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Lehnsherr never talks about himself, which is weird.

It wouldn't have been weird at the last couple places Alex worked--he's found that science nerds tend to fall into one of two camps: super chatty about their weird shared interests or anti-social to the point where you can hear a pin drop in their work spaces. Alex was stuck in the second type of office for a few years and if he met Lehnsherr there, it would have been par for the course. This place is different, though. Their survey department is small, just Alex and Darwin and Sean, with Lehnsherr in the lead, but everyone's pretty chatty. Sean plays different kinds of music on and off throughout the day, talking about bands as he works and Darwin tells them about all the weird jobs he's had to work to make his way through school. That's what gets Alex to open up, really--Darwin's totally cool and he doesn't judge, and he assures Alex that Sean won't either, so one night after work Alex tells them the whole deal: the crash, the group home, the foster families, juvie, and pulling himself out of it all when it looked like Scott was on the verge of following his example.

It's nice, really, to be open with these people. To talk and to have friends. To spend all day doing something he's weirdly good at while talking to people he actually likes.

And then there's Lehnsherr.

Lehnsherr has an office, the door to which is in the corner of their shared workspace. He sits there all day with the door closed and the blinds drawn on his tiny window. He doesn't complain about the music or the talking, but they're all quiet when he comes in, anyway, like they've been doing something wrong and they're afraid of being caught. He'll wander out a few times a day looking at plans or predictions or reports, usually so he can shout at them for being wrong. Once they look suitably chastened or Darwin promises they'll fix whatever he has a problem with, he disappears back into his office.

He never comes out for drinks with them. He never comes to department parties. He doesn't look much older than Alex's twenty-five years--he's maybe in his early thirties. Alex has a working theory that he actually lives in the office, a robot that the janitors boot up every morning before they arrive. When he first tells the guys on one of their nights out, it makes Sean nearly shoot beer out of his nose and even Darwin laughs, shaking his head and dropping his arm across the booth behind Alex's shoulders.

(Darwin also made it clear pretty early on that he was gay, which actually made it harder for Alex to tell that part of his own story without stuttering. Alex doesn't normally blush, but sometimes when he's around Darwin, he feels like he's going to anyway.)

"He wears a ring," Darwin points out. "That means he's probably got at least one person waiting for him at home."

"Lots of people wear rings," Sean says. "Maybe he just wears it to keep people from hitting on him or something."

"Maybe his creator put it on there to make him seem more likeable," Alex suggests, and then they're all laughing again.

Still, robotic tendencies and anti-social nature aside, Lehnsherr's not bad as bosses go. He mostly communicates via sharp remarks, but that's because he really only communicates when something's wrong and the rest of the time he lets them do their damn jobs, which Alex appreciates. He's generally hands-off, though every once in awhile he'll spend a few weeks on end being extra snippy, critiquing their grammar in reports or fighting with them over font choices in presentations. It's sharp but not malicious, and weirdly doesn't even seem to be directed at them, but rather a frustration with the universe in general. Alex can let that slide--everyone has shit going on in their lives. When Scotty has trouble in school, Alex can be an asshole, too, and Sean bitched non-stop for a week when his band lost some audition they were gearing up for. Shit happens, and it's not Alex's place to tell Lehnsherr to stop muttering to himself just because his batteries didn't get fully recharged over the weekend or something. Lehnsherr keeps his shit to himself. That's his prerogative.

So it's weird, actually, the day he wanders in during the middle of one of Sean's lengthy odes to the groupie of the week.

"I just, you know, I feel it," he's saying, spinning around in his chair while Alex and Darwin shoot each other knowing smiles from their stations. "In my heart. I feel those feelings that you feel when you--"

"Feel it?" Darwin suggests innocently and Alex tries not to laugh.

"It's love, guys," Sean says, in reference to maybe the fifteenth girl he's dated since Alex started working here.

Lehnsherr, on his way to the color printer in the back corner of the main workspace, makes a pretty condescending noise.

Sean quiets. Darwin sits up a little straighter. It's possible that the noise is in reaction to Sean's whining in general, but this is the third time Lehnsherr's darted out of his office to pick something up from the printer and it's the first time he's reacted to Sean at all, and the dude's certainly been bitching all morning.

Darwin looks at Alex, eyebrows raised, in a way that Alex instinctively knows means, "Should I go for it?"

Alex just widens his eyes, but Darwin soldiers on anyway. Darwin's a hell of a lot braver than Alex is.

"Sorry, Lehnsherr, I didn't catch that," Darwin says.

"Cassidy, calling your latest fling 'love' is insulting to anyone who's ever been in a relationship for more than a week," Lehnsherr says, not looking up from his papers. He glares at something on the top sheet, and pulls a pen out of his pocket to scratch it out, then turns and heads back towards his office.

Because Darwin's a fucking masochist, he follows it up with, "You're married, right?"

Lehnsherr freezes. He frowns and looks up from his papers and over at the three of them.

"Yes," he says. He starts to step forward and then hesitates. "He was my--we've known each other since we were children."

"High school sweethearts?" Darwin asks and, dear god, he's going to be murdered by Lehnsherr, but inexplicably, Lehnsherr just sort of nods.

"Something like that," he says, then shakes his head to himself and returns to his office. Alex attributes Darwin's survival to the fact that he threw Lehnsherr off-guard.

"You won't be so lucky, next time," he tells Darwin as they sit at the bar across the street from the lab later that night. Sean's off with the girl of the week, and it's just the two of them.

Darwin laughs and rests his hand on the back of Alex's chair.

"I don't know," he says. "I think I'm pretty lucky."

Alex doesn't quite know what to say to that, so he drinks his beer steadily until Darwin changes the subject.

Alex really isn't that nosey and he doesn't really care but it's just so weird. He knows that Lehnsherr doesn't owe them anything, but in a world where most people are Facebook friends with their bosses, it seems odd to him that they don't even know Lehnsherr's husband's name, that they didn't even know he was gay.

"Are you gonna ask him?" Sean asks one day when Lehnsherr's in a meeting with one of the big bosses. Sean's tossing a tennis ball against the wall and catching it while some local band blasts from his computer's speakers. There's not much to do until Lehnsherr comes back from his meeting and tells them what their new project is going to be, and Alex is tired of coming up with new and interesting ways to advertise his piece of shit car on Craigslist. Somehow, the topic has circled back around to Lehnsherr. "I'm not gonna ask him. I mean, I want to know because gossip's a hot commodity around here and that chick who works in reception would probably agree to a date in exchange for something that juicy, but I'm not gonna ask him."

"Maybe we don't have to," Darwin says, and swivels back to his computer, pulling up Facebook and throwing Lehnsherr's name into the search bar.

Alex wants to smack himself. With the amount of time Scotty spends playing around on Facebook, he should have thought of this weeks ago.

It's all for naught, however--the only profile comes up locked. There's not even a userpic.

"Well, that's a bust," Darwin sighs, pushing himself away from his keyboard. Alex is inspired, though, and types Lehnsherr's name into Google.

"Maybe he's one of those anti-Facebook hipsters," Alex says. "Maybe he has a Twitter or something instead."

That doesn't seem to be the case, though. The first thing that comes up is their department's website, then a site for his thesis project at MIT, and then the sort of gibberish that comes up when Google's really desperate but nothing is sticking. No Twitter, no LinkedIn, no secret blog, not even those annoying White Pages results.

"Or maybe not," he says with a sigh. He closes his browser with perfect timing--Lehnsherr strides into the room, back from his meeting, face impassive and pace brisk.

"I'll email you your new assignments, since it looks like you need something to do," he says as he heads for his office. Alex sighs, but it's mostly for show--it'll be nice to have something to work on so they don't have to resort to gossiping about their boss.

(It's not that they do this frequently, even--it's just that Darwin's only got so many stories, and even Sean sometimes gets tired of listening to his own voice, and there are only so many updates Alex can give about Scott's schoolwork and his fruitless search to sell his car. There are a finite number of things the three of them have in common and Lehnsherr is one of them. He's bound to come up with some frequency.)

They dive into the new project that afternoon, and it's enough to keep them moving almost non-stop for two weeks. The deadline's closer than usual and there's a lot more background research than they normally have to do before they prepare to go out to survey. It doesn't help that there's a bug going around the building and Alex lives in constant fear that he's going to get it and bring it home to Scotty and get him sick for finals week.

Alex isn't the one who ends up sick, however; it's Lehnsherr.

Sick Lehnsherr isn't really that different from normal Lehnsherr, at first. He's still curt and mostly invisible, except they can hear the occasional cough coming from his office. The coughing doesn't go away, though, even when Lehnsherr takes Friday off to recuperate. If anything, he's coughing more when he comes back on Monday morning and he's crankier than usual. He looks terrible--Alex wonders if he slept at all the whole weekend. His skin manages to be simultaneously pale and greenish and he starts having trouble concentrating on anything he's handed for more than a second.

"Sorry," he croaks, shaking his head, when Alex hands him an updated timetable. "Sorry. Let me...look at this and get back to you."

He disappears back into his office, but all they hear for the next three minutes is non-stop coughing. Alex times it.

By the time week two of Lehnsherr's death plague is behind them, Alex is starting to get seriously worried. It's not like he doesn't trust the guy to take care of himself, but he's basically a walking biohazard at this point. He's going to infect them all any day now, and he won't take another fucking day off, even though he's getting progressively worse.

"Do we talk to him?" Alex asks Darwin to the soundtrack of coughing and wheezing drifting out of the closed office.

"We've gotta get him the hell out of here," Sean says. "I do not want to star in a recreation of 28 Days Later. Even if that girl was super hot."

Fate takes the decision out of their hands, however. Just as they're about to rock-paper-scissor for the privilege of telling Lehnsherr he's a danger to himself and others, the door to the lab swings open.

The three of them freeze. No one comes to visit them. The three of them hardly know anyone else and even Lehnsherr's supervisors never bother visiting the lab in person.

That's the first freaky thing. The second, potentially more freaky thing, is that the person standing in the doorway is Charles fucking Xavier.

Alex isn't one of those fame-obsessed weirdos who memorizes everything about the lives of every starlet in Hollywood. He could probably only name half of the people in the cast of any given blockbuster that's currently in theatres. But Alex fucking watched Denny's Place when he was shuffling around foster homes, just like every other kid his age, and he can fucking recognize the kid who played Denny fucking Holmes.

So, it seems, can Sean and Darwin.

"Holy shit," Sean says softly. His mouth is hanging open. Alex thinks his is, too. He resists the urge to grab his phone and call Scotty, mostly because he's above that sort of shit, but also because he doesn't think he can snap out of it long enough to remember how phones work.

Denny's Place was basically the pop-cultural icon of his generation. Denny Holmes was supposed to be thirteen when the show started, though it somehow went on for eight years before he graduated high school. He was a smart kid who had a special power--he could read minds. He used his power to seek out other kids with weird abilities and they formed a sort of neighborhood club hanging out at Denny's house under the watchful eye of the robot butler his genius parents built to raise him before they disappeared under mysterious circumstances. It was about growing up and being different and also about fighting off evil aliens, which was pretty cool. Most importantly to little Alex, one of Denny's friends came out as gay in the second to last season. For Alex, who was struggling enough with his life without the added weirdness of not getting anything from sticking his hand up Alice Martinez's shirt, it was comforting to turn on the television and see someone he could relate to.

He and Scotty watched the show all the time until it went off the air and then they watched it in reruns. It was something just for them, something they had even when they had trouble talking to each other. Charles Xavier--who, okay, was pretty cute and maybe Alex had a few fantasies about growing up--did a few movies, post-Denny, and some guest spots on television shows and then put acting aside to go to school. He has a fucking PhD or something, now, but he's just started acting again and, okay, maybe Alex knows an embarrassing amount about this guy and maybe he's seen all four of the stupid indie movies he's done since, including the one last spring that got him nominated for a bunch of awards and, fuck, he's still just sitting staring at the dude, isn't he?

"I'm going to kill you!" Charles Xavier snaps. He still has the British accent that featured in several of Alex's pre-pubescent dreams. It takes him a moment to realize that Charles fucking Xavier is threatening murder. It takes him another moment to see that he's staring at the closed office door.

There's another coughing fit from inside and Charles throws his hands up in frustration and marches across the lab.

The door opens right before he has a chance to do it himself. Lehnsherr looks wiped.

"You're supposed to be in London," Lehnsherr wheezes.

"Yes, well, Raven told me that you've contracted consumption and I sweet-talked my way into a break," Charles says. "My god, you look awful!"

He brushes the hair off of Lehnsherr's clammy forehead and presses his palm there. He whimpers, probably because Lehnsherr's running a high enough fever to kill everyone in a fifty foot radius, and looks like he's going to cry.

"Erik," he says. "Are you alright? Have you been to the doctor? You're burning up! Why the bloody hell are you at work in the first place? I can't leave you alone for two weeks without you coming down with Captain Tripps?"

Lehnsherr coughs in response and Charles whimpers again and oh god, Lehnsherr is married to Charles fucking Xavier.

"'m fine," Lehnsherr mutters, even as he wraps his arms around Charles fucking Xavier and flops forward, leaning over to rest his head on Charles' shoulder. "I can't believe you made a Stephen King reference."

"Oh, shut it," Charles murmurs, petting Lehnsherr's hair. "You love my idiotic pop culture references. Bloody hell, you're disgusting. How have you even managed to get out of bed every morning?"

"Perseverance," Lehnsherr mutters. "You didn't need to come home."

"Of course I needed to come home," Charles says. "Who else is going to take care of you, hm?"

Alex knows he shouldn't still be staring--this is very obviously a private moment. Charles is holding Lehnsherr's face between his hands, gently stroking from his hairline to his chin and Lehnsherr looks almost embarrassingly tender. But, for fuck's sake, his boss is married to his childhood crush. The world has stopped making sense entirely.

"No wonder you were avoiding my calls," Charles says. "I thought you were mad at me."

Lehnsherr opens his mouth to reply and starts coughing again. He winces and can't seem to stop. Charles looks stricken.

"You idiot," he says, rubbing Lehnsherr's back. His voice wobbles. "You great--idiot, we're going home, I'm taking you home. Where are your keys?"

"Took the T," Lehnsherr manages to say when he stops coughing.

"You subjected the general public to this?" Charles says. "Erik."

"Couldn't drive," Lehnsherr mutters, and Charles gets that mother hen panicked expression again and gathers Lehnsherr against his chest.

"I'm here, darling," he says. "We're going home." He urges Lehnsherr forward on shaky legs, out of the doorway of the office and into--oh yeah, the workspace where all three of them are still staring. Charles smiles at them. It's tired and strained, but it still seems genuine.

"I'm so sorry to bother you," he says. "It's dreadfully rude of me to barge in without so much as introducing myself, I know, but I think you can appreciate the immediacy of my problem." Lehnsherr coughs again, his lungs wheezing even in the aftermath. Charles looks at him and frowns, his brow creasing, before he turns back to Alex, Sean, and Darwin. "I'm Erik's husband, Charles." It's nice to have permission to call him by his first name, like Alex's has been doing for about fifteen years. "I know you must be Armando, Sean, and Alex, but I'm afraid I'm not sure which of you is which and on top of that, I have to ask a favor."

"Sure," Darwin says quickly. "I mean, whatever you need. Lehnsherr's been pretty bad for a few weeks now--we're happy to help however we can. I'm Armando, by the way. That's Alex and Sean."

"Lovely to meet you all," Charles says. "And I just--well, do any of you happen to drive? I took a cab over from the airport and I don't know that I can get Erik all the way to the corner to wait for another."

Sean bikes to work and Darwin's a public transit guy, so both their gazes turn to Alex. He clears his throat, praying he can find his voice and says, "I've got a car. I can take you."

He doesn't think he's ever been so grateful for that piece of shit as he is when Charles Xavier smiles at him and says, emphatically, "Oh, thank you, Alex. Truly. If I could ask one more favor?"

"Sure," Alex says. He's proud of how steady his voice is.

"Could you pop in and get Erik's coat and bag?" He bites his lip and looks utterly miserable at even having to ask. Alex is remembering pretty clearly why he had such an unwieldy crush on this guy for so long.

"Of course," Alex says. "Let me just--"

He walks halfway towards the office before he realizes he's still clutching the report he had been holding when Charles burst in. It's wrinkled beyond reading now and he feels his ears heat up as he drops it on his desk and then rushes back to Lehnsherr's office.

In all the time he's been working here, he's never actually been inside. He was interviewed in a downstairs conference room and Lehnsherr never pulls them aside to say anything he can't say in front of the other two as well. It's a shame, though. If even one of them had been inside, it would have answered a lot of questions about Lehnsherr months ago.

His desk is pin neat, as are his bookshelves, but there are ultra-modern steel picture frames on every flat surface and every frame contains the same smiling faces staring back at him.

Smiling. In his eighteen months here, he's never seen Lehnsherr smile. He didn't think the man was even capable of it. The evidence is right here, though, clustered on the desk and bookshelves. Lehnsherr and Charles at a ski lodge, Lehnsherr and Charles on a dock overlooking a lake, Lehnsherr and Charles pressed close together in an obvious self-portrait, Lehnsherr and Charles in crisp suits on what must be their wedding day. There's an entire fucking lifetime of happy couple photos that seem so disparate from the man Alex knows that he wonders, briefly, if he's not the sick one, stuck in some sort of plague-induced hallucination. There's Lehnsherr mid-laugh, his arms around a graduation-gown bedecked Charles, lifting him off the ground in his joy.

Joy. Lehnsherr has, in his life, experienced joy. Jesus christ.

He realizes, suddenly, that Lehnsherr and Charles are probably waiting for him. He quickly grabs Lehnsherr's bag and coat and then scoops up the iPhone on the desk. When he accidentally hits the home button, there's Charles, smiling up at him and cuddling a cat.

He walks quickly into the other room, shoving the phone in Lehnsherr's bag and feeling torn between laughing and shrieking at the bizarro world he's stepped into where his grouchy, laconic boss is playing happy families with the man he lusted after as a teenager.

Charles has to prop Lehnsherr up all the way down to the alley where Alex has parked his car. He keeps up an ongoing dialogue the whole time, chastising Lehnsherr for not taking better care of himself, for not taking his calls, for endangering Sean and Darwin and Alex by possibly infecting them with his bug. The litany is interspersed with quiet fretting and Charles taking multiple breaks to steady Lehnsherr on his feet and stroke his cheek, looking miserable the entire time.

"I shouldn't have left," he murmurs as he settles Lehnsherr into the back seat and then slides in after him, allowing Lehnsherr to pillow his head on Charles' lap. "I knew you had a cold. I should have stayed here. I don't know why I bother with this."

Alex tries to blend into the background as best he can, but it's not easy in his piece of shit car that sounds like it's halfway to exploding when the engine turns over. He steals a quick glance in the rearview mirror, wincing, as it starts, but Charles is brushing Lehnsherr's hair back and doesn't seem to notice the noise.

"Because you love it," Lehnsherr rasps. "I couldn't stop you if I wanted."

"I don't love it as much as I love you, you ass," Charles murmurs, not without affection, and this is just...weird. It's getting weird. It's been weird since the moment Charles fucking Xavier burst into their office.

"Uh," Alex says. "Where am I--?"

"Oh, dear, I'm sorry," Charles says quickly. "Beacon Hill."

Alex doesn't raise his eyebrows in shock, but it's a near thing. He doesn't know why he's surprised. Of course they live in the most exclusive old money neighborhood in the city, one that even Alex, as a relative newcomer, knows by name.

"Sure thing," Alex says. "That's like, back behind the common? Uh, I'm not from here."

"I'm really just--I'm terribly sorry, you must be getting an awful impression of me. I swear I'm normally very polite and charming when I'm not quite so worried about my husband."

"I'm fine," Lehnsherr tries to say, but his words are muffled where his face is pressed against Charles' jacket.

"Be quiet," Charles says. "I'm very angry with you and I'm planning to shout quite a lot once I'm certain you're not dying."

Lehnsherr grunts and mumbles something that Alex can't hear. Whatever it is has Charles making a noise that's halfway between a laugh and a sigh.

"I do apologize, Alex," he says again. "Follow the Red Line over the Longfellow Bridge and I'll direct you once we get to the other side."

Alex does as Charles says, trying to block out the cooing and whispering from the backseat, while simultaneously wishing he could listen to every last word. He feels like a nosy ass, but he can't help but be fascinated. It's a short trip, unfortunately--it's the middle of the day and no one seems to be driving into the city, at least not into this part of it. The roads behind the common are narrow and hilly and his battered sedan looks out of place amidst the Lexuses and BMWs lining the streets.

Charles directs him on where to park and it takes two of them to lever Lehnsherr up and out of the backseat. For someone so tall and lean he's heavy when he's not under his own power and Alex doesn't know how Charles thought he could carry him on his own well enough to take a cab in the first place.

He tries not to stare when they go inside. It's a nice house. No, that's an insane understatement--it's a huge, beautiful house that probably costs more than Alex will see in a lifetime. There are things like windows and natural light, features that are definitely lacking in the crappy apartment that Alex and Scotty share in Somerville. There are pictures on just about every flat surface, and Alex forces himself not to stop to examine them as they lug Lehnsherr up the stairs and into the bedroom.

Alex won't let himself look around the bedroom, focusing on getting Lehnsherr onto the bed and then backing out quickly.

"I'll, uh, be downstairs," he says, and flees before Charles can respond.

He's a stalker. He's a creepy stalker, standing in the house of the only celebrity he's ever had more than a passing interest in. He's looking at photos of someone else's life. He should get back in his car and go home and pretend this whole day hasn't happened. Hell, he wouldn't be surprised if he woke up any second now to realize that he's been dozing at his desk and Lehnsherr's pissed at him for drooling all over reports.

"Oh, good, you didn't go!"

Charles has shed his socks and shoes and jacket and bag. There are spots of color over his cheekbones and he looks utterly exhausted, but he's waving Alex away from the door.

"I, uh," Alex says, and then Charles is off the landing and literally pushing him towards the couch.

"Sit, sit, please," Charles says. "The least I can do is offer you something to drink after all of that."

"I'm not--" Alex starts to say, but trails off helplessly as Charles pushes him down onto the couch.

"Water? Juice? Tea? I'm afraid we probably don't have much in and I'm not entirely sure what we do have," he says.

"Uh--uh, whatever," Alex stutters. "Whatever you're having. Is good. Um."

"I'll be right back," Charles says, and disappears into the kitchen.

He's gone for two or three very disconcerting minutes during which Alex examines his surroundings. It looks like...well, like a normal upscale home. The television is really freaking nice and the crap attached to it is high end. There's a sound system mounted on the walls. The photos everywhere are tasteful and the frames match. In addition to Charles and Lehnsherr, Alex recognizes Charles' famous model sister and some other people from Denny's Place. The books cover everything from fiction to the physical and biological sciences. A box set of Law and Order is sitting on the coffee table, opened up and missing a disc.

Normal house. Normal things. But it's Lehnsherr, so "normal" is actually pretty bizarre.

Charles returns with a tray ladened with tea things. He puts it on the table and then hands Alex a mug before taking the other for himself. Alex is more of a coffee person, but one of his foster moms drank enough tea that he can tolerate it if he adds enough sugar and cream. Charles adds a few teaspoons of sugar to his own and then gets to his feet and disappears to the kitchen again. He returns holding a bottle of Scotch, which he opens to pour a healthy shot into his tea. When he tries to pick his mug up, his hands shake badly enough that the spoon rattles against the side.

Alex watches him warily.

"I should go," he says, and Charles shakes his head quickly.

"No, no," he says. "No, I'm sorry. Please stay." He tries to lift his mug again, but the shaking hasn't abated. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, inhaling sharply around a sound that can't be anything other than a sob. Alex rolls his shoulders and looks away, studies the mantle, the floor, the walls, tries to become as small as possible to give Charles the illusion of being alone. It's a skill he honed at more than one foster home in his childhood.

"I'm sorry," Charles repeats. His voice sounds wet and tremulous. "I'm not normally like this, I just--he's fine, he'll be fine, I know it, but London is so far and he wasn't answering my calls and my sister said he was sick but she didn't say he was this bad and I wasn't prepared and I haven't slept in a long time and the jet lag is just making me a mess."

Alex continues to direct his attention elsewhere until Charles seems to get his breathing under control.

"Erik got sick a few years ago," he says quietly. "In retrospect, it wasn't a big deal, but I was away for work and he didn't tell me and he overworked himself and collapsed. The first I heard that he was even sick was a doctor calling me from the ED. He was fine, but I'll never forget that moment of horror."

"I kinda get it," Alex says. He thinks about the call from the school about Scott's first fight. We're taking him to the hospital, they'd said, and Alex's heart had stopped. It was the moment he knew he had to be less of a fuck-up if they were going to get out of this intact. "I have a little brother and--I got a call kinda like that once."

"I'm sorry," Charles says for a third time. He finally sounds more like himself and Alex looks up from his tea. "You don't even know me. I'm sorry to be laying all of this on you."

"I do," Alex blurts out before he can think better of it. "I mean--uh." Charles stares at him, confused, until Alex says, "I mean, I recognize you. I used to watch your show. Me and my brother. When we were kids."

Charles smiles. He looks tired, but it seems genuine enough. He picks up his tea and his hands manage to stay steady as he does it, at least long enough for him to take a long sip and then replace the cup on the table.

"Ah," he says. "It's strange, isn't it? It's such a huge part of my life, being Denny Holmes, having people recognize me on the street, and now going out and making movies, but when I'm sitting here, it's hard to wrap my head around a life outside of the one I've made with Erik."

He picks up one of the picture frames on the nearest end table and stares down at it fondly, his fingers brushing the glass, before he hands it to Alex. It's Lehnsherr and Charles, of course, but they're younger. Like, way younger. Like, probably about six. Little Charles, with big blue eyes and brown curls even back then, has his arms wrapped around little Lehnsherr's waist. They're both smiling the way only little kids can. It's kind of freaky.

"He said you'd been friends since you were kids," Alex says. "It's all he's ever said, actually. He doesn't really like to talk to us if he can help it."

He offers the frame back to Charles, who takes it with a smile.

"That certainly sounds like him," Charles says. He replaces the frame on the table, still looking wistfully at it. "Privacy is important to him. So important, I sometimes think he blurs the line between keeping things private and being misanthropic."

"Definitely sounds like him," Alex agrees.

"But yes," Charles says. "We've known each other almost our whole lives. We were best friends. We were the only friends we had for very many years. I knew I was in love with him when I was seven years old. In the twenty-four years since, I've never questioned it."

Alex tries to imagine loving someone for twenty-four years. That's almost as old as he is now. He tries to imagine loving Lehnsherr for twenty-four years and ends up just shaking his head while Charles chuckles.

"He's just...I know he's your boss," he says. "And I know what he can be like. But really, he's just...he's my best friend. I don't know how to describe him. He makes me laugh. He takes care of me. He makes me watch stupid horror movies and holds my hand during the scary parts. He makes me chocolate whipped cream cake on my birthday." Alex tries and fails to imagine Lehnsherr baking for anyone without the use of arsenic. It must show on his face, because Charles laughs again. "When I was filming in New York and he was starting school here and I was so miserable I could barely do my job, he bought me a cat so I wouldn't be so lonely. He's...wonderfully thoughtful and concerned and attentive. Just...only to the people he cares about. And, admittedly, there are only four of us." He frowns. "Five if you count the cat."

"It's just weird," Alex admits. "I'm sure you're right. I mean, I'm assuming you're not in some kind of like...terrible Stockholm syndrome relationship where he's brainwashing you into thinking he's an actual human being and not a robot. It's just hard to think about because he's...uh..." Alex tries to think of a way to politely say, massive douchebag. "Not very welcoming."

Charles doesn't look scandalized or offended. He nods and lifts his mug again, cradling it between his hands.

"He really isn't. And it's not entirely his fault. We survived a childhood that I'm just now gaining the hindsight to understand was as terrible as it felt at the time," he says. He gestures dismissively with one hand. "Everything feels doom and gloom and life and death when you're sixteen, of course, so it was easy to wrap it all up and think, 'Well, of course it felt like the world was ending, everything did.' I can look back now and see how fraught it really was, how serious it was."

It's a strange confession, not in that it's out of the ordinary, but Alex finds it's not something he would have expected. Denny's Place was, at heart, an uplifting show about being happy with who you are, even if you don't fit in. In press photos and interviews, Charles always seemed happy, happy enough that Alex used to compare it to his own life somewhat wistfully as he packed up his suitcase yet again, going back to the group home because Scotty's nightmares were too much or Alex's fights at school were unmanageable or any other number of reasons that their temporary guardians found to get rid of them. He wasn't stupid--he knew it was just a teevee show, that people didn't really have super powers, that no one had a robot butler in place of parents, but Charles was real. Charles was a real kid, not much older than Alex, who got to go on television and talk about how cool it was to meet Bill Nye the Science Guy and joke about the funny things that happened on set.

"That sucks," he says. "I'm sorry." He's not sure what else to say, how to explain that he feels almost let down that the fantasy he had about the nice life Charles read wasn't actually accurate. "We watched your show a lot when we were kids," he says carefully, trying to toe the line between admirer and freakshow. "Me and my brother, I mean. And our lives weren't great and I guess I'd hoped someone's was, you know?"

"Oh, it was better than many, I'm sure," Charles says quickly. "I wasn't trying to--well, I wouldn't want to claim my pain was anything more than anyone else's."

"No, it's cool," Alex assures him. "Doesn't matter how much something sucks for someone else when you're distracted by how much your life sucks."

"Precisely," Charles says. "It's hard enough being a teenager under ideal circumstance. Being a teenager in a time and place where everyone acts like you're an adult right up until you no longer do what they wish...it was hard. And I almost lost Erik in the middle of all of it."

Alex feels disappointed, almost. Not in Charles, exactly, but maybe in the world in general for not living up to his expectations. Maybe in himself for buying into Hollywood bullshit that anyone can have a great life.

"Sorry, man," Alex says because he doesn't know what else to say. Charles looks quietly miserable. The guy must be exhausted, coming from England on no sleep and having to basically carry his husband home and bully him into bed. Alex doesn't have anything to offer him, except sympathy and maybe a little gratitude, so he goes for broke, sucks it up, and says, "I don't know if this makes it better or worse, but, uh, near the end of the show? When Lucas came out? That, uh." He looks away and rubs the back of his neck. "That meant a lot to me. I mean. My life was shitty enough and seeing a gay guy on television just treated like normal? For an hour a week, that was one thing I wasn't worried about. It made it easier to tell Scotty, too."

Charles smiles at him and it's really annoyingly disarming and sweet and honest and he has to repeat to himself several times that this is his boss' husband and remind himself that his boss is fucking scary at the best of times.

"Thank you," Charles says. "That was its intention and I'm glad it made it easier to tell your brother. Or even just to exist for an afternoon. I'm afraid it almost had the opposite effect on us."

Lucas wasn't exactly the most exciting character on the show--he was kind of a combined troublemaker/tech geek who replaced the original bad boy character, Sam, who left in season four. Still, he was kind of cool and Alex appreciated that it wasn't the soft-spoken Kyle who was gay, but a less stereotypical character, and one that sometimes reminded Alex of himself, at that.

"Did you not like that it was Lucas or something?" Alex asks. "Or did Lehnsherr not like it?"

Charles takes another sip of tea and shakes his head. He rubs his eyes with one hand and offers Alex a weak smile.

"It's a longer story than that," Charles says. "I don't want to bother you with it."

Alex studies Charles. He's not quite as good at reading people as Darwin, but he can tell that even though Charles looks like all he wants to do is sleep, he also kind of looks like he doesn't want to be alone right now. This is awkward as fuck, but Charles has those big blue eyes that make Alex want to do whatever he says.

So, against his better judgement, Alex says, "Hey, I don't mind. My boss isn't at work, so I guess there's nowhere I need to be."

Charles shifts around on the sofa, an unreadable expression on his face. When he looks back at Alex, there's something like a smile tugging at his mouth.

"This is ancient history, mind you," he says. "This is...I told you I've been in love with Erik since we were children, yes?"

"Since you were seven, you said," Alex says. He runs his thumb nail over a flaw in his mug, worrying it absently for something to do with his hands.

"Yes," Charles says. He smiles, a real one, just for a moment. "Well, I didn't quite realize it at seven, naturally. What that meant, I mean. And I started on the show and--I never meant to become an actor. My sister, Raven, is a model and we were taking her for an audition one day. I wandered away from my mother and started talking to a gentleman who was a producer on the show and they were just scouting out a lead and just like that, I went from spending all my free time reading and playing chess and running around the estate with Erik to working full time in a very cutthroat industry."

Alex knows the first part of the story--it was in every interview. That's the kind of shit that interviewers eat up. Hell, it's the kind of shit that he ate up when he heard it as a kid, that this random kid who was more interested in science than Hollywood landed a huge job because of his babyface and his natural talents. He was humble about it too, Alex remembers. Always sort of blushing and changing the subject and, yeah, talking about how great his sister was and how he really owed it to her.

"Huh," he says, focusing on the story that Charles wants to tell that's about Lehnsherr, really, and not his crazy famous model sister. "I guess I kinda assumed--well, I mean, I know you said seven, so I don't know why I thought that, but I assumed he was involved too, I guess."

Charles shakes his head. "No," he says. "No, Erik was never involved. He never liked it overly much. I don't know how much of it was honest concern for my well-being and how much of it was jealousy, but he made it very clear, even at thirteen, that he didn't like my new friends, he didn't like all the new people hanging around, and he wasn't thrilled by my sudden decision to start acting."

"You were good at it, though," Alex says. "And, I mean--didn't you like it?"

"I did," Charles assures him. "I loved it. I was drawn into the whole idea of the show, of a place where children could be themselves. Of a family made up of people who really cared about each other, even if they weren't related by blood. Raven and I are only half-siblings and--well, without getting into the gory details, we never had much of a family life, outside of each other. And we had Erik. And the three of us--well, it wasn't quite like the show, but it was the same spirit. A family of choice."

Alex thinks about Scott and their struggle to stay together. He thinks about how that's changed now that they're here, about Scott's friends Jean and Warren and Bobby, about Sean. About Darwin, too, though he doesn't let his mind stroll down that path for long. A family of choice. He gets that.

"Erik wasn't ready to expand that circle the way I wanted to," Charles says. "I was, in retrospect, a little naive to think that everyone I met at work--because that's what it was, even if it didn't feel like it--would fit into that. Would want to be a part of it."

"Shaw," Alex blurts out before he can stop himself, then winces. Charles smiles thinly.

"You've heard the stories, then?" he asks, and Alex nods. The outsider stories, at least. He knows Sebastian Shaw left the show abruptly halfway through the fourth season. He knows that while everyone was very diplomatic about it, they were a bit too diplomatic in the way that even Alex knew meant they were trying very hard to be civil when they really didn't want to be. A couple years ago, Alex happened upon an article about Moira MacTaggert, who played Denny's best friend on the show. She was being featured for some movie she was directing and when they asked about working with actors, she said something about how it couldn't have been as bad as working with Sebastian Shaw. When asked to elaborate, she just said that he nearly ruined her best friend's life.

"I know he left really suddenly," Alex says. "I know...you could kinda tell the places he was supposed to be in the rest of the episodes that season."

"Yes," Charles says. "Some of us were close. Moira was my best friend outside of Erik, and Hank was wonderful. Angel and Janos were a bit more aloof. But Sebastian...."

Charles stares at the wall and Alex follows his gaze to a framed photo. Charles is tucked under Lehnsherr's arm on a beat-up sofa. Moira's seated next to them and Raven and Hank McCoy are sitting on the floor, looking at each other and not the camera. The photo looks like it's been cropped. Alex can imagine who was standing in the space that's been trimmed out along the edge.

"Sebastian wanted into our little family," Charles says, still staring at the photo. "And I naively encouraged it. Erik hated him nearly on sight and spent three and a half years glaring at him. I barely noticed, because I spent those years coming to terms with the fact that I was completely in love with my best friend. Like I said, when you're a teenager, everything feels life or death and I thought I would die for how deeply I felt for Erik. I was sure he didn't return those affections and there were many silly ups and downs before we ended up together. I hardly noticed the tension. But the long and short of it was that Sebastian wanted the fame and the gossip. He didn't care about us, he cared about being photographed somewhere exclusive with me. When Erik and I finally removed our heads from our asses and began officially dating, the first thing he did was go to Erik and offer an insane sum of money for a sex tape."

Alex hopes he's making an appropriately outraged face. Because--fuck, that's awful and horrifying and if he's following the timeline of this correctly, Charles was like, sixteen. It's gross and scummy and if teenaged Alex had known there was even a possibility of a sex tape of Charles Xavier existing, he would have broken his wrist with all the jerking off he would have done.

"Fuck," he says.

"Mm," Charles says dryly. He looks back at Alex with his eyebrows raised. "Erik went through the roof, predictably. As if he would ever use me like that. He and Sebastian fought. Sebastian threatened to out us, then called Erik a whole host of vile, classist, anti-semitic things. They beat each other up and the only reason Erik wasn't charged with assault was because Sebastian stupidly tried to tape the whole thing to use as blackmail and apparently didn't turn it off once Erik stopped behaving the way he'd hoped. Sebastian was fired, we were all appalled, but just when we thought we'd put it all behind us--"

Charles stops again and Alex has to restrain himself for eagerly asking him to continue. It's the guy's life story. He doesn't owe it to Alex, he's probably only saying all of this because he hasn't slept in two days and he's been drinking. Alex should be distantly concerned, not hanging on Charles' every word, but he can't help it. He had a crummy life that was buoyed by an obsession with the world that Charles is talking about, the world of Denny Holmes and, to a lesser extent, the world populated by the cast off-camera. He's spent the last few years working stupidly hard to get to where he is, sacrificing everything to give Scott a better life than the one Alex nearly destroyed for both of them. He hasn't really taken anything for himself, so he's allowed to be interested in this. He's allowed to be embarrassingly fascinated by the life of someone he only dreamed of meeting as a kid.

"I know you don't know me at all," Charles says, reaching for the bottle of scotch, "but I need you to understand that this was more than ten years ago. I was barely more than a child. I didn't know anything, and I wanted very badly to please everyone. I still do--it drives Erik crazy. I used to think that was selfish of him, that he would get upset because I wasn't devoting that energy to him, but it's because I don't devote it to myself. It kills him." He pours a very healthy shot of scotch into his tea, which really can't even be called that anymore, made up as it is of mostly liquor. When he's done, he recaps the bottle, takes a long drink from his mug, and turns back to Alex with a rueful smile. "I apologize. That's neither here nor there. The point is, you don't know me, but I hope that you don't judge me by what I'm about to say. I was given a choice. I made the wrong one. I'm not proud of it, but I can't change it now. I've grown. I've learned. I will never make a choice like that again."

Charles takes a deep breath and closes his eyes He looks exhausted, and Alex wonders how much of it is jetlag, how much of it is concern for Lehnsherr, and how much of it is from reliving this time in his life.

"I believe you," Alex says. "I--" As much as he probably owes Charles for encouraging the guy's life story, he's not sure he's ready to tell him about the fires and the fights and prison and almost losing Scott. He takes a shaky breath and says, "I know about bad choices, okay? They don't have to be all that you are."

The smile Charles offers him is kinder, then.

"I'm sorry that you can relate, but I'm also relieved," he says. He takes another drink. "Erik is...very private. Very quiet. He never liked the parties, the premieres, the public life associated with being a star. Even before we were dating, I would ask to take him to things and he'd tell me to take Raven instead. He hated it. And after everything blew over with Sebastian, I was called in to see the producers. They told me they were sorry with what happened with Sebastian, that it was terrible, and could I imagine what would happen if everyone knew? Denny Holmes was supposed to be a role model. Could I imagine what people would say, what they would do? The fallout, if everyone knew Charles Xavier was gay?"

Alex feels sick to his stomach. He nods slowly.

"You see where this is going, then," Charles says. He takes another drink. "I wanted to make them happy. They were, at times, more like my parents than my mother and stepfather. They said bad things would happen if everyone knew I was gay. They asked me to keep it out of the spotlight. So I did."

"You stayed in the closet?" Alex asks. He thinks about what he does know about Lehnsherr. He's private, yeah, but he also radiates self-confidence and self-assurance in a way that's kind of scary and intimidating. He can't imagine Lehnsherr hiding who he is by anyone's choice but his own. "Lehnsherr was okay with that?"

"Erik didn't even notice at first," Charles says. "He never wanted to go out places, which worked in the network's favor. But I stopped asking him all together and he eventually got suspicious and--at first, it was okay. He was...not happy, but willing to go with it. He listened to my reasoning. But time went on and I would blow off the question about having a girlfriend when I was interviewed. I would go to parties with Moira because the network asked me to. I wouldn't hold his hand in public or let him do all the stupid chivalrous things he tried to do like pull my chair out for me at restaurants. I was miserable, he was angry and we had a screaming argument over it. We broke up."

It takes Alex a moment to follow, and, in the immediate aftermath of digesting the words, he finds himself glancing down at the ring on Charles' finger and then looking around the room at all of the photos, the mementos, the collected crap from a life obviously lived together. Alex isn't stupid--he knows people break up and get back together all the time. But, fuck, the way Charles talks about Lehnsherr, the way the story's been going so far--that throws him for a loop.

Charles' eyes follow his around the room. He looks sad.

"It didn't take, obviously," he says. "I said before that I never doubted how much I loved Erik. I think what I doubted then was...I don't know. That he could be happy with me. That he could love me as much as I loved him. I was seventeen and I was stupid and I had just pitched the idea of a gay character on the show as a last ditch effort to make him shut up. He would go on and on about being silenced, about hiding, and I kept trying to tell him I was doing it to protect him, that we'd come out eventually, that I didn't want him to get hurt. Lucas was me showing him that, in my stupid teenage way. I came to him and said, 'See? I'm doing this. They're doing this because of me, because I love you' and he didn't even yell. He just went very red and grabbed his jacket and left. I left too. I went to his mother and I cried and cried and cried. He showed up eventually, livid that I had gone to her and we shouted at each other and he questioned if I even loved him and it destroyed me. I left."

"Oh man," Alex says faintly. The ticking of the clock on the wall suddenly seems deafening. Charles empties his mug and places it on the table. Alex wants to offer some sort of encouragement, but the words never make it past the lump in his throat.

It's so...surreal. This is Lehnsherr. Lehnsherr. Who can never fill the staple tray on the printer right. Who drinks more coffee than the three of them combined. Who periodically appears to bark orders at them and then returns to his office. Lehnsherr the robot.

Lehnsherr the robot grew up with Charles Xavier. Lehnsherr the robot broke Charles Xavier's heart and apparently put it back together somehow, because now they're a creepy stepford couple. While Alex was beating the crap out of everyone who looked at him the wrong way and spending afternoons watching Charles Xavier on television and wishing he could live with Denny Holmes and wishing Charles Xavier was his boyfriend, Lehnsherr actually was Charles Xavier's boyfriend.

He needs to adjust his brain in order to digest this, but first he needs to try and be a normal human being while Charles sits there having all sorts of feelings.

"It lasted...almost two months," Charles says quietly. "It was awful. I stopped eating. I cried all the time. Erik had been in my life for as long as I could rightly remember. Even though the network was pleased and encouraged the break, I didn't know how to function without him. I ended up, one night, lying on the couch in Moira's flat at two am looking at photos and crying into the cushion so she wouldn't wake up. And I realized that...just because the two of us didn't want all of the same things didn't mean we didn't both want the thing that mattered. I don't even think I called, I just drove to see him and stood out in the freezing rain until he answered his door and--we yelled, we talked, we made up. I went to the producers the next day and told them that I wasn't going to hide any longer. I couldn't let fear control me, least of all my own."

"I don't remember you...coming out, though," Alex says. And he would remember. That he would have remembered. "I mean, not until later. Like, this last round of...press and stuff. Not that I follow that stuff, I just...feel like I would have...remembered that?"

Oh god, he's an idiot. An idiot stalker. Charles Xavier is going to know he's an idiot stalker.

"I didn't," Charles says. "Not really. I didn't shout it from the rooftops. I continued going out with Moira and Raven to the types of parties Erik hated. I let Erik pull my chair out in restaurants. No one noticed or said anything or brought it up, and then after the show ended and I took a break from acting--well, no one cares about the asocial boyfriend of a PhD candidate. I don't talk about my private life in public. Period. I'll say that I'm married and I'm open with the fact that I'm married to a man, but I don't talk about Erik. He likes it best that way. It sets a good precedent for when we have children."

"Children?"

It comes out before Alex can stop it. Lehnsherr. With children. Lehnsherr. That, perhaps, has just won the title of weirdest fucking thing that's come out of anyone's mouth today. Moreso than seeing Charles Xavier stomp into their office, moreso than coming to Lehnsherr and Charles' house and seeing all their personal crap, moreso than all these revelations about a show he used to worship, it's the idea of Lehnsherr willingly bringing a tiny person into his life, Lehnsherr caring for a baby that's making him cross eyed.

Charles is laughing.

"Why, Alex," he says, "it's almost as though you think my husband would be a bad father!"

"I just..." He gestures vaguely. "I can't...kids?!"

"He's very nurturing with the cat," Charles assures him. "He sings to her. In German."

Alex is probably gaping like a fish.

"Sings?" he asks.

"I know you don't see it," Charles says, "but's a different person with me. With us. With our family. He's gentle and very sweet and I just--" He stops abruptly and a blush very slowly starts to bleed across his cheeks. "Oh my goodness. I've been talking for...a fairly long time, haven't I?"

"It's cool," Alex says. "Really."

"No, no, no," Charles says. "Oh my, I've talked your ear off, I really have, I just--"

"No," Alex says quickly. "It's...kind of cool to see that Lehnsherr's a human being. Weird, but cool. The three of us don't really know him."

"That's a shame," Charles says. "And I'm afraid I don't know anything about you, either. I feel terribly about that. You must come back once Erik's no longer plague-ridden. Do you have a boyfriend?"

Alex starts to shake his head and then thinks about Darwin. He freezes, but then keeps shaking his head.

Charles grins slyly.

"But you'd like to have a boyfriend," he says.

"It's not...it's nothing," Alex says. "It's a...guy I work with."

"You should say something," Charles says. "Armando, I'm guessing?" Alex nods. "Definitely say something. He seemed lovely. And you shouldn't waste it. Feeling that way? It's a terrible thing to waste."

"Yeah, well," Alex says, coloring and looking away.

"Anyway," Charles says, mercifully, "you two should come round when Erik's better. Sean, too. I'd like to meet all three of you."

"We go out sometimes," Alex admits. "Lehnsherr never wants to come."

"And I'm sure he uses me as an unspoken excuse," Charles says, rolling his eyes. "He can only get away with that because I don't know. Next time you're all going out, let me know and I'll make sure to drag him with you. I really do feel awful for spending the whole time talking, you know, and--" Charles stops talking and raises his eyes towards the ceiling in the direction of the bedroom.

Alex pauses because he hears it too, the sound of shuffling upstairs. Moments later, the stairs creak and then there's Lehnsherr, limping down them. He sees Charles almost immediately. Sick as he is, it's like he subconsciously reorients himself to Charles. It would be creepy if Alex wasn't so jealous. Not of Lehnsherr having Charles--good looking as Charles is, Alex doesn't know if he can ever look at him the way he did prior to today. Plus, now that he knows all this background and sees how weirdly obsessed he is with Lehnsherr, he can't quite make his brain lust after the guy. No, he's jealous that Lehnsherr the robot is stupidly in love with someone, period. Alex wants to be stupidly in love with someone. Scotty's in school, Alex has a steady job, they're not in any kind of trouble for once in their lives and Alex wants to take advantage of that. He wants to get comfortable.

He thinks, again, of evenings spent with Darwin and admits to himself that he's already halfway there.

"You're home," Lehnsherr mutters, lumbering over to the couch and all but collapsing on top of Charles. "Thought I dreamed it."

"Not a dream, my love," Charles says. "I'm here. You should be in bed. You're very sick."

"You should be there too," Lehnsherr says. "You're comfortable." He tucks his head between Charles' neck and shoulder and sighs. It's weirdly endearing.

"I'll be up in a second, darling," Charles says. "Why don't you go up and lie down and I'll join you with some tea and some more pills as soon as I show Alex out?"

Lehnsherr lifts his head with some effort and turns to stare at Alex, as if noticing him for the first time.

"What are you doing in my house?" Lehnsherr mumbles. To Charles, he repeats, "What is Summers doing in our house?"

"Alex was kind enough to drive us home when it became apparent that you didn't have the energy to stand on your own," Charles says. "And because of that, we're going to send him--well, not flowers. Alex, what kind of beer do you like?"

"Uh..." Alex says, looking back and forth between Lehnsherr, who will probably gut him for this, when he's no longer a puddle of snotty, infected goo, and Charles, who is petting Lehnsherr's hair and looking like he absolutely believes that his husband won't murder Alex for crossing some sort of line of propriety.

"Well, think about it and tell Erik. No--actually, don't tell him, he'll never pass the message along. Give me your phone."

Alex stares at him. He holds his hand out, the one that's holding Lehnsherr in place, and Alex digs his phone out of his pocket and hands it over. Charles navigates expertly to the contact list and types something in. A moment later, Charles' phone, abandoned on the table near the door, lights up. Charles hands Alex's phone back.

"I've given you my number," he says. "Text me. And don't just ignore me because I've just sent myself your number and I'll text you to ask a dozen times until you're sick of me."

"Okay," Alex says, sliding the phone back into his pocket. "Uh, thanks?"

"Don't thank me," Charles insists. "I have a feeling I'll be thanking you for some time. For taking us home and for listening to me in my nervous delirium. Let me get him upstairs and I'll walk you to your car."

"No," Alex says, partially because he knows it's the polite thing to do and partially because he honestly doesn't see Charles getting Lehnsherr off of him any time soon, "it's okay. Stay with him. Um." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "It was really nice to meet you. In case you couldn't tell from how...you know, weird I was, you were...kind of a big deal when I was a kid. And it's cool that you're not...like...an asshole."

Charles laughs. "High praise," he says, but adds, "I'm glad you think that, even after I was so rude this afternoon. I hope we can get to know each other a little more. I'd like to prove I'm actually not an asshole."

Alex shrugs. "I'll text you the next time we all go out," he says. Texting is good. It gives an easy out if Charles was being polite when he mentioned it earlier, but the way his face lights up when Alex makes the offer leads him to believe it wasn't just politeness.

"Oh, please do," he says.

"Summers go away," Lehnsherr mutters, though the words are slurred and sleepy.

"Right," Alex says. "Good luck. Tell Lehnsherr we hope he feels better."

"Thank you again," Charles says. "And--call Armando. Truly, Alex."

Alex rolls his eyes and ducks back towards the door, being sure to close it behind him.

The walk back to his car is slow and once he's in the driver's seat, he needs to sit still and breathe deeply for a few minutes.

Hell of a fucking day.

He's still staring into space when his phone starts buzzing in his pocket. He half expects it to be someone calling to tell him the last few hours were part of some elaborate practical joke, but when he pulls it out, it's Darwin.

He opens it without pause.

"Hey, man," Darwin says. "You've gotta tell us how it went."

He kind of does. Not the whole thing--not the teenage angst and the behind the scenes drama and the heartbreak and pain. But, fuck, Lehnsherr is married and Lehnsherr wants kids and Lehnsherr lives in a giant fucking house with a cat that he sings to. This is too fucking good to sit on entirely.

"Yeah," he says. Then, because he's feeling just a bit reckless, just a bit confident, he adds, "We should have coffee."

"Sure," Darwin says. "Sean's going out tonight, but--"

"No," Alex says before he can change his mind. "Not with Sean. Just, you and me. I mean--we should...have a date. With coffee. Like a date-date."

Alex braces himself for the awkward silence or the polite dismissal or the incredulous laugh.

"Yeah," Darwin says. "That's cool. I've kinda been waiting for you to make a move."

Alex doesn't beep his horn in triumph, but it's a near thing.

"Cool," Alex says. "I just--it's hard, sometimes. To know when to--say something."

"I know," Darwin says. "That's why I was letting you wait until you were ready. You ready now?"

It would be easy to blow him off, but he takes a moment to think about it, to seriously consider it, to think back on all the things that went through his mind while he was listening to Charles' story, while he was watching the way Lehnsherr and Charles look at each other.

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I'm ready." He thinks about what Charles said about family. "Maybe you could come over? Have dinner with me and Scott?"

"I'd like that," Darwin says. "I feel like I know him already, but I'd like to get to know him myself. If you get my meaning."

Darwin wants to get to know Alex's brother. Because Darwin understands how important family is to Alex.

Yeah, Alex gets Darwin's meaning. He always does.

"Yeah," Alex says. "Cool. Wait til you hear about what Lehnsherr does with his cat."

Darwin laughs and Alex can't stop his reflexive smile.

"I can't wait," Darwin says.

"Me either," Alex says.

He hangs up the phone and gives one last look in the direction of Charles and Lehnsherr's house. He has a feeling this won't be the last time he's seeing it.

Families of choice. Maybe Alex's teenage fantasies weren't as far off as he'd thought.