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When the Spell Breaks

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Charles Xavier lives a charmed life.

It’s what they always say around him. Even his friends who know some of his history think that. Hell, even Charles himself who knows exactly how very far from charmed he’d started tends to think that. He doesn’t like to dwell on the past. He’s the live-in-the-moment kind of guy, and why wouldn’t he be when the present is so magical?

It’s true that, despite all the money his family owns, his childhood was lonely, the kind where the words ‘abusive’ and ‘neglected’ come to mind. But he got Raven out of it, so he can’t regret it. It’s also true that his stepfather kicked him out of the house when he was sixteen, as his mother passively watched, because being gay was just not okay. Charles had already been accepted to Columbia by then on a generous scholarship, no less, which came in handy since his family cut him off. Living on campus was better than staying in the house where everyone hated him anyway, so honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. He had no time to be upset about it. He made sure he had no time.

And then the truly magical part began. A paper he wrote in the middle of the night after a gruesome month of non-stop studying and more caffeine than was healthy for anybody caught the attention of a professor who just happened to be one of the leading scientists in the field, a pioneer in biochemical research. That was how Charles, a lowly second-year undergrad student, got roped into one of the top research teams in the country, splitting his studies with work that wasn’t merely theoretical but actually helpful to people right now.

He had to hustle, of course, to make tuition, but Professor MacTaggert was so impressed with him, she pulled a lot of strings to make him eligible for enough grants and subsidies to carry him through the end of undergrad and the first year of grad school. Charles felt embarrassed to accept them, but his drive to continue his work outweighed any residual reluctance.

He shared a number of progressively more horrible apartments until luck had struck yet again. Charles worked here and there as a bartender to make ends meet since the beginning of his second year, and during his third he really lucked out—a spot opened in one of the trendiest bars in town and a friend recommended him. To everyone’s surprise, not the least his own, Charles was good at the job. He had steady hands, excellent reaction time and memory, and he truly liked talking to people. Everyone seemed interesting to him, worthy of a smile and a wink and some kind attention. He made amazing tips when he flirted, and he enjoyed himself doing so. It was a game he loved playing and he never lacked for appreciative audience. It made him seem perhaps more confident than he actually was, as Charles's romantic history by then was rather on the humble side, consisting of two ex sort-of-boyfriends and barely a handful of one-night stands. He’d always been a bit shy underneath all the bravado.

Then one night Erik walked into the bar along with some of the associates from his law firm, and it was an instant connection. When Erik came over to the bar to place an order for the group, Charles could barely stammer through it, blushing, unable to remember the number of shots and cocktails, dropping glasses and blushing more. Fortunately, Erik found that infinitely entertaining and teased Charles mercilessly, until he was completely and thoroughly flustered and had to take a break.

When he came back, Erik was celebrating with his colleagues, but his eyes drifted over to the bar too often to be ignored. Charles held himself together as best he could until his shift ended, and told himself he was not disappointed when he looked up a while later and noticed that the entire company was gone. His night dragged after that. When he finally stepped out into the street, so late that it was practically early, he found Erik waiting for him. He was leaning casually against a sleek black town car, impossibly stylish and self-assured in his expensive clothes, with his hair combed back, looking for all intents and purposes like he’d just jumped out of a James Bond movie, all swaggering confidence and perfect self-possession. He looked like someone so far out of Charles's league that Charles had very nearly walked right past him, heart hammering in his throat, afraid he’d made a mistake.

Erik called out to him, stepped closer. He said: ‘Would you like a ride?

And Charles paused, because this was insanity, and getting into a car with strange men was the opposite of self-preservation. Especially when he looked Erik in the eye and saw raw hunger there, so completely undisguised, it made him shiver.

‘I shouldn’t,’ Charles said, even though his feet were treacherously holding him in place.

Erik peered at him more closely, taking in Charles's nervousness with a single look, and something softened in his expression. The hungry look didn’t dim so much as got pulled back somehow, as though a screen had been drawn up between Charles and the open flame.

‘I could just be your taxi,’ Erik said gently, holding Charles's eyes. ‘No strings attached.’

There was no reason to trust him, none whatsoever, but Charles looked at him and couldn’t look away, and said, ‘All right.’

Erik guided him into the car like he was a guest of honor and drove Charles home, frowning as they entered the neighborhood and looking mildly disgusted when they stopped before Charles's building. Charles had never felt more outclassed than he did at that moment, sitting in the slick, polished-wood-and-leather interior of Erik's car, luxuriating in the heat, listening to sophisticated jazz pouring out of the state-of-the-art audio system, breathing in Erik's expensive cologne that was making his head spin. Underneath his too thin for the weather coat, Charles was wearing the only decent pair of black slacks he owned and a white shirt whose cuffs were beginning to fray—his ‘uniform’ and the best quality clothes he possessed. The remainder of Charles's confidence drained out of him, as he fidgeted, embarrassed. What was he doing there? It could not be as simple as giving him a lift, because why would someone like Erik want anything to do with someone like Charles if it wasn’t for the obvious?

Erik, whose eyes saw everything, taking in every detail, every miniature shift of expression as only the lawyers with the highest winning rate could pull off at a glance, smiled at him and reached over to tuck a strand of hair behind Charles's ear. Charles froze, having Erik suddenly in his space, but Erik only smiled again, reached around him and unlocked the door.

‘I’ll see you around, Charles.’

Charles couldn’t even find his voice to thank him for the ride. He got out of the car on wooden legs and hurried off to his building, early January chill taking him by surprise after the amazing heat of Erik's car.

Later, months and months later, Erik would tell Charles that that wasn’t the plan for that night at all. Erik didn’t do relationships. Didn’t date. Erik had sex with men he never wanted to see again afterwards, and that was the end of it. He had a few fuck buddies, but even those didn’t linger past a few weeks in his orbit. Sex was just scratching an itch, no feelings involved.

When Erik saw Charles in that bar that night, flustered and adorable, mouth too red from biting his lips, all he could think of was having it wrapped around his cock. He wanted to fuck Charles, nothing more, and had already made a mental note to avoid that bar for a few months after so as not to invite complications.

But when Charles stood before him outside, looking so torn and lost, something shifted in Erik, something permanent. All he could think about was making Charles feel at ease, and make him smile, and protect him.

His colleagues were amused when Erik started showing up at the bar every other night, sometimes only staying an hour or two, sometimes lingering long enough to drive Charles home. They talked, and little by little Charles began to relax around him. Charles remembered that time. How every time he saw Erik, a shot of disbelief would run through him, and joy, and—hope. How Erik would scowl when Charles flirted with other customers. How he’d complain, half-jokingly, that around him Charles could only stammer and blush. How Erik had to intervene one night when a company of brokers got drunk and protested their bill by means of violence, and Charles ended up with a split lip, and Erik broke three noses and fractured one jaw. He had to pay a fine, and Charles was horrified at the amount, but Erik just shrugged, touched the corner of his mouth gently, and said, ‘Worth it.’

Every bit of doubt, every stretch of hesitation has to be eventually resolved, and Charles had reached the tipping point. He caught Erik's hand before he could withdraw it, and pressed it against his cheek, and then kissed the palm. Erik's eyes widened, and he looked a little shell-shocked and helpless, watching Charles as one would watch a timebomb, hardly daring to breathe. It made Charles smile and step closer and murmur, ‘Please don’t think this means that I condone violence.’ And Erik pulled him closer, breathing out, ‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’ And then they were kissing.

Charles remembers that night as though it was yesterday. Erik drove him home, but this time he got out of the car with him. Charles warned him that he might not find it there in the morning. Erik kept his eyes on him alone and only shrugged, ‘I don’t care.’ They made their way upstairs by some miracle, hands too busy, impatient to get to skin. By the time they reached Charles's shoebox of an apartment, his shirt was undone, and Erik's tie was lost somewhere, never to be seen again, his usually neat hair in hopeless disarray.

Erik made love to him like a man possessed, splitting him piece by piece into a kaleidoscope of too intense sensations, kissing him until their mouths were numb, drawing more responses out of Charles than Charles ever believed possible. He’d never before noticed that his foldout sofa bed creaked, but dear God was it loud, obnoxious even, when Erik fucked him, hard, so hard, the headboard was banging against the wall, making a hysterical thought linger that Charles was now one of ‘those people,’ hated by his neighbors. Sex had never been like this, overwhelming, overpowering, constantly tittering between too-much and not-enough. If Charles had any presence of mind left, he’d have tried to give as good as he got, but as it was he could only hold on to Erik, driven near out of his mind by how much he wanted, how much was happening, how much he couldn’t get enough yet couldn’t really take any more. Erik bent him nearly in half and leaned over to catch his mouth in a hard, poorly centered kiss, as he gasped into Charles's mouth and came, shuddering through it, his hips driving him in on instinct, until there was no more. Charles held him through it, frustrated and relieved, everything being too sharp, too raw, too right there. And then, before he could so much as catch his breath, Erik was on him, lips wrapped tightly around Charles's cock, and it was over within seconds, the image alone ripping his orgasm out of him.

There was a part of Charles that still believed it all too good to be true. He half expected Erik to be gone in the morning, now that he’d gotten what he wanted. But when Charles woke up, Erik was cursing under his breath in the tiny space that passed for Charles's kitchen, trying to coax the toaster into making something else than terribly burned bread. Erik looked so chagrined and frustrated, defeated by substandard equipment, that Charles had to laugh and then laughed some more at his irritated scowl, which Erik didn’t seem to appreciate at all. But when Charles kissed him, he seemed to get over it remarkably quickly, and the neighbors had to suffer some more.

They were dating now. Erik, it seemed, had exhausted his patience in the weeks previous, and was now moving so fast, most days Charles felt his head was spinning. If he thought he was in the focus of Erik's attention before, it was nothing compared to now. They went out to fancy restaurants and gastro-pubs, and Erik never let him pick up the tab. ‘When you get the Nobel prize, it’ll be your treat,’ he said, and Charles wasn’t happy, but had to let it go. Erik was twelve years his senior, accustomed to a certain way of life. He went along happily enough to impromptu picnics in the parc and dingy indie movie theaters, but Charles couldn’t expect him to descend to his level for long. Besides, he could hardly resist when Erik plied him with good wine and fed him oysters out of his own hand. They’d only ever went to Charles's place twice after that first night, mostly ending up in Erik's designer loft of an apartment with real fireplace and a view so magnificent it took Charles's breath away.

Somehow, within a month, Charles found his things packed and moved, and now had a doorman tipping his hat at him every morning. His research had picked up the pace, and he became distracted. And while he wasn’t looking, half his wardrobe, and then the other half, was surreptitiously replaced with good quality sweaters and coats, tailored slacks and blazers, and jeans that made Erik go slack-jawed a little when Charles wore them. When he’d finally noticed, he tried to argue. He wasn’t a kept man. Erik looked at him, sighed, sat him down, and told Charles all about his childhood spent in the outskirts of Chicago, how his mother, a classically trained cello player, had to flip burgers and wash dishes in addition to tutoring the rich kids to make ends meet. How Erik grew up with nothing, knew only too well what it was like to go to bed hungry. How he fought his way into college. How he never would have made it through law school if it wasn’t for his mentor and benefactor. How Erik earned more money than he could ever hope to spend, and how much he wanted to make Charles's life easier.

‘You won’t let me give you anything,’ Erik complained. ‘You won’t let me pay for school, fine. But would you really begrudge me a couple of sweaters when I can see you shiver every time you go outside? It’s just money, Charles, and it’s my money. You’re not indebted to me for any of this. Just, please, I—I want to take care of you.’

Charles bristled at that. He had been on his own since he was sixteen, and he was doing fine so far. He liked being his own man, standing on his own two feet. It was integral to who he was.

‘I’ll stop if you want me to,’ Erik said quietly, looking so miserable, Charles could barely stand it.

He caved then. He was born into money. He remembered how little it meant when he had lots of it. It never defined him. If he was in Erik's shoes, he would probably be exactly the same way. Worse, most likely. At least Erik only spoiled him in small things, clothes and entertainment, and such. He respected Charles's boundaries when Charles had put his foot down with tuition. He’d never, ever made Charles feel cheap.

Within a month, Charles moved in. (‘I don’t have any neighbors. You can be as loud as you want.’) Within the next three, Erik managed to convince him to quit his job. It was a mixture of ‘You’re still a student, Charles, for God’s sake, and you have your research. It’s much more important, don’t you think?’ and Erik's displeasure at seeing Charles flirt with customers, not mistrust exactly, but rather extreme protectiveness. (‘I trust you, I don’t trust them. I don’t know how you managed to have this job for so long, hell, to live in New York for so long, looking the way you do, and still remain so naïve. If you knew what I was thinking that first night when we met, you’d never let me near you. I guarantee you, they’re thinking the same.’)

Charles knew it was wrong, but part of him found Erik's possessiveness thrilling. He’d never had anyone want him that badly or value him so much. His own mother didn’t even want to fight for him. His first boyfriend was little more than a friends-with-benefits arrangement and found Charles's flirting hilarious. His second one ended up cheating on him and when Charles caught him, only shrugged and said he didn’t know they were exclusive. Charles didn’t relish the thought of torturing Erik, but it sent a tendril of heat up his spine every time Erik revealed how deeply he cared. As his research was indeed demanding more and more of his time and the new semester came with teaching requirements, it made sense to quit his job. It wasn’t as though he was paying rent anymore, and while that might have been a blow to his ego, practicality won out in the end.

Erik beamed at him when Charles had told him, and then dropped to his knees, and gave Charles a blowjob right there in his—their kitchen, making him come so hard he would have collapsed if not for Erik. It was hard to argue with that.

It was even harder to argue when Erik came home late one night, barely a month later, with his suit rumpled, his hair in an artful disarray, the scent of his cologne mixing with the smell of top-shelf whiskey, marched over to Charles, pressed him against the window, and kissed him, deep and hungry, and triumphant.

‘I take it, the court went well?’ Charles asked when he could draw a breath to speak.

‘Very,’ Erik purred, nuzzling his neck. ‘We won. You’re looking at the new senior partner of Frost, Shaw and Associates.’

‘Erik! That’s wonderful! Congratulations.’

‘Yes.’ Erik kissed him again, hardly listening, one hand holding Charles possessively by the neck, the other fumbling in his suit jacket. ‘I was going to wait, but I don’t think I can.’ He pulled out a small, turquoise-blue box and held it out to Charles. ‘Marry me.’

Charles stared down at the ring, a tasteful platinum band, then looked up at Erik, speechless. Maybe it was insanity, or maybe he was twenty-one and desperately in love, or maybe it was the look in Erik's eyes, so hopeful and anxious, as though nothing in his life had been as important as this. Maybe it was all three, but Charles leaned in and pressed a fervent, molten hot ‘Yes’ against Erik's lips with barely a moment of hesitation.

In retrospect, it should have worried Charles that the first time he’d met any of Erik's friends and colleagues was during the reception. It was a small affair. The only people Charles wanted to see there for himself couldn’t make it. Raven, who remained the only member of his family he was still in touch with, was studying in Paris, in the midst of her exams, and couldn’t come. And Hank, his research partner, was visiting family. Charles suspected Hank could have postponed that visit if he really wanted, but Hank was so painfully shy and socially awkward that being in a room full of strangers without a clear agenda was always stressful for him. Charles didn’t insist. He was friendly, but not particularly close with any of his colleagues. Professor MacTaggert, perhaps, more so than most, but inviting his boss to his wedding seemed… odd. For the first time in almost a year, Charles had realized that he’d lost touch with his college friends, too busy with his work and Erik. It was vaguely troubling, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Erik invited only a few colleagues who formed the inner circle of the firm, as he explained to Charles. Anton Zazel, Janos Quested, and Emma Frost, the hereditary name partner who inherited the position from her father when he retired. They all seemed cool and polished to Charles, who tried to ignore the somewhat condescending curiosity with which they looked at him. But it was more difficult when it came to Erik's boss, erstwhile mentor, and the man who put him once upon a time through law school, Sebastian Shaw. He gave Charles a onceover so bluntly derisive that there was no interpreting it as anything other than pure contempt. Once Erik materialized at Charles's side, Shaw smiled, saying something vaguely complimentary, but his eyes remained ice-cold and hard, and Charles suppressed the urge to hide behind Erik.

Later that night, after Erik had thoroughly exhausted him, trying to prove that married sex wasn’t the least bit boring as Charles had been teasing him, Charles said softly, unexpected even to himself, ‘Your colleagues hate me.’ Erik, who was nearly asleep by then, rolled over, looking at him. ‘No, they just don’t know you.’ At Charles's skeptical look, he sighed. ‘You’ve got to understand how this looks, babe. You’re so young. And I… I never really—fell for anyone before. They think you’re a phase.’

Charles shifted, not at all happy with that, wondering why this had never occurred to him. What if he was a phase? It was beyond uncharacteristic for someone like Erik to fall head over heels in love with a boy he met at a bar one night. Charles never questioned it, like he never questioned the lucky break he got with that paper he wrote once upon a time. But maybe he should have. His merit as a scientist he could prove, and indeed was proving every day. Moira MacTaggert did not suffer incompetence on her team. In fact, anything short of brilliance would struggle. But with Erik, there was no proving his worth. By Erik's own admission, he wanted nothing more than to sleep with Charles the night they met. What made Charles think…

‘Hey.’ Erik was, as usual, uncannily insightful when reading his expressions. ‘They’ll come around. You’ll have to interact with them once, maybe twice a year. And I can take the teasing.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘I love you, Charles.’ Erik kissed him on the lips softly, a sweet reassurance. ‘That’s one of the very few things I’m certain about in this world. I want to be with you, always. Nothing else matters as much to me.’ Another kiss, deeper this time, drugging. ‘My friends will come around or they won’t, I don’t care. I only work with them. You, I want to live my life with.’

Charles sighed into the next kiss and let it go, but later he’d think back toward that moment and wonder at himself. Erik lived for his work. Since the moment he met Shaw and went to law school, he got out of bed every morning for the single purpose of being the best. His career was a testament to that, a rise so swift through the ranks to become one of the city’s top-billed lawyers that magazines wrote about it. Charles knew that. But Erik said it didn’t matter, and he believed him.

Yes, a wonderful, charmed life. At the age of twenty-one when most people haven’t the foggiest idea of what to do with their lives, Charles has a place and a mission, a career ahead of him he can’t wait to truly begin. When most people are killing their livers with cheap alcohol and making ill-advised decisions about their sexual partners, Charles is done with the clubbing scene and the partying scene, and is happily married to the love of his life. His family still isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’d made his peace with it a long time ago. He goes to bed happy and he wakes up with a smile, expecting nothing but more good things. An utterly charmed life.

Or so it is until he comes home one day to find Erik at the loft, unusually early, sitting at the kitchen counter, his face a mask of barely controlled rage, a manila envelope on the countertop in front of him.

“Erik, what’s wrong?” Charles asks, swallowing around a sudden lump in his throat.

He can tell already that this is bad, really, really bad. Worse even than when Kurt had dragged him out of the house and threw him out as his mother watched and said nothing. His pulse beating loud and erratic, jumping at his temple, Charles steps closer still.

“Erik?”

“Perhaps you could tell me,” Erik growls through gritted teeth, barely controlling himself, ignoring the way Charles flinches. “Perhaps you could explain. Did you really think me so stupid, so completely whipped, that you believed you could get away with it? Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Or that I would just take it?”

“Find out what?” Charles asks, fear making his voice go high, unnatural.

Erik sneers at that, the way he does whenever he feels the witness is about to crack under pressure, only ten times stronger now.

“This,” he snarls, pushing the envelope toward Charles, photographs scattering across the polished countertop like confetti.

Charles looks down and very nearly blacks out when he sees himself, very much in the throes of passion, with another man.

 

--

Erik never considered himself to be a complicated man. The things he wants are simple. To depend on no one. To be free to do what he loves. And to take care of those he considers his own. There is nothing complex about it, no hidden motives. Nothing to contemplate when there’s work to be done. He has never been a very contemplative kind of person.

His mother worked three jobs, none of them legal. Despite having born a son in America, she never did get her green card until the very end. She was Jewish, though she didn’t practice. Her music was her prayer as she told him with a soft smile time and again. Erik only shrugged. He didn’t care. He’d never been the God-seeking type.

Middle school was a snooze. High school was like living in a gladiator pit, surrounded by live audience, hungry for blood. He was the poor kid, the Jewish kid, the loner. He was the kid who smoked behind the school between classes, and the one who could buy beer on sheer intimidation alone. He had no interest in sciences, but excelled in languages, and he loved, beyond all measure, he simply loved to argue. He absorbed books like sponge absorbs water. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Descartes, Pascal, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Sartre were his mates, far more interesting than video games that he didn’t have any money for anyway. He dominated the debate team, taking high school debate championship three years in a row, which was why the school let him get away with more shit than its prized athletes. He had pretty much argued his way into community college, which was all he could, with a great amount of difficulty, afford. He didn’t waste time on parties or getting high with the rest of them. He worked like a man possessed, because he was going to make it one way or the other.

Then, Edie got sick. She was legal by then, just barely so, but they could never afford insurance. Her cancer was progressing fast, and the only ray of hope they had was getting her included into a new drug trial that was yet to be certified but showed promising results. Erik had all but moved to the hospital, trying to get her accepted. He had all but acquired a medical degree for the staggering amount of information he had processed.

They rejected her in the end, citing ‘random factors.’ Luck of the draw. Erik protested and argued and even threatened the chief oncologist once, after which they’d forcefully removed him from the premises. Edie gave up. He could see it in her eyes, when he came to visit, every day like clockwork, all but abandoning his studies. That small, frail woman, whom life had never once served a soft ball in forty-five years. She looked at least twenty years older, lying in her bed, withering away, smiling kindly at Erik, and prodding him gently to go back to college. She died three months before his graduation.

Erik sued the hospital. He wasn’t after money. But the amount of rage he felt at the sheer injustice of it all was seeking an outlet, and he unleashed all of it on the hospital management. The only lawyer he could afford couldn’t tie his shoelaces without assistance, but it didn’t matter. Erik wrote down every argument, prepared every deposition. In a fit of desperation-fueled brilliance he talked to the other rejected candidates and managed to rope them all into a class action. The hospital that had initially thought to thwart him like an annoying fly was now taking him seriously enough to hire a heavyweight from one of the top law firms in New York to represent them.

Sebastian Shaw was every bit as ruthless as his reputation painted him, perhaps more. He tore the case apart within four days, but he was so impressed with Erik, he took him out for drinks when the court was over. Erik would have sooner ripped his throat out with his bare hands than accept so much as a paper napkin from the man who denied his mother retribution, but Shaw had a way about him, an authoritative presence that subdued and conquered, not to mention an intelligence that was almost intimidating.

‘They’re bastards and they deserve to be punished for what they did to your mother,’ Shaw told him bluntly. ‘But they’re not the ones who hold the real power. You see that, don’t you?’

Erik only glowered. Shaw smiled.

‘Do you know what makes a great lawyer, Erik? It’s not the knowledge, not the crap they hammer down into your brain in law school. That’s just the rule book.’ He leaned in closer, imparting a secret. ‘No. What makes a great lawyer is that killer instinct. The ruthlessness, the tenacity. The ability to show no weakness. I have that. And you, my boy, you have that in spades.’

‘I’m nothing like you,’ Erik spat.

Shaw’s smile widened. ‘No,’ he agreed. ‘Not yet.’

Shaw offered him a deal then. He would send Erik to law school. Erik owed him seven years of working for him once he passed the bar. Erik hated Shaw at that moment more than any other human alive, but he also desperately wanted to have what he had—power. The ability to destroy whoever dared hurting his loved ones. As full a measure of control over his life as was possible to achieve. He hated Shaw and hated himself, but accepted. He packed his bags, and left the shack of a house he grew up in never to return.

Law school was a breeze. Erik had as much in common with the rich, entitled kids at Harvard as a wolf had with a chihuahua. Wiping the floor with them was a pleasure. Shaw demanded excellence, and Erik had no difficulty providing it. His summer internships brought on yet more mentoring. Shaw, who had occasionally sponsored others in the same way, took a special interest in Erik and took him under his wing. The lessons were humiliating, but necessary, so Erik swallowed his pride and learned patiently and carefully. How to dress. How to behave. How to feel at home at a classy restaurant or an exclusive club. How to tip. How to treat a client. How to seduce a client, regardless of gender, without actually having sex with them. How to act if he did end up having sex with them. How to win.

By the time Erik graduated and began working for Shaw, he still hated him, but he also admired the man a great deal. By the time he’d repaid his contractual obligations, both had simmered down to respect and an almost affectionate resentment, as oxymoronic as it sounded. For certain, Erik harbored no illusions regarding his boss. Shaw represented charities and drug dealers with equal fervor. He sued corporations for sexual harassment and defended a serial rapist and a wife murderer. As long as his clients could afford his insanely high fee, he was a man of completely equal opportunities. His religion was winning. Anything that got in the way of winning was anathema.

‘Relationships, dating, all that kind of nonsense is for people who can’t do any better and hope that there’ll be someone there at the end of the day to pity them,’ he lectured Erik. ‘Why limit yourself? You can fuck whoever you want if you’re a winner. They’ll all want you. Why burden yourself with obligations? Feelings are a distraction. Caring makes you weak. Fuck ‘em and leave ‘em, and you’ll never let anyone take power away from you.’

That was a part of Shaw’s philosophy that Erik found particularly compelling. Perhaps not for the sake of winning. He liked winning well enough, he just wasn’t as obsessed with it as Shaw was. But in the sense that personal entanglements only made life more complicated, here Erik did wholeheartedly agree. Bad things happened to people he cared about it. And besides, Erik never really found himself so enamored with anyone he’d feel sad breaking it off. Back in his college days having a boyfriend merely meant not having to exert energy looking for someone to have sex with. But later, when he graduated, it became more complicated than that, and now included shared space and grocery lists and planned weekend activities, and he was just… not interested in any of that. He could see his mother in his mind’s eye, telling him lovingly, ‘You just haven’t found the right one, Schatz.’ In that, too, he had to disappoint her. But it really did appear as though he wasn’t made for love.

Erik wants to laugh, thinking of his own naivete. His mother was right, but she was also wrong. He did meet the ‘right one’ eventually, when he was least expecting it. And look what happened.

Charles, Charles, Charles.

Erik is getting steadily more drunk on the rooftop bar of a hotel so luxurious it might as well merit ten stars instead of five. This is Tokyo, after all. Through the tinted glass he stares out into the ocean of lights stretching in every direction, feels the strange pulse of this alien leviathan of a city, and wants to howl.

He remembers that first night so vividly. Walking into that bar and noticing the cute bartender, fun-sized, slender and trim, with hair as playful as his manner and the brightest pair of eyes Erik had ever seen. He moved from customer to customer, hands always busy, pouring, shaking, swiping cards, lips always curled into a smile that drifts from softly encouraging to actively inviting. He’s like a sunbeam in the dark, drawing people’s gazes, and it’s a calculated play which Erik admires, but also more than that. After all, Erik had been resistant to any kind of intentional charm, yet here he stood caught, unable to walk away.

It could have gone either way. Erik was not unfamiliar with rejection. It wasn’t often that someone turned him down, but it had happened every once in a while. It couldn’t be this time, he thought as he stared at the bartender’s—Charles his nametag said—red, red mouth, promising so much. He couldn’t afford to be rejected now. Erik had no qualms sleeping with men who claimed to be straight. He was content enough to be someone’s sexuality crisis as long as he didn’t need to be there to deal with the consequences.

He didn’t think it was the case now. Charles flirted with women just this side of outrageous, so unabashed it made them laugh at the sheer shameless over-the-top vibe of it all. He was quieter with men, subtler. More real. Erik had spent too much time reading people for a living to have any doubt. Sexuality was not going to be the problem. But the boy was confident, almost too confident, very much in his element, just as Erik liked them. Still, it opened the possibility of a ‘no.’

Charles looked at him, as Erik came over, and promptly dropped the shaker. Erik grinned. Oh, this was going to be fun.

But later, long after his colleagues had said good-bye to him with knowing smiles, after Charles had emerged from his shift and stood before Erik, something happened. He was standing there long enough thinking of nothing but how he’d make Charles blow him right there in his car, how he would fuck that tempting mouth, and he had no doubt whatsoever that he wouldn’t need to exert himself to make it happen. And it wasn’t that Erik was a selfish lover. He’d make it worth his while. But he could see the confidence melt away from Charles's expression. Under the glaring streetlamp, away from the smooth ambience of the indoors, Charles looked impossibly young, strangely innocent, and not at all like the kind of person who would walk away from a hook-up like that without feeling used. It blindsided Erik, caught him completely off-guard how much he wanted to protect Charles from any kind of upset in that moment, let alone be the cause of it.

For the first time in his life, Erik was taking things slow. No, not slow. Glacial. He came to the bar after work as often as he could, having worked out Charles's schedule. He camped down on the same stool every night and just talked with Charles whenever he could. And while Erik definitely wanted to have sex with Charles, it stopped being about the prize at the end almost from the beginning. He spent weeks without so much as shaking his hand and still went home smiling.

And when they did get together, it was explosive, and somehow, for all of Erik's experience, so much better than it had ever been with anyone else. He didn’t get it. Technically, there was nothing out of the ordinary about sex with Charles, but every time they came together felt like the first time, shaky with too much desire, and also like the last time, desperate and loving and doomed. He dreamed of Charles when he couldn’t see him. He spaced out a few times during meetings, daydreaming or planning the next date. That had never, ever happened to him before.

His colleagues noticed and were amused. ‘I had no idea you were human underneath all that German efficiency,’ Emma told him, her usual condescending smirk firmly in place. Az clapped him on the shoulder cheerfully. ‘Admit it, Lehnsherr, you’re whipped.’ Janos adopted a habit of dropping by Erik's office, pretending to take measurements, since Erik would unlikely notice he’d been moved to the basement these days.

The only person decidedly not amused was Shaw.

‘Erik, what the hell was that?’ Shaw exploded the moment the meeting was over and both the client and the opposing team were safely out the door. ‘Explain to me why you decided to settle at a quarter of a million dollars?’

Erik looked at him, unconcerned. ‘Maybe because it’s a quarter of a million dollars? Also because that’s what the client wanted?’

‘Dammit, we could have taken them for twice as much! You know their key witness never would have made it to the stand. We could have taken them for all they’re worth!’

But that would have left the company effectively bankrupt, which wasn’t called for, as far as Erik was concerned. Even the client didn’t want that. True, once upon a time, when Erik was just out of law school and on a mad quest to impress Shaw, he would have run them into the ground. But he didn’t feel the need to now. These were human lives. There was no need to destroy them in order to get the job done and the client happy.

‘It’s that boy of yours, isn’t it?’ Shaw asked, eyes narrowed. ‘I was afraid this was going to happen. Your mind isn’t in the game anymore.’

Erik felt his hackles rising. ‘Charles has nothing to do with this. This was an amicable split between former partners who might want to work together again one day. The client was very specific—’

‘Since when do clients object to getting more money? This isn’t about the client, Erik. This is about you showing your belly to the enemy. You’ve gone soft. Ever since you started sleeping with that pretty little bartender, you’re losing your edge. I warned you this was going to happen. I warned you not to tie yourself down. Is he that good a fuck? Or is it worse than that even? Do you cuddle in front of the TV? Make him dinner? Have you gone domestic? Let me guess, it’s not sex anymore, you’re making love?’

For all that Erik was used to Shaw riling him up, for all that he’d trained himself out of emotional outbursts, he stood there, barely holding himself together, incandescent with rage. Judging by the triumphant gleam in Shaw’s eyes, he was not successful at hiding it.

‘Leave. Charles. Out of it,’ he growled at long last.

Shaw’s expression softened in a mockery of concern. ‘Oh, believe me, my boy, I want nothing to do with him whatsoever. You see, I’m not in the habit of going through people’s trash. But you had better get your act together and soon. I hired a shark, Erik. And if I wanted a neutered cat for a pet, I’d have gotten one.’

Erik was rough with Charles that night, as though on a quest to avenge the slight to his manhood. He was furious with Shaw, even more furious with himself for allowing his strings to be pulled so easily, but he was helpless to stop it. The moment Charles walked in, Erik slammed him against the door, swallowing his surprised ‘Oomph’ in an angry, aggressive kiss, all dominance, and teeth, and tongue, hands tugging at Charles's clothes impatiently, hungry for skin. Far from objecting, Charles tried to give as good as he was getting, but Erik wasn’t interested in that just then. Between one breath and the next, he had Charles pressed face-first against the unforgiving wood, his jeans pooled around his ankles, as Erik slammed home, some sloppily applied lube barely easing the way.

Charles cried out, head falling back helplessly, as his entire body arched, hands clawing at the door in an unconscious urge to escape, but Erik held him fast, giving him no room for maneuver as he thrust in, and in, and in, a brutal, unsustainable pace, fueled entirely by his anger. Charles braced himself on his forearms, head dipping low between them, leaving Erik free to mouth at the vulnerable hollow between his shoulder blades and suck bruises into the back of his neck. He couldn’t tell how long they had remained there, locked in that primitive, primal rhythm, until Erik began to feel his rage seep away, slowly, and then all at once, and he all but collapsed against Charles's back, buried deep within him.

Charles must have sensed it, because he pushed back and straightened as much as he could, twisting his neck, trying to catch Erik's eye. Erik kissed him, as sweet as he could make it with the angle so awkward, until the strain became too much for Charles, and he pulled back, whispering, ‘Finish it, love.’ And so Erik did, reaching around him to wrap his hand around Charles's cock, hard, thank heavens, and started jerking him off even as he resumed his thrusts, gentler now, purposeful. He knew Charles's body by now, knew just how to angle himself to hit him where it mattered, and Charles was moaning helplessly within seconds, cradled in Erik's arms. For all that his focus had shifted to Charles entirely, Erik still came first, his orgasm catching him by surprise, his body finally reclaiming his attention now that the emotional war he waged had subsided. Erik groaned, caught off guard, and stood still, his hips thrusting shallowly on autopilot as he spilled inside Charles, overwhelmed suddenly by a wave of sheer love he felt for this man. Like a cleansing spring rain washing away the toxic detritus of everything that came before, Charles restored him, purified him, made him come back to who he really was.

Erik turned him around gently, took in the moisture in the corners of his eyes, his flushed cheeks, his lips bitten raw, the freckles on his nose, the concerned, questioning arch of his eyebrows. Erik leaned in and kissed him them, tender-dirty, teasing and soothing, as he shifted his grip on Charles's cock and brought him off in a few quick strokes, precise and knowing, and caught Charles's gasp on his tongue, easing him through it.

Later, after Erik had taken his time in the shower washing every inch of Charles's body like a devotee paying service to the object of his worship, after they were stretched out in their bed, spent and comfortable, Charles said softly, ‘Are you all right, love? Not that I didn’t enjoy… that, because I did—I really, really did, in case that wasn’t clear.’ Erik could hear the grin in his voice. ‘It was lovely. But I felt like… that wasn’t quite you. Is everything all right?’

Erik gathered him closer, buried his face in Charles's hair, and murmured, ‘Everything’s perfect, Charles. You’re perfect. Everything’s fine. Go to sleep.’

He woke Charles up the next morning with a blowjob, slow, and sticky, and sleep-glazed. He cooked breakfast, every unhealthy thing Charles favored, and, since it was Saturday, brought it to him in bed, and then spent the entire day spoiling him every way he could think of. It was, as Charles would put it, perfectly lovely, but at the back of his mind Erik couldn’t help but address Shaw at every turn, with every new sweet thing he did. Take that, and that, and that.

It hadn’t occurred to him until many months later that he might as well have been possessed, willingly, no, even willfully so with the very demon he thought he had triumphed over. There were three of them in that relationship, though Charles didn’t—couldn’t have known it. A sure sign of a looming disaster ahead. But at the moment, Erik felt powerful and victorious, and in complete control.

To his credit, he didn’t marry Charles purely out of spite for Shaw right after Erik forced him to keep his word and make Erik a senior partner upon him reaching five hundred wins for the firm. No, Shaw’s displeasure was merely a bonus.

Had Erik's mother been alive, she would have told him to wait a little bit. Not because she’d have suspected Charles of anything untoward—she was the kindest soul in the world, who only saw the good in people. But simply out of prudence. They had met some meager six months ago, had been dating for four of them. It had only been three months since Erik not so much asked Charles to move in with him, as made an executive decision that they should live together. Even if Charles was just as he appeared—completely sincere and trustworthy, it would have been too fast for anyone halfway sensible.

Erik realized that, yet he felt that he was being sensible. Erik had never been an apologist of the theory that if you love someone, you should set them free. To Erik, that seemed like an extremely ludicrous idea. He firmly believed that, if you loved someone, you should fight for them with everything you’ve got and hold on to them tooth and nail, and never so much as think of letting go. People you love leave. People you love die. The universe had too many variables to ever feel safe, too many options to add your own lack of will to them.

Charles was young. Charles was gorgeous. Charles was brilliant, and had an amazing career ahead of him. Erik was amazed that Charles was single when they met, but he wasn’t going to look his good fortune in the mouth. If people were too stupid to see the diamond in the rough, all the better for Erik. He knew what Charles was from the get-go. He had no intention of releasing him into the wild so that he could find someone out there he’d like more than Erik. He was twenty-one, after all, and most people at that age wouldn’t know love from lust if someone drew them a diagram. Erik, on the other hand, fell fast and fell hard. He wasn’t taking any chances.

Everything was coming together just as he planned it. His career was at an all-time high. The only higher place it could go was becoming a name partner, but that was a few years ahead. His personal life was settled, and he was happy. Happy. He didn’t realize how exhausting his would-be glamorous fuck-em-and-leave-em lifestyle had been. The constant necessity to perform to maintain his reputation, the emotional drain of meaningless sex that he hadn’t even been aware of until he met Charles. All the silly, Disney Channel clichés were true. Shaw simply didn’t know what he was missing.

Two months. He had two months of absolute bliss to enjoy before it all came crushing down on his head.

‘Erik, could you step in for a moment?’ Shaw asked him one day just as Erik came back to the office from a very productive working lunch. ‘I need to show you something.’

Shaw’s office was, of course, the biggest and the most opulent one in the firm, bordering on bad taste. Erik had long since trained himself to overlook it, though a niggling thought lifted its head at the back of his mind from time to time that the man who used to be his mentor in all things when it came to style would let his ego drag him all the way into over-the-top and garish. His attention was seized, however, by John Allerdyce, nicknamed Pyro for his unfortunate and borderline psychotic habit of playing with his lighter, who was one of the firm’s PIs. Erik disliked the man, even though he’d won many a case thanks to his work. Pyro nodded at him, looking uncharacteristically serious.

‘Sit, sit,’ Shaw said, motioning them both into his guest chairs. ‘I don’t know if you know this, Erik, but it’s Pyro’s job to run background checks on all our partners—and their partners. I’ve known you since you were a boy, so believe me, I thought this was going to be completely routine in your case. I even considered saving John here the trouble all together, but in the end, I wanted everything to be beyond reproach. If you want to make name partner some day, and yes, I know that’s what you’re aiming for, you can’t skip any steps.’

Erik straightened in his seat, an unpleasant cool sensation slithering down his spine. ‘Can you get to the point? I have a conf call in fifteen.’

‘By all means. The point is that John has uncovered something you will, no doubt, find unpleasant. And trust me, when I say this, my boy. I wish with all my heart I was wrong when I warned you about it. But I’m afraid my instincts are good. John, show him.’

Erik grabbed the manila envelope impatiently from the PI, feeling intensely irritated at being toyed with. But the moment his eyes fell on the stack of grainy, telescopic-lens quality photos inside, he forgot to breathe.

Charles. Somewhere out in the city, wearing his new woolen coat that Erik had personally bought for him just the other week. Charles talking to a stranger, standing close, laughing, at a bar somewhere. The man was clearly older, with copper-red hair and a trimmed beard, with huge hands fully on display as he laid one of Charles's arm. The next picture was of a rundown hotel somewhere, Phoenix Lodge, God, what a stupid name. The photos became slightly blurry, taken through the glass, but the people in them were unmistakable. The red-haired bear was now kissing Charles, pressing him against the door. The next picture had Charles hoisted up, ankles locked around the man’s waist. The next few shots were merciless, naked bodies tangled in the sheets; Charles riding the man, head dropped back in pleasure; the stranger’s buttocks front and center as he hovered over Charles who was grinning up at him.

Erik felt sick. Numb at first and then sick to his stomach. He pushed the envelope away for fear of dropping it.

‘These are obviously fake,’ he said when he could speak again. ‘Charles would never…’

Except it was quite possible that Charles would. Twenty-one. Twenty-one, damn him. And Erik saw how he was with customers at that bar he used to work in. Flirting expertly, freely, successfully, clearly enjoying it. A memory came up, unbidden, of how Charles pouted at him just the other day, when Erik told him off for lingering in bed, trying to entice Erik with morning sex when Erik had to rush to work. Could that be it? Erik didn’t pay him enough attention, and so Charles went to look for it elsewhere?

But no. Not his Charles.

Not Charles.

Erik cleared his throat. ‘This is low even for you, Sebastian.’ He glanced at Pyro. ‘I do commend your mastery of Photoshop. Nice try.’

‘Oh, Erik.’ Shaw sighed and pushed the envelope back at him. ‘I don’t know from where you got this idea that I wish you harm. The only thing I’ve ever done was take care of you, and I’m doing it still. You’re hurting, I understand, so you can’t see it. Yes, I was opposed to you dating him, let alone marrying, but I accepted that those were your wishes. I wanted this to work out for you, even if I didn’t believe it would.’

‘Of course you did.’

‘I did, I really did. But I had my misgivings about him in the first place, and the only thing I feel good about right now is that you made him sign a prenup.’

In truth, it was Shaw who made Erik make Charles sign the prenup. Charles merely looked bewildered, but didn’t voice a single protest. It was Erik who resisted and who felt horrible afterwards.

‘Take the pictures. Go, have them analyzed, since you don’t believe me. But before you do, consider this.’ He handed Erik a printout. ‘This is a hotel receipt, and, as you can see, your husband’s credit card was used to pay for the room. On three separate occasions. You had that card issued specifically for him, giving him access to your accounts? Very unwise, my boy. But, I suppose, it could have been worse. He could have cleaned you out. But so far as we can tell he only used it to pay for coffee and a hotel room where he cheated on you.’

Erik stared at the receipt, dark spots dancing before his eyes. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be.

He left Shaw’s office without another word, a dead weight settling on his shoulders. He knew the answer already. Of course, he knew. But this was Charles, and Erik would fight for him, no matter how pathetic it made him, because Erik loved him, loved him still, the boy who took his heart and stomped it in the dirt.

He took the pictures to an independent lab, paying an insane fee for an expedited analysis. They weren’t fakes, the tech told him. He explained about the light and the angles, but Erik wasn’t listening. It hardly mattered. They weren’t fakes, just as the credit card charges weren’t fakes. Which meant Charles really did sleep with some other guy.

Charles betrayed him.

Erik had never known pain like this. Not even when his mother died. He never realized that heartbreak was a physical sensation. His chest was heavy, and too tight, and aching madly like a perpetual bruise. He could barely take a breath of air. Yet there was more to come, wasn’t there, because he now had to face Charles. To confront him.

It hurt watching Charles come home, as carefree and cheerful as he always was. This, too, was a lie. Everything about him was a lie. Him taking offense when Erik paid for stuff, his obvious discomfort at not pulling his weight. All an act. Why? Why bother? Why not just accept it if that was his only goal? Why not take Erik to the cleaners, have him pay for school, buy a car—hell, Erik would have happily bought him a small asteroid if Charles had asked for it. Why bother with the pretense?

Charles went pale when he saw the pictures. He touched them warily, his hand trembling, as though fondling a snake.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, eyes wide as they studied picture after picture. ‘That’s not me. I never… Erik. You have to believe me. I never met this person, and I never—that’s not me.’

His eyes were huge and pleading, and so earnest that Erik almost wavered. Shaw was right a thousand times. Erik had gone soft. The proof, the tangible, reliable proof was staring him in the face, and yet he almost felt like he could ignore it. Would ignore it, if Charles pleaded with him long enough. What a wimp he’d become.

His face contorted in disgust as he spat, ‘Really? That’s what you’re going with? That’s not you that’s what, your evil twin from a mirror universe?’

‘Erik—’

‘Then explain to me how that not-you got access to your credit card to pay for the room?’ Erik snarled. ‘Grow up, Charles. The least you can do is take responsibility for the shitty person you turned out to be!’

Charles was blushing now, tears streaming down his face, but there was anger in his eyes, too.

‘I can’t explain any of this, Erik! I’m not a lawyer; I don’t know how to play any of your games. But I know what I know, and I know this—I love you, and I have never in my life seen this man, and I most certainly haven’t slept with him!’ He peered down at the pictures again, anger definitely winning out over hurt for the moment. ‘You had me followed? If you don’t believe my word, if you don’t trust me, why did you marry me in the first place?’

Erik laughed. ‘Oh, I did trust you, fool that I was. I trusted you with my life. No, more than that, I trusted you with my heart.’ His voice broke. ‘You were my soul, Charles. And you… you would do this to me…’

‘Erik, no.’ Charles stepped around the counter and grabbed his hand, tears streaming down his face, his eyes two wells of anguish. An Oscar-worthy performance. ‘Erik, I could never do this to you. Why would I want to? I love you. I love you more than I thought was possible to love anyone. I would never betray you. Listen to me. There’s got to be some logical explanation for this. I didn’t do this, Erik. I would never do this. You have to believe me. If you love me at all, you have to believe me over—over this.’

Erik realized he was crying too, and pulled his hand out of Charles's grasp with an effort. He looked away, ignoring the agony on Charles's face. All a lie, he reminded himself. All a performance. But damn, how tempting it was to give in, to accept it, to just surrender.

‘I want to believe you,’ he said, not recognizing his own voice. ‘More than anything I want to believe you. Which is why I can’t. I’m biased in your favor. But emotions are not objective. Emotions are what loses cases. This’— he nods at the pictures —‘this is objective. These are hard facts. You’re a scientist. Would you have me ignore objective data in favor of my heavily biased preference?’

‘Yes,’ Charles whispered, the sound so broken it shot through Erik like a bullet. ‘Yes, I would have you believe your heart over this ‘objectivity.’ I would always have you believe your heart.’

Erik gripped the edge of the counter hard enough to make his fingers go white. Another moment—and he’d give in. Another minute spent in Charles's company, and Erik would be lost forever.

‘Get out,’ he said quietly, no affectation. ‘I can’t have you here. Get out, Charles. It’s over.’

‘Erik, please—’

‘Leave,’ Erik growled, whirling on him. ‘Now. Never come back. I can’t stand to look at you.’

If Charles refused, if Charles persisted, then maybe, maybe Erik could believe him after all, maybe somehow it was possible. If Charles was telling the truth, he would fight for Erik, he would fight, as Erik would have, he wouldn’t give up. Maybe then, maybe…

Charles's shoulders slumped and he threw a furtive glance toward the bedroom.

‘May I at least get my books?’

Hope Erik didn’t know he’d felt crushed down around him, nearly taking him down.

‘There is nothing that belongs to you in this apartment. Leave your keys and get out.’

There was a noise as though Charles had stifled a whimper. Erik didn’t look up. It was impossible, it was humiliating and pathetic, but even now all he wanted to do was reach out to Charles, sooth him and hold him and tell him everything was going to be all right. What kind of spell did the boy possess to completely enslave Erik's will like that? Was Erik really such a fool?

The sound of footsteps, uneven, a broken rhythm. A clang of metal. And finally, at long last, the sound of the door opened and closed.

Erik collapsed over the countertop and howled.

--

Credit where credit’s due, Shaw doesn’t gloat. He takes one look at Erik's face the next day and promptly sends him off to Tokyo to negotiate a business deal between two major corporations. It’s the kind of case that demands such scrupulous attention to every detail that it leaves Erik virtually no room to think about anything else.

But in the evening, when he comes back to his hotel, night after night, there is nothing waiting for him but silence, and the temptation to call Charles just to hear his voice. It’s a weakness Erik hates himself for and yet can’t shake. He should be angry, he should be enraged, but all he can think of is the way Charles smiled at him so shyly, so surprised that first night, and the way he blushed, and the way he frowned over Sunday crossword puzzles.

Anger comes in a week later, and Erik takes it out on the punching bags in the fully equipped hotel gym. He does this for three nights in a row, until he can’t feel his arms anymore. On the fourth night, he goes back to the bar, and when a young man with high cheekbones, very good English, and a wicked smile approaches him, Erik takes him back to his room and fucks him until he’s certain he’d be getting a noise complaint in a less high-tech environment, and then fucks him again, and then kicks him out. He does that, rinse and repeat, for the next two weeks, until the deal is finally closed.

None of it helps a bit.

--

Charles doesn’t remember a lot from that night. Everything after Erik told him to get out is a bit of a blur. He stands for countless minutes just outside the building, numb, and shell-shocked, and above all else incredibly confused. What just happened? Did it really happen? It felt so completely surreal.

He makes his feet work and pulls his jacket tighter around himself. He dressed light for the weather this morning, anticipating spending the whole day on the run. Seems like an especially unfortunate choice now.

He looks around, uncertain where to go. He desperately needs a friend right now, a sympathetic ear, someone who can help him make sense of it. But Raven is still in Paris, and apart form her, there’s only Hank. Only Hank and Charles have always been work friends, not particularly close outside the shared lab space. When it comes to personal relationships, Hank would probably be even more lost than Charles.

He starts walking. It’s a long way to the research center, but it’s the only destination Charles can think of. He needs time to process. And Erik needs time to calm down. They will talk about it again, of course they will. They are adults, for God’s sake. They’ll sort this out. But not while Erik is still drowning in rage.

God, but he looked so hurt. Charles feels his heart squeeze painfully in his chest, remembering Erik's shattered expression. He really believed—he really believed Charles had done that. Being the cause of Erik's pain feels worse than anything Charles has ever experienced in his life. It’s not his fault, but it doesn’t change anything. Erik is suffering, heartbroken, and Charles feels helpless and guilty and raw with it.

But what on Earth could be the meaning of this? Where did the pictures come from? Charles doesn’t suffer from blackouts or amnesia. He can account for his activities on any given day with some minimal effort, depending how far back they were. The man in the pictures was unquestionably him—but how? How is it possible? Charles has never met the red-haired man, let alone arranged for secret rendezvous with him. Is he going insane? He feels like he’s slipped into one of those movies where reality suddenly begins to warp and fold, skipping entire chapters, rewriting the script as it goes.

And it hurts. Dear God, does it hurt that Erik didn’t believe him. The one person who was supposed to always stay by his side, the one person who was meant to stand by him no matter what, that person didn’t even give him a chance to make his case.

A memory pops in his mind, unbidden. The two of them walking home after one of their dinner dates out, and Charles, impatient to get Erik alone after a torturous evening full of teasing, and innuendos that seduced with their intelligence before everything else, grabbed Erik's hand and dragged him across the street, even though the light was red. ‘I’m going to hell for this,’ Charles muttered, and Erik said, ‘If you are, I’m coming with you.’ Charles looked up at him, surprised at the grave tone, shocked at the expression on Erik's face. Charles was joking, but Erik—Erik wasn’t, Erik was dead serious, too intense as always, meaning every word.

How could he feel that way one moment and be so cold, so unyielding the next? Charles can’t wrap his mind around it. He knows that Erik has some uncanny, almost inhuman control over his emotions, but that still boggles the mind. That he can just throw a switch like that and go from total devotion to nothing at all, to looking at Charles as though he was a stranger, an unwanted guest who’d overstayed his welcome—that, Charles can’t begin to grasp.

It’s long past midnight when Charles makes his way finally into the lab. The security guard in the building lobby gives him a bored look, too used to crazy researchers popping up at all times of day and night. It’s an unspeakable relief to not have his presence questioned after being thrown out of his own home. If it has ever even been his home, of course…

Charles blinks back tears. He’s tired of crying, mad at himself for falling to pieces. He’s a grown man. He’s been on his own since he was sixteen, long before Erik ever showed up in his life. He should be able to take care of himself. It’s his own fault if he has no place to go to. Normal people have friends, even if they don’t have families. Everyone has someone. And if Charles has lost every social connection he’s ever had because he was too wrapped up in Erik, that’s his own fault. No one to blame here, but himself.

He walks into the small kitchenette and makes himself a cup of tea. Realizing he’s shivering, he puts two full teaspoons of sugar into it, even though normally he hates sweet tea. He needs it now. He’s in shock, apparently, and he didn’t even know it. They have a couch, more of a settee, really, too short for him to stretch out. He curls on his side, using his jacket as a blanket and closes his eyes.

He’ll talk to Erik tomorrow. Erik is a smart man. He’ll have to see sense. Charles can’t believe that Erik really would end it all there, just because of some misunderstanding. Erik loves him. Erik married him. It was never Charles pushing the issue. Charles would have been perfectly happy to keep on dating him, living in his own shithole of an apartment. Charles never should have agreed to move in so fast, let alone to marriage. But he wanted to please Erik so badly. It was so immensely flattering, so completely unbelievable that someone like Erik could really be interested in someone like Charles, truly interested, not just to sleep with. Charles was so scared that Erik would think him immature, would be disappointed and leave, that he breezed past all his boundaries and safeguards, jumped over his own survival instinct and common sense, all to prove he’s worthy.

Erik obviously believe Charles had nothing until they met, but that wasn’t true. Charles had himself. He had his life. Perhaps it wasn’t anything as glamorous as Erik's, but it was all his own. He had a place to live, a job that kept him, if not comfortable, then at least decent, and his career path all mapped out. It was a balancing act, but he was managing it. He was his own.

And he’d given it all up, discarded, surrendered, sacrificed, in order to be with Erik on Erik's terms. Now, he has nothing.

Lesson learned, he thinks bleakly, shivering still, despite the tea. Never give up yourself. Never give away what you are. Not for the greatest love in the universe, don’t give yourself away. You’ll end up with nothing, and no one will want you when you’re nothing. Not even you.’

He doesn’t sleep so much as dozes off, too tense and too cold still to relax. In his head, he keeps running on scenarios. What he’ll say when he talks to Erik. How he’ll act. What he’ll do. He drifts between angry and frustrated, hurt and sad, and is both surprised and relieved when Hank shakes him by the shoulder, blinking down at him.

“Did you stay the whole night?” he asks.

“Ow.” Charles sits up slowly, massaging his aching neck. “Um. Yeah. I, um. I set up a reaction in the autoclave. Wanted to monitor in case…”

Hank nods, glancing over through the glass at the huge machine in the center of the lab, the panel blinking green.

“I think it’s finished. Let’s see?”

“Yeah.” Charles stands up, wobbling a little, and follows Hank inside.

He did set up a reaction to run the night before, thank God, though he never had any intention to babysit it. Hank was studying the readout on the screen almost gleefully.

“This looks really promising.”

Charles blinks at the monitor, then blinks again. “Actually… Hey, it does. Am I reading the viscosity numbers right?”

Hank grins. “You are. You look surprised. That’s your formula, didn’t you expect this?”

He did, but it’s difficult to remember now. Too many things have happened, too many things have gone wrong since he’d sat to do the math on this one, and then waited and waited for his turn in the equipment room.

“I guess.” He shrugs.

“Charles.” Hank grips his shoulders and shakes his slightly. “You need to write this up for MacTaggert straight away. Actually, no, not straight away. It’s like seven a.m., and you look like you wouldn’t know your resin from bubblegum right now. Let’s go to Mike’s, get a coffee. Then you’re writing this down.”

Charles gives him a weak smile. “Sure. It’s my turn to buy, isn’t it?”

“You know it.” Hank grins.

Charles pulls his jacket on with numb fingers. His whole body feels sluggish, uncooperative. He stumbles a few times on the steps and squeezes his eyes against the early sun light.

“I feel like I should offer you an arm or something,” Hank jokes, peering down at him. “You look like a zombie.”

“Thanks,” Charles replies sourly. Not that he had any illusions, but still.

Mike’s is empty this early in the morning. It has long been their favorite spot for being close to campus, yet not actually on it. Mike, the owner, is a perpetually grumpy dude, no other word to describe him, in his late forties, who seems to hate people who like coffee, which is why he’s operating a coffeeshop that is open 24/7. He does hire some really friendly baristas, though, and today it’s Angel’s shift. She smiles at Charles as he rattles their orders.

“Someone had a rough night, huh?” She winks. “That’ll be five dollars twenty, please.”

Charles hands her the card, and turns to Hank. “You really think it’s worth a write-up?”

Hank shrugs. “You’re going to have to do it anyway, but sure. I mean, you saw the same figures I did, and that’s just what you got straight after. You know they’ll shift further once it sets.”

“Hm. Maybe, but I think—”

“I’m sorry, Charles,” Angel cuts in, frowning in confusion. “Your card’s been declined.”

Charles blinks, glancing at it. Then it hits him. Oh. Oh.

“Maybe run it again?” Hank suggests impatiently, unconcerned. “You know sometimes they do that.”

“I ran it twice,” Angel says. “I don’t think—”

“It’s okay. I—I had it blocked temporarily,” Charles says, patting his pockets in search of cash. “I forgot. Sorry, Angel, one moment.”

He has enough time to panic, trying to remember if he had any cash on him yesterday. He can’t remember.

“It’s fine, I got it,” Hank says, handing Angel a ten.

“No, wait—”

“Don’t worry about it, Charles. You’ll get the next two now.”

“Right.” Charles sighs, his face burning. “Thanks.”

Hank forgets the entire thing instantly, talking Charles's ear off instead about his results and what their next steps should be, and at any other time Charles would have been all over it too. Now—now he checks his phone to see a notification about a rejected transaction and another one, informing him that his card has been canceled. No messages or calls from Erik. As familiar as he is with humiliation, he doesn’t think he’s ever felt it quite like that.

He takes stock when they come back to the lab. At that exact moment, he owns exactly this: the clothes on his back; seventy-five dollars and twenty-three cents in cash, discovered in various pockets; his messenger bag that he didn’t have the chance to put down last night and so had walked out with it still hanging across his chest. That one is an unexpected mercy. It has his laptop in it, and if Charles had lost it, years of research for his thesis and beyond, he’d have probably killed himself.

It’s odd thinking of this state as permanent. That Erik, Erik of all people, would act this way. Even if Charles really did cheat on him—unthinkable, but even if it happened—to literally throw him out like that was just… barbaric. Even Kurt—and God, what a comparison—but even Kurt, when he’d discovered Charles's ‘perversion’, had given him fifteen minutes to get his things. True, it was only because he didn’t want anything gay contaminating his house (Charles's house, never Kurt’s, but that’s behind him now), but all the same. He’d never thought he’d see the day when Kurt Marko would seem more civilized than Erik Lehnsherr, yet here they are. So incredibly surreal.

But no, of course, Erik wouldn’t act like this. Erik was a gentleman. He had class. That he’d act this way could only mean one thing—he doesn’t mean it. He’ll cool down. He’ll see sense. They’ll talk. Maybe he’ll even call Charles first. Any minute now. And if not, if his pride wouldn’t let him, that’s okay. Charles can take the first step. Anything to stop this insanity. They love each other. This is simply absurd.

He keeps checking his phone, but no calls come. He eats the plain unsalted crackers Moira stocks in the kitchen for the team for lunch and waits impatiently for the time when Erik should be home from work. Charles tries calling a couple of times, but the calls go to voicemail. Fine then. He’d prefer to talk in person anyway.

But when he’s facing the building that he was just beginning to call home, he feels the icy grip of trepidation. What if Erik is still angry? What if he doesn’t let Charles in? What if he still doesn’t believe him?

The doorman looks at him without a smile as Charles walks by, ignoring his greeting. Charles feels his eyes at the back of his neck as he waits for the elevator. The entire last floor belongs to Erik, so there’s no possibility of nosy neighbors spying at him at least. It doesn’t make him feel better.

He rings the doorbell. Nothing happens. Charles rings again, then knocks on the door.

“Erik, it’s me,” he shouts, even knowing what excellent sound absorption Erik's walls have. “Please let me in. We have to talk.”

There is still no answer. It’s somehow unimaginable to picture Erik hiding in his apartment, not opening the door. He’s never shied away from confrontation. He must not be home, otherwise he’d have come out and yelled at Charles already. Perhaps a late meeting at the office. Well, Charles can wait.

He sits down on the floor with his back to Erik's door. If he falls asleep, at least Erik will have to wake him or step on him. Sleep is a real possibility. He feels warm here for the first time in over twenty-four hours.

He doesn’t have a chance to fall asleep though, because before long the elevator dings, but instead of Erik, it’s Mr. Porter, the doorman, who steps out, frowning at Charles.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, Mr. Xavier. We don’t allow loitering in this building.”

Charles scrambles to stand up. “I’m not—I’m… I, um. I’ve locked myself out.”

The doorman’s frown intensifies. “In fact, Mr. Lehnsherr has informed me that you will no longer be residing here.”

Charles blushes to the roots of his hair. And he thought the thing with the credit card was bad.

“I—I just need to talk to him.”

“Mr. Lehnsherr isn’t home. When he’s in, he can decide for himself, but until then, you have to leave.”

“Please,” Charles says, hating himself for begging. “You don’t understand, I just need to talk to him, it’s very important—”

“I’m sure it is,” Mr. Porter interrupts him coolly. “But it will have to wait until Mr. Lehnsherr is in. Follow me, please, Mr. Xavier. Or I will call security to escort you out.”

For a moment, Charles can almost see it. He’ll hold on to Erik's door and have them drag him away, kicking and screaming all the way. Would Erik take him seriously then? Or would he simply grimace in distaste and apologize to the staff for the inconvenience? ‘When you bring trash home, darling,’ his mother used to say, ‘you shouldn’t be surprised when it stinks up the room.’ She wore the same expression that Mr. Porter is wearing now, looking at Charles as though he was something too disgusting to come near.

Charles goes quietly, hands shaking and face burning. He feels as though he has somehow slipped in a Stephen King horror story. His entire life is turning on him, every aspect, every part of it suddenly attacking, merciless, as though he was a stranger, as though there was no shared history between them. This somehow stings most of all.

Yet again he’s standing outside, contemplating his options. He can’t stay here. Mr. Porter will, undoubtedly, shoo him off if he lingers just outside the building. Charles doesn’t think he can take another hit like that. But there is nowhere to wait around here, except for the café across the street. Charles had only ever been there with Erik, and at the time didn’t think twice about it, but he remembers now that it’s hellishly expensive, and Erik had paid something like forty dollars for a glass of sparkling water. There’s nothing for it, however.

Charles goes in and orders a shot of espresso. He takes a seat at the window, staring at Erik's building, like a watchman. Time goes by. Being a high-class establishment, nobody bothers him, until it’s time to close. Charles winces, realizing he’s sat for over four hours in the same position and his body ahs gone to sleep. He looks at his watch as he steps out. It’s past midnight. Erik never did show up.

Charles makes his long way back to campus, enervated, and for the first time since last night—scared. The only thing that has been keeping his spirits up for the last twenty-four hours was the thought that this was all temporary. That all he needed to do was to talk to Erik again. In his mind, he always ended up in his own bed tonight, with Erik's arms wrapped around him. For the first time, a crippling doubt begins to take root in his mind. What if Erik really meant it? What if it really is over?

Charles doesn’t remember how he makes his way back. He doesn’t bother taking the jacket off this time, just curls up on the couch and wills his mind to stop. Not an easy task, that. He makes certain to be up before Hank shows up this time. He has a new plan. He makes the track back into the city, ignoring the pain in his legs and feet. He can’t afford a cab ride now, and even public transport would be pushing it. But Erik's routine is like clockwork. He runs in the park every morning, along the same route. Charles waits for him there. Erik doesn’t show. Nor does Charles spot him coming out of his building when it’s time to go to work.

Dejected, Charles takes a bus back, and then stares at himself in the lab’s bathroom, bracing himself over the sink. He looks like shit. He feels worse. He has spent almost three days wearing the same clothes and he’s beginning to stink a little. His brain feels like a sticky quagmire. To cap it all, he has to teach today. He has never felt like going in front of dozens of people less than he does right now.

He repeats his track in the evening. He can’t afford to go into the café again, even though he’s ravenously hungry by now, so he takes to walking the length of the street, nearly twisting his neck, looking over his shoulder, paranoid that he’d miss Erik. There’s no sign of him yet again. Charles doesn’t think he can walk all the way back now. He sits down at the curb to rest his feet, nearly numb with cold, but jumps up when a patrol car cruises by. He has never appreciated the plight of the homeless people, not in its entirety. A hysterical laughter breaks out of his chest when he realizes he wishes he’d done more in the past than given them spare change. Maybe talked to them a little bit. Asked them how they did, in fact, live on the streets.

Campus seems to be an unsurmountable distance just at the moment, but Erik's office isn’t. Charles has never been there, but he knows the address. He curses himself for not having thought of it sooner. There’s a patch of greenery next to the office building—not quite a park, but more than a garden. It’s too well-manicured to attract vagrants, and Charles sits there on a bench, waiting for dawn, almost hoping to be picked up. It must at least be warm in the drunk tank. But no one approaches him, and then, at long last, the sun is out, and within a few more hours the streets around him fill with activity. Neatly dressed office workers hurrying to their various companies, queueing around the coffee carts to get a hit before the beginning of their daily torture.

Charles tries to straighten his clothes out as much as possible. He catches his reflection in a glass wall of a building and is surprised. He doesn’t look that bad. He is, of course, pale and rumpled and with a bird’s nest on his head instead of hair, but he doesn’t look dirty or shabby enough to be denied entrance based on appearances. He does his best to straighten his hair, though he can’t quite feel his fingers, and goes in.

He takes the elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, feeling his heart beating arrhythmically in his chest the entire time. This is it. He’s going to see Erik now. After three days in pursuit of him, Charles isn’t sure he can handle an actual, live, face-to-face meeting. But the elevator doors open, and he has no choice but to step out, caught immediately by the tractor beam of the receptionist’s gaze. He tries for his usual polite smile as he approaches her.

“Good morning,” he says and clears his throat, his voice having gone hoarse. “I, um. I’m here to see Erik Lehnsherr.”

The girl arches her eyebrows, but her attentive expression doesn’t change. “Do you have an appointment?”

“An appointment.” Charles blinks. “Um. No. I don’t. But could you, um. Could you just tell him that Charles Xavier is here to see him. His husband.”

The girl stares at him, her eyes narrowing suddenly in suspicion. Charles can almost feel the alarm bell that’s begun to sound in her mind.

“His husband?” she repeats in clear disbelief. “Mr.—Xavier, was it? Mr. Lehnsherr is on a business trip to Tokyo. He left three days ago.”

And anyone claiming to be his husband would certainly know that.

“Oh,” Charles breathes out softly. Erik's not in the city? For some reason, it has never even occurred to him. He meets the girl’s clearly hostile gaze now and tries to smile. “Right, of course. I’ve been away myself, you see. Just came back. Wanted to surprise him. He didn’t tell me he was leaving.”

Maybe it’s his eyes that Raven had told him once made him look like a perpetually lost puppy or maybe it’s the general image of harmlessness that he must be projecting right now, but the girl’s expression softens slightly.

“It wasn’t planned, he left suddenly,” she tells him, not quite convinced of his identity, but not willing to piss off her boss in case Charles was for real. “Mr. Zazel was supposed to go. Last minute switch.”

“I see,” Charles says, grateful beyond belief that someone was treating him like a human being. “Do you happen to know when he’ll be back? I’d call, but I don’t want to distract him unnecessarily. You know how he is when he works.”

It was a gamble, but it paid off. The girl smiles. “I certainly do. But as for when he’ll be back, I can’t say. It’s a merger. Those usually take forever.”

Charles's heart falls. “I see,” he says again, and smiles at her, because it’s not her fault, any of it. “Thank you so much for your help.”

He turns to go and comes face to face with Emma Frost.

“Charles,” she says, looking impeccable in a white pantsuit cut so sharply it’s a miracle the air isn’t bleeding. “What a pleasant surprise.”

Her eyes tell him she knows. His heart sinks even deeper. She was the only one of Erik's colleagues who seemed almost friendly with him during the reception. Now she’s looking at him with cold disdain and quite a bit of anger.

“Ms. Frost,” he says, not caring at the hopelessness in his tone. “How do you do.”

She lifts an eyebrow. “Polite to the end, are we? Come with me, sugar. Let’s have a chat.”

She leads him just around the corner into an empty conference room, not bothering with the lights.

“What are you doing here?” She rounds at him the moment the door closes. “You have some nerve showing your face here of all places. I could tear you limb from limb after what you’ve done to him. What could you possibly want, you foul creature?”

“I need to talk to Erik,” Charles says, too tired for a fight. “I just need to talk to him.”

“What could you possibly have to say?” she sneers. “You know, it’s amazing, how you managed to fool us all. You even fooled me. You were so cute and adorable, so clearly in love, I almost mistook you for a puppy. I’ve always wondered what kind of man it would take to show Erik he’s human after all. Someone truly special to get under that steel skin of his. Instead, we got you. Did he really mean so little to you? He married you, for Christ’s sake. And you just threw that away.”

Charles grits his teeth. It takes all of his willpower not to crumple under her onslaught. He lifts his chin up, meeting her gaze, flinching at the pure hatred in it.

“I didn’t cheat on him,” he says, knowing it’s no good. But he won’t stand here, taking abuse, when he has done nothing wrong. “I didn’t sleep with that man, or with any other. I can’t explain the pictures. But I know I didn’t do it.”

She scoffs. “That’s a terrible defense, sugar. I remember Erik used to go on and on about how smart you were. Guess love really is blind.”

“Is it?” Charles snaps, stung. “Is it really? Is that why he made me sign a prenup? Is that why he had me followed not two months after we got married?”

Emma’s eyebrows arch beautifully. “He didn’t have you followed, sugar. The firm did. Erik has just made senior partner. We run background checks on all of them and their spouses.”

Charles stares at her. This was new information.

“So the firm manufactured those pictures?” he asks slowly. “Ah. I see now.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What do you think you see? We had our PI follow you, yes. He discovered your little arrangement within a day. Not that bright after all, are you?”

Charles shakes his head. “There is nothing I can say that will make you believe me,” he says. “I understand that. Even Erik didn’t believe me, and he was supposed to be the one person always on my side.”

He bites his lip, looks around him through the glass walls at the immaculately decorated office, at the people milling around in designer suits and shoes that cost more than a moderately expensive car, wearing watches that cost more than a yearly budget of some unfortunate third world country. He feels as though he’s standing in the middle of a Matrix-like reality now, surrounded not by people, but by their reflections. Could Erik not see that? Could he not hold on to the one person who was real in his entire life?

“I think I’m done here,” Charles says, returning his gaze to Emma, but even she doesn’t look that intimidating to him now. “Don’t worry. I won’t come back here again. You can tell Erik I got the message.” He turns to go, then pauses, glancing back. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad he has friends like you. He’s going to need them.”

He walks out, not waiting for an answer, ignoring the looks he’s getting as people try and fail to place him. Even the messengers in this place look better than Charles. The thought makes him smile all of a sudden, even if it is bitter.

He steps out of the building and takes in a gulp of crisp late winter air. His chest hurts. He lost Erik. He knows that now, and it hits him worse than a two-by-four in the ribs. He lost him for good. There is nothing Charles can do or say to make it un-happen. Erik wasn’t deceived, wasn’t confused. Erik made a choice. He chose this world over Charles when he chose their truth over his. And it hurts something awful to leave him there, because Erik is brilliant, bright as a supernova, and deserving so much more than this. But Charles can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. Erik loved him, yes. Just not enough.

Charles was not—is not good enough, strong enough to win this battle. It would take someone smarter, sexier, stronger to do that. Most of all, it would take Erik himself. And Charles—Charles is about to become an episode in his life. Someone written out of the show shortly after the pilot. That’s okay. And that Charles's life is in ruins—that’s okay, too, because Erik didn’t do this. Charles did. With his own hands. Erik didn’t force a single decision on him. Charles made them all by himself, when he chose to fall into love blindly, forgetting that the real world even existed. He’s made his own bed, now he has to sort it out himself. And Erik—his heart will always ache for Erik. But Charles can’t help him, even if he would have gladly given his life to be able to.

Charles must focus on surviving now, on rebuilding his life from the wreck he’s made of it. And maybe, at some point in the future, when he’s not desperate for a solid meal, he can look Erik up just to check if he’s happy. Because Charles is pretty certain that his own fairytale has ended here and now.

He catches a ride back to campus, goes to that section of the library that isn’t covered by cameras because no one ever goes there, hides behind the last row of bookshelves, curls up on the floor, and turns the world off.

--

Charles knows he can’t keep squatting in the lab, of course, but after the day he visits Erik's office, he falls into some kind of stupor. He goes through the motions mechanically and doesn’t really feel like he’s alive. All he wants to do is to curl up in warm and quiet place somewhere and have the world forget about him. It’s all well and good to proclaim that he has to get his life under control now, but it all sounds rather empty when he can’t summon enough will to take a shower. He doesn’t think he can deal with anything. It all seems too hard, too strenuous a task, and more importantly, he doesn’t see the point.

His hovering in limbo ends one bright morning when he wakes up on the couch to find not just Hank, but also Moira standing above him, hands on her hips, both of them staring down at him with stern expressions.

“All right, Charles,” Moira says in that tone that makes Charles wonder how he ever imagined she didn’t notice every little detail of what was going on in her lab. “I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen you change your clothes in a week, you’re always here in the morning, and I’m betting you’re the reason Evan complains there are never any crackers in the kitchen. I gave you plenty of time to come clean, but I’m not a very patient woman. Spill.”

Charles looks at her, looks at Hank, and caves. He’s tired of pretending nothing’s wrong. The many and progressively stranger lies he has to tell every day are starting to weigh him down, and he doesn’t think he can keep track of them anymore.

“Erik kicked me out,” he says, and it feels every bit as humiliating as he suspected it would, saying it out loud. He gives them the gist of the story then, embarrassed to bring his personal life to work like that. “I understand,” he adds hastily, “that I can’t keep crashing here. I just… I need time to figure something out.”

Moira stares at him, then shares an incredulous glance with Hank. “Jesus Christ, Charles,” she says, not quite covering her shock. “Why didn’t you say something?”

Charles blinks. “I thought… it’d be unprofessional. I’m sorry. I really… I apologize for this. I’ll clear out, of course, I—”

“Stop,” Moira says, frowning. “I mean, of course you’ll have to clear out, but I’m not kicking you out on the street. Jesus. I just—sorry, I just, I can’t believe a grown man would do that. Though what am I saying, I’ve been married three times and counting,” she mutters, glancing at her nails for a moment. “Still, that’s just—beyond good and evil.”

Charles shrugs. He’s gotten so used to it, he doesn’t find it shocking anymore.

“This sucks, though, because I can’t just pay you for your work,” Moira says, looking frustrated. “Damn grant restrictions. I can only pay you if you work as a full-time lab tech, but if you do work full-time, you’d have to drop out of school, and if you drop out, I can’t hire you in the first place. It’s idiotic, but that’s the way it is.”

“I know.” Charles blinks, startled. “Moira, I know—I don’t expect—”

“We’ll have to figure something out,” she says. “First of all, how are you with tuition?”

“I’m set until the end of the year,” Charles says. “Then I have no idea.”

“We’ll deal with it later then. Did you apply for financial aid?”

That makes him smile sadly. “I don’t qualify. There’s a trust fund out there with my name on it. I don’t have access to it since my stepfather has more or less appropriated it, but it comes out when I ask for a loan, and so of course they can’t give me one.”

Moira pinches the bridge of her nose. “Your life, Xavier, I swear to God. There better be some Oscar-worthy movie out of it at some point, just saying. Right.” She sighs. “Then, much as it pains me, I’ll just cut your hours and you’ll get a job like you did before. Even though it kills me with the kind of results you’re producing lately. All right, fine, moving on. Hours cut, done. What about a place to stay? Once you have a job, I can loan you money for a deposit, no, shut up, that’s the least I can do, but until then, can you stay with one of your friends?”

“I don’t really have any friends left,” Charles confesses miserably.

Hank clears his throat, reminding Charles of his presence for the first time since the conversation has started.

“What am I, chopped liver?” he asks grumpily. “I have a couch. You can stay with me.”

“Oh, no, no, Hank, I couldn’t possibly.” Charles shakes his head vigorously, startled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to guilt-trip you into this, I’ll be fine, I’ll think of something—”

“You just said you don’t have any friends,” Hank reminds him dryly. “And it’s fine. Just trust me. If I couldn’t handle you in my space, I wouldn’t have offered, no matter how desperate you were.”

Charles digests this. “Good to know. But really, it’s not necessary—”

“Good, that’s settled then,” Moira rolls over him, full-steam, brooking no argument. “Now get out of here and take a shower, for God’s sake. I can hardly recognize you under all of that.”

It’s not like Charles has any will in him left to object. “Yes, ma’am,” he says, getting to his feet and wincing as his back spasms.

“Charles,” Moira’s voice stops him at the door. “It’s going to be fine. Trust me.”

He doesn’t believe her, but nods anyway, and lets Hank tow him outside.

Hank’s apartment is small and overburdened with books and spare equipment, but it does indeed have a foldout couch and a very nice shower. Hank gives him a change of clothes and then laughs for full five minutes, because the smallest things he has make Charles look like a twelve-year-old. Charles glares at him, but it’s halfhearted at best. Moira takes him out to lunch every day, ignoring his objections as though she can’t hear them, and makes him eat almost more than he can handle like the kind of mother he never had. The rest of the team seem to know that something’s going on with him, but mercifully they don’t ask too many questions, at least not yet, even though Charles knows that this grace period wouldn’t last.

It doesn’t, but even Charles, even after everything, hasn’t expected it to be quite like this.

“There’s mail for you, Xavier,” Evan tells him one day when Charles drags himself to the lab after a day of teaching. “What, they don’t know where you live or something?”

Charles walks into the common area to find a cluster of his colleagues suddenly interested in socializing and drinking the shitty instant coffee. The reason, of course, is blatantly obvious. There’s a big white envelope sitting on the coffee table waiting for him. It has Frost, Shaw & Associates logo on it, Charles's name, and the words ‘DIVORCE PROCEDURE COMMENCEMENT NOTIFICATION’ glaring obnoxiously through the plastic screen.

“Didn’t work out with the prince, Cinderella?” Jason asks him in a tone that makes it clear he’s been rehearsing that line for a while.

Charles should feel embarrassed, humiliated even, but all he does feel at that moment is sad, impossibly, overwhelmingly sad.

“No,” he replies quietly, taking the envelope with numb fingers. “It didn’t.”

They clearly didn’t expect that. Even Jason, who never missed an opportunity to poke and prod at Charles, is obviously taken off guard.

“Oh, honey,” Julia says, standing up and moving in to hug Charles. She’s the biggest gossip on campus, but God help him, she sounds sincere now. “Good riddance, yeah? You’ll find someone better.”

“Thanks,” Charles replies gruffly, ducking away from her, and runs out of the room. The news is all over the faculty within a few hours, and the next day even the students he’s tutoring give him half-sympathetic, half-intrigued looks. Charles grits his teeth and pushes through it.

Hank’s girlfriend—and boy, does Charles feel like a dick for not even having known that Hank had a girlfriend—Kitty doesn’t take to Charles's presence in Hank’s apartment too kindly. She shares an apartment with three roommates, so she’s used to crashing at Hank’s whenever possible. Hank, however, appears to be strangely inhibited by Charles's presence to have sex with her while he’s there, which makes Charles surge to the top of Kitty’s shit list. He tries to broker a deal with her, since Hank steadily refuses to discuss the subject and the one time Charles tried he’s gone so red Charles thought a stroke was a possibility. Charles tries to communicate to Kitty that, if only she’d inform him of when she wants to come over, he can make himself scarce, but she tells him in no uncertain terms that her sex life is none of his business, and that’s the end of it.

Finding a job becomes even more of a pressing matter, but Charles's luck seems to have run out. He even goes to the bar he used to work in when he met Erik, but the manager only laughs when Charles asks if there are any openings. That time Charles scored a gig there was a once—in-a-lifetime fluke. Charles seems to have used all of them in those last two years.

No one seems to be in the market for a bartender, so he tries to get hired as a waiter and almost lucks out. But his very first shift ends fifteen minutes in when he trips over a customer’s foot and upends a plate of scorching hot spaghetti carbonara all over the man. He’s fired on the spot to the applause of the other patrons. If he felt charmed before, he feels as though he’s cursed now. Five other restaurant owners and managers take one look at him and say ‘No’ on the spot. Even McDonald’s turns him down, the HR woman telling him he’s too qualified to stick with the job. It’s been two weeks of fruitless job search, and Charles feels at the end of his rope.

Kitty shows up on Hank’s doorstep late in the evening, and Charles doesn’t wait for the opening shot and clears out. The least he can do is not inconvenience Hank any more than he is already.

Mike’s is less than crowded at that time of night, and Charles sits in the corner gloomily, a plate of fries and some ketchup on the table in front of him. Truthfully, it’s more than he can afford at the moment, as shocking as that sounds, but he’s been so hungry the whole day, he can’t help it. Tomorrow the temptation will be easier to withstand. He simply won’t have enough change to buy anything but instant ramen.

A group of party goers files in just as he’s finished with the last of his meal. Charles looks up at them in almost academic curiosity. Once upon a time, he, too, could have mindless, carefree fun, just being out with friends. It takes him a moment to realize that he himself is an object of attention.

There’s a guy in the group, tall, skinny, perhaps older than the rest, who keeps staring at Charles with a strange kind of intensity. It’s not an interested look Charles learned to recognize during his days tending the bar. It’s not hostile, either. He can’t figure it out, but then stumbles over another revelation. The man starts talking rapidly, gesturing in Charles's direction, to one of his companions, and, for a shock, Charles actually knows him. It’s Alex Summers, Charles's classmate from his undergrad days, one of the group of friends he’d lost contact with after Moira had recruited him and he’d met Erik. Alex grins at him in surprised recognition, claps his friend on the shoulder, and comes over.

“Charles,” he drawls, smiling, his tousled blond hair held back with a thin metallic headband. That’s a new look on him that makes Charles blink in surprise. “Long time no see, man,” Alex says, pulling him into a one-armed hug. “How’ve you been?”

And that’s a question Charles has no idea how to answer. He’d been on top of the world since he saw Alex last. Now, he’s on his back at the very bottom.

He shrugs. “I’ve been better.”

“I heard you’re some hotshot prodigy,” Alex says. “Biochemical research, right?”

“Yeah.” Charles smiles, despite it all. “That’s still happening.”

For how long though.

“So, what else. Last I heard you were pretty serious with some dude.”

Charles ignores the pain in his chest. The sooner he’ll get the words out, the better it’ll be.

“I married him, actually. And now he’s divorcing me.”

“Um.” Alex, clearly haven’t expected that, blinks.

“Yeah.” Charles cringes. “Long story. The short version is, I am now broke, couchsurfing, and have no idea how to get through this without quitting school. Tried to get my old job back, but of course, no luck.”

“Ouch. That sucks, man.”

“What about you?” Charles asks, because he’s never particularly enjoyed talking about himself, and at the moment, that’s pure torture. “I heard you dropped out your final year?”

“Yeah.” Alex grins ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck. “College just wasn’t for me, man. Found a job that kind of keeps me occupied, and flush, and well… what’s the point, right?”

“What do you do then?”

Alex looks him straight in the eye and says, “Porn.”

Charles chokes on the sip of water he was taking. “I beg your pardon?”

Alex laughs. “The look on your face.” He shakes his head, grinning. “Look, it’s not as sordid as it sounds. I went in first to make some extra cash. Turned out I was just the right type, and whatever. I got invited to do more shit, and then I realized I was making more in a month than my dad was in a year at his garage, so really, college, just wasn’t happening. Besides, I kind of enjoy it.”

Charles grins, despite himself. “I can see that.”

“Well,” Alex snorts. “I mean, it’s a lot harder than it looks when you’re watching, but yeah, you pretty much fuck for a living.”

“Sounds like a dream.”

“Hey, don’t diss it till you try it. Speaking of, see my friend Doug over there?” Alex points to the tall guy, who’s still eyeing Charles with unnerving intensity. “He’s a photographer and a filmmaker, pretty big in our biz. He wants you to model for him.”

Charles only just manages not to spit out water again. “What?”

“Yeah. He’s seen you and, like, fell in lust with your mouth or something. Not like that, he’s not… Actually, I have no idea what or who he likes, it never came up, but anyway, he wants you, like, professionally. He’s got a shoot coming on for this fetish mag, and he’s been pretty desperate to cast someone as a sub.”

Charles isn’t certain that Alex isn’t speaking some alien language. He understands all the words. He just can’t believe he’s actually having this conversation.

Some of it must show on his face, because Alex lifts up a hand. “Look, it’s no big deal, it’s just a photo shoot. You won’t have to actually do anything, just to pose. I’m pretty sure you can actually talk him into letting you keep your undies on or whatever, he’s going more for ‘erotic’ than ‘slutty’.”

“Alex—” And Charles stops, because he has no idea what he wants to say. The idea is absurd. There are so many things about it that are absurd. If he does this, if it ever comes out, if any of his colleagues now or later ever see that, Charles would be pretty much done professionally. Who’d let him teach with a CV photo like that? And yet, if he doesn’t produce the money and soon, he won’t have any professional career to worry about. Fetish magazines weren’t exactly lying around at scientific conferences… With a start, he realizes, he’s considering it.

“I told him it’s not your kind of thing,” Alex says, shrugging apologetically. “Though I gotta say, the pay’s really good. I mean, the guy’s legit, and he’s not one of those jerks who rips off his models. Usually there’s a waitlist to get into a casting session with him, but he picked you himself, so I’m guessing it’d be even more.”

Charles swallows, licks his dry lips. He looks down at his empty plate. The fries are a delicious, heavy weight in his stomach.

“So how much?” he asks hesitantly. “You know… how much do you think?”

Alex tells him.

Charles opens his mouth in shock and couldn’t stop the words that fall out even if he wanted to.

“I’m in.”

--

There’s nothing especially evil or depraved about the studio. It looks like any other photo studio with a less piquant profile. Not that Charles has been to any, but that’s what he’s always imagined them to look like—an abundance of lights, screens, reflectors and other equipment he doesn’t know the name for. People are milling about, prepping the set, tinkering with light stands and checking power cables; there’s even a harried looking girl running around with an armful of Starbucks coffee cups. She gives Charles an encouraging smile as she passes by.

He’s directed to a dressing room of sorts, which is more reminiscent of a high school gym locker room than anything except for the absence of actual lockers. Someone hands him a blue bathrobe and a still-sealed plastic bag with a pair of black boxer briefs. Charles stares at them for a moment blankly, then puts them down on a bench and starts to disrobe mechanically, folding his clothes with more care than he’s ever done in his life. He said no nudity, so this must be the compromise. It’s not as if he didn’t know it would come to something like this. He puts the new underwear on, strangely unsurprised by the perfect fit, throws the robe on, and heads back toward the bright lights and loud voices.

The shoot itself is… a little weird and a lot uncomfortable, but more physically rather than in any other way. Charles has never before appreciated just how difficult it is to hold a single posture. It would probably look sexy and amazing in the picture, but it feels like his entire body is contorted in anatomically undesirable positions, and he’s pretty sure he’s pulled a muscle or fifteen just standing there, and that’s before they put him in any kind of gear.

The near-nude thing doesn’t bother him much after the first five minutes. With the lights constantly in his eyes, someone’s hands always on him—wiping sweat off his forehead, adjusting his body for perfect angles, tousling his hair—he zones out after a while, not really seeing anything beyond five feet around him, responding to Doug’s commands on autopilot, and letting his shoot-partner position him as he likes, or more precisely as he’s directed. Charles has never really expressed a lot of interest toward the BDSM corner of sexuality, and finds himself surprised at how tasteful the gear looks up close. Somehow, he didn’t expect that.

With preliminary shots out of the way, Doug is getting more into it. Before Charles knows what’s going on, his wrists are held wide apart with a spreader bar, arms pulled above his head and secured to a metal frame.

“John’s going to touch you up with a flogger now, Charles, okay?” Doug warns more than asks for permission from somewhere beyond Charles's visual range. “Don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt, we just need to redden the skin a bit. You’re fine with that?”

Charles swallows. “Um. Sure.”

“Good. John, take the red one. Sandra, get him the red one—why the fuck are there props missing? I’m paying you people for something!”

The flogger, when it’s finally produced, doesn’t look too formidable, and John touches Charles's shoulder reassuringly before he starts.

“Drop your head back, Charles,” Doug commands just as the first lash lands. “Perfect. Arch up—that’s it!”

Through some sort of haze, Charles thinks vaguely that Doug sounds excited. Not unlike Hank when the computer comes up with an unforeseen but intriguing set of data.

It does hurt. Not terribly, but the sting is very noticeable. They start with his ribs, and that’s fine, but then Doug escalates, because apparently the effect on Charles's skin is something worthy of filthy poetry of sorts. And before long, he’s jerking back with the leather hits against his stomach, and then actually wriggles, letting out a soft shout of surprise, as his inner thigs get the same treatment. Doug sounds like he’s beyond himself, and Charles hopes distantly that perhaps he’ll be allowed a break soon.

His arms are released from the frame and resecured with a different spreader bar; this one has his hands behind his back connected to a collar around his neck. He’s repositioned straddling John’s hips on a chair, then kneels at his feet, looking up, letting the other man pull his head back by the hair. Other people enter the shot, each with their own role, though Charles is the only one meant to be a sub there. Time starts disappearing on him. He’s so thirsty he would beg for it, if only there was a slightest pause in the shooting.

He’s still kneeling, and his knees begin to hurt, but there’s another spreader bar holding his ankles wide apart now, and he can’t even move to adjust position.

“Open up,” someone, not John, says, and then there’s something in his mouth, secured like a gag, only this one is meant to hold his mouth open wide. “Careful with the teeth,” the man murmurs. “That’s it, baby.”

Charles blinks away tears. He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he hears Doug yell: “Everyone step away from him! Look at me, Charles! Look at the fucking camera, come on—yes, that’s it! Perfect! Let them flow. You’re doing so great. You lot, back into the shot, loom over him. Come on, move!”

Charles couldn’t stop the tears even if he wanted to. The humiliation he feels as someone reaches to wipe the drool off his mouth is hot and clammy. The entirety of his situation hits him all at once, and he lets the tears fall, just as Doug wants apparently, what luck, thinking of where he was not two months ago and where he is now. And Erik, if Erik could see him now, he’d only have all his accusations confirmed…

The blindfold they tie over his eyes is a blessing. Charles would have collapsed in relief, if not for the way his body is held up in restraints. His knees have gone numb, the muscles in his back as spasming, and he can barely feel the others touch him. It’ll be over soon now, he knows. He hasn’t agreed to anything beyond this, and it feels like it’s been hours. It has to be over soon.

“And that’s a wrap,” Doug calls what feels like an eon later. “Everyone, take five before you clean up. Shit, it stinks in here. Good work, boys. Charles, you did great. Sandra—where the hell’s Sandra? Hey, Sandra! Untie him, will you? I’m dying for a smoke.”

No one touches him. Charles is still awkwardly suspended on his knees, wrists and ankles secured, that humiliating gag in his mouth, and the blindfold in place. He can hear the sounds of people clearing out, doors being open, bags packed. He can’t sense anyone close by, though, and when he tries to make a sound to call out, he can barely make a gurgle, his mouth is so dry. Did they just forget him? John complained before about needing a bathroom break, so he presumably has run off as soon as Doug called it, but what about the others? Sandra? Anyone?

It’s quiet. Within mere moments, it’s eerily quiet. He can’t see, can’t move for fear of toppling over. It feels so incredibly humiliating to be left alone like this, for anyone to find. What if someone walks in who wasn’t at the shoot? What would they think? This is so beyond embarrassing…

Vaguely, he hears the sound of a door opening and a quiet gasp. Charles strains in his bonds—to move, to hear better, to appeal for assistance—he doesn’t know. He can’t get anywhere, of course, and can only pant through the metal holding his mouth open. His tongue feels raw.

Footsteps. The sound of someone climbing up onto the platform. Charles realizes suddenly that it’s worrying that the person, whoever he or she is, doesn’t say anything. Charles can hear them breathing—a man, he thinks. The scent of stale sweat and cigarettes hits his nostrils.

“Ugh-urgh,” Charles pushes out, his throat too dry, heart beating feverishly fast in his chest. For the first time today, he’s scared.

The stranger is breathing heavily now. There’s a sound of some indistinct rustling, and then Charles hears the noise that makes his insides go cold—a zipper going down.

“No,” he tries to say. What comes out is more like, “Mnhm.”

The noises intensify, something slippery, rhythmic, and—oh. Oh. With an overwhelming surge of disgust Charles realizes at once what is happening, the sound is unmistakable, the short, muffled breaths, and flesh moving on flesh. Someone is jacking off in front of him. Someone is jacking off looking at him, using him as a, as a—God, using him, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

It doesn’t take long, which is the only thing he’s grateful for. But he flinches and with a desperate whine tries to move away, as the sticky hot stripes hit his chest, his face, fall onto his open lips. He hears a groan above him, but it’s barely audible over the roar of blood in his ears, fear, humiliation, disgust, all rolling into one, making him want to crawl out of his skin. He tries to shake the—God, the come off him, but of course doesn’t succeed. Charles jerks violently when the man touches his lip, pushing some of it further into his mouth. Charles would have loved nothing better than to bite him, but the damn gag is keeping him in place. Abruptly, the touch vanishes, and he hears the hurried footsteps as the man runs out of the studio.

Charles doesn’t know how much time passes before he hears the door open again. Probably only a minute or two, but it seems longer. This time the gasp is loud and decidedly feminine, followed shortly by:

“Oh my God! Oh my God, I am so sorry! I can’t believe they left you like this! Oh my God!”

That’s definitely Sandra the hapless coffee girl, and Charles would have wept in relief if he wasn’t shaking with anger. He hears her run toward him, jumping up onto the platform and rushing to his side.

“Oh God, oh God, I’m so sorry! I thought someone would have… oh.”

He knows what she sees, of course, and feels his face heat up. There’s nothing he can do to hide what’s been done to him. He can’t even turn his face away.

“Oh,” she breathes out softly again. “Christ.”

She reaches out gently to untie his blindfold. Charles blinks and squeezes his eyes shut. The light hurts. Sandra’s face is looming over him, contorted by concern and pity.

“Just give me a moment,” she murmurs, feeling for the clasp of the gag. “Shit. I can’t believe they’d…” She trails off in favor of pulling the gag out.

Charles gags and coughs, and would have collapsed forward, if she didn’t catch him.

“Shh, shh,” she soothes. “It’s all over now. It’s all right. You’re all right.”

She pulls out a cloth from somewhere and gently wipes his face and his chest, though Charles shudders through it.

“Release me,” he croaks, once the red circles stop dancing before his eyes. “Please.”

For a horrible moment, he’s gripped by fear that she won’t, but she moves immediately behind him, tugging at the locks and clasps, and warning, “Careful now.”

But he falls forward anyway the moment his arms are free, the pain in his shoulders hot like fire. Sandra releases his ankles and throws the bars away and out of reach, before moving to sit at his side, hesitantly running her hand down his arm.

“It’s all right. It’s all right. Shh. It’s okay. You’re okay now.”

He closes his eyes for a moment, letting her sooth him. His mind forms a question.

“Who…”

“I didn’t see,” she says miserably, wiping away her own tears. “I’m so sorry. I had to take a call, Doug would have murdered me if I didn’t, I thought someone would take care of you, God, I’m so sorry.”

“Not your fault,” he manages to push out, sitting up with difficulty, reorienting himself. It’s over. The worst is over. He’s unharmed. It was horrible, but he’s unharmed. It could have been worse. He shudders, hugging himself. “Does this happen… or…”

She bit her lip, looking at him with wide, sad eyes. “You should never come to one of these by yourself,” she says, which is confirmation enough. “Doug hires all sorts of people; it’s not safe to be by yourself. You should bring someone with you next time.”

“There won’t be a next time,” Charles promises hoarsely. “Can I have some water?”

She nods readily, happy that there’s something she can do. As she dashes off to grab it, Charles slowly pulls himself up to his feet. He feels like he’s aged a decade since he’d first walked through the doors. He eases himself off the platform and reaches for the robe they gave him, pulling it on with unsteady hands. Sandra reappears at his elbow, handing him an uncapped bottle. Charles drinks greedily, and nothing has ever felt this good.

“Do I say something?” he asks her when he’s done.

She bites her lip, sighs. “They won’t ever find him. And no one will work with you after that. In his business, it’s every man for himself. Or every woman. Though, if you were a woman…” She trails off, but Charles doesn’t need her to finish. If he was a woman, he wouldn’t have gotten off so easy.

Easy.

He closes his eyes, feeling dizzy, bile rising up in his throat.

“I need to go,” he manages. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Do you need any help? I could—”

No.”

“All right. Um. Take care.”

Charles doesn’t respond. Wonderful advice. He dresses mechanically, pulling his clothes on without feeling, as though dressing a stranger. His body is numb. Even the ache in his strained muscles is distant, merely an echo. He stalks through the corridors toward the exit, collecting an envelope from Sandra on his way. She doesn’t try to talk to him, and he’s grateful.

It’s raining when he steps outside. It’s dark and it’s raining. Charles turns his face upward as he walks, feeling the cold drops sizzling on his feverish skin. He walks without thought or direction until the streets become wider and the lights brighter. He dives into the subway, hunched in on himself, functioning on autopilot.

Hank is blessedly out when Charles get to his apartment. The relief of being alone in a safe space is almost overwhelming. He throws the envelope into his satchel, rips the clothes off, as though they’re burning him, and steps into the shower. He scrubs and scrubs, long after the hot water has run out, long after his skin begins to feel raw and close to bleeding. He only stops when he can’t lift his arms anymore and then he simply sits there under the tepid spray, shivering.

Only the thought of Hank eventually coming home to find Charles in his bathroom makes him move. He dresses mechanically in Hank’s sweatpants and hoodie—Charles has yet to replace his wardrobe, drinks a quarter of a bottle of whiskey straight from the bottle, and crawls under the blankets, curling in on himself. He wants nothing better in that moment than to feel Erik next to him, coiled around him like a comma, arms wrapped around Charles and holding him close, keeping him safe, loving him. He hates himself for his weakness, but he can’t help the tears as he finally passes out.

--

He swears he will never go back, and ignores all calls from Doug. The money at least is good enough to get him some clothes and necessities, pay Hank back for utilities and groceries, and allow him to eat decently for at least two months, if he’s smart about it. More, if he’s frugal. It’s not quite enough to get his own place, even the shittiest one, and that’s becoming a problem, as Hank’s girlfriend has not warmed up to Charles at all.

It does cover the price of getting tested for, well, everything. The relief Charles feels when his tests come back clean is more profound than anything he’s ever felt before. He feels like the luckiest man alive, and a moment later has to laugh in bitter irony at how much his definition of luck has shifted.

He’s sitting at Mike’s again, absently drinking coffee and scrolling through a job search website, praying for a miracle, when Alex Summers drops onto a seat opposite him. Charles can’t help but frown.

“Alex.”

“Hey,” Alex says. And, because he’s never had any filter or even a hint of social grace, he immediately follows it with, “So Doug heard what happened, and he’s sorry.”

Charles scowls. “He can save it.”

“Yeah, man, I know that sucked, but listen.” Alex leans forward, so earnest it hurts. “You weren’t actually, um, hurt, were you?”

Charles glares at him. “I was not physically hurt, no.”

Alex breezes over the emphasis like he can’t hear it there. “See, no harm done. I mean it was shitty, but these things happen. Point is, did you see the mag?”

“No.”

Nor does he want to. The very notion that that magazine exists and could potentially at some future date completely destroy Charles's professional reputation is bad enough. He doesn’t need to see it.

“Well, it sold out in three days,” Alex tells him, like it’s some sort of good news. “Apparently, you’re everybody’s type.”

Charles says nothing. How this could be pleasing for anyone to hear, he can’t possibly say. He’s never aspired to be the stuff of anyone’s fantasies. Except for Erik. He nips that thought at the bud.

“Doug really wants to work with you again, and he—”

“No.”

“He’s got a very loaded client asking him to produce a video for his night club. You know, the kind they have on screens inside?”

“No.”

“Oh, come on, where’s the harm in that? You won’t have to say anything or to act really. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

“How the hell should I have known you’d go in alone?” Alex asks, and fair enough, now that Charles has had the time to think about it, it seems unbelievably stupid. “Look, Charles, nobody’s forcing you to do anything, but just think about it. They want three videos with you specifically, thirty minutes each.”

“I don’t do porn, Alex,” Charles says sharply. “No offense.”

“None taken, and your loss really, but that’s what you don’t get—they’re willing to let you set the rules. You don’t have to actually have sex with anyone. Or be fully naked. You don’t get it—they liked you that much. They’ll pay you more if you do stuff, but even if you don’t, do you want to know how much for one vid?”

Charles knows he shouldn’t ask. He knows it’s a bad idea. But scrubbing the floors and tutoring won’t get him through his last year of school. Not if he wants to keep his spot on Moira’s team.

“How much?” he asks fatalistically.

Alex grins and names the price that would cover at least a month of tuition. Charles stares at him speechless.

“But that can’t be right,” he says when he can talk again. “Especially if I’m not… you know. Having sex with anyone.”

“I told you. You’re a hit. The client dug his heels in, says he doesn’t want anyone but you. I’d use it, if I were you, while the going’s good. And Doug promises he won’t leave you alone again like that, and you can take someone with you if you want. Hey, I can come if I’m free. Maybe see what all the hype about you is about.” He winks at Charles. “Also, I know the guy they want in the video with you. He’s legit, man. Like, he’s a household name or some shit. He’s not exactly Miss Congeniality, but he’s decent enough. He’ll take care of you.”

Charles stares at his phone in desolation. Hasn’t he had enough? Yet, if he wants to graduate, what choice does he have? It’s pretty much this or selling drugs, or hey, being an actual hooker, there’s an exciting option. If there’s a solution for this that doesn’t involve being sexualized in some context or other, he’s not smart enough to see it.

“I want an actual contract,” he says. “And I want to read it before I sign.”

Alex grins at him and reaches into his messenger bag to produce a folder. “Doug thought you might say that.”

With a sinking feeling in his gut, Charles begins to read.

 

--

Erik's flight lands at JFK late in the afternoon. Briefly, he considers heading straight for the office anyway, but regretfully discards the idea. He’d arrive there with a couple of hours until the end of business at best. That just screams desperate. So what, if he doesn’t want to go home. He’s been away for nearly a month. It’s time he grew a pair and faced his demons.

The loft greets him with unnatural silence. It’s eerily quiet. Logically, it makes no sense to notice it now. Erik had lived here for five years before he even met Charles, yet the silence had never bothered him before. One of the main reasons why he picked this spot was that it was so quiet. Yet now he feels as though he’s walking through a graveyard.

He leaves his suitcase by the door, walks into the kitchen, pours himself a glass of water. Goes through the assorted mail. He knows he’s stalling, but it’s not easy to face the bedroom with Charles's things still scattered all over it. He should have just told his assistant to pack them all up while he was away. He had no trouble, after all, delegating the handling of his divorce to Az. But no, this is too personal. It’s going to hurt like hell, but maybe he deserves it. For being incredibly, unbelievably stupid.

He flicks the switch as he enters, illuminating the spacious room, domineered by the huge bed center back. It’s made meticulously, with fresh sheets. His cleaning service is impeccable, and Erik shouldn’t have expected anything else, but for a moment he feels a sharp pang of regret. It should be a relief not to be surrounded by Charles's scent again, assuming any would have lingered after all those weeks. It should be, but it’s not.

Erik sighs, too tired to get really angry with himself for being maudlin. He walks over to the closet and opens the left half of the giant monstrosity. Charles's half. It still looks more like a rack in a shop, so little Charles had used his new wardrobe. There are a few shirts and pants that survived from the days before that Charles had stubbornly refused to part with. Erik's hands tremble as he reaches for them now, fingers curling in the worn fabric.

A month. It’s been over a month. How can it still hurt so much? Why would Charles do this to him? Why? Why? What did Erik do wrong? Did he move too fast? Did he smother him too much? Did he fail to notice some unanswered need? Miss some detail? What did he do to deserve this?

He realizes abruptly he’s standing there, breathing hard, eyes stinging, as he clutches Charles's old navy jumper in his hands. Pathetic. Charles has turned him into this utterly pathetic shadow of a man, and Erik doesn’t even care anymore. He just wants it to stop hurting.

He makes himself move then, gets a few boxes out of his pantry, and starts packing away Charles's clothes. He’s still angry enough to want to set the entire lot on fire, but he knows he won’t. His mother would be terrified at the waste. Waste not, want not was one of the cornerstones of her entire life philosophy. Erik isn’t so far gone that he can’t drop them at a homeless shelter on his way to work.

He packs the clothes quickly and efficiently, seals the boxes and moves them to the door. Next is the common area, the far corner by the tall window that Charles loved to work in. Erik installed the bookshelves here when the stacks of books Charles was accumulating on the coffee table threatened to make it collapse. It’s funny how even in small things Charles found ways to be annoying. ‘You couldn’t have told me you needed shelves?’ Erik asked, looking at him fondly. ‘Oh, but it’s no bother like this, really,’ Charles protested, all worried expression and earnest eyes. ‘If you’re worried about the table, I can put them under it. Look, it’s even stylish.’ ‘Charles, it’s not a problem. It’s your home now, too, you should be comfortable.’ Erik ruffled his hair, and then, of course, Charles leaned up to kiss him, and the shelves had to wait.

Erik shakes his head forcibly, dragging his mind to the present. No point dwelling on it. Charles didn’t want a home, at least not with Erik. A cheap thrill of a tryst in a seedy hotel was obviously more exciting than bookshelves. Right, stop. No point going there, either.

He starts packing the books away, and here, for the first time, feels a pang of conscience. He told Charles there was nothing that belonged to him in the apartment, but that wasn’t quite correct. The books were his own. When he moved it, he showed up with one meager suitcase with clothes and six huge boxes filled to the brim with books. Erik had made fun of him for that. Erik added a few volumes to the collection—a book of poetry, mostly to tease; a copy of ‘Eastern Body, Western Mind’, which made Charles scoff and Erik laugh at his outrage; an anthology of ‘The Moomins’, because Charles told him once he used to read it with his sister when he was a child. But mostly these are the books Charles had accumulated during his years of study, since he was apparently unable to part with any volume once it came to be in his possession.

Erik packs them carefully, considering. Charles hasn’t come back for them, so perhaps he can stomach to part with them after all. Erik is perfectly within his rights to get rid of them. Charles has lost all the rights to his property after what he’s done. Still. It doesn’t sit quite right. It seems—petty. Too little a punishment for such a grave offense. Almost childish. Much as Erik is loath to contact him, perhaps he should find a way to mail him the books. To his new address. With his new lover.

He stills himself against a habitual wave of pained anger and reaches for the last book on the shelf. It looks battered and a lot shabbier than the rest, and Erik frowns. He doesn’t remember seeing it before. To his surprise, it turns out to be a copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, a second edition, no less. Erik's eyebrows fly up. That book alone is more valuable than the rest of Charles's possessions put together. Almost compulsively, Erik opens it, leafing through the pages, until a note across the title page catches his attention. His first thought is instinctive horror at someone daring to deface such precious a volume. But then the words written in a quirky, uneven cursive, penetrate.

To my best creation on the occasion of his third birthday. Though you are too young now, one day you will forever change the world, just as your namesake did. On that day, I will not be any more proud of you than I am today. Your loving father, B.X.

Erik lets out a sharp exhale. This is too much. He sits down, will-less, laying the book on the coffee table for fear of dropping it, the words staring at him, like silent but reproachful witnesses. Charles is a good person. Erik can’t reconcile what he knows of Charles with what he’s done. Charles's father died, Charles had told him, when Charles was ten years old. His mother remarried a year later. His stepfather never liked him, and, upon discovering that Charles was gay, threw him out of the house. Erik knows so many stories like that, most of them ending badly, but Charles didn’t turn into a street kid. Didn’t join a gang, didn’t start dealing drugs, didn’t die in an alley. Charles made something of himself. More than something. He was well on the way of fulfilling his father’s prediction, against all odds. That incredible strength of his was what made Erik fall so hard for him in the first place. He was more than a pretty face. So much more.

How then, how could a person like that do something like this? Where was his integrity when he arranged his hookups? Where was his strength, his honor when he decided to cheat on his husband, the man he promised to respect and cherish before all others? Where was the Charles Erik had met all those months ago when that happened?

He reaches over and pushes the book away, closing it, careful, despite himself. He has to send it back to Charles. Erik could wriggle out of meeting his new lover, of having to face the happy couple, when it was just about Charles's clothes, even his textbooks. But this—he can’t keep this, and he would be the worst kind of scum if he got rid of it. Much as his actions hurt Erik, Charles was a cheating spouse, not a war criminal. He doesn’t deserve to lose this. Erik has so very few things left of his own mother, and he treasures them. The very thought that he could lose them brings the pain of losing her all over again, ever fresh. Charles deserves to be punished, yes. But not like this.

The unexpected discovery puts a halt on his packing. It’s a weakness, but Erik simply can’t take any more of this right now. He’s barely slept in all the weeks he spent in Tokyo. Every time he closed his eyes, the images of Charles and his red-haired lover attacking him, rolling down over and over like a horrible movie stuck in a never-ending loop. Did Charles call him the moment he was out the door? He must have.

Why a hotel? Erik thinks suddenly, switching into his lawyer mode. Why didn’t they meet at that guy’s place? What if… Erik sits up abruptly. Oh. What if he was married, too? Why else rent a room? But then, where did Charles go when Erik told him to leave? For a startled moment, he has a vision of Charles huddling for warmth on some park bench, and it sends his pulse into an overdrive. But no. Erik deflates, sinking back into the cushions. Even if the guy was married, he’d get Charles a hotel room or something. No one who had Charles would just leave him to his own devices. Wherever they are, they are together now, and probably laughing at Erik. All right, maybe not. Charles isn’t that kind of person—although what would Erik know about that? The person he thought Charles was clearly existed only in his imagination.

With a groan, he pulls himself off the couch and goes to get his gym bag. There’ll be no sleeping for him tonight, and he needs to get out of his head. If he’s lucky, his krav maga coach will be around and free for a round or twenty. Erik has a lot of aggression to dispense.

--

The office greets him with a chorus of ‘Welcome back, Mr. Lehnsherr’s, a ‘How was Tokyo? Fucked any school boys?’ from Janos, and a lifted eyebrow from Emma.

“What?” he barks at her when she follows him into his office.

“You look like shit, sugar. You either need to eat something that isn’t vodka or pencil in a visit to your tailor. Anorexic chic is not a good look on you.”

Erik smirks, it’s reflexive. “Jealous?”

Emma doesn’t even deign to roll her eyes. “Seriously, how are you?”

“I’m great, Emma. I’m fantastic. I’ve made a perfect fool of myself in front of the entire firm. No, forget that, the entire town. How do you think I am?”

“I’m not concerned about your ego; it can take a few hits.” She shrugs. “But I don’t think that’s all there is.”

Erik sits down behind his desk, looking up at her gloomily. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I made a mistake. It happens to the best of us. I’ll definitely survive, and it’s time we all move on.”

She lifts her hands up. “Whatever you say. Shaw’s looking for you.”

Erik sighs. “Of course, he is. Anything else you want to drop on my lap, Emma?”

“Yes. Be ready by nine. Az and I are taking you out to that club that you like so much. Or used to anyway, before you got boring. And Janos generously offered to be your rebound for a night or five.”

Erik stares at her for a long moment, torn between feeling outraged, annoyed, and amused. Amusement wins in the end, making him crack the first smile in days. It’s shaky and crooked, but it’s there.

“I can’t decide if I have the best friends a man can have or the worst.”

Emma smirks as she turns to leave. “Depends on the lunar day, mostly. Good to have you back, Lehnsherr.”

Erik's smile fades as the door closes behind her. Is he really back, though? He feels as though he’s been through a war, and he returned home, yes, but not the same man. Thanks to Charles, he’ll never be the same again.

With that thought, anger returns, and as his mood is now appropriate, he goes to see Shaw.

 

--

Erik's mood does not improve as the night progresses. He looks around the club in distaste and can’t remember what he used to like about this kind of scene. Neither the noise nor the lights are particularly pleasant, and there’s nothing on the menu he finds attractive. Perhaps it is the company. He leaves Az and Emma to their odd game where they flirt with each other by means of threats and blackmail and manages to shake Janos off on his way to the bar. Erik has nothing against Janos, except he’s ‘been there, done that’, before Charles, long before any of this. He doesn’t want that.

He knows he’s going to be hit on, he always is. It used to give him a thrill, a boost for his ego. He has it easy and he knows it, and nothing about that is a bad thing. But it’s not working anymore. It takes a trip to the backroom and a man on his knees in front of him, sucking him off like it’s an Olympic sport and he’s trying for gold to drive it home. Erik looks down at him, at his curly dark hair and slight frame, and feels disgusted and angry all over again.

Charles has ruined him, ruined this for him, ruined everything. Everywhere Erik goes, he can’t shake him. Everything he does, everyone he meets, every new thing he tries—all of it only brings his thoughts back to Charles. He knows logically that this will pass, but it hasn’t yet, it shows no signs of relenting so far, and it hurts so much.

I love him, Erik thinks in silent despair. I still love him, God help me, I can’t stop. After everything he’s done, after everything, I would still give anything for one more night with him.

He grabs the head of the man in front of him and fucks his mouth roughly, desperate to finish, to divorce himself from this situation. He growls in relief when it’s over, impatient to get out.

He doesn’t remember the way back to his apartment, but once he’s there, he walks over straight to the half-packed book shelf, pulling out the Darwin, tracing the lettering of the inscription as though trying to recapture something that’s forever gone. He thinks about the endless string of days queueing up ahead, one exactly like the other. Being ruthless in the courtroom, scoring win after win, feeling nothing. Anonymous sex that doesn’t touch the heart and barely sates the body. No hint of a real human connection, because he can never trust anyone again. Rinse and repeat. Ad nauseum. He closes his eyes.

His response has always been lashing out in anger, the rage in him burning brightly just below the surface, waiting to be provoked. But at that moment, he doesn’t think of revenge. His thoughts drift to his bathroom cabinet, to a barely touched bottle of prescription painkillers he still has there from four years ago when he broke his leg skiing. He’d barely touched the stuff then, but he’d read the description, including what to expect in case of an overdose. He thinks about it now, the blunt black letters running before his mind’s eye, suddenly seductive.

Erik opens his eyes, blinking rapidly. He’s not that person. He has never in his life been that person. Erik has made a mistake. He’s done nothing but made mistakes where Charles was concerned, but this one—this one is the worst one. He went all in. He didn’t pause to think, didn’t heed the warning signs; he never even thought to stop. He cashed all his chips in one single hand, and it dragged him down to the bottom.

He doesn’t go to the bathroom, doesn’t go to the bedroom either. He puts on his running shoes, ignores the watch telling him it’s the middle of the night, and goes out. He runs the streets, avoiding the park, ignoring the traffic lights and the honking cars. He runs until the sky begins to brighten in the east and he can’t feel his feet anymore.

 

--

Doug doesn’t look nearly as apologetic as Alex painted him to be as he greets Charles back on set for the first video shoot.

“Look, man, shit happens, okay? How about I throw in a bonus just from me, and Sandra here—hey, Sandra! Get over here!—Sandra here will be here the whole time just for you, how about that? No harm, no foul?”

Charles stares at him blankly, but takes the proffered hand for a shake.

“Good man,” Doug sighs in relief. “Go get changed.”

It’s a different set this time; they’re actually shooting in one of the backrooms of the club the video is meant for. Charles has never been here before, but it’s still odd to see it so empty. It’s not as though sunlight could get in here anyway, but the very notion that it’s daytime makes the black and gunmetal décor seem especially over-the-top and obnoxious.

Charles walks toward the corner designated as a dressing room. It’s not separated from the rest of the set even by a screen, but he tells himself that the time for modesty is surely over. Has been over since that first night. Charles ignores the flutter of embarrassment in his stomach and starts undressing. Sandra appears at his side, hovering uncertainly behind a camp chair.

“Hi, um. I could, um. I could hold a robe for you if you want to change behind that.”

Charles gives her a sideways look. “It’s fine.” Then, because good manners have never been beaten out of him, he adds, “Thank you.”

He pulls his jeans and underwear off and makes himself move without seeming in a rush as he reaches for yet another sealed package, containing a pair of laughably miniscule shorts. He’s fortunate that he didn’t have to fight for this. The video, as Alex explained, is meant to be streamed on a loop in the public areas of the club at all hours as soon as the doors are open, so it can’t contain any actual nudity. It’s a small relief that at least his junk won’t be fully on display. When he pulls the shorts on, he has to admit wryly that, in point of fact, he was too hasty in that conclusion.

“They look nice,” Sandra offers hesitantly, searching his eyes.

Charles looks at her. There’s no trace of innuendo or sleaziness in her tone; she’s genuinely trying to cheer him up, as though completely immune to the nakedness on display around her. How long has she been working here, Charles finds himself wondering, that it became so run-of-the-mill for her?

“Thanks,” he says and tries for a smile.

The expression on her face is so relieved, it’s humbling.

“Oh. Yes. Well. You want some water? I have water here, and Gatorade, and orange juice—”

“I’m fine, Sandra. Thank you.”

“And I have towels for you, and your robe, and I won’t go anywhere, I’m sticking to you like glue—”

“That’s, um. Thank you.”

“Sure.”

“Why don’t you let him breathe a bit?” a new voice cuts in, heavy and growly, and not so much authoritative as challenging in an obnoxiously confident way. It’s the voice of a man who’s always ready for a fight and most of the time is spoiling for it.

Sandra jumps in place, going pale then red. “Um, Charles, meet your shoot partner. This is Logan.”

Charles is already looking at the man. His first thought is, hysterically, that Sandra is right to be jumpy. Logan is taller than Charles—no surprises there, most men are, and so muscly he has to be lifting weights even in his sleep. He’s standing there in tight leather pants and not much else, belt undone, a smirk on his lips. He’s got scars on his chest that look old and nasty, and Charles doesn’t want to know about them. His hair is styled in an odd way, making him look more feral than he really needs to be. His eyes are keen on Charles, though, serious in a way the rest of him isn’t.

“Nice to meet you,” Charles says, because what else is he supposed to say? His own voice, he discovers in alarm, has gone thin and higher than it normally is.

Logan’s smirk intensifies as he glances down at Charles's hand and then back up at him. “Pleasure,” he growls lowly, clasping Charles's hand in his, and Charles tries not to balk at how instantly dwarfed he feels. “Let’s talk.”

He pulls Charles aside, away from the crew hustling with light fixtures, Sandra trailing behind uncertainly, but giving them space. Charles doesn’t know if he should feel reassured by that.

“I saw your shoot,” Logan says apropos of nothing. “They really did a number on you, huh?”

Charles shrugs. “It was all right.”

“Right. So correct my assumptions if I’m wrong here,” Logan’s tone is decidedly mocking, “but you don’t seem all that into this.” He gestures vaguely around the club, and Charles follows his gaze to the vastly displayed BDSM paraphernalia, the metal frames, the manacles, pictures on the walls.

“No,” he admits. “I’m not. Look, no offense or anything,” he adds hurriedly, giving Logan a worried look. “I’m sure it’s perfectly… well. Um. Perfectly magical and all that. Just not my thing.”

“Yeah, you don’t seem the type, bub,” Logan says, giving him a frank onceover.

Charles has no idea how one can tell something like that from a look. He knows from his days tending the bar and even before that that people can reveal the most surprising things sometimes concealed under perfectly boring exteriors. Logan is correct, though, so Charles doesn’t argue.

“That’s a shame,” Logan continues. “It would have been easier if you were. You’d trust me, for one.”

“Oh, that will not be a problem,” Charles says around a smile that he’s fairly certain is ugly. “I trust everyone. Too much. A character flaw.”

Logan’s eyes narrow. “You’re not into self-harm or something? ‘Cause let me tell you something, bub. I’ve no desire to enable that.”

“No,” Charles sighs, his dark amusement fading. “I’m just spectacularly good at making bad choices.”

Logan rolls his eyes. “A damn kid. Fuck this shit, I’m too old for this.” He shakes his head as though trying to clear his ears of water. “Look, Chuck. Charles? Whatever. I can make this real easy for you. Your role is simple. Do what I tell you to, don’t think about it, just look pretty. You don’t have to work for it, looking the way you do.”

Despite himself, Charles blushes. And because he’s standing there naked for all intents and purposes, apart from his ridiculous shorts, there’s no hiding the flush that runs all the way down to his belly.

Logan whistles softly, sounding half-amused, half-incredulous, when he says, “Jeez, bub, where did you even come from? Right, so just do what I say, and you’ll be fine.”

“What about Doug—”

“No,” Logan says firmly, gripping Charles's chin to make their eyes meet. “Only me. I’ll be the only one giving you stage direction or any kind of direction. You don’t have to worry about anyone else. I’ll take care of you.”

Charles shivers, not in a pleasant way. Logan’s confidence reminds him unpleasantly of Erik. He never felt comfortable giving over completely to the other person. He feels even less so after the lesson he’s just learned.

But he has little choice in the matter. If he’s doing this, and he did sign the contract, he’ll have to face his discomfort. He’ll be heftily compensated for it. It’s just that he didn’t think it would be this. He prepared himself to enduring physical pain, being cuffed, flogged, put in humiliating and uncomfortable positions. He’s not prepared for this.

“Hey,” Logan says, clearly sensing something, as he steps closer, driving it home just how much bigger he is than Charles. Strangely, Charles doesn’t feel intimidated. “Just trust me on this. I want to get this over with and call it a day as much as you do. But I know how to do this. You don’t. If you fight me, if you challenge me, we’ll be here all night. You don’t want that.”

Oh, what does it matter, Charles thinks suddenly, feeling the fight drain out of him. Logan is right. Charles wants it to be over and done with. It’s not as though he expected to enjoy himself.

“Fine,” he says, looking up to meet Logan’s eyes.

“Good.” Logan nods. “What’s your safeword?”

“What?” Charles rears back. “I thought… this was just a shoot. We’re not actually—”

Logan rolls his eyes. “And how am I to know if you’re in actual pain? Or thirsty? Or just need a break? I don’t know you, bub. I can read your body, sure, but how the hell am I supposed to know how much you can take? I don’t like surprises and I know your type.”

“Oh yeah? What type is that?”

“The stubborn and stupid type. This isn’t make-believe for me, bub. I’m a Dom, Charles, do you know what that means? I’m responsible for you for the duration of the shoot. I won’t let you come to harm just because you’re too scared or too stupid to object or to know your own limits. Traumatizing yourself is not what this is about. Do you get that?”

Charles does, sort of, but he’s too angry at being lectured to be reasonable, so he reverts into a petulant teenager before he can help it. “And here I thought that guys like you just like to hit people.”

Logan’s gaze darkens and he looms over Charles even more, staring him down, when suddenly his face splits into a grin. “Oh, the fun I could have with you, kid, if only you really were into this. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

Charles doesn’t know how that even works, but he finds Logan’s grin mirrored on his own face. “I’ll take your word for it, if it’s all the same to you.”

Logan leans close enough to murmur in his ear. “Your loss.”

It makes Charles flush all over again, but for a very different reason. Logan smirks, because of course he notices.

“Your safeword?” he repeats. “Something you will remember no matter how stuck in your head you get.”

Charles doesn’t really have to think about it. “Raven.”

Logan lifts an eyebrow, but says nothing, just nods. “Go drink some water,” he says. “And move around a bit. Jump, stretch, get the blood pumping. You’ll need it.”

Charles doesn’t really feel like doing anything, but obeys, because the alternative is to continue arguing with Logan, and he finds it vaguely disconcerting. He jumps and does a few lunges, stretching like he used to do once upon a time before playing soccer. If only his old coach could see him now. Fortunately for him Doug calls them to take their places before Charles can go any further down the memory lane.

Logan really does make it surprisingly easy. Doug keeps on trying to give Charles direction, but Logan yells at him, using a few choice words Charles has never heard before, and after that anything Doug wants Charles to do he tells Logan. Logan guides him. Logan’s hands are the only ones touching him, securing gear, toweling off sweat, positioning him, tousling his hair. Charles would have never thought it possible to feel like he’s having fun while being on his knees, hands tied behind his back, face pressed into a leather-covered crotch, but he is, almost. The way Logan is holding him feels so confident and yet kind. Maybe there’s something wrong with his brain, but Charles feels warm and safe, even though in this position there could be no doubt about how aroused Logan is, and he’s still a virtual stranger. But Logan maintains eye contact with him whenever possible, and there’s such a steady stream of reassurance flowing through that connection that Charles forgets to be anxious about this whole thing.

As the shoot progresses, though, it begins to take its toll. Unlike his first experience, this is a video, meant to capture motion. They take multiple takes with Charles being secured to a metal frame and flogged—no matter how light Logan’s touch is, the sheer number of repetitions makes Charles feel raw and oversensitive. The worst by far is the walk on his hands and knees around the club, with Logan leading him around on a leash, draping him over furniture to deliver more ‘punishment’. Charles very nearly safewords a few times then, but in the end doesn’t, reassured by Logan’s whisper, “It’ll be over soon, you’re doing really great, just hang in there.”

They can’t show nudity, but they can show simulated sex, and do, with Charles bent over a bench made specifically for that purpose, judging by the measurements. Doug positions the camera so that their hips aren’t in the shot, but Charles's face very much is, and Charles doesn’t have to fake the tears or the cries as Logan thrusts against his ass with a kind of clinical efficiency, an impersonal sort of ruthlessness if such a thing is possible. He’s got Charles arms held behind his back at an angle that makes his joints close to a panicked scream, enough for authenticity, not enough to go overboard.

They do take after take, and Logan never tires, and never loses his rather impressive erection, making Charles feel every inch of it through the layers of fabric. This is when Charles spaces out a bit, slipping into some sort of zone he never knew existed. The world around him disappears, narrowed down to the scratchy slide of leather under his belly, the strain in his spread hips. Even Logan disappears, turning instead into a kind of presence, animated, but not necessarily sentient, making Charles's body move with his thrusts, keeping his arms ringing with tension. It goes on and on, until Charles begins to feel that he himself is about to disappear, as the pain fades, and the motion begins to lull him into a kind of trance, where there is no sense of self, only a warm, softly rocking nothing.

“Hey, hey!” Someone slaps his face, hard.

Charles jerks, coming back to himself abruptly, whiplashed as though dropped back into his body from a great height.

“Wha…”

He’s lying on a couch, the crew is gathering equipment a bit further away, and Logan is kneeling next to him, peering into his face with concern.

“You with me, bub?” Logan grabs his chin, catching his eyes to see if Charles is tracking.

“Yeah,” Charles breathes out shakily. “It’s over then? Did I—oh God, did I ruin it?”

“Did you ruin it?” Logan asks in disbelief. “No, you didn’t ruin it, you turned it into a damn goldmine. Gave me a hell of a fright though when you zoned out like that.”

“Sorry,” Charles mutters, realizing only now he’s shivering. He’s got the same blue bathrobe wrapped around his shoulders, but it doesn’t make him feel any warmer. “Didn’t know…”

Logan swears. His gaze is intent upon Charles but strangely hesitant. “Er, Charles? I need to do something for you now. It’ll make you feel better. Can you trust me for a little bit longer?”

Charles gives him a bewildered look, but nods. He’s aware, but not all that alert yet. And he’s so cold.

He has no expectations, yet is still surprised, when Logan moves closer, picks him up, and settles on the couch, Charles in his lap, wrapped in his arms. He just holds him close, tucking Charles's head under his chin, rubbing his back gently in slow rhythmic motions. It feels… strange. But not unpleasant. In fact, the more they sit like that, the more Charles feels something inside him begin to uncoil. His shivering turns into shaking, and then he’s clutching at Logan’s t-shirt (when did the man get dressed?) and all but wailing into his shoulder. He feels as though he’s been restraining sheer terror for hours on end, and now it’s all pouring out.

Logan keeps holding him, murmuring softly. A hysterically awake part of Charles's mind screams at him that he should be embarrassed by this, being rocked like a child, consoled about he doesn’t even know what by a stranger, who must be feeling awkward and must want to get out.

He seems to be saying some of this out loud, because Logan’s hold on him tightens, and he growls low in Charles's ear, “I told you I’m responsible for you, who do you take me for?”

Charles doesn’t know, doesn’t care. He’s floating a little bit, overwhelmed, and of all the confusing emotions pulling at him at the moment, overpowering gratitude wins out. Unable to articulate it, he grabs Logan’s face in both hands and kisses him, sloppy, desperate, too uncoordinated to be good. Logan doesn’t push him away as he should, but kisses back, soothing—how does a man like that even get soothing? —but he is, he’s so incredibly gentle, easing Charles out of whatever it was with so much compassion, Charles can taste it.

“Sorry,” Charles murmurs, when the kiss breaks into a stream of soft little touches, sweet and light.

“It’s okay,” Logan replies, just as quietly, and smirks, though even that is somehow tender. “Not a hardship.”

It makes Charles smile and then laugh incredulously, and Logan is grinning down at him, smug like a spoiled house cat. They stretch on the couch side by side, cuddling, ignoring the commotion at the other end of the room. Charles had no idea he could feel so comfortable with a perfect stranger, but as he lies there, enjoying the feeling of being held, there is no worry in him, no discomfort.

“What happened to me?” he asks quietly after a while.

Logan sighs, his body telegraphing uneasiness. “You went into subspace, and I missed it at first. In my defense, first-timers almost never do; it usually takes a lot to get someone there. And this wasn’t even a proper scene, so I didn’t expect it in the middle of a damn Britney Spears music video.”

“Oh,” Charles breathes out, surprised. “Sorry?”

“It’s not your fault,” Logan grumbles. “And it’s not a bad thing per se. It’s just you didn’t ask for it. You weren’t ready for it.”

“Oh,” Charles says again. As it falls into place, it occurs to him what Logan is currently doing and why. Charles shifts, tensing up. “Um, you don’t have to… that is, thank you, but I’m fine now.”

Logan doesn’t budge, looking at him. He reaches up to pull a strand of hair away from Charles's face. “Like I said. Not a hardship.”

Charles blinks. This time, he manages to contain his Oh to the privacy of his own thoughts. When he sits up, Logan lets him.

Charles spots Sandra, hovering in the corner of the room, watching him, a concerned look on her face. Charles smiles at her and waves. She brightens up, beaming back at him, so obviously relieved it makes him feel bad. It’s not her fault he keeps getting himself into these situations.

Logan pulls himself up and off the couch, hands on his hips, as he observes the remaining crew with a look of mild distaste. He turns to look at Charles.

“There’s a great burger joint about two blocks south. Go get dressed, I’ll feed you.”

“That’s really not necessary—”

“That part is for me, kid, not for you.”

Charles drops his eyes before he can lose spectacularly at the staring contest and grins. “You get off on the strangest things.”

Logan smirks. “Oh, bub. You have no idea.”

--

The burgers are great indeed, big, juicy, seasoned to perfection. Charles doesn’t remember the last time he enjoyed a meal that much. Logan is surprisingly pleasant company for all that he’s rough around the edges and more than twenty years older than Charles. He was in the army once upon a time, had seen his fair share of action. When he came back, he held an impressive number of progressively odder jobs, the anecdotes from which have Charles in stitches now, until his very lifestyle became his profession.

In comparison, Charles's story is almost tripe, but Logan listens attentively, scowling and angry, the way Charles has yet to allow himself to be.

“You want me to find him and mess him up?” Logan asks, dead serious, pushing an extra helping of fries at Charles.

Charles laughs, until he realizes that Logan means it, and then he chokes, inhaling an entire serving of mustard, and then chokes some more.

“No,” he says when he’s able to talk again. “No, that’s… I don’t think it was his fault. I mean, Erik could have handled it better, but he’s not a bad person.”

“Not a bad person?” Logan growls incredulously. “Charles. He threw you out. He didn’t even listen—”

“I didn’t have much to say anyway.” Charles shrugs, playing with a stray fry. His appetite is gone. “I have no idea where the pictures came from or how my card was used to pay for that hotel. Even if he let me explain, there was nothing I could tell him.”

“That’s not an excuse—”

“No, no, I know. But you’re only hearing my side of it. I’m sure, his is just as compelling.”

He doesn’t believe the words even as he says them. Erik should have trusted him. No matter what. Erik should have trusted him.

And what if it were you? a nasty voice in his head asks. What if you were the one to see photos of your husband screwing another man? Would you be inclined to believe him? To trust his word that didn’t even make sense over the obvious objective truth? Maybe you wouldn’t have thrown him out, but would you have believed him?

He doesn’t know. He’ll never know. But he knows the kind of person Erik is, and with Erik that’s not a dilemma.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Charles says in a tone that conveys his wishes unequivocally.

Logan scowls, but doesn’t argue. Charles starts asking questions instead, fascinated by this new friend he seems to have acquired. He’s surprised to learn that Logan has a daughter.

“She lives in Seattle, with her mom,” Logan says, unable to help a smile as he talks about her. “Her name is Laura. She’s eleven now.”

Charles grins at his obvious parental pride. “What does she think you do?”

Logan shrugs, his smile fading. “Odd jobs. She thinks I’m a mechanic. Well, I am a mechanic, so it’s not quite a lie.” He pauses. “Her mom really doesn’t like me. Never did.”

“But she lets you see her, so that’s not so bad.”

“Yeah.” Logan sighs. “It’s not bad at all.”

Despite Charles's objections, Logan insists on driving him over to Hank’s place.

“Next shoot’s in a week,” Logan says as Charles climbs out of his truck. “If that idiot Doug calls you before then, tell him to fuck himself. And if you get any calls from unknown numbers, don’t pick up.”

“Yes, sir,” Charles smirks and salutes him.

Logan shakes his head, grinning. “Hell, kid. If only you meant it.”

He drives off, leaving Charles flushed and strangely content on the sidewalk.

--

Lunch with a new client goes about as well as it could go, even if Erik still mostly goes through the motions. He lingers back to pay the check, already making notes on the conversation in his head, cataloguing away new information. Compartmentalizing, he’s good at that. He steps out into the crisp winter afternoon and pauses for a moment, seized by a strange impulse. He’ll walk to the office. It’s not that far. He’ll have time to think or maybe just to be.

He’s not even half a block in when he sees a familiar figure in the crowd walking just ahead of him.

Charles

Erik's heart stops dead for a moment before jumping back to life too forcefully, off kilter. It’s been three months, and Erik still sees him everywhere, still watching out unconsciously for unruly brown hair, or a pair of eyes that are never as blue as he remembers. He should stop, he knows. He should let go. This is only prolonging the torture.

But he can’t quite let it go yet. The man walking in front of him is definitely Charles. Erik is not seeing things this time. He’s chatting with a friend, a tall, lanky fellow, who listens solemnly as Charles gesticulates wildly. Erik can’t hear the words, the street it too noisy, but he recognizes the exuberance, the enthusiasm, and wants to weep.

He’s missed Charles. Oh God, how he’s missed him. Erik misses him every day, still reaching for him every morning as he wakes up, his heart breaking all over as he finds his bed empty. He still files away amusing anecdotes of the day to tell Charles in the evening. Still bookmarks articles he thinks Charles would like to read. He wakes up at night sometimes breathing heavily, unable to believe that it wasn’t just a nightmare, and he can’t go back to sleep after that.

He’s a weak man. He’d never thought he’d be this person. Someone, who pines for one who betrayed him. Someone who at times feels like he can maybe swallow his pride and forgive Charles, because life without him just doesn’t make sense. Erik has never in his life made any kind of concessions for anyone. But there are times when he thinks he’d do this now for Charles, do anything to have him back. Then, of course, comes the anger. In the end, he feels raw and empty, and all he wants to do is stop.

He walks faster even though he shouldn’t. He should let Charles go. Nothing good can come of this. They have nothing to say to each other. At best, Charles might lie to him again and Erik will be tempted to believe him. At worst, Charles will stop pretending and confess everything. And that, that would be fatal. That would kill the notion that Charles at least cares enough for him to lie.

Charles's companion stops, claps him on the shoulder, and turns the corner, hailing a cab. Charles continues on alone, hands in his pockets, his gait bouncy and untroubled. Erik can’t take it one second longer. He speeds up enough to overtake, grabs Charles firmly by the shoulder and reels him in into an alley, away from the crowd.

“Hey, what the hell, dude? Let go of me.”

Erik doesn’t release his hold, but he stumbles in shock. Neither the voice nor the accent sound right, and as he hauls the stranger closer, he can see that he is, in fact—

“You’re not Charles,” he breathes out, staring.

“Er, no.” The young man blinks at him, apprehension in his eyes. “Hey, are you okay?”

Erik stares. He could be Charles's twin from twenty feet away, but up close they’re different enough. The stranger’s lips are thinner, the chin softer. His eyes are a muddy grey, and his hair is, in fact, lighter by several shades. There’s something in the way he carries himself, all jerky, like he has too much energy, that could never be Charles.

“I’m sorry,” Erik says belatedly, and lets go. “You um. I thought you were someone else.”

“Yeah, no shit. You look like you saw a ghost, man.”

“I’m sorry,” Erik repeats, still unable to look away. The resemblance is uncanny. “You look just like—”

“Charles,” the not-Charles says, nodding. “Nah, not him, sorry. Although, I did score a gig once, like for this would-be reality show? Never aired, guess they couldn’t sell anyone on the pilot. Anyway, my character’s name was Charles. Funny, huh. That makes you, like, half-wrong.”

Something begins to shift in Erik's mind, pushing through the shock and embarrassment. His intellect kicks into gear abruptly, as though coming out of a century-long sleep.

“A reality show?” he asks, trying for casual. “You’re an actor?”

Not-Charles grins ruefully. “Nah, man. Trying to be, though. You have to go to all kinds of crazy auditions till you have your break, right? But I gotta tell you, that one took the cake.”

“How so?”

“Well, it was supposed to look like a reality show, but it was all scripted, with parts written and stuff. And it was really weird, I mean, who’d want to watch people cheating on their partners?”

Erik feels his heart stop for one horrible moment, then begin beating twice as fast.

“What did they have you do?” he asks, grateful beyond words for his years of practice pulling information out of witnesses, using just the right tone, showing just enough interest.

“Oh, man, that was wild.” Not-Charles shakes his head in amused disbelief. “They had me and that other guy, like, arrange a meeting, and I thought it’d be like hidden cameras and all. But they just rented a hotel room and had us make it look like we were fucking with blinds open and all. Crazy, right? I mean, if I really was cheating, I’d be smart enough to at least close the fucking blinds. Anyway, that was a nightmare. They took like a gazillion pics, because my shoot partner couldn’t get it right. Last time I work with gingers, I swear. Fucking temper. I don’t think he was even gay, you know? But they paid us, like, five hundred bucks each, so I guess he didn’t care. And then it was like, the usual, we’ll be in touch, that kind of shtick. Of course, no one ever called.”

Erik feels ill. “Do you remember the name of the hotel?”

Not-Charles frowns for the first time, looking closely at Erik. “Man, you really do look like crap, you know? Um, I don’t remember. Some shithole in Bronx, Felix or Phoenix or something. The stink in there—ugh.”

Erik ignores the bile rising up in his throat. He’s too professional to let a lead go because he’s falling to pieces. “How did you score that gig?”

“Through my casting agent, how’d you think?” Not-Charles scoffs. “Remy fucking LeBeau. A useless piece of shit. Takes his percentage and then goes on a bender for a month. Moron. If I didn’t sign that contract, I swear—”

A part of Erik's mind that isn’t engaged in either investigating or wailing wonders absently how, for all the similarities, he doesn’t feel the slightest hint of attraction, not a whiff of pull. This man, for all his foul language and lower-class mannerisms, could be Charles's long-lost twin, but Erik isn’t the slightest bit tempted to touch him or to be near him. There is something Charles has that goes so much deeper than the surface that would make him stand out in a legion of lookalikes. How? How could Erik ever have been fooled by those pictures?

“Well, at least they didn’t have you do anything too weird on that audition,” he says, interrupting not-Charles's rant about his agent.

“Sure they did.” The boy rolled his eyes. “You’d think I was getting ready for an opening night on Broadway or something. They made me die my hair, and wear those horrible fucking contacts, I couldn’t see a thing—oh! And the lipstick. I mean, I swing both ways, I don’t judge, sure, but how tacky do you have to be to wear fucking cherry-red gloss outside of, like, a drag show? Fucking stereotyping assholes.”

Erik doesn’t really need to hear anymore, though he keeps on asking questions, until not-Charles finally remembers that he doesn’t know Erik from Adam and makes a run for it. Erik stares after him, his body shell-shocked, his mind going into overdrive.

Charles was telling the truth.

There were still credit card receipts, but those were child’s play to a determined professional, who’s been around the block a few times, and Pyro was certainly that. The pictures weren’t fake, no. The man in the pictures was. ‘On a planet with seven billion people, there has to be at least six of everything.’ This is New York. Cute, short, and bubbly are a dime a dozen. With the right clothes and a bit of makeup, combined with intentionally poor lighting and photos taken through the glass using zoom, the illusion was not at all difficult to create. Charles himself didn’t question the identity of the man in the pictures. He just denied ever meeting his would-be lover, denied betraying Erik. He had no explanation, but he persisted in his truth.

And Erik didn’t believe him.

Guilt washes over him like a tidal wave, threatening to bury him for good under the inconceivable weight of it. It feels like being slowly drowned in acid, so Erik pushes it back and grabs onto his anger instead. He knows whose handiwork this is. There’s not a single doubt.

There is only one person who had the means, the opportunity, and the motive. One person only who thinks of himself as god, presuming to decide human fates. One person only who believes he has the right to edit Erik's life as he sees fit.

Shaw. Fucking Shaw.

With a guttural growl, Erik punches the brick wall so hard his knuckles split. The pain makes his vision white out for one glorious moment, but it’s nothing in comparison with the agony he’s drowning in, remembering Charles's tear-streaked face.

Shaw is a bastard, and what he did was despicable, but he didn’t hurt Charles. Erik did. Erik, who had laughed Shaw in the face when he’d first shown him the pictures, and who had changed his tune so quickly, dropping his faith in Charles like a red-hot iron. He thought Charles didn’t fight for him, but it was Erik, Erik who gave up without putting up resistance. Even his trip to the photo lab was only to confirm what he knew already. He’d given up on Charles the moment Shaw produced his ‘proof.’ There’s probably an explanation for that. His deep-seated belief that he doesn’t deserve love or good things, that happiness is something for other people. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters now.

Erik has never had a particularly high opinion of himself. Ever since they met, Shaw has been molding him into a soulless bastard, and most days now Erik feels like a soulless bastard. And between guilt and anger, he will always choose anger, his oldest friend, his most reliable ally. Shaw will pay. Charles deserves retribution. Charles deserves…

Where did Charles even go? Erik thinks suddenly, deflating. Erik never thought about it. Avoided thinking about it, in all honesty, because he’d always just assumed Charles would shack up with his new lover. The vile redhead from the photos. Who wasn’t even real.

Where did Charles go?

Anger drains out of him, as Erik goes white with fear. What has he done? Charles has no family to speak of, apart from a sister who’s across the ocean. Charles has no close friends. Charles has—God, Charles has no money to support himself. Charles might…

not be alive right now.

Panic has him fighting off a dizzy spell, something that hasn’t happened to him in years, not since the day the doctor came into his mother’s hospital room and announced the horrible verdict. Erik's head is spinning, and he can’t breathe. What if Charles is… what if he’s…

But no. No. Charles is resourceful. Charles is a survivor. Charles would have thought of something, would have found a way. He’s alive. He’s well. Erik will find him and make this right. Charles must hate him now, and that’s—that’s fine, honestly. As long as he’s alive, it’s fine. Erik doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but he will beg for it anyway. He will lay his entire life as an offering at Charles's feet. Just please let him be alive. Let him be safe. Please.

The man who walks out of that alley is not at all the same man who stumbled into it, not an hour ago. Erik walks like an old man, staggering and wild-eyed, scaring anyone who happens to look into his face.

--

The second shoot is worse. Charles doesn’t know what kind of feedback Doug is getting from the client, but if those are the results, Charles never wants to meet the man. He hisses as hot wax drips onto his skin, and then cries out as fingers press into the welts. The ropes are cutting off circulation everywhere, he can’t feel his hands, the strain in his hips and shoulders has turned into an ever-present ache, and the muscles in his neck are exhausted trying to keep his head level in this suspended position. At the periphery of his mind, he can hear Logan arguing fiercely with Doug, but the exact words escape him. If the first shoot teased him with at least a possibility of sexual pleasure in bits and pieces, this one is pure physical torture, and all Charles wants is for it to be over.

When it finally is over, he collapses into Logan’s arms, impervious to any consideration of modesty or propriety. He doesn’t care. He’s hurting, that’s all he knows. All he wants is for it to go away.

He whimpers as Logan undoes the numerous knots, grateful for his steady hands and quick efficiency. But when Logan starts to massage his limbs to restore blood flow, Charles sobs and writhes because that hurts even more. A fragrant scent of oil clears his head a bit as Logan rubs it into the burns that don’t look nearly as angry as Charles expects them to, based on sensations.

“Can you sit up?” Logan asks when he’s done.

Charles nods, awkward as he props himself up the way he’s never been in his life. Logan maneuvers him to lean with his back against his chest and holds a bottle of coconut water to his lips, pressing persistently until Charles starts to drink.

“How,” he asks in between swallows, “how do people get off on this?”

Logan sighs, cradling Charles to him. “This isn’t how it usually goes. This is nothing how it’s supposed to go. Even for a film, that’s insane. I’d quit now, but I can’t leave you. Fuck knows who they’d bring in.”

It’s selfish, but Charles is grateful. He snuggles in further into Logan’s embrace, burying his face in his neck. “Thank you.”

Logan hums, holding him.

He doesn’t drive Charles home the way he did the last time. Instead, they end up at Logan’s place, a humble one-bedroom with a half-assembled bed, a closet that looks like it might turn to dust at any moment, and a TV that has never even heard of a flat screen. Charles doesn’t question it, not when Logan heats up some soup and stares at Charles until he eats it, not when they stretch on the bed for lack of any other furniture, watching Law and Order reruns.

At some point, Charles turns around within the circle of Logan’s arms, looks up at him to find himself being watched dispassionately, and sighs a little. He presses his hand softly against Logan’s cheek, palm prickling at the touch of stubble. Logan lets him, says nothing. Charles kisses him. He can’t articulate what he needs, doesn’t know, not precisely. A bit of human contact perhaps, or maybe to get off, he doesn’t know. The idea of sex both intrigues and repels him.

Logan kisses back, and there’s significantly more intent here than there was a week ago. Charles gives up the initiative gladly, and Logan rolls him onto his back, and keeps on kissing him, on the far side of gentle, definitely engaged, but in a way that could go on forever, leading nowhere. But when Charles's hand slides over his waist and under his t-shirt, exploring skin, Logan pulls back slightly, and catches his wrist, looking down at him.

“Sorry,” Charles breathes out after what seems like a small eternity, during which shame of all things has the time to resurface.

Logan’s grip around his wrist tightens to make a point. “This is your time, kid. I will do whatever you need me to right now. If you want me to get you off, I’ll get you off. But I don’t think that’s what you really want. Your head’s all screwed now. You’ll regret this in the morning.”

For a rebellious moment, Charles wants to fight him on principle. But there’s no challenge in Logan’s eyes. No pity. Only concern and intense concentration, like he’s trying really hard to read Charles, to interpret him correctly, relying on his experience and not Charles's words and actions, because they can’t be trusted at the moment. It makes the fight drain out of Charles. He has nothing to prove here. And he can see it, right here staring him in the face, Logan’s instinctual need to take care of him. That, too, has gone personal, between one distasteful shoot and the next. Logan needs it like Charles needs to be held right now, and Charles is giving here as much as he’s receiving, but he needs to be honest for it to work.

He pulls his hand free from Logan’s hold gently and runs his fingers through Logan’s hair. It makes him frown. “What is it supposed to look like anyway?”

Logan grins, relief melting at the heart of it. “An ex-girlfriend had a thing for werewolf cosplay. Sorta stuck.”

Charles lifts his eyebrows. “You’re not gay?”

Logan snorts. “Kid, I’ve done so many things with so many people, it doesn’t matter anymore. My brain’s been wired and rewired so many times, I don’t care which bits you have. It could be someone with tentacles next, and I don’t think I’d care.”

Curiosity stirred, Charles mulls this over. “So… you don’t have a preference?”

To his credit, Logan seems to think about it. For all of five seconds, before he shrugs. “Guess I just respond to people these days.”

Charles bites his lip. “Do you respond to me?”

Logan smirks, slides a knee between Charles's thighs. “What do you think?”

It’s funny for some reason, the unabashed honesty of it, so blatant that it makes Charles laugh even as he blushes. He lets his fingers curl in Logan’s hair, draws him into a short, sweet kiss.

“Is it okay for you to keep doing that?” he asks, because he’s feeling selfish right now, yes, but he doesn’t want to hurt Logan.

But Logan just rolls his eyes. “I wouldn’t be doing it, if it wasn’t.”

He rolls half on top of Charles, pressing his wrists into the bed, and kisses him again, displaying no intention to stop any time soon. Charles lets himself melt into the mattress and enjoy it, buoyed by the sense of safety and warmth and a simple physical pleasure that is there for its own sake. He never knew it could be this simple. He never knew he could have it.

It’s the first time since that fateful night at Erik's loft that Charles manages to sleep peacefully through the night and not think of Erik at all. The thoughts of him come back, of course, come morning as Charles walks to Hank’s a couple of extra blocks from the subway to clear his head.

This thing with Logan is great and wonderful, and Charles is grateful beyond words to have found a friend in the unlikeliest of places, but it does have an unintended side effect. It makes him miss Erik something awful. The thrill of being with him, the never-ending loop of discovery. The gentle moments of warmth that could turn into smoldering heat in the blink of an eye and then simmer down to the distant drumming of satisfied hunger, never fully sated, just staved off. The silly moments of almost childish playfulness, of laughing so hard they had to lean on each other, of something that was meant to be sexy dissolving into something hilarious, of Erik trying to fuck him that one time while still hiccupping and breathless with it.

There was a reason, Charles thinks, why they moved so fast, disregarding common sense and social conventions. Erik was twelve years his senior, a man established in life, with a chosen path and a successful career, someone who’d figured out most of the things Charles hasn’t even encountered yet. But none of it mattered. None of it mattered when it was just the two of them, shutting the world out. When Erik made fun of Charles for his lingering Doctor Who obsession, but watched it with him all the same, and ranted for a whole evening about the unfairness of what happened to Donna, interrupting Charles mid-blowjob to make a point. Or when Charles got up to finally drag Erik to bed at half past two in the morning and ended up making coffee and spending the night stretched out on a carpet covered with Erik's case notes, trying to solve the puzzle of what the witness was hiding. It didn’t matter when Erik listened intently to Charles reading the first chapters of his thesis out loud and asked questions that nearly made Charles swoon at his obvious intelligence and also to make some very much needed changes. It didn’t matter when Erik woke up in the middle of the night in tears, overwhelmed by the grief of losing his mother all over again, or when Charles had spent weeks trying to recreated one of the recipes from Edie’s handwritten cookbook and, when he’d finally managed to achieve something edible and showed it to Erik, shaking like a leaf with the nerves, and Erik had looked at him as though Charles was some sort of deity, dropped into Erik's lap by mistake.

They were different people, at different places in life, and none of it mattered. Until that night, none of it ever mattered. After that night, it did nothing but.

It hurts. It doesn’t get easier. It still hurts like an open wound, and part of Charles is grateful that Erik had apparently changed his cell phone number, because if Charles could still call him, he’d never stop. No matter how humiliating or pathetic it would be, he doesn’t think he could have stopped himself from reaching out. How does one thing change everything so dramatically? How does one misunderstanding destroy every bit of shared history, every treasured emotion, spilling toxic waste over every memory? How does that even work?

When he makes it over to Hank’s apartment, Kitty pulls the door open before Charles can even insert the key.

“My time now,” she hisses. “Get lost.”

She slams the door shut, though, from the care she takes to make it quiet, Hank is probably sleeping. Charles sighs and makes his way over to Mike’s. His living situation has to change, there’s no question of it. But what is he to do? He has enough money now for a couple of month worth of rent, perhaps more, if he’s lucky. But when the third shoot is done, there’s no telling where the next wad of cash is going to come from. Judging by his experience so far, he doesn’t think he can make it far in the porn industry business. And even if he does get a more regular job, there’s also the matter of his tuition. One year. He just has to find a way to pay for one final year. Might as well be twenty from where he’s standing.

He finishes the last of his coffee, cringing. He never liked coffee all that much, especially not plain black, but it’s the cheapest option on the menu, and Charles has reverted to his old habits. He contemplates getting some food. Logan made him breakfast, and Charles felt full at the time, but now it seems like a hazy memory. These days, Charles is always between one of the two states: perpetually hungry or so numb he doesn’t care. The second one is easier on his budget, but ever since Logan had dragged him to that burger joint, it’s been more and more elusive.

A slice of pie enters his field of vision, and Charles watches it being slid toward him over the table in bewilderment. When he looks up, he sees Mike himself taking a place across from him.

“On the house,” he says.

Charles blushes. “Thanks, but I’m not—”

“Just shut up and eat, kid.” Mike rolls his eyes. For a man well into his fifties, he’s rather spry and grumpy and not at all respectful.

“Thanks,” Charles says, though his appetite is gone.

Mike sighs. “Look, I hear you’re in trouble.”

Charles lifts his eyebrows. He and Mike have said maybe ten words total to each other in all the years Charles has been coming to his coffeeshop. Involuntarily, he looks over at the counter, where Angel looks far too busy for how low the crowd is at the moment.

“Hey, this is my coffeeshop, you know,” Mike says, following his gaze. “I do hear things. I don’t understand most of them, and I don’t care for the rest, but I do hear things. You need a place to stay?”

“I do.”

“Right.” Mike studies him, not giving the impression that he’s happy with what he’s seeing. Then again, Charles has never seen Mike being happy about anything in his life. “Here’s the thing. There’s a room upstairs. I’m using it for storage, but I can clean it up, and I have an air mattress. Can put some shelves in, I guess. There’s a private bathroom up there, nothing fancy, but has a shower.”

“Mike—” Charles interrupts, blushing furiously, prepared to decline.

“It ain’t free,” Mike speaks over him. “I’m getting mighty tired of getting up at five every fucking morning to open this joint. I need someone who can do it at least four days a week. You know, clean up some, start the machines, that kind of thing. You do that for me, you can stay here. And, er, all the coffee you can drink.”

Charles opens his mouth, but says nothing. It’s humiliating to be a charity case, and his pride is protesting vigorously. He can see Angel staring at him, biting her lip nervously, a pleading expression on her face. It’s a handout, yes, but he needs one, no matter how much his ego is rebelling. There’s a life lesson in here, he suspects. One in humility and acceptance.

“Why?” he asks, blinking back tears, as he looks at Mike. “Why would you—”

Mike shrugs, visibly uncomfortable. “Because I can. I mean, that room is just sitting there; it’s no skin off my back. And I’d like to sleep in every once in a while.”

He doesn’t say Charles will be doing him a favor, for which Charles is grateful.

“Thank you,” he breathes out, and he can’t look up anymore. It feels like losing a part of himself, but he knows he’d be insane to refuse. Survive first. Rebuild your pride later. He can pay Mike back for everything once he’s up on his feet.

Mike sighs; Charles hears the scrape of the chair legs as he gets up. “Eat your pie, kid.”

Charles doesn’t get even a moment’s respite, because the next moment Angel is there, grabbing his hands and squeezing hard. “You said yes? Tell me you said yes?”

Charles nods, and she pulls him into a hug so fierce it makes him suck in a breath.

“I feel so ashamed,” he confesses, because he can’t hold it in anymore.

“Don’t be.” Angel pulls back to look at him. “Do you know why we’re called Mike’s? It’s not for our Mike. It used to be Michaela’s Coffee once upon a time. There was a woman running this place since the fifties. When our Mike came into the city without a penny or a job or a place to stay, she took him in, though she didn’t know him from Adam. It used to be his room, Charles. Offering it to you, I think, he thinks he’s returning his debt to the universe or something. Passing it on.”

Charles blinks in surprise. “Is that true?”

“You can ask Mike if you don’t believe me, though he doesn’t like to talk about it.” Angel shrugs. “You know he hired me even though I wasn’t legal? He doesn’t like getting involved, but he does that.”

Charles sighs, still incredibly uncomfortable, but feeling slightly better. He glances at Angel. “I thought you didn’t like me?”

She laughs. “I thought you were a rich stuck-up asshole with a posh accent. But that lasted, like, a week. And then, I guess, I was jealous.”

“Jealous?” Charles stares. “Of what?”

She looks away. “I ran away, too, you know. My parents are catholic. When my dad found me with my tongue down my best friend’s throat and my hand under her skirt, he tried to beat it out of me. So I ran. Made it all the way here. But—I found this job, and a place, and that’s it. That’s my life. I wanted to go to college, you know. I wanted to study dance. But I could never make it happen. And then you—you were just doing it. All by yourself. Like, you didn’t let anything stop you, and I felt so… inferior.”

“Angel!” Charles exclaims, leaning over to take her hand this time. “You’re not! You’re just… Look, yeah, my stepfather might have thrown me out, but I’m still the privileged class here. I can’t say that it was easy for me, because it wasn’t, none of it, but it was doable. Because of who I am, because of what I look like. Because of my family name. And even with all of that, I could barely make it. You have none of those advantages, how do you expect… Look, you’re not inferior at all. You’re so much stronger than I am. I mean, look at me. I’m just subsiding on the charity of other people—for a place to live, for a job, for school—”

“Oh, come on.” She rolls her eyes. “You know they show your Professor MacTaggert on TV, like, addressing the Congress and stuff. I don’t think she’s keeping you on her team as charity. You’re a genius. You graduated from college at nineteen, you—”

“But that’s just my brain,” Charles cuts her off, impatiently. “I was born with it. I didn’t earn it, I just have it, it doesn’t count—”

“Oh, so you don’t study? You don’t spend every free moment with your nose down some book or in that lab? You’re not obsessed with trying to create that magic cure for rare genetic disorders—that’s what, someone else?”

“No. Look, yeah, of course, I study, but that’s…” He trails off, frustrated. Groping for words to express himself, he studies her face. “Angel, why are you talking as though you can never go to college?”

She grimaces. “I used to go to those underground raves a lot when I first came here. Busted my knee real good once. Spent all I had saved on treatment, but it’s no good. Pretty sure my dancing career is over.”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t mean you should just quit,” Charles says. “You could teach. You could be a choreographer. Angel, you can build your own dance empire. It’s never too late for any of that, if you’re passionate enough.”

She stares at him for a long moment, like she would love nothing more than to strangle him. Charles can’t help a truly obnoxious grin that spreads over his face. Angel sighs.

“I did look up the creds I need to get into community college,” she admits reluctantly. “It’s hopeless. I suck at math, and I could never get bio. All our teacher did was tell us how to grow pot.”

Charles beams at her. “If you want, I can help you study.”

The smile she gives him is almost shy. “I’d like that.”

--

Getting information out of Pyro is almost cathartic.

“Erik, stop!” Emma screams.

Erik ignores her, delivering another blow. When she grabs his arm, he tries to shake her off, but she sinks her nails into him, sharp as claws, making him growl in pain.

“For fuck’s sake, Lehnsherr,” she hisses. “Get a grip.”

Reluctantly, Erik releases Pyro, watching with no small amount of satisfaction as the man slides along the wall to the floor, still whimpering. Only barely, Erik resists the urge to kick him.

“Do you get it now?” He turns to Emma, finally pulling free of her grip. “They staged the entire thing. The bastards set Charles up, and I—I just bought it, fuck. He’ll never forgive me.”

“You won’t make it easier for him to forgive you if you’re in prison for murder,” she states flatly, looking down at Pyro in unconcealed disgust.

“Might be worth it,” Erik grumbles, and Pyro flinches back.

Emma sighs. “How someone as sweet as Charles got tangled with you in the first place, I will never know. Let him go, Erik. He’s told us all he knows.”

Erik grabs Pyro by his shirt and hauls him up, ignoring his terrified squeal. “You breathe one word of this to Shaw, I will kill you. We clear?”

“Yes.” Pyro nods his head frantically. “Yes, yes, yes. I’ll be a fucking mute, man, just let me go.”

Erik grimaces in distaste and lets go of him. Pyro scrambles to find his feet, rushing out the door in an uncoordinated mess of limbs. Erik sighs. Emma regards the once pristine linoleum of her garage with severe disapproval.

“You owe me a really good cleanup, Lehnsherr.”

“Put it on my tab.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Murder Shaw.” Erik scowls. “I don’t know how yet, but I’ll think of something.”

Emma rolls her eyes. “I meant about Charles.”

Just like that, Erik's anger dissipates, his shoulders sagging. “I don’t know. What can I do? He must hate me.”

“You’re such a drama queen, honestly. Have you tried talking to him? You owe him that much.”

Erik sighs. “I owe him so much more than that, but I… how do I even?”

“Have you looked him up? His new address?”

“I couldn’t find that. But he’s still coming in to work at the research center, and he still shows up for classes, so…”

That had been a weight off his chest. If he’d discovered that Charles dropped out of school, Erik doesn’t know what he would have done.

“Good. Then go talk to him. Apologize. Explain. Find out where you stand. Find out how he is, Erik, Jesus. He didn’t look too hot when he came to the office, looking for you.”

Erik's head snaps up. “He came to the office? When?”

“Just after you left for Tokyo.” Emma purses her lips. “He told me the same thing he told you. I… didn’t believe him, either.”

Erik looks at her, fists clenched at his sides. He knows her. He’s known her for too long and too well to be able to hear what she isn’t saying. Charles came into the office and Emma ripped him a new one as only she can. And Erik wants to hurt her for it, but he knows that’s unfair. Emma was protecting him. If their positions were reversed, Erik would have done the same thing.

“How—” He has to stop to clear his throat. “How was he?”

Emma shrugs. “He looked like he was having it rough. I’m surprised police didn’t pick him up on his way.”

Erik closes his eyes. God, Charles. Erik can’t think of anything he possibly can do to make up for the amount of pain he caused Charles, but Emma is right, he has to try. He will spend his whole life trying if he has to.

“I will go and see him,” Erik says with more confidence than he feels. “Tomorrow.”

“Good.” Emma nods. “And what are we going to do about Shaw?”

“We?”

She narrows her eyes at him. “You know there’s no love lost between the two of us after how he treated me. I swallowed my pride because daddy dearest told me to, and because it was my own fault. Besides, I had a career to build and a reputation to establish.” She lifts her chin up. “But I hate the bastard. And you and I both know there’s enough skeletons in his closet to get his disbarred at the very least. Besides, I never liked that his name came before mine on the letterhead.”

Erik nods slowly. “This is personal for me, Emma. I won’t rest until I ground him into dust.”

“Wonderful,” Emma sighs. “Always dreamed about my very own homicidal partner.” She gives him a sharp-edged smile. “Where do we start?”

--

The calls start two days before the final shoot. Unknown number. A rather persistent unknown number. Charles glares at his phone, but remembers Logan’s advice and doesn’t pick up. He has a gut feeling this isn’t his first employer miraculously offering him his job back.

The shoot itself is bizarre more than anything. For the first time, they put Charles in actual makeup and body paint, as opposed to before when they’d just powder his face up a bit and leave it at that. Even he has to admit that his eyes look quite arresting framed in smudged eyeliner. He can hardly recognize himself. His lips are covered in something that’s called ‘Poison Cherry’, as Sandra helpfully informs him, and Charles can hear Logan’s breath actually hitch when he catches sight of him.

“Shit,” Logan mutters, dragging his thumb under Charles's bottom lip to wipe off a smudge. “This is going to be a tough one.”

Charles blinks at him innocently. It’s still a surprise to him every time he notices people affected by him. He knows he’s cute enough, but he’s never considered himself to be anything special. At best, he’s on the ‘adorable’ side of the spectrum for those who like that kind of thing—mostly the same kind of people who make ‘aww’ sounds at kittens and hatchlings, and not really much when it comes to ‘dark and sexy.’ Judging by the way Logan’s pupils dilate, Charles might need to revise that.

He steps closer, because he’s a little shit who can’t help but test that theory, and hovers well within Logan’s personal space bubble, close but not touching.

“You’ll take care of me, right?” he murmurs. “I trust you.”

Logan draws in a sharp breath and grabs Charles by the back of the neck, holding him in place. “I’ve created a monster,” he mutters, seemingly unable to look away from Charles. “Fuck you, kid. Jesus Christ. Fuck you. I knew you were trouble. I knew it.”

Charles grins and breaks character completely, by taking one last step and winding his arms around Logan, hugging him.

“Thank you,” Charles whispers. “For everything.”

Logan hugs him back, one hand grabbing a fistful of Charles's hair. “It’s not over yet. You ready?”

Charles tenses up at the reminder then consciously makes his body relax. “Let’s get this over with.”

Of the three, this shoot is the least fetish-styled of all and the most playful. They have Charles moving through the crowd, trying to provoke Logan, who ends up hauling him off the bar stool by the leather collar around his neck. They spend an inordinate amount of time shooting Charles fellating ice cubes and beer bottles all the while maintaining eye contact with the man he’s trying to seduce. It wouldn’t have worked on any other day, since Charles is a shitty actor, but it works today, perhaps slightly too well. They have Logan slam him into walls, biting down on his clavicle, holding him up, as Charles arches back, ankles locked around Logan’s waist, and he had always had this thing about being manhandled, which Erik knew only too well and Logan is now discovering. They have Logan press him into the floor, thighs spread wide, Logan’s huge hands covering his hips, so for all intents and purposes Charles does appear to be naked, but he doesn’t care, because he almost doesn’t have to act.

For the first time, he remains aware of their audience, of the crew around them, and he can feel the energy field of intense arousal spreading from the two of them, sweeping over whoever happens to stand close enough, like a potent airborne virus. Charles is breathing hard and it’s got nothing to do with Logan’s hand wrapped artistically, exerting no real pressure, around his neck. He can’t help but search out Logan’s eyes and sees the same hunger reflected there.

The anticipation in him builds up almost painfully, and he doesn’t mind the close-ups of his clearly hard dick straining the ludicrous shorts they have him wear, or his face that is, undoubtedly, flushed under all the makeup and just begging for it. He endures it all, watching all the while as Logan struggles to keep his hands off of him when Doug tells him to.

The moment Doug yells, “It’s a wrap!” Logan hauls him to his feet and drags him out of the room, ignoring everyone and everything, pushes him into a dark enclosed space somewhere, a supply closet or an office or something, presses him against the wall and kisses him. It’s a far cry from any of the kisses they’ve shared before, meant to soothe or to please. Logan licks at Charles's lips, sucking off the remainder of the lip gloss and moaning, as if actual poison hits his bloodstream. Charles is right there with him, dragging him closer, hitching his knee up, wailing into Logan’s mouth as their clothed erections rub against each other. Logan thrusts against him once, twice, hard, as though he can’t help himself, and Charles tries to climb up the wall using his back muscles alone to give him better access.

“Shit,” Logan breathes out, breaking off for barely a second, before sealing his lips over the juncture between Charles's neck and shoulder, sucking hard. “Shit, shit, shit, fuck. You’re—”

“Yes,” Charles moans. “God, yes. Please.”

“Christ,” Logan growls and rips Charles's shorts off like they’re made of paper.

Charles cries out, eyes going wide, but he doesn’t have time to process, as Logan’s hand wraps around him, smeared in glitter and that damn greasy paint they sprayed all over Charles. It was disturbing at the time, but now Charles is grateful for it, he doesn’t think he could have survived it if they had to stop.

Logan’s jerking him off too hard and too fast, bordering on painful, but Charles would kill him if he tried to slow down.

“You,” he pushes out, barely coherent, “you too. Please. You—need to—”

Logan kisses him silent, a violent, domineering, devouring kiss that Charles would fight if he wasn’t enjoying it so much. He hears the sound of the zipper going down, but Logan doesn’t let him up for air. Charles gasps into his mouth and holds on, as Logan hikes him up, wraps his hand around both of them, and starts jerking them off together, the press of him against Charles's length skin to skin almost shocking in its intimacy, which is an idiotic thing to feel, considering, but he can’t help it. Charles whines and struggles to breathe as Logan fucks him into the wall, making whatever’s hanging on the other side of it bang piteously in counterpoint.

Charles comes with a shout, throwing his head back, ignoring the pain as his skull collides with the wall, and baring his throat for Logan to sink his teeth in, sucking hard, growling as he thrusts a few more times into his clenched fist before following Charles over. His hand keeps sliding over both of them, slowing down, until they stay there, pressed against each other, covered in paint, sweat, and come, panting.

“All right?” Logan asks hoarsely and kisses Charles again, like he can’t help it.

“Yeah,” Charles breathes out, arms still wound tightly around Logan’s neck. “Yeah.”

Logan lets him down slowly, supporting his weight as much as the wall does, for which Charles is grateful. His legs feel like jelly.

“Shit,” Logan mutters, thumb pressed against Charles's lower lip. “Shit. Fuck. I’m sorry.”

“No,” Charles says, and it’s his turn to run his hands soothingly over Logan’s shoulders. “It’s all right.”

“I shouldn’t have—”

“Logan, it’s all right. I wanted it.”

“You’re a fucked up kid,” Logan groans, burying his face in Charles's shoulder. “Of course, you wanted it.”

“Oh, come now.” Charles nudges him softly, finding his feet. “You can’t tell me you regret it.”

Logan straightens up to fix him with a look. “I’ve never regretted anything less in my entire life. Doesn’t make it right.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “It’s an imperfect world.” He runs his fingers through Logan’s hair, presses a quick kiss against his lips. “I promise I won’t get hung up on you.”

Logan snorts, glancing away. “That’s not really what I’m afraid of.”

Charles grins at him. “Come on. Burgers? My treat.”

“No,” Logan growls, straightening up. “I mean, yes, but you’re not paying. You’ve got to leave me something, Charles. Can’t take it all away.”

His costume, if one can call it that, is beyond salvaging, and at this point Charles wouldn’t really care if he had to march around naked. But Logan makes him wait a minute or two before he comes back with what looks like a gym towel. Charles wraps it around his hips.

They make their way back through a surprisingly empty set. The few people who are still around aren’t really meeting their eyes. Charles doesn’t know why, but that makes him both blush and crow in silent victory.

It doesn’t occur to him until later that night, long after Logan has dropped him off at Mike’s, that he had never signed the divorce papers. Which means that technically now he has cheated on Erik. Charles doesn’t know how that makes him feel. But the toll of the day, not to mention the first orgasm he’s had in months, conspire to make him not so much fall as crush into sleep full speed, promising that he can judge himself all he wants in the morning.

--

Once upon a time, Charles Xavier was living a charmed life. It all ended when his husband suspected him of having an affair and threw him out of the house. Or so he thought. For the past couple of weeks, as Charles looks around, he wonders if whatever charm he was blessed with before was still in full effect. He has a place to live that is safe and nice and, in point of fact, sort of charming once the crates and boxes have been cleared out. The scent of coffee has permanently taken residence in every piece of clothes he owns, but he’s used to it by now, so much so that his brain automatically filters it out, though it’s fun to watch Hank unconsciously draw close, led by his nose, whenever Charles is near. He keeps his place on Moira’s team, and, now that he’s no longer spending the better part of the day wondering where he’s going to sleep tonight, he can focus on his research again, something he has missed most dearly.

And he has friends, who would have thought? Hank was actually reluctant to see him go. Now that Charles has moved out, Hank starts spending even more time at the lab, though, thankfully, Charles is spared whatever temper tantrums Kitty might throw about it. He unexpectedly bonds with Angel somewhere between her showing him how to clean and warm up the coffee machines and him tutoring her in math and biology in the evenings. She’s stubborn, expects an attack from everyone at all times, but she’s also determined and willing, little by little, to give the world a chance. She reminds Charles a lot of Raven.

The best surprise, though, is Logan, whom Charles had fully expected to disappear from his life once the videos were done, but Logan sticks around. He drops by Mike’s at odd hours to ‘get some decent coffee’ and check on Charles, which is a little bit irritating, but Charles enjoys his company so much, he doesn’t mind. Logan tells him about the other films he’s doing, tales in turn hilarious and exciting in a dark kind of way. He’s also thinking about moving back to Seattle and buying a garage in his daughter’s school district. Charles encourages that train of thought, even though he’d be loath to lose Logan’s company.

“That guy is just weird,” Angel remarks once after Logan has left. “He looks like he might knife you where you stand if you look at him wrong, but he turns into a total teddy-bear around you. I don’t know if watching him hug you is sexy or disturbing, but it’s definitely something.”

Charles only grins and shrugs. They never did revisit what happened the night after the third shoot by unspoken agreement, a decision that was clearly what they both wanted. Still. He catches Logan watching him speculatively sometimes, as though weighing him, trying to puzzle him out. Charles has always known himself to be a bit of a coward, so he pretends he doesn’t notice. Logan is his friend; he’s not ready to contemplate anything more.

It almost begins to feel like the event that was meant to be yet another catastrophe to send his life off track turned out to be only a really rough shifting of gears. He’d lost Erik in the process, but that… That he could do nothing to help.

Charles knows that not enough time has passed. He’s not so naïve, not so young emotionally in any case as to believe that he will never love again. He’s a scientist; his mind is nothing but a tribute to rationality. Statistically speaking, the possibility of him never settling down with a partner is low. At some point, that would probably happen.

But not now. He’s had enough of romance for now. He loved Erik with the intensity of first love, but also with the power of someone coming of age and recognizing a vital part of himself in another. Yes, he’ll fall in love again. Probably. At some point. Years in the future, most likely, judging by the way he’s still hurting right now. But a part of him knows even now that it will never be as deep, as profound, as absolute as the way he still loves Erik. You can have many meaningful relationships in your life. Many, many lovers. But you only meet the love of your life once, and nothing will ever come close to that high.

Charles's mind has an annoying tendency to dwell on such things, and he tries to curb it. He has to move on. The sooner he can move past the entire unfortunate affair with Erik, the better. He throws himself into his work, into his studies and tries to make his schedule as full as possible so that he doesn’t have time to think. There’s a voice at the back of his mind telling him that avoidance and denial are not the way to deal with emotional trauma, but Charles ignores them with determination worthy of a better employment. He will deal with it when it hurts less. He will. Honest. Just not right now.

For the most part, his plan of distracting himself works. He finds himself relaxing into his new routines, smiling more frequently, even laughing when Angel teases him. It feels good to laugh. He’s so completely dedicated to keeping himself busy that he fails to notice someone about to take his house of cards apart with one move until it is too late.

It’s a sunny afternoon, and it’s almost pleasant, now that spring seems to mean business at last. He’s sitting at Mike’s with Logan, chatting and joking and enjoying himself, when a shadow falls over their table blocking the light. Charles glances up reflexively, and his whole world stops.

“Hello, Charles.”

The mug he’s been lifting to his lips slips from his suddenly numb fingers and would have crashed if not for Logan’s lightning-quick reflexes. Charles can barely draw a breath.

“Erik?”

It feels like a hallucination, a snippet of a dream or a nightmare, the way everything seems to fade into the background, the way Charles can’t be certain if he’s speaking or only means to.

“What are you doing here?”

Erik's eyes drift from him to Logan, a slight frown wedges itself between his eyebrows, as his gaze shifts back.

“I came to see you. I stopped by the research center and some woman gave me your address.”

The words should make sense, but Charles is struggling. He feels as though he’s been pushed out into the vacuum of space and can’t comprehend why he isn’t dying. Or is that what it feels like?

“Charles?” Logan clears his throat. “Are you all right?”

He lays a hand on Charles's shoulder and that makes everything snap back, the familiarity of the touch grounding him. He blinks, relieved as his lungs remember how to function, and tries to compose his lips into a grateful smile. Judging by the way Logan frowns, it fails to reassure him.

“Charles,” Erik says again, and God, it’s like an electric charge through bare wire, hearing that voice say his name. “Can we talk?”

“Yeah,” Charles replies before he knows it.

He starts to get up, but before he can, Logan grabs his wrist, eyes narrowed, darting suspiciously between Charles and Erik.

“Charles, are you sure you’re—”

“I’m fine, Logan,” Charles replies, strangely calm, and he shifts his hand to squeeze Logan’s. “It’s all right. I’ll be right back.”

When he looks up, Erik's eyes are narrowed as he stares at Logan, an expression only too familiar for Charles to be left in any doubt. Back when they were dating, that was the exact look Erik leveled at whichever customer Charles happened to smile at while working the bar. Later, after they moved in together, that look meant an evening spent listening to Erik's grumbling and pressuring Charles to quit and a night of sex that was rougher than usual. Back in the day, Charles enjoyed it.

Now, he freezes for a moment, seized by a strange kind of fear, but Erik does nothing. Says nothing. Just steps aside to let Charles walk past him.

Pushing the doors and stepping out into the street feels like leaving some sort of sanctuary. Charles squares his shoulders and lifts his chin up as he walks further onto a grassy patch, away from traffic. Erik's presence is a tight pressure against his skin, tantalizing and threatening.

“Well?” Charles prompts after they’ve stopped, and Erik seems reluctant to say anything. “You wanted to talk, Erik. Which is funny, really, because I wanted to talk to you every day since that night, but you didn’t seem interested. Did you just realize you forgot to tell me something? Is this about the divorce papers I didn’t sign?”

“No,” Erik's reply comes so forcefully, it makes him take a step forward. “No, Charles, I’m—I’m glad you didn’t.”

Charles stops short, confused. “What.”

“I… listen, there’s no other way for me to say it. I know how this is going to sound, but I’m begging you, hear me out.”

Begging? Charles can’t help his eyebrows arching in astonishment. What is going on?

“I’m sorry,” Erik says, and it comes out like a sob. “I’m so, so sorry. I was wrong. Charles, I made a terrible mistake. I know—I know you didn’t cheat on me. I know you never betrayed me. I’m so sorry.”

Charles staggers back a little at the words, groping around blindly, until he can feel a tree trunk under his fingers. He leans on it for support without meaning to. Erik makes a pained sound, watching him, eyes so full of guilt it’s hard to look at him. Words begin pouring out, washing over Charles like a tropical torrent.

He listens as Erik tells him hurriedly about Shaw and how he’d never liked Charles, not even the idea of him. About him hiring a lookalike through a casting agency and staging a scene. About Shaw’s PI following Charles around for a few days to make certain that every detail was right. Charles, like every goddamn millennial, keeping his credit card information on his phone and then leaving it to lie around where anyone with a suitable tech could clone it. Charles listens as Erik stumbles through his discovery and an investigation, and how he knew, how he could never reconcile what he knew of Charles with what he supposedly had done, but didn’t believe his own gut, didn’t trust his instincts when it came to Charles, because love changes everything.

As the shock of Erik's sudden appearance slowly fades, Charles takes a good look at him now, and is horrified at what he sees. Erik has lost weight; his cheekbones stand out so sharply it’s scary; his coat hangs around him like a deflated skin of a dragon. He’s still dressed impeccably, but he looks haunted, fragile somehow, and Charles feels the strongest urge to reach out, to run his fingers soothingly over the deep shadows under Erik's eyes.

He doesn’t. He feels odd, suspended in time somehow. He’s dreamed about this. Ever since that night, he’s dreamed about exactly this, and could never stop. Dreamed of Erik realizing his error. Coming to his senses. Coming to find Charles, to ask him to come back. The dreams had different endings, depending on the day. Some days, Charles released all his pent-up anger and lashed out, eviscerating Erik with his words and slamming the door in his face. Other times, Charles sank gratefully into his arms, uncaring about his pride as long as they could be together. And now…

He’s numb. He doesn’t feel anything. He’s been waiting for this exact moment, this precise scenario for so long, but now that it’s finally here, Charles feels—nothing. No relief. No vindication. No anger. He’s tired, he realizes. He’s just so very, very tired.

“Charles?” Erik's tone is prodding carefully, eyes pleading with him. “Won’t you say something?”

Charles realizes he should, but there’s nothing he can think of. “What is there to say?” he asks.

Erik flinches. “Look, I know, it’s not an easy thing to forgive. I know I should have stood by you, and I didn’t. I’m not offering excuses—I know nothing can excuse that. What I did was unforgivable.”

One emotion does cut suddenly through the wall of numbness, and it’s an unexpected one. Irritation. Charles rolls his eyes.

“Oh, please. Must you be so melodramatic? Self-flagellation is so not your style.”

Erik blinks. “Charles?”

“Nothing can excuse that? Really? Shaw was your mentor, Erik. No, forget that. Your idol. He was the man who made you into what you are—or at least that’s what he had you believe. He’s wrong, of course. No one can ‘make you.’ Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve accomplished—it’s on you. You did it. You made yourself into the man you are today. But it’s convenient for him to have you believe otherwise. He was your mentor. The closest thing you had to family all these years. Of course you would believe him. Of course, you would take his word, backed up with proof no less, over the word of a boy you’ve known for less than a year, whom you picked up at a bar one night when you were bored, and whose only verifiable credentials are in cocksucking. Of course, you believed him over me. It’s only natural. It’s human. And I’ve got news for you, Erik. You might consider yourself to be above it all, but, for every glamorous thing that you are, you’re still only human. So stop blaming yourself for acting like it.”

The last words are very nearly a shout, and Charles catches himself breathing heavily. He’s angry. God, he didn’t realize until this very moment just how angry he’s been this whole time underneath the hurt and the fear.

Erik is staring at him, eyes feverishly bright, mouth open slightly in shock or anguish, Charles doesn’t know.

“Charles, you—you can’t just forgive me like that.”

“Of course, I don’t,” Charles snaps, surprising himself by stepping closer. “I’m human, too, Erik. You have no idea what you’ve made me go through. And I know it’s not entirely your fault. I know I should have never let you take over my life so completely that you could destroy it in a fit of temper. That’s on me, I know that. But it doesn’t make what you did hurt any less.”

“I’m sorry,” Erik whispers, a single tear spilling from the corner of his eye.

The sight cuts something deep and vital inside Charles, and he spins around, blinking through the sea of red, enraged beyond what he can ever remember feeling.

“Stop,” he hisses. “Stop. Just stop.”

Erik doesn’t move, doesn’t seem to breathe, frozen beside him. Charles forces himself to take a few steadying breaths, concentrating on nothing but his inhales and exhales until the red haze recedes, leaving him wound up tight and exhausted.

“Do you know why I didn’t sign the papers?” he asks quietly. Not waiting for an answer, he shakes his head. “It wasn’t because I hoped you and I could get back together. I didn’t know you would find out the truth, but I knew that wasn’t possible anyway. But I—I spent so much time trying to get you to talk to me that when I got them, I thought: ‘He’ll have to now. If I don’t sign them, sooner or later he’ll have to come and see me.’ I just wanted to look you in the eye one last time.”

Wind tugs at his hair, too fresh to be comforting. Charles rolls his shoulders in an unconscious bid to loosen them.

“Well, now I got my wish,” he sighs as he turns around.

It takes a lot of willpower just then not to react visibly, because Erik looks—destroyed. Absolutely, completely devastated. And Charles's first instinct is still, still, goddamn it, to reach out and sooth. In the end, he doesn’t fight it, reaches out and places a hand gently on Erik's arm. Erik flinches as if burned.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Charles says, smiling sadly. “I know it’s tempting. I don’t. I don’t blame you, Erik. You—you only acted like the man you are. I’m mad, because I knew you, but I still expected you to act like someone else. And much as I’d like it to be otherwise, to make you a proper villain so that I could hate you, that’s not on you. That’s on me. You can’t help being who you are. And I should have known better.”

He starts edging around Erik to go back inside before he falls into a million pieces all over again, but Erik grabs his arm, reels him in. Charles's heart sinks treacherously as he looks up, close, so close he can feel Erik's scent, so dearly missed.

“I don’t deserve you,” Erik half-whispers, half-growls, holding his eyes. “I never did, and certainly not after what I’ve done. But, Charles, I can be the man you need me to be. I failed you once. Never again. I will spend the rest of my life proving it to you.”

It’s unfair how much Charles wants to just accept that and give in. He nearly whimpers with how much he wants to. His calm demeanor breaks, and he can feel tears welling up dangerously in his eyes. He pulls back, hurried, uncoordinated, but forces himself to meet Erik's gaze.

“You should be your own man, Erik. You should be what you need you to be. No one else.”

With that, he spins on his heel and all but runs back toward the café, as panic sets in, and tears start falling, unchecked, against his will, down his face.

“Charles, wait!”

Charles stops abruptly, stumbling, but doesn’t turn around. He hates how his voice shakes when he says over his shoulder, “I’ll sign the papers, Erik, and I’ll—I’ll send them over to you. Goodbye.”

He rushes in, running straight up the stairs, ignoring Angel’s concerned look and Logan calling his name. He slams the door of his cramped little room shut and collapses against it, praying for the entire universe to just stop and go away.

--

Chapter Text

--

Charles doesn’t think this would happen. To be fair, he doesn’t give it much thought after Erik's visit. After turning his phone off—Angel, Logan, Hank, and that annoying unknown number—he spends a restless night being alternately angry and indescribably sad, consumed by grief at the loss he never allowed himself to fully feel before. At long last, the numbness of exhaustion wins, and he drifts off in dreamless sleep for a couple of short hours.

In the morning, the numbness is gone. He wakes up groggy, his entire body aching and decidedly present. He imagines this is what it would feel like if he was in a car accident the night before and was only now becoming familiar with his injuries after the shock had faded. This whole time, all those months, he existed in some sort of suspended animation, but it’s gone now. He’s present and he’s hurting, but it feels better somehow. The sort of pain body goes through as it begins to heal.

He goes through his day as usual, apologizes to Logan via text, but begs off from going out for drinks. He doesn’t intend to hide, but he can have one night to himself, surely. He spends an afternoon grading mind-numbingly boring freshmen papers and amuses himself by scribbling sarcastic comments on most of them. He discusses the design for the next round of experiments with Hank, but runs off before they can slide into one of their never-ending discussions. He spends the night alone, which curiously doesn’t feel so bad. He can do this.

The point is, he’s not expecting anything from Erik, which in retrospect is rather shortsighted of him. Erik has never shown the slightest inclination to let go of anything for as long as Charles has known him.

“There’s a box here for you,” Angel calls out to him, when Charles walks into Mike’s the next afternoon, having survived supervising a lab and not killing anyone.

He looks over and sees a huge box pushed against the back wall. It doesn’t quite go with the décor.

“What is that?” he asks.

Angel shrugs. “No idea. A delivery service dropped it off just after you left. It took two of them to move it, and they didn’t look happy, so my guess is, it’s heavy.”

Charles's first thought, absurdly enough, is about lab equipment delivered here by mistake, but within a second he remembers that Moira had taken him off requisitions when she cut his lab hours. He frowns as he cuts through the seal.

Books. His books, to be precise. Packed in neat, careful stacks as though they were fragile. On the very top, fixed securely, is the Darwin his father had given him before Charles could even remember the man. On top of it is a white envelope, and Charles feels his heart jump out of rhythm as he reaches for it. Inside, he finds a note with a cell phone number and a single line.

We still need to talk.

Charles draws in a shaky breath, staring at the note, the Darwin clutched to his chest. He thought he’d lost the book just as he’d lost Erik, and this… God, will this never stop? What more could Erik possibly be wanting? Charles could barely pull himself together after the last time. How much more will be required of him to endure? Doesn’t Erik understand how painful it is for Charles to see him? Doesn’t he get it? Is it too much after everything to ask for some compassion? Some tact?

He cringes at his own thoughts. Erik is a lot of things, but tactful has never been one of them. Maybe he’s right. They need to settle things once and for all, and Erik's apology, appreciated as it was, had stirred so many emotions, it was impossible to do so just then. Charles can give him the papers in person now. As soon as he signs them.

He purses his lips and pulls his phone out. Quickly, before he can talk himself out of it, he punches in the new number and types:

Come by tomorrow at four. If that’s convenient.

He hits ‘Send’ and immediately berates himself for that little addendum. He should be mad at Erik. He shouldn’t care if it’s convenient for him or not. Why is it that out of all the things his mother tried to teach him, manners were the only thing that stuck? He could really use some of her detachment and self-absorption right about now.

His phone vibrates before he can follow that happy train of thought to the end.

I’ll be there.

Then, a second later:

Thank you.

Charles closes his eyes. What on earth is he doing?

That night, he finally drags the divorce papers out and stares at them. Erik's signature is neat and precise at the bottom of each page, mocking. Why hasn’t Charles signed them still? What he told Erik was the truth, just not all of it. When Charles had first received the package, he still thought that if he could only talk to Erik one more time, if he could find better words maybe, then Erik would have to believe him, Charles would finally convince him.

But that was before. Charles had lost all hope for that weeks and weeks ago. He harbored no illusions that he and Erik could ever be together. Between the video shoots and trying to figure out his living arrangements, signing the damn things had completely slipped his mind. At least, that’s what he’s been telling himself.

Why can’t he sign them still?

He pulls a pen out, uncaps it, sets his hand over the paper. There’s no reason not to. It’s over. It’s been over ever since that night. Yes, he still loves Erik. Yes, he will probably always love Erik. But that doesn’t change anything. Even Erik believing him at last doesn’t.

It’s not even about forgiveness. Charles hasn’t yet, but he knows he’s well on his way to forgive Erik. He’ll arrive there soon enough. His mind already has, and his heart will follow as soon as the pain abates a little. But forgiving isn’t enough. The problem with Erik is that Charles can never trust him again. Not because Erik isn’t trustworthy, but because the very thought of putting himself in that position again is making Charles's insides curl in on themselves. And there is nothing Erik can do to help it, even if he seems eager to now.

Just do it. Just set the damn pen to paper and do it. You’re not making it any better by prolonging this. Just get it done.

A pained gasp falls from his lips as he presses the pen against the paper almost hard enough to rip it and forces his hand to move. A couple of habitual, unconscious movements, and ink sinks into the white, cementing his will. He grits his teeth and makes himself go through it as many times as he has to until it’s done.

His marriage is over. His mind can’t really comprehend it. Even after everything, it feels like two different, completely separate layers of reality—him living in a storage room and starring in softcore porn and actually ending his marriage. He can’t tell which layer feels more real to him. The papers, he decides in the end. By simple virtue of hurting more.

The next day, he goes through his routine as usual, reminding himself every other minute that this day is just like any other. He’s so forcefully cheerful during the lab he’s TA-ing that one of the students asks her partner in a loud theatrical whisper if he thinks Charles is on drugs. Hank keeps talking to him until he realizes that Charles retains nothing he says, then sets him up with paperwork. Charles makes a mental reminder to thank him later. By the time he comes back to Mike’s he’s so jittery he’s bouncing off the ground.

Erik is already there, sitting at a table by the window, reading what looks like a work file. By the half-empty cup pushed to the side on the table, he’s been here a while. Charles lingers, not at all ready for this, but there’s nothing for it. And to think that a few short months ago, he’d be looking at the same man and would be overwhelmed by feelings of love, joy, and safety.

Erik glances up as Charles approaches and immediately gets to his feet.

“Charles. Thank you for seeing me.”

He looks different, Charles notes with a slight note of hysteria. It’s true though. How such a profound change could have happened within a mere day is astonishing, but Erik looks worlds better now. He’s still noticeably thinner than before, but the feverish, anxious light in his eyes is gone, and they are no longer drowning in dark circles. He seems relaxed, confident, as though—oh. As though preparing to start one of his business meetings.

Charles sits down slowly, putting his messenger bag on the floor. It feels unfair somehow that Erik gets to be so cool and collected, while Charles is one wrong breath away from the tipping point.

“Coffee?” Erik asks and waves at Angel before Charles can reply. “Something to eat?”

Charles blinks. “I’m fine. What did you want to see me about?”

Erik folds his hands over the table, eyes intent on Charles, taking him in. Charles suppresses the urge to squirm.

“How have you been?” Erik asks with strange softness, catching Charles off guard.

Charles can’t help the way his eyebrows arch. “How have I been? I’ve been fantastic, Erik. How do you think? Being one step away from checking into a homeless shelter or seeing the people you respect give you handouts so that you could have a proper meal every once in a while is so refreshing.”

Erik winces, and Charles regrets his words immediately. He feels more humiliated now, not less. Erik opens his mouth, but, fortunately, at that moment Angel arrives with two steaming mugs. She sets one in front of Charles without so much as looking at him, but the one she puts before Erik she drives into the table so hard the content spills, scolding hot coffee splashing over and directly onto his crotch.

“Oops,” Angel says insincerely, while Erik hisses, jerking back. “Sorry, my hand slipped.”

“Quite all right,” Erik replies through gritted teeth as he glares at her, half anger, half respect.

Angel looks at Charles, who wants nothing more than for the Earth to swallow him at that moment, tips her chin up unrepentantly, and marches away, hips swinging.

“I’m sorry about that,” Charles forces himself to say, too shamefaced to look at Erik. “She is a little protective.”

“She is magnificent,” Erik says, watching Angel go. His eyes drift back to Charles, his expression sobers. “Charles, I’m sorry. Everything you had to suffer is my fault, and I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. When I told you to leave, I was hurt, and I thought—well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. I was wrong. And I owe you another apology for that.”

Charles shrugs, glancing away. He never realized how uncomfortable receiving an apology would make him feel, even when it was deserved.

“It doesn’t matter,” he mutters. “I’m fine now.”

“Are you? How are you paying for school?”

Charles looks up, cheeks reddening. “I’ll figure it out.”

Erik nods. “I’m sure you will.” He reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulls out a slip of paper. “You could use this.”

Automatically, Charles takes it. He unfolds the note and looks at it. Blinks. Stares.

“Erik,” his voice has gone hoarse. “This is a cheque for five hundred thousand dollars.”

Erik nods again. “By my estimation, this should cover tuition. And you’re a little too big to be living in a broom closet. And, um. You’ll need to replace your things.”

The ruefulness of his words cuts through the shock for a brief moment.

“What did you do with them?” Charles asks, morbid amusement bubbling up in his chest. “Burn them?”

Erik grimaces. “Salvation Army.”

Charles huffs out a laugh, despite himself. “You were mad.”

The corner of Erik's mouth jerks in embarrassed agreement.

The weight of the paper in his hand is suddenly too heavy, and the amusement fades as quickly as it has surfaced. Charles hands the cheque back.

“I can’t accept that.”

Erik looks up, gaze intense and focused. “Of course, you can.”

“Erik—” Charles bites his lip, holding back anger. “You can’t just buy it all away. Giving me money won’t change what happened.”

“I know that. And I’m not trying to buy you off, this is… Charles, I know I can’t buy your forgiveness. I swear that’s not what this is.”

“What is it then?”

“I just… Look, you’re the wronged party here. I’m just trying to make amends. To set some things right. I know I can’t erase what I did, but you’re in this situation because of me.”

“I’m not though.”

“Of course, you are. I made you move in with me. I made you quit your job. And I—I kicked you out. It’s all my fault.”

“You’re so arrogant, I’m amazed your ego doesn’t weigh you down,” Charles snaps, rapidly losing control of himself. “I got myself into this situation, Erik. I’m not a child. You didn’t coerce me. You didn’t make me move in, I agreed to it. I quit my job of my own free will.”

“That’s not even remotely true—I pressured you and—”

“And I could have said no. You don’t have mind controlling powers. I walked into this with my eyes wide open. I just never thought—” He cuts himself off with an effort, tries to draw in a calming breath. “I don’t need your money, Erik.”

“But I owe you.” Erik's control is visibly slipping, too, as he leans forward, nearly drowning his tie in his untouched coffee. “Charles, if you were a client, if you came to our firm and let Az handle your divorce, with everything I’ve done, he’d be able to take me for everything I’ve got. And I would give it to you, too, if I had the slightest hope you’d take it. Dammit, you don’t even need Az. Any half-competent divorce attorney would do, story like yours. If you sued me—”

“You think I want to sue you? You’re out of your mind.”

“I just want you to get some measure of justice out of all of this,” Erik says, half-pleading, half-demanding. “I can’t do anything about—about all the pain I caused you. But I can take care of your needs as you deserve.”

“I don’t need you to!” Charles snaps, rising up to his feet so abruptly, he nearly upends the table. “This is how I got into this situation in the first place. I might be slow, but I’m not repeating my mistakes, Erik. I don’t need you to take care of me. I can take care of myself. Here.” He bends over and digs through his messenger bag, pulling out a folder with hands shaky from anger. He slaps the file on the table with enough force to make the mugs jump. “I signed it. You’re free. I’m free. Let’s never do this again.”

Erik jerks back, going white, as he stares at the papers as though Charles has set a bundle of poisonous snakes in front of him.

“Charles—”

Charles drops the cheque on top of them, leans forward.

“Thank you for sending over my books. I don’t need anything else from you. Have a nice life, Erik.”

He turns to go, barely holding himself together, but Erik grabs his wrist, halting him.

“That’s not fair,” he says, rising up as well, and oh, how much Charles didn’t need that, the familiar sensation of being enveloped in Erik's aura, surrounded by his very presence. “It’s not fair to you. You didn’t deserve that. That’s not me trying to get back into your good graces, that’s just common sense. You need to stay in school. You want that more than anything. God knows, I’ve ruined enough, don’t let me ruin this, too, Charles. I’d never forgive myself.”

“Well,” Charles drawls, breathing hard. “That’s not exactly my problem, is it?”

Erik's grip tightens. “Don’t be a fool.”

“No, not again,” Charles agrees through clenched teeth. “Let me go, Erik.”

For a moment, it doesn’t seem as though Erik would comply, so Charles looks up at him, and with viciousness he didn’t know he possessed, says: “Haven’t you hurt me enough?”

Erik reels back as if slapped, jerking his hand back, face white. “I’m sorry.”

Charles stares at him a moment longer, hanging on the precipice. Last time, he thinks. This is the last time I will ever see him.

“I think we’re done here,” he says softly, hating himself for the way his eyes prickle. “Goodbye, Erik.” He pauses, takes a deeper breath. “For what it’s worth… I know it’s not your fault, and I hope. I hope you’re happy. Some day.”

Erik doesn’t stop him from leaving this time, but Charles can feel his eyes on his back as he takes the stairs two steps at a time.

--

“How did it go?” Emma asks sotto voce, attaching herself to Erik the moment he walks into the office. She takes care to look extra pissed with him and it seems to be working, seeing as people are all but jumping out of their way.

“Not well,” Erik replies, barely moving his lips.

“He didn’t take it?”

“I didn’t expect he would.” He didn’t, not if he’s honest. He still hoped, though, foolishly perhaps. It wasn’t even selfish. Erik doesn’t deserve to be let off easy right now, and he’s fine with that, but he wishes Charles didn’t have to drive the point home at his own expense. “He signed the papers.”

“Oh,” Emma breathes out and actually touches his elbow. “Are you okay?”

“Of course, I’m okay.” Erik frowns. “I’m not filing them.”

“What?” Emma’s grip tightens. “Erik… that’s illegal, you do realize?”

“I don’t care. I’ll file them when he agrees to take the money. Or—” He cuts himself off, but it’s too late.

“Or when he takes you back?” Emma sighs, following him into his office. “Erik—”

“Don’t.” He glares at her. “I know.”

Charles will forgive him eventually, of that Erik has no doubt. It’s got nothing to do with him and everything with the kind of person Charles is. He would probably forgive Hitler, given enough time. His capacity for compassion is a freak of nature, considering the way life has been treating him so far. A fatal character flaw or his greatest strength, depending on how one wants to look at it.

But forgiving Erik isn’t the same as wanting to get back together. Charles had forgiven his mother and stepfather, after all, but was in no hurry to repair that relationship. Forgiveness for him is a form of self-maintenance, something he does for himself because that’s how he needs to be in order to function. Taking Erik back is quite a different story, and Charles, for all of his Dalai Lama-ish tendencies, is neither an idiot nor a masochist.

There is a very distinct possibility that Charles will never come back to him. Erik accepts that. He deserves that, in all honesty. But it doesn’t mean he should stop trying to make amends.

“So what’s your plan?” Emma asks. “I’ve noticed Pyro has been putting in some overtime, unrelated to our hostile takeover.”

Erik lifts an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Shaw didn’t exactly force him to do this, he volunteered. He can either make up for it by working for me off the books or go to jail for all the shit he’s pulled over the years that I kept track of.”

“You sure he won’t run to Shaw?”

“Not with what I have on him, he won’t.”

Emma considers him. “I can’t decide if you’re being romantic or creepy. You won’t turn into one of those men who believe that if they buy you dinner you have to suck their dick?”

Erik glowers at her. “Have you ever known me to be that kind of asshole?”

Emma pauses, obviously just to rattle him. “No,” she concedes. “But, knowing you, you’d go all in, and there’s still no guarantee that Charles would give you so much as a coffee date for your trouble. Are you prepared to face that?”

Erik scowls. “I wasn’t trying to buy him back, Emma. But I had a rather detrimental effect on his life, so forgive me if I want to fix it. Whether Charles would want to come back to me is entirely up to Charles. I won’t hold it against him if he doesn’t.” He glances away. “I won’t hold anything he does or doesn’t do against him.”

“You really do love him,” Emma says after a thoughtful beat. “Huh. This isn’t just ego, is it? Nor a midlife crisis. You actually do seriously love that boy.”

Erik says nothing. What is there to say? He won’t give Emma the satisfaction of squirming, and she certainly doesn’t need his confirmation. His eyes narrow suddenly as he catches a glimpse of a familiar imposing figure gliding through the corridors, still some distance away.

“Shit,” he hisses. “Shaw. He’s early.”

To her credit, Emma doesn’t turn around to look. “You’re ready for this?”

“Ready for what?” Erik frowns, still trying desperately to improvise a cover.

Emma solves the dilemma by slapping him hard across the face just as Shaw steps through the door of Erik's office. Her timing is so perfect it’s practically supernatural.

“Woah,” Shaw says, eyes glinting in amusement. “What’s this about then? I thought I told you two to play nice?”

Emma ignores him, glowering at Erik. “Never go near any of my clients ever again, Lehnsherr. You hear me? Or next time it’ll be your balls.”

With that, she spins on her heel and marches out of his office, Shaw giving her an exaggerated wide berth. He smirks at Erik.

“Trouble in paradise?”

“What paradise?” Erik scoffs, pressing a careful hand to his face and wincing. Emma didn’t pull her punch, not even a little bit. “When has it ever been that with Emma? She’s psychotic.”

“You never did get along,” Shaw muses. “I think if you appreciated the female form the way I do, you’d be more tolerant of dear Emma. She’s quite spectacular in certain light and definitely has her uses.”

Erik doesn’t have to feign his disgust, even though it’s with Shaw, not with Emma. “She’s a raging bitch. And I didn’t go for her clients—Randolf approached me. What was I supposed to do?”

“Keep him in the firm, I hope?” Shaw asks, frowning.

“You know I did.”

“Good. I expect nothing less. Don’t worry, I’ll handle Emma. She’s less hormonal when she has it fucked out of her.”

Erik turns away, ostensibly to go back to his desk, but in reality, it’s turn away or clock Shaw right there. He’s barely holding himself together as it is. Erik could murder him for what he did to Charles. Probably would have tried, if Emma didn’t stop him.

‘You want to hit him where it hurts, sugar? Hit him in his law firm. That’s the only thing dear Sebastian has ever cared about. That, and his starling reputation.’

And so they forged a plan. Erik knows that Emma isn’t helping him out of the kindness of her heart. Even if he bought the tale that she feels somewhat complicit in what happened to Charles, that would barely make the icing on the cake. She has her own agenda, but Erik couldn’t care less. He feels that he has had quite enough of the power quest. Once upon a time, all he wanted to do with his legal career was fight for social justice. Perhaps he could finally do it now. But he would see Shaw go down in flames first.

It’s easier than one would have expected. Shaw is by far not an idiot, but his arrogance has always been his biggest weakness and he’s gone unchallenged for so many years that by now it’s a huge ugly blind spot. He is convinced, and Emma has been carefully bolstering up that conviction, that he had broken Emma years ago when he had slept with her and coached her to betray her father in the name of love and then laughed in her face when all was said and done. It didn’t occur to him that Emma was biding her time.

As for Erik, for a number of years when he was fresh out of law school, he had done any number of things Shaw had asked of him that weren’t morally ambiguous so much as just short of blatantly illegal. Erik was a perfect soldier, performing on command, eager to pay his debt. If Shaw chose to interpret that as lack of independent ambition, Erik was smart enough not to dissuade him.

Shaw had always been a firm believer in the ‘divide and conquer’ principle of running business and maintained a highly competitive atmosphere within the firm that was far more reminiscent of ‘survival of the fittest’ than of anything remotely healthy. Convincing him now that that competitiveness between Erik and Emma has taken a turn for the deadly isn’t a hardship. It leaves Erik free to quietly go after Shaw’s clients, while Emma convinces Shaw to get rid of Erik, and both of them work on the other partners.

Erik scores an early victory by flipping Pyro, who turns into a well of valuable information.

‘Fuck,’ Emma says with feeling as they look through the paper trail of judicial bribes and witness manipulation that Shaw tried to bury long before Erik started with the firm. ‘I knew he wasn’t exactly playing by the Olympic rules, but this… I can’t believe he got away with it.’

‘Well,’ Erik says, sorting the papers mentally into a neat little parcel to be delivered to the FBI at an opportune moment. ‘He didn’t.’

Erik lets Shaw prattle on about yet another underhanded scheme to use against their opposite number in the upcoming trial, as he wonders what Charles would say if Erik brought him Shaw’s head on the platter. Metaphorically speaking, of course. He can see it so clearly. Charles looking up at him with that strange expression he got sometimes, when he knew Erik wouldn’t get it and wasn’t even mad, just disappointed in him that little bit more.

Erik used to think it was because Charles was twenty-fucking-one years old, idealistic and naïve, with no conception of how the world was really run, but lately… Lately, Erik's been thinking that Charles wasn’t naïve so much as wise. The kind of wisdom most people get on the far side of sixty at best, if they’re lucky.

Erik would tell him gleefully about yet another win, another fortune won, another opponent destroyed in court, and Charles would squint at him and ask quietly, ‘Does it make you happy?’ in that genuinely inquisitive tone of his, like he couldn’t be sure until Erik told him. ‘Of course, it does,’ Erik would snap, irritated. Winning made him happy, of course, it did. Didn’t it? He hated when a single naïve question from his clueless fucking boyfriend would prompt him to examine his emotions of all things, but before he would work himself into a tantrum, Charles would beam at him sunnily and open his arms. ‘Good. Then I’m happy for you.’

Erik would hug him, of course he would, but, after Charles would be done congratulating him with sex and doze off after a job well done, Erik would stare at the ceiling for hours, scowling, unable to convince himself that he was, in fact, happy and unable to believe that he wasn’t. Damn you, Charles, he’d think, bitter and resentful, on the verge of actual proper anger. But then Charles, oblivious, would snuggle in close to him, leeching his body heat, trusting, defenseless, and vulnerable in Erik's arms, in his bed, in his life, and Erik—Erik would curse himself most fervently and give in, letting another bit of humanity resurface and settle.

Shaw invested in his campaign to get rid of Charles because he thought Charles was making Erik weak. Erik wants to laugh at the thought. It was so much worse than that. Charles wasn’t making him weak. Charles was keeping him human. Far more detrimental and devastating for the kind of life Shaw had designed for him.

“Erik.” Shaw snaps his fingers in front of his face, and Erik barely restrains the urge to rip his arm off. “Are you listening to me?”

“You’re not saying anything worth hearing,” Erik retorts, enjoying the scowl on Shaw’s face.

Setting Erik up as the traitor was a strategic decision. There was no way Erik could spend his days side by side with Shaw at the office and keep on the charade of a respectful mentee. Not after knowing what he knew now. This way at least he didn’t have to pretend to worship Shaw as he once had.

Shaw frowns. “You know, my boy, I’m starting to get tired of your attitude. Do something about it, before I lose my patience.”

‘Die before I lose mine,’ Erik thinks even as he apologizes out loud. Honestly, most days it’s only the thought that Charles would be so disappointed in him that stays his hand.

--

All things considered, Charles thinks he’s on the fast track when it comes to grieving the death of his relationship with Erik. He’s worked past denial and numbness, had an angry outburst or two, right on schedule, moved to the intellectual bargaining or at least intellectual acceptance of Erik's actions and the reasons behind them. Depression should come next, and Charles tries to prime himself for it, but that’s where he hits a snag.

The notion that he’s never going to see Erik again, or, if he does, it would be as strangers, refuses to sink in. So instead of feeling sad and apathetic, he keeps sliding back to anger. That was all? An apology and an offer to pay his bills was all Erik had in him? Charles was worth so little to him that he’d just give up like that?

The thoughts are illogical and contradictory, and Charles knows it. The very idea that Erik would try something else, wouldn’t just leave him be makes him feel ill. He doesn’t want that. He wants to make a clean break now that they are truly and properly broken. And yet…

“I could take your mind off it,” Logan offers, a week in, watching Charles sulk. “Get you out of your head for a few hours. Could do you good.”

Charles looks at him. There’s not a single doubt in his mind what Logan means. Charles has been to his apartment a few times, after all, and, while the bedroom and the living space décor seem somewhat lacking, there is another room there, too. He’s only ever caught a glimpse of it once, but it’s not at all debatable if Logan takes his lifestyle, for lack of a better word, seriously.

It could be good, too. If only in the sense Logan is suggesting—to transport Charles out of his own mind, to save him from his obsessive thoughts running on a never-ending loop. He trusts Logan. It could work. If nothing else, it could definitely serve its purpose.

But there’s something in the way Logan is looking at him that gives Charles pause. Something about how perfectly casual and off-hand he’s being as he makes the offer. Something that remains inarticulate, but that makes Charles think he’d be losing a friend one way or the other.

It’s flattering, but also disconcerting. First Erik, then Logan, and that mysterious client who took one look at Charles's photoshoot and paid an obscene amount of money for more. Charles is beginning to feel as though there’s something here he’s not getting. Some kind of trick he hasn’t cottoned on to. He’s cute. He’s not that cute. It’s got to be something else. There is something in him that these men are seeing that is, most likely, not there. Erik's attention had felt like slipping into a fairytale. A one-time strike of good fortune. Now—now Charles is feeling like an impostor, as though he’s giving out some kind of vibe by accident and he has nothing to back it up with.

He’s already disappointed Erik. Clearly, whatever spell Charles had over him, is broken well and good now. Erik tried to do right by him, to make up for his wrongs, but apart from that he seemed to have gotten over Charles. And while Charles isn’t at all ready to start anything new, not when he’s still so hopelessly in love with Erik, not when he still wakes up at night in tears from missing him, he doesn’t want to lose Logan as well.

So instead he grins, cocks his head with more brazenness than he feels, and asks, “Couldn’t you get me drunk instead?”

Logan frowns and Charles doesn’t blame him. That would be a joyless task.

“I could, but a hangover would solve nothing. Don’t you have that thing you need to get ready for?”

That thing, yes, meaning the presentation he’s supposed to make on the team’s behalf to the university board. Moira will be out of the country, but Charles still doesn’t have the first idea of why she asked him of all people to present a status report. Regardless of what he actually does, in the chain of command Charles ranks slightly above the janitor. Even Hank has more seniority, and he pointed that out to Moira at least four times. When he attempted a fifth, she snapped that her decision was final and glared at him until he got the hell out of her office.

“I do,” Charles groans. As he gets up to go though, he places a hand on Logan’s shoulder. “Thanks for the offer.”

Logan grips his wrist. “Any time you change your mind. Let me know and I’ll clear my schedule.”

Charles nods, cheeks flushed, and leaves.

The presentation at least keeps him busy enough for the next few days that he has no time—save for the dead of night, of course—to dwell on Erik. What was supposed to be a completely routine status report—or what would have been routine had Moira not sent Charles in her place—turns within the first ten minutes into an interrogation, with the assorted professors questioning Charles's qualification. He knew he was courting trouble. Sending a boy who hasn’t completed his degree yet is a blatant insult, a slap Moira seems to have delivered with no provocation. Of course, her esteemed colleagues feel offended. Charles knew they would find a way to take that out on him, but he never suspected it would be like that.

He fends question after question, getting steadily hotter under the collar in the literal sense even. He hadn’t experienced that kind of grilling even during his finals. He tries to be cool and polite about it, but loses that battle roughly around the time Professor McGee all but calls him an imbecile after discovering that it was Charles, in fact, who designed the new experiment grid.

“With all due respect, sir, Professor MacTaggert would never have approved this plan had I failed to convince her of its efficacy,” he bristles. “If you have an hour to spare, I might even convince you after you become an expert in genetic engineering.”

“Are you telling me you’re an expert, Mr. Xavier? When did you become one? Overnight?”

Charles narrows his eyes. “I would be happy to answer any of your questions in great detail at any time, sir. Perhaps once we’re past the molecular mechanisms of prokaryotic gene regulation and have discussed the RNA interference, the mechanisms of mutation would be easier to trace.”

“All right, all right,” Professor Haynes interrupts hurriedly, glancing at McGee’s purple face with some alarm. “You’ve made your point, Xavier, now for heaven’s sake, get on with it. We don’t have all day.”

Charles lifts his chin up defiantly, but forces his lips into a smile. “Yes, sir. As I was saying—”

When he steps out of the auditorium, he’s not at all steady on his feet and his shirt is soaked through under his jacket, but the vote has been unanimous in favor of more funding. Hank catches up with him in the corridor, staring at Charles with wide eyes.

“You,” he breathes out, unable to articulate.

Charles gives him a nervous smile. “It wasn’t too bad, was it?”

“Bad? Charles… that was brilliant. I never would have been able to—you have a pair on you.” Hank claps his shoulder, making Charles almost lose his balance again.

“I’m a dead man walking though, aren’t I?” He grins, even as he drops his bag on the floor and, instead of unbuttoning his shirt all the way, just pulls it over his head. The t-shirt he wears underneath is also soaked, but Charles draws the line at actual nudity and just pulls it away from his body, grimacing. “McGee is probably contracting someone to shoot me even as we speak. It’s not my fault though. He’s a bloody physics professor, what the hell was he thinking getting into this one? And what the hell is wrong with Moira?” he explodes. “She had to know this would happen. What on earth was she thinking?”

Hanks murmurs something vaguely comforting, but Charles is distracted. There’s a guy at the end of the hall, who’s blatantly checking him out. When he catches Charles's eyes, he smirks and winks.

“Jesus,” Charles mutters, blushing. “Let’s get out of here.”

The day keeps getting weirder. When Charles finally makes it over to Mike’s he’s stunned to see a ‘Closed’ sign on the door. Inside, it feels like an anthill had exploded—there are people in coveralls everywhere, by the looks of it, a couple of dozens at least, doing—

“Mike!” Charles spots the owner with some relief and hurries over. “What happened here?”

“Oh, hey, Charles.” Mike turns to look at him. “Don’t worry, your room is safe, you can go right in.”

“Okay, but what’s going on?”

“Well, funny story.” Mike scratches the back of his neck, looking bewildered but not unhappy. “You know how we have lousy piping so we can barely heat the place up in winter? Not to mention that our electrical grid has been here since the seventies and is now a fire hazard?”

Charles nods, still lost. The café was freezing in winter; they always got their coffee and never stayed. It was something everyone knew about Mike’s, though now that Charles thinks about it, it can’t have been good for the profits.

“I knew I had to take care of that at some point, but I never had enough money,” Mike says. “I mean, I love this place, but the only thing it’s doing is keeping itself afloat, barely at that. And then today this lot shows up, and they have a work order, a paid order, mind you, to replace our heating and electrics, and I’m pretty sure there’s something about more optic cables for wi-fi in there. I have no idea who paid them, but I’m sure as hell ain’t saying no.”

Charles blinks. “It doesn’t bother you that it came out of nowhere? This must be thousands of dollars’ worth of repairs.”

Mike shrugs. “According to their paperwork, it’s a gift, so I can’t be sued for the costs no matter what. And as for the rest of it, well. Good things do happen.” He claps Charles on the shoulder and grins. “Maybe it was your doing. My good karma is coming back or something.”

Charles returns his smile, but it’s strained. An unbidden but persistent suspicion pops into his mind. He tries to shoo it away. It’s completely ridiculous. Erik isn’t given to grand gestures, and even if he was, this isn’t for Charles, exactly. He will benefit from faster wi-fi and a more reliable power grid, yes. Not to mention, won’t freeze to death if he’s still here next winter. But… no. As flattering as the idea is, Erik has clearly washed his hands off the whole thing or he wouldn’t have let Charles sign the papers. This has got to be one of those random acts of kindness one always heard of, but never really witnessed. Someone in the community must really like Mike’s coffee, that’s all.

He shakes the ludicrous idea off and smiles at Mike. “I take it, I don’t have to open tomorrow?”

“No, not for a few days,” Mike confirms, then looks around and winces. “Sorry, looks like it’s going to be awfully noisy in here for a while.”

Charles used to have landlords who were a lot less polite or considerate, and those were the people he was actually paying.

“You’re welcome to crash at mine,” Hank tells him the next morning, when Charles shows up at the lab at a quarter past six, because the crew showed up at five thirty.

“Thanks, but I can live with it for a couple of days,” Charles says. Sledgehammer over his head is preferable to dealing with Kitty.

As though he can read Charles's mind, Hank pushes his glasses up nervously and says, “Kitty and I broke up.”

“What?” Charles stares. “When?”

“Last week.”

Charles reaches to clasp his arm. “Hank, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Hank shakes his head. “It’s been a long time coming. We didn’t really have any shared interests apart from each other. And, well, the sex was nice, but lately… I had this feeling that she was just using me.”

Charles gives him a rueful look. “Hank, I think there’s something wrong with us. Most guys our age love it when people use them that way.”

Hank grins. “We do appear to have a problem. So. Star Wars or Star Trek?”

Charles winces. “Doctor Who?”

Hank rolls his eyes. “Fine. Only because you’re a guest. For that, you’ll be cooking.”

Charles grins and resolves himself to a pleasant evening.

The weirdness, however, keeps hounding him. When Hank and Charles come in to work the next day, still using the word ‘exterminate’ way too often to be remotely cool, the entire lab is abuzz with excitement.

The first thing Charles notices is the couch. It’s huge yet somehow fits perfectly into the corner of the common area. It looks soft. It feels heavenly. Julia is stretched out diagonally across it with an expression of absolute bliss on her face.

“I might never get up,” she says, ignoring Sasha, who valiantly tries to pull her up. “This is my slice of heaven and I’m keeping it.”

An excited exclamation makes Charles turn into the kitchen area only to find Hank all but praying to the gleaming, whirring, light-twinkling monster of a coffee machine that has never been here before. Boxes filled with packed coffee beans were crowding each other under the shaky table. Charles glances at the brand and feels his eyebrows arch.

“Did Christmas come early?” Hank asks, bewildered.

Moira chooses this moment to walk in, frowning. “This stuff just showed up this morning. I sure as hell hope someone hasn’t been playing fast and loose with our budget.”

“It was all prepaid, Professor,” Julia yells from the outer room. “Anonymous benefactor.”

Moira frowns some more and fixes Charles with a look. “Charles. Can I speak with you?”

Charles nods and follows her meekly into her office across the hall, the thoughts of mysteriously appearing coffee machines disappearing from his mind rapidly at the sight of Moira’s stoic expression.

“How badly did I fuck up?” he blurts out before she can even sit down behind her desk. “I told you not to send me out there. Kevin, Scott, hell, even Julia would have done better, I’m sorry, Moira, I tried my best, but—”

“Charles.” She glances up at him and sighs a little. “Shut up and sit.”

Charles closes his mouth promptly and all but falls into her guest chair. “Um.”

“You didn’t fuck up,” she says, watching him with some amusement. “Although you might want to steer clear of McGee for a while. Also don’t accept food or drink from unknown sources.”

Charles swallows. “Um.”

Moira considers him over the rims of her, frankly, intimidating glasses then pulls them off and sighs. “The board agreed to revise the terms of my grant so that it could include one more salaried position. That position has a name on it. Your name, to be specific. You did really well with the board. Congratulations.”

Charles's mouth falls open. “Oh.” It all falls into place, and he’s overwhelmed with gratitude, and also a little bit peeved. “You could have said.”

“I find that you’re really good under pressure,” she doesn’t sound even slightly contrite. “Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t anything much, but combined with your TA pay, it should allow you to stay afloat without selling your soul to the devil.”

Too late for that, not that he’s sharing his extracurricular activities with his boss any time soon.

“Professor… Moira, thank you. You must have—”

She lifts a hand, halting him. “All I did was let you show off. Also, I might have waved the offers you got from Harvard and Stanford for your last year of grad school in their faces as an extra incentive.”

Charles blinks. “But I don’t have any offers…”

Moira reaches into one of her desk drawers, pulls out a few envelopes, and places them in front of Charles. He can see the universities logos and his throat goes a bit dry.

“I wasn’t going to keep them from you,” she explains, eyes intent on him now. “They all offer you a full ride, all expenses paid. Stanford is throwing in plane tickets, I think. You can go tomorrow. You might… prefer a change of location, considering the circumstances.” She bites her lip. Since the day she discovered him sleeping in the lab, this is the first time she’s made a reference to his personal circumstances. “I just wanted to give you more reasons to stay here before I handed those over to you. Columbia can’t match them at the moment, because Peterson is an idiot who doesn’t know what he has, but I wanted to do what I could. The choice is yours, Charles. I will understand if you choose to leave. More than. No hard feelings.”

Charles blinks, processing. It’s tempting to just pack up and leave, to get a fresh start. To move to Boston or to LA, somewhere where no one knows him, except for university scouts, apparently. Somewhere where Erik's shadow isn’t hanging over him no matter where he goes.

When he looks up, he finds Moira staring fixedly at a framed photo on her desk. It’s turned away from Charles, but he knows whose face she can’t look away from. Her son, Ryan, who died five days short of his eighth birthday of a rare genetic condition. Her inspiration and the force behind her drive to succeed, to help others where no one was able to help her.

“Of course, I’m staying,” Charles says quietly, before he even knows it. It’s tempting beyond words to feel like a human being again instead of a charity case, but money isn’t everything. This decision feels right. Even if he has to do actual porn to be able to stay, it would still be worth it. “Thank you so much for this, Moira. For everything. But you don’t—I’ve seen the budget; they didn’t give you anything extra. You’ll have to cut something to be able to afford to pay me, and there’s nothing to cut.”

She’s smiling gratefully at him, her eyes convey a whole different layer of understanding. Out loud, she opts for levity. “I was thinking of cutting the horrible instant coffee and crackers thing.”

Charles widens his eyes comically. “They’d mutiny.”

“I know.” She snorts. “But see, fortunately, now I can do that, and no one will even notice.”

They both turn to look through the glass wall to where Hank seems to be all but adorning the new coffee machine in flowers, and where Julia, Sasha, and Brian are fighting each other for the top position on the couch.

Charles grins, shaking his head. “Where did all this stuff come from?”

Moira fixes him with a look. “I thought you could tell me.”

Charles blinks. “What? Why?”

Her expression turns speculative. “Have you opened the pantry?” He shakes his head. “It’s stuffed to bursting with Pop Tarts. Chocolate Pop Tarts to be precise. You and Lynn are the only two people who are crazy about that stuff, and Lynn hates chocolate.”

Charles can feel his pulse pick up the pace, as the same unwanted thought makes itself at home in his head. Erik. But no. Surely, not. Even when they were dating, when they were, God, happily married, Charles never got the impression that Erik listened to a word he said about his colleagues or the lab. He would occasionally show interest in the science itself, but people? And besides, Erik left. He just left. He didn’t call, didn’t show up at the coffeeshop. Hoping this is his doing is nothing more but wishful thinking. The very idea that Erik would do something so thoughtful and sweet is utterly ridiculous.

Chocolate Pop Tarts are his favorite.

Charles purses his lips. “I don’t know anything about this. I swear, Moira.”

She continues to study him in a most unnerving way. “The coffee machine came with a prepaid order for regular maintenance for the next three years. They guys who brought the coffee and tarts said they’d be making a regular delivery every week, and we don’t have to pay a dime, not even tip them.”

Charles looks down at his hands clasped firmly in his lap. “I don’t like coffee all that much,” he says stubbornly.

“Maybe, but you still live on it like the rest of the stressed out and overworked student population. Are you sure this isn’t the act of someone, say, desperate to make amends?”

Charles pushes to his feet. “I don’t think you’re right, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I know nothing about this, Moira. Now, if that’s all—”

She sighs. “A girl can dream. Go. Oh, and get those children to behave while you’re at it, they’re making a racket.”

Charles grimaces but nods. Briefly, he wonders, why Moira relies so heavily on him for wrangling the team into shape when he’s the most junior member of it. The rest of them don’t question it much, though, so maybe that’s okay.

“Charles.” Moira’s voice stops him at the door. “Thank you. For staying.”

There’s not much he can say to that, and he’s blushing again, damn it. Hastily, he nods and makes his escape.

--

Erik doesn’t call. Doesn’t text. Certainly, doesn’t come over. Charles feels incredibly foolish and angry with himself for expecting it. He has no proof that Erik is behind the coffeeshop repairs or the lab, and letting himself believe that is only fostering false hope. Yet, he can’t stop. And the mysteries don’t stop there, either.

He’s got pizza being randomly delivered to his doorstep when he gears up for a night of late studying. Thai food seems to magically appear at the lab whenever he and Hank camp out there, putting in far more hours than either of them is supposed to. The delivery guy refuses to accept so much as a tip, and the first time Charles very nearly sends him away, but Hank draws in a deeper breath and says hopefully, “I love Thai.” Charles sighs and gives in.

When Moira’s car breaks in the middle of a rainstorm just as she and Charles are headed out of the lab, a neon-pink all-female crew taxi cab materializes almost out of thin air. The heavily tattooed goth lady driver only waves at them when they try to pay, though she does ask for Moira’s number. Moira’s car gets towed to an auto-shop before she can even call for it and is returned to her in perfect working order within the record forty-eight hours.

This has an added complication of Moira’s boyfriend appearing on campus way more often than he ever had before, glaring at people left and right, no matter how much she yells at him, and intimidating everyone with his scary eye-patched glare. Inexplicably and completely unjustly, Charles feels, it makes Moira mad at him.

“Nick is paranoid enough as it is,” she tells him, glaring, after she finally manages to kick the mountain of a man out the door. “I wish I could just tell him that it’s your ex playing the white knight and not some secret admirer who’s after me.”

“Maybe it is your secret admirer,” Charles retorts. “You like coffee way more than I do.”

“Oh, honestly, Charles. Just call him. Clear the air. If it’s not him, we really should call security.”

Charles won’t call, of course. The potential humiliation is making him break out in sweat. ‘Hi, Erik, was that you who made all those nice things happen?’—‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Or worse, ‘I’m sorry, who is this?’

No, Charles would sooner cut off his hand than dial. He just wishes he could stop his own mind from jumping to that stupid hope every time that Erik really does care. It’s not true. And Charles should find a better outlet for his clearly too idle mind.

“Charles, you don’t have class this morning, do you?” a harassed-looking Mike asks him one morning when Charles comes back from his early jog. “Can you work Angel’s shift? I know you’re a crappy barista, but it’s all hands on deck. Sean will come in at noon and help you.”

“Of course.” Charles nods, wiping sweat off his brow. “Where’s Angel?”

“Don’t know; didn’t show up for work this morning and isn’t answering her cell.” Mike is frowning. “She went to that immigrant rally yesterday, and I heard something about people being arrested on the news. I hope she’s fine.”

It turns out, Angel is fine if supremely ruffled when she turns up at the coffeeshop later that evening, clutching a pretty but violently sobbing girl in her arms, muttering something soothing in Spanish.

“She’s my cousin,” Angel explains, after they’ve set her up on the cozy corner couch with a steaming cup of hot chocolate in front of her. Sean, who has devotedly slept through every Spanish class he’s ever taken, is trying to make her laugh by means of making faces and mangling words as he does so. It seems to be working. “They swept her up with the rest, and I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to go with her, but they kicked me out, since I’m a citizen now.” She grimaces angrily. “There’s no processing, no anything; they don’t care. She was on the bus before I could even think of calling someone, not that there’s anyone to call.”

“What happened?” Mike asks, eyeing her anxiously. “You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”

“No.” Angel glares. “I didn’t.” She looks at Charles. “Your ex showed up and got it all sorted.”

Charles feels his jaw drop. “What?”

“Yeah. I was so mad just watching him, because it really does pay to be a rich white dude, doesn’t it? They wouldn’t listen to a word I said, but they parted for him, like the goddamn waters. He called someone, I don’t know, then went to see the chief, and then, just like that, they got Rita out, and there’s a court hearing on Monday. He said he’ll represent us and not to worry, and I said I couldn’t pay him. He said he was already there to fill up his pro bono portfolio and taking one more case was no trouble.”

Charles can do nothing but stare. “Erik,” he says at last, barely able to make his throat work. “Erik said that?”

Erik never took pro bono cases. Pro bono cases were for lawyers who couldn’t get any real work, he’d explained to Charles once, obviously quoting his mentor. It’s not about the money, Erik said. It’s about your reputation as a lawyer. And that was something he took as seriously as it got at all times.

“Yeah.” Angel nods. She’s looking at him with a strange expression. “Look. I know he was a dick to you, and I still hate him for it. But they’d have sent Rita back if he didn’t budge in. So I… I’m going to take him up on it, okay? I’m sorry, Charles, but it’s my cousin, and I—”

“What?” Charles exclaimed. “Oh, Angel, of course, you should take him up on it. If Erik said he’d do something, you can be sure he’ll do it. And he’s a very good lawyer. If he says it’s going to work out, it definitely will.”

“Thanks.” Her expression melts, and she hugs him for whatever reason. “I’m sorry, I really wanted to be a bitch to him, but Rita—”

“It’s all right, Angel. It’s all right.” Charles pats her on the back awkwardly. “You don’t have to be a bitch to him. Not even if this didn’t happen.”

She only hugs him tighter and then beams, turning toward her cousin’s table.

“Angel,” Charles calls after her, hating himself for it. “Did he, um. Did he say anything… about me?”

Her face softens with apology. “No, sorry. But there really wasn’t any time for anything,” she hastens to add. “It was all happening so fast, and I’m sure on Monday—”

“It’s all right,” Charles says, glancing away. “It’s fine. Don’t say anything to him. I was just curious.”

--

On Monday, Charles wears the huge dark hoodie he never returned to Hank and sneaks into the courthouse. He sits quietly in the back, behind rows filled with nervous petitioners and battle-ready lawyers. He pulls the hood over his head and shrinks further in on himself when Erik enters the hall with Angel and Rita in tow.

Charles had always loved watching Erik at work. The first few times he’d done this, way before they were married, he felt overwhelmingly proud of Erik's competence, his razor-sharp intellect, and the staggering amount of confidence with which he commanded the room. He was the man to watch, compelling everyone’s attention, the aura of power spreading around him in tight, heady waves. Charles felt enthralled and incredulous at the same time, wondering what on Earth a man like that could see in him that he would come night after night to sit at the far end of the bar, hoping to exchange a few words, and sometimes, on busy nights, not even getting that.

He’s painfully reminded of that feeling now, the scene he’s witnessing turning a bit surreal before his eyes. Erik cites acts, and documents, and precedents, and the way he spares no effort while steamrolling the judge makes Charles suspect the case isn’t as ironclad as Erik led Angel to believe. But of course, it’s an easy victory. No one doubts Erik when he’s in this mode. From his place, Charles can just make out Angel and Rita hugging each other, Erik watching them with a small smile. As Erik lifts his head, Charles ducks behind a bulky fellow sitting in front of him, heart trying valiantly to beat out of his chest. He stays there until he gets a text from Angel ten minutes later.

We won! Erik really came through for us.

And a moment later:

We’re celebrating at the Asterix. Wanna come?

Charles does, is the thing. Seeing Erik from afar only served to drive it home how much Charles still misses him. He looked good, too. Charles always went a little weak-kneed at the sight of Erik in a three-piece suit, and today he looked mouth-wateringly handsome. He turns his phone off before he can do something unwise.

As he leaves the courthouse, he catches his reflection in the tinted glass wall and nearly laughs. He looks like a twelve-year-old street urchin and not even in the wildest dreams of the most romantically inclined person on the planet could he be imagined as someone standing at Erik Lehnsherr's side.

He ends up on Logan’s doorstep before he makes a conscious decision to come and only realizes he should have called when Logan opens the door wearing a really tight pair of leather pants and not much else.

“Um,” Charles says intelligently. “I can come back.”

Logan rolls his eyes and drags him in.

They drink beer in companionable silence while Charles turns the events of the last few weeks over and over in his head.

“Am I going crazy?” he asks as he spills it all out. “I’m being an idiot, aren’t I? Making things up, clinging to the idea that he wants me back…”

Logan huffs impatiently. “Of course, he wants you back. Charles—” He pauses, searching for the right words with obvious difficulty. It almost makes Charles smile. “The man is practically campaigning for your attention.”

“I’m not sure the rest of it was even him—”

“Yeah, because Santa Claus is real.” Logan rolls his eyes. “Means, opportunity, motive. Doesn’t take a genius.” He snorts suddenly, shaking his head. “You know, the way he’s twisting and turning… It’s a shame you’re not into D/s. You’d make a terrifying Dom.”

Charles laughs. “Oh? I thought—” He gestures vaguely at himself.

“Look past the surface, kid. Although—” He jerks Charles toward him suddenly, wide hand closing around his neck. Charles takes a deep steadying breath and orders himself to relax into it. “That’s it,” Logan murmurs, approving, lips hovering just over Charles's. “So good for me.” He nuzzles under Charles's jaw, then kisses him, soft, but clearly in control. “I could train you up so well, either way.”

They pull apart at the muffled groan leaking out from the other room. Charles glances at Logan, mildly alarmed.

“Shouldn’t you—”

“He can handle it,” Logan replies, voice pitched to carry. “If he knows what’s good for him.”

When nothing but silence follows, Logan grins. Charles rolls his eyes, but he breathes easier. Logan wouldn’t have opened the door, much less let Charles spill his guts out if suspense wasn’t part of the plan.

“I should call him, shouldn’t I?” Charles groans, sinking back against the headboard.

Logan sighs. “You should do what you want. But you have to decide, Charles. Don’t string him along if you don’t see yourself taking him back at some point. That’d just be hell for both of you. And while I don’t care about him, there’s no reason for you to do this to yourself. Either cut him loose or put him out of his misery, but do one or the other soon.”

Charles chews on his lip, frowning. “The reasons we’re divorced are still valid reasons. And I feel like such a wimp, because after everything he did, after everything I said, all the posturing and the harsh words, all he has to do is be nice to me, and I’m just about ready to forget it all ever happened.” He buries his face in his hands. “I’m an idiot. A weak-willed idiot.”

Logan clasps his shoulder. “You’re not an idiot. You’re a man in love.”

Charles looks at him. “You’d never take him back.”

“I ain’t you, kid. And besides—” He pauses, looking pensively into the distance. “Sometimes I think I’d still be with Marie—that’s Laura’s mom—if I was willing to work for it. We were young, well, younger then. It had to be perfect or not at all. The lifestyle was too much for her; she wanted to keep it in the bedroom, and I thought… Well, it wasn’t pretty what I thought or how I handled that. I was an all or nothing kind of guy back then. Wouldn’t even consider a compromise.”

“You would now?”

“I don’t know. Probably. When you’ve got someone who loves you like that, it’s… It’s worth a lot. Now your Lehnsherr, though. That one, I’d kick into the curb without a second thought and never look back.” Logan grins.

Charles huffs a laugh, weak, but real. He pats Logan’s knee. “Maybe it’s not too late for you and her.”

Logan shrugs. “Maybe.” He doesn’t look optimistic as he gets to his feet. “Now, you’re welcome to stay, but—”

“Oh no.” Charles jumps to his feet as well. “No, no, you need to um, get back to that. Thanks for… Well. Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

He walks an extra stop to let his mind settle. There’s never been a question of what he actually should do. Charles knows it. Any way he looks at it, the answer is clear. Then why does it feel like he’s being torn apart just thinking about it? Just imagining the conversation makes him physically ill. Shouldn’t he feel relief having come to the right decision? He didn’t think it wouldn’t hurt, but shouldn’t it also feel kind of good to let go?

He plays with his phone instead of calling, trying to gather some strength. Erik is suffering, too. Charles would be doing him a kindness as well by giving him not what he wants but rather what he needs. His lips curl into a wry grin as he thinks that Logan had, perhaps, the right idea. He can do this for Erik even if he can’t do it for himself. What happened wasn’t Erik's fault. That Charles can’t get over it shouldn’t be on Erik, either.

His fingers are numb as he dials the number.

--

Out of the corner of his eye Erik watches the conference room being slowly filled. He’s sitting in his office—his for at least another ten minutes or so, however the vote goes—looking at his laptop screen without taking anything in. They are ready. As ready as they could be, in any case, and there is nothing more left to do. Shaw is one partner vote away from tumbling down from Olympus, and it should fill Erik with joy or at the very least some dark satisfaction. Curiously, he feels nothing. Not even a spike of adrenaline, though he could be literally ten minutes away from tanking his own career. Isn’t revenge supposed to taste good?

The screen of his cell phone comes to life suddenly, and Erik stills in his seat, staring at the name flashing in big bold letters. It can’t be. He’s been waiting for this call for days, weeks maybe. He’s all but given up hope. Now? It has to be now?

“Hello.”

“Erik. Um, hi. It’s—it’s Charles.”

It almost makes him smile, though it’s on the pained side. Does Charles really think he needs to introduce himself?

“Hi, Charles. It’s nice to hear your voice.”

“Er…” Charles pauses. Erik can almost see him squirming on the other end of the line, flustered. “I, um. I wanted to thank you. For what you did for Angel. I know you did it for her, you’re a good man, Erik, I know it wasn’t some gesture, but I wanted to thank you anyway—”

Charles is babbling. Erik forgot how it makes his insides turn into mush to hear him do it.

“Charles,” he interrupts. “I did it for you.”

Not that he wouldn’t have helped Angel anyway, if he knew her. But he wouldn’t have dropped everything and rushed to the detention center when Pyro called him for a perfect stranger.

“Oh.” Charles seems to need a minute to process this. A minute Erik doesn’t have. “Mike’s café?” he asks tentatively. “The lab?”

“Of course,” Erik confirms, frowning slightly.

“You never said—”

“I didn’t do it to get a thank you. You owe me nothing, Charles. I didn’t do it to pressure you into anything.”

A pause. It feels more excruciating than not knowing whether he or Shaw would come out on top.

“I appreciate it,” Charles says quietly. “But Erik, you need to stop.”

Erik's heart does stop for just a moment. His vision darkens. The conference room, the office, everything disappears from his perception but this.

“What. What are you saying?”

“You need to stop,” Charles repeats, voice gaining in confidence. “You’re… you’re torturing me.” The shakiness comes back. “I need. I need to be able to move on. I need to forget. You’re not letting me heal, Erik. I can’t go on like this.”

Move on—from him. Forget—him. Erik isn’t sure he isn’t weeping.

“I’m sorry,” he manages, as shaken as Charles sounds.

“No,” Charles says. “No. I understand. And I’m grateful. Truly I am. But we’re done, Erik. This is just hell on us both.”

“I’m taking Shaw down, Charles,” Erik rushes to say, suddenly desperate. “As we speak even. He’ll pay for everything he’s done. And I—I lo—”

“Stop.” Charles cuts him off. “Please, Erik. Enough. I’m sorry for everything that happened. I know it wasn’t your fault. But it’s over now. You don’t owe me anything either. If you did, you’ve certainly made up for it. I accept your apology. I—I forgive you. But I can’t see you again. You need to move on. And so do I.”

His chest feels like it’s being split open, his throat is filled with acid. “Charles.” Erik draws in a breath he can’t quite feel. “Do you still love me?”

The silence lasts so long Erik almost believes Charles has hung up. And then he wishes Charles did.

“Goodbye, Erik.”

The line goes dead. Erik all but drops the phone on the desk.

He doesn’t have any time to recollect himself, not even a moment. His assistant pushes the door open, oblivious to everything but the ongoing coup-d’état.

“They’re ready for you, Mr. Lehnsherr.”

Erik strides into the conference room, indifferent to the choking pressure of tension. Shaw locks gazes with him from the opposite end, his eyes gleaming maliciously. Emma is all but draped over him, the cut of her top aggressively low today, just as Shaw likes it.

“Erik. So glad you could join us,” Shaw drawls, smiling in anticipation. “Now that we are all here, I would like to bring to your attention that Erik Lehnsherr has been poaching our clients in preparation to start his own firm in direct violation of his contract. I move to remove him from the position of senior partner and terminate his contract immediately.”

“Does anyone second?” the secretary asks.

“Seconded,” Az says, looking Erik in the eye, expression impassive.

Shaw smirks, pleased. “All in favor?”

Erik means to watch the actual vote, but he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is watch Shaw’s face. The slow fading of his smile. The widening of his eyes. The downright shock as he stares at Az, who’s resolutely keeping his hands behind his back. And finally, the completely flabbergasted expression as he looks at Emma, who beams at him and folds her hands gracefully under her battle-ready cleavage.

“Three to thirty-eight,” the secretary announces in a bored tone of a drone. “Motion failed.”

Erik steps in further into the room, people parting for him as though magnetized to the walls.

“Sebastian Shaw has committed numerous acts of witness tampering,” Erik states flatly, “at least four occasions of judicial bribery that we have proof of, and two cases of embezzling money from the clients. All of which is in direct violation of the firm by-laws and any of which is a disbarrable offense. I move to remove him as managing partner, withhold his capital contribution as compensation for the damage to the firm’s reputation, and terminate his contract immediately.”

“Seconded,” Emma says sweetly before the secretary has even opened his mouth. “All in favor?”

Erik lifts his hand, and yet again doesn’t need to look around to know how the majority are voting. A slow smile begins to creep onto his face. He suspects it’s an ugly one.

“Thirty-nine over two,” the secretary states. “Motion passed.”

“You can’t do this,” Shaw hisses, having gone nearly purple with rage. “I made this firm. I made all of you! You don’t want this fight, because I will ruin you—”

“Oh, Sebastian.” Erik shakes his head, glancing over his shoulder. “I’m afraid you’re about to become quite—tied up—for the next twenty to thirty years. We’ll manage somehow until then.”

Everyone turns to stare as a team of grim-looking FBI agents stride into the reception area, securing the exists. The leader is showing his credentials to a decidedly not-surprised receptionist, who points toward the conference room.

“How dare you?” Shaw hisses in Erik's face. “I created you, you ungrateful fucking bastard. I pulled you out of the dirt. I gave you everything you have. I made you.”

“No,” Erik growls, all his pent-up anger breaking loose. “You tried to make a monster out of me. You nearly succeeded. But then you made one crucial mistake by taking the one thing I loved away from me.”

“The boy?” Shaw laughs, incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding me. God, you’re pathetic. All this over a piece of ass?”

Erik doesn’t even try to check himself as he hits Shaw square in the jaw, sending him toppling down to the floor. Within seconds the conference room is flooded with action, Az and Janos straining to hold Erik back while the FBI agents drag Shaw away.

“Oh, Sebastian, dear?” Emma calls just as they reach the doors. “You didn’t create this firm, sugar. My father did. It’s never been yours. And neither have I.”

Shaw growls something, white with rage, but the FBI agent in charge has obviously had enough and signals his men to move as he glares around the room. “We’ll be back to collect statements,” he promises grimly as he goes.

Emma approaches him just Erik finally manages to shake Az and Janos off.

“What do you say, partner?” she purrs. “Champagne all around?”

Adrenaline slowly fading, Erik forces himself to smile. There’s still work to be done. And for as long as he has to do it, he can pretend that he’s fully alive and functional and not shattered to pieces with one short, stammering phone call.

He smiles at Emma, shaking her hand, as the partners converge around them, applauding obsequiously, offering congratulations. Emma’s eyes tell him all too clearly just how many of them will be fired within the next twenty-four hours as so many of Shaw’s people still need to be weeded out. It will leave the firm vulnerable, but it’s the only course of action they both agreed on as the necessary one. No sense to raise alarm beforehand, though, so Erik smiles and says only:

“You read my mind.”

--

He doesn’t have any champagne that afternoon, but late into the night, he’s sitting in a hotel bar in a part of town where no one he knows might happen upon him, finishing a bottle of scotch to a mediocre jazz band wailing in the background. He knows he won’t get drunk, not the kind of blackout drunk he wants to be. He knows but he tries anyway, because taking Shaw down was meant to set everything right, to quell the guilt eating up his insides. Instead, it felt like a necessary errand, brushing his teeth in the morning, or taking out the trash. Erik has been in constant talks with the FBI for over a month now, and he knows that Shaw will go away for a very, very long time, paying for the pain he caused Charles with his freedom.

It is a cause for celebration. But all Erik can feel is the taste of ash in his mouth and the terrifying emptiness inside.

“I’d offer to buy you a drink, but from the looks of it, you’re way ahead of me,” a clear, youthful voice cuts through his thoughts.

Erik turns. The man standing next to him is in his twenties, with short dark hair and brown eyes, slim but not skinny, and rather on the shorter side. He’s smiling, peering at Erik in clear appreciation. His mouth is red. Erik hates him, hates the universe, and most of all hates himself.

“Not interested,” he grumbles, turning away.

“Are you sure?” The guy seems to be unable to take a hint. He leans over the bar, inching back into Erik's field of vision, leans closer. “You don’t even know what you’re missing.”

Erik grabs him by the front of his shirt, hauling him in and smashing him into the bar, ignoring the gasps around them.

“What part of the word ‘no’ do you not understand?”

“Hey, asshole, let him go.” The bartender rushes over. “Security!”

Which is how Erik ends up being thrown out on his ass into the rain, nursing split knuckles, on the day that should have been his greatest triumph.

--

“All right, Charles, get up,” Angel demands impatiently, barging into his room after Charles refuses to acknowledge her knocking for the third time. “It’s almost twelve, for crying out loud. Get out of bed.” She jerks his blanket off for good measure.

Charles sits up with a sigh. “What day is it?” he asks blearily.

She rolls her eyes. “Oh, that is absolutely it. Get up. Take a shower. If you don’t, so help me, I’ll come in there and wash you myself.”

Charles yawns. “Kinky.”

“Shut up and move.”

He does, mostly because he has no energy to fight her. It’s been a week since he made his last phone call to Erik. He expected to feel relief. What he’s feeling instead is nothing. A whole lot of nothing. Not just about Erik. About anything. He gets up at five every morning to open the coffeeshop because he doesn’t want to let Mike down, but that’s the only thing he even vaguely cares about any more.

The shower is cold. It takes him two minutes to notice that. Charles shrugs, even as he starts to soap up his hair, his teeth chattering. Maybe he’ll make it to the lab today. Hank has been calling. Moira called twice. He’ll have to face them sooner or later. He’ll have to come back to living. Wasn’t that what he was fighting for when he called Erik? A life free at last of his past? He’s tired of being numb. He doesn’t know how to make it stop.

His phone is ringing when he comes back to his room. Charles picks up without looking at the ID. Might as well face the music.

“Hello.”

“Charles? Is this Charles?”

“Yes.” Charles frowns. “I’m sorry, who is this?”

“Hello, Charles, nice to finally speak to you. My name is Nathaniel Essex. I’ve been trying to reach you for some time.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Essex. Have we met?”

“Nate, please. And no. No, unfortunately, I haven’t had the pleasure. Doug Sanders gave me your number. I’m the one who commissioned you for my club videos.”

“Oh.” Charles blinks, surprised. He glances at the screen briefly. It’s the same unknown number he’s always dodged before. “Oh, I see. Thank you for… well. Um. Thanks. Can I, um… I’m sorry, can I help you somehow?”

Essex laughs. “You already did. Stellar work, my boy. You have a real gift. No, no, I was calling to invite you to my club’s grand reopening tonight. As a thank you for all your hard work. Your tab’s on me, and I thought you could come and enjoy yourself.”

“Oh,” Charles says dumbly. “Thank you, but I don’t think… I’m not really into—”

“Your shoot partner will be here. And I wanted to talk to you about possibly doing another collaboration with us. I could make it worth your while.”

Charles's first instinct is to say no and hang up, but he pauses. What does he have to lose exactly? A wasted evening? Because lying down curled up on his cot for the sixth day in a row will be ever so fulfilling? Logan will be there, and Charles hasn’t spoken to Logan in a while.

Besides, with summer on the horizon, the question of next year’s tuition is beginning to loom uncomfortably close. Charles still hasn’t figured out what to do about it, and time is running out. He said he’d never do another porn shoot, but he can at least listen to what Essex has in mind. Maybe if it’s with Logan, and if the pay is good, maybe…

“I, um. All right,” Charles says, taking the plunge. “Thank you for the invitation. I’d love to come.”

“Excellent. Until tonight then, Charles. Looking forward to meeting you in person.”

Getting dressed feels like a novel experience, but Hank waiting for him downstairs with a cup of coffee and a slightly concerned look definitely isn’t.

“It lives,” Hank says, pushing the paper cup at him. “I was beginning to wonder.”

“Thank you,” Charles says, taking a sip and wincing. Angel obviously added chili powder just for him. “And thanks for covering my lectures.”

“You’re welcome,” Hank replies, adjusting his glasses and peering at Charles nervously. “You coming in today?”

Charles sighs. “I think I’d better. Before Moira sends in a murder squad.”

“Or comes here herself.”

Charles shudders. “Yeah, that’d be worse. Shall we?”

It’s odd stepping outside. He keeps staring at the cars and the people mulling around, the trees and the grass like he hasn’t seen them before. If Hank didn’t drag him along, Charles would have spent who knows how long standing still before an ice cream truck, mesmerized. He feels as though his mind has been wiped clean.

Moira gives him a long look, but says nothing, setting him up with sorting through the data sets. Charles is more than fine with that. He doesn’t feel up to being actively creative. He spends the afternoon only slipping and thinking of Erik twice, and is quite proud of himself.

His evening proves to be a bit more challenging. What does one wear to a fetish club? Especially for a potential job interview, such as it is? What if Charles convinces Essex to hire him as a bartender? The club is pretty high-end, it’s got to be a well-paid position, and Charles still hasn’t forgotten how to work for tips. Yes, that does seem like a good plan, if it works. He’ll need to be extra convincing.

Charles stares at himself critically in the mirror, feeling neither convincing nor particularly attractive. He’d lost weight in his week of lying around, doing nothing. He looks pale and unkempt with his hair in desperate need of a haircut. Maybe he can make a play on it then. Forget the belt, let his jeans ride low. Pick out a black V-neck to offset his skin. A bit of hair gel, yes, he still remembers how. And a bit of bold black eyeliner borrowed from Angel to make sure their gazes are drawn to his eyes and not somewhere else.

He looks at himself again. He still has no idea what to make of himself, but Angel whistles when he comes downstairs, and a few late customers give him appreciative looks.

“Going out?” she asks. “God, finally. Have fun. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“That’s not a very long list, Angel.”

She smirks. “Oh, I know.”

It’s closer to eleven by the time he makes it to the club, and the line is impressive. Charles doesn’t goggle at the amount of flesh and leather on display, but he does feel dramatically underdressed. Maybe he should have borrowed something from Logan. Briefly, he wonders if they would even let him in. Now that would be humiliating.

He isn’t left wondering for long though, because not two minutes in, a bouncer walks up straight to him. “You Charles?”

“Um. Yes?”

“Come with me.”

He can feel the people in line watching him as he walks past all of them, no doubt wondering what a boy like him could possibly have done to merit special treatment. The bouncer lifts the rope for him and pushes him in.

“Thanks,” Charles yells and is ignored.

The club is packed. It looks different now that it did when they were doing the filming, and it’s not just the night crowd. A bit of remodeling and redecorating has definitely taken place, making it look more classy than before. Technology has woven its way in, in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes a bit ludicrous to Charles's eye, like flogging poles with electronic locks on the restraints or voice activated handcuffs. There are also screens everywhere, and on the screens…

Charles hasn’t actually seen the end result of Doug’s efforts. He hasn’t even seen the raw footage, although Logan did look. Seeing it now is—surreal. He knows it’s him in the video, but his mind can’t quite believe it. The boy in the video looks so… compelling for lack of a better word. Charles has never known himself to move with such sinuous, seductive grace. Doug and Logan have somehow turned him into that, and a part of him admires their skill even as the rest of him is busy losing it.

He makes his way to the bar, looking around for any sign of Logan. Frowning, Charles pulls out a phone and dials. It goes straight to voicemail.

“Hey,” Charles says. “It’s me. I’m at the Lair, I thought you’d beat me to it? Call me when you get here.”

He signals the bartender and asks for scotch, just as a hand lands on his shoulder. Charles turns around, grinning.

“I was just leaving you a—”

The man smiling at him isn’t Logan. He looks to be about fifty, perhaps slightly over, tall, broad-shouldered, impeccably groomed. Unlike most patrons, he’s dressed in a dark suit, with a tie even. His sharp grey eyes zero in on Charles, raking over him. He smiles.

“By God, that son of a bitch was telling the truth,” he says in a booming voice, barely needing to raise it to be heard over the music. “I thought for sure Doug had your eyes digitally enhanced, even though there was no budget for it. But you’re just as stunning in person. More. I’m Nate Essex. Welcome to my club, Charles.”

“Oh.” Charles shakes his hand, smiling awkwardly. “Er, nice to meet you.”

“What are you drinking? Oh, scotch, excellent. A man after my own heart. Come, I want to show you around.”

Charles follows him as Essex takes him on the tour of a club, pretending to be interested. In truth, somehow he’s not that curious about all the cages and equipment racks, not even about the scenes happening all over, some staged, and some real. He nods politely and drains his glass, replaced in his hand like magic, and lets Essex tug him around with a hand on his elbow. The man leans uncomfortably close as he speaks, but Charles forces himself to smile encouragingly. He knew what he was getting into.

“So what do you think?” Essex asks as they make a full circle.

“Oh. Um. It’s all very… impressive,” Charles says, aware that he sounds like an imbecile, but unable to help it.

Essex only laughs. “I should have realized you’d be uncomfortable, what with everyone recognizing you.”

Charles hasn’t thought of that until that moment, but now that Essex pointed it out, it’s obvious. The number of stares he’s attracted was definitely beyond normal.

“It’s fine,” he mutters, blushing.

Essex nods in sympathy. “Come on. Let’s go somewhere more private so we can talk.”

Charles is all for that idea, wanting to get the entire night over with. He’s not certain he wants a job here anymore. The money would have to be extraordinary. And where the hell is Logan?

The soundproofing between the back and the front of the club must be of the highest quality, because, once they step into Essex’s office, Charles can barely hear anything. The room’s décor reminds him unpleasantly of his father’s former office back at the mansion that Kurt had appropriated for his own, same dark wooden paneling and oppressive furniture.

“Sit, sit,” Essex invites, all but pushing Charles into a huge armchair that all but swallows him. It’s so soft that it’s impossible for him to keep his back straight. “Now then. I must say, you really are exceptionally beautiful. How has no one put a collar on that lovely neck yet?”

Charles freezes, his mouth going dry in shock. Surely, he must have misheard. A man as cultured as Essex appears to be would surely never say something that sounds like a line from a cheap, a really cheap porn flick.

“I beg your pardon?”

Essex smirks. “Oh, you’re good, but you can quit playing games, my boy. We both know why you came here.”

“I—I think there’s been a terrible mistake,” Charles says, heart jumping into his throat as he tries to get up. “I need to go.”

Essex pushes him back down almost playfully. “What’s your hurry? My friends and I have been waiting for this night for a long time, Charles. You wouldn’t want to repay our patience with such ingratitude.”

Friends? Charles tries to push up again, beginning to panic. “Mr. Essex, I—”

But Essex just nods at someone standing behind Charles's chair, and he had no idea there was someone in the room with them. A hand clasps his shoulder pressing him down, and before Charles can do so much as buck up against it, he feels a sharp prick at the side of his neck as the man injects him with something.

“No!” Charles breaks loose, seconds too late. “Let me go!”

He tries to get up, but his legs feel suddenly alien, refusing to function as he needs them to. Essex presses some kind of button on his desk, and, to Charles's immense shock, a wall slides to the side, revealing a room behind it. It’s like a scene from a James Bond movie, and it’s ridiculous, or would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t real. There’s a huge table in the middle, complete with restraints at every corner, spread bars already in place. A group of men stand around, watching the proceedings with interest.

Charles's head begins to spin madly; he feels hot all over, his pulse skyrocketing in his chest.

“No,” he mutters as someone drags him out of the chair and forward. “No-n-ngh ltm guh…”

Someone laughs. The rest ignore him. His vision gets blurry, faces swimming in and out, blown out of proportion. He only recognizes Essex who’s smiling benignly, watching him.

“Don’t worry, my dear Charles,” he coos, patting Charles's cheek. “You’ll be heftily compensated for your time… and any injuries you might sustain.”

“Enough of this, Nate,” someone calls out impatiently. “Strip him and get him here. We’re not paying you to talk to them.”

Hands grab at his t-shirt, and Charles tries to pull back. His coordination is shot, he can’t control the way his arms and legs are moving, and he’s nearly overwhelmed with a persistent sense of vertigo, but he won’t go down without a fight. Apparently, it’s amusing, because he hears laughter, magnified by his fucked-up perception. There’s a loud cracking sound, and it takes him a moment to realize that was his shirt being torn off of him.

“Ngh!” he screams, loud, if not articulate.

“Shit, he’s kicking up a storm here. Jack, how much did you give him?”

“Enough to keep him aware but docile; I don’t understand—”

“Well, maybe you should give him more, this ain’t a fucking fight club.”

A syringe enters his field of vision, hands holding on to him from everywhere. Charles howls. He’s so loud he feels like he might split his own skull open. They let go of him for a moment in shock, and he barrels into someone, using his body as a ram, intent on causing maximum damage. His brain, seconds behind the proceedings, yells at him about the element of surprise and using it, and Charles points the chaotic bundle of limbs that seem to belong to him toward the door and makes a run for it.

It’s panicked and terrible. He smashes into walls, trips and falls, and has no idea where is up or down, but keeps on moving. There are urgent screams coming from behind him, spurring him on. He has no sense of direction, and even if he did, it wouldn’t do him much good, but his mind is clear. ‘Docile but aware.’ He was meant to be aware for that.

Fury makes his vision red-hazed and even more blurry, but it also gives him a boost. Pain flares up all over his body as he keeps on bouncing between walls, nearly cracking his skull open, angry tears spilling from his eyes, as Charles pushes forward. His charmed fucking life is still very much that, because all of a sudden, he bursts through a set of heavy double doors and into the club, making people yell and scatter.

Someone tries to grab him, someone cries out, not having gotten out of the way fast enough. Charles's lungs are burning, his throat is getting tighter, and he can’t get enough air. His vision is going, and he can hear Essex yelling from somewhere behind him. Despair drains the last of his hysterical strength, and he cries in rage and terror, falling down as his wayward feet trip over something, unable to get up again.

There are hands on his shoulders suddenly, jerking him up, and then a voice he knows emits a deafening roar. Familiar scent hits Charles's nostrils, and he wants to wail in relief, because it’s Logan, Logan is here, and that’s a good thing, though Charles is rapidly forgetting why. Logan lifts him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and curses a mean streak as Charles's limbs continue to kick him. He tries to apologize, but it’s no use. The last thing he remembers is the horrified face of the bouncer, the same one who led him in, just before Logan’s fist connects with it.

--

Insomnia has become such a staple in his life of late, that when a call comes in at two in the morning, Erik is still awake if not entirely lucid. He glances at the screen.

Charles

Stupefied, he blinks. The name keeps on flashing. His hand trembling slightly, he picks up.

“Charles?”

But the gruff voice that responds is unfamiliar.

“It’s Logan. Charles is in trouble. You need to get over here now.”

Erik sits up bolt upright, adrenaline spiking. “What have you done to him?”

“Nothing, but he’s in a bad way. You need to be here, Lehnsherr. If you care about him at all.”

“What the fuck? Of course, I care. Where the hell is ‘here’?”

“I’ll text you the address,” Logan says and hangs up.

The text comes in within half a minute, by which time Erik is dressed and has his car keys firmly in his hand. He drives like a demon, ignoring red lights and turn signals, hands gripping the wheel hard enough to leave imprints. He falls out of the car almost before the engine turns off, and races up the stairs, four floors up, banging on the door loud enough to wake the dead.

The door opens abruptly, and the same individual he’s seen with Charles that one time, glares at him over the threshold.

“Get in.”

Erik all but pushes him away. “What happened? Where’s Charles?”

Before Logan can reply, a loud moan comes in from the other room, and Erik is moving before he knows it. Charles is sprawled on the bed, clad in nothing but a pair of really low slung jeans and an open button-down that is clearly too big for him. He’s writhing and moaning, his hair matted with sweat, as though he’s running a high fever. And then—

“Erik,” Charles moans, clearly delirious. “Erik, please, please, no. Not him. No, not him. Erik! Please leave him alone. No, Erik, Erik, Erik, don’t leave…”

Erik's heart breaks that much more as he rushes over, all but falling onto the rumpled sheets, gripping Charles's shoulders.

“Charles, I’m here. I’m here. I’m not leaving. I’m never leaving. Look at me. I’m here.”

Charles's eyes are open, but they are blank, as though he’s seeing a different kind of reality entirely.

“Erik?” he gasps. “Erik, please don’t go. Please don’t. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you so much, please, please don’t leave.”

Erik puts his arms around Charles, holding onto him with more strength than is advisable, but he can’t help it.

“It’s all right,” he whispers. “It’s all right. I’m here. Charles, baby, of course I’m here. I’d never leave you. It’s all right. Shh, it’s okay.”

Charles turns into him, still whimpering, his arms and legs moving as though independent of him, making Erik strain his muscles to maintain his hold. He shifts, resting against the headboard and tugging Charles closer, kissing his hair, his own eyes stinging. He glances at Logan over Charles's head.

“What the fuck happened? What’s wrong with him?”

Logan watches them, his expression one of tightly contained fury. “Some dick injected him with PGP.”

What? Who?”

“Long story. I’ll tell you once he’s out.”

Erik glares, but as Charles chooses that moment to buck against him in some misguided flight for freedom and cries out Erik's name, his attention is instantly diverted. He soothes and murmurs and it seems to help, it just doesn’t last long.

“PGP doesn’t do this,” Erik mutters, recalling every bit of information he had to go through when he had a case involving this latest incarnation of the date rape drug. His limbs lock with rage when he thinks about what PGP does do.

“No,” Logan says. “Not normally. He’s having an idiosyncratic reaction. I’ve seen it a few times. Uncontrollable limb movement and paranoia. It’s a bitch, but it’s how he got away, so it’s not all bad. He’ll burn through it in a few hours.”

“Who.” Erik can barely speak for the amount of blinding rage choking him. “Who did this?”

Logan glares back. “You just watch him. He thinks you died or someone took you away or something. God knows why it bothers him, but it does. We’ll talk when he sleeps.”

He leaves with that, and, angry as Erik is, it’s not even a question for him if he follows. Not when Charles is alternately clutching at him and pummeling his ribs, sobbing Erik's name, like Erik's dying in front of him.

“I love you,” Erik says, immobilizing his wrists yet again, leaning down to kiss his forehead. “I love you so much, Charles. I’m here. I’ll always be here. I’m never leaving. I’m here. I’m here.”

It carries on for hour after hour, and it’s exhausting, both physically and emotionally. Charles's cries of despair aren’t getting any less heartbreaking for repetition, and Erik aches for him with everything he has.

He doesn’t notice as he dozes off, until someone shakes him by the shoulder. Erik blinks up to find Logan standing over him. The murky grey light falling from the window indicates it’s past dawn. Erik glances down. Charles is quiet and immobile, breathing evenly with his face buried in Erik's chest, his wrists, lax now, still in Erik's grip.

“Come on,” Logan says quietly. “He’ll be fine now; he just needs to sleep it off. Get up. I made coffee.”

Erik is loath to leave Charles, every instinct demanding he holds on. But the rational part of his mind is screaming for action. He must know what happened. He must know who to kill.

His body protests loudly as he begins to move, only now making it clear just how much of a workout holding Charles in one piece through the night has been. Erik very nearly groans out loud, surprised with a painful twinge from his back as he gets to his feet. He tucks Charles in carefully, drawing the covers up, and lingers to push his hair back from his face. He can’t help the impulse to lean over and press a kiss to each eyelid, frowning slightly at the smudged eyeliner.

Logan sets a chipped mug in front of him, and Erik gulps down what has to be the strongest and the most disgusting coffee he’s ever had. It does the trick, though. He’s far more coherent by the time the cup is empty.

“Talk,” he orders briskly, staring at Logan without any warmth. “Start with who the fuck you are and what the fuck you dragged Charles into.”

Logan scowls, but despite Erik's secret hope, doesn’t punch him. As he starts talking, though, every thought of taking it out on him flees Erik's mind.

He can’t believe what he hears, and yet at the same time he can. Even before Logan throws a magazine in his lap, and Erik nearly loses his mind at the sight of Charles tied up and gagged, face pressed into someone’s crotch, tears streaming down his face.

“That,” Logan says, “was how it started.”

He talks about the videos and about Essex, a nightclub owner with a reputation for foul play.

“There’s always been all sorts of rumors about what’s going on in his club,” Logan spits. “About parties gone wrong, where not everyone came willing. But they’ve always been just rumors. Nothing to pin him down for good. He’s got a shitload of money and pays the victims off really well. And if not them, their families.”

“Christ,” Erik breathes out. “And that son of a bitch wanted Charles?”

“More like got obsessed with him.” Logan glances down at the magazine spread. “He wasn’t the only one. I mean, look at him.”

Erik looks. He wants to kill everyone who’s ever looked at that picture.

“Why?” he asks angrily, throwing the magazine away. “Why would he do that? Charles has never been… what on Earth possessed him?”

“Why?” Logan growls. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you threw him out without a penny? What was he supposed to do? Flip burgers? He’d do it, too, except it’d take him an age and a day to scrounge up enough to pay for that damn school of his. You did this, Lehnsherr. Don’t you dare put this on him.”

“I wasn’t putting it on him, I was just—the risks he took, I…”

“Yeah, well, he’s a kid, and he was desperate. You wanna hit somebody, find a fucking mirror.”

Erik clenches his teeth and for the longest moment he can do nothing but breathe through it.

“I made a mistake,” he finally says. “I made a terrible, unforgivable mistake, I know that. But I love him. I never stopped loving him. I’m going to set this right if it’s the last thing I do. Now, I need to know everything you have on Nathaniel Essex.”

Logan gives him a long, measuring look, then nods.

--

Charles wakes up feeling as though he died, decomposed, and then was pulled back together, hastily patched up. His dreams as he remembers them were horrible. Erik dying, Erik being dragged away, Erik leaving, Erik hurt. Sometimes he’d feel Erik's arms around him, so solid and warm as though he was actually there, and the next moment, he’d be gone again. Charles's headache is so bad he feels it deserves its own name, and everything hurts.

“Hey, kid. You’re alive in there?”

Charles blinks, rolling onto his back with a groan and pushing himself up on his elbows.

“Logan?”

Logan hands him a glass of water. “Come on. Bottoms up.”

Charles takes it automatically, and then it’s like something switches on in his brain, making him realize just how thirsty he is. He drains the glass in seconds.

“Easy, easy. There’s more where that came from,” Logan says, taking the empty glass from him. “How are you feeling?”

Charles pushes up to sit, stifling a groan. “Like crap. What happened?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

“The club.” Charles frowns, as his thoughts scatter away like frightened mice. “You were late. I was at the bar, and then—Essex. He took me to his office… Oh my God.” Charles goes cold. “He—they. Did they—”

“No.”

“Logan, I think they—”

“Charles, look at me.” Logan catches his chin and forces him to meet his eyes. “You had an idiosyncratic reaction to the drug they gave you. It was supposed to put you out. It made you go berserk instead. You fought your way out, and then I got you.”

“Shit, Logan…”

“Breathe with me, kid. Come on. In. Out. Steady. There you go, easy, easy. Better?”

Charles nods, feeling the panic recede slowly. “Christ.”

“Yeah.” Logan pulls back, looking him over critically. “I’d say you got off easy, but not after the night you’ve had.”

“Is Erik all right? I know it’s silly, but in my dreams… or hallucinations, whatever they were. I just need to know. He’s fine, right? He’s okay?”

Logan seems to consider him, then says lightly, “He was fine the last I saw him couple of hours ago.”

Charles blinks, stilling. “What?” Not a dream? “Erik was here?”

“I called him.”

Charles stares, horrified. For a few torturous seconds he can’t say anything. When he has his vocal cords under control, he says, “Why?

Logan frowns. “Because you were screaming his name like someone was pulling your guts out. It was either knock you out or get him there, and I didn’t want to risk it, the state you were in.”

“Oh God,” Charles groans, burying his face in his hands. “He knows then. He knows everything. Oh God, why did you have to do it, Logan, why?”

“Because he had to know, Charles, damn it!” Logan snaps, clearly losing patience. “It’s his fault, he should bloody well know!”

“It’s not his fault! How is my stupidity his fault? You warned me not to pick up the phone, you warned me not to talk to anyone, and I did it anyway! Nobody forced me to go to that club, certainly not Erik!”

“It’s his fault you were in that situation in the first place. He was the one responsible for you, and he fucked it up.”

“He wasn’t responsible for me!” Charles glares. “I’m not a child, Logan. And I’m not a—we’re not all living the life, all right? He was my husband, not my keeper. I make my own damn mistakes, thank you very much. Erik was just one of them.”

“He was responsible for you,” Logan growls. “I don’t care what you call it.”

Charles's head is throbbing too much to keep shouting, but as he looks at Logan, he sees it suddenly. He’d asked himself, time and again, how it was possible that Logan, with all his caring, protective nature, was single. He sees it now. All of a sudden, he thinks about Marie, a woman he’s never even met, and feels a sharp pang of empathy.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” Charles says, forcing his tone to even out. After a few more steadying breaths, he asks plaintively, “Is it too risky to take some ibuprofen now?”

Logan shrugs. “Your liver, kid. You want me to get you some?”

“Please.”

He can worry about his liver when his head isn’t threatening to explode.

They barely talk for the rest of the morning, barring Charles thanking Logan for getting him out, and Logan explaining to him that going to the police would be a bad idea. Charles kind of suspected it might be, so he isn’t all that surprised. He doesn’t ask what Erik thought of it all or how embarrassed he was for Charles. He left and he, apparently, didn’t leave a message, so that should be answer enough. Charles presses his lips together and forbids himself to think about it any further. There is only so much emotional turmoil he can take within the same 24-hour cycle.

Thankfully, this morning wasn’t one when he was supposed to open the coffeeshop, so Charles borrows a fresh shirt from Logan, cleans his face as best he can, though there’s not much he can do about the bruises, and goes straight to the research center. Julia is the first one to see him, which is just his luck, since she’s the biggest gossip on campus.

“Jesus, Xavier,” she whistles. “You look like you took a tumble. And not the fun kind, if you catch my drift.”

Charles is still in too much pain to give it much of a fight. He forces a smile. “Believe it or not, I fell out of a taxi. My foot caught. You know how I am.”

He isn’t actually particularly clumsy, just selectively inattentive. She grins all the same. “Oh yeah.”

Both Moira and Hank stare at him in clear suspicion. Fortunately, Hank is easily distracted by strategically arranged sets of data streams, and Moira has a conference call that eats the rest of her afternoon. Charles immerses himself in work.

He checks his phone without meaning to, berating himself every time after. Logan checks in a few times, but Erik never does. Charles tells himself that everything is as it should be. He drags Hank to the coffeeshop with him after and then all but begs Angel to stay for a sleepover. She brings her cousin with her, and the four of them sprawl on the floor in the main room, eating the leftover pastry and watching Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door on Hank’s laptop. Angel declares it the funniest film she’s ever seen, while Rita cries her eyes out at the ending, and Charles finally feels like he can risk closing his eyes. Hank stays with him that night without asking any questions, snoring and taking up too much space on the cot, and Charles spends half the night grinning at the ceiling.

It gets easier the next day, and easier still the next. He’s still nervous walking home alone after dark, but he’ll have to learn to live with it. The rational part of his mind tells him that if Essex wanted to have him killed, he’d have done so already. The irrational part supplies burning memories of hands on his skin and the deep animalistic horror taking him over.

It’s later than usual on the fourth night when Hank drags him out to get some kebabs at a Moroccan place nearby. The place in question consists of a kebab stand manned by a growly man who never smiles (and never has change), and a few plastic tables and chairs. The kebabs, however, are absolutely to die for, and everyone who’s ever taken any classes here or knows anyone who’s ever taken classes here knows it. Which is why it’s not exactly a surprise to spot Alex Summers lounging in one of the plastic chairs, balancing it precariously on two legs and laughing with his mates.

“Maybe we should take them to go,” Charles mutters.

But Hank, who’s ordered three portions for himself, shakes his head, oblivious to everything. “Nah. Too hungry.”

Charles sighs and prepares for the inevitable.

Sure enough, Alex spots him a few minutes later, just as Hank and Charles have found the least sticky table and are settling down. Charles nods at Alex, hoping that would conclude their interaction, but of course, no such luck. Alex says something to his friends, picks up his soda, and comes over.

It’s not that Charles is wary of Alex exactly. But Alex to him now represents that world, and what happened a few nights ago is still smarting.

“Hey, Charles, long time,” Alex says, commandeering a chair without invitation, straddling it and elbowing Hank in the ribs. “Bozo.”

Hank almost bites his fingers off under the spell of some serious kebab-shaped tunnel vision, but apart from that doesn’t seem that disturbed or surprised. “Alex,” he sighs. “How nice to see you again.”

Charles looks between them. “Wait, you two know each other?”

“Oh yeah.” Alex grins. “Hank tried to tutor me in math my first year here. I tried to tutor him in getting some game. By the looks of it, we both failed.” He laughs, though not maliciously.

Hank reddens, eyes still fixed on his food. “I dated that girl for three months, so speak for yourself.”

Alex lifts his hands up, still grinning. “My bad. So how’s life treating you nerds?” He catches Charles's eye and winks.

“Can’t complain,” Hank replies. “How’s yours? Hey, didn’t you work at that club that got burned down last night? The Den or the Dungeon or something?”

“The Lair,” Alex corrects, rolling his eyes. “And no, I did a gig there once, I didn’t stay. The pay was good, but the owner was a seriously creepy fuck.”

Charles realizes abruptly that his appetite is gone as though by magic, and he’s just sitting there, holding the half-eaten roll with no idea what to do with it. Carefully, he lowers it down.

“The Lair got burned down?” he asks, taking care to articulate.

“Yeah, haven’t you heard?” Alex blinks. “It’s all everyone talks about. Well, everyone on our circuit, that is.”

“I saw it on the news.” Hanks shrugs, displaying no curiosity, as he crumples the empty wrapper and reaches for the next roll. “They said it was a short circuit, because apparently they installed some clever electronic toys for the reopening or something, and the grid couldn’t handle it.”

“My little brother works at the fire department,” Alex says, helping himself to Charles's fries. “He says it’s most likely arson, but the kind that would be impossible to prove.”

Charles blinks. “Did anyone get hurt?”

“Nah, it happened at, like, six in the morning. The night’s crowd’s been gone, and the staff knew the drill and got out. But get that—” Alex’s face suddenly becomes a lot more animated. “The owner’s been beaten to a pulp. Like, before the fire even started, someone beat him black and blue, and oh—this is brilliant, Scott overheard the paramedics say he’s not going to be able to use his equipment any time soon or at all.” Alex snickers.

Hank stops eating, giving him a horrified look. “Alex… that’s terrible.”

“You don’t get it.” Alex rolls his eyes. “Essex was a seriously creepy fuck. Like, he used to run this website called ‘Extreme Gangbang’ or something like that; it was seriously fucked-up shit, but it was popular, right? Only there were always rumors that those guys were drugged to the gills and none of them consented. Essex and his gang just filmed them for fun and then shared. It was disgusting, but he paid them off, so no one would go to the police. The site got shut down eventually, but there were still rumors.”

Hank pushes the food away, looking slightly green. “He should be in jail.”

“Well, looks like he’s going.” Alex shrugs. “Whoever worked him over last night stuffed his pockets full of flashdrives with the original videos, including the B-rolls, where he basically describes in detail everything he did, the sick bastard. He’s going away for sure. When he can sit up and pee without screaming, that is.”

“Sounds like it couldn’t have happened to a better man, but that’s still sick,” Hank says, and pushes his chair back. “I’ll go get some water. Excuse me.”

“Hey,” Alex says, looking at Charles. “You all right? You’re white as a sheet, man.”

“I’m fine.” Charles swallows. “Jesus, Alex.”

“Yeah, well.” Alex shrugs. “That’s the biz for you. It used to be a lot wilder back in the day, from what the guys are telling me.” He glances over his shoulder at Hank, who’s well out of earshot, before saying, “I’m sorry your vid got destroyed in the fire. I mean, it was a cool vid, Doug showed me pieces. You could have used it to build up your portfolio. It’s a shame that Essex had the only copy. He paid Doug real well to destroy his.”

“Oh,” Charles breathes out, his pulse pounding madly at his temples. “Yes. How ever will I cope.”

Alex lifts an eyebrow at the sarcasm and glances back again to make sure Hank can’t hear. “Seriously, you look like you saw a ghost.”

“I’m fine, Alex,” Charles replies, a little angry at himself for reacting so obviously. “It’s just I’m not really that good with violence. You can’t tell me you’re okay with this.”

Alex shrugs. “Dude, I’m from Jersey. Where I grew up, this is Tuesday.”

Charles can’t say anything to that.

“Still,” Alex says. “Maybe it’s time I got out of the business. I have enough saved, and I got my bike. I’ve been getting pretty good on the dirt track, so maybe I’ll try racing for real.”

Charles blinks. Alex grins at him toothily. “Short track to hell, yep. All the way, baby. Gotta live dangerously, or why do it at all?”

Charles grins at him, despite himself. “You’re something else, Alex.”

“And proud.” Alex winks. “You’ve got to have the good brother and the fuck-up, right? That’s what my dad used to say. I’m kind of digging it.”

Hank returns with three bottles of ice tea, and Alex switches the topic in favor of interrogating Hank about the current state of his love life. Hank returns the favor by grilling Alex about his life choices. They’re still bickering when Charles leaves a while later, citing a headache he doesn’t have but might as well.

He walks home slowly, trying to process. His mind rebels. He calls Logan, but gets ignored. Charles frowns even as he leaves a message. Logan has to know something. One hell of a time he picks not to answer his phone.

Mike’s is quiet this late in the evening, save for a few caffeine addicts and a group of students revising for finals, who wouldn’t know the time of day if it hit them in the face. Charles waves at Angel on his way upstairs, but she looks distracted, busy with the register. He lingers, suddenly not wanting to be alone in his head just now. He’s buzzing with too many questions, and there’s no one to ask them. But caffeine is the last thing he needs right now, so upstairs it is. Maybe he can get some studying of his own done, since it’s very clear to him that he won’t be able to sleep.

His attention scattered, he doesn’t notice it until he all but trips over the lone figure sitting on the floor, back to Charles's door. Charles draws in a sharp breath, and everything coalesces suddenly in his mind into a singular, stark clear picture.

“Erik,” he breathes out half-disbelieving, and yet all too inevitable. “Oh, you stupid, stupid son of a bitch. Of course, it was you.”

Erik looks up at him. His leather jacket is thrown carelessly on the floor; his dark jeans and t-shirt look like he’s been rolling in the sewer. There’s a long, nasty looking cut across his forehead, held together by nothing but bandaids; his lip is split, and there’s a dark bruise under his jaw. His knuckles are raw, as though he’s been pounding gravel. His eyes stand out sharply on his face, almost glowing in the semi-darkness like a cat’s.

His lips twitch in a smile, tentative, but proud. That’s an expression a toddler would wear, presenting his parents with a stick figure drawing he made. “Hey.”

Charles closes his eyes and wants to die. “You idiot.”

Erik pouts. “That’s uncalled for.”

“Uncalled for?” Charles stares at him. “Uncalled for? God, I swear, I could kill you right now. Why would you do something like that? You’re one of the smartest men I know, God, Erik. What were you thinking? You can go to jail for that, you understand that?”

Erik scoffs. “They’d never be able to trace it back to me. Who do you take me for?”

Right, because Charles just happens to have possibly the only man in the city who has enough knowledge and expertise to literally get away with murder for an ex. Brilliant.

“So what was it then?” Charles bristles, channeling all his instinctive terror at the danger Erik was in into anger. “Why did you do it? Is it some sort of ego thing? No one can touch what is yours?”

Erik pulls himself to his feet slowly, grimacing and using the door for balance. Charles absolutely doesn’t want to cry at the sight of that.

He expects Erik to get angry, too, to yell something like: ‘Damn right, no one can touch what is mine’ or something to that effect. But Erik only looks at him as though nothing else exists or has ever existed, and then reaches carefully with his hand and presses his thumb against the still fading bruise on Charles's jaw.

“He hurt you,” he says softly, caressing the spot. “He hurt you, and he wanted to—”

Don’t.

“—to rape you. And I should have killed him for that, and I wanted to.”

“Erik—”

“You have no idea what it cost me not to kill him.”

Charles lets his eyes slide closed, leaning into the touch. “You’re insane.”

The sound Erik makes is half a laugh, half a sob. “Maybe. But he hurt you, and I—I had to… Charles—”

Charles shivers as the memories he held at bay for days on end flood his mind. Hands on his skin, greedy, rough, unwanted. The sound his shirt made as it was ripped apart. The laughter. The horrible table. The sensation of complete helplessness and anger at having to be witness to his own rape. The absolute, mind-numbing terror.

He starts to shake. Erik's hand slides onto his shoulder. “Charles?”

“This is not,” Charles manages, “this is not in any way to be taken as me approving of your actions. Do you understand?”

“Yes?” Erik sounds confused, eyebrows knit tightly together.

“This is not approval,” Charles repeats as he steps closer, pressing himself against Erik, burying his face in Erik's neck.

“Oh,” Erik breathes out, and it comes out shocked, reverent. His arms close around Charles at once cautiously, as though expecting to be slapped away. When Charles doesn’t object, the hold solidifies. “Not approval,” Erik murmurs, pressing a kiss against his hair. “I understand.”

“I’m serious,” Charles insists, blinking tears away.

“I know.”

“It was very stupid of you. Reckless. You could have—you could have gotten seriously hurt.”

Erik hums, holding him. “I didn’t though.”

“It was still stupid.”

“All right.”

“You’re infuriating.”

He can hear the smile in Erik's voice. “But you’re here anyway.”

“I might have some sort of brain damage.”

Erik laughs. “Of course.”

When Charles pulls back at last, Erik isn’t quite fast enough to hide a wince. Charles frowns.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No.” Erik grimaces. “I bruised my ribs. Logan jerked the harness a bit too roughly on our way out.”

Logan was there?”

Erik shrugs. “He was familiar with the territory and he insisted.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “Of course, he did. I should have realized that something like that required a committee.”

Erik grins in an ‘aw shucks’ kind of way, looking both homicidal and adorable. Charles's treacherous body decides that it’s as good incentive as any to send a wave of warmth spreading all over him.

“Can I—” Erik sounds tentative the way Charles has never heard him before. “Can I stay the night? Not for anything,” he hastens to add. “Just I—I need to be near you tonight. If you… if that’s—”

He’s floundering, and Charles folds like a house of cards.

“Yes,” he sighs, biting his lip to prevent himself from grinning like a madman. “Come in.”

--

They take turns in the bathroom. When Charles comes back, dressed in sweatpants and a soft tee he wears to bed, he finds Erik stretched out on the cot, looking anything but relaxed.

“You know,” Charles says off-handedly, as he puts away his things, “if you take your jeans off, I won’t think you’re planning something untoward.”

He catches Erik's soft grin out of the corner of his eye and has to fight back one of his own. He feels less like grinning when he sees Erik wince again as he pulls his jeans off.

“Let me see,” Charles says, sitting down on the cot next to him, hand moving to the hem of Erik's shirt.

Erik catches his wrist, halting him. “You won’t see anything. My ribs are bruised a bit, that’s all.”

Charles locks eyes with him, pressing his lips together. After a few seconds, Erik sighs, glancing away, and releases him. Charles tugs the shirt up and sucks in a breath.

“Christ, Erik. This looks—”

“It’s just bruising,” Erik insists, pulling his shirt back down. “Trust me, Charles, I’ve had my ribs broken a few times. This is nothing.”

“You’ll get an X-ray, yeah? And that cut needs stitches.”

“Yeah.”

“Tomorrow?”

Erik glares at him. “Yes, mother.”

Charles grins. “Don’t make me put you in the corner.”

As he reaches to turn the light off, he asks himself not for the first time what on Earth makes him feel free to talk to Erik that way, when most people would cower before him. Erik has given this power to him from the beginning, freely. No, forget that. Willingly. He was very persistent in handing it over. Why? What makes Charles so bloody special?

“You’re brooding,” Erik says in the dark, as they settle in side by side, close but not touching.

“It’s nothing,” Charles says. “Just trying to figure something out.”

“What?”

“Just—something.” He pauses, his thoughts scattering. “Is Logan all right?”

“Yeah,” Erik replies, tone suddenly grouchy. “That guy is a pain in the ass.”

Charles grins. “That he is.” And he must be feeling suicidal or something, because he says, “I slept with him, you know.”

He doesn’t turn his head, but he can feel Erik going absolutely still next to him. A few torturous seconds pass, and then Erik exhales air very slowly.

“I figured.”

Of all things, that was not the response Charles expected. “Oh?”

“He’s a bit overinvested when it comes to you to be just a friend.”

“He is, though.” Charles pushes himself up on his elbow. “It was only just the once, it meant nothing. We were blowing off some steam after a shoot, and—”

“Charles,” Erik sounds pained. “I don’t actually need the details.”

Charles traces the contours of his face with his eyes in the dark, then slowly settles back down. Erik clears his throat.

“When I went to Tokyo, I… There were—men. I was… very upset.”

Angry. Charles can read between the lines. Angry and hurt. And it’s only natural, knowing Erik, but boy, does this hurt to hear.

“I know your MO,” Charles says, not quite able to keep the hurt notes out of his voice. He does know. He was part of Erik's MO after all, once upon a time. “I don’t need the details, either.”

He can tell that Erik is looking at him. “Charles—”

“It’s all right. We were broken up.”

He doesn’t remind either of them that they are still broken up. Between them, Erik reaches to take his hand. Charles should pull his away, he really should. He doesn’t.

“I’m still sorry,” Erik says.

Charles sighs, closing his eyes. “I know. Let’s just…let’s just sleep, Erik, all right?”

“Yeah. All right.”

He doesn’t mean to move. A part of him, a petulant, stubborn part, attached to its wounds, doesn’t want him to, but the rest of him doesn’t care. He can still read Erik like a book, even now, in the dark, in silence. Charles shuffles closer, curls against Erik's side, luxuriating in the warmth emanating from him. He presses his nose into Erik's shoulder, sighing in contentment.

He’s missed this. In the dark and quiet, listening to the even sound of Erik's breathing, everything else is easy to forget. Not for good, just for a while. This is real, this fragile, intimate connection. It feels like the only thing that has ever been real. Erik turns his head, nuzzling his hair, half-asleep already, and Charles feels the rest of the tension bleed out of him. For the first time in days, he’s not afraid to close his eyes, and falls asleep easily, between one half-formed thought and the next.

--

He wakes up alone, knowing immediately that it’s ungodly early. It’s not his day to open the coffeeshop, but Charles treads down anyway, hoping Angel has started the machines already. He needs caffeine to feel properly disappointed.

Angel is there indeed, cleaning the counter, the machines purring gratifyingly behind her. She gives Charles a small smile as he mumbles a ‘Good morning’ and heads straight for the dripping one, concentrating hard on pouring scolding hot coffee into his mug without spilling it. Angel wisely waits until he inhales half of it, before talking.

“Hey, I hope you don’t mind that I let him in yesterday,” she says, looking at Charles warily. “He looked kind of rough, but I thought—”

Still only marginally more coherent, Charles tries to look a question. “Hm?”

“Erik.” Angel tilts her head to the side, and as Charles looks past her, he can see Erik sitting at a table by the window, a mug of his own in his hands. He’s watching Charles with a fond smile.

“Oh,” Charles says intelligently and drinks more coffee. “It’s fine. Excuse me.”

“Sure.”

He trots around her and across the floor, mostly still clear of chairs, until he can sit down across from Erik. “Hey.”

“Morning.” Erik grins, and this is where Charles remembers that Erik is a disgustingly morning person, who goes on his crack-of-dawn runs not because he must, but because he actually enjoys them.

Charles looks at him, squinting. “You look terrible.”

He does. The cut on his forehead had reopened during the night, and the bruising around his mouth is stark and ugly.

Erik only shrugs. “It’s nothing. I’ll stop by the hospital on my way.”

Charles takes a sip of his coffee. “What will you tell them?”

“That I got mugged,” Erik says, unconcerned.

Charles lifts his eyebrows. “Even I can tell those are over a day old.”

“I’ll pay cash.”

“Ah.”

They sit for a while in silence that is companionable mostly because it’s too bloody early to feel one way or the other about anything. Charles looks out the window at the streets that are in no rush to come back to life. His mind is curiously quiet.

“Charles, I, um. I wanted to ask you something?”

“Hm?”

“Do you think we can… maybe meet up for coffee sometime?”

Charles actually turns away from the window to look at him.

“I know what you said on the phone,” Erik hastens to add, lifting his hands up for good measure. “I know. But—I miss you in my life. Just talking to you, I… I would really love if we could do that sometime, maybe. What do you think?”

Charles frowns, too painfully slow for this. Vaguely, he wonders if this hasn’t been Erik's plan all along. Erik knows, after all, just how long it takes for Charles to fully reboot in the morning. But the expression on Erik's face makes him abandon that idea. Erik looks so earnest and so visibly ready for rejection, bracing himself as he watches Charles, that it makes Charles feel bad just keeping him in suspense like that. He tries to rally. His brain resists loudly.

“I think,” Charles says, looking forlornly at the bottom of his mug. “Oh Christ, I think I should have moved to bloody Stanford.”

Erik blinks. “What?” Then he glances down and casually switches Charles's empty mug with his own, still half full. “Stanford?”

“Never mind,” Charles sighs, taking a sip. It’s lukewarm, but still good. “Just something Moira said. Hey, you know, her boyfriend really hates you, and he’s a really scary fellow. Hank almost fainted that one time he visited. I think he used to work for NSA or something—”

“Charles.”

“Yes, fine. Okay. We can—we can meet up sometime.” He sighs, drinks the last of the coffee, and finally looks up. “I missed you, too.”

The smile Erik gives him pulls his split lip open again, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

“Bloody hell,” Charles mutters, hands him a napkin, and goes to get a refill.

--

In the week that follows before Erik calls him to make a date, Charles manages to curse himself a few hundred times for even considering the idea. Yet somehow he never quite manages to work himself up to say ‘no.’ By day three, he’s so jittery, people begin to give him looks, and Hank corners him eventually and refuses to budge until Charles spills. Charles tells him and braces himself for a lecture. Hank shrugs.

“So. Kitty and I still go out to get some food sometimes. I thought it’d be weird, but… Well, it’s just—normal. I don’t know.”

Surprisingly, this is exactly what his meeting with Erik feels like when Erik finally does call. They meet up at a little café halfway between Erik's office and campus, and, barring the first few moments of awkward smiles and negotiating chairs, it’s just that—normal. Charles doesn’t have a baseline for this, because his history with Erik is, well, unique. But if he doesn’t focus on that, and instead just treats Erik as—well, Erik, there’s not much room for weirdness left.

Erik tells him about his work, the new firm he is building with Emma on the ruins that Shaw has left behind. Apparently, Emma has taken over all major old clients, while Erik prefers to focus on the political and social end of the spectrum, actively pursuing cases against gender inequality, harassment of immigrants, and racial bias. Charles blinks and stares the first time he hears that.

“And Emma is fine with you doing that? More importantly, you’re fine with it?”

Erik shrugs, looking thoughtful. “It’s what I wanted to do at the beginning, actually. Before Shaw, before my mother got sick. I grew up watching the way she was treated, and I wanted to make every responsible person pay for that.”

That, Charles has no trouble at all seeing.

“And Emma’s fine, because she gets to keep all the top billings to herself, while I establish our reputation as the firm fighting for social equality. Apparently, it does wonders with those millennials who did manage to make money.”

Charles matches his grin. “That sounds… just the right side of cynical, actually. You look like it’s really working for you.”

Erik pauses, considering it, then nods slowly. “I think it is. Shaw was right, winning does give you a high. But this—this feels different. Before it was just about who has the biggest dick. But with these kinds of cases, it’s still about who has the biggest dick, but it’s also doing something I believe in. That lots of people believe in.” He makes a face. “It’s kind of weird.”

“Not to be the big bad wolf anymore?” Charles smiles. “Yes, I bet it is.”

They don’t meet too often. Once a week, sometimes three times in two weeks. At first, Charles is relieved at that. It’s still weird how not weird those little dates are. Even trying to figure out what they are is breaking his brain. But as time goes by, he gets used to it, and then—then he realizes he wants more. Erik is busy, he gets that. But it’s still a battle not to beg him to stay ten minutes longer after lunch or not to run after him to swing by the coffee cart together. Charles doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He shouldn’t be feeling that way. He shouldn’t. Especially, since Erik is acting like a perfect gentleman, no lingering looks, no accidental touches, and when Charles, forgetting himself, tries to flirt with him, he simmers it down to friendly teasing so skillfully Charles doesn’t notice until afterwards. It’s… unsettling.

The one time it does get a little tense is when Charles, distracted, brings up the subject of his tuition. Erik goes very still, setting his chopsticks down, and waits for a break in Charles's babbling word stream, then says in a quiet tone:

“Charles, you should really let me pay your tuition.”

Charles stiffens, coming to his senses. “No,” he says at once.

For the first time in a long time, Erik's mask of perfect civility breaks as his eyes flash with annoyance. “But this is silly. I owe you—”

“No, you don’t.”

“Charles—”

“Erik, no. All right?” Charles presses, angry. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up. Slipped my mind who I was talking to. I wasn’t trying to guilt trip you—”

“I know that—”

“I was just venting. Forget it. I don’t need anything from you.”

Erik leans back in his chair, eyes narrowed, jaw tense. “You’ve made that abundantly clear.”

Charles looks away, frustrated. He’s seized by an overwhelming urge to just get up and leave, but he’s an adult, dammit. And like it or not, he and Erik have some sort of relationship, God help him. There’s got to be a way to move past that, and it’s clear that Erik isn’t going to let it go.

“Perhaps,” Charles says slowly, an idea beginning to take shape in his head.

“Yes?” Erik leans toward him, eyes intent and focused. “Perhaps what, Charles?”

“I can’t take money from you,” Charles says, following the string until it reaches its conclusion. “Not again. But perhaps you could help me get some of my own.”

“I’m listening.”

“I can’t get a loan, because I have no backing. And I don’t qualify for financial aid, because Kurt kept that trust fund in my name when he took over. Some kind of technicality, I don’t know. Point is, every time I apply, it comes up, and they can’t do anything about it. I have no expertise in finances, but perhaps you could look into it?”

Erik is staring at him blankly. “You have a trust fund?”

“No. I had a trust fund a long time ago. They made me sign it over or whatever, I don’t know the details.”

“Charles—”

I don’t want it, Erik,” Charles says firmly, because he knows exactly where Erik's mind just went. Once a lawyer. “I want nothing his hands touched. But if I could be finally free of it, completely free at last, that would be really helpful.”

Erik is frowning. “So what, you’d let him just get away with it?”

“I believe his life choices will be his own punishment. I want nothing to do with him, Erik.” Charles narrows his eyes. “Listen, if you can’t do what I ask, don’t do anything. I don’t want that money. I don’t want you to wrestle it away from him. I won’t take it if you do. Do you understand?”

Erik doesn’t look appeased, but he nods reluctantly. “Send me the details, and I’ll see what can be done.”

“Do you promise not to—”

“Yes, Charles, I heard you.”

Which isn’t the most ironclad of reassurances, but nothing can be gained from continuing to argue. Erik is as stubborn as he is sometimes. Most of the time. Charles sighs and lets it go.

Erik calls him back in four days, earlier than they would normally meet up.

“You no longer have any connection to that trust fund, technical or otherwise,” he says, cutting straight to it. “I’m emailing you the paperwork you’ll need to submit to get financial aid. If they turn you down with that, call me back immediately, and we’ll sort it out.”

“Um,” Charles says, slightly whiplashed. “I mean, is it—” His phone pings as the email drops. “Erik, I—er, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Erik's tone is dry as dust. There’s a pause, and then he says in a softer voice, “Let me know how it goes.”

It goes, as it happens, brilliantly. In fact, his application is approved with such speed that Charles begins to suspect Erik has called ahead. Except, he couldn’t have, because the financial manager doesn’t look like she’s about to lose it. Charles leaves her office in profound shock that is slowly giving way to delight.

Hank laughs at him. “I’ve never seen anyone so happy with setting themselves up with thousands of dollars’ worth of debt.”

Charles beams at him. “Right? I feel like a real boy now.”

The only thing remaining is to find himself an actual apartment, and Charles sets to it almost gleefully, rejoicing in every viewing of some tiny roach-infested space requiring a two-hour commute like a kid opening Christmas presents. So far, the commute is the only thing that’s stopping him.

The classes let up for the summer, he’s spending a peaceful afternoon in the lab with Hank, when they hear a piercing shriek coming from Moira’s office. Hank’s head snaps up so fast it’s a miracle he hasn’t broken something. They stare at each other as though asking ‘You heard it too?’ Another shriek, even shriller than the first, reverberates between the glass walls. Both Hank and Charles jump to their feet, rushing across the hall.

Moira is sitting at her desk, hands in her hair clutching it wildly, as she stares in wide-eyed shock at something on her screen.

“It’s an email,” Hank reports in a hushed tone, glancing over Moira’s shoulder warily, as though she’s a bomb ready to go off. “It says… oh my.”

“What?” Charles asks impatiently. “What does it say?”

“It says, Columbia University research center and our project specifically has just received a non-refundable donation of two-point-four million dollars,” Hank reads in a hoarse voice. He looks up at Charles. “I thought your family disinherited you or something?”

“My family?” Charles stares.

“The donation was made by Sharon Xavier and Kurt Marko.”

Charles flops down to the floor without meaning to. His backside hurts, but it’s a distant sensation. He buries his face in his hands. Then he starts to laugh.

He should have known. He was so relieved to get his loan and so grateful that Erik respected his wishes, he was fooled into a false sense of safety. He thought that would be it. He should have known Erik would never let something like that go. Charles said he didn’t want the money, but he never expressly forbade Erik to take any other action. A lawyer. A fucking lawyer. Charles can’t even complain that Erik didn’t do exactly what he wanted. He just… Oh God. It’s crazy. Completely insane, but also, just a tiny bit hilarious.

Charles doesn’t call. He waits until their next scheduled lunch date, and he has it all rehearsed, but when he sees Erik sitting there, looking both nervous and unfortunately pleased with himself, Charles loses it. He can’t help his grin if someone held a gun to his head.

“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” he asks by means of greeting.

Erik grins back, lifting his hands. “Hey, you never told me not to put the fear of God in him. You should have known better.”

“I really should have, shouldn’t I? I forgot how sneaky you could be.”

“Are you mad?”

“That you made him donate it to the project, so that I won’t be able to turn it down? I should be. But I can’t.”

“It’s for the good of the humankind. I’m very interested in the outcome of that research.”

“Of course, you are.”

“So you’re not mad?”

“I fucking hate you. I asked you to do one thing.”

“You never told me I couldn’t have a little fun while I was at it. And by the way, you’re welcome.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “You’re impossible. I have no idea why I even come to these anymore.”

“The gnocchi,” Erik deadpans.

Charles laughs. He feels giddy, lightheaded, the kind of champagne high one only gets from being smacked with something really good too many times in a short while. For once, he doesn’t fight it.

Erik watches him throughout lunch, the way he hasn’t in a long time. His eyes are bright, intent and focused, his smile is easy. He glances at his watch regretfully at the end and then sharply at Charles, studying his expression as Charles pouts.

“Have dinner with me,” Erik says suddenly, holding his eyes. “Tomorrow?”

“I um…” Charles trails off, caught off guard.

“Just dinner. I just hate that we always have to rush with this.”

Charles knows he shouldn’t. He knows right from wrong, despite what his life choices might say. But he makes the mistake of holding Erik's gaze a second too long.

Just dinner,” he repeats, trying to look stern.

Erik's expression melts in relief. “Thank you.”

Feeling suddenly too hot and uncomfortable, Charles looks away, blushing. “Yes, well. How formal a place are we talking about? Do I need to buy a suit?”

“I was thinking more along the lines of you coming over to my new place,” Erik says softly. “And I’ll cook for you.”

Yes, because that’s what all ‘just dinners’ look like. But in for a penny.

“New place?” Charles asks.

“Yes. I sold the loft some months ago. I needed to put in capital contribution, since I’m now a managing partner. Besides,” he adds in a quieter tone, “I bought it from Shaw. He never lived in it, but still.”

Charles studies him. Erik isn’t the kind of man to be bothered by things like ‘lingering negative energy.’ But there’s something in the way he suddenly doesn’t meet Charles's eyes that makes it all too clear. Shaw might have never lived at the loft, but Charles did. It probably wasn’t the kind of reminder Charles would have wanted, either.

“I see,” Charles says. “Well. Text me the address.”

Erik nods, smiling gratefully for not being called out. “Until tomorrow then.”

--

Charles isn’t nervous. He forbids himself to feel nervous, because that would be ridiculous. Dinner is just another meal. In all the weeks they’ve been meeting up for lunch or coffee, Erik has never indicated he wanted more.

“He’s just making amends. Trying to rebuild the relationship,” Charles mutters to himself when a mental reminder no longer seems to be working.

He forbids himself to overthink his wardrobe as well. The way he’s been dressing lately when meeting with Erik seems uncomfortably close to trying to impress. That green shirt that made his eyes pop. Tight-fitting slacks. Jeans that rode a little bit too low, hanging on his hipbones. True, a lot of his wardrobe choices had to do with shopping on a budget, but Charles is self-aware enough to admit that Erik's continuous display of perfect non-reaction was beginning to bother him.

So that morning he firmly stays away from anything he currently owns that might look remotely flattering, opting instead for a pair of baggier jeans and a simple t-shirt. Then he remembers Moira’s long-suffering look as she complains about having to work with “a bunch of goddamn preteens”, and throws on a cardigan that would at least earn him a pass at trying to look professional. He studies himself in the mirror. He’s one pair of huge square glasses away from looking like every high school movie nerd cliché. He thinks of Erik's easy elegance and sighs a little.

Charles forbids himself a lot of things that day. He forbids himself to think about dinner, which works about as well as can be expected. He does valiantly attempt to keep himself busy, and for the most part succeeds. Hank gives him a strange look in the face of his sudden enthusiasm about cleaning the lab equipment, but fortunately doesn’t comment.

Charles forbids himself to overthink it while standing at the dessert aisle of the supermarket close to Erik's place. It would have been classier to bring wine, but Charles can’t afford the kind of wine Erik is used to, and he had sat through many a lecture about the quality of vintage at his mother’s knee, so it’s not like he can claim ignorance. Dessert it is, even though Erik firmly believes that carbs are the enemy, and will probably pop a vessel at the sight of triple-chocolate no-flour vegan cake that most likely contains more calories than a metric ton of butter. Charles grins at the image.

The building doesn’t have a doorman, and it makes Charles sigh in relief. He didn’t know he was still holding on to that humiliating experience, but apparently it was still with him. Sternly, he orders all thoughts of that encounter away. The elevator pings before Charles is fully ready, but there’s nothing for it. He steps out and rings the doorbell, smiling cheerfully at the intercom camera.

The door opens so fast, Erik had to be waiting behind it. Which is, of course, ridiculous, as Erik is a grown man completely devoid of nerves. He’s standing there, looking strangely soft in well-worn jeans and a polo shirt, smiling in welcome.

“Charles. Right on time.”

“Ta-da,” Charles sing-songs stupidly, lifting the box in his hands. He feels like an idiot, but he can’t take it back.

Erik glances at the chocolaty goodness and narrows his eyes. “You’re a menace. Come in.”

Erik's place is… not what Charles expected. Compared to the loft, it’s on the humbler side, although still a spacious two-bedroom with a living space big enough to host parties. It’s also nowhere near as imposing. The coffee table is a huge artisan-crafted thing that Charles falls immediately in love with, contrasting nicely with the black leather of the couch that looks incredibly soft and would probably feel heavenly. The furniture is a mixture of functionality and style, a little too imperfect to have been put together by an interior designer. There’s a magnificent painting of a ship fighting a storm on the wall, and Charles is hopelessly drawn to the drama of it. The tall windows offer a great view, but not so splendid as to be obnoxious.

“So what do you think?” Erik asks as they finish the tour in the kitchen.

Charles looks around at the warm-colored countertop, black cupboards, the working area large enough to appease someone who cooks really often and enjoys it a lot, at the thick wax candles on the dinner table.

“It’s a great place,” he says honestly. “I love it.”

Something relaxes in Erik at the words that Charles wasn’t aware was tense before. His smile is almost shy. “I furnished it myself. Emma said I had no taste, but I just went with my gut, and… well, I like it.”

Charles smiles at him. “It suits you.”

For a long moment, they just stand there, smiling at each other, until Charles realizes his gaze has migrated to Erik's lips. He jumps back and rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. When he chances a glance up, Erik is still looking at him, a speculative expression on his face.

“Right, well, I hope you still like lasagna,” he says, walking over to check on the oven.

“Your mother’s favorite recipe?” Charles grins. “You know I can’t resist that.”

Erik grins. “Go on, sit. Wine?”

“Please.”

It does go smoother with wine. The awkwardness seems to dissipate as they eat, Charles for once being unable to hold back his enthusiasm about a possible breakthrough they seem to be tiptoeing around at the lab, Erik listening with interest, his comments insightful as ever. It doesn’t feel like such a stretch from their lunch non-dates, barring the change of venue and the fact that Erik is walking around barefoot, making a tingly, warm feeling push at Charles's insides. They switch to dessert, Erik succumbing ruefully to Charles's teasing, moaning softly in pleasure at the first bite of chocolate cake, making Charles laugh and want to ruffle his hair.

“Let’s finish that wine on the balcony,” Erik says, refilling Charles's glass. “Go set up, I’ll clear the dishes and join you.”

As Charles walks into the hall though, the doorbell rings.

“Charles, could you get that?” Erik yells from the kitchen, clearly distracted. “It’s the messenger from the office; I’m waiting for a package.”

Charles sets the glasses aside and opens the door. He stares. Then stares some more.

The guy standing on the doorstep is probably his own age, perhaps a year or two older. He’s got honey-blond hair, warm brown eyes, the kind of skin that has that want-to-touch sun-kissed glow, and an enviable musculature. Charles knows all this, because the man is standing there dripping wet and naked, but for miniscule towel, wrapped precariously around his hips.

“Er—hi,” the Greek god of shower-gone-wrong blinks. “I’m looking for Erik.”

Charles blinks then lifts his eyebrows. “Oh, Erik?” he calls out, voice pitched to carry. He tells himself he’s the only one who can hear the mild hysteria in his tone. “Can you come out here? You have a visitor.”

Erik emerges from the kitchen, wiping his hands on the towel and frowning preemptively. When he sees the scene in front of him, his frown deepens.

“Who are you?” he asks, not particularly politely.

The towel guy blinks at the tone but almost instantly gives him a sunny grin, focusing all of his attention on Erik as though Charles has never even existed.

“Erik, hi! I’m Matt from 12B? You know my brother Marcus.”

Erik is gearing up for a proper glare. Charles resists the urge to elbow him in the ribs.

“I know Marcus,” Erik says neutrally. “He didn’t mention a brother.”

Matt beams as though he’s been handed over a prestigious award or something. “Only in town for a few days, I’m afraid. Listen, I had a mishap in the shower and now the water won’t stop. Marcus mentioned you’re a genius when it comes to that sort of thing? Could you take a look before I flood the apartment downstairs? I’m hopeless with the wrong kind of plumbing.”

“You need to call maintenance,” Erik says. “Surely, your brother gave you the number.”

“They said something about riser valves… I’ve no idea. It was up to my ankles when I ran out to get you. Could you just take a look?”

Erik's scowl intensifies. “I’m busy—”

“Go take a look, Erik,” Charles interrupts, smiling as Erik's gaze jerks immediately toward him. “Before this man floods your poor neighbors.”

Matt continues to ignore him, looking beseechingly at Erik. Erik glares at Charles for a moment, then sighs. “Fine. I’ll be a minute.”

Charles is sorely tempted to shout something juvenile like ‘Have fun exploring the plumbing’ after them, but resists. He falls back into the apartment, fighting down bouts of hysterical laughter. Picking up the glasses, he walks through the living room and out onto the balcony, still giggling, but with a curious sensation of queasiness in his stomach. He should make fun of Erik. That’s just a given. He rehearses lines as he drinks his wine, trying to settle on the best one before Erik comes back, which should be any minute.

Erik doesn’t come back until Charles has finished both glasses, contemplated the setting sun for an inordinate number of minutes, migrated back into the kitchen, and opened a new bottle. He’s taking a careful sip, when he finally hears the front door close. Erik obviously checks the living room first, cursing loudly when he discovers it empty. He strides into the kitchen, frowny as ever.

“Sorry about that—” he starts, but cuts himself off as he sees the newly open bottle. He lifts an eyebrow. “I see you decided to kick the party up a notch without me.”

Charles shrugs, leaning against the working table, tipping his chin back as he regards Erik. “Well, you were taking so long, I had to entertain myself somehow.”

Erik studies him carefully. “I’m surprised you didn’t leave.”

“And rob myself of the opportunity to ask just how quickly his towel slipped once he got you alone?”

“Charles—”

“Just out of curiosity—what took you so long?”

Erik rolls his eyes. “I didn’t have the easiest time closing the valve, and then had to call maintenance myself, because as it turned out he didn’t. Then I thought I’d better wait till they got there in case that idiot does more damage.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I think you might be too harsh on him. He got what he wanted, didn’t he? Not that it’s difficult, looking like that.”

Erik's eyes narrow, and then, to Charles's horror, the corner of his mouth begins to curl upward. “Charles,” he practically purrs. “Are you jealous?”

Charles huffs. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Oh, I’m ridiculous?” Erik smirks, stepping closer. “I’m not the one who’s blushing.”

Which, of course, makes Charles blush harder. “I’ve had rather a lot of wine.”

“Yes, and why is that?” Erik drawls, amused, drawing closer still. “It’s almost as if you thought I’d take him up on that ridiculous ploy of his and it made you—upset?”

“I’m not upset,” Charles argues, wishing Erik wasn’t hovering at the edge of crowding him in. Stepping away right now would be akin to admitting defeat, so he holds his ground, but it’s unnerving. “I’m annoyed, all right? You invite me to dinner, we’re having a perfectly civilized conversation, and then there’s a naked man on your doorstep, and he looks like a bloody Greek god—don’t you two make a pair, wouldn’t you know, and then you abandon me to chase that, and—”

Erik is grinning so hard, Charles wonders contemptuously how his face doesn’t split. “Charles, you pushed me out the door.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do anything but close the damn riser!” He pokes Erik in the chest. “You can’t tell me he didn’t drop his damn towel.”

“Oh, he did,” Erik confirms. “Twice.”

“Well then… why aren’t you over there still?”

“Why do you think?”

Charles glares at him, which, judging by Erik's reaction, fails to convey his anger. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”

“Yes. And you’re so jealous, it’s killing you,” Erik informs him almost tenderly, reaching out to tuck a lock of hair behind his ear. Charles shivers. Erik's expression softens further. “And I would gladly do something about it, but I can’t, because you said: ‘Just dinner.’”

Charles blinks. “What?”

“Just dinner,” Erik repeats with excruciating patience. “When I invited you, you said it was going to be just dinner. I’m just trying to respect your wishes.”

“Oh,” Charles breathes out. “And if it was up to you?”

Erik's gaze darkens in a way that sends a shot of heat down Charles's spine.

“Then I would show you exactly why you should never feel jealous.”

“Oh,” Charles says again, shivering as Erik takes his wine glass and sets it down on the counter behind him.

Their eyes meet. Charles can hear his own pulse, can feel the warmth of Erik's hands braced on either side of him. Erik's eyes are hungry and burning—how could he ever believe the man indifferent—but he keeps himself perfectly still, watching Charles intently, ready to step away at a single word from him. Charles moves, almost unconsciously, and Erik shifts to give him space.

That does it.

“Fuck ‘just dinner,’” Charles breathes out, loops his arms around Erik's neck, and draws him in.

At the first press of lips, Erik groans in relief, his hands shaking with adrenaline as they slide around Charles, as though still half-expecting to be slapped away. He’s all strength and no coordination, like a man who’s been walking through the desert for days can’t cope with the sight of an oasis. Charles softens against him instinctively, yielding where Erik is pushing, soothing where Erik is desperate, giving him a thousand subtle clues, all whispering ‘It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right.'

Erik's hands slide over Charles's thighs, and then without warning or breaking the kiss, Erik lifts him up onto the counter, one arm snaking like a vine around Charles's waist, pulling closer still, bringing their hips flush together. Charles gasps, but Erik isn’t letting him up for air, unrelenting now that the permission has as last sunk in. The kiss turns wet, dirty, tongues tangling, teeth scraping; it’s the way strangers kiss in the backrooms of clubs, only Erik knows Charles, knows him in a way nobody else ever has.

Erik kisses him, deep, drugging, urgent, though Charles doesn’t realize how urgent until he becomes aware of his body straining against Erik's, ankles locked around his hips, as Charles pushes against him, like a wave trying to wear away a rock that has plunged too deep into the sea. Charles doesn’t notice he’s moaning in frustration until Erik releases his mouth only to trail way deep, bruising kisses down the column of his neck, closing his teeth around the jut of Charles's collarbone. Charles cries out, head thrown back, hands torn between the urges to push Erik away and to keep him exactly where he is. Erik seals his lips over the hollow of his throat, sucking hard, and Charles's mouth falls open helplessly, his heels kick up a storm against Erik's thighs.

“God, you’re so…” Erik mutters, hands twisted in Charles's shirt, pupils blown wide. “You’re like nobody else, Charles. Nobody else.”

Charles pants, breathless, and he wants to tell Erik that the feeling is entirely mutual, but his chest is too tight, and he’s overwhelmed, driven nearly out of his senses. They’ve done nothing, but make out, for God’s sake, why does it feel like his heart is about to give out?

“Come on, baby, look at me,” Erik cajoles, pressing long, lingering kisses against his jawline. “Hey. Hey. I need to see your eyes, come on.”

It feels like an insurmountable effort, but Charles doesn’t have it in him not to try. He will try for Erik. He will always try for Erik, because Erik is…

Charles opens his eyes, and Erik smiles at him, desire melting into something sweeter, something tender.

“There you are,” Erik murmurs. “All right?”

Charles nods, not trusting his voice. His hands slide through Erik's hair, wonderingly, exploring the texture. Erik closes his eyes for a moment, like a pleased cat, almost making Charles laugh. It must show, because Erik's eyes narrow suddenly, a determined expression on his face, promising revenge, and as he pulls Charles into another kiss, Charles goes down willingly. It’s gentler now, no less intense for being less frantic. Erik kisses him like he’s reading poetry directly to Charles's heart, leaving no stones unturned, as thorough and meticulous in his barely leashed passion as he is in everything else. Charles loves that about him. He always has.

He’s the one to pull back this time, though he doesn’t go far, resting his forehead against Erik's, breathing his air. “Earlier, um. You didn’t show me your bedroom.”

Erik goes utterly still for one moment, before relaxing again. He draws back, cups Charles's face between his hands. “Are you sure?”

Charles can barely think with how much he wants this, all of it, now. “Yes.”

Erik stares at him a moment longer, and Charles can almost feel the moment he’s made a decision, something in him solidifying intangibly, and then his kiss-swollen mouth is curling into a smirk.

“Then you’d better hold on.”

Charles blinks. “What—Erik!”

Because Erik lifts him up, hands under his thighs, like he weighs nothing, and starts moving.

“Erik! Put me down this instant! You ridiculous man, stop, God, you’re going to—”

Erik doesn’t listen, of course, but they do stop, multiple times, as he presses Charles against the walls, against the bookshelf, and finally against the bedroom door, and by that point Charles isn’t wearing anything but his jeans and underwear, and Erik is panting a little and it’s not from the physical exertion.

Erik doesn’t drop him on the bed so much as makes it a controlled fall, and Charles nearly moans from the display alone, he’s always loved this, though he never said. From the way Erik is smirking, hovering over him, he probably knows anyway, the insufferable bastard.

“See something you like, Charles?” Erik teases, his palm running over Charles's stomach, making the muscles quiver, until he presses his hand against the bulge in Charles's jeans. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Guh,” Charles manages, arching up, the pressure against his groin delicious, yet not enough. “You smug, arrogant…just because you—”

Erik shuts him up, kissing him, rude and selfish this time, and Charles writhes under him, keening into Erik's mouth, frustrated, overwhelmed, and needing more now. Erik pops the button on his jeans open, making Charles jerk at the unexpected contact with bare skin there, and then Erik pulls back, to drag the jeans and underwear off him. He pauses, braced on one hand, staring down at Charles like he can’t believe it.

“You’re beautiful,” Erik whispers reverently. “God, Charles, how can you be this fucking gorgeous, it’s like you were made for me, everything about you…”

Charles shifts, gazing up at him, heart hammering in his throat. He reaches to tug at the hem of Erik's shirt. “Please. I want to see you. I want—”

“Yes,” Erik hisses, pulls back and tugs the shirt off impatiently.

Charles sucks in a breath, and it’s his turn to stare in wonder, because it’s not like he forgot, but it’s almost like he did. How tiny Erik's waist is, how insanely firm his stomach is, barely yielding under Charles's lips, because he’s got Erik on his back now and he has no recollection of how that happened. He pushes Erik's jeans down impatiently, and Erik lifts his hips to help, eyes never leaving Charles. His cock is hard, glistening at the top, and Charles can feel his mouth water at the sight alone, hears Erik draw in a sharp breath. Charles curls his hand around him, not pressing too hard, a caress only, as he leans over to kiss down Erik's chest, his ribcage, suck a kiss over his navel, all the while barely squeezing slightly, enjoying the feel of Erik strung tight, ringing with tension under him.

“Charles, you’re killing me,” Erik pushes out through gritted teeth, hands curled into fists in the sheets.

Charles looks up at him, would-be innocent. “Hm?”

Even through the haze of lust, Erik laughs, his eyes turning fond for a moment. “You’re a—ah—terrible person.”

Charles grins. “Oh, am I? Even if I did this?”

He shuffles lower on the bed, his face level with Erik's groin, and presses a long, wet kiss against the base of his cock. Erik groans, even as he stays in place. Charles can feel the muscles in his thighs shifting, fighting to stay still. He licks a long stripe up and finally takes Erik into his mouth. There’s another groan, but Charles has a purpose now. This is for him. He’s missed this. He fucking dreamed about this. The weight of Erik on his tongue, the way he makes Charles's lips stretch, the heady scent of him, the taste and texture. He pulls back and drives back down, sucking hard, again and again, and when he chances another glance at Erik's face, he’s biting his own fist, nearly breaking skin, and Charles is hit with a jolt of arousal so powerful he nearly comes just from the sight.

“Charles,” Erik gasps, broken, breathing hard. “Come here. Please.”

Charles releases him reluctantly and obeys, letting Erik draw him into a kiss that is so filthy Charles wants to stop and ask where in the hell did Erik even learn that. Erik smirks into it, like he can read Charles's mind, and rolls him onto his back, stretching over him, pressing him into the mattress.

“Yes,” Charles breathes out. “God, yes, please.”

His legs spread wider without even asking him, and it should be embarrassing, but Erik moans and thrusts against him, an involuntary, unplanned motion, repeating until he manages to get himself under control. He kisses Charles hard, before pulling away to reach into the nightstand. Charles watches with greedy eyes as Erik pulls out lube and a condom. Once upon a time, they wouldn’t have needed the latter. He chases the thought away.

Erik kisses him again, his lubed fingers giving Charles's cock a few light strokes, then skim below to circle his opening.

“Hey,” Erik nudges him with a nip against his chin. When Charles looks at him, he asks, soft and low, “Can you take me?”

Charles swallows, his body tingling all over at the prospect. “Yeah—yes,” he says, voice hoarse. “Just—go slowly.”

Erik nods, kisses his nose. “Do you want my fingers first?”

And it’s a temptation in and of itself, because Erik's hands are beautiful, his fingers long, strong, and the things he could do with them had left Charles a sobbing mess on more than one occasion. He shakes his head, leaning up to kiss Erik.

“No. I want you. Just… it’s been a while.”

Erik's eyes almost glow at his words, possessiveness and wonder intermix in an intoxicating combination. “Oh, Charles,” he breathes out, disbelief and joy making his voice shake. “My Charles…”

Charles almost sobs into the kiss that goes on for so long he almost forgets about everything else. Erik is murmuring endearments, kissing him like he’s building a shrine to a deity, the back and forth making Charles's head spin, gravity disappearing on him, until he feels Erik directing his knees up and to the sides, and then the tip of Erik's cock is lined up, and Charles barely has the time to suck in a breath.

He gasps as Erik pushes in. Sounds disappear, replaced by the unrelenting beat of his own pulse. His body stretches and burns, and it’s the kind of pain he’s addicted to, and it had felt like a million different things before, but now it feels like release, like he’s giving over his body, surrender as a gift to them both.

Erik goes excruciatingly slow, watching him, kissing every part of him he can reach.

“Move,” Charles nudges him, sooner than he expected. “Please, Erik. I need—”

He doesn’t seem to understand it himself, not entirely, but Erik does. He pulls back and drives in, his rhythm speeding up slowly but inexorably, keeping Charles on that knife’s blade edge of pleasure-pain for as long as possible. When his body adjusts and the muscles begin to relax, Erik shifts their positions slightly, changing the angle and thrusting in harder, making Charles cry out and grip his shoulders.

It turns brutal after that, and Charles had always loved and hated that about Erik, how long he could go on when he wanted to, something almost inhuman about his endurance. He hooks Charles's knee over his shoulder, presses the other one to the bed hard, and starts snapping his hips hard enough to make loud slapping sounds, and to make Charles's buttocks feel like they’re on fire.

Charles throws his arm over his eyes, bites down on his wrist, strains for the headboard. He writhes and whines, his cock bouncing against his belly, sending sparks of pleasure that almost hurt, seeking escape that isn’t there. This is Erik's game now, and it will last for as long as Erik wants it to last, and there’s nothing Charles can do about it, and he… loves it.

He’s got no leverage in his position, so he pushes up on his hands, grabbing Erik by the neck and pulling him down. Erik pushes his knee out of the way and sprawls on top of Charles, immobilizing him further, his hips begin to snap with ruthless force, so fast Charles can’t get a breath, can’t adjust or ride it out, and can’t escape it either.

Eh-Erik!” he wails, his eyes watering, hands clawing at Erik's back. “Erik, Erik, Erik, please.”

Erik doesn’t slow down, but reaches between them, and strips Charles's cock just as fast, just the right side of hard, and it’s over in seconds, Charles arching up as everything whites out, disappearing but for the rhythm of Erik's hard cock still pushing inside him.

When he gains some of his senses back, Erik is still buried deep, not moving, watching him with an expression of someone having a religious experience. Blearily, Charles reaches out to stroke his face.

“You’re not human,” he mutters. “You’ve got to be something else.”

Erik laughs, a beautiful, honest sound, and Charles laughs with him, only groaning when Erik uses his distraction to pull out.

“Shh, I know,” Erik says, kissing him. “It’s all right. You’re good.”

He braces himself up on his knees as Charles stretches his legs, wincing slightly, then reaches to get rid of the condom. Erik hisses, eyes falling closed.

Charles.

Charles pushes at him until Erik stretches out on his side, then drags his hand through the mess on his belly, enjoying the way Erik's eyes very nearly roll back in his head, and wraps his hand around him, beginning to stroke.

“You’ll be the death of me,” Erik whispers, eyes still squeezed shut. “God, Charles. Please.”

Charles shifts his grip, getting another moan for his trouble, and starts jerking him off in earnest now, because he knows Erik, too, knows just how to make it good, how to make it unforgettable. As Erik's body seizes over him, Charles angles his strokes so that Erik's come lands on his belly, is chest, his own spent cock. Erik's eyes go wild at the sight, his hips stuttering helplessly, his whole body shaking as if about to fall to pieces. Just at the end, Charles leans up and captures his slack mouth, kissing him hard and dirty, swallowing Erik's moans. He thinks he feels Erik's lips forming the words ‘I love you’ against his cheek, but as no sound comes up, Charles ignores it.

They stretch out on the bed, covered in come and sweat, though Charles more so than Erik. It takes a while before Charles can push himself up on his elbow and take in the room around him.

“So,” he says, voice hoarse and spent, “this is your bedroom, huh? I like the curtains.”

Erik laughs. It’s the instinctive, helpless kind of laughter, one can’t possibly control, born of fondness and— Charles clams down on the thought hard.

“We should clean up,” he says, sitting up.

Erik tugs him back. “Stay. I got this.”

Charles lies back down, complaint, a quaint sensation curling in his chest.

Later, when Erik draws the covers over both of them, tugging Charles close, he presses a soft kiss under Charles's ear, muttering, “I thought I’d never have this again. I thought I lost you.”

Charles hums sleepily, more so than he feels, and doesn’t answer.

--

He forgets to set the alarm, but he wakes up just before dawn anyway, his body conditioned by too many early mornings. Slowly, Charles blinks his eyes open, taking in his surroundings. Memory rushes back, ever-obedient, and he stills. Right. Erik's apartment. Erik's bed.

Charles glances back carefully. Erik has rolled away from him in his sleep, needing space, but his hand is still resting on Charles's hip, an unconscious game of tag. Charles is suddenly filled with trepidation. He pulls free slowly, tucking the covers quickly, watching Erik the entire time. Erik doesn’t stir. Charles breathes out a sigh of relief.

He moves around the bedroom, looking for his clothes in the murky gray light. His boxer-briefs are right by the bed. His jeans all the way by the door somehow. His cardigan is probably still in the kitchen, and his shirt somewhere in-between, but it would smell disgusting by now. Maybe he can borrow something from Erik.

He walks toward the walk-in closet in the corner and pulls the door open. In spite of everything, Charles smiles at the sight of Erik's suits, his shirts, his belts, and ties, and shoes, all sorted out neatly, arranged by color and occasion, like a picture from a turn-of-the-century gentleman’s guidebook. Erik always complained about how messy Charles's side of the closet had been, the difference in their personalities never more obvious. Charles glances at the other side automatically and stills.

It’s empty. Erik's things are arranged neatly to occupy exactly one half of the wardrobe. The other is left perfectly pristine, as though waiting. Just at the very far corner, there are a few hangers with clothes Erik would sooner use to start a fire than wear. That plaid shirt, for example, he’d deem a crime against fashion. Correction. Had deemed a crime against fashion, protesting even when Charles only wore it around the house. Charles touches the sleeve with numb fingers, suddenly feeling claustrophobic.

What is he doing? What is he thinking? Has he really forgotten what happened the first time he let himself get thoroughly wrapped up in Erik? Oh, that part was easy; it has always been easy, what with Erik's magnetic pull on him that Charles observed in action time and again, that had broken stronger men than him. All it took was Erik being nice to him, attentive, caring, respectful of his wishes goddamn it. One homecooked meal—and Charles was ready to surrender everything he’d fought tooth and nail to build. He has just gotten his life back on track. Is he really that ready to throw it all away? Has he learned nothing?

When Erik finally stirs in bed, sheets rustling softly as he moves, Charles is sitting on the floor by the tall window, one of Erik's dress shirts hanging loosely from his shoulders as he watches the slowly awakening street below.

“Charles?” Erik's voice sounds sleepy, confused. There’s more rustling. “Oh.” Erik has spotted him. “Charles? Is everything all right?”

Charles blinks, then blinks again, but the tears still spill, and he can’t turn around to face Erik, not like that. Not again.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

There’s dead silence, and then:

Oh.

And it’s so sad, so devastated and heartbroken that Charles can’t bear it. He presses his palms against his face, wiping off the tears angrily.

“So you can’t forgive me after all,” Erik says flatly, and that’s—that’s—

Charles whirls in place. “Of course, I forgive you. I’ve forgiven you a long time ago. But—”

“It’s not enough,” Erik finishes softly.

Charles closes his eyes. He wants to argue, but he can’t. Erik is right. It’s not enough. The very thought of trusting like that again is making him half-blind with panic.

“I wanted it to be,” he whispers.

Erik says nothing for a long time, then begins moving efficiently around the bedroom, collecting clothes, disappearing into the bathroom for a few seconds to return with a towel wrapped around his hips, the sound of shower started in the background.

“Would you like me to give you a lift?” he asks.

“No.” Charles shakes his head, pulling himself up to his feet. “But I’d better go. It’s my turn to open today.”

Erik nods, already turning away from him. “Let yourself out.”

“Erik,” Charles calls after him, suddenly urgent. “Is it… is it okay if I keep the shirt?”

Something almost human appears in Erik's stoic expression for a moment, his eyes lingering on Charles's frame.

“Looks good on you,” he says, before meeting Charles's eyes. “Take care of yourself, yes?”

Charles nods, a little too sharp. “You too.”

“Charles,” Erik's voice stops him at the door now. “If you ever need anything… anything at all.”

Charles doesn’t turn around; he can’t. “Thank you.”

He doesn’t really remember how he makes his way out of the apartment, his head foggy, his pulse still way too fast. But when the elevator doors open on the ground floor, he nearly collides with someone. It takes Charles a moment to recognize Matt, the Towel Guy, obviously coming back from a morning run.

“Oh, hey man,” Matt says, as they manage to navigate their way around each other. He still looks disgustingly fit in his workout clothes. “Look, erm. Sorry about last night. My brother told me he was single, so I—”

“He is,” Charles says, frowning. “We’re divorced.”

“Divorced—” Matt chokes. “Oh shit. I had no idea it was so er—”

“It’s fine.”

“I get it.” Matt is nodding sagely. “My ex and I used to hook up all the time, until I moved.”

“We’re not—” Charles starts, but cuts himself off.

Isn’t that exactly what he and Erik are? Exes who can’t stay away from each other? Good God, his whole life is an endless string of bad clichés.

He shakes his head. Erik has done so much for him lately. Maybe there’s one small thing Charles can do for him now. He looks at Matt.

“Don’t go with the towel thing again. Erik hates incompetence. He likes latkes from Linda’s. Sour cream, not apple sauce. If you’re a Republican, convert. Don’t mention Nietzsche. Don’t ask about his parents unless he mentions them first. Don’t let him drink coffee past three in the afternoon. Be direct about what you like in bed, only beg if you mean it.” He takes in Matt’s round eyes and sighs. “You’ll be fine. Good luck.”

“Hey, wait!” Matt calls after him when Charles is almost at the door. “Why are you doing this? You obviously still love him. I don’t want to get in the middle of whatever this is between you and him; that shit’s too heavy for me, man.”

“You won’t get in-between of anything,” Charles promises as he turns to leave.

Privately, he thinks that Matt doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, but who knows? Once upon a time, Charles would have laughed at the idea of Erik breaking up with him over some photos, and look what happened. If ten years from now he runs into Erik and Matt still blissfully happy together, the joke would be on him.

You obviously still love him.

Ah yes, there is that. If the profound breaking of trust couldn’t cure that, probably nothing will. It’s fine though. For the first time since that fateful night months and months ago, Charles feels that maybe he can learn to live quite happily with it after all.

--

“All right, that’s it,” Emma says as she strides into Erik's office, practically sizzling with angry electricity. “Whatever crawled up your butt, spill, before I start breaking bones.”

Erik looks up from his laptop, frowning slightly. “Nothing ‘crawled up my butt,’ thank you very much, Emma. And even if it did, what makes you think I’d come to you? We’re not that kind of friends.”

“You think I want to be dealing with whatever teenage drama you managed to immerse yourself in now?” Her eyebrow arches in disdain. “I’m not your therapist, Erik. I’m not your nanny. I’m your partner. When you reduced five interns in a row to tears, it was entertaining. When you yelled at our accountants, it was less fun, but could be seen as a disciplinary measure. But when you start taking your temper out on our clients, that’s it. You’ve been PMSing all over the place for three days now, and it’s beginning to interfere with the business. So either tell me what the hell is wrong with you this time so that we could deal with that, or get the fuck out of the office and don’t come back until you sort it out.”

Erik glares at her. Emma glares right back. Erik rolls his eyes.

“Look, I only yelled at Presley, because he’s an idiot, and because putting the fear of God in him might actually help to make him more cooperative,” he grumbles.

Erik.”

“Fine.” He slumps in his chair. “I slept with Charles.”

“Oh. Oh.” Emma sits down abruptly in his guest chair. “So. Your cutesy little lunch dates had finally progressed into the bedroom. Congrats.” She studies him. “You don’t look like someone who’s got his heart’s desire fulfilled at last. Was the sex not good?”

“What? Jesus, Emma. No. It’s not that. It’s… Well, I thought… but he…”

“Ah.” Emma leans back, studying him critically. “I think I can take it from here. You had sex with Charles and you thought that meant he was coming back to you. Whereas he was dressed and gone right about the second the afterglow had ended. That about right?”

Erik glares at her. “In broad strokes, but yes.”

“Erik,” Emma sighs. “Look, I know you don’t want to hear it, but that boy is playing you.”

“No, he isn’t—”

Emma lifts up a hand. “Just hear me out, okay? I know you feel guilty about what happened. You probably always will, but Erik, you apologized. You made amends. You nearly killed a man for him. Yes, don’t make that face, of course I know—did you really think I wouldn’t find out? You cleaned up after yourself well, or believe me, we wouldn’t be still working together. My point is, you’ve paid your dues. You took care of his every whim, coddled every last one of his precious little sensibilities, you’ve done everything one could possibly expect you to do. If that still wasn’t enough, he should have broken it off for good. Instead, he came to those adorable little outings. He acted like you were the best of friends. He slept with you of his own free will, I assume?”

Erik scowls. “He was a little drunk, but yes.”

“Erik, if you let him do it, he’s going to keep blowing hot and cold on you until you go mad. It’s not fair to you. Granted, he doesn’t want money, at least not now, but he’s still using you. Keeping you hooked, keeping you hoping—don’t tell he doesn’t know you’re still mad about him. He’s a smart cookie, so yeah. He’s using you. And it has to stop.”

“He’s not using me!” Erik snaps. “It’s just—he tries, but it’s not easy. If I were him, I’d never even speak to me again—”

“Exactly!” Emma leans forward. “You either break it off or you come back, but this two-steps-forward-ten-steps-back thing? It’s selfish and it’s not fair.”

“Of course, it’s fair. I deserve it.”

“No, you don’t. And even if you did, that wouldn’t solve anything. Erik… You know how they say that two wrongs don’t make a right? Well, it’s true.”

“It’s a fucking cliché, Emma—”

“Of course, it’s a fucking cliché, and it’s a fucking cliché for a reason. You hurt him, he hurt you—now here we are. Do you see this working out for anybody? Shaw hurt you, you hurt Shaw, and now Shaw’s in jail, sending you death threats once a week. You want that kind of ending for you and Charles?”

“Of course not, but—”

“Then cut him loose, Erik. Grow a pair, for fuck’s sake. It’s like I don’t even know you. Stop coddling him. Stop trying to be friends. You have history. You can’t erase it. He can either accept it or he can’t, it’s as simple as that. You made a mistake. You paid for it. He can’t expect you to keep paying for the rest of your life. If he can’t forgive you, then he should end it, plain and simple. And if he can’t, you should.”

Erik glances away, shaking his head. “I know what he’ll choose, Emma. I can’t—I can’t lose him again.”

Emma stands up, resting her hands on his desk, leaning forward. “Erik. You’ve already lost him. You lost him the night you accused him of cheating. It’s tragic, but it can’t be undone, It’s past time you’ve accepted that.”

Erik watches her leave, biting back angry retorts. Emma turns in the doorway. “And get a grip on yourself, will you? I did not sign up for carrying dead weight.”

--

For the next few days, Erik remains really mad at Emma, even though he’s fully aware that he’s misplacing his anger and is also in denial. But it’s his right. He can be as obstinate as he wants to. And Emma doesn’t know Charles, in any case. Erik can’t expect him to bounce back from a blow like that within a few short months, just because Erik wants him to.

So when an email from Charles pops up on his laptop a couple of days later, Erik opens it without hesitation. Charles writes that the first stage of the research is over, the results are incredible (he stresses the word three times) and invites Erik to join the team for a celebratory party at Mike’s, since ‘you made such a valuable contribution and all’. Emma only rolls her eyes at him, but Erik just flips her off—mentally, thank you, he’s got manners—and puts it on his calendar. It’s another chance to be heard, and he’s not wasting any.

Charles had looked so sad, his words so final back at Erik's apartment. But Charles is still twenty-one years old. Twenty-two next month, not that Erik has been agonizing over a gift or anything. The point is, he’s still incredibly young. Too young to know that most things that seem final in life—aren’t. He changed his mind once. He can change it again. Erik will convince him.

He arrives to the party late. It’s a weird sort of conspiracy—two meetings overrunning, an unplanned but urgent appearance in court, a very important client suddenly experiencing an urge to yell at his lawyers. When Erik does show up at Mike’s, irritated as hell at the universe, most people have been and gone. A small group is still hanging about, he can see them through the glass. He can see Charles. He stops.

Charles is leaning against the counter—no, correction, he’s leaning against a man leaning against the counter. It doesn’t take much to recognize Logan. His arm is slung over Charles's shoulders, an affectionate headlock. They are both listening to something the red-haired barista is saying, sprawled in a chair in front of them, while behind them Angel is giggling as she wipes the counter. Even as Erik watches, Logan leans closer, saying something for Charles's ears alone. Charles turns his face toward him, and Erik knows what will happen even before it does, it’s in their body language, relaxed and easily familiar. Charles tips his chin up, grinning, and Logan kisses him.

For a moment, Erik just watches, the pain in his chest immediate and sharp like a knife that keeps stabbing. Once upon a time, he’d have been consumed with rage by this point, would have burst in, started throwing punches. Now—now, he turns on his heel and starts walking away.

There’s a commotion behind him, a door being pulled open, then released carelessly, a sound of hurried footsteps.

“Erik!”

He stops, allows Charles to catch up. He doesn’t want to do this now, but it’s probably better this way. He turns.

Charles is flushed, his breathing uneven from rapid movement, hair habitually disheveled. It hurts all the more that Erik still responds to this image, still feels unbearably fond. Charles stops, taking a moment to catch his breath.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” he says.

Erik shrugs. “I was delayed. Here.” He opens his briefcase and pulls a book out of it. A collector’s edition of Gregor Mendel’s published works and notes. He hands it to Charles. “Congratulations on the success of your research.”

Charles takes the book hesitantly, his eyes barely skimming the title, before he looks back at Erik. “Thanks. Erik, listen—”

“I can’t do this anymore, Charles,” Erik says, surprising even himself. But once the words are out, he can hear the truth of them.

Charles steps closer. “It wasn’t anything. Logan was just… we do that sometimes, but more importantly, he’s leaving tomorrow, moving back to Seattle. It didn’t mean—”

Erik lifts up a hand. “Charles, stop. You don’t owe me an explanation. You don’t owe me anything. You’re perfectly free to do whatever you want with whomever you want.”

Charles looks almost startled, disbelief written clearly all over his face. His gaze turns speculative for a moment, concerned, as if any moment now he’s going to start checking Erik over for hidden wires. Erik almost smiles.

“Thank you,” Charles says at last. “But that’s still not—”

“Charles,” Erik interrupts him firmly. “Do you want to go out with me? To date me? Possibly at some point to move in with me?”

Charles pales and steps back; it’s involuntary and so telling. Erik can feel his own heart wail, a long, dragging pain.

“Because if you did, we could do this,” Erik says. “And if you don’t, then I’m afraid this is goodbye.”

Charles presses his lips together. “So this is what—an ultimatum? I can either come back to you or you have no need for me?”

“No.” Erik shakes his head. “This isn’t an ultimatum. I’m simply telling you—I can’t do this anymore. To be your friend, this presence in your life, just hovering at the sidelines. I know it’s the least you deserve, and I tried. I really tried, Charles. To be someone worthy of you, the better man. But I’m not strong enough. I thought I was, but I’m not.”

“All I ever wanted,” Charles says so quietly, Erik strains to hear. “All I ever wanted was for you to be yourself.”

“Well then. This is who I am.” Erik holds his eyes, fighting not to drown in them. “I love you, Charles. I can’t stand the sight of you with another man. I know it’s selfish. Believe me, I know. And I’m not going to stand in your way. I can do that much. But I can’t face this every day, can’t stay in your life knowing that you will never choose me again. I’m not that strong. I’m not that good. And you… you deserve someone better.”

Erik leans over and presses a soft, quick kiss against Charles's lips, pulling back just as swiftly. His thumb brushes over Charles's cheekbone.

“Goodbye, Charles.”

This time, as he walks away, Charles doesn’t run after him.

--

“He’s a dick,” Angel says, helping him seal the last box with duct tape. “I’m grateful for his help with Rita, but he’s still a selfish asshole. You either have sex with him or he’s out? It makes me sick.”

Charles frowns as he glances around the room. “That’s not what he said. It’s not like that, Angel. He’s not like that—”

“Oh, isn’t he? Because it sounds exactly like that.”

Charles shakes his head in frustration. Erik's face, full of pain, is as vivid in his mind as it was three days ago when he stood on the pavement outside Mike’s saying ‘I can’t do this anymore.’

“That’s not selfish,” he says, diving down to capture a wayward sneaker that’s made itself comfortable under the mattress. “If he were selfish, he’d be here, pressuring me, scaring everyone away. What he’s doing is just simple self-preservation. Anyone in his place would do the same.”

She glares at him, stacking the boxes on top of each other. “You’re still in love with him, Charles. What, he couldn’t wait a little bit? Give you a little bit more time?”

“And what if it requires a lot of time? What if it takes years? What if it takes years and I still can’t go back to him? What then?” He stuffs the sneaker into a plastic bag that is threatening to burst with the next thing added. “Because I don’t know if I can ever trust him again. Trust anyone, for that matter. I’m broken, Angel. He can’t fix it for me. No one can, I know that. I must do this myself, but I don’t know… I don’t know if I can.”

Angel fixes him with a stern look. She never had a lot of patience when it comes to Charles wallowing, which is part of the reason she irritates him so much at times and also why he so desperately needs her.

“Charles,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Cut the bullshit. You’re not broken. You’re scared. I get it. You’ve been hurt pretty bad, so now you’re scared to try again. But you're going to have to at some point. It’s like getting back on the damn horse or whatever. You can’t be scared your entire life. And also, you know what? So you’re scared, so what? You think I wasn’t scared when I ran away from home? When I paid some dude to get me across the border? You think I wasn’t scared to start from scratch, without my family, without anyone? I was fucking terrified, Charles, and I did it anyway. And you know what I learned? You can’t wait for your fear to pass before you act. You’ll be waiting a long time. So you’re afraid, so? Do it anyway. Do it scared, but do it anyway. That’s the only way anything ever works.”

Charles contemplates her. “You almost sound like you want us to get back together.”

She smirks. “Of course, I do. You two are hot together. Plus it will give me access to free legal advice.”

Charles snorts. “Well.” It only stings for a moment, sharp as a blade, but he’s getting used to the sensation. “Erik made his decision, I’m afraid. And I can’t say I blame him.” Before Angel can start all over again, he checks the room. “I think it’s everything.”

She surveys the small mountain of boxes and bags. “I’d say. Shit, when you showed up, you had like one duffel with you. How did you get so much shit so quickly? And why do you hoard books, you crazy man? They have libraries for a reason.”

“Ah, but what if I need to look something up at twelve a.m.?”

“I’m just saying. You picked the smallest room at the apartment, and I’m not letting you keep any of this crap in mine.”

Charles beams at her. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

Like all ill-advised ventures, the plan to rent an apartment together was hatched between him, Angel, Rita, and Sean at some point well past midnight, while not entirely of a sober mind. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time, and, while Charles has never actually shared quarters with so many people before, he’s looking forward to it. Warily. Well, as Angel said. If he needs his space, the library is always there.

Mike loans them his truck for the move. He’s not a hugger, but he clasps Charles's shoulder firmly as they leave.

“Who’s going to open for me now that you’re not here?” he grumbles. “I don’t know if I can go back to getting up at five four days a week.”

“I suppose you’ll have to find the next hapless student, down on their luck,” Charles says. “Mike, um. Thank you so much. I—”

“Oh, shove it, kid. I didn’t do anything; that room was just sitting there anyway.”

“Still, I—”

“Just go already. And if you get one scratch on that truck, you’ll be coming by to open for the next two months.”

Charles glances at the truck that looks like it’s been in quite a few battles, most of which happened before WWI. He grins. “Sure thing.”

“Oh hey, I almost forgot. Here.” He hands Charles a box. “That hairy guy left it for you the other day.”

“Logan?” Charles asks, debating if he should open the box in public. Knowing Logan, it could contain anything down to a bomb. Curiosity gets the better of him though, and he pops the lid.

Try as he might to prepare himself for anything, he still gasps softly as he takes a look at the contents. It’s a magazine. The magazine, to be precise, the one that has Charles's pictures in it. Charles stares at it blankly for a few breathless moments, before he notices a note peeking in between the pages.

Hey, bub. I bought as many as I could find and shredded them, although if you ask me it’s a piece of fucking art, and you should keep it to show your children. Anyhow, this is now a highly valuable collector’s issue, so if you need money, just wait a few months and put it up on Ebay. Kept one for myself, too, though I won’t be selling that one. Good luck with whatever. Call me up when you cure cancer, I’ll buy you a drink.
Logan

“Oh, what’s this?” Sean asks, looking over his shoulder.

“Nothing!” Charles hastily closes the box. “Just a souvenir.”

“Dude, you’re no fun,” Sean sighs. “You’re about ready?”

“Yeah,” Charles says, the box under his arm and his duffel bag swung over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

--

Settling in with three other people isn’t the easiest experience. Settling in with three people who are all loud, possess little to no boundaries, and keep incredibly odd hours isn’t all smooth sailing. Doing so while being just a tad introverted, though hiding it well, is downright taxing. But the overall experience, while not exactly easy, is fun, too. There are any number of upsides woven into it, but the most precious one is this—Charles is so rarely left to his own devices, he has virtually no time to think about Erik.

Three weeks in, he finds himself thinking that perhaps Angel is right. Sometimes you won’t be ready, and sometimes you’ll be scared, but if you do things anyway, it gets easier. Charles has been craving stability and a safe haven, a place to call his own, ever since Kurt had thrown him out of his childhood home. In the past few years, he had been uprooted so many times, he seems to have finally learned to roll with it. Curiously, he feels younger now, surrounded by his roommates and their friends that come and go as they please. When he shares this observation with Hank, Hank gives him a condescending look and says, “Charles, you’re not feeling younger. You’re finally feeling your age.”

Charles doesn’t really like feeling his age though. He never had, not since he turned sixteen. Sometimes he thinks that he was born with a mindset of a forty-year-old. Still, it’s an interesting experience.

It’s his turn to pick up groceries, and as he pushes his cart to the side to take a look at his list again and make sure he’s got the right brand of Sean’s favorite chips, his phone starts vibrating in his pocket. Charles pulls it out and frowns at the unknown number. Frowning, he tells himself sternly that telemarketers are a much more probable bet than someone like Nathaniel Essex (still safely in jail, thank God), and picks up.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Charles Xavier?”

“Yes.”

“I’m calling from New York Presbyterian, Lower Manhattan. I’m afraid, there’s been an accident, Mr. Xavier. Your husband is in critical condition.”

Charles grabs at the cart for balance, his feet suddenly disappearing from under him, his vision going dark.

“I’m sorry… what?”

“Your husband," a trained-in-patience female voice repeats clearly, "a Mr. Erik Lehnsherr? He was admitted forty minutes ago. Looks like he’s been in car accident. Mr. Xavier? Can you hear me?”

Charles forces his throat to work. “Yes. Yes, I’m here.”

“As you are his medical proxy, it would be beneficial if you—”

“I’m on my way.”

He hangs up and runs out of the store, abandoning his groceries. He all but dives into traffic, desperate to hail a cab, and very nearly becomes a victim of an accident himself, but it’s a distant thought. He’s got a horrible case of tunnel vision and all but plasters himself over the hood of a cab to halt it in its tracks.

New York traffic has never seemed so slow, and by the time the cab drops him off, Charles is close to hyperventilating, the words ‘critical condition’ thrashing like dying fish in his mind. He nearly falls at the reception desk and can barely pull himself together enough to ask for directions. He learns that Erik is in surgery, but not much else, and is very nearly mutinous as someone guides him to the waiting area.

“Doctor Danes will give you an update when he can,” a nurse tells him, not unkind, but stern. “Now sit here.”

Charles sits, but almost immediately jumps up again. He can’t keep still, seized by too much nervous tension.

“Charles?”

He whips his head around and almost sighs in relief at the sight of familiar faces. It takes him a moment to remember that the last time they met it was hardly friendly. Emma Frost is every bit as imposing as Charles remembers, not a wrinkle on her pearly grey dress even though she must have rushed here. Her colleague Mr. Zazel frowns at him as though Charles is personally responsible for what happened. The last time they saw each other, Emma had more or less called him a slut. Charles forgets all about it in a second.

“Emma. What happened? They said something about a car accident, but—”

“It was a hit and run,” she says, coming closer. “He was walking out of the courthouse, when someone ran him over.”

“Someone—” Charles chokes. “You mean, this was deliberate?”

Emma shares a glance with Zazel. “The police say it’s too soon to tell.” She studies Charles's face and comes to a decision. “But we think so.”

“Someone… someone tried to kill Erik?”

“Shaw,” Zazel says grimly. “Only he has that long a reach.”

“Shaw?” Charles reels. “But—isn’t he in jail?”

“Minimal security.” Emma scoffs. “And something like that would never stop him.”

“But—why?”

Zazel stares at him, eyes narrowed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Az,” Emma says reprovingly, laying a hand on his arm. “Charles isn’t one of us. He doesn’t understand.”

“Doesn’t understand what?” Charles snaps. “Nothing Erik did justifies killing him!”

“He took Shaw’s firm from him,” Zazel snarls, leaning into Charles's space. “He exposed him as a fraud. He got him disbarred, and on top of that he got a criminal conviction. And he did it all for you, you clueless little idiot—”

“Az! That’s enough,” Emma snaps. “He didn’t do it for Charles. Well, partly, but Erik is his own man. Charles isn’t responsible for his actions.”

Zazel grumbles darkly under his breath, but moves away reluctantly under Emma’s searing gaze. Emma turns to Charles.

“It’s not your fault, sugar.”

“I know,” Charles says slowly. “I never asked Erik to… I never asked him for anything.”

“We know.” Emma nods and glares at Zazel for good measure. “But it’s good that you’re here, Charles. You still have the power of attorney, and—”

“Why?” Charles interrupts her. “When they called me, I assumed Erik never changed his insurance information, but surely—”

“Tell him,” Zazel says grimly. “Tell him, Emma. Since you insist he’s a perfect little saint. Go ahead and tell him.”

Emma shoots him another glare, then visibly steels herself. “Charles, I know you signed the divorce papers—”

“I did.”

“Erik never filed them.”

Charles blinks. “What?

“Technically, you’re still married.”

“Yes, isn’t it nice for you?” Zazel scoffs. “If Erik dies now, you stand to inherit everything he owns, including half our firm, by the way. Maybe it wasn’t Shaw, after all. Maybe it was you.”

“Az, enough,” Emma repeats. “We’re all worried about Erik, but taking it out on Charles isn’t helping.”

Charles shakes his head, trying to clear it. He isn’t even trying to process Zazel’s accusations, too busy being in shock over Erik never having divorced him. How is that even legal? And yet a part of him is deeply relieved to hear that he still has some claim on Erik, that he can at least be here.

“Did they say anything?” he asks, addressing Emma, as Zazel is pacing angrily a few feet away. “When they brought him in?”

“Not much,” she sighs, for the first time letting her concern show. “They pretty much wheeled him straight into surgery.”

“Right.”

Charles has no idea if it’s good news, or bad news. He sits down on an uncomfortable plastic chair clearly designed for some alien anatomy. His phone buzzes with texts from Angel. Right, he never did appear with the groceries. He tries to compose a message to her, but his hands are shaking too much. He turns his phone off.

An hour passes without him really noticing. As Charles tries to calculate the amount of time Erik has been in surgery, someone wearing medical scrubs approaches their little group. He pulls the mask off, revealing a rather handsome if tired-looking middle-aged man.

“Erik Lehnsherr?” he asks.

Charles jumps to his feet and meets him halfway, flanked by Emma and Zazel. “That’s us.”

The doctor looks at each of them in turn, until his gaze rests on Charles dubiously. “Are you the husband?”

Charles swallows. “Yes.”

He must not look convincing enough, because the doctor frowns further. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but may I see some ID?”

Charles curses under his breath as he pats his pockets for his wallet. The only thing he has on him is his research center pass. He pulls it out, hoping it’ll be enough.

The doctor looks skeptical but nods. “Sorry about that; we’ve had some incidents… Never mind. Mr. Xavier, I’m Doctor Danes. I operated on your husband.”

“How is he?” Charles asks, forgetting to breathe.

“He gave us a lot of grief, but the surgery went well. He had six broken ribs, one of them punctured his left lung. We’ve repaired the damage, but we’re keeping him on the respirator just in case for now. He broke his left femur, and his left arm—the car must have hit him from that side. Our orthopedic surgeon will be consulting with you later, but for now we’ve stabilized him to minimize the damage, and her preliminary prognosis is good. Though you should expect a lot of physical therapy in your future.”

“Erik runs,” Charles whispers. “He really loves it.”

“Well, with any luck he’ll be doing it again, though not any time soon.”

“So, he’s… he’s going to be okay?”

Doctor Danes frowns again. “I’ll be honest with you, he’s not out of the woods quite yet. We’ll be keeping a close eye on him for the next few days. His heart stopped twice on the table—”

Charles sucks in a breath.

“—but he’s stable now. He looks like a very healthy man, so there’s no reason not to expect a full recovery.”

“Can I see him?”

“Not for a few hours, he’s still under anesthesia. And he’ll be heavily medicated for the pain, so don’t expect him to be lucid.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Charles manages, barely keeping himself from hugging the man. “Thank you so much.”

“He’s not clear yet,” Doctor Danes repeats, giving him a stern look. “Now, I understand it I’ll be making a statement to the police?”

“That, you’d better discuss with me,” Emma interjects neatly. “I’m Mr. Lehnsherr’s lawyer.”

Charles drifts away from their conversation until he finds himself sitting on the same plastic chair again. He feels strangely high, as though there’s a tight, squishy bubble between him and the world around. It feels a bit like he’s on a carousel, everything spinning around him, too bright and too fast to follow.

It’s possible that at some point later he calls Angel so that she wouldn’t worry and relocates to the ICU waiting room along with Emma and Zazel—‘Call me Az, everyone does. And sorry about before’—but he isn’t quite aware of it. He drinks the coffee someone puts in his hand, and, by the looks of it, jokes with the night nurse who teases him to cheer him up. He must say something funny, because she laughs, but he can’t hear his own words. At some point, he thinks Emma is holding his hand, but that might be an actual hallucination.

He’s not truly properly aware of anything until they finally let him into the sealed ward where Erik is blinking blearily, nearly submerged in tubes and equipment. It should be a scary picture, but Charles doesn’t mind. As long as he can see the spark of awareness in Erik's eyes, hazy as they are with painkillers, he can’t care about anything else.

“Hey,” he breathes out, stepping closer, waiting patiently for Erik's eyes to fix on him. Recognition hits, and Erik jerks, fighting against the drugs. “Shh, it’s all right,” Charles reassures him quickly, taking his uninjured hand in his and squeezing. “I’m here. You’re going to be fine. You scared me half to death, but you’re going to be fine.”

Erik is looking at him, as though trying to decide if he’s real or a drug-induced hallucination. His face goes through a complicated series of expressions as though he would shrug if he could, and then he squeezes back.

“Shit.” Charles turns away for a moment, wiping off tears. “You can’t do this. You can’t scare me like that. I need you alive and well, Erik. Do you understand?”

Erik's lips actually twitch around the tube as if he’s trying to smile. He looks dopey as hell, and warm under Charles's touch, and alive, and really, how could Charles ever have thought that anything else mattered?

“You’re not allowed to do that again,” Charles tells him sternly. “And as you never divorced me, you stubborn bastard, I’m going to make sure you don’t.”

Erik looks almost alarmed for a moment—or as alarmed as anyone whose face is mostly purple and blue can look anyway—but then the painkillers take over, and he relaxes again, his hand squeezing Charles's at erratic intervals. Charles looks down at it, and then, unable to fight it, lifts it to his lips and presses a gentle kiss against bruised skin. He’s dimly aware that something he’d once deemed important is dissipating rapidly in the background, almost unnoticed, as he gives up something he’d held on to for so long.

He leans over, brushing Erik's hair gently away from his face. His hand stays there.

“I love you,” he says, kissing Erik's forehead. “I love you, so just get well, all right? Then we can talk about that divorce we never should have had.”

When he pulls away, Erik is gazing at him with the kind of loopy, drugged adoration that only the supremely drunk or the stupidly besotted can achieve, and it makes Charles laugh. He knows it doesn’t mean that Erik won’t hurt him again, but no one can promise that. But as Charles says “I love you,” he’s acutely aware that he’d very nearly lost the chance to ever say that again, and that—that is something he can’t live with, and as it turns out, it trumps everything else.

Erik falls back asleep shortly afterwards, and when the nurse ushers Charles out of the room, he finds Angel and Emma talking quietly in the corridor. He doesn’t think about it, he just hugs them both, eliciting a surprised though not displeased sound from Emma and a heartfelt ‘Charles, you idiot’ from Angel. Even the combined effort of them both isn’t enough to convince him to go home for a few hours of sleep, especially after he gets an unexpected ally in the face of the night nurse, who lets him loiter in the lounge, despite visiting hours being over.

He falls asleep in yet another anatomically unfeasible chair, but he’d sooner sprain every muscle in his body than be persuaded to move. And when Erik is taken off the respirator a day later, the first thing he says after he’s done coughing, is:

“I’m holding you to everything you said. I don’t care if it was in the heat of the moment. No take-backs.”

Charles grins and ruffles his hair. “Yes, dear.”

--

Epilogue

--

1 year later

--

“Excuse me, Doctor Xavier?”

Charles smiles before he turns around, the familiar cadence of Erik's voice taking on sly undertones. When he does turn, his breath catches for a moment as he sees Erik standing there in all his glory, three-piece suit, impeccable haircut, and the grin that scares the shit out of people who aren’t Charles or Angel.

“Why, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Charles replies with an equally sly grin. “How ever can I help you?”

Erik wraps his arm around Charles's waist, pulling him against his side. “I just wanted to be the first one to call you that.”

Charles laughs. “Sorry, love, Raven beat you by ten minutes. She had Angel Skype the whole thing.”

“Your sister is a nuisance.”

“Hey, she only threatened to dismember you twice this time. That’s progress.”

He promptly forgets all about Raven, though, because Erik tips his chin up and kisses him. As so often happens with him in public, it starts small, but quickly becomes something tittering on the brink of being asked to leave. Charles pulls back regretfully after a few moments. Erik's pupils are blown wide, and he’s looking at Charles like he can see no one else in the room. Charles suspects he doesn’t do any better.

“I still need to make the rounds,” he says, laying a hand on Erik's chest and gently pushing him back. “Thank people, all that.”

Erik glances over the room, lips pursing together in annoyance. “Half an hour, then I’m taking you home and giving you your gift.”

Charles grins. “If your gift is you, naked on the bed, I—”

“You’re going to say ‘yes’ embarrassingly quickly,” Erik finishes. “But no, as it happens. Not this time.”

Charles gives him a speculative look. “All right then, keep your secrets.”

Erik laughs. “I know that one. Go, before I change my mind and drag you out of here.”

Charles knows full well he isn’t joking, so he takes his chance and goes. He keeps looking at Erik though, even as he moves about the room, shaking hands and answering questions about his thesis. Every once in a while, the temptation to look would become too much, and Charles spares a moment or two watching Erik across the space between them. He can’t help but think about the year that passed since that terrible day when he got a phone call from the hospital. It seems like both only yesterday and a million years ago.

When Erik was released from the hospital, Charles didn’t move in straight away, but he spent so much time at Erik's place to help with physical therapy and just generally to help that Angel had asked him why he even bothered to still pay rent. Erik wasn’t in the best mood in those days. Frustrated by the physical restrictions and still in a lot of pain, he threw temper tantrums whenever Emma refused to bring him work or his physical therapy wasn’t going as fast as he wanted it to.

These days, Erik still walks with a slight limp sometimes when he’s tired, but at this point, it’s mostly psychosomatic, flaring up when he’s feeling angry or insecure. Charles has learned to read his body in a whole different way than he did before, and can usually diffuse the upcoming storm before it has a chance to break out.

The investigation of the hit-and-run was thorough and resulted in Shaw being transferred from minimal security to a supermax, with a few years added to his sentence. An occasional death threat still makes it out every now and again to end up in Erik's mail, and Charles still wakes up sometimes in the middle of the night screaming, terrified of random cars, bombs, or snipers taking Erik away from him. In addition to his own personal set of nightmares, which consist mostly of him waking up on Essex’s table or roaming the streets of New York, homeless and dejected, it makes for a lovely nighttime routine. Erik is usually there to sooth him, and Charles clings to him like a limpet, holding on tight enough to leave bruises.

Charles hates nights like that. He feels like he’s back at square one every time, and it scares him beyond reason. Yes, when he did move in, six months in, it was on his own terms, and yes, he has his own bank account and is gainfully employed these days, and has his work and his friends, and technically, his life doesn’t revolve around Erik anymore. But the idea of losing him—for good, forever, to the next plot of Shaw’s or God knows what else—brings everything to a screeching halt. His heart still stops for a moment every time an unknown number flashes across the screen of his phone.

Erik, for his part, usually sleeps like the dead, processing things in his own way. But every time he watches Charles in the grips of a nightmare, his heart breaks visibly, making Charles feel even more worthless for being unable to get a grip on himself. He balks at the suggestion of therapy, and Erik doesn’t bring it up again, but as time goes by, Charles begins to consider it. Whatever’s happening to him is affecting Erik, and if he can just get over the feeling that asking for help is admitting weakness, he’ll be able to help them both. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s slowly coming around, he thinks.

He watches across the room as Erik exchanges cold pleasantries with Moira. Charles's colleagues mostly treat Erik with cold civility, the wariness never quite dissipating. They accept him on Charles's word, but they don’t trust him any more than Raven does after she learns the whole story.

Charles tells her everything when she comes to visit for Christmas, because they made a blood pact once upon a time to never lie to each other, and because Raven has an uncanny ability to dig out whatever Charles is hiding all on her own, making it ten times worse. She seems to take it in stride, but when Charles comes home that night, he finds Erik wearing a spectacular black eye and later finds Raven’s Jimmy Choos eviscerated with a knife and thrown into the trash. The absurdity of it all is a bit much, but it escalates even further when Raven has sex with Az on Erik's favorite couch before leaving for Paris, somehow managing to completely turn his head to the point where he’s still asking Charles ‘And how’s your lovely sister doing?’ every time Charles shows up at Erik's work functions.

Charles hates them, but never misses a single one. He makes himself known to Erik's colleagues, making sure they are aware of who he is. There’s very little pleasurable about the entire experience, but it’s still gratifying to watch realization slowly dawn on their faces that Charles is so much more than a trophy husband and that he’s worth respecting in his own right, not just as the boss’s arm candy. It’s tedious, and Charles feels like taking a decontaminating shower or two every time afterwards, but it has to be done.

He never quite gets to being cordial with Emma, but he comes to appreciate her dry as dust wit and the way she sees through everybody without revealing anything. For her part, she seems to enjoy getting his insights on her colleagues and regales him with the juiciest bits of the office gossip to get his opinion.

Erik clearly enjoys watching him work the room, but tells him with a smile afterwards, ‘You don’t have anything to prove to them.’ Charles doesn’t correct him, but it’s not about proving anything. Unlike Erik, Emma sees it for what it is, namely Charles staking his claim and establishing himself as someone not to be messed with, and it seems to in turn amuse her and make her respect for him grow. Charles despises the necessity as it feels humiliating, but this is life, not fairytale, and he nearly had his happiness stolen from him once. He’s not letting himself become a clueless victim again.

Erik, for his part, still frowns when Charles spends too much time with Hank or Moira, but he never says anything. It’s a kind of silent compromise when Erik does not voice a single objection against Charles wanting to spend time with other people, and Charles doesn’t object to casual displays of possessiveness when Erik thinks he needs to keep grocery clerks, waiters, and random strangers at bay if they smile at Charles too much. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it works, the only exception being when Logan calls to check in.

Charles doesn’t hide it, because that way lie discord and disaster, but he wishes Erik would react calmer to a message from a friend. Those are usually the days when Charles cancels whatever appointments he has and devotes all of his attention to fucking Erik's brains out by any means available, so that Erik would hopefully in time begin to associate Logan’s periodic (and completely virtual) appearances with something good. That hasn’t worked so far, but Charles has faith, and besides it’s not like this tactic is without its own benefits.

Speaking of their sex life, Erik has been shooting him annoyed glances for about ten minutes now, which means Charles has long run out of time. He says a hasty goodbye to Professor Henley, mutters a few excuses to his colleagues, and comes to stand at Erik's side, discreetly twining their fingers.

“That was forty-six minutes,” Erik informs him, unmoved.

“Well, I’m all yours now, darling.” Charles smiles at him sweetly, emphasizing the word yours the way he knows Erik likes. Sure enough, there’s an instant softening in the hard expression. “Shall we?”

Erik is mostly silent on the cab ride home, letting Charles babble excitedly, recounting the top moments of the evening. He still can’t believe Doctor McGee actually shook his hand. The man never lets go of any grudges and honestly is more liable to throttle Charles on any given day than say something nice. Erik nods sagely, listening with a distracted air, even though Charles knows that he’s committing every detail to memory. His babbling intensifies exponentially as the tension in the car seems to rise. Charles loosens his tie, too hot all of a sudden. Erik doesn’t turn, but smirks.

The moment they’re finally inside the apartment, Erik pushes him against the wall, sliding his knee between Charles's thighs, and oh, Charles has obviously underestimated his impatience, because the erection pressing against his groin is rock hard and persistent, and so is Erik's kiss, open-mouthed, rude, and hungry, the exact kind that brings Charles up from one all the way up to eleven in a matter of seconds. He gasps into Erik's mouth, straining for mercy he knows he won’t get.

“This suit is criminal,” Erik murmurs, barely letting him up for air. “I could barely keep my hands off of you tonight.”

“Thanks,” Charles pants, wishing the damn thing off already. “Angel helped me pick it out. Ow.”

Erik bites his earlobe, sending a thrill down Charles's spine. “You would let other people dress you, but not me?”

“I didn’t say she dressed me,” Charles exhales, tilting his head to give Erik better access. “Just that she—ah—helped.”

“I want to fuck you right here,” Erik growls low in his ear, the words making Charles painfully hard in an instant. “With you still wearing it. Your pants around your ankles, hands behind your back, coming from my cock alone.” Charles groans as Erik cups him through his pants. “Would you let me?”

“When have I ever—God, Christ Erik—said no to anything you wanted?”

Erik presses against him, sealing their lips together, and for a few glorious moments, they just rut against each other mindlessly, stuck in the not-enough-but-too-good-to-stop, until Charles finally pulls back.

“Either put your money where your mouth is,” he pants. “Or show me that gift I’ve been hearing so much about.”

Erik sags against him slightly, then draws in a deeper breath, visibly collecting himself. One day, Charles thinks, he might not get high seeing Erik so obviously affected by him, but he can’t really imagine it. Erik steals one last kiss, breaking it off before they can start again, and drags him by the hand deeper into the apartment.

“So remember how we never use the second bedroom?” he asks, voice hoarser than usual. It’s the kind of voice that makes Charles shiver.

“Mhm.”

“Since you’ve basically been sleeping in the lab these past two weeks, I’ve moved some things around, and well, take a look.”

Erik opens the door for him and steps back, hands on Charles's hips. Charles looks around, blinking in amazement.

It’s a study. The room that used to be Erik's therapy room when Charles first moved in has been completely transformed. Its walls are lined with bookshelves; they look like the old-fashioned ones Charles remembers from the library of his childhood home, but they are obviously a product of modern design, judging by their perfect measurements. There’s even a ladder for the upper level, which almost makes Charles swoon. There’s a huge desk by the window, and a lower table in the middle, framed by a cozy looking couch and a few poufs, with lights framing the space thoughtfully. There are a couple of potted plants on the window sill, the kind Charles recognizes as ‘unkillable’ by neglect, which is an issue for him. There’s even a bar in the corner, fully stocked, and a chessboard sitting in the middle of the table. It’s perfectly modern, yet perfectly charming, and he can already see a span of long evenings spent here happily, either by himself or with a few colleagues, and that goes so far against Erik's comfort that Charles feels momentarily chocked up.

“Erik,” he manages. “This is…”

Erik hugs him from behind, pressing a kiss under his jaw. “You like it? I thought, every real professor should have a home study.”

“I’m not a real professor yet,” Charles mutters, still gazing around in awe. Suddenly, without any kind of warning, the words slip from his lips. “I need you to finalize our divorce.”

Erik goes still. “What?”

Charles can’t look away from the magnificence of the room. He pulls free from Erik's arms, stalking around, running his hand along the bookshelves reverently.

“God, Erik, this is amazing. I can’t believe you kept this from me.”

It’s the silence that alerts him. He turns around to see Erik's face frozen in non-reaction.

“Charles,” Erik croaks. “Our—our divorce?”

“Yes. Oh. Oh no, it’s not like that.” He’s back at Erik's side in an instant, cupping his face. Erik is tense, pulling back. “I didn’t mean—”

“Well, what the hell did you mean?”

Charles follows him, undeterred, backing Erik up against the doorframe, looping his arms around his neck.

“I’ve finally completed my PhD, Erik. I want to—to make a new start, I suppose. I feel like a whole new man. And I just wanted—well, I wanted to ask you to marry me, so that we could turn the leaf, so to speak. I wanted… I really wanted to ask you. But see, I can’t do that, because technically, we never divorced, so whatever that was is still there, and—”

Erik cuts him off, kissing him, and it’s shaky and too strong, and Charles surges into it, holding on to Erik for dear life.

“I’m sorry,” he breathes out. “I didn’t realize how that would sound.”

“You nearly gave me a heart attack,” Erik murmurs, lips brushing against Charles's. “Don’t ever do that again, I couldn’t take it.”

“I promise,” Charles whispers in-between sharp, heated kisses.

“You liked the study then?”

“I love the study.”

“Want to break in the couch?”

Erik.”

Later, much, much later, when they’ve relocated to the bedroom to sleep and of course didn’t in favor of exhausting each other some more, Charles tugs at Erik's tousled hair gently, making him look up from where he’s resting his head on Charles's chest.

“So, is that a ‘yes’?”

Erik blinks, momentarily confused—three rounds in a few short hours would overcome a stronger man than him—and then his gaze clears. He grins with far too many teeth, unabashedly happy, and pulls himself up on his elbows to draw level with Charles's face.

“Yes.”

Charles grins back and pulls him into a kiss that is far too tired and far too sweet than it has any right to be.

--

They have the ceremony in the last week of August. As Charles smiles hard enough for his face to split, accepting congratulations and well wishes from his friends and Erik's, he looks at his old new husband and thinks that there’s a secret to having a charmed life. It’s not about acting on faith, but instead acting anyway when you don’t have any. It’s about not giving up on yourself when the rest of the world seems to have done so.

“Just so you know,” Angel says, appearing at Charles's elbow. She looks astonishing in a black leather bridesmaid dress. “Raven has been giving me lessons. I will totally punch him in the face for you if he pulls any kind of shit again.”

Charles laughs. “Let’s hope I won’t need to hold you to that.” He winks.

“I might do it anyway,” she muses out loud. “For old times’ sake.”

“Not on my wedding day, you won’t.”

She looks over at him, then suddenly presses a kiss to his cheek. “I’m happy for you, Charles.”

He beams at her. “Thank you, darling.”

Raven is undoubtedly responsible for all the gratuitous alcohol flooding the reception, so thirty minutes later Charles makes a strategic decision to locate Erik and pull him subtly away.

“What do you say we make a run for it?” he whispers.

Erik gives him a sideways look. “Oh?” he says quietly. “I thought you wanted all of this.”

“And I’ve had enough, so are you seriously going to—”

Erik cups his face as though to kiss him, shielding him from the room, and murmurs, “Our Uber ride is two minutes away.” He grins at Charles's expression. “So. If you’ll still have me?”

“I just married you for the second time, for God’s sake.” Charles rolls his eyes and clasps Erik's hand tightly. “Lead the way.”

--