing in the world.

Erik stood in front of him, his skin still slightly green, like a zombie, like mould, but slowly becoming warm; steam rose from him in clouds. He dropped the axe into a puddle of green and Charles felt so stupid because maybe he already knew that this was going to happen, and maybe he had dreamed of it every night in the fall-apart house, and maybe he still refused to believe it was happening. And this was the moment where the hero laughs. Because it's just so funny that his life has been torn to pieces, and it's just so funny that he wants to die. But Charles didn’t laugh. Charles was silent and his mind roared for a moment but then it was silent too. Everything was still. Maybe he felt like if nothing moved then it wasn’t really real. Just a painting of something awful.

Erik’s voice made Charles want to lunge at him. Rip out his tongue because his voice shattered the painting.

"Mouse..."

"Shut up."

"Charles then, listen."

“Shut up, shut up.” And Charles let out a breath and Erik shut up. Charles moved toward the block of stone that he’d refused before, the one with ugly stains and scratches. He knelt in the dirt and, perhaps a little dramatically, rested his chin over the side. “Alright.” He managed to speak around the hard surface pressing into his throat.

"Don't be stupid." Erik snapped and though Charles was too close to the ground to really see it, he glared.

"Who, me?" He snarled, the stone rasping at the cut on his neck, pulling it open, bleeding him out.

"Get up." Charles slammed his hands into the mud and pushed up, turning and slumping against the stone that would kill him.

"You don't get to say anything to me. You don't fucking get to speak at all." His voice had never sounded so dangerous, he'd never had a reason to be so angry, not really, not until Erik.

"Will you let me explain at least? Surely you want to know what the fuck is going on." Erik was snarling again to make himself feel better and Charles wanted to wither him with a look.

"I don't care."

"Of course you do, Charles." Erik started to pace.

“No I don’t, I know exactly what’s going on. Moira gave me a belt and now I’m free.” Erik stopped moving, his eyes drifted down to the green leather encircling Charles’ hips. He swallowed, he opened his mouth to speak, he shook his head.

“No, I...”

“I chose Raven over all of this bullshit, and now I get to go and see her.”

Erik had shed the Green Man entirely and only the beaten up axe remained, not sharp or green, dull and notched and brown. "But you don’t know everything.” He hissed. “And you know that too, so you won’t leave yet...you wouldn't leave all of this without an explanation for me, I know you fucking wouldn't." Charles didn’t speak because it was true, even if he hated it. If he left it, it would itch at his brain until he tried to dig it out with blunt fingernails. He gave the barest of nods and Erik’s eyes glowed smugly.

“It’s just, you did the banter thing, you were angry, you know? You weren’t fucking catatonic scared, you were drunk.” His eyes spoke nerves and guilt and vague amusement, but not enough. “I remembered you the next day and it drove me crazy. I never remember anyone, only Moira. I wanted to find you and that was it. I didn’t mean to be your friend, it just happened, you were all I could think about. Moira thought it was cute, I didn’t know what to do.”

“You could have left me alone.” Charles muttered. “You should have left Moira alone too, you’ve turned her into nothing.” Erik looked surprised.

“Moira is everything. All of us are, we aren’t made by the Green Man. Even Erik fucking Lensherr is real.”

Erik, whose father’s father’s father’s father and so on forever, had been best friends with a witch just like Erik was. Morgan of the fairies. Bertilak who laughed. All of these forever old people who played the same games Erik was forced to. But the games had made sense then. Chivalry and revenge had been ways of life and Gawain had proved himself and it didn’t matter that he had also destroyed himself, and Morgan had her revenge and it didn’t matter that it was misplaced. And the story had repeated itself over and over until Erik, who decided that he was real, and that he would break it.

The Green Man fought because he wanted to laugh for always, he dangled Moira on robot strings and made her kiss and made her sway and offer Charles a green-and-leather way out, but he didn’t know that Erik played games too. Like telling Charles to give him everything he was. Like knowing that Charles wanted to kiss him. Like wanting to kiss him back. So at the block, with the axe, maybe, maybe, maybe it would all end.

But actually it had been the belt that knocked it all out. That shocked Erik into fighting harder when Charles realised, or acknowledged, what was happening. The green drained from his skin as fear was replaced by something far worse on Charles’ face. Of course, everything Erik tried to say was wrong, but he almost didn’t want to say anything right, he wanted Charles to leave forever just as much as he wanted him to stay.

When Charles put his head on the stone in anger, the Green Man stirred and roared and Erik’s hand twitched toward the axe but stilled.

“Why did you even show me.” Charles was dead voiced and Erik struggled to keep from screaming.

“It wasn't me, I was going to do this hidden because this is too...because I didn't want to hurt you one last time. The belt shook me out of him. But it won’t ever happen again, you’ll be the last. Because you made me want to stop and you made it possible for me to try. With you...your eyes, you, I don’t know, I can keep it away.” He took a breath, he shuddered. “And this isn’t me asking you to fucking stay, to save the world or...or...this is me telling you that you’ve already done it. You can leave. I’m sorry.” For a long time Charles just stared. Then he nodded,

“What about Moira?”

“She’ll leave, I imagine. Or she’ll be able to.”

“Good.” There was another long silence and Charles stared at his shoes and Erik didn’t do anything at all. “How do I get out?”

“Just walk, it will...” Erik waved his hands vaguely in explanation.

“Oh.” Charles was thinking that he hadn’t got to this point yet. He didn’t know what to do. Leaving seemed quiet and done but it also seemed like the only way. Staying was impossible. But he stayed a beat too long and Erik got hopeful. He moved and his fingertips reached and curled at the cuff of Charles’ shirt and he pulled. Their mouths met clumsy and hot like always, but this time it was mutual, wanted by both of them. And even though Erik tasted like dirt and Charles tasted like fear, it was everything both of them wanted. Tongues and teeth and lips and something-like-love in their breath.

But Charles pulled away because he had worn the belt with hope in his mind and it had made him realise what he really truly forever-and-always wanted. Raven and the children and the family he hadn’t really had since his dad died. Their house and a school for all the troubled youths in the world to feel normal, or at least accepted. And the Green Man and Erik and Moira had all shocked him out of all of the indifference he’d had to life before, and they would always be those things, those life saving things, but he couldn’t be around them. For now at least, forever at least, Erik had ruined everything too much for that to even be a possibility.

So he turned and walked away at the end of it all, and Erik watched him go. Because both of them had things they needed to do and people they needed to see and both of them were still hurt and unable to be.

~~~

Eric went straight to Moira as Charles went straight to Raven. She was waiting for him of course, she’d felt the blow, a change of consciousness, a loss of weight. So she waited, perched on the edge of her bed in the room she’d destroyed with cigarette burns and torn nails and filth because she could and because perfection was too easy. She didn’t move when he entered the room, she just smiled.

“He fixed you, then?”

“Something like that.” Erik sat down next to his best friend, his oldest friend, his prisoner. “You’re finished here.”

“So this time when I run for the hills, your Green Man won’t be there like some big ol’ warden?” Moira often tried to leave only to reach the picket fence, the edge of the world, and have the Green Man scream her into unconsciousness. Neither of them had ever spoken about it because there wasn’t really anything to say. Moira would sleep for days afterwards and Erik would gouge holes in his palms with his fingernails and silence was probably the best medicine anyway.

“Exactly.”

“Well, as institutionalised as I am, that still sounds nice.”

“Will you visit me?”

“Not here, I won’t. Maybe I’ll come to your little store.” She laughed. “I imagine you’re looking for a new shop girl.”

“Funny, that.”

“You go through them at an alarming rate.” And Moira leant on her best friend, her oldest friend, her captor, completely unable to stop smiling. And Erik kissed her forehead and held her hand as they left the house to tear itself to pieces behind them.

~~~

Raven wasn’t waiting for Charles, no one was, but he hadn’t expected some sort of gleeful reunion. He didn’t mind, not really, he was just excited to see everyone again. Start this whole thing over, look after them even if they didn’t want it because they were still (just) teenagers and that was how it went. He went to her bedroom because it was still relatively early and actually they might all be feeling seedy from new years anyway. She was up like a shot as soon as he pushed at the door, looking half wild and scared and freezing entirely when she realised who it was.

“What the fuck are you doing here.” She hissed, sounding too scared to believe what she was seeing. He just shrugged awkwardly,

“Turns out everything is going to be fine.”

“Fine?” And her fear was gone, replaced by fury. She circled, hunched over bare limbs and cold eyes. Charles couldn’t help smiling, he had missed all of this, he’d missed just how angry she got at him all the time and just how much she threw herself into that role. “No, you’re not really allowed to be fine.”

“I suppose I’m not completely fine.” Charles said honestly. “In fact, I’ve been through something pretty fucking horrific, but it’s finished now, and I’ve come back, and we can start everything again. Where did you put your motorbike, it wasn’t on the step?”

“I gave it away.” Raven tipped her chin up defiantly and crossed her arms. “Told a kid from class that some asshole had given it to me and I didn’t want it.”

“That’s alright, I can get you another one.”

“Shut up, Charles.” Raven stepped forward finally, and maybe it was a trick of the light, but it seemed she was finally smiling.

“I’m sorry, Raven.”

“I know you are.”

“It was Erik.” Something moved in her face, sad and sorry and angry and vengeful.

“Of course it was.” She lowered her eyes. “You never were subtle about who you were falling in love with and he was always hiding something.”

Charles didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he shrugged and she nodded like that confirmed it and reached out to pull him into a hug.

Of all the children, Sean reacted the most. Alex just smirked and Hank looked at Raven, but Sean, he grinned from ear to ear and he tackled Charles to the floor in a limbs-everywhere hug and he made celebratory cookies iced with their names. No one asked Charles where he had been or why he was back, but he felt they needed something, there was expectation in the way their voices all turned up at the ends.

"I got in trouble and now I'm not in trouble." He offered and Alex ducked his head in acknowledgment,

"We get it." He said quietly, leaning into Sean who was nodding emphatically next to him.

"You just did it too late, man. You're being a troubled youth too late."

"You're probably more qualified to be our guardian now though." Hank's eyes were wide behind their glasses. "Um. Not that you weren't before, exactly..."

"Thanks."

And that was all they really needed. They fell back into everything-like-before only Raven watched Charles a little more closely now. He pretended he was fine and she pretended she was okay with that. But it was perfect, really, and it was exactly like he had wanted, a family all together again and Sean went to chef’s school and never brandished his too-sharp knives at anyone, and Alex painted stories and silently put everything in order and Hank and Raven ruled university together and everything was all okay. Charles had nightmares, of course, and he woke up screaming and he would sometimes tremble like he couldn’t stop and no one else saw a trigger but Charles saw Erik’s smile in every blade of grass.

New children came to stay. A valley-speak girl named Jubilation who wore all her accessories at once and yellow leather and was something of a pyromaniac. A tiny dancing klepto who was almost as much of a genius as Hank was and who could dismantle planes if you asked her too. And Piotr from Russia with hands like hammers who was so huge and so stoic that no one really knew what to do with him except for Kitty, their klepto, who charmed him rather thoroughly. And the mansion was loud and full of life and it felt like everything it had been before when Charles’ father had run it.

Then one day, several months after all of everything, Moira showed up. Kitty answered the door and she was cheerful and ignorant and led Moira to Charles’ study where he spilled coffee down his front and she grinned. Kitty fled.

"He let you go then." Charles managed to speak indifferent and amused with stains all over his sweater.

"He wasn't keeping me." Moira pointed out. She sprawled luxuriously across the couch, but her fingers moved constantly, tugging at loose threads, scratching at the smooth, straight weave. Maybe she would always strive for chaos, after so much perfection. But she looked better, relaxed and tired and happy, and maybe it didn’t matter that she would always have bleeding cuticles and busy fingers that destroyed furniture. It suited her far more than circle skirts and robotics had.

"What do you do then?"

"Nothing. I'm his shop girl now, but he gets annoyed because I won't wear skirts and apparently that's important." Moira wouldn't ever wear a skirt again. Or tights. Or anything floral.

"I never wore skirts." Charles allowed himself to joke and she grinned with all her teeth and he thought of Erik.

"I'm terrible at it, you know, I'm mean to the customers because they think they can talk to me like..." she shrugged and her hands made a complicated gesture that made Charles think of ballerinas. Somehow it made perfect sense. "...and I refuse to read that stupid book so I'm always annoying Erik with questions about fucking...cuckoo clocks."

"It must be hard for him." Charles raised an eyebrow and Moira shifted uncomfortably.

"I'm thinking of quitting, actually."

"He never could keep a shop girl for long."

"You were the longest." Silence stretched and Charles wasn't about to offer his services. If it hadn't been obvious why Moira was here before, it was now. "You should think about coming back." And she finally said it and Charles smiled a little bit and felt sick a little bit and mostly just shrugged.

"I don't think so."

"But you obviously want to."

"You've been misinformed."

"But he needs you."

"That's nice." Charles was being as mild as he could because he was done giving up emotion for Erik. It didn't get him anywhere and he was over it now anyway, no matter what Raven said. Even if he still had nightmares and was constantly remembering every small thing Erik ever did; smells, touches, gestures.

"You're being stupid."

"He's being sensible." And all of a sudden Raven was there, glaring at Moira with all of her strength, head tilted up, brave and defending Charles' honour. Moira didn't move, Charles blinked. "Erik was a constant pain in our...collective ass, and Charles is five hundred times better off without him." And she was so convincing that Charles almost believed her. But he knew what Raven really thought, that Erik had given Charles some life, that he was better now but Erik would make him best. Whatever Erik did, I'm sure he's sorry about it, she would say things like that when she was feeling reckless and when she could tell Charles could take it.

“You must be Raven.” Moira said quietly, narrowing her eyes slightly at the younger girl. “And you don’t really know what you’re talking about.”

Excuse me?” Raven drew herself up to her full height, bearing down on Moira like a hurricane.

“Don’t hurt yourself, you know nothing about the situation.”

“Moira, stop it.” Charles said quietly, trying to defuse it all before Raven got violent. Moira sighed, shrugged and got to her feet. She turned to Raven who looked like she couldn’t decide whether to lunge, swinging fists, or run away.

“I know that you want him to have a happy ending as much as I want Erik to.” Moira said quietly, and with a brief nod to Charles, she left.

“You should probably go, you know.” Raven said, as soon as she was sure Moira had gone. “See Erik, I mean.”

“Is that so.”

“Don’t be such a goddamn martyr.” She perched herself on the arm of his chair. “I mean, it’s not like anyone’s going to force you to work for him again. You’re not agreeing to anything by visiting him once. You’re not forgiving him.”

“No. I’m not.” And his tone of voice was final and Raven huffed and rolled her eyes and stalked away to torture Hank.

Several days later, when Charles was mostly sure that Raven wouldn’t be smug (she would always be smug), he left the house. Walking there was strange, it had the same unreal feel to it that walking into the wilds had, like stepping through a dream, no gravity. It made it easier to pretend he wasn’t doing it and it made it easier to stop thinking. His mind rolled over and over like a dying car, guttering out and starting again and never quite finishing and it was better because if he got to the end of the question, if he answered what am I doing? he would turn back immediately. So the question stopped at what and he walked.

Saint Expedite looked exactly the same, ramshackle and perilous, and Charles was able to easily shuffle between shelves out of sight. It was stupid and childish, hiding like that, but Charles didn’t care until he realised it was only Moira at the counter. He sidestepped into sight and her wink told him she’d known he was there the whole time.

“Charles, there’s someone I think you should meet.” She spoke a little too loud and a little too forceful and Charles bit his tongue when he heard crashing coming from the back room, then dry-floor and panicked footsteps. Erik came skidding into view a moment later and Moira laughed.

“Erik, this is Charles, I told you about him.”

“Yes, uh...yeah.” But Erik wasn't really paying attention, he was busy fumbling with the locks on the cage.

“It’s nice to meet you.” Charles said quietly, holding out a hand as Erik burst through the door. Erik slowed and circled and grasped his hand so tight and shook it so vigorously Charles thought he might feel it for days. He would. He would feel that touch always.

“Yes.” Erik confirmed and his eyes never left Charles’ face.

It wasn’t ideal, and it wasn’t permanent. Pretending that everything was new couldn't be sustainable. Eventually everything would burst forth and there would be ugly scenes and screaming fights that Raven or Moira would probably break up. Erik would apologize and Charles would ignore him. And maybe one day they would talk everything out and be so drained of it that they would have nothing left. It didn’t matter though, because they were doing friends first. They were testing the water and they were breaking the ice and everyone was just hoping it would work.