The alarm blares and the lights flash merrily, while Azazel drops the receiver, picks up the red marker and walks up to the wall. “Let’s see,” he says, flipping through the calendar. “We are now in April, which makes it three months and four days since the beginning of the year, which ups our average to,” he holds his left hand to his face and ticks off what looks like random numbers, “oh-point-eighty-six visits per week this year.”
Erik stares, letting the boot fall to the floor. “That was the uni? Again?”
“Pick that up, there’s an actual fire this time. I got a pinkie promise.”
That, right there, is the most apt summary of the fire department’s relationship with the local university. A pinkie promise that there is a fire, Erik thinks, getting into the fire engine. And these are the leaders of tomorrow.
“What the fuck have they done to get a fire?” he yells over the siren.
“Ah, intelligentsia,” Azazel tells him philosophically, waving his permanently sunburned hand in front of Erik’s face. “To you and I the stove is a tool to heat our food, to them it’s a well of possibility.”
“The possibility of setting themselves on fire all the bloody time!”
Erik’s ire is justified. This is, after all, the twelth time they were called to the campus this year, discounting the seven million times they were called to confirm that yes, the fire alarm in the dorms has been set off at three a.m. for no apparent reason. Erik hates college kids. A brood of lousy geniuses, too dumb to figure out simple instructions. Don’t leave plastic kettles on the stove, lest they burn. Don’t smoke in your rooms, lest the blaring of the alarm wakes everyone else. Don’t stick forks in the sockets, lest you die a smokey death. Don’t pour a bucket of salty water onto the floor, after plugging in your vacuum cleaner, lest you end up dying in the middle of annual cleaning. These morons don’t even have the dignity to get a decent fire going! It’s almost like Charles Darwin has been reincarnated as the god of drunken sex, whom all the stoned younglings are courting like it’s their job.
No joke, the last time Erik was forced to attend to a campus emergency it was to get a cat out of the tree. He’d come anyway, because it was his goddamned job, but he wasn’t happy about it. Then it turned out the inhabitants of the Salem’s Drive dorm have already mounted a rescue mission, gave the cat a soul-searching pep-talk and gave it the confidence to access its inner squirrel, which was why, when Erik got there, the infernal creature was purring into his owner’s substantial bosom. Erik was awarded the dubious honour of having to escort the stoned, red-headed catotherapist off the tree.
He had Azazel and Janos set up the landing mat, clambered up the tree and pushed the kid off. He regretted nothing.
The fire truck stops, hopefully running over a pedestrian, and Erik hauls himself out of his seat with a long sigh.
His mood improves considerably the moment he takes stock of the situation. There is smoke coming out of the tall windows, thick and dark, and if he strains his eyes he can make out the glow of flames behind it. At least something interesting is going on, he thinks happily, grinning at the terrified students.
“I see you managed a proper fire this time. Congratulations,” he tells Dr McCoy, a chemical prodigy and a pain in his arse. The kid – no way in hell is that guy a day over twenty – is clutching a young woman by the elbow, hard enough to leave bruises. They are both very pale, and just as Erik begins to have a bad feeling about this, the woman turns to face him.
“Shut it,” she hisses. Her eyes are frantic and wide, her hands are shivering even when she curls her fingers into fists. Erik notes that her nails are filed short and unpainted, but her hair is golden and precariously styled. “You just shut the fuck up and do your goddamned job!”
The tag on her lab coat identifies her as R. Darkholme of the chemistry department. Erik has things to say about working with McCoy and cultivating long, lustrous hair, but he refrains. “Calm down, ma’am. Were you in charge of the evacuation?”
“No, that would be my brother, Dr Xavier. He hasn’t come out yet.” Her breath hitches and, for once, Erik shoves his favourite persona into the closet and locks the door.
“When and where did you last see him?” he asks.
R. Darkholme composes herself and stands up straight. “Fifteen minutes ago. He was in the main laboratory. We all were. Charles stayed behind to make sure—to make sure everyone was out.”
McCoy wraps a hand around her shoulders. Now that Erik looks closer he sees that the edge of her labcoat has been singed, and that her eyes are bloodshot and wet, and her makeup is smudged not only around the edges, but the middle, too. Her breath, now that he thinks of it, sounds distinctly uncomfortable, as it hitches, as though her lungs are playing with a yoyo. McCoy doesn’t really look any better.
“Call an ambulance,” he tells them gruffly. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Because his life is just that complicated, something inside the building explodes, taking out the couple of tall windows on their side of the wall. It mostly collapses downward, being a kind, considerate glass pane, deliberately not spraying the audience with razor-sharp debris. “Oh no,” he says, when half the students on the lawn start shrieking and picking pieces of glass off their persons, handling the square shards like poisonous insects. “Paper cuts on campus, call five ambulances.”
Darkholme looks ready to scratch his eyes out, but Erik is not worried – he has the helmet and visor to protect his face. She coughs and begins a speech comprised in 74% of invectives, which is very impressive for an egghead. Erik waves at her cheerfully and makes for the main door.
The hall is short. Naturally, the explosion occurred in the lab nearest the door, blowing out a thin cabinet across the corridor’s width. Of course, Erik tells himself, taking great care to step on a small, plastic vial labelled as HEPES, 0.02 M, which rolls out of the broken cupboard. That’s what you get for storing shit by the door. A cursory sweep of the room reveals no hapless scientist, and very little in the way of fire. Curious, as it was definitely this room that the smoke was coming out of.
“How’s the search going?” Azazel asks him through the open window, brandishing the nozzle threateningly. Disappointment colours his red face when he finds nothing on which to unleash the hose.
“Put that down before you hurt yourself.” Erik looks around once more, just in case, but there is no fallen scientist to pick off the floor.
“This lab is safe for putting out with water. Dr McCoy says so.”
“McCoy also says he knows how to handle flammable materials.”
“Fair point.” Azazel is still grinning, but the nozzle disappears from view. “What, I see you had a go already?”
Erik raises a brow. There is foam on the floor and the tiled table, likely where the fire originated. Someone has put out the origin point of the fire. Must have been the janitor, he thinks. If it was one of the students, he will have lost a tenner.
If it was McCoy, he will have lost a fifty.
“Deal with this,” he tells the window and his grinning subordinate. “I’m gonna go and see if the lady needs smelling salts.”
“Aye, aye, mon capitan!” Azazel grins and Erik makes a mental note about the need to have a talk about smiling in public places. Erik’s own smile frightens children; Azazel’s makes priests claw their crucifixes. If they smiled together, they could cause riots in a nunnery. Erik is looking forward to riots in the nunnery.
The fire situation looks benign, at worst, so he ambles through the corridor unhurriedly. “Dr Xavier!” he calls, because if the fucking moron is unconscious and he has to carry him out, he will be very cross.
Fortunately, three empty labs later, he gets a response. “In here!” someone yells and he doesn’t sound faint.
Erik flips the visor of his helmet up and enters. “Dr Xavier, I presume,” he starts saying, but the words die on his tongue.
“Oh, good morning!” Xavier smiles at him and turns a page of a glossy magazine he’s got spread on his knees. “Can I offer you some tea?”
“The building is on fire.”
Xavier frowns. “Is it still? I was rather certain it was done being on fire.”
Erik’s gaze travels, quite unbidden, from the man’s honestly upset face, his blue eyes and the cupid’s bow crowning his red lips, down his grey cardigan and white lab coat, onto his knees, shiny shoes and footrests. From there his gaze slides onto the shiny wheels, where wisps of foam still cling to the spokes, up the backrest and to the man’s shoulders and neck.
As far as Erik remembers this building has only one wheelchair accessible exit and that’s the one where he entered. “Congratulations on fucking up and turning your back on your only escape route,” he says. “Or are you in training for the obstacle course on the wheelchair Olympics?”
“In my defence I didn’t know they were storing that particular bottle near the fire source or I would have started putting out the fire sooner.” Xavier shrugs and turns a page. “Nevertheless, it should have long since burned out, and I was nowhere near the explosion. I do apologise for the inconvenience,” he adds as an afterthought. “I really did mean to get right out, except it seemed more sensible to put walls between myself and the explosion, and anyway, I rather think Hank could use a good scare.” Xavier looks straight at Erik and offers a small smile. “The man takes preposterous risks when it comes to safety – or sanity – in the lab. I lost count of the times he set himself on fire in the course of testing his invention.” He shakes his head and sighs. “Much as it pains me to lie, of course, I must ask you to tell him I needed urgent rescuing. Unless you have ideas for shock therapy?”
Whatever exploded in the lab was barely strong enough to flip the door open. There was no was it managed to shove a forty-pound cabinet through the door, even if McCoy was stupid enough to store it right on the doorstep, unless it had substantial amounts of help, and, just like that, Erik is in love. “My name is Erik Lehnsherr. Hello. I love you,” he says. “Please marry me.”
Xavier discards the magazine and stares at him thoughtfully. Slowly the corners of his mouth travel upwards and curl, setting Erik’s twisted heart aflutter. The dark corners of his soul whisper to him, sending powerful command to kneel and ask for bidding, while breathing heavily through his helmet. There may even be a cape in the picture.
Xavier’s smile reaches imperial proportions. “In that case we shouldn’t waste time,” he says and wheels himself out of the room and into the corridor with no apparent effort, rolling around Erik in a tight half-circle. Erik follows, humming dramatic tunes in his head, until they are standing by the fallen cabinet, which is when Xavier looks up at him. The smile that curls his red mouth is rather soft and very, very inviting. “My name is Charles,” he says. Then he looks down at the offending piece of furniture and back at Erik. “I am feeling a little faint, so if you don’t mind skipping the formalities of weddings right down to carrying me over the threshold…?”
Erik takes a moment to force the laughter down his throat and tie it down to a heavy chair. After he’s sure he’s got it whipped and under control, he slides an arm under Charles’ knees, the other around his waist, while Charles wraps both of his around his neck. Erik lifts Charles out of the wheelchair and steps over the cabinet.
“I take it you have the saving of damsels covered?” Azazel asks, appearing suddenly in the door to the lab. “Score for you, mon capitan.”
“Curse be upon this door,” Charles says calmly, reaches out and slams the side of his fist into the doorframe, sending a tiny cloud of powdered drywall spiralling onto Azazel’s helmet, settling on his upturned visor.
Azazel looks at Erik and gives him the thumbs-up. He has always been quick on the uptake, so when Erik nods at the cabinet across the corridor he merely salutes and Erik walks out of the building, carrying Charles in his arms.
Both PhDs freak the fuck out. That is no exaggeration: Darkholme wails and clutches Charles’ limp hand, McCoy panics and runs in a circle (Erik notes that most of the students look genuinely upset at the sight) while the paramedics descend. Erik, wisely, disappears before either of the PhDs can start wiping their running noses on his shoulder – hugging is not really his thing – and shares the whole story with Azazel on the way back to the station.
He goes back to the university in civilian clothing precisely a week later, having located Dr Xavier in the biology department via the ever helpful Google search engine. He knocks on the office door, right below the humorous cartoon depicting the Gnome Project, enters and receives the front seats to the sight of Charles’ face breaking out in the widest smile possible, which is nonetheless obscured by bouquets of get-well flowers. Then they laugh for fifteen minutes straight. By the time they are done Erik’s head is propped on the wheelchair’s armrest and Charles’ forehead is hitting the wooden surface of his desk repeatedly.
“I needed that,” Charles says, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. He is staring at Erik, his pink cheek is resting on the edge of the desk, and the shimmering, wet blue of his eyes is impossibly warm. “You know, I know more people who need a fire safety drill.”
Erik raises a brow. “You should have said so earlier. I didn’t bring any protective gear.”
The conversation requires another quarter of an hour to resume, by which time Erik is wheezing weekly, half-sprawled on the floor, with his head propped on Charles’ knee and Charles’ hand in his hair.
Because the porn industry is clearly on to something, when they stumble into bed one hour and twenty-three minutes later, Erik is wearing his old helmet and Charles is swooning helplessly in his arms, delirious from the inhaled smoke and debauched by the rescue attempt. When they stumble to the altar, three hundred and sixty-five days later, Erik is still wearing his uniform, although this time it’s the dress edition, with shiny buttons and a cap.
As a wedding gift to Charles, Erik borrows the fire engine for the drive to the airport. It's a resounding success.