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Quiet Like a Fire

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*

Someone should have told them, Charles thought dejectedly and then winced, because everyone did. Every single person they knew in their lives had said it at least once. Most people had said it so many times that it turned into a standing joke, something that no one laughed at, not because it wasn’t funny, but because it was repeated too many times.

Charles and Erik sitting in a tree.

An old refrain from their playground days, captured in sensory memory and numerous photos taken by Edie. Erik was always scowling and Charles was always beaming, their arms around each other, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

In a way, it was. Erik’s mother had to work day in and day out, Charles’s parents were never home, and the only thing separating their backyards was an old wooden fence with a loose board. It was a time when parents who couldn’t afford a babysitter actually took care to explain to their children not to stick fingers into sockets and then left for work and prayed for the best. Charles’s parents could afford all the babysitters in the world, but never saw the need to. Fortunately for Charles, he was bright beyond his age.

So was Erik, but few people knew that about him. Most, in fact, thought he was a bit slow or dim. Erik was the silent type, too brooding for a child, too grim to attract friends. Edie liked to tell the story of how she had a shock of her life one night when she came home early from shift and heard her son talking non-stop, chattering in fact. He was even laughing, when his normal reaction to something funny was a too-adult smirk. Edie clapped her hand over her mouth and looked through the window cautiously, afraid to scare the mirage away.

But it wasn’t a mirage. Erik was animated beyond anything anyone had ever seen him – all courtesy of the boy next door, who was sitting in the grass at Erik’s feet, smiling up at him as though Erik was the best thing in the world.

Did she know then, Charles wondered vaguely. He dismissed the thought almost at once. It was all so innocent then. No one could have suspected it would go out in flames.

Even the kids singing K-I-S-S-I-N-G at them on the school playground didn’t actually mean it like that. They simply didn’t like Erik’s shabby clothes or took offense to Charles’s grades.

By the time they were twelve, neither Charles nor Erik responded to the question: ‘Hey, where’s your moody/geeky boyfriend?’ with anything other than a shrug. They did everything together and liked it that way.

They grew older. Erik was bitter about the money sometimes, especially when Edie struggled. Charles felt guilty and despondent, because his parents were loaded. Then again, his stepfather squinted at him sometimes in confusion like he couldn’t remember Charles’s name, and his mother was always too busy. It was Edie who used to kiss the scratches on Charles’s knees and elbows better when they were little, since Erik wouldn’t let her anyway.

Charles would have given them all the money he could get his hands on (his weekly allowance alone was nearly as much as Edie was making at the hospital), if either Erik or Edie would take it. But it was always a firm no from both of them, and so Charles learned to cook instead.

It was disastrous at first, but Charles was determined and eager. Edie didn’t have a heart to tell him to stop. Charles had always had access to their home, and she couldn’t really do much about it, short of throwing the food away, which in her world was akin to the most gruesome of crimes. Erik raved, shouted, grumbled, and at one point stopped talking to Charles for a week. Then Charles made the lucky discovery that Erik was preciously helpless to resist the temptation of meat lasagna, and even if it was a bitch to cook from scratch, it was entirely worth it.

When they turned fourteen, Erik took on a job delivering newspapers. He got up at 5 to be at the newspaper office by 5:40, and be done with riding around the neighborhood by 7:30. Charles adopted the habit of sneaking into his house in the morning, and, by the time Erik was done, there was a fresh pot of coffee (Charles bought the coffeemaker, but by then both Erik and Edie had been too tired of fighting him and let it go) and toast, already buttered, with Erik’s favorite peach jam melting on top of every slice. They chatted over breakfast (mostly Charles) as they wolfed down the food (mostly Erik), and, if Edie had the night shift, they were extra quiet as they cleaned up and set off for school.

By the time they were sixteen, their ever-running rivalry over the title of the chess club champion had driven most of the other members away, and the teachers refused to supervise them anymore. Erik shrugged and set up the chessboard on the school steps instead. Charles grinned and never missed a single match, even if his knees or ass hurt from sitting on the hard stone surface.

Erik had switched to delivering pizza, but Charles kept their breakfast routine intact. In addition to it, though, there were now dinners every night (instead of every other night). Charles got significantly better at cooking. It wasn’t a stretch from there to tidy Erik’s room up a bit for him every now and then. Erik was a neat freak, but he was too tired sometimes, and the thought that he might neglect his homework and lose his perfect 4.0 GPA made Charles ill.

He was alphabetizing Erik’s books one night when he found a stash of condoms.

Charles stared at them for a long time, uncomprehending, and then walked out on wooden legs and sat in the cold darkness of the garden. For the first time ever he thought that maybe he and Erik were too close for it to be healthy. He remembered everything people had been saying about them over the years and wondered if they had a point.

Most of all, though, he wondered at how incredibly bad it hurt, because he and Erik told each other everything, but apparently not this.

He put the room back together eventually and went home without waiting up for Erik that night.

Except, Charles wasn’t one for scrupulous attention to details. He didn’t have Erik’s cool, unerring precision, so he must have made some kind of mistake when righting things in Erik’s room. When he woke up, Erik was sitting on his bed, staring out the window.

“My mother is a nurse,” he said.

“I know that,” Charles said, sleepy and bewildered. Then it dawned on him. “Oh.”

Erik sighed. “You’re an idiot.”

Charles nodded, sheepish. It was barely six, and it was Saturday, so he pulled Erik under the covers with him and poked at him until Erik grudgingly relaxed and fell asleep. Charles, floating on relief that he was forgiven and that he’d been wrong in the first place, didn’t spare a thought about what any of that might look like. He just knew what it was – the familiar, safe warmth of Erik next to him, the metronome-even sound of his breathing that Charles had to recreate sometimes to get his emotions under control.

A week later, he found a similar pack of condoms stashed into his own schoolbag. He blushed, let Edie ruffle his hair, and avoided looking at Erik for the rest of the day. Erik smirked at him entirely too smugly for a week, and that was that.

Surprisingly, Charles made use of the gift first. Her name was Maya, and she was the babysitter for his little stepbrother Cain. She took initiative, and, being three years older, knew exactly what she wanted. Everything happened at a speed Charles wasn’t quite ready to keep up with, but she was patient with him, smiling encouragingly and babbling non-stop about his beautiful blue eyes in her barely-there English.

It had never been a thing between them, but Erik caught up with him within a month. Within the next four, they realized that, while sex was awesome, dating was hard. Girls were unfathomable creatures from outer space, and they were sweet and pretty, but also (Charles thought guiltily) a little boring and way too demanding, and, if it wasn’t for the promise of sex, Charles would have much rather spent his time with Erik.

It wasn’t that girls demanded attention – it was that they demanded undivided attention. Neither Charles nor Erik was prepared to sacrifice that big a share of their time together in favor of a girl who might not be around tomorrow. By the time they were eighteen, it was an unspoken but rock-solid agreement between them that any girl who wasn’t prepared to take them as a package deal wasn’t worth the effort.

*

Charles shook his head at his own obliviousness. Both of them were so astonishingly blind. If only they weren’t so wrapped up in each other, maybe they’d have figured it out sooner.

Then it wouldn’t have come to this.

What was the protocol for situations like this, Charles wondered, fighting off a surge of hysteria. How did you tell your goddaughter, who adored you, that you were in love with her father and that was the reason her mother left? How on Earth did he tell any of this to Edie?

How did he not tell them?

And Erik. Dear God, Erik. The beginning and the end of Charles’s world, his whole universe that threatened to collapse into itself. Erik, who hadn’t spoken a word to him since that night. Erik, who might, in point of fact, hate him.

Charles must really be a horrible, despicable human being, because even now he was more concerned with losing Erik than with ruining all of their lives.

He had no idea whatsoever how they had come to this, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

He had no idea how they didn’t come to this sooner.

*

Going to college together was a foregone conclusion, but Erik was still testy with Charles for a few weeks after Charles had turned Oxford down. Charles went out of his way to explain that it wasn’t any kind of sacrifice for him at all. Columbia was just as good a school, and Oxford had always been a whim, a caprice, like inventing time travel and becoming the king of the Yellow Sea pirates.

That they would be roommates wasn’t even a question, and the ease with which they settled into sharing a living space was surprise to no one. Erik studied business and law, Charles split his time between chemistry and biology.

Erik studied like the man possessed, entirely too serious and focused. Charles knew what made him push himself so hard. Edie wasn’t getting any younger, and Erik wanted to be able to take care of her, to take care of everyone who mattered to him. He never starved exactly, but he grew up in need, it had always been present, hovering at the edge of his life, and Erik hated that, his pride revolting.

Charles knew by then not to offer help outright, finding instead a million sneaky ways to make Erik’s life easier. It had always been a precarious, potentially explosive dance between them, but Charles consoled himself with the notion that if Erik were backed into a corner, Charles would be the only person he’d accept assistance from. It had to be enough.

Charles didn’t like telling people that he was pulling a double major, as it tended to scare them off, but Erik was so unabashedly proud of him, so frank about wanting to show him off that it wasn’t a hardship to allow him. Erik wasn’t big on daydreaming, but he liked to indulge himself picturing Charles’s future as a hotshot scientist and possibly even a Nobel laureate. Charles laughed and retaliated with images of Erik as a business mogul.

That first year, after a rigorous exam session, they ended up defeated by the constant pressure and sleep deprivation and collapsed on Erik’s bed (Charles’s was always a mess), sharing a bottle of brandy Kurt had sent Charles for Christmas. They were exhausted more than drunk and floating on it, dreaming up the future and laughing at their own ridiculousness.

A house, says Erik. Some really nice neighborhood. With Edie just down the street, Charles adds. Two studies. No, one study. One really big study. I work better with you there, you help me concentrate. You distract me. You need to be distracted. Fine. Two desks? Charles laughing. We could play battleship. I want a dog, from Erik suddenly. I want a dog, I want a dog, Iwantadog. Oh, shut up, you can have your dog, Erik, now give me the bottle.

They woke up tangled in each other, had an entire conversation in pitiful groans, swallowed some painkillers, and went back to sleep.

The next semester, and the one after that weren’t that much different. Between studying and bartending – a job Erik picked up at some point, because a scholarship was great, but not enough – Charles had no idea when his friend would even have any time to play, but it wasn’t as though Charles had an abundance of free time himself to notice everything.

Still, it was a shock to come home one night to find Magda, a girl Erik was sort of seeing (if three hook-ups in the stretch of four months counted) standing in the middle of the room with tears on her face.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, her lips quivering.

Charles felt the floor jolt beneath his feet. A single glance in Erik’s direction told him Erik was just as stunned.

“Um, I’m going to—” Charles gestured at the door helplessly, backing away.

But Erik’s hand shot out to grab his wrist. “No.”

Magda was either too distressed to mind Charles’s presence or accepting of it, because she collapsed into Erik’s arms and let him hold her while Charles made her a cup of tea. He felt torn between being the intruder and feeling an undeniable compulsion to stay, reinforced every time Erik’s hand brushed his shoulder or their knees knocked together.

Magda came from a very conservative family. Abortion was out of the question, but if she had a baby out of wedlock, her parents were going to disown her.

Charles could hardly handle that much medievalism at this day and age, and it was all he could do to keep his mouth shut. He knew, better than anyone, that one didn’t choose one’s parents, and families came in all shapes and forms. It wasn’t Magda’s fault.

“What are you going to do?” Charles asked after Magda left, even though he already knew the answer.

Erik was pacing. “I’ll marry her. I don’t mind.”

Charles couldn’t help the way his eyebrows arched. “You don’t mind?”

Erik shrugged impatiently. “Dammit, Charles, stop it. I’m not a romantic like you, you know that. I don’t believe in all that love nonsense. And she’s nice. She’s – she’s really nice. It’s not that, it’s—”

“What?”

Erik’s expression twisted into a pained grimace. “Can you imagine me as a father?”

Despite everything, Charles had to smile. “I’m sure you’ll be great, my friend. I have faith in you.”

“You always say that.”

“And I always mean it.”

“You’re not helping. I don’t know the first thing about—” He groaned. “I’m the last person anyone should want as a father of their kids.”

Charles stood up, too, and walked over to Erik, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Stop it. You’re the most decent human being I’ve ever known, Erik. And nobody’s ever ready to be a parent.”

Erik stared at him miserably. “Tell me it doesn’t scare the crap out of you.”

“Of course it does. But we’re in this together.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I’m not leaving you alone with this, Erik.”

“You didn’t plan it.”

“You didn’t, either. But we’re doing it. And maybe between the two of us at least we can figure out one decent father figure?”

Erik snorted involuntarily. Charles flashed him a slightly hysterical grin, but he wasn’t ready when Erik jerked him close, wrapping his arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. Erik’s whole frame was trembling, and Charles felt his heart break a little more as he clutched right back, hands twisted in Erik’s t-shirt, nose smashed against Erik’s neck.

“I’m so fucking scared, Charles,” Erik breathed out in his ear, words torn from the very depth of him where no one had ever been invited, not even Charles. “I’m not ready for this. I’m so scared.”

“Me too.”

“I just don’t know how I’m going to—”

There was nothing Charles could say to make it better. He was just as terrified, just as helpless. There was absolutely nothing he could offer, except:

“You’re not alone, Erik. You’re not alone.”

*

It was a bit of a shotgun wedding, but later Charles would think that, if he could handpick a life-partner for Erik himself, he probably couldn’t have done better than Magda. She had a quiet strength about her, a certain determination of character that helped her quell Erik’s silent storms. Erik had never been outwardly expressive, but Charles knew better than anyone how turbulent Erik’s emotions could really be behind the stoic exterior. That he had an anchor in Magda, a steadfast column of support, was a blessing beyond what anyone could ask for.

The first year of their marriage was difficult, to say the least. After a hasty ceremony, came an exhausting hunt for an apartment that Charles helped find and furnish. Erik was juggling two jobs, a family, and an education, and it was rapidly becoming overwhelming. But when he was about to drop out of college, Charles and Magda formed a united front to prevent that, and after many fights and shouting matches, Erik allowed them to work out a solution that would allow him to get his degree.

Erik had always been slender, but at the time he lost weight as though he was suffering from malnutrition, which led to Charles trailing after him around campus to make sure Erik ate. Erik snapped at him and yelled at him every time Charles came over and cooked them all dinner, staying later than was advisable, considering his own staggering workload. Charles had lost count how many times they passed out together on the narrow, lumpy couch Erik had picked up at some garage sale, because it was too late for Charles to head back to his dorm, and Erik still found sleeping in the same bed as Magda a bit too alien.

He was also afraid to breathe too loudly around Magda, gripped by the crippling fear of somehow harming the baby. Charles wasn’t faring much better, but he was armed with the rational knowledge of a scientist and at the very least his hands weren’t shaking. So it was he who went with Magda to prenatal yoga, and Magda’s doctor had remained in complete confusion till the very end whether Charles or Erik was actually the father.

There’s an official photo from Anya’s birth, hanging on the wall at Erik and Magda’s place, featuring a tired but smiling Magda with baby Anya in her arms and Erik posed at her bedside, leaning into the frame.

But there’s another photo, taped to Charles’s fridge and stuffed in Erik’s wallet. That one was taken literally seconds after the birth. Erik is holding his daughter, his expression one of endless, undisguised wonder mixed with utter terror at the thought of holding something so precious and fragile in his arms; he’s shooting a ‘Is this really happening? This is my child!’ look at Charles, who’s hovering at his shoulder, beaming at the baby.

The next few years were equally hectic, but also much more hopeful. Erik graduated early. Charles stayed on for his PhD. After several false-start jobs, Erik ended up at the department of business development of Stark Industries, quickly moving through the ranks due to his no-nonsense manner, killer instincts, and the ability to bluntly tell Tony Stark where to stick it when the arrogant genius of an owner was being wrong.

Charles stayed at the university, splitting his time between research, teaching, and fending off pharmaceutical companies who seemed to have a special squad of headhunters just for him.

Erik and Magda moved from their shabby apartment to a much more spacious and comfortable one. Charles, who had been reluctant to move off campus and away from his beloved lab, eventually settled within two blocks from them. He invested in a nice condo he never really got to see, spending all his time at the university or at Erik and Magda’s.

Being practically neighbors, Charles and Erik still had breakfast together every day in a little café that was a bit closer to Charles’s building than it was to Erik’s. Erik didn’t seem to mind the extra distance, though, and within a year he had the personnel trained to make coffee to his precise specifications, making Charles roll his eyes with an indulgent smile. Erik was meticulous and pedantic, while Charles was a bit of a slob and far too easy-going, but the traits they would have found vastly annoying in other people, they easily excused in each other.

It was gratifying for Charles to watch how Erik grew fully into his skin, the new kind of confidence filling him whole – the one that had always been his, he just had to claim it.

Sometimes, especially during summer semesters, Charles dropped by Erik’s workplace, bringing him lunch, and utterly enjoying watching Erik go round after round against Tony, who inevitably capitulated sooner or later. To make up for it, Tony dragged Charles away for drinks, starting happy hour early, knowing that nothing annoyed Erik more. Charles didn’t quite get that, but Tony was fun, and someone needed to get Erik to lighten up a bit when Charles wasn’t there.

When Anya turned two, Magda received a job offer from her favorite art gallery, which was a perfect outlet for her hyperactive sense of aesthetics. Charles found a lot of his evenings occupied with babysitting duties, so that Magda and Erik could spend some time together, but he didn’t mind one bit. It was no sacrifice when he adored Anya every bit as much as Erik did, and the thought of romance-is-a-waste-of-time Erik enjoying date nights with his wife never failed to bring a smile to Charles’s face.

Erik being happily married, combined with Erik and Charles being so close, often brought up teasing questions and remarks aimed in Charles’s direction about the future Mrs. Xavier. Erik looked apologetic, but Charles didn’t mind so much.

He dated casually, enjoying the certain ease with which his liaisons came and went. Unlike Erik, Charles had always believed himself a romantic at heart, but years went by, and, while he frequently found himself interested, even enchanted, he never met anyone who’d make him truly fall. Perhaps, Charles thought as he was getting older, Erik was right after all.

It didn’t bother Charles much, he was too busy for that. But occasionally, watching Erik and Magda’s easy concordance during family dinners, Charles felt a pang of – not envy, perhaps, but a bittersweet longing, a sharp sting of loneliness, breaking the glow of affection.

But then Erik would smile at him, and pull him away for a game of chess, stretching far into the night, and the world would right itself once more.

*

Maybe it was boredom. Even now, years later, Charles still had no clue. Maybe it was some kind of latent jealousy he’d suppressed, or a cry for attention. It’s entirely possible that it was none of those things and just a twist of chance.

He had declined the invitation to spend the night in the guest room, despite the late hour and a couple of glasses of really good single molt that Erik had taken to keep around for Charles’s benefit. (Erik’s drink of choice was martini or sangria. Charles couldn’t bear to drink either, but found Erik’s preference for sweet wines endearing.)

He was walking home from Erik’s when a woman on a furious red motorcycle had nearly flattened him, taking the curve at an unreasonable speed. Disoriented, Charles lay sprawled on the pavement, watching as the rider, clad head-to-toe in black leather, parked her bike and walked over. She took off her helmet, releasing a cascade of curling blond hair, and for a moment Charles thought he had accidentally walked into a shampoo commercial.

She didn’t apologize. She called him a grandpa, made fun of his clothes, and helped him get up. Her name was Raven. She rode her motorcycles fast and hard and she saw no reason to treat Charles any differently.

Raven was a wild child. It was perhaps the most alluring part of their not-quite-relationship. The racing, the alcohol, even sex with Raven had always been tittering on the brink of sanity, sometimes swinging dangerously close to the edge. She didn’t believe in safe anything.

Charles had always thought that his share of rebellion had been spent in full on Erik, whose presence in his life Charles’s family had always opposed. It took Raven to show him what he’d really been missing.

The first few months had been tempestuous. Between the overabundance of sex endorphins, the adrenaline high of the speeding, the shock-disgust-arousal hit he’d experienced every time Raven dragged him to the clubs, the gratuitous drinking and smoking pot that he’d barely even touched when he was a student, Charles wasn’t sure that his feet had fully touched the ground at any time.

His colleagues were mildly amused. His popularity with the students had unexpectedly grown exponentially after a couple of times when Charles showed up for his lectures so hangover he might as well have still been drunk. Raven turning up to pick him up on her bike topped up the intrigue. Students that used to flirt with him routinely in the hopes of securing better grades were now full on hitting on him, dying to get into his pants for the sake of it. It all made Charles feel whiplashed most of the time.

It took five months for Erik to finally snap.

“What the hell is going on with you, Charles?” he demanded, when Charles called him from the hospital.

It was a minor accident, but Raven took off, unwilling to wait for the police and risk brandishing one of her many fake licenses.

Erik stared at the cast on Charles’s arm, poked at what was probably a spectacular bruise on his forehead, and glared and glared.

Charles, doped on painkillers, was happy to tell him all about Raven up until the point he realized that Erik’s glare wasn’t diminishing so much as mutating into a silent snarl. The night ended in an ugly shouting match that knocked Charles out. When he came around, Erik had long gone, leaving Charles stranded at the hospital until the risk of concussion could be ruled out.

Charles was firmly convinced that he had every right to be mad at Erik, but the sad truth of his life was that nothing felt right when he and Erik were at odds, and Erik was anything but a peacemaker. Still, it took Tony calling Charles with the news that Erik had reduced his entire department to tears – and those people had Wall Street background and courtroom fighting certificates – for Charles to come up with a reconciliation plan.

That he missed Erik like an addict going through withdrawal wasn’t worth mentioning.

“No,” Raven said with an impatient shrug of a beautifully tattooed shoulder. “I don’t do family dinners. I don’t do parents. You’re not my boyfriend, Charles. You get that I sleep with other people, right?”

He did, or at least he suspected that much, trying his best not to think about it too hard. It still stung to hear it slapped across his face like that. It was the first time he thought he should quit Raven like a dangerous habit.

Inexplicably, it made him madder at Erik than ever.

Erik had no intention whatsoever of relenting or playing fair. He promptly reorganized Anya’s schedule so that it no longer included Charles picking her up from her ballet class, taking her out for ice cream or movies, or being beaten by her in numerous video games.

Charles had no legal rights, of course, and for a week or two he wrote it off as coincidences or accidents, unable to believe that Erik would stoop so low. It took Magda ambushing him outside his lab, practically shoving her half-whooping in delight, half-crying daughter into Charles’s arms, for Charles to give up his delusions.

“Erik doesn’t know we’re here,” Magda told him grimly as Anya refused to unclench her arms from around Charles’s neck. “But she’s been driving me insane. If I didn’t take her to see you, I’m pretty sure she’d have poisoned our food or something.”

“She does have an affinity for chemistry,” Charles agreed fondly, struggling to keep his voice even and failing.

Magda sighed. “Bring her home before bedtime, and, for the love of God, fix this.”

Erik was waiting at the door when Charles brought a sleeping Anya home. He didn’t say a word, but waited patiently for Charles to tuck her in and wander into the kitchen.

“I’m sorry,” Erik said. “She missed you more than I think she’d ever missed me. She certainly never whines as much when Magda is out of town. Probably because she gets to spend time with you, now that I think of it.”

Charles was too tired for this. “I missed her, too. Goodnight, Erik.”

“Wait.”

Charles paused in the doorway.

Erik let out a pained sigh. “I can’t tell you who to date.”

“No, you can’t.”

“But – I need you to be safe, Charles. Can’t you understand that?”

There was something uncharacteristically pleading in Erik’s tone, and Charles turned around wearily. “You do care then, do you?”

“Idiot,” Erik whispered and pulled him into a hug, holding on long enough for Charles’s eyes to stop stinging. It took a while.

“Stay for breakfast?” Erik asked when they finally pulled apart.

Charles shook his head. “I can’t. I have plans.”

“With Raven?”

“Yes.”

Erik pursed his lips but nodded. “All right. Dinner Saturday?”

Charles beamed.

*

His on-again, off-again with Raven lasted for little more than a year after that, long enough for Erik and Magda to actually meet her and hate her in person and for Anya to develop a not inconsiderable case of hero worship.

When it inevitably crashed and burned for good, Erik didn’t say ‘I told you so’ once. But he was having such a hard time concealing how happy he was with the news that Charles had to employ all his willpower not to punch him.

“You know, Magda has this friend she’s been dying for you to meet.”

“I can hurt you,” Charles promised after choking, horrified, on his beer.

Erik just laughed.

*

Magda did have a friend. And another friend. And a friend of a friend. All of them began showing up randomly for the traditional Saturday night dinner.

Charles tolerated it gracefully, wishing deep down she’d give up. Magda had tried to set him up before, which normally only led to Charles and Erik exchanging exasperated glances.

This time though, Erik didn’t seem to be onboard with their usual game. He was even making awkward overtures in conversation so that the lady guests could get to know Charles better. It was only then that Charles realized exactly how hard his affair with Raven had affected Erik.

Surprisingly, Charles found a champion in Anya. Her jealousy of every woman who made a pass at Charles was unsubtle and endearing. Charles knew he shouldn’t condone such behavior. Anya was no longer a baby and it was time she learned some social cues.

On the other hand, it might have been that she’d learned them perfectly well already. Smiling sweetly, she asked Emma how much she paid for a boob job. Erik tried to reprimand her, but as he was having a hard time fighting off laughter, it was a no go.

When Gabrielle came over, Anya had not so subtly implied that she and Charles enjoyed a very close, intimate relationship. Considering she was nine, it was little wonder that Gabrielle threw a look of utter disgust at Charles and left without saying goodbye.

Charles should have been more concerned about his apparent foray into pedophilia, but he was too busy laughing. Magda dragged a screaming Anya off to her room, and Erik sighed.

“Please tell me you didn’t teach my daughter to say that.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Charles replied, grinning. Erik shot him an unimpressed look, and Charles threw his hands up. “Come on, Erik, I would never. She watches too much TV.”

“You may laugh now,” Erik said, frowning, “but some day you might not find it so amusing, Charles. Anya told me the other day that you’re already married to me and Magda and there’s no reason for you to marry anyone else until she grows up.”

Charles snorted. “She has a point.”

“Maybe,” Erik conceded. “But one day you’re going to meet someone and then we’re going to have a problem. I don’t think you understand how protective she is of you, Charles.”

“She’ll grow out of it.”

“Not if you keep encouraging her.”

“Then stop trying to set me up,” Charles said in exasperation. “Really, Erik.”

Erik lifted up a hand. “You know that’s Magda’s doing. She’ll tire of it sooner or later.”

Charles’s lips twisted. “Not if you keep encouraging her.”

Erik nodded wearily, accepting the point. He didn’t look particularly apologetic, though.

As it turned out, there was one person Anya didn’t mind Charles marrying at all.

“She said you and Tony would make a cute couple,” Erik told Charles off-handedly when Charles stopped by Erik’s office again.

The man in question was only just out the door, having flirted with Charles more outrageously than usual for solid forty minutes.

Charles laughed. “Somehow I doubt Tony is the marrying type.”

Erik didn’t laugh. Instead he was studying Charles with uncharacteristic scrupulousness.

“What?” Charles asked.

“Tony might be a bit extreme,” Erik said pensively. “He’s basically a slightly less unhinged male version of Raven. But maybe Anya does have a point.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe Magda has been going about it the wrong way. You’re not as discreet as you think you are, Charles. I know you’ve been with men.”

Charles blinked. “I wasn’t trying to be discreet. It’s no secret, Erik.”

“Well, then. We could—”

“No.” Charles frowned. “For the love of God, Erik, stop with the matchmaking. Why do you suddenly need me to be married so badly?”

“I don’t,” Erik said quickly.

Charles stared at him. Erik looked away.

“Yes, you do,” Charles said, his eyes narrowing. “You forget how well I know you, Erik. It’s very important to you for some reason that I’d be paired off. What’s going on?”

“Charles, you’re seeing things.”

“No, I’m not. Are you afraid I’ll die an old maid?”

Erik rolled his eyes. “Yes, Charles. That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. And when I’m gone there’ll be no one there to look after you.”

Charles was neither amused nor convinced, but he did know Erik. He could tell there’d be no getting anything out of him just then. Changing the topic, Erik promised to ask Magda to back off, though there’d be no guarantees that she’d listen.

She didn’t. There were quite a few more introductions made over turkey and mashed potatoes, and Charles started finding excuses of not being in town on Saturdays.

Then, a few weekends later, Anya had ‘accidentally’ upended a glass of red wine on Lilandra’s white skirt, setting off the woman’s OCD episode, and it was no longer funny for anyone.

Erik and Magda had a serious conversation, while Charles was trying to ignore their raised voices as he talked to Anya in her room. He didn’t yell, but he was stern and severe the way he’d never been with her before, and it was his tone and precisely chosen words that finally made the impression that neither Erik nor Magda had.

“Of course I want you to be happy, Charles,” Anya said in the end, crying. “To marry someone you love… I just wanted you to be happy with us.”

Charles held her for a long time.

He was happy though when the matchmaking spree stopped.

*

A few months later, Charles met Logan.

Logan worked security by day and tended the bar by night, none of which explained Charles meeting him at a faculty event of all places or how within less than an hour he’d found himself pressed face-first against a bathroom door, the sharp scent of disinfectant in his nose and a blunt, burning pressure in his ass. With little to no prep, Logan fucked him roughly into the unforgiving wood, Charles’s short fingernails scraping paint off the creaky door. It wasn’t slow, it wasn’t gentle, and it lasted torturously for close to twenty minutes, and his legs gave out by the end of it.

“I’ll be seeing you,” Logan said, kissing him exactly like he fucked, ruthless and blunt, bruising Charles’s lips just as he had his skin. Charles only nodded numbly.

It wasn’t precisely dating, unless one counted quickly sharing some bar food and beer at the end of Logan’s shift before they went upstairs to Logan’s shoebox of an apartment for sex as particularly romantic. Charles didn’t mind. He felt like there was little room for a whole other relationship in his life, what with his work, and Erik, Anya, and Magda. But it wasn’t just sex, either, as Charles was acutely aware that Logan had slotted into place all too neatly, filling some of the growing emptiness inside him.

That emptiness, that growing void that seemed to be getting bigger with each passing day, scared Charles to pieces. He didn’t understand it, couldn’t logic it out. His life was pretty much perfect. He loved his job. He had his best friend close at hand. He spent plenty of time with his adorable goddaughter, who felt so much like she was his own, he wasn’t sure there was a difference. He had everything he could ever wish for.

He went into a dingy bar every other night and let Logan fuck him with bruising force into the scratchy sheets that hadn’t seen a laundromat in weeks. He left invariably before Logan woke up in the morning and took a cab to his own place for a shower and a change of clothes. The dark circles under his eyes were growing, but he was getting used to the sight. He was fine.

He didn’t tell Erik about Logan.

It was easy. Charles knew from Tony and from Erik himself how busy life was getting at the office while the new deal was being finalized. Charles was working on his second Ph.D by now. They had canceled on each other plenty during those intense weeks, so there seemed to be little opportunity and no real need to update his best friend on something like this.

And later, when Erik’s scheduled settled back to normal, it had taken him a while to notice that Charles’s had not. When he did, however, things became tense.

“You look like shit,” Erik told him bluntly as they met up for drinks after work on a random Thursday. “Are you even sleeping?”

“Of course,” Charles said, affronted. “I can take care of myself, you know.”

“I’ve seen no evidence of that so far,” Erik said dryly. With carefully constructed casualness, he asked, “Are you seeing anyone?”

Charles shifted in his seat, the low waist of his jeans pressing into the finger-shaped bruises on his hips, a souvenir from the night before, under his cardigan. “No,” he said.

Erik’s eyes narrowed. “Is Raven back?”

“What?” Charles asked, genuinely startled. “No, of course not. Last I heard she was in L.A.”

“Then what’s with you, Charles? I feel like I haven’t seen you in weeks.”

“I pick Anya up from school every Tuesday and take her to her ballet class every Friday. I’m at your apartment practically every other day.”

“I know,” Erik said. “But lately even when you’re there, I feel like you’re not.” He paused. “I miss you.”

Charles looked at him. He had no idea what to say.

He drove himself to Logan’s that night, even though it was a break in their routine, and let him use his mouth under the bar before his shift was even over.

“You’ve got issues, bub,” Logan told him later that night as he had Charles bent over the arm of the sofa, holding Charles’s arms behind his back in an unforgiving grip as he thrust in. “This ain’t gonna help with those.”

“Doesn’t seem to be stopping you,” Charles mumbled into the stained fabric of the cushions.

“Your issues, not mine. Just saying. I ain’t gonna fuck them out of you.”

He did give a good impression of trying though.

Weeks passed. Erik kept asking, growing more and more sullen at Charles’s denials that anything was wrong. Magda kept looking between them with a concerned expression on her face, but said nothing. It was Anya who’d finally put an end to it.

It was Saturday, and Charles had overslept. He woke up groggy, realizing that for the first time he had spent the night in Logan’s apartment. It might have had something to do with the amount of drinks he’d had the night before or the amount of times Logan had had him since early yesterday evening. Could have been both. With a groan, Charles realized he was supposed to meet Anya and Erik in the park and was late already.

Logan was gone, and Charles took the liberty to shower quickly, his body aching all over, pulled muscles, bruises and marks. He’d gotten so used to it, he barely noticed anymore. With no time to spare, he borrowed a shirt from Logan’s closet; the man didn’t seem to own a single button-down, so Charles settled for a tee, the collar way too wide for him, leaving his collarbones wide open. His own scarf and jacket should hide that fact though. Craving coffee like a dying man, he rushed out the door.

“Charles!” Anya’s exuberant greeting made Charles wince, but he smiled as he caught her, spinning around.

“Ugh, you’re getting too big for this,” he complained playfully, grinning at Erik over her shoulder.

“Nope, you’re just too skinny.” She poked him in the ribs and giggled when he moved to catch her hands. “Aw, you’re ticklish!” She squealed in delight and launched another attack, but Charles was faster this time. “And you’ve got something on your face, it’s all red. “Did you scrub it with a brush?”

Stubble burn. Charles blushed, cursing internally, knowing Erik wouldn’t miss it. Erik didn’t. His eyes narrowed as he studied Charles’s jaw and then dipped lower. With a start, Charles had realized his scarf was now askew, and Erik’s eyes zeroed in what he knew must have been a spectacular bruise of a kind that left no doubts of its origin.

“Let him breathe, sweetheart,” Erik addressed his daughter, his eyes never leaving Charles. “Why don’t you go say hi to Mary and her mom?”

“All right,” Anya agreed. “But I’ll be right back!”

She dashed off. Neither man watched her go. The park brimming with happy, excited voices around them, the sun mercifully bright for a clear autumn day, the silence stretched uncomfortably.

“One night stand?” Erik asked at last. Then answered himself before Charles could. “No, come to think of it, you’ve been like this for the past few weeks. Who is he?”

Charles looked away and shrugged. “Just someone I met. It’s not – it’s not anything really. Just sex.”

“Just sex,” Erik repeated flatly. Then without warning, he reached out and grabbed Charles’s arm, pulling the sleeve of his jacket back to reveal fresh bruises around Charles’s wrist.

Charles hissed in pain. “Let go.”

Erik didn’t. “Just sex, Charles?”

“He’s not abusing me, if that’s what you’re implying. I consent to this.”

“You consent to this,” Erik said, his grip tightening. “Charles, what the hell? You’re not this person.”

Annoyed, Charles pulled his arm free. “How would you know? This whole time we’ve been friends, Erik, have you ever stopped to notice it is always me sharing your life? How would you know the first thing about mine? When have you ever taken an interest?”

“Charles—” Erik stared at him, stunned.

The silence stretched, until Charles glanced away, his anger giving way to shame. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was unfair. I’m not – I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Erik’s expression darkened. “Because you were too busy letting some animal maul you?”

And just like that his anger was back. “Who are you to judge? You have your perfect life, Erik, why do you even care?”

“Because you’re part of my life, you idiot!”

“Not an important one!”

He had no idea he was going to say it, no idea the words were even in his mind, until it was too late, but once they were out, Charles couldn’t take them back. He turned away from Erik and his shocked expression and stalked off, not even turning when Anya called after him. He couldn’t bear to be near either of them right now.

He didn’t know how long he was sitting on a bench by himself staring into space. At some point, he became aware that he was no longer alone, and he didn’t have to look to recognize Erik’s presence.

“I asked Mary’s mother to take Anya home,” Erik said.

Charles nodded, closing his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to say any of that.”

“I’m glad you did. Clearly I failed you somehow if this is how you feel. Charles. I can’t begin to tell you how important you are to me. Next to Anya, you’re—”

“Stop.” Charles grabbed his wrist for a moment. “Stop. I know. It’s not you, Erik. You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve always been honest, it’s who you are. It’s why I love you. You’ve done nothing wrong, please trust me on that. I just – I need to clear my head or take a break from work or – something.”

“You need to get away from me,” Erik finished quietly, saying what Charles couldn’t.

Charles felt his throat constrict, his vision darkening. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out. “I just – I can’t. Right now. I need some space.”

Of the two of them, Erik had never been the one to easily understand and handle emotions, but at the moment, he seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever getting it.

“You’re my best friend. You love me. And you need space,” he said calmly, as though reading off a list. “The only reason you would need space would be if you—” He stopped talking abruptly, eyes widening in shock. His voice did break on the single syllable. “Charles?”

Charles looked at him then, knowing that his eyes were blurry with tears, unable to do anything to stop them. “Yes,” he said simply. “I’m sorry.”

Erik’s face crumbled. “No, don’t. There’s nothing to be sorry for. Charles, God, I – you know I – but I’m—”

“No, stop, please stop,” Charles said, taking his hand and squeezing it. Erik’s fingers closed around his desperately. “I know. I know everything that just went through your head; you don’t need to say it.” He took a deep calming breath. “We’ll be all right, Erik. All of us. I’ll get over it, I promise. It’ll be exactly as before. You just – you just need to give me a little time, that’s all.”

“Charles…”

Erik’s heartbreak was in his eyes, all over his face, and Charles could never stand seeing Erik in pain, not for an instant. He pulled him into a hug, fingers running through Erik’s hair soothingly, seeking to comfort, to reassure.

“It’ll be all right. I couldn’t help it, but I’m still sorry about upsetting you.” Erik made a noise of protest, and Charles held him closer. “It’s all right. It’s going to be fine. We’re going to be okay.”

Leaving Erik on that bench might have been the hardest thing Charles had ever done in his life.

*

Extricating himself from his best friend’s life was no small feat. Pulling back from Anya had very nearly killed him. Charles missed them terribly every minute of every day, forcing himself to stop when his hand reached for the phone to call or send a text. A few times he’d found himself walking toward Erik’s apartment without making a conscious decision to do so. Charles muddled through his classes and had all but abandoned his research. He felt like he was spending his life sleepwalking.

He didn’t know how long he would have lasted, if Logan hadn’t pushed him down into a chair one night instead of the bed, put a cup of tea – what the hell, Logan didn’t even have tea – in front of him, and said, “I ain’t touching you until you snap out of it, so either talk or get out.”

Charles stared at him, shocked out of his stupor. “I didn’t think you and I had that kind of relationship,” he said honestly.

Logan looked at him as though he was too stupid to live. “I haven’t been fucking anyone else since you and I hooked up. Sure as hell hope you haven’t either. You have a key to my apartment. I got you the damn toothbrush. What kind of relationship do you think this is?”

Charles blinked slowly. “Oh.”

Logan pointed at him. “Talk.”

Charles talked. It didn’t occur to him not to, but more than that – it felt good to let it all out. Going over it in his own head time and again didn’t have the same effect. Logan listened to him impassively without interrupting or reacting in any way. He spoke only when Charles had finally run out of words.

“So, you’re in love with your best friend, and he’s married. Oldest story on the whole damn planet. Not saying it doesn’t suck, but that’s hardly the end of the world.”

“I know.”

“I don’t think it bothers you that you’re in love with him. It bothers you because you couldn’t figure it out this whole time. If you can get over that, the rest ain’t a problem.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“No, it isn’t. Do you know why? Because been there, done that. Don’t look so surprised, I ain’t made of stone.” Logan sighs. “Listen, Charles, you have a decision to make right now about this.” He gestured between them. “You can break this off and I won’t put up a fight, but frankly I don’t think you should. I don’t want to read your freaking obituary in the goddamn paper tomorrow.”

Charles winced. “I’m not suicidal, Logan.”

“You’re making a damn good impression of it from where I’m sitting. All I’m saying is, you could use someone to take your mind off things. And I don’t have a problem with you not panting after me.”

“When you put it like that.” Charles’s smile was weak, but it was a smile. “Thank you.”

Logan dragged him to his lumpy couch and they watched Aircrash Investigations until they were both comatose.

*

Surprisingly, it did get easier. Once the shock of the revelation was behind him, Charles managed to adjust quickly enough. He directed his energy into his research, rediscovering his love for science all over again. He had always been available to his students, but he redoubled his efforts now, remembering how good it felt to be able to actually help someone. Logan remained a steady presence in his life, and once or twice had even picked Charles up from campus, making his street cred to go up another notch.

Charles stopped by Erik and Magda’s often enough for them not to feel his absence, but making his visits short in duration to better handle them. The first time he came to the Saturday night dinner after the talk in the park, he could feel Erik watching him with newfound alertness. Charles hated that, but couldn’t blame him. He did his best to act the way he always had, and gradually Erik had relaxed, falling back into easy banter. If Magda noticed anything amiss, she didn’t say.

Anya complained that he never came to see her anymore, but she was older now, her focus beginning to shift from her parents to her friends. Charles earned instant forgiveness having taken her shopping and a week later, he took her out to see Giselle. When they left the theatre, Anya proclaimed that, while she no longer wished to marry him when she grew up, he would always have a very special place in her heart. Charles laughed and accepted his demotion gracefully.

It was all well and good, their newfound rhythm seemingly working for everyone. Then Stark Industries annual birthday party happened, and Charles found out how very wrong he was.

Technically, Charles had no business being there. The employees were allowed to bring someone, but Magda was Erik’s default plus one. When he said as much as he did every year, Tony said he’d take it as a personal insult if Charles wasn’t there, also as he did every year. Charles couldn’t come up with another reason not to be there, though he never enjoyed it.

The reason was, of course, blatantly obvious. It would start off well enough, having drinks at the bar with Erik and Magda, laughing together at Tony’s speeches that were getting progressively more outrageous and ridiculous each year. It was fun. But then, in the relaxed mellow atmosphere, Erik would pull Magda out to the dance floor, and they would sway gently to the music, sometimes matching the rhythm and sometimes ignoring it, gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing the closeness. It was as familiar a sight as any, it hardly came without a warning, but Charles still felt it like a blow in the gut, watching them hold each other so tenderly, barely even talking.

Charles stayed at the bar and had another drink. Then another. Erik and Magda were still dancing, and Charles needed to leave because there was no law saying he should voluntarily subject himself to that. He pulled out his phone and called Logan.

“I know it’s not what we do,” he said when Logan answered. “But can you pick me up? I’m too drunk to drive and I don’t want to be alone right now.”

“No problem,” Logan said and hung up.

Charles had another drink and waited. He got accosted soon after by a man who’d been introduced to him, but whose name never made it to Charles’s memory. Some kind of engineer, Charles thought, listening to him ramble. He didn’t chase the guy away, even a chatty drunk was better than looking at the dance floor. He couldn’t tell how much time had passed, before he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Someone spun him around none too gently, and then, before Charles could react in any way, Logan pushed him back against the bar and kissed him, open-mouthed and hungry, the kind of kiss he knew turned Charles on. His unfortunate companion squealed something and disappeared into the background, and Charles would have laughed if Logan let him. When Logan did at last let him up for air, Charles’s head was spinning.

“Thank you,” he said, looking up to see naked want in Logan’s eyes. It made him blush a little. “I know it’s not our thing, but thank you for coming to get me anyway.”

Logan sighed. “It’s not our thing because you decided it’s not our thing. You never asked me. I don’t mind.”

“Oh,” Charles said. “Sorry?”

Logan rolled his eyes then reached to undo Charles’s tie, tugging it off, leaving the collar of his shirt to fall open as Logan had apparently undone the buttons while Charles was distracted.

“Hey!” Charles protested, laughing, reaching to snatch the tie back.

Logan held it away from him easily. “You look much better without,” he said, eyes sliding up and down Charles in frank appraisal. “Never seen you in a suit. Looks good.”

There was nothing for it but kiss him again, and Charles didn’t care that his tie ended up on the floor, Logan’s hand sliding under his jacket, the other one holding him close by the neck. He couldn’t tell how much time had passed until he became aware of someone clearing their throat next to them pointedly. Dazedly, Charles blinked his eyes open.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, gentlemen,” Pepper Potts said, her smile unfazed, “but we need to keep it PG around here or Tony escalates.”

“Oh, no, don’t interrupt them,” Tony whined, coming into view next to her. “Another minute and we could have started charging for the show.” He winked at Charles. “Never knew you had it in you. No, wait, I’m lying. Always knew you had it in you. And he’s right, it’s much better without the tie. Tony Stark.” He turned to Logan, offering a hand.

Logan freed one hand to shake. “Logan.”

“No last name?”

“He doesn’t seem to believe in them,” Charles said.

“Oh, better and better.” Tony rubbed his hands excitedly. “Charles, I’m impressed. A little insulted, mind you, that you turned me down all those times, but still impressed. So if you two want to carry on as you were, as the CEO of this company and your host tonight, I have absolutely no objections.”

“Tony—” Pepper began to protest.

Charles laughed. “All right, all right, we’re going. Great party, Tony, Pepper, as always.”

He turned to go, pulling Logan after him by the shirt, and came face to face with Erik.

Charles froze. The expression on Erik’s face was one of cold fury.

“Well, Charles, you’ve been making a lovely spectacle of yourself,” Erik said in a tone Charles had never heard from him before. “Who’s this then?”

“Let me guess,” Logan said from behind Charles. “Mr. Oblivious.”

Charles swallowed. “Logan, this is my best friend Erik Lehnsherr. Erik, Logan.”

“Charmed,” Erik drawled. “So, Logan, you like pushing people around, do you? Physically subduing someone smaller than you turns you on? Holding them down so that they don’t run away screaming?”

“Erik!” Charles gaped at him. “What the hell is the matter with you?”

“I never hold anyone down unless they ask me to,” Logan said, speaking over him. “Repeatedly. At volume. Doesn’t happen to you, does it?”

“None of your business what happens to me.”

“None of yours what happens in my sex life.”

“It is if it involves my best friend coming to my house looking like he’s been savaged by a beast.”

“Oh my God, Erik, shut up. What’s gotten into you? Are you drunk? Magda!” Charles spotted her over Erik’s shoulder, standing close. “A little help here?”

But Magda said nothing, apparently content to watch.

“I’m tired of seeing him wince every time he moves,” Erik said, ignoring Charles completely. “Is it beyond your intellectual capacity to measure your strength or are you just a dick who gets off on hurting people?”

“Charles,” Logan seemed to finally remember he was there, even if he didn’t look away from Erik. “Have I ever done anything to you, you didn’t want?”

“No,” Charles said. “Of course, not. You’re completely out of line, Erik. Stop it.”

“Am I? I look after my own.”

“Well, he’s not yours, is he?” Logan said. “And he’s not complaining.”

“He doesn’t have to. I know him.”

“Not as well as you’d like, I bet.”

“Better than you any day—”

“Stop it, the both of you!” Charles snapped. “I’m standing right here! Erik, I don’t know what the hell is the matter with you, but back the fuck off. I can take care of myself.”

“Can you,” Erik said flatly, still glaring at Logan. “I wonder.”

“Oh, you wonder all right,” Logan sneered, stepping closer. “You wonder what it’s like to hold him down and have him at your mercy. You wonder what he feels like when you’re balls-deep in him. You wonder what he sounds like when he begs you for more—”

Erik lunging forward was predictable, but he threw the punch too fast for Charles to follow. Logan went with it, letting him land a grazing blow, but stopped even before Charles jumped in between them.

“You keep wondering,” Logan said, as though there was no interruption, as though his lip wasn’t bleeding. “Because you’ll never know.”

He turned, stalking off toward the elevators, people giving him a wide berth. Charles looked at Erik one last time, unable to believe any of it had happened, before he followed, head bowed to avoid the stares.

The car ride was silent, as Charles was too furious to speak. Once inside Logan’s apartment, however, he couldn’t hold back his anger and confusion.

“What the hell was that about?”

Logan shrugged, unimpressed. “Your best friend is a dick.”

“And what are you? What the hell was that, Logan?”

“Someone had to give him a taste of his own medicine. Might as well have been me.”

Charles glared at him. “And what has that accomplished? Apart from announcing my sexual preferences to the entire room?”

Logan rolled his eyes. “Anyone looking at you would want to rough you up a bit, that’s not a state secret.” He paused. “Though I suppose you’d want gentle from him. Slow and sweet, eh?”

Charles’s eyes closed as he shook his head. “Shut up. God, just shut up.”

“You brought this on yourself, you know. You told me you were in love with him. You didn’t tell me he was in love with you.”

“That’s because he’s not.”

Logan stared at him. “It’s like you’ve been writing your damn thesis this whole time tonight and weren’t even there.”

“I was there, all right? I was. I know what it looked like, but that’s just how Erik is. He’s territorial over people he considers family. Granted, he never hit anyone before, but he’d obviously had too much to drink tonight. It doesn’t mean anything.”

Logan gave him an incredulous look. “How is it that people think you’re so damn smart anyway? You’re clueless as a damn puppy.”

“Logan—”

“No, Charles, you know what? You want to hide your head in the sand, be my fucking guest. But don’t expect me to buy into your bullshit, because it ain’t going to happen.”

Charles sighed, too tired for any of it. “Can’t you just fuck me?” he asked, his tone way more plaintive than he’d like. He didn’t care. “I’m tired. I just want to go to bed and forget this whole damn night ever happened.”

Logan watched him silently for a few moments, then stepped closer. “Clueless,” he repeated. “A goddamn clueless idiot. Look at you. There’s no one in their right mind out there who’d turn you down. I sure as hell won’t. If you’re waiting for me to do the noble thing, think again. I’m not that noble. You’re hot, and I will fuck you any time you offer, it’s as simple as that. What do you really want, Charles?”

Charles looked up at him, his confidence solidifying. “You, in me, now. I want you to make me scream.”

Logan’s eyes gleamed as he jerked Charles forward none too gently, slotting their lips together.

*

Erik didn’t call. Charles didn’t expect him to. But he also never expected to get a call from Magda a few days later asking him if he’d like to meet up for lunch. Charles agreed automatically, before ending the call and staring at his phone in confusion.

It wasn’t like they never saw each other when Erik wasn’t around, but it was unusual. Prenatal yoga, Charles remembered. If he could do that, he could do this. Of course, he had barely known Magda at the time, and it was far easier to provide support for a scared teenage girl you didn’t really know than it was to deal with a confident, shrewd woman you cared about.

They met at an artsy café near the gallery where Magda worked. She was waiting for him already when he entered and smiled in greeting as he leaned to kiss her cheek.

“Thanks for meeting me,” Magda said after they’d placed their orders.

“No problem.” Charles leaned back in his chair. “I’m always happy to have an excuse to leave the lab these days.”

They smiled at each other. Silence reigned.

“So,” Charles started cautiously. “On a scale from one to ten, how big a fit did he have that night?”

Her grin was reluctant, but it was there. “Fifteen.”

“Ah.” Charles paused. “Look, I’m sorry. I had no idea Erik would react this way, or I never would have asked Logan to pick me up.”

“You had no idea.” Magda stared at him.

Charles shifted in his seat, uncomfortable. “Erik never… Look, you know I’ve dated people before. He’s never had a problem with it. Well, apart from Raven, but you both hated Raven.”

“That’s because Raven would have gotten you killed, Charles. Or thrown in jail.”

“Maybe.” Charles shrugged. “Point is, no, I had no idea he would suddenly fly off the handle and actually hit someone. Was he that drunk?”

“A glass of champagne.”

It was Charles’s turn to stare. “You’re kidding me.”

“No. You deal with things by getting drunk, which is what you normally do at Tony’s parties. Yes, I noticed, I have eyes. But Erik doesn’t use alcohol like that.”

True enough, Charles reflected. “Did he say what set him off then?”

Magda frowned at him in disapproval as though he was deliberately slow. “Really, Charles?”

“He knew I was seeing someone. He never had a problem before – hell, he tried to set me up more than once.”

“No, he tolerated me trying to set you up, that’s different, and only because it was with women. You only dated women before, Charles. Oh, I’m sure you’ve slept with men, you looked too comfortable for this to be new, but Erik has never seen you with a man before. There’s a huge difference between knowing it’s theoretically possible and actually seeing that man kissing you like that and tearing your clothes off in front of everyone.”

Charles colored. “It was only my tie, and we didn’t mean to create a display. I’d been drinking. And Logan – well, he doesn’t care much for propriety.”

Magda shook her head, smiling sadly. “Oh, believe me, if it wasn’t for Erik, I wouldn’t have complained at all. That was probably the hottest thing I’ve seen in – well, in a long time. Which is sad, come to think of it.”

“Um.” Charles cleared his throat, utterly embarrassed. “Well.”

She looked at him, grinning. “You know, when we first met, I had such a crush on you. You were cute, and kind, and, well, Erik scared me a little back then. If I wasn’t already pregnant, I think I’d have made a play for you.”

Charles snorted. “You’re much better off, believe me.”

“Am I? I don’t know. You know that Erik only married me because of Anya. No, Charles, it’s the truth, we all know it. We do fit together, and we worked hard for it, both of us. But we didn’t start this way, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

“You know, that last time we had sex before I realized I was pregnant? He told me he didn’t want to see me again. Not to be mean or anything, but he let me know that he wasn’t interested. I asked him why.” She looked pensive. “And he said – well, he said he was in love with someone already. That it was hopeless. They were unavailable for whatever reason. But he loved them and didn’t feel it would be fair to me. So we broke up. Or rather – never started anything.”

Charles was staring at her, confused. “But there was no one. I mean – Erik wouldn’t lie, we both know that. He wouldn’t lie to make himself look better, he doesn’t care. He – I mean, obviously, it was years ago and a very hectic time, but I would have known if he’d been pining for someone. He’d have told me.”

Magda was watching him with the same strange, sad smile she’d been smiling since Charles sat down. “There are none so blind as those who will not see,” she said softly. “Charles. Think again. Was there truly no one?”

Charles frowned. “No. I’m certain of it. He’d spent most of his time studying; he was so determined to graduate early. What little free time he had he usually spent with me. We—”

He stopped talking.

“No,” he said. “No.”

Magda sighed and took a sip of water. “You don’t have to freak out. I’ve known the whole time.”

“Then – why?” Charles stared at her. “All this time, why did you – God, Magda. After Anya was born, I’d spent more time in your apartment than I had in mine. I was constantly there. You – you encouraged it. Why would you do that if you thought that he – that I–”

“Because I love you, too, you idiot. Charles, you and Erik have been friends since you were eight years old. You’d been together long before he had too much to drink and stumbled into my bed. You’d been together when we decided to create this family. You’re as much of a parent to Anya as Erik and I, you just don’t live with her. You can legally take her out of the country. You are the medical proxy for all three of us. Charles, who was I to tell you to stay away? If anything, I barged in on you two, and you made room for me – no, not even that.” She leaned forward in her seat and took his hand in both her own. “You gave up your place for me, and I took it.”

“Magda, that’s not—”

“Hush. I was scared out of my wits at the time. You know my parents. You know how much I was afraid of them. Do you know why I slept with Erik in the first place? I was barely eighteen, Charles. I saw him at that stupid frat party, and I thought that if my parents saw me with him, they’d be horrified. Good, solid reason to start a family, isn’t it?”

“We all make mistakes.”

“Yes, but if we’re lucky we can correct them. We made it work, Erik and I. And you, let’s not forget you. Without you constantly there, I very much doubt we’d have lasted until Anya’s second birthday. I love Erik, and he loves me, but Charles, we’re like brothers in arms. We’re family, yes, but not lovers, not in that sense.”

He pulled his hand back, unnerved, anxious. “Magda, what are you saying?”

“Oh, we do have sex, that’s not what I meant. We’re not in love with each other, never have been. Never will be. I knew it then, I know it now. And I have a confession to make. I realized you were in love with him pretty early on. I didn’t say anything first because I was afraid to lose him. I wouldn’t have been able to raise Anya on my own, not then. But later, when things settled, when we were comfortable, I looked at you and I still saw it, clear as a day. You were always ready to do anything for him, and for me, and the way you looked at him sometimes…”

“I’m sorry,” Charles whispered. “I never realized it myself.”

“I know.” She smiled. “I never said anything, because for the longest time I thought it was just you. I thought Erik had gotten over you. He was happy. I didn’t want him to lose you over this, so I never said.”

“But you tried to set me up with all those women,” Charles remembered.

“I wanted you to move on and be happy, too. I thought that Erik had. Please believe me, Charles, I genuinely thought he’d moved on. But that night at Tony’s party, when he saw you together with – with that man—”

“Logan.”

“Logan. When he saw you together, Charles, the look on his face. He looked like someone had shot him. I half expected to see a sniper when I turned around. You know what happened next, of course. You thought he was drunk, but Charles, when your friend taunted him – about what it would be like to make love to you, he hit center mass every time.”

Charles shook his head. “Why are you telling me this? I appreciate the honesty, Magda, I do. And I’m – relieved that you’re not angry at me. But I don’t see how talking about it would help anyone. You and Erik have a good thing going. You’re a true family, you love each other, you love Anya. Only a madman would rock that boat. And I’m with Logan now, and maybe it’s not true love, maybe it’s not what I feel for Erik, but it’s good. I do believe he cares about me in his own way. Maybe in time I’ll move on as you said.”

“So what you’re saying is, Erik isn’t worth it.”

“I’m saying it is what it is. He and I had a chance to figure it out before he met you – we didn’t. Maybe it’s for the best. Certainly, Anya deserves to have a real family.”

“Anya is my child, Charles. She’s more important to me than anything. But she is just one person. She doesn’t outweigh three other people. Besides, she’s twelve next week. She’s always been ahead of the curve, you know that. She can understand things now that we couldn’t have explained to her three or four years ago. Her universe will be shifted, certainly. But we’d all still be here for her. She loves you. I don’t think you know how much.”

Charles stared at her, numbly. “What are you saying, Magda?” he asked again.

She smiled at him. “Thirteen years ago I took your place because I was a scared little girl who messed up and didn’t have a single friend in the whole wide world. I’m not scared anymore, Charles. It’s time you took your place back.”

*

He said no. The price was way too high, and he said no. He wouldn’t ruin the happiness of three people out of selfishness. He’d rather walk away than risk wrecking all their lives. He understood where Magda was coming from, and it was noble of her to offer. But he’d be the last person on Earth if he’d taken her up on that. He could see the pain she was trying so hard to hide. She might not have been in love with Erik when they had met, but she certainly was now. Erik loved her. It would have to be good enough.

Charles said no. Two weeks later, he broke up with Logan.

Logan didn’t look surprised. “Time to skip town anyway. I gave my notice to the firm last week. Have two more shifts at the bar and then I’m off.”

Charles stared at him. “You knew I was going to do this?”

Logan rolled his eyes. “No, that came out of nowhere,” he said dryly. “He’s still a dick.”

Charles smiled at him. “Well, apparently, I have a type.”

Logan snorted. “One for the road?”

Charles nodded and kissed him, tugging at his shirt. He was going to miss Logan.

He defended his thesis to a sweltering success and had been offered a tenure-track position. Charles accepted, but requested a brief sabbatical before the next semester. He flew out to San Francisco to visit friends, but ended up taking long walks along the beach and avoiding people. He reached for his phone a thousand times, but never did place the call. What could he possibly say? They had done nothing wrong, none of them, and yet what a fine mess they had created.

If only he didn’t feel the way he felt. If only he’d have figured it out sooner and had the good sense to pull away. If only Anya wasn’t in the mix – and the very fact that he even had that thought made him the monster he would undoubtedly seem to her. If only Charles had been less clueless back before Erik and Magda had even met—

Surely, love that brought on that much guilt couldn’t be a good thing. Was it even love if it was that selfish? What kind of person would wish for his dear friend to leave his beautiful family and a perfect life for a chance to be together and a murky future, disregarding the damage they caused in the process?

In the end, it was really simple. There was the wrong thing to do and the right thing to do, and Charles knew one from the other, no matter what Magda said. No joy can be built on the grief of others.

If Charles truly loved Erik, it was time to let him go.

*

The fall semester was well underway by the time Charles got back. He went back to work quietly, substituting here and there until his own courses would start in January, and spent a lot of time in the lab. He found a very discreet real estate agent who helped him sell the condo without much fuss about it and then moved into a humble but cozy apartment that was closer to campus and didn’t require the use of a cleaning service to maintain in order. He looked at the videos of Anya’s dance recitals and pictures from outings with what looked like a tight gang of friends that she posted on her Facebook, but never once succumbed to the urge to call or drop by. Instead of going out for drinks, he fell into the habit of going out on long walks or went jogging in the park despite the chilly weather.

It was a strange kind of living, unusual for him, but he realized he liked it. Ever since he met Erik all those years ago, Charles had never been alone. Even when Erik’s time was no longer his alone, he seemed to have abhorred vacuum and clang to Raven or got entangled with Logan – anything to avoid being alone with himself. What was he running from? He didn’t know, but now that he was finally facing it, he found there was a strange kind of contentment in being contained so completely within his own skin.

“Hey, Professor.” Jean poked her head into his office, a shy smile on her face. “So, a group of us are headed out for an early Thanksgiving celebration – you know, before people leave for the weekend. Would you like to come?”

Charles smiled back. “A group of you, huh?”

Jean colored slightly, coming more fully through the door. “Oh, you know. Scott, Alex, Ororo. The usual suspects.”

“Well then, you wouldn’t want an old fart like me to spoil the fun.” Charles grinned at her. “But thank you for the invitation.”

“Oh no, we’d really enjoy it if you came,” she said, stepping closer to his desk, eyes wide and earnest. “You tell the best stories, Professor, and you can out-drink Sean, and—”

“And what?”

She bit her lip. “You um. I’m sorry, it’s just – you seemed a little – well, a little – down lately. We just thought—”

“I see.” Charles suppressed a sigh. He didn’t realize he was that transparent. “It’s very kind of you, Jean. All of you. But I’m fine. Truly.”

“So you’ll come?”

“I’m touched, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. You lot will have much more fun without me. No, trust me,” he said, seeing her ready to argue. “I know it’s hard to believe but I was a student once. The only time I would have wanted one of my professors around in a social situation was when – um, actually, let’s not get into that, in fact, forget I said that. Um. My point is, you should go out and have fun without me.”

Jean’s expression was not unlike Anya’s when Charles said no to getting her a third helping of ice cream. “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, Professor, but you’re a horrible tease.”

He smirked at her. “And you’re straining into the territory where if you’d go any further your boyfriend would be obligated to mess up my face, and as it happens I’m rather attached to it. Go on, Jean. See you after the break.”

She sighed, accepting defeat. “We’ll be at Reggie’s if you change your mind. Happy Thanksgiving, Professor. Oh, and for the record? I think you could totally take Scott.”

Charles grinned, shaking his head. “Happy Thanksgiving, Jean.”

It felt unnaturally quiet after the door had closed behind her. Charles’s concentration seemed to have abandoned him and it took him a few minutes to realize that he was sitting there staring at the paper in front of him blankly without taking anything in. With a sigh, he closed his laptop. It felt odd not to have any plans for the holidays. He had no blood family left to go see, and his real family was off limits to him at the moment. He could go to a bar, he supposed, look for another holiday orphan and have some fun, but the thought, once attractive, was now repellent. The effort of the seduction game, some stranger’s hands on him… No. Just no. Well, nothing wrong with catching up on some work then.

He stepped out of the building into the crisp night air – how was it dark already? – and contemplated the merits of the lengthy walk to his apartment as opposed to waiting for a cab, strangely hesitant in making his decision.

“Charles?”

He looked up and froze. She was standing there, leaning against the railing, in her red woolen coat and the dark blue scarf he bought for her last year, looking every bit the girl he’d held in his arms minutes after her birth and the young woman she’d become when he wasn’t looking. Her lips were pursed exactly the same as Erik’s when he was so upset he was angry, the sight making his heart clench painfully in his chest, but as their eyes met, her chin wobbled.

“Anya,” he breathed out, and she ran to him, nearly knocking him over, surprisingly strong arms looping around him as she ducked her head under his chin, hiding. Charles let go of his bag and papers like they were nothing and wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her hair, breathing in deeply. “Oh God, I missed you. I missed you so much.”

“I missed you, too,” she said, and it came with a whimper, making him clutch her tighter, his own eyes watering. “You never come around anymore. You – you left us—”

“No, no, Anya, God, no. Not you, never you.” He pressed frantic kisses into her hair and held her that much tighter. Then, a terrifying thought occurred to him and he pulled back to look at her face. “How did you get here?”

She bit her lip and looked away the same way – oh God, the same way he did when he wanted to avoid a question.

“Subway.”

What?

She snorted at his horrified expression. “Not really, I took a cab.”

Charles frowned. “That’s not much better.”

Anya rolled her eyes. “JARVIS called it for me and I had him on the line the whole time. I’m not stupid.”

“No, of course not.” Charles exhaled slowly, relenting. “Do your parents know where you are?”

Her chin jutted forward stubbornly. “Yes.”

Anya.”

“Well, Dad thinks I’m at Molly’s.”

“Anya,” Charles sighed.

“Well, why should I tell them everything? They don’t. They think I’m a baby. They never explain anything.” Her eyes were flashing; she was clearly gearing up for a rant. “And you’re not much better. You just – disappear. Like you don’t care about me anymore, like you’ve forgotten all about me—”

“Anya, no.” Charles squeezed her hands in his, feeling sick with himself. “I’m so sorry. It had nothing to do with you. I love you. I would never leave you. It’s just that it’s – well, it’s a bit complicated at the moment, and I thought—”

“Adults only say that when they don’t want to explain.” She gave him a mulish look. “I thought you – I thought you would be honest.”

Charles was looking at her helplessly. Could he explain? Did he have the right to? He wasn’t her parent, no matter how much he felt like one. Erik should have done this, but Erik was, of course, the last person one would expect to navigate through conflicting emotions willingly. Magda, Charles could never tell what Magda was thinking. And Anya – Anya came to him, she was asking him. He would not abandon her, not again, even if it cost him later.

“Come on,” he said, squeezing her shoulder. “Let’s get some hot chocolate and talk.”

She stared at him suspiciously. “Really?”

Charles sighed but managed a smile. “Yes, really. Help me with these, please.”

Together they collected his things, and Charles led the way to the nearest coffeeshop, which was of course, filled to the brim with students. The same happened with the next two, and he was getting a little desperate, even if Anya said nothing. Was it acceptable to bring a thirteen-year-old to a bar? Charles wondered, but it wasn’t as though he had a choice. Reggie’s was at least respectable and probably quieter than most, and he led the way with a resigned sigh, ignoring the unholy glee in Anya’s eyes.

They were lucky enough to snag a booth in the far corner, and it was only as someone called out to Charles that he remembered. He looked at the big table where Jean, Scott and the rest of the gang were gathered, and waved at them, hand tight on Anya’s shoulder. Jean, cheeks flushed with alcohol and excitement, danced over to them, eyes curious.

“No wonder you turned us down,” she said, grinning. “You had a date.”

“A surprise date,” Charles replied, smiling. “Jean, this is my goddaughter Anya. Anya, this is Jean Grey, my TA and one of the smartest people I know.”

“Nice to meet you,” Anya said, gazing at Jean with sharp suspicion even as she was smiling. That was Erik, all Erik, Charles sighed inwardly.

“Jean, you’ll have to excuse us,” he said, pushing Anya gently into the booth. “Anya and I are overdue for some time together.”

“Of course.” Jean smiled and then, leaning forward with the jolted grace of someone slightly tipsy, pressed a soft kiss to Charles’s cheek. “I’m just glad you’re not alone, Professor,” she whispered and brushed past him, heading back to her friends.

Charles glanced at Anya. “I’ll get us drinks.”

Sadly but unsurprisingly there was no hot chocolate on offer, but there was non-alcoholic mulled wine. Charles figured he was probably damned either way and bought two.

Anya was watching Jean across the room when he got back.

“She’s very pretty,” she said to Charles accusingly.

At another time, it would have been amusing, even endearing. Charles suppressed a sigh.

“She’s my TA, Anya,” he said gently, pushing her drink toward her.

“So what?” Anya scowled. “She can’t be your girlfriend if she’s your TA?”

“That would be unethical. I’m her boss and her academic advisor. Even if I were interested, which I’m not, it wouldn’t be right. Besides, Jean is very much in love with her boyfriend.”

“What, that guy?” Anya scoffed, looking at Scott. “Please. I saw the way she looked at you. She’d dump him in a second. I know I would. He’s like a stale bread roll nobody wants.”

Charles shook his head. “Thank you for that charming mental image. I’m not interested in Jean, Anya.”

“Because you like guys?”

Charles paused, mentally reviewing every conversation he, Erik, and Magda ever had with Anya on the subject of sexuality. Of course, there could have been quite a number of discussions since, but he was pretty sure they wouldn’t change the general policy. The three of them had decided from the beginning that they would always tell Anya the truth. Age-appropriate, sure, but never clog her mind with polite fictions or dismiss her with any version of ‘you’re not old enough for this.’ If she was old enough to ask the question, she was old enough to be given a truthful answer. The next generation had to be smarter than they had been.

“I like both,” he said calmly, holding her eyes. “Do you remember we talked about how some people like both men and women and there’s nothing wrong with that?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course, I remember, I’m not five, Charles. So do you think my dad is like that?”

Charles lifted his eyebrows. “I honestly don’t know. That is a question only your dad can answer.”

“But you’ve known him forever. And you’re in love with him.”

“Ah.” Charles paused, blushing under her gaze. Magda. No question about it. “Anya, I’ve known your dad for a very long time. We met when we were younger even than you are right now, and he’s been my best friend ever since. I love him, yes. Nothing will ever change that. And I am also” – he swallowed then plowed on –“in love with him. I didn’t know for the longest time. It’s possible to not know.”

“But you’re not together.” Anya’s lower lip quivered dangerously. “And it’s all because of me. You’re unhappy because of me, because I exist.”

Charles’s mouth fell open. “What?

“He loved you in college, and you would have been together, but then he knocked up Mama and had to marry her, and now everybody’s unhappy because of me!” She shot it all out in a tense, desperate stream of words, her huge brown eyes – Magda’s eyes – brimming with tears. “I never should have been born! You all should have aborted me.”

Charles stared at her, speechless, but the moment her tears spilled, he was galvanized into action. Grabbing her hands across the table he squeezed them tightly, leaning forward.

“Anya, listen to me. You were unplanned, that’s true. The best things in life always are.”

“How can you say—”

“You were unplanned, but never unwanted. Do you understand? Since the moment we found out your mom was pregnant, there hasn’t been a day, not a single minute where Erik or I have regretted it. You are the best thing to have ever happened to us, and honestly, I’m just grateful I was allowed to be in your life, to get to know you, to watch you grow, because you, Anya, you are extraordinary, and I love you more than anything. And your dad and your mom feel exactly the same.”

She sniffed, tears spilling. “You do?”

“Oh darling, of course we do. Never doubt that. You were a gift, an unexpected one, but aren’t those the best kind? Look at you. You’re so beautiful and smart and kind, and you have wonderful balance when you dance – just like your mom, and you have a temper – just like your dad; and we couldn’t have asked for you – because we never could have imagined you the way you are. You’re perfect. If we could know the future back then, if we could see you as you are now, none of us would have changed a thing. Believe me.”

She gazed at him through the veil of tears, listening with what looked like her entire being, until her face scrunched up and she pulled her hands free, only to move around the table and smash into Charles, holding onto him for dear life. Charles held her and held her, his own heart breaking over and over again, as he whispered soothing nonsense into her hair.

“I’m sorry we dragged you into this,” he muttered, hands rubbing gentle circles on her back. “I never meant to – I never wanted—”

“To be in love with Dad?” she mumbled into his jacket, clutching at him. “It’s not your fault.”

“No, I know. But I made things difficult for everybody and I’m sorry about that. That’s why I haven’t been around lately. Your mom and dad needed to work some things out, and my presence wasn’t helping.”

Anya pulled back and looked up at him, frowning slightly. “Mama moved out three months ago. They’re separated.”

Charles felt as though the bench had suddenly jolted beneath him. “What?”

“You didn’t know? Dad was supposed to call you. Mama made him promise before she left.”

Charles’s head was spinning. “Left?”

“Yeah. She got an apartment near the gallery; it’s super chic. I stay with her half the time, and the other half with Dad.”

Charles was struggling to keep up, but was failing miserably. “When has all of this… How?.. Dammit, Magda, why would you—”

“She said she deserved to be happy, too,” Anya informed him with a superior air of someone in possession of vital information and fully cognizant of it. “I overheard her talking to her friend on the phone. She went out to dinner last week with that Armando guy from the gallery, you know the one always pining after her? She said she’s never given him a chance before, but now she wants to see where it’s going.”

“You should stop listening to your parents’ conversations,” Charles said weakly. “Oh God, Anya, I am so sorry. I’ll speak to your mom. I’m sure this could all be worked out.”

“Why?” She stared at him, bewildered.

Charles felt it was his turn to stare. “Aren’t you upset about it? Your parents separating, your mom dating someone else?”

Anya shrugged. “I was at first. But then… Mama is really happy. I’ve never seen her like that. She cut her hair and she bought new clothes, and she laughs all the time. She looks like – like Jean,” Anya said, glancing briefly over her shoulder. “Young and beautiful. She was so quiet before. Her and Dad, they’d just be silent at each other when you weren’t there.”

Charles couldn’t for the life of him find anything to say to that.

“I’m sorry that Dad is so sad, though,” Anya said quietly. “He works a lot. And he takes me to the office sometimes, because he wants to spend time with me, but then he mostly yells at Mr. Stark, and Mr. Stark yells back, and I go and help Pepper.”

“I – see.”

“He took me to see Sleeping Beauty a couple of weeks ago.”

“Erik went to see a ballet?” Charles couldn’t help himself. “Voluntarily?”

Anya scowled. “Yes, and he’s useless, he’s not like you at all. All he said, when I asked him what he thought about it, was that the ballerinas were too loud when they jumped on stage.”

Charles couldn’t help a snort of laughter, Anya copying her father’s intonations precisely. Anya glowered at him for it, but eventually broke into giggles.

“You’ll take me now that you’re back, right, Charles? Please? I still haven’t seen Swan Lake and Bolshoi Ballet comes in two weeks and they say there are no tickets already, and—”

“Of course, we’ll go, love, don’t worry,” Charles reassured her, squeezing her hands.

“Oh! Great! Except—”

“What?”

“I have nothing to wear.” Her pout was as magnificent as it was artistic.

Charles laughed. “You’re growing up to be quite shameless, you know that?”

She grinned, unrepentant. “Well, Pepper said she could take me, but she always chooses such boring outfits… You’re much better.”

“Oh, I see my true value now. And here I thought you loved me for myself.”

She looped her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, murmuring quietly in his ear. “I really missed you. Don’t leave again.”

“I won’t.” Charles dropped a kiss to her forehead. “I promise.”

Charles got them another round of hot drinks and listened as Anya chatted animatedly about ballet and her own dance practice, about the new boy in her class and how her French teacher was a character from Despicable Me in disguise. He nodded and made encouraging noises, but he was mostly engaged in watching her, almost afraid to believe what he was seeing.

She didn’t seem broken. She didn’t seem lost. Slightly disoriented, perhaps, but having obviously landed on her feet just the same. Charles couldn’t believe his luck – their luck. If he’d managed to fuck that up, if he’d ruined her childhood with his untimely, completely inappropriate emotions, he’d have killed himself. But Anya seemed fine. Was fine, if his senses were to be believed. He could barely count his blessings.

Just as he was about to call for a cab, Anya’s phone began ringing, emitting a horrible ear-piercing sound that was Tony Stark’s very special ‘pick-up-within-five-rings-or-all-hell-will-descend-on-you’ tone. Anya stilled, looking at the phone horrified, then answered it, leaving it on speaker and sending a pleading look at Charles.

“Hello?”

Devil Spawn,” Tony’s voice drifted over the line as nonchalant and obnoxious as ever. “Have you sustained grievous bodily harm and/or been kidnapped by parties unknown?

“You can’t call me that, Mr. Stark, it’s not polite,” Anya protested. “And no.”

You’re Lehnsherr’s blood, what else am I supposed to call you? An adorable ball of evil, how about that?

Anya snickered.

So JARVIS tells me that your current location is an establishment that serves alcohol. Care to explain yourself, young lady, before your father has an aneurysm?

“I, um…” Anya blinked, looking up at Charles in panic.

Charles suppressed a sigh and leaned closer. “Hello, Tony. Anya’s fine; she’s with me. Everything else was full; I had to take her somewhere.”

There was a pause, and then Tony purred, “Charles, what a pleasant surprise. I should have guessed, considering the location. So. You don’t write, you don’t call, and now you’re cheating on me with younger women? You call that love?

Charles rolled his eyes; Anya giggled.

“You do realize you’re on speaker, right?”

Really? Hm. My bad,” he sounded completely unconcerned. “So kindly tell the Devil Spawn, that is to say the young Miss Lehnsherr, that she’s in big trouble, and incidentally she shouldn’t trust JARVIS not to tattle, because he’s a giant snitch.

“I’m sure she knows that, so her calling him can only speak for her responsibility and a fine sense of judgment.”

Responsibility? What is this responsibility that you speak of? It sounds so… uncomfortable.

“I’m sure,” Charles snorted. “If you see Erik, tell him not to worry, I’m taking her home now.”

Charles. You do realize you’re on speaker, right?

Oh. Charles’s pulse jumped, white noise momentarily filling his ears.

“Right,” he said. “Well, um. We’ll be in soon.”

I sent a car for you, it’s almost there. By the way, if you suddenly want to defect to Canada, the driver will take you. I’d strongly consider it, if I were you. Just a tip.

Charles smiled, despite himself. “Thank you, Tony. A pleasure as always.”

Don’t mention it.

He disconnected the call and met Anya’s eyes. “Well, looks like both of us are in trouble now.”

Anya bit her lip. “Maybe Mr. Stark had the right idea?”

Charles laughed, shaking his head. “No, it’s time to face the music, I imagine. Come on, the sooner we go—”

“—the sooner Dad will start yelling at both of us,” she finished glumly, but obediently picked up her coat. “I think I’d like Canada.”

“Yeah,” Charles sighed. “I probably would, too.”

The ride was mostly silent, Anya curled at his side in the backseat, gazing out the window. Charles’s mind kept spinning restlessly, exhausting itself. He hadn’t spoken to Erik since Tony’s party. Was Erik still mad? Would he even want to talk to Charles? And if he did, what could Charles possibly say to him to make any of this better?

When they got to Erik’s building, Charles was seriously considering not even going in and only seeing that Anya would do so. But when the car pulled up at the curb, Erik was waiting just outside the entrance, arms folded over his chest. He looked unfairly good, Charles thought, his heart sinking. The universe had no mercy.

“Hi, Dad,” Anya said walking up to him in clear challenge. “Yes, I went to see Charles. Sorry I didn’t tell you, but you snapped at me every time I mentioned him, and I wanted to see him! Actually, I’m not sorry at all.”

Erik’s demeanor changed from angry to startled in the blink of an eye. “I didn’t snap at you—”

“You made a face every time, like I hit you or something, and then you said, ‘I’m not talking about it,’” she mimicked him with quite a lot of malice.

Oh, Charles thought, and Erik looked away.

“I, um, I’d better go,” he said hesitantly, wishing he didn’t dismiss the driver. “I still have class tomorrow. Anya, I’ll see you real soon, okay? That is,” Charles stumbled, “whenever you’re allowed to.”

“Charles, wait,” Erik said, stepping forward, an impressive scowl on his face. “Of course, she’s allowed to see you, I would never – what the hell?” He glowered at his daughter. “You can see Charles any time you want, but you have to tell me or him or your mom – tell someone, don’t just disappear. You have no idea how worried I was.” Anya opened her mouth, but he lifted a hand, halting her. “No. You, upstairs, now. I need to speak to Charles, and then we’ll talk, okay?”

Anya looked between them, clearly hesitating. “You won’t yell?”

Erik scowled in frustration. “No, I won’t yell, what on earth is the matter with you? Since when am I the monster?”

“Sorry, Dad. I just – I really wanted to see him.”

“Go,” Erik repeated without acknowledging her words. “We’ll talk.”

Anya hugged Charles briefly and ran off, the concierge opening the door for her, smiling kindly.

Silence stretched, filled with the noise of cars rushing by and snatches of music drifting over from the nearby restaurant. Charles rocked on his feet back and forth, unaccountably nervous.

Do you want to yell?” he asked at last tentatively.

Erik sighed, rubbing at his face. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. Not at her, at any rate.”

“At me?”

“No, not at you. At myself maybe.” He pursed his lips. “I never told her she couldn’t see you. I don’t know why she would think that. You have to believe me, I would never—”

“Hush, of course, I believe you.” Charles took a deep breath. “Look, Erik, I’m sorry. Anya told me about Magda. I’m really, really sorry. I never wanted that.”

“It wasn’t you.” Erik shook his head. “I mean, the party was – a catalyst, of sorts, but in retrospect, I think she was relieved. We were good together, but she wanted more – she deserved more, and I didn’t see it. I just thought that was all there was to it, you know? Family, stability, respect.” His eyes fixed on Charles’s, painfully honest. “Anything else was an idle fantasy.”

Charles swallowed, glanced away. “I still can’t believe it’s come to this. If only I’d…” He trailed off, utterly disgusted with himself. “I’m so sorry.”

“Charles.” Erik stepped closer to him. “You didn’t break anything. Magda and I, we never were what you thought us to be. We were – a crisis management team, if you will. It took me years to notice that when we weren’t talking about Anya, we didn’t really have all that much to say to each other. We could help each other strategize to get a better job or a promotion, but beyond that there wasn’t much. Well, you were our project there for a while, ever since Raven,” he admitted ruefully. “But a marriage should be more than just another day at the office, I think.” He paused, taking a breath. “Certainly I never wanted to hit Armando Munoz or anyone else who looked at Magda the way Logan looked at you.”

Charles blushed furiously, unable to hide it.

“I never apologized for that night, by the way,” Erik said softly. “I’m sorry. I was out of line. And I won’t hit him again. I mean, he was a right asshole, but so was I. You can tell him I’m sorry.”

Charles cleared his throat. “I, um, I haven’t seen Logan in five months. I think he moved back to Canada, but I’m not sure.”

Erik blinked. “Oh.”

Charles watched with interest as Erik tried to force the words ‘I’m sorry about that’ past his lips, failed miserably, and at long last gave up with a rueful shrug. Suddenly, it was imperative that Charles moved.

“Well, I’d better go,” he said, stepping back. “I do have that early class tomorrow.”

“Of course,” Erik said. “Charles? Please don’t be a stranger. Anya isn’t the only one who’s missed you.”

“I, um… right, yeah. Of course. Bye, Erik.”

He turned on his heel and all but ran away, ducking past the late pedestrians in a rush to put as much distance between himself and Erik as possible. He had no idea what he was running from, but he could feel Erik’s eyes on him all the way up until he turned the corner.

*

By the time Charles got back to his apartment, he was bone-tired yet restless. He stood in the shower until the water ran cold, but his body seemed to cling to its tension, flirting blatantly with insomnia. He didn’t even try to fight it, just put on some clothes, made some tea, and started on Hank’s notes, forcing himself to concentrate, even though his mind couldn’t settle.

A sharp knock on the door startled him, but his mind was sluggish, and instead of being surprised he wondered vaguely if there was a fire in the house, because why else would anyone come calling past one in the morning. He opened the door without a second thought.

“Erik.” Charles blinked, trying and failing to make sense of him. “What…”

“I need to know something,” Erik said, arm braced against the doorframe. “I need to know if you still – are you still—”

Charles stepped back, sinking deeper into the space of his apartment, shrinking into himself. With absolute, helpless honesty, he said, “Yes.”

Erik let out a strangled, pained sound halfway between a sob and a laugh and pressed inside, backed Charles against the wall, and kissed him desperately, like a drowning man clinging to a lifeline.

For a few glorious, overwhelming moments, Charles could do nothing but hold on to him, yielding to Erik’s need the same way he always did, hardly daring to believe it. His fingers curled around Erik’s shoulders through the rough fabric of his coat, as Erik’s cold hands cradled his face, the swell of his jaw, his nape, skimmed over his collarbone.

“Wait,” Charles mumbled, trying to pull away. “Wait, Erik. Erik. Erik. Stop.”

Erik froze against him as words penetrated and pulled back slightly, searching Charles’s eyes. “Charles?”

“You don’t have to do this,” Charles breathed out, barely able to get the words past his lips. “I’m okay. You don’t have to… I’ll be fine.”

“You’ll be fine,” Erik repeated flatly, and then suddenly sagged in Charles’s arms. “Well, I won’t be. I’m the furthest thing from fine, I – I love you. God, Charles, I’ve loved you for so long, and I could never tell, not to anyone, I couldn’t so much as—” He dropped his forehead against Charles’s and breathed in deeply, shakily. “I’ve been in love with you since you climbed over my mama’s fence and fell on your ass when we were eight. I never stopped. Do you – do you know what that’s like?”

His heart breaking neatly into a thousand pieces, Charles kicked the door closed, and pulled Erik to him, just holding him. “I think,” he whispered, “I think I have some idea.”

Erik laughed dully against his neck. “No, I don’t think you do. I think at the back of my mind I’ve always known, but I was too chickenshit to tell you. Seeing you with all those guys in college, I swore to myself that I would. But then, there was Magda, and Anya, and then I was married. I was married, Charles. I thought, this is it. This is the rest of my life now. I knew I had to get over you, and I tried – God, I tried so hard, but I couldn’t. You – you—” His arms slid around Charles, trembling, reverent and greedy. “How does one get over you? How could anyone?”

“Erik—”

“But I was married, I gave a vow, nobody forced me to. I felt like the lowest kind of scum, like I didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as my little girl, as any of you.”

Chest painfully tight, Charles was rocking him now, fingers running soothingly through Erik’s hair. “You tried to set me up with all those women. You were trying to make me off limits, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Erik breathed out, shame audible against Charles’s skin. “I didn’t trust myself, I couldn’t, not when with every passing day, with every smile you gave me, I only wanted you more. But you – you are the most decent man I know. If you were married, I could trust you to keep us both in line, or that’s what I was telling myself anyway. But then you – you told me, and I nearly went out of my mind.”

“I’m sorry,” Charles whispered. “It was selfish of me.”

“No.” Erik jerked against him sharply. “No, don’t you dare apologize. It was my mess, start to finish. But that was the only thing holding me back – the thought that you wouldn’t want it. And then—” Erik’s hands twisted forcefully, drawing a pitiful tearing sound from the thin fabric of Charles’s t-shirt. “I lied to you before. If I ever see Logan again, I swear to God, I will kill him. Seeing you with him like that—”

“I’m sorry,” Charles soothed, kissing his temple. “I never meant to hurt you. I just didn’t want to be alone that night.”

Erik jerked his head up, one hand grabbing a fistful of Charles’s hair, making him gasp, the other drawing him in by the hip. His eyes were almost black and burning. “I want you.”

And Charles, head spinning, punch-drunk with desire and relief, gave the only possible answer. “Yes.”

Every second etched itself sharply into Charles’s memory, tinged with a sense of incredulity, the utter disbelief that he wasn’t dreaming. Erik’s hands, usually so sure and confident, turning sloppy and frustrated over the belt and buttons, impatient to get to skin. Erik’s mouth, greedy, starving, thirsty for him the way Charles never really felt with anyone, insatiable and desperate for it. Erik’s pushiness and strength, intermixed with guilt and uncertainty, his surprise every time Charles rose to meet him, the helpless gratefulness of pure worship. Erik’s lips against his navel, his inner thigh, his collarbone. Erik’s fingers sinking in deep, taking direction beautifully, making Charles jealous, except for Erik’s whisper ‘I always wanted, I never have.’ Erik sliding in just on the right side of too much, holding his eyes, asking, ‘Am I doing it right?’ and Charles reaching for him, ‘You’re doing perfectly, just move.’ Erik collapsing into him, chest heaving, kissing helpless confessions into his skin right over his heart.

Later, drawing whimsical patterns into Charles’s stomach, Erik said, “You have no idea what it was like. To always have you there, but never actually have you. Not being able to touch, not being able to do anything.”

“You have me now,” Charles said, leaning up to kiss him.

Erik went willingly, fingers threading through Charles’s hair, a deep, drugging kiss, pressing him softly into the mattress, hands tireless in their quest for touch. Charles arched up into him, eager for more contact, the novelty never really wearing off. He felt boneless and alive for what seemed like the first time in years. Erik’s hands on his skin, the most innocuous of touches, felt like a revelation.

“What do you want, Charles?” Erik whispered, tonguing the sensitive spot behind Charles’s ear, drawing a helpless whimper out of him. “Anything you want. Anything. Just tell me.”

“Would it be terribly corny of me,” Charles pushed out, his breath hitching, “to say that I only want you?”

Erik pulled back to look at him, grinning his fearsome, completely unabashed grin. “Yes.”

Charles grinned back, unable and utterly unwilling to stop it. “Corny it is. We should really sleep, though.”

Erik braced himself up on his elbows, eyes never leaving Charles, expression so incredibly soft, so completely open that Charles could barely stand it.

“We should sleep.”

“I feel like I’m in one of those movies,” Erik said, voice tinged with rueful honesty. “If I close my eyes, you’d be gone. I thought they made those up.”

“Yeah,” Charles whispered, arms tightening around Erik of their own volition. “I know the feeling.”

*

It was just shy of four when Charles woke up. Erik was sprawled on his stomach next to him, one arms slung possessively over Charles’s waist. Moving softly so as not to disturb him, Charles sat up slowly and turned on the lamp. Erik, ever the light sleeper, didn’t even stir. Charles grinned. He indulged himself for a moment, tugging the covers down gently, and moving his fingers, feather-light, down the long line of Erik’s spine, counting the vertebrae. He wanted nothing more than to go back under. His life was eerily perfect at that precise moment.

“Erik.”

Erik made no sign of waking.

“Erik.” Charles shook his shoulder gently, grinning when Erik groaned, opening one eye reluctantly, looking supremely annoyed.

“What?”

“Glad to see some things never change.” Charles leaned over to kiss his shoulder. “I would love nothing better than to have you in my bed in the morning, have shower with you, and make you breakfast.”

Significantly more alert, Erik turned over, hands reaching for Charles instinctively, caging him in. “But?”

“You need to go, love.”

“Charles,” Erik groaned, squinting at the clock. “It’s barely four. You kicking me out?”

“You left Anya alone, correct? And she’ll be up for school in two hours?”

“Oh God,” Erik groaned again, but let go of him, stretched in a powerful display of muscles, and sat up. “Right.” He studied Charles carefully. “She won’t mind, you know. You and me.”

Charles looked away, taking care to keep his voice neutral. “Eventually, I hope.”

“She adores you. You know that.”

Charles pulled back, sliding his feet off the bed. “Yes, but it’s not the same thing. I don’t want it to be too much too soon.”

“Are we to be a secret then?”

“Well, no.” Charles looked at him. “But we could – take it really slow?”

“Charles—”

“For one thing, you’re still married.”

“You know it’s over.”

Charles said nothing.

“Charles. Look at me.” Yielding to the gentle pull of Erik’s fingers under his chin, Charles let their eyes meet. “It’s over. It’s been over for a while. I love you. That has never changed and it will never change. I want to be with you. If you’ll have me.”

Charles closed his eyes. “That’s not fair.”

Erik pulled him into a kiss. “Why are you fighting this?”

“I’m not, I’m just… I ruined your family. I feel like I don’t deserve this.”

“You didn’t ruin anything.” Erik kissed him again, deeper this time, pulling him close. By the time he managed to tear himself away, they were both breathless. “I have to go now,” he said, thumbs sliding gently over Charles’s lips. “But we’re having this conversation, make no mistake. I have you now. I’m never letting go.”

Charles smiled at his mulish look, so wonderfully familiar. “Okay.”

Erik lifted an eyebrow, suspicious. “Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. We’ll talk.” Charles kissed him quickly and pushed him off. “Get dressed, I’ll call you a cab.”

“Charles—”

“We’ll talk, Erik. I don’t want to let you go, either. It’s just not that simple.”

Erik continued to eye him distrustfully even as he went about gathering his clothes.

When he was gone, Charles pulled on his sweats and t-shirt and walked barefoot into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Cradling a hot cup of tea to his chest, he stood gazing out the window into the dark street outside, the murky light of the lamp over an old drugstore, the same view as would have greeted someone a quarter of a century ago.

It occurred to him suddenly that at this very moment yesterday Erik was still an impossible dream, an air castle, ephemeral and completely out of reach. He was hours away still from Jean even approaching him in his office. Even further away from the lingering scent of Erik clinging to his sheets. How could something so profound have changed in the span of a few short hours? It boggled the mind.

His phone buzzed behind him on the table, and Charles smiled. It was no doubt from Erik who made it home and was now grumpy about having to be up this early. Charles should answer him, he really should. He wanted to, truly.

He left the phone untouched on the table as he went back to bed.

*

Taking things slow was not Erik’s strong suit. Within a day his presence in Charles’s life had gone from something quietly stewing on the backburner to almost the level of their college days. He texted, surprised Charles with lunches, was unexpectedly home when Charles dropped Anya off after her dance classes and made him stay for dinner. During the weeks that Anya spent at Magda’s, Erik was all but living in Charles’s small apartment, jealous of every moment he didn’t have Charles’s attention.

He still made love like a starving man suddenly faced with a feast. For all that it was hot as burning, it made Charles feel unaccountably nervous. What if he was just something Erik needed to get out of his system? Surely, this level of intensity could not last?

His instinct of self-preservation made him start to pull back. Erik was having none of it.

“I still don’t understand why you don’t want to come with us to Mama’s for Christmas.”

“I’ll be there the next day for dinner,” Charles repeated. “Same as always. I just – I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to stay the night.”

“Not appropriate? The woman practically raised you.”

“You know perfectly well that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Charles,” Erik sighed, clearly frustrated. “You’re overthinking this.”

But Charles held on to his guns. Considering his own reputation, this might have been par for the course, but for Erik this was quite a transition. They didn’t live on a deserted island, and there were people to think about. Anya’s teachers, the parents of her friends and classmates, Erik’s colleagues. And yes, most importantly, Edie.

She was more of a mother to Charles than his own ever had been, and she was perhaps the kindest soul on Earth. She was also very traditional in her values, and Charles was under no delusion that she had ever approved of his proclivities. And now, in her eyes, he would have pulled Erik over to the dark side. Charles knew he couldn’t avoid facing her forever, but resisted to the very last.

After years of waiting, everything was moving way too fast. What if Erik decided tomorrow that this was a mistake? Charles would have ruined every relationship he’d ever treasured for nothing. Charles would be the odd man out; he was always the odd man out, having insinuated himself into Erik’s family and his life all those years ago. They were good people, the kind that would never turn anyone away, but he was still imposing. There was no getting around it. And he’d repaid their kindness by turning Erik’s life into a mess and dragging his daughter into it on top of that.

“I’ll be there the next day,” he said firmly, evading Erik’s attempt to draw him in. “I’m sorry, I still have lab reports to go over.”

He spent Christmas Eve alone in his apartment, eating Chinese food and going through Hank’s notes. He didn’t feel particularly morose about it. For years now Christmas had mostly meant time off work. He had never been religious, and Erik and Edie, of course, were Jewish. Initially, they started sort of celebrating Christmas, going as far as to get the tree and presents, for Charles’s sake, since his own family couldn’t be bothered to notice him. While they were in college, it was the easiest time to go see Edie, and they used it. Then Erik married Magda, who was Catholic, and over the years Christmas became a family holiday without elaborate tales of Santa Claus and reindeers (Anya somehow was born non-believing) but with overabundance of food and presents.

Charles strategized well in advance. He packed the presents he got for everyone into a huge box and put it into his rental. If he timed it just right, he would arrive just before dinner when Edie’s house would be filled to the brim with friends and neighbors and he would be just another face in the crowd. He could stay a couple of hours and leave unobtrusively while Edie was distracted by hosting duties.

He almost got away with it, too, except he had underestimated the size of his box. He couldn’t see in front of him as he was walking down the narrow path toward Edie’s porch, when he came to a sudden stop, having collided with someone.

“I do beg your pardon,” Charles exclaimed, catching his balance with difficulty and lowering his box enough to see. “Oh. Hi, Magda.”

She gave him a rueful smile, her arms full of brightly colored bags. They looked each other over quickly, and Charles could see it in her eyes, the realization that they had had the exact same idea.

“Well, this is awkward.” Magda grinned.

Charles grimaced. “Yeah. I thought you’d be in there with them.” Which admittedly was stupid of him, he should have realized Magda wouldn’t spend the night.

“Edie did ask, but it didn’t feel right,” Magda said, readjusting her pile of presents. “I mean, she never liked me much in the first place—”

“Oh, come on, that’s not true—”

“Oh, yes, it is, and you know it. You had to run interference between us often enough, so don’t pretend now. I’m the girl who nearly ruined her boy’s bright future by having sex out of wedlock, remember? Now that I left him, she likes me even less.”

“She is a lady of strong opinions,” Charles said diplomatically. “I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.”

“Well, I’m no longer trying to impress her, so no, it’s not as bad,” Magda said. “What about you? I thought you’d be in there with them.”

“Are you kidding? I’m the man who seduced her son into the life of sodomy and sin under the guise of friendship. Pretty sure she’d prefer another baby out of wedlock.”

“Ah.” Magda looked away.

Charles never wanted so much for the ground to swallow him, but this conversation had to happen sooner or later.

“Well, that explains Erik,” Magda said after a beat. “Pretty sure I’ve never seen him smile so much in my life.”

Charles would rather die than comment. “And, um, how’s it going with Armando?” he asked instead.

“Oh.” Magda shrugged. “Good, I guess. It’s nothing serious, isn’t going to be, I don’t think. But that’s okay. I spent so many years being serious, I feel like I never had the chance to even know what the fun part was like. That I could be fun, if you can imagine it.” She looked at him. “I haven’t quite reached the stage of gratitude yet, but I’m getting there.”

Charles was dying to tell her how amazing she was being about all this, but was acutely aware of just how crass it would sound coming from him, so he bit his lip and said nothing.

“Oh, do cheer up, Charles. You look like you’re some scarlet woman waiting to be stoned,” Magda teased. It was forced, but it was there. “Fifty bucks says this time next year we’ll be laughing about it.”

Charles grinned wryly. “Make it a hundred.”

The door opened suddenly, bringing the indistinct murmur of laughter and voices up to full volume. Erik stood in the doorway, his gaze stumbling over the two of them, startled.

“Um. Hi?” he said uncertainly.

“Well, now this is really awkward,” Magda said, catching Charles’s eye. Both of them burst out laughing.

Erik looked extremely put upon and clearly at a loss about how to handle this. Charles took pity on him.

“Erik, don’t just stand there, help Magda with the bags,” he suggested, still chuckling softly. He felt suddenly like he was drawing in a full lungful of air for the first time in a long time.

Erik sprang to action like his feet were on fire, and Magda threw an amused glance at Charles before following him into the house.

Inside, the humble space was filled with the familiar sight of friends and neighbors in a festive mood, talking and laughing, assembling the huge table that would still be overcrowded once everyone sat down, drinking eggnog and hot chocolate, and generally enjoying themselves. Charles deposited his box under the somewhat lopsided but still beautiful Christmas tree and was nearly toppled over by Anya who came flying at him out of the kitchen.

For the most part, his plan seemed to be working. He didn’t make himself useful the way he normally would and instead drifted on the outskirts of the group, replying to greetings, keeping a low profile, and steering clear of Erik just in case. Erik, whenever their eyes did meet, looked extremely exasperated, but didn’t try to approach him. Charles was grateful.

Charles knew his illusion of safety couldn’t last forever, but still wasn’t ready for the moment when Edie finally emerged from the kitchen, beaming at her guests, a hug, a kiss, and a kind word at the ready for everyone. By the time she reached Charles, his whole body was feeling numb.

“Charles, darling,” she said, and pulled him into a hug imperiously.

Charles closed his arms around her automatically and felt his body relax on instinct, soothed by her warmth, achingly familiar and dear. He might not deserve it, but he couldn’t help the conditioned response, and he held on a bit longer perhaps than he should have.

Her eyes were serious as she looked at him. “Erik told me,” she said quietly, voice pitched for his ears alone.

Charles had no idea what to say. He couldn’t apologize for something he didn’t regret. Not to her. He had nothing.

“Charles,” she sighed, her warm palm pressing against his cheek. “I won’t pretend that I understand this. Or that I like it. But I love him and I love you. That has to be enough for all of us, yes?”

Charles nodded. “Of course.”

He thought he had a firm grip on his expression, but either something slipped or she really knew him better than anyone, because her face crumpled.

“Oh, sweetheart, no, it’s not like that. Part of me knows you’ve done nothing wrong, but I was raised differently than you boys. There are some things I – I need time with. You’re still my boy, Charles, and I’ll never stop loving you. Okay?”

She hugged him again, her arms wielding the same power Erik’s did, the same strength Anya had already. He felt held, protected, and accountable at the same time, and he wondered which parts were him, and which parts were her. He had to excuse himself as she let him go and splash cold water on his face before he could sit down for dinner.

Some time around the second round of desserts, Charles slipped out of the room and into the kitchen under the guise of clearing away some dishes. The backdoor called to him and before he could talk himself out of it, he stepped out, tugging at the cuffs of his sweater so that they’d cover his knuckles.

He walked slowly into the small backyard that hadn’t changed that much since the time he and Erik were kids. The shed had been repainted, and Edie must have planted something under the old apple tree that had never produced any apples as far as Charles could remember but still bloomed every year.

Charles’s own old house had been sold multiple times since his mother and stepfather died in short succession. Now it stood dark and quiet, likely in-between owners again. Try as he might, Charles couldn’t conjure up any specific emotion as he looked at it. It was just a place he’d lived in once, nothing more. This side of the fence was a very different story.

Was it this one? No, that one. Experimentally, Charles tugged at the board and laughed in surprise when it moved, creating a narrow opening in the fence.

“I don’t think you could fit through it anymore,” an amused voice called from behind him.

Charles glanced at Erik over his shoulder. “I thought you said you were going to fix the fence. Ages ago, too. I think we were still in college.”

“Oh, I did fix the fence,” Erik said, unfolded a coat he was carrying and threw it over Charles’s shoulders. “I just didn’t fix this.”

“Sentimental much?” Charles grinned up at him, letting Erik tug him close.

“I don’t know,” Erik said. “Just – felt like leaving it.”

Charles snuggled up to him, grateful that the shed provided some cover from whoever might look out the kitchen window.

“I saw you talking to Mama earlier,” Erik said quietly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Charles was silent for a moment. “Do you think this is worth it? Putting your mom through this? And Anya. And Magda. All you’re getting for it is me. Kind of shortchanges you, doesn’t it?”

Erik’s hold on him tightened. “Is that what those last few weeks were about? I thought you actually did get over me and didn’t know how to tell me.”

“What?” Charles pulled back to stare at him. “Where did that come from?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Charles.” Erik rolled his eyes. “Maybe you, standing one foot out the door? Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

“I’m not – I wasn’t.”

“Yes, you were, you still are. What is bothering you really? I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me. And you weren’t going to, were you? You were just going to disappear one day. If it wasn’t for Anya, you might have already. The last thing I want is to trap you in a relationship you don’t want and watch you being noble and pretending you’re happy every day after. If you – if you’re really over it, just tell me.”

“Over it,” Charles repeated numbly. “Over you? Erik.” He reached to take Erik’s hands in his, stubbornly unresponsive as they were. “You’re the love of my goddamn life. How can you think… Think anything else, if you please. But not this.”

Erik pulled his hands free to grab Charles by the neck, drawing him in until their foreheads pressed against each other. “Then stay. Really stay. Stop looking for reasons why it wouldn’t work. I don’t care what anyone thinks, even less what they say. Mama will get over it. So will Anya. They will adjust. Charles, your whole life you’ve been bending over backwards to make the people you love happy. It’s their turn now.” Erik ran his thumb gently down the line of Charles’s jaw. “It’s our turn.”

He kissed Charles, deep and demanding, but also pleading, except Erik was still Erik, and even his pleading was forceful, almost aggressive. Charles pushed down a laugh, giving in, hands curling in Erik’s sweater, holding on, until they moved and he could feel the boards of the fence under his shoulderblades.

“No one’s shortchanging me,” Erik rasped against his jaw. “If anything, I’m still getting too much. No, shut up,” he said when Charles wanted to argue. “You think you have to earn every scrap of love you get, but you don’t, Charles. You, you never saw yourself clearly. You still don’t get how incredible you are. Stay with me, keep me, let me show you. I’d rather not have sex with you ever again than lose you altogether.”

Charles gave him an incredulous look and slipped his hand under Erik’s sweater, cold fingers skimming over the finely sculpted muscles of his stomach.

“I don’t think I can stay and not have sex with you ever again,” he said.

Erik grinned at him with too many teeth, his happy grin. “Good.”

*

Magda took Anya to Paris for the rest of the holidays, ‘Just us girls’, and Anya left giddy with excitement. Erik showed up on Charles’s doorstep the very same night, a small bag of clothes and necessities in his hand. Charles let him in.

Later that night, his whole body aching in the best possible way (Erik as a lover was the same as Erik anywhere else – determined, blunt, relentless, and too damn clever by far), Charles thought that it had never been a question of staying or going. Leaving was never an option, not for good anyway.

It was a matter of faith.

Looking down at Erik, loose-limbed and utterly relaxed, angling his entire body toward Charles even in his slumber, Charles thought that perhaps he had finally discovered some after all.

And as he lay down next to him, finally allowing the last of the tension to bleed out into the mattress, Erik moved without really waking, wrapped his arms around Charles, and murmured softly into his hair, “About damn time.”

Charles grinned in the darkness and finally, at long last, stopped fighting. True surrender, as he discovered slipping seamlessly into sleep, felt pretty damn amazing.

***