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Our House, In The Middle Of Our Street

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one.

It is on days like this that Charles feels really, really old.

He presses his forehead against the vending machine, stabbing mechanically at any random button and hearing the hiss of coffee dispensing into the cup. It doesn't matter what his choice is anyway, since almost everything in these machines – coffee, tea, what the hell is Nesquik - tastes like hot sludge. He doesn't move even when the coffee is done, not wanting to think of that young man sitting in his office, half-catatonic with shock and pain. Then again, anyone would be if they had recently lost both parents in a two car pile-up.

Finally he shoves himself off the machine and collects the coffee, mentally bracing himself for the chaos waiting for him back at his office. That newly-orphaned young man, and then later, so many others like him, all waiting for Charles, all represented by yellow folders, which are filled with distressing information about how these kids are alone, or unwanted, or both. At the end of the day, Charles will tuck away the folders back in his drawers, but back home, he can't quite tuck them away so easily in his mind.

He trudges back to the office, giving the young man a sympathetic smile before setting the coffee down in front of him. "Drink."

The young man stares back at Charles, uncomprehending, then shrinks back into his chair. Charles sighs and flips open the yellow folder that Moira had hastily put together after the accident yesterday. "It's Hank, right? How are you feeling?"

The boy blinks, then raises a shaking hand to adjust his glasses, his eyes blank and unseeing. Something twists in Charles's chest, but he steels himself to continue reading the file. "Are you going to be staying with your aunt?" he asks kindly, but Hank's face is still loose and slack with shock. Charles sits back, pinching the bridge of his nose. He is not going to get an answer, at least not tonight, and he doesn't blame the poor chap.

He ignores the pull of the resignation letter sitting in the top left drawer of his desk.

***

"Some days," Moira is saying. There are bags under her eyes, huge dark circles, the uniform stamped on every social worker trudging through these corridors. "Some days, Charles, I just feel--" Here she trails off, shaking her head, and Charles knows all too well the nameless clump of helplessness that's stuck in her throat, in his.

"I know." He shoots her a quick smile, rubs her arm. She feels a little too skinny, and he thinks that he needs to force her out for dinner again. Dinner and nothing more, though; they had tried to make a go of it a long time ago, but the spark had failed to burst into flame. "But we do it for the kids."

"The kids." Moira's voice is flat. "Tell me, how are we going to help them when there are never enough shelters, never enough foster homes?"

"Moira." The tone of his voice is warning enough; he is still feeling drained and sad from the interview with that McCoy kid. When she looks away, he rubs her arm again. "I didn't think I'd hear this kind of defeatist attitude from you." His smile grows sly, teasing. "You've been spending too much time with Stryker, you're beginning to sound like a crusty old man."

"Thanks a lot." But at least she is smiling a little now at the mention of their pessimistic, inept director. "Speaking of which, don't forget the meeting on Monday."

"Right," he says. Because he hasn't, and he intends to hand in his resignation after that meeting. "Monday, then."

 

two.

 

"You're leaving?"

Burt's voice is loud enough to be heard throughout the whole office, and Charles can only imagine the curious heads peeking over their cubicle walls. Charles nods once, sharply, and his supervisor just looks flabbergasted and lost. "Charles, I can't lose you, you're one of the best--"

"I'm sorry, Burt old chap, my mind's made up."

"But I thought you really cared for these kids." Burt just looks aghast and stricken, causing a twinge of guilt in Charles's chest. "We're understaffed as it is--"

"I know." Charles clasps his hands together and places them on his lap. "But there are bright, young graduates, all more than suitable to be the best social workers. It's just a matter of recruiting and training, Burt."

"I still don't get it." Burt is taking off his glasses and wiping them furiously."I know for you, it's not about the money, it's always been about the kids."

"Precisely," Charles says. "Which is why I am applying to be a foster parent."

Burt stops polishing his glasses. "Really?"

"Yes." Charles leans forward now, excitement bubbling in his veins in a way that has been absent for a long, long time. "I've done the paperwork, I'm going to submit the application. If they'll have me, I've got to go for classes, training...but first, I have to quit because I can't be both a social worker and a foster parent."

"Oh." Burt puts on his glasses again. "Ohhh." Now his supervisor is beaming again, and it's a brilliant thing to watch. "That's actually quite a good idea. You have the background, and you have the, uh--"

"Money," Charles finishes for him, and Burt flushes. "So I'll keep you updated on the status of my application, yes?"

"Please do." Burt stands up, reaching out to shake Charles's hand. "I can think of no better person to send these kids to."

Charles shakes his supervisor's hand, and when he walks out of the office, he prays that his gamble will pay off, and that his resignation would not have been for naught.

***

Moira won't quite look at him, and Charles can't figure out if she is sad or angry. She places his things into the mover's boxes with a little more force than necessary, and he decides that she is both.

"Moira," he says when he hands her the case files of the kids that she will be taking over. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah." However she is biting her lip, tapping her fingers against the box of files. "It's just-- How am I going to do this without you, Charles?"

"You'll be fine," he says, and he means it. "Besides, it's not like we'll never see each other again. If my application is successful, you'll be sending those kids to me."

"I know." Her smile is small and sad, and Charles strokes her cheek. She leans into his touch with a sigh. "I'll miss having someone to bully around the office."

His laugh is out before he can stop it. "I'm sure you'll find some other unfortunate soul."

Her smile widens, then she leans forward and kisses him on the cheek. "I'll see you soon, you old rascal."

For the first time in a long time, Charles Xavier walks out of his office building with a heart as light as air.

 

three.

 

Three weeks after his resignation, Charles stands in front of his sprawling family mansion in Westchester and thinks, this could work.

It takes him a good few hours to reacquaint himself with his boyhood home where he grew up with parents so distant that they may as well have been in another country. But he knows he's fortunate enough, he and Raven, compared to all the broken, silent, sullen kids who have sat in his old office a thousand times, having lived through a thousand horrors. The culmination of their various life experiences have had a hand in shaping his own unique perspective on life, inversely turning him into the unfailing optimist he is today. If he can help these kids, he reasons, then no one is beyond salvation.

Raven has called him silly and idealistic, but she is also quitting her job in NYC to move back here and help him get things moving. As always, Charles is a man who puts far more stock in actions than words, and knows he can count on his stepsister where it matters.

The rest of the morning is spent wandering through the grounds, mentally cataloguing all the big things that need fixing, all the little things that need tweaking. He knows he is feeling rather out of his depth here, but he refuses to let the huge umbrella of all his new responsibilities overwhelm him. All this is nothing that a hired team of cleaners and handymen can't fix, but he'll have to go into town for that. For now, his stomach is growling too.

In the car, he sings along loudly (and off-key) to the radio, letting his worries fall away with the words.

***

After a quick lunch, Charles checks his watch. He will need to pick Raven up from the bus station in a few hours, but for now, he has time to wander around the town for a bit. For Charles it is a luxury for him to be able to simply wander with little purpose. As a social worker, he had often felt like the thinnest pat of butter spread out over the largest piece of bread, with too many kids needing his attention and too little time to help them all. He feels a twinge of guilt at the thought of Moira and his other colleagues straining under the additional workload, but he knows this is a better way he can help.

Having stopped at a bookshop and a deli, Charles stumbles upon a little hardware store named 'KLINSMANN HOME REPAIRS' that he had not remembered seeing in his childhood. Still, it looks like it has been there forever, ancient and a little musty. He enters the shop tentatively, eyeing the various fixtures and tools balanced precariously on the shelves. “Hello?"

Someone yells in reply to him from the back of the shop in what sounded like German. Charles pauses, then says, “I'm sorry?"

"Herzlich willkommen!" the voice shouted back cheerfully. "Warten sie eine Minute!"

Charles's grasp of German is spotty at best, but at least he knows the proprietor is asking him to wait for a while. He tinkers with an antique faucet while he waits, wondering if there are many in the manor like these that he had failed to notice earlier.

A much older man with Coke-bottle glasses and white tufts of hair growing out of his ears shuffles out from the back, beaming at Charles. "Guten Tag!"

Charles can't help but be charmed by this man, who looks like a bumbling, cartoonish Einstein. "Hello! Unfortunately, I don't speak much German, my good man. English?"

The old man's smile falters, but he continues to nod. "Yes, is fine."

"I was wondering if you had any contacts for a local handyman?" Charles asks. "You see, I just moved back here, and I have a lot of repairs to be done. And I'm quite useless at those, I'm afraid. My sister claims that if I hold a wrench, it would be a miracle if I didn't take my own eye out."

From the small chuckle, the old man seems to have at least understood Charles, but he seems hesitant in choosing his words. "Follow me," he says at last, and Charles obediently trots after him, following a small maze that leads out to an unexpectedly bright courtyard that makes Charles momentarily shield his eyes. He is surrounded by loud laughter and conversation, also in German. 

The little backyard is filled with men smoking and laughing, some eating. They fall silent as the old man addresses them, and Charles can feel their gazes silently assessing him. He keeps his posture straight, his smile friendly: this is his trademark stance when dealing with an abusive parent, or a complaining member of the public.

After the owner (at least, Charles presumes he is) is done, none of the men step forward to ask for the job, but someone says, "Lehnsherr," and there is a general murmur of agreement. Charles looks around to see who they are referring to, and his eyes widen when he notices a tall man with impossibly broad shoulders turning to face him, taking a last drag of his cigarette before flicking it away.

The man's black polo shirt does little to hide the long, slender tattoos that start at his forearms and disappear under his sleeves, and Charles wonders if gangs in Germany also made tattoos part of the initiation for new members. The man looks rough, dangerous, but years of social work has enabled Charles to read people exceptionally well, and the man called Lehnsherr has hands that look used to hard manual labour. He is now looking steadily at Charles, but he says something in German to the owner. "Was machen wir jetzt?"

"Oh, you don't speak English too," Charles says. "That might be a problem."

"He is only one," the owner insisted. "Lehnsherr, yes?" All this while, the man called Lehnsherr is just staring at Charles a little too curiously, but there is a hint of a smile too, as though there is some private joke that Charles doesn't understand. Maybe there is, because there is something in this man's eyes that makes Charles's nerves sing, maybe with caution, maybe with something else.

"All right then," Charles says, and kicks himself. What is he going to do with a handyman who only speaks German? "Just tell him to come to this address tomorrow, at nine." He hands over the address to the owner, studiously avoiding Lehnsherr's heavy gaze.

Charles pretends to ignore the mocking laughter long after his exit.

 

four.

"Who is this guy?" Raven asks, after she has unpacked in her old bedroom and taken out her old collection of stuffed animals. Equally unnerving is the single katana that lies on a stand on her mantle, and Charles idly wonders what else she has learned and experienced during her time in NYC. "How could you just hire him out of some shop?"

"It's not just some shop," Charles says. "And it's really hard to find help now, most of them have already been engaged by the people who own summer homes. And I can't wait, I want to get this place up and running as soon as possible."

"Fair enough," Raven says. "But I reserve the right to point and laugh at you when he destroys the shelves and makes off with half the furniture."

"Your faith in me is overwhelming, little sister." Charles grins wickedly as he tries to grab her for a kiss on the cheek, and she squeals with laughter as she shoves him away.

With Raven back in the house, there now seems to be a bit more life bouncing around the hallways, but Charles cannot wait to fill these rooms with kids who have lived on the streets, or shared such rooms with numerous siblings. The local grocery's van comes trundling up the driveway, and Charles watches as the various cupboards and fridges are filled with healthy food for growing children and, more realistically, junk food for growing teenagers.

The handyman called Lehnsherr arrives at exactly five minutes before nine, and this time he is carrying a massive toolbox and wearing workmen's coveralls. They do nothing to disguise the lean muscle rippling underneath, which is good, Charles decides, as it means this man knows his business. Lehnsherr gives Charles the same blank look when he is introduced to Raven, but the dazzling smile takes Charles by surprise, and makes Raven look away coyly. "He doesn't understand English," Charles explains to Raven. "So don't give the poor chap a hard time."

"Why would I?" She rolls her eyes at him before smiling at Lehnsherr who, bless his German sense of efficiency, goes right to work.

***

Moira calls in the afternoon with the first case. "I thought you might want to take this one," she says, and Charles can hear the triumph in her voice. "Remember Hank McCoy?"

It barely takes Charles a second to recall him. "Oh yes, poor chap, lost both parents in an accident. Isn't he staying with his aunt?"

"Irreconcilable differences," Moira says dryly, and Charles knows this is code for what-the-fuck-do-I-do-with-someone-elses-child syndrome. "Got any room for my boy?"

Charles grins widely. "For you, my pretty little bee, I have five hundred."

***

While Raven and the caretaker, Mrs Rodriguez, go about preparing Hank's room for his arrival, Charles walks around to look for a suitable room to convert into a laboratory. He remembers that in Hank's file, he had seen perfect SAT scores and several achievements in regional science fairs, and he thinks that the boy would feel at home here if there were places he could work and tinker in. Charles arrives at his stepfather's old study and thinks that this might make a good place, and the window has a nice view of the garden.

Charles is about to leave when he notices movement in the garden, and he looks down to see Lehnsherr carrying out planks of rotten plywood that had probably been decaying in the basement, or one of the other rooms. Now Lehnsherr is mopping his forehead, bending down to guzzle water from an open bottle. His arms are golden, gleaming with sweat, and as a result the tattoos look darkened, even more pronounced.

Charles feels something settling in the pit of his stomach, like a coiled cobra, dangerous and waiting to strike, and it is a while before he finally moves away from the window.

five.


Hank arrives two afternoons later, looking considerably nervous and miserable and pained all at once. He is tall, much taller than Charles, probably even taller than Lehnsherr. Despite his height, Hank looks small in his room, as though trying to fold in on himself to hide better. Understanding his grief all too well, Charles helps Moira and Levine to unload the rest of his luggage, letting the boy hang on to his rucksack and a box of prized old books. Later, he thinks, he'll ask Hank about those books to try and get a foot in the door with the boy somehow; it is worth a shot. For now he tells Raven to leave their new occupant alone – her sidelong glances had not escaped his notice - and her indignant pout would have been hilarious if not for Hank's grief.

Hank doesn't join them for dinner, and Charles, after a concerned glance upwards, tells Mrs Rodriguez to leave a plate of food for him in the oven. Raven picks quietly at her food, but a nonchalant Lehnsherr eats solidly, probably blissfully unaware of the drama going on in the house. Not quite the foster family Charles had dreamed of, but he knows they'll get there.

Charles thinks that it would be a good idea to expedite the construction of the lab so that Hank has a distraction. There are a few more boys that Moira is sending over next week, boys whom Charles had once overseen, and Charles is already thinking of converting one of the bigger dens into some kind of rec room. He will definitely need to hire a contractor, but first he wants to ask for Lehnsherr's opinion; hopefully the man will somehow understand what Charles wants in the first place.

In the end, Charles settles for downloading a few photos from a local contractor's website, and he walks with Lehnsherr from room to room with his iPad, pointing out what he wants done, and the man nods, looking thoughtful. Although he may not speak English, he is quick enough to pick up on Charles's nonverbal cues, along with the aid of the pictures.

"Here, I thought we could get in some metal tables," Charles says as they enter the intended lab, and heat prickles along his skin when he remembers this is the room where he had been watching Lehnsherr from the window a few days ago. Thankfully, the man seems oblivious. Charles rests his iPad on the desk and flicks through the pictures. "I was hoping one day it will look like this--"

Then he hears Lehnsherr's footsteps getting closer, and now the man is looking over Charles's shoulder, head down at the iPad. His breath is warming Charles's neck, and Charles is struggling to get his thought process back on track, trying to ignore the man standing behind him.

"And, um--" Charles clears his throat as Lehnsherr shifts behind him, and he can smell sweat, paint and the faint tang of aftershave. "I'll get a contractor, of course, but I'll just need your help with some of the preliminary shifting." Charles turns slightly, seeing Lehnsherr's brow furrowed in confusion, so he mimes the movement of furniture, and Lehnsherr's frown clears.

"Do you understand?" Charles asks, and Lehnsherr nods. Now the man seems to be smiling that private little smile again, as though he knows the most amusing joke in the world and he isn't going to share it with Charles, not under even pain of death. From this vantage point, so up close, Charles can't help thinking about the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio. He knows science measures symmetry as beauty, and Charles is fascinated by the ruler-straight lines of Lehnsherr's face – his brows, his eyes, his jaw, that generous mouth. And, of course, the dark ink curling up the lines of Lehnsherr's arms, writ in the language of a world Charles would never be a part of.

Charles looks away first, not quite flushing, but close.

A heartbeat later, Lehnsherr steps away with his hands in his pockets, whistling something under his breath as he strides out of the room, and Charles envies him his nonchalance.

 

six.


The following week, the arrival of Alex Summers and Sean Cassidy spell the end of the quiet peacefulness of the manor, and Charles can't stop smiling at the communal sounds of yelling and stomping and running down the corridors. The boys become fast friends, due to shared interests like girls, comics, girls, sports and girls. Sean is not at all shy about his few misdemeanors but they are nothing serious, mostly involving vandalism and shattering windows. In contrast, Alex doesn't mention his colourful juvie background, and Charles doesn't see the need to either.

Alex also doesn't mention the nameless, absent brother making the rounds in other foster homes, but it is obvious that Sean has slipped effortlessly into the role, and with gusto. They're trying to draw Hank out of his shell too, and to Charles's surprise, it is somewhat working. Walking past the half-completed rec room one evening, Charles is gratified to see them crowded around the foosball table which Lehnsherr had managed to locate and bring in, Raven cheering them on and booing Alex whenever he scores.

They look up when he comes in. "Hey Prof, join us for a game?" Sean asks, his grin lazy and a little sleepy. They always call him Prof, despite Charles's insistence that they address him by his first name. He wonders if the nickname came from his previous background, or his fondness for tweed jackets which, according to Raven, were 'lame'.

"I'm good, you lot carry on whooping Alex," he says, to much laughter and an indignant, 'Oh, come on,' from Alex.

"I'm sure I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back," Hank says with a nervous grin as he sends the little plastic ball flying into the opposite goal with a flick of his wrist.

"I'm not so sure, I think Alex does a lot of things better with one hand," Sean cackles, and there is a howl of outraged laughter and disgust. Charles shakes his head with a grin, pleased when he sees Hank chuckling as well.

"Don't forget your chores before dinner," Charles reminds them, and they murmur obediently, eyes still on the game. As he is about to walk out, only then does he notice Lehnsherr, sandpapering a few boards in the corner of the room, an odd little paternal smile on his face as he absently watches the kids.

Then his gaze meets Charles's, and Lehnsherr gives him a nod, still smiling as he goes back to work.

***

Charles is walking around and checking the doors; the kids are in bed, the staff have gone home for the day and it is finally quiet in the manor. The silence means he doesn't miss the crunch of gravel outside, and he peeks out into the driveway to see Lehnsherr standing there, smoking and looking up at the sky.

Charles steps out, feeling the bite of the evening wind as he is only in his striped pajamas. "Your ride isn't here yet?" he asks, mimicking the action of someone driving.

Lehnsherr shakes his head, then points at his watch with a frown. He must have missed his ride.

"You're welcome to stay the night." Charles points towards the inside of the house. "We have a lot of rooms."

Thankfully Lehnsherr seems to understand, as he stands there contemplating Charles's offer, and finally he shrugs, putting out his cigarette and following him inside.

Charles leads him to the room opposite his. "The bed should be made," he says, not really caring anymore that Lehnsherr might not understand him. A group of teenage boys are a lot more tiring in one large dose instead of three. As a result, his next words are more careless and flippant than anything else. "If not, feel free to crawl into mine."

As Charles pads away to his own room, he wonders if he had imagined Lehnsherr's quiet snort of amusement.

 

seven.


The next morning, Charles comes down to the kitchen with a massive headache after a night of restless sleep, thanks to the weather. He's aware that he said something remarkably stupid to Lehnsherr last night, but he can't remember what it is now and he's just thankful the man doesn't understand English. The smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen perks Charles up a bit, and he staggers into the dining area, taking his seat at the head of the table. Alex and Sean are already in their respective places.

It takes only a microsecond for Charles to realise something is off. When he looks up, he notices both boys are uncharacteristically quiet, looking very wary and wide-eyed. In fact, they seem to be listening intently for something. It is only then that Charles picks up the two voices floating out from the kitchen, a lively exchange in Spanish. One voice is unmistakably Mrs Rodriguez, of course. But the other is a low, smooth baritone that seems oddly familiar to Charles, and it certainly doesn't sound like Hank.

"Is that Lehnsherr? Speaking Spanish?" Charles asks, somewhat in disbelief. Both boys nod immediately, looking as stunned as Charles.

"Huh." Charles pokes his tongue at the inside of his cheek. It seems rather odd that the man knows German and Spanish, but not--

"Guten Morgen!" Lehnsherr comes sailing out of the kitchen with plates of eggs and bacon, grinning widely as he sets them in front of Charles and the boys. Mrs Rodriguez trails along behind with a pot of coffee, shaking her head with laughter at something Lehnsherr must have said earlier. More excited chatter in Spanish again before the two of them head back into the kitchen, and Charles remembers to blink.

"Dude." Sean's jaw is still on the table. "What the flaming fuck?"

"Sean, language." It is more of an automatic response for Charles than anything else, but Sean looks reasonably contrite.

As for Alex, he is squinting in confusion the way he does whenever Charles has presented him with a particularly hard math problem to solve. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks it's strange."

"What's strange?" Hank has appeared at the table, hair neatly combed and shirt impeccably ironed in comparison to the others as he reaches out to steal a rasher of bacon from Alex's plate.

"Erik's in a really good mood," Sean says, mystified. "I had no idea he stayed the night. This morning, I was waiting at the top of the stairs for Alex when Erik walked past and clapped me so hard on the back I almost fell down the stairs."

"That's weird," Alex says with a grin. "If you had fallen down the stairs, I would have understood why he was in a good mood."

"Dude." Sean's offended tone causes a ripple of laughter as Raven joins them for breakfast, towelling her damp hair.

"What's so funny?" she asks eagerly, but it's too late as Lehnsherr reappears with Mrs Rodriguez, and the group is forced to settle down to breakfast. It is not long before they return to the usual mundane morning chatter, reminding Charles that it is time to eat, and that it is not polite to stare.

 

eight.

The rest of the week passes by quickly enough, and Moira calls up with two more cases she wants to bring over. The boy, Darwin, is a sweet, harmless enough lad whose case Charles had overseen last year, while the girl, Angel, is one of Moira's. Moira whispers in hushed tones that Angel is particularly problematic, and this is the fourth foster home she's been sent to. Charles tells her to send the girl over anyway, and Moira sighs in that way of hers with that don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you tone and it makes Charles smile.

Moira and the kids arrive in Westchester three hours late because of a flat tyre, and Charles shows both teenagers to their respective rooms. Darwin is grateful and starts unpacking immediately with Alex's help, while Angel merely sits on her bed, her jaw tight with insolence. Making a note to get Raven to talk to her later, Charles heads back downstairs and asks Moira to stay for dinner, since it is so late.

"You should really stay, Mrs Rodriguez is making her famous tamales," Charles says with a wink as everyone helps to unload the car. "And then you get to see how the children push me around and bully me."

Moira laughs as she hands him a box of Angel's belongings. "Dinner and a show? How can I resist?"

"I knew you can't resist me," Charles teases, dropping a kiss on her cheek as Raven walks past with an eye-roll, Sean mouthing the word, 'Lame!' behind her. "Y'know, I've really missed you and the others."

Moira's smile softens. "Me too." She puts down her box and hugs him tightly, which he returns with a grin. He takes the box from her and carries it inside, setting it down beside the sofa.

A particularly loud 'clunk!' makes Charles jump, and he looks up at Lehnsherr who is stiffly walking away from the box he had just set down beside Charles, his expression rather tight and unreadable.

Already in a bad mood, my friend? Charles thinks, but he can't help being amused. Lehnsherr's moods seem to be as predictable as the weather.

***

Dinner is noisier than ever, because Moira is telling embarrassing stories about Charles and the children keep howling with laughter, egging her on. It is even worse when Raven teams up with Moira to reveal yet more mortifying stories from their childhood. Charles doesn't think he's ever wanted to crawl into a hole more than he does now as Raven tells everyone about how he accidentally shaved off his hair when he was younger. Still, it is all worth it. Looking around the table at the happy faces, Charles can't help feeling a sense of accomplishment that he is on his way to fulfilling his dreams, even if Angel's glaring absence at the table reminds him he still has a long way to go.

The other dampener is Lehnsherr's stoic expression as he vigorously dissects his tamales, shovelling food in and not really paying attention to the conversation. Then again, why would he? However, Lehnsherr does smile when Mrs Rodriguez lays a motherly hand on his arm and asks him about the food, and Charles can't help thinking that the chap really should smile more; it makes him look like an entirely different person, albeit a little shark-like. When Lehnsherr turns in his direction, Charles quickly looks away and back at Raven, who now seems to be talking about her first boyfriend, a complete arse whom Charles couldn't stand.

As the kids help Mrs Rodriguez with the plates, Charles and Raven go upstairs to prepare one of the guestrooms for Moira. "Stay, it's an insanely long drive back," Charles insists, and Moira looks too tired to argue anyway. Besides, it is a good opportunity for her to keep an eye on Angel whose door remains stubbornly closed.

After changing the sheets, Charles peeps out of the window to check if Moira had left her car in the driveway. To his surprise, he sees Lehnsherr and Hank standing next to a motorcycle in the driveway, a beautiful black Ducati. Lehnsherr is talking earnestly and making revving motions with his hands, and Hank is utterly enthralled by whatever he is saying. Charles's brow wrinkles in confusion, but it smoothes out again when he remembers that Hank is fluent in seven languages, including German.

Now Lehnsherr is stepping aside and gesturing towards the Ducati, and Hank seems hesitant. After more cajoling from Lehnsherr, the boy finally gives in and throws a long leg over the bike, straddling it comfortably. The growing grin on the boy's face does little to hide his genuine excitement, and Lehnsherr is patting his back heartily in a show of encouragement.

"What are you looking at?" Raven squeezes in beside him, her mouth open in an 'O' when she sees Hank on the Ducati. "Wow. Hank looks pretty bad-ass on that bike."

"He does," Charles admits. And he's not the only one. With Lehnsherr's black leather jacket which conceal his exotic tattoos and his dark jeans, he cuts a rough, stern figure. A man's man, like a cross between Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man.

Then Lehnsherr is looking up at them, and Hank follows his gaze. Charles and Raven manage a small wave.

"Wow," Raven says again as they step away from the window, pretending to fan herself. "Erik's actually not that bad, huh?"

Charles makes a noncommittal sound, feeling the ghost of Lehnsherr's breath on his neck again. "I suppose, if you're into the whole serial killer vibe."

Raven laughs loudly. "You're way too hard on him, you know?" she admonishes him. "Besides, you are the one who hired him."

"Don't remind me," Charles says, mentally shaking himself and checking his watch. Time to go check on the others. "Help me tell Moira where everything is, would you? Oh, and would you also try talking to Angel a bit? I'm afraid she might take a while to open up, and it might help for her to have another girl around to talk to."

"I'll try." Now Raven is looking at him rather thoughtfully, and he is more than familiar with this level of scrutiny. It always, always means that his sister is up to no good. "Are you okay, Charles?"

"Don't be silly." He flashes her a quick smile, pulling her in for a kiss on her cheek. "With the way I'm constantly running after you lot, it'll be a miracle if I don't lose all my hair."

Rolling her eyes, Raven shoves him out of the guestroom. "Love you too!" she laughs, blowing him a kiss.

Shaking his head, Charles is about to head over to Sean's room when he hears the roar of a motorcycle engine stuttering to life, and he resists the urge to walk over to the window, or to the door when Hank comes in and pushes in the bolts, his face flushed with barely concealed glee.

That night, Charles doesn't get much sleep again.

 

nine.


The water feels a little cold, but Charles simply can't bring himself to care. There are other far more important, far more delicious things in the shower distracting him now, like the press of Erik's wet skin against his, or the way Erik's mouth feels on Charles's collarbone, alternating between kisses and soft bites, leaving red marks all over his pale skin.

The best distraction of all, of course, is how Erik's large, warm hand is stroking him firmly, upwards, his grip slick with soap. With every stroke, Charles makes these embarrassing little hitching noises, but they seem to turn Erik on, his nostrils flaring with every sound Charles makes. Charles is helpless, pinned against the wall like this, his hips arching up into Erik's deft, work-roughened hands, grabbing onto Erik's broad shoulders for balance as he slowly fucks the tunnel of Erik's fist.

Now Erik's lips have reached his ear. "I want you in my mouth," he whispers in perfect, German-accented English. "Please, please let me suck you off."

"God, yes." Charles tangles his fingers in Erik's damp hair, tugging on the dark blond strands just to hear him growl and beg some more, while the other hand is already pushing down on Erik's shoulder of its own accord, echoing Charles's overpowering desire to see Erik on his knees. Now he is looking up at Charles, those bottle-green eyes glinting with desire and maybe something a little more, and when his mouth finally envelops Charles, so warm and so wet, Charles can't help but surge up into that heat, words of French and German and Spanish falling from his lips like rain, all different but saying the same thing, that Erik, Erik--

The sound of the beeping alarm clock jerks Charles out of slumber, and a guttural groan escapes him when he realises it was all a dream, his hands feeling oddly empty as though something has just been snatched out of their grasp. He rubs his face, twice, but it's no use: he is so hard that even the heavy quilt is tented. Charles eyes his erection evenly, wondering if he should take matters into his own hands, but the sounds of voices and running footsteps outside his door dash that dream. The children are already heading down for breakfast.

A cold, cold shower, then – he forces his eyes shut, willing away the last wisps of his cruelly identical dream earlier – and Charles feels more respectably human, and less likely to maul an unsuspecting Lehnsherr over the breakfast table. He pulls on his favourite shirt and a cardigan – what Raven calls his 'professor-ish outfit' and heads down to the dining room, giving the kids a wave at the chorus of hellos and good mornings. He collects his food, studiously trying very hard not to look at Lehnsherr who is seated at the other end, and Charles plops himself down next to Moira and Raven instead.

"Went jogging, Charles?" Raven asks through a mouthful of food. "You look flushed. And exhausted."

"I'm fine," he says calmly, even as the kids start casting curious glances his way. "Sean, could you pass the shower- I mean, the salt. Pass the salt, please."

Sean warily hands over the salt as though it is a bomb.

"What do you guys have planned for the weekend?" Moira asks, when it becomes apparent that Charles is not going to say anything else and looks particularly interested in his eggs and ham, and the kids return to their bored chatter. "The weather looks promising."

"Are we going outdoors?" That is from Hank, who looks distinctively uncomfortable at the thought of engaging in any sport or sport-related activity.

"Wuss," Alex mutters under his breath, then an indignant 'ow!' as he bends down to massage his bruised foot, while Raven continues chewing her food innocently, her retrieving foot unseen under the table. Alex shoots her a glare. "What did I say?"

"Going outdoors sounds like a good idea," Darwin says quickly, before a fight can erupt. "What is there to do around here? I need to explore this place anyway."

Alex perks up. "I'll take you around, dude."

"We'll all go," Charles adds, because the last thing he needs is the kids splintering out into their own little cliques and groups, and leaving those like Hank and Angel in the dust. "I have some ideas."

***

It is Moira's idea to take advantage of the sprawling green fields in front of the mansion for a soccer game, even though Charles tamps down the urge to correct her and call it by its proper name, the one he had learned in Oxford: football. Still, it doesn't matter because most of the kids (except a dejected Hank and an indifferent Angel, finally coaxed out of her room by Raven's many pleas) look forward to spending time in the sun, be it playing soccer, football or what have you. A picnic basket is also prepared, although Charles seriously doubts that it is sufficient to feed four teenage boys who can strip bare an entire fridge, much to Mrs Rodriguez's astonishment.

The dividing of everyone into two teams is spectacularly more difficult than it should be, as Charles is trying to be fair and the boys all want to stick together. He is more than relieved when Darwin steps forward and offers to form a team with Raven and Moira, so Hank falls in beside Alex and Sean. As Charles blows his referee's whistle, his eye falls on Angel, sitting coquettishly in the shade and looking bored. Well, at least she had agreed to come out with them. Charles knows how to be grateful for minor victories.

The match starts out a little bumpily, people confused about their positions, but thanks to Moira's training from her college soccer years, she explains what she can to the kids, Charles watching her with a grateful smile. At last the game gets going properly, and it is clear from the start that Darwin is a natural at this, dribbling the ball at his feet with fluid grace. Charles remembers the scared, beaten boy who had been assigned to him a year ago. Darwin had been terrified, skinny, plain Armando then, but now, a year shy of being an adult, he is helpful, quick to laugh, generous, graceful.

Surprisingly, Hank is almost equally as deft with his feet, at least deft enough to leave a stunned Alex in his wake as he goes for goal and scores, inciting a squeaky cheer from Raven who seems to have forgotten her team alliances where Hank is concerned.

"Judas!" Charles calls out with a laugh, and Raven flicks her ponytail rudely at him. Moira shakes her head in mock despair.

After the third goal by Darwin, Charles begins to realise that Angel is no longer alone, and out of the corner of his eye, he can see Lehnsherr crouching on the grass beside her, pointing out the movement of the ball and explaining something, most likely in Spanish as it is doubtful Angel understands German. Despite herself, Angel seems curious, listening intently to Lehnsherr. Even from here, Charles can see that Lehnsherr's white tank top is soaked through with sweat, and the remnants of last night's dream come back to him with a vengeance. The white of Lehnsherr's - Erik's - sharp teeth dragging down Charles's throat, more vivid than ever.

"Dammit," he mutters, and blows the whistle. Half-time, then.

 

ten.


Moira has gone back to the city after staying the weekend, but her presence has undoubtedly done quite a lot of good. Now Angel is present (but not active) at most meals and social events, and in Charles's book, being merely present is good enough, for now. Another unbidden realisation that had come about during Moira's stay is how helpful it is for Charles to have another 'adult' to keep an eye on the kids, to balance things out. As hard as he is trying, there is no disputing that the presence of two 'parents' lends an even keel to things, taking the edge off the children's constant seeking of his attention.

It isn't that he wants Moira, or a wife, or anything of that sort. He wants an equal, a partner-in-crime, a yang to what Raven calls his very yin nature.

Needing a break, he steps out of the house while Hank is leading the evening study group. The sky is a brilliant coral, dotted with balls of orange clouds that look like God has spilled a bag of heavenly marbles. Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Charles idly wanders around the compound, taking in the scent of the rosemary bushes that Lehnsherr had managed to plant in the garden behind the kitchen a few days ago.

The roar of a motorcycle engine cuts through the evening stillness. Charles can't fight his smile; it is as though the very mere thought of the man summons him.

The stuttering roar gets louder and louder, and Charles turns to face the Ducati trailing slowly behind him, Lehnsherr with the biggest grin on his face. He isn't wearing a helmet although there's one dangling from the handle bar, and the twilight breeze sifts through his hair, stirring it gently. Lehnsherr brushes his hair back like a cat, as casual as you please.

"So you're done for the day," Charles says, pointing at his watch, and Lehnsherr nods, coming to a stop beside Charles and killing the engine. The sudden silence is almost deafening, which only highlights how loudly the blood is rushing to Charles's ears. "On your way home?" he asks, forgetting that Lehnsherr can't understand him.

Lehnsherr only takes the helmet and holds it out to Charles in a silent request, and Charles gets what he wants him to do. "Oh no, that's all right, I shouldn't--"

A slight frown, then Lehnsherr is pushing the helmet into Charles's protesting hands, then sits back and waits impatiently, folding those tattooed arms across that marvellous chest.

Charles sighs. "Oh, for the love of--it's not fair, really," he mutters, more to himself than anything else as he straps on the helmet, continuing to grumble. "Bloody handsome sod, thinks he can smile at me and I become putty in his hands, so what if you're sex on a stick, bloody--"

Lehnsherr looks like he's trying not to laugh, and instead his hand beckons Charles closer, those deft fingers curled in, a language far more easily understood than either English or German. Come to me.

Charles goes, climbing onto the back of the Ducati carefully, his arm tight around Lehnsherr's waist. The man smells like fresh shower soap and cigarettes, and Charles tries not to think about how warm and solid the man feels, or how close he is to Lehnsherr. Not if Lehnsherr wants an unpleasant surprise poking him in the back, anyway. He holds on tight, and Lehnsherr lets the engine roar into life.

The Ducati's speed picks up quickly and soon they're whizzing along the perimeter of the grounds, Charles letting out a surprised but excited yell. With the wind blasting in his face and whipping back his hair, Charles begins to laugh, letting the thrill of speed and adrenaline sing through his veins. Whatever reservations he had at the beginning about falling off the bike are now gone, thanks to the solid block of Lehnsherr's body that he is free to cling to any way he pleases. And Charles does cling, shouting and whooping and yelling with joy, particularly when Lehnsherr navigates a corner and lets the bike lean heavily to the right, perhaps a little heavier than it needs to be, making Charles grip tighter and hang onto him even more.

He is almost regretful when Lehnsherr comes to a stop by the main entrance, where Raven is waiting, watchful. "That looked fun," she says, the corner of her lips tugging up in a smile.

"It is," Charles says immediately, then flushes. He awkwardly climbs off the bike, leaning against Lehnsherr for balance, and lands neatly on the gravel. "The kids done?"

"Hank called for a break because Alex was driving him mad," Raven drawls. "I stepped out because I didn't want to be an accessory to manslaughter."

"I find that hard to believe," Charles says with a laugh, before turning to Lehnsherr. "Anyway, thanks for the ride. Sorry to keep you."

Lehnsherr doesn't move, though, and Charles is about to gesture towards the gates when he realises Lehnsherr is pointing at his head. "Oh right, the helmet! I'm sorry."

Once it is returned, Lehnsherr nods at him, then revs the engine and heads down the driveway, out past the gates. Charles turns away with a smile, almost bumping into Raven who is smirking at him. "What?"

"Nothing. I learned something today," she says before turning on her heel and heading back into the house, like she always did when they were children and she wanted to keep a secret from Charles, or at least torment him into begging it out of her. Charles rolls his eyes; there's no way he's going to play this game, not now.

Still, he can't help but wonder.

***

Progress is what Charles thinks when he walks past the rec room and sees Angel curled up on the sofa with Sean, their heads bowed over a magazine. For some reason he remembers that moment at the football match where he had seen Lehnsherr talking to the girl, and he wonders what he could have said to Angel, and if it had helped to open her up a little more to the others, if not him.

He hovers near the two of them, wondering how to casually initiate a conversation so he can get a gauge of how Angel is fitting in. Thankfully, Sean notices him first and looks up with a goofy smile. "Hey, Prof."

"How's everything?" Charles asks, catching Sean's eye and canting his head meaningfully at Angel's still bowed head. Sean, always one to catch on quickly, gives him a discreet thumbs-up. Maybe a joke would make her smile. "Have the boys been giving you a hard time, Angel?," Charles asks with a wink. "You must not hesitate to be a tattletale where this lot is concerned."

Sean clasps a hand dramatically over his heart. "Ouch, prof, right through the heart," he drawls, making her giggle. "I'm an absolute saint, man."

"Yeah, and I'm Lady Gaga in an egg," Alex says as he strides into the room, flopping onto the armchair with a groan. "Man, I'm beat."

"Where did you go? I was looking for you earlier," Sean says, nudging Alex with his foot.

"Oh, I helped Erik to carry up the bookcase for Bozo," Alex explains with a huff.

Angel's voice is quiet, but welcome. "Who's Bozo?"

Alex looks incredulously at her as though it is common knowledge. "Hank, of course. I mean, look at those giant clown feet. Erik clearly agrees with me."

Wait. Charles frowns, hurriedly walking over to where Alex is. "You spoke to Lehnsherr?" But Alex doesn't speak German, or Spanish--

After exchanging a confused look with the others, Alex nods warily. "Yeah, we're allowed to, right?"

Sean suddenly jumps up like an alert squirrel. "Did he kill a man once? Because that's what I said, and the others just said I was nuts!"

"You are nuts, he didn't kill nobody," Alex retorted.

As they continue to bicker, a sickening feeling of dismay and realisation is beginning to sink in for Charles, and he feels so stupid, remembering all the obvious evidence so far that he has wilfully ignored, thinking back to the very first time they had met at the store, and Charles wants to bang his head repeatedly against the wall. "My God, he speaks English. He speaks English."

"Yeah, he always has," Sean says hesitantly. "Something wrong, Prof?

"Nothing," Charles says, weakly waving away their concern. He has someone to maim. "Carry on."

***

He finds Lehnsherr inside Hank's room, shifting the bookcase into place with a grimace. Hank is nowhere to be seen, probably in the kitchen or study. Charles leans against the doorjamb, his jaw tightly clenched as he fixes a steely stare on Lehnsherr. "You lied to me."

Lehnsherr's straight-as-a-ruler eyebrows shoot up in surprise, and he points at himself questioningly.

"You can drop the act now, my friend," Charles says cuttingly. "I know you jolly well speak English and have understood me all along."

Lehnsherr says nothing, picking up a nearby towel and mopping off his sweat with it. When he does finally speak, he somehow sounds exactly like he had in Charles's dream, with impeccable, slightly German-accented English. "You were the one who assumed I only spoke German," he says quietly.

"When?"

"When you were at the shop, and Otto was telling us you needed a handyman to help you at your mansion," Lehnsherr's emphasis on the last word almost makes it sound like an insult. "When I asked him something in German, you happily assumed I couldn't speak English."

Charles is stunned. "That is not at all what happened."

"It is, you can choose what you want to believe," Lehnsherr says before gulping down some water.

"Fine, if that's what you said happened, then why didn't you correct me?" Charles asks plaintively.

Lehnsherr rolls his shoulder in a slow shrug. "I wanted to teach you a lesson, I thought it was particularly arrogant of you--"

The anger flares up before Charles can contain it. "I'm sorry?"

"Don't get angry yet, I have since changed my mind," Lehnsherr says without missing a beat as he sets down his bottle. "I see what you do for the children here, and it is...noble. Then again, what do I know?" Now Lehnsherr is smiling, looking like he is baring his teeth. "I'm just a handsome sod who is sex-on-a-stick, I don't know anything."

The anger has now fled, completely replaced by humiliation and embarrassment and, somehow, the overwhelming relief that Lehnsherr is taking it all in his stride with good humour and not looking for something to bludgeon Charles over the head with. Charles runs a hand through his hair, biting his lip. "My God." There is only one thing he can say, then. "I'm so sorry."

Lehnsherr flaps a hand dismissively at him. "Don't worry about it."

As he starts to shift the bookcase again, Charles tries to think of a million reasons to leave so he can die of embarrassment somewhere peaceful. "I'm, um, going to--"

Lehnsherr nods, unable to stop the smile creeping up his face. "See you at dinner."

Charles takes his dinner that night in the study.

 

eleven.


For the next week, Charles decides to bury himself in work – and there is an obscene amount of it. Lots of paperwork to fill up regarding the kids, and then he has to ask them whether they want to attend the high school in the nearest town or be home-schooled once summer is over. There are also letters to read from the lawyer managing his late stepfather's estate, and quarterly reports from the brokerage that he has entrusted to handle the family investments.

Despite the work, Charles is thankful for it – anything to take his mind off that sordid, horrifyingly embarrassing confrontation with Lehnsherr.

To his credit, Lehnsherr hasn't mocked him, or teased him, or even acted oddly. He behaves normally, doing his work and getting the mansion in shape, working with the contractors to make sure the specifications Charles had set are met. He nods at Charles during meals or while passing each other in the corridors. Business as usual, then. It is almost as if the Misunderstanding had not happened at all, and Charles can't quite decide if he's happy or disappointed that nothing has changed.

However, there is something to look forward to: Hank's birthday is coming up, and Raven wants to plan something huge for him, possibly a trip to town where they can watch a movie and eat at a nice restaurant. Moira is invited, of course, and so are Mrs Rodriguez and Lehnsherr. "They're all coming?" Charles asks as casually as he can while he peruses the hastily scribbled guestlist, and Raven nods, watching Charles like a hawk.

"You're okay with that, right?" she asks suddenly, and he raises an eyebrow at her.

"Of course, why wouldn't I be?" Charles doesn't tell her about his mental resolution to sit as far away from Lehnsherr as politely possible.

"Nothing." The way Raven studies him is unnerving, and he wishes he is less easy to read, to unravel. "Anyway, I'll need your help on that day. I've already ordered Hank's present, and Erik is helping me hide it at his place in the meantime," she says. "So could you help him pick it up in the evening while the rest of us buy the movie tickets?"

A hundred questions are stuck in Charles's throat - why me, why can't he pick it up himself, why is it that I can't stop thinking about that devastatingly attractive daft sod - but he nods and says okay.

***

The kids are rowdy and in a ridiculously good mood, and Hank hasn't stopped smiling the whole day. The cake in the morning, baked by Mrs Rodriguez, had been a nice surprise, and now everyone is getting the day off to go to the movies, then dinner. Charles takes Raven, Sean, Hank and Mrs Rodriguez in his car, while the others pile into Moira's Toyota. Lehnsherr says he'll ride first and meet them there, after which he will secretly pick up Charles so they can retrieve Hank's gift.

They almost do not make it, because once they are at the cinema, Hank is stubbornly glued to Charles's side, talking excitedly about a physics experiment he wants to carry out. Luckily, Sean loops an arm around Hank's shoulders and says, "Dude, you're picking the movie," while leading him away, and a relieved Charles manages to escape and duck out to the back, where Lehnsherr is waiting for him. He is wearing a black turtleneck instead of his work clothes for a change, and it clings to him in all the right places.

"Sorry to keep you," Charles says, avoiding Lehnsherr's gaze. "Hank wouldn't stop talking."

"He's starting to take after you." Lehnsherr is grinning from ear to ear as he hands Charles the helmet. "What? Don't give me that look."

"Cheers very much." Charles knows he sounds gruff, but he's wondering how he's going to ride the bike without holding onto Lehnsherr. So after he climbs on, he grips the sides instead, praying to every single known deity that he won't fall off.

Lehnsherr starts the bike, then turns with a frown. "What are you doing?"

"What do you mean?" Charles looks around. Is he sitting too close? Hell, he's barely touching Lehnsherr. "What's wrong?"

Making an impatient noise, Lehnsherr reaches behind and pulls Charles's hand off the seat, then places it around his waist. "I'm not answering to Moira if you fall off and maim yourself."

"I'm fine," Charles insists, but his other hand is also wrenched away and clapped on Lehnsherr's (incredibly flat) stomach, and before he has time to gather his wits, the bike is speeding down the street, making Charles hang on for dear life.

***

"You live here?" Charles takes off the helmet, surprised that they had stopped in front of the hardware store where he had first hired Lehnsherr. "I thought Raven said you had a flat."

"I did," Lehnsherr says as he climbs off the bike, then retrieves his keys. "I was staying on a friend's couch, but his wife came back and wanted a reconciliation, so I offered to move out. And most of the apartments I've seen have a six-month lease, at least. And since I might not be staying that long, I didn't see the point in renting a apartment. So Otto offered to let me live in the back."

Charles doesn't know which part of that to absorb first, so he just nods as he gestures at the shop. "Doesn't look too comfortable."

"I've slept in worse," is all Lehnsherr says, and there's something in his voice that signals this is the end of the conversation. Shrugging, Charles bite back his questions as he follows Lehnsherr into the store and out to the back.

The present turns out to be a beautiful, expensive-looking telescope that the kids had all chipped in to buy for Hank. As Charles bends down and picks up the rather heavy box, he notes the single sleeping bag in the corner of the storeroom, and there is a towel hanging on the back of a chair. Even the help in his house have better rooms than this, he thinks, and the solution is so obvious that he kicks himself for not thinking of it earlier.

As they're loading the telescope into Lehnsherr's motorcycle box, Charles finally decides there really is no harm in asking. "Erik, why don't you come and stay with us?"

Closing the box and locking it, Lehnsherr seems to consider the idea. "I don't really want to impose--"

"Don't worry. We have more rooms than we know what to do with, my friend."

Lehnsherr seems to be studying him carefully. "If you're sure..."

Of course, Charles thinks, he'll have his reservations since I've constantly been throwing myself at him like a slag. So he is surprised when Lehnsherr finally nods, the corner of his lips crooking up into a little smile. "I'll get my things later," he says, and Charles just climbs onto the back of the bike, glad that Lehnsherr can't see his hidden smile.

***

The movie is a cerebral drama about British code-breakers set during World War Two, and while Hank is on the edge of his seat, Charles can see Alex and Sean fighting hard not to nod off. Charles himself would have enjoyed the movie immensely if it isn't for the fact that Lehnsherr is sitting next to him, their arms pressed together. Lehnsherr also has the habit of brushing his thumb repeatedly over his lower lip when absorbed in something, and Charles has to struggle not to stare, or lean over and tug at that inviting lower lip with his teeth.

Dinner is easier for Charles to handle, because Lehnsherr is sitting at the other end of the table, beside Sean and Moira. When Charles isn't busy eating or laughing at the kids' silly banter, he notes how Moira keeps trying to make conversation with Lehnsherr, who only gives her short, clipped answers before looking elsewhere. The bewilderment on Moira's face is rather sad, and not for the first time, Charles wonders what kind of chip Lehnsherr is carrying on his shoulder.

When everyone has more or less finished their food, Charles picks up a fork and taps the side of his wine glass with it. "A birthday toast," he says, raising his glass once he has everyone's attention. "To Hank, who has perfect SAT scores, but still can't figure out how to beat Alex in Guitar Hero."

Laughter and cheers as Alex pumps his fist in the air, then everyone clinks their glasses together. "To Hank!" Raven declares, raising her Coke.

The shy smile on Hank's face doesn't hide the fact that his eyes are reddened. "You guys are really the best," he says, while Darwin rubs his back with a smile.

"Awww." Alex raises his orange juice. "To Bozo!"

"I take it back, then," Hank says with a grin, and everyone dissolves into laughter.

***

It isn't an easy feat to get six hyperactive and wired teenagers back to the mansion without a hundred different distractions, but Charles and Moira manage somehow. Lehnsherr has gone back to the hardware store to pick up his things and will come over later, so Charles promises to wait up for him so he can disarm the security system.

Reading in the living room, it isn't long before he can hear Lehnsherr's motorcycle roaring up the driveway, and he gets up to key in the security code while Lehnsherr knocks at the door. Charles is surprised to see the few belongings the man is carrying. "Is that all you have?"

Lehnsherr strides in with his bag. "When you don't stay in one place very long, it's easier to carry fewer possessions."

"Ah, I see." More than ever Charles is burning to know more about this man's life, and what happened to him, and why he doesn't stay in one place for long. But instead he says, "Let me show you to your room."

As they climb the stairs, Lehnsherr throws him a sideways glance. "Is it the room opposite yours, where I stayed before?"

"Yes. Is that all right?"

Lehnsherr seems to be trying not to smile. "Of course it is."

Now they're standing in front of the door, and Charles pushes it open, switching on the lights. The room is already made up, smelling of fresh linen. "Anyway, you know where everything is. Knock if you need something."

Charles is about to turn away when Lehnsherr grips his wrist, stopping him. "Thank you for everything, Charles." His voice is low, sincere.

"You're more than welcome," Charles says, unable to help drinking in the sight of Lehnsherr so up close. "You've been a great help to us."

Lehnsherr nods, but he doesn't let go of Charles's hand. Maybe it is all that wine from dinner, but Charles wonders if he is imagining the slow brush of Lehnsherr's thumb rubbing circles across his wrist, making his pulse jump.

"Charles?" It is Moira's tentative voice, and he can hear her shuffling out into the hallway. "Are you there? Sorry, I'm looking for the aspirin."

"Yeah." Charles retrieves his hand from Lehnsherr, not missing the black look of thunder clouding his face. "I'm coming. Good night, Erik."

Lehnsherr only nods, heading into the room to unpack and not looking up as Charles leaves the room and softly closes the door.

 

twelve.


The children unanimously agree that they want to be taught at home, so Charles makes arrangements to hire a private tutor. Hank and Darwin are taking their SATs this year, while Alex and Sean need to sit for their PSATs. Only Angel has not expressed interest in schooling, although Moira promises to take the girl aside and convince her to at least consider getting her GED.

After a long search, Charles eventually settles on an Emma Frost, who used to be a high school teacher and is now a private tutor. Her credentials are impressive, and so are her rates. Still, Charles has never minded paying for quality. After she agrees to start work in a week, Charles moves on to the next giant worry on his mind: the mansion.

He is astute enough to realise that without Lehnsherr's help and singular focus, the house would not be ready as quickly as it already is now. The rec room has been set up, and the lab will be finished in only a few days. Lehnsherr had also taken the initiative to remodel the library, clearing the dust and checking for areas that have been hit by termites. In fact, it is only when Charles does a little exploring that he realises Lehnsherr has taken care of a lot of small matters without Charles having to ask him first.

It is on such an exploration in the library – so much brighter and cleaner now – that Charles discovers the old chess set resting on a table beside an antique lamp. It had belonged to his father – not Raven's father, but his own – and the memory of that beloved face is still clearly etched in his mind, those blue eyes (you always had your father's eyes, Charles) crinkled with laughter as a young Charles stared uncomprehendingly at a rook. "I'll teach you, son," Brian Xavier had said, and that had been the start of many a chess game.

Charles carries the chess board out of the library, cradling it to his chest like it is something fragile and brittle that would disintegrate over time.

***

"You found the chess board," Lehnsherr says while he is dropping by one evening to borrow Charles's toothpaste. "I meant to ask you whose it is."

"Mine." My father's. Charles battles the maudlin ache in his chest and looks up at Lehnsherr, who is wearing a dark green turtleneck that somehow makes the colour of his eyes even more obvious. "Do you know how to play?"

"Not that well." However, Lehnsherr is already stepping into Charles's room and taking a seat in one of the armchairs, dragging a table forward. "Do you want white or black?"

"White," Charles says. And then, "How do you feel about scotch?"

***

It becomes a ritual, now that Lehnsherr has moved in. After dinner, with the sounds of American Idol blaring from the television in the den, or the quiet hush of Alex on the phone to his girlfriend du jour, Lehnsherr will pop his head into Charles's room, eyebrows raised in an unspoken question, and a quick nod from Charles as they get out the chess board and the brandy. They talk, too: about the mansion and its repairs, about the kids, about how Charles studied literature in Oxford and ended up being a social worker in New York City before coming back to Westchester and doing this. It is a given that Charles likes to talk, and his thought process often involves letting his ideas bounce off people and seeing what he gets when they bounce back to him. With Lehnsherr it is maddening, because he is perfectly content to listen to Charles, he isn't pretending to pay attention while merely waiting for his chance to speak.

For Charles, it is very much like playing squash with an absorbent wall that happens to be very good-looking.

"So what about you?" Charles asks after he has taken Lehnsherr's pawn. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?"

Lehnsherr contemplates the chess board for a while before he answers, "Work."

Charles fidgets a little, then crosses one leg over the other. So Lehnsherr is still not going to trust him. "Do you like working here?" he asks instead, not knowing where to put his hands so he places them on his lap.

To his surprise, the smile that illuminates Lehnsherr's face is radiant. "It has its perks," he says, his frank gaze resting on Charles. Then, out of nowhere, he says, "Why is your mouth so red?"

Charles is so taken aback that he almost knocks over the chess board. "I'm sorry?"

Lehnsherr waves a hand carelessly at him. "It's always red, I was wondering if you swiped Raven's lip balm or something."

"You're a regular comedian, Erik." That name rolls off his tongue more easily these days, more than Lehnsherr. "Don't quit your day job."

"I won't." Lehnsherr's – Erik's – smile is slow and easy, then he leans forward and knocks off Charles's queen. "Checkmate."

"Oh bugger," Charles says.

***

The children, Charles notices, have begun to react to Erik's now constant presence in small little ways. Angel talks more, laughs more, spends time in the garden with Erik and Darwin. Hank seems a little wary of Erik sometimes, but Charles has it on good authority (i.e. Raven) that Erik is slowly but surely teaching Hank how to ride his Ducati. This is interesting, given how Alex and Sean have both been specifically banned from ever touching Erik's motorcycle despite their loud protests. Still, a stare from Erik is all it takes to silence them.

Sometimes Charles wishes he had that same commanding presence; he knows he can be too soft on the children, and people who are soft and yielding can get stepped on sometimes. But as much as he wants to be hard on the kids, he knows their backgrounds and how some of them have been pushed around, knocked about. So it is actually a minor relief for him that Erik is not afraid to yell at the kids if they break something, or level them with a stare if they don't clear their dishes.

It is Moira who notices the difference during her next visit. "It feels different here," she says, watching the kids pulling out weeds in the kitchen garden, laughing as Raven drops a clump of dirt down Alex's shirt and incites a yell. "I don't know what it is, but it feels more settled somehow."

Charles scrapes the leftover food off her plate. "I suppose we needed to give everyone time to settle in," he says cheerfully. "Want some tea?"

When Moira doesn't answer, he turns to look at her. She is standing with her arms folded, the biggest grin on her face. "What? What did I say?" Charles asks.

"I can't get over it," Moira says with wonder in her voice. "You look so happy. This is the happiest I've ever seen you."

Charles grins. "It's the kids, I reckon. I'm happy because I'm losing my hair at a far slower rate than I thought I would."

Erik pops his head into the kitchen, his face and overalls streaked with dirt. "Charles, if you could--" His expression immediately changes when he spots Moira. "Oh, hello Moira."

"Hi, Erik. "

"I'll talk to you later," Erik tells Charles before he disappears back out again, leaving Charles to continue clearing the plates.

"Sorry about that." Charles sighs as he washes his hands. "Not sure why you rub him the wrong way."

The incredulous look on Moira's face is priceless. "You mean you don't know why he can't stand me?"

Charles's curiosity is instantly piqued. "No, why?"

Moira's laugh is genuine, but a little sad. "Oh, you men are so blind," she says as she walks away, shaking her head.

Charles can only stare after her retreating back.

 

thirteen.


Charles is beginning to see why it was a bad, bad idea for him to have asked Erik to move in. It is one thing to have some maddening, persistent infatuation with someone distant and aloof, with someone he barely knows. It is another thing altogether to get to know that person and see what he looks like first thing in the morning, sleepy-eyed and yawning as he heads for the bathroom, to see him pondering his next move in chess while brushing his thumb over that confounded bottom lip, to see him cracking up with the kids when Sean spectacularly crashes his car in a ditch while playing Gran Turismo.

A spectacularly bad idea, in fact, as Charles bumps into him one evening along the corridor that separates their room, and Erik is in the midst of taking off his sweat-soaked tank top, obviously headed for a shower. "Charles," he says with a nod, and Charles only makes some kind of embarrassing strangled noise in his throat as he stares at those departing hips in tight, work-roughened jeans. The tattoos, darkened by sweat, wink at him, a cacophony of what looks like Celtic symbols and Germanic runes before Erik disappears into the bathroom.

Charles continues on his way, remembering how to breathe again. Yes, definitely a bad idea.

***

"What do you think those tats mean?" Sean asks one day, distractedly tapping on his iPhone as he lounges on the sofa. Erik is a safe distance away, inspecting the plumbing in the basement, which is why Sean dares to speculate. "They look pretty cool."

"Guessing from what I've seen in juvie," Alex says, "Erik might have been part of a gang before."

Charles looks up from the book about the Holocaust that he's reading. "We don't know that for sure," he reminds them. "So we can't assume that."

"Everyone's ink is always personal," Angel says quietly, and here the boys at least have enough sense to keep quiet because everyone knows about the wings tattooed on Angel's back, a relic of her past.

"Well, whatever Erik's tattoos are, I'm not about to get on his bad side," Darwin says with a shudder. "The cat looks ruthless, regardless of the ink."

Charles gives up on his book after re-reading the same paragraph three times. "Your imaginations are quite astounding," he says, putting the book aside with a little smile. "Just don't be disappointed when you find out Erik is really just a giant teddy bear."

"Nuh uh," Sean says, resolutely shaking his head. "Giant grizzly bear, maybe."

"Or a great white shark, especially when he smiles," Angel says, baring her teeth and making the boys laugh.

Charles has to turn away, hiding his smile at the thought of it all.

***

They are all on the roof, because Hank had announced that he had wanted to test out his brilliant new telescope to look at the night sky, and Raven had beamed and said, "Why don't we all go?" and somehow it had evolved into a picnic on the roof, complete with hearty sandwiches and Sean's ukulele and a tarp that Erik had found in the attic. The weather is nice enough that the kids forgo their sweaters, but Charles wears his cardigan just in case.

The roof of the mansion is not flat; the massive water tank in the middle divides the roof into two sections. They settle down in the left section first to have dinner, but Erik later tires of the kids' nonsense and suggests to Charles that they head over to the other section to have a quiet game of chess. Charles readily agrees, but not before nipping back downstairs to the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine. When he joins Erik in the right section, he finds a blanket already spread out, and Erik setting out the chess pieces, looking lean and lithe in his turtleneck.

"Ah, rooftop chess," Charles says as he stoops down to join Erik on the blanket. "Erik Lehnsherr knows how to live dangerously, that's for sure."

The ensuing smile makes Erik look years younger. "Whatever will we do next?" he says wryly. "Chess while skydiving?"

"Now there's a thought." Charles pours out the wine; he can hear the voices of the children on the other side of the tank, and the steady drone of Hank's voice explaining basic astronomy to Raven somewhere further away. "Nothing excites me more than Extreme Chess."

Erik lifts an elegant eyebrow, but says nothing. He makes his first move instead, pushing a pawn forward while taking a sip of his wine. From the get go, Charles already knows this is going to be a casual game so he relaxes, stretching out his legs and occasionally looking up at the night sky scattered with stars. Erik is contemplating his next move, but there is a restless edge to his movements that makes Charles realise something odd.

Erik is nervous.

"Anything wrong?" Charles asks when Erik tugs at his ear for the fifth time. "Afraid that I'll beat you so badly that you'll never play chess again, despite what the doctors say?"

"You're dreaming, Xavier." The words are said in Erik's usual droll tone, but Charles can't quite place what is off about Erik tonight. Not for the first time, Charles wishes he could read minds. Erik is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, and Charles is spending too much of his time trying to solve a leather-jacket-wearing puzzle.

The sounds of someone playing the ukulele cuts through the stillness of the night, and Charles can hear Sean singing, his voice somewhat faraway and unexpectedly lovely.

'In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight...'

Erik shakes his head. "Those kids will drive me mad," he mutters as he moves another pawn forward, but Charles doesn't miss the way his lips are trying not to tug up into a smile.

"Well, they're terrified of you." Charles grins as he swoops in and claims that pawn with his knight. "And I can't say I blame them."

Now Erik seems to be studying him intently. "Are you?"

"Don't be silly," Charles says as he sips more wine. "Your many tattoos and surly demeanour are not intimidating at all." From the sounds of it, Sean is still singing, and now Charles can hear Alex, Darwin and Angel joining in with gusto.

'A-wim moweh, a-wim moweh, a-wim moweh, a-wim moweh...'

It is all Charles can do to hold in his amusement, but when he sees Erik's mirroring expression, they both burst out laughing. Erik recovers first, calling out, "Pipe down, you brats!" and the singing is interrupted by giggles and whispers, as well as Sean's yelled, 'Sorry!'

"So, wait," Erik says as an afterthought. "Am I really that scary?"

"Not really, no." The question burns at the back of Charles's throat, and he decides to just go for it. "But sometimes, you really are surly. Like you are with Moira, for instance. Why?"

Erik keeps his eyes on the chess board, but the way his jaw tightens is obvious. "Is she that important to you?" His words almost sound pleasantly casual, but Charles knows better.

"She is a good friend," he says. "Obviously I care about her feelings."

Erik's eyes jump up from the chess board to meet Charles's steady gaze. "That's it?"

"That's it, my friend."

The tight line of Erik's shoulders and arms and crossed legs relaxes, and it is as though Charles can feel the strange tension dissipating into the night air. He remembers what Moira had said - you don't know why he can't stand me? - and he thinks of denial as a soft, safe blanket, shielding him from the things he may not be ready to handle.

The kids have started singing again - they now know Erik well enough to tell the difference between fake threats and real anger – and the new song is sweeter, softer. Charles doesn't know the name of the song, but he lets it wash over him, the chess game almost forgotten. He and Erik are playing another kind of game now.

Charles loses in a few more moves, but Erik does not gloat as he usually does. Instead he is putting away the chess set, then scooting closer to Charles before stretching out on the blanket, tucking an arm beneath his head as he stares up at the night sky, his eyes so green and languid. "It's been a long time since I really looked properly at the stars."

"In my old job, I was too busy to appreciate such little luxuries." Charles wants to lie down too, but lying down would mean losing this glorious, glorious view of Erik stretched out like this before him, eyes pensive, the hem of his turtleneck riding up a little just enough to expose a bit of his stomach.

"You're happier." It is more a statement than a question, and the truth is that there is nowhere in the world that Charles would rather be right now. Now Erik is looking at him, raising his other hand and beckoning to Charles just like he had done on their first motorcycle ride around the grounds, his fingers curling in the same manner: come to me.

Charles finds himself bending down and hovering over Erik, searching his face for any signs of resistance. But Erik's face is smooth, impassive, and Charles reaches out to brush his thumb against a razor-sharp cheekbone. Now the corner of Erik's mouth is crooking up into a smile, and his gaze drops down to Charles's mouth.

The first brush of Erik's lips against his is unbelievably electric.

Encouraged, Charles leans in and nips at that bottom lip that has been haunting him for weeks. The resulting kiss is soft, tentative, a little restrained. Then suddenly Erik is pushing up and when he claims Charles's mouth for the second time, it's deeper, dirty, wet and hungry. Charles lets his fingers sift through the fine strands of Erik's hair, his tongue sweeping over the roof of Erik's mouth and enjoying the breathless little moan that it incites from Erik.

Erik's hand is sliding under Charles's cardigan, and he can hear one of the buttons popping open before he feels the rough press of Erik's large, warm hand against his stomach. His muffled 'oh' is swallowed eagerly, and with the way they're plundering each other's mouths, Charles really can't be arsed to think about his cardigan, or the fact that the kids are not that far away.

Eventually Erik reluctantly breaks off and pulls away, his lips reddened and kiss-bruised. "Been wanting to do that for a while," he murmurs, brushing a thumb over Charles's lips.

"How was it?" Charles can't help parting them a little to let Erik's thumb slide in, and the way Erik's eyes widen with hunger is just worth it.

"You were there," he says with a growl, before leaning up and recapturing Charles's mouth for a wet, sloppy kiss. This time it is Charles who pulls away, smiling and a little breathless.

"As much as I want to continue, this isn't the most opportune place," he says, laughing at Erik's crestfallen face. Right now Charles is too happy, and his trousers are a little too tight, but somewhere at the back of his lust-hazed mind he knows that the kids could come over any time, or that Hank might get more than an eyeful with the telescope. He places a hand on Erik's warm chest. "Why don't you come by later to my room and return the chess set to me?"

Erik's brilliant smile is his answer.

 

fourteen.


It takes an unusually long time for the kids to head to bed tonight. Although it is already past midnight, Charles can still hear music blasting from Sean's rooms, as well as footsteps up and down the corridor outside and voices discussing whether to get a snack. Normally he wouldn't blame the children – they're still wired from their picnic on the roof earlier – but he can't help feeling antsy, waiting for Erik to come to his room. Lounging on the bed, Charles lets his hand drift to his lips, touching them in wonder as he remembers the kiss. The kisses, if he wants to be specific. And when it comes to Erik, Charles definitely wants to be.

Erik. Erik is coming soon, coming to his bed. The thought of Erik between his sheets, warm and rumpled, sliding a hand up Charles's thigh...Charles sighs, running a hand through his hair. Just a while more to go until the kids will eventually go to bed. Maybe a shower would be good.

He makes it quick as he doesn't want to miss Erik's knock, and he pulls on a bathrobe as he emerges from his en-suite bathroom, towelling his hair dry. Thankfully, it isn't long before the music from Sean's room finally tapers off, and Charles can hear calls of 'Good night!' and doors slamming shut. Finally.

Charles is rummaging in his chest of drawers for lube or condoms – and frowning at the severe lack of them - when he hears the low, urgent knock. His stomach somersaults in anticipation as he heads over to open the door, and Erik all but bulldozes his way in, muttering, "I thought those brats were never going to sleep," as he places the chessboard on their regular table. Now his gaze takes in Charles, starting at his bare feet and working his way up slowly, hovering for the briefest of moments over the knot of Charles's bathrobe as Erik smirks, yes, smirks, then finally meeting Charles's gaze, that smirk loosening into something else, something tender.

"Hello, Erik." Charles pads forward, closing the distance between Erik and himself until they're pressed together from chest to hip. "Thank you for returning my chess set."

"My pleasure." The low, dulcet baritone rumbles in Charles's ear; Erik is so close now, his fingers sliding up into Charles's damp hair and tangling with it. He seems to be taking his time to examine Charles's face, but it's obvious where his obsession lies. Erik is now staring at Charles's mouth, and Charles can hear Erik's sharp intake of breath as he licks his lips, or the low 'mmmh' rumbling in Erik's chest.

It feels like forever before Erik finally leans in, teasing Charles's mouth open for a slow, sinful kiss, and this time it's Charles's turn to moan at the wet slide of Erik's tongue into his mouth. He can't resist sucking on the tip of it, and he can feel the fastenings of his bathrobe being tugged at. He helps Erik eagerly, but his hands are slapped away as Erik breaks the kiss and growls, "Mine," sliding off the bathrobe in one swift motion.

It is as though this surprising show of possessiveness has suddenly lit a spark in Charles, and he has a microsecond to appreciate Erik's wide-eyed look of surprise before Charles practically yanks off the turtleneck, flinging it to some far corner of the room before hooking his fingers in the loops of Erik's jeans and dragging him in for a an obscenely filthy, messy kiss that leaves Erik looking a little dazed.

"Charles," he murmurs, recovering quickly enough to push Charles down onto the waiting bed, and Charles barely has enough time to scoot up and lie down on top of the sheets before Erik crawls on top of him, heavy and hot and sweaty, tipping Charles's head to the side so he can kiss his neck. Charles can't help moaning at the wet feeling of Erik's mouth latching onto his skin, and his legs are already spreading apart to accommodate Erik in between them.

"You're so easy for me," Erik murmurs against his neck, panting. "Begging for it--"

"Erik." It has been too long for Charles, and the weeks of foreplay have only served to hone his longing and rampant desire to a single fine point, a point that goes ErikErikErik in his mind and in the pulse between his legs. "Clothes," Charles commands, because he must have this man, and he is not going to make a fool of himself by coming from kissing alone.

The quick, easy grace with which Erik obeys him makes his stomach lurch a little, and he tries to distract himself with the numerous tattoos all over Erik's body. As Erik eagerly shucks his jeans and briefs, Charles runs a finger over the Celtic tattoo emblazoned over the right side of Erik's chest. Circling a nipple before sliding his finger to the center, he smiles when he can feel Erik's heart thundering in his chest. "Hurry up."

"Patience is a virtue," Erik reminds him, now naked, his erection bobbing against his stomach. Now he reclaims his rightful place between Charles's legs, and they both hiss as their cocks line up against each other, hot and pulsing. "Oh, good Christ--"

"Come on," Charles huffs, canting his hips upwards to rock with Erik just so, and the way Erik gasps is beautiful, a total loss of control. His pupils are already dilated, ringed with a tiniest circle of green, and Charles thinks, I did that, I'm doing that, I'm making him crazy and he bites his lip, grabbing that fantastic arse and rubbing their cocks together, already wanting Erik inside him but they have no lube and condoms, and even if Erik does, at this point he's not willing to let Erik go so he can fetch them. His teeth scrape against Erik's shoulder, leaving a little tattoo of his own and feeling a strange little thrill about it.

"Wait, wait--" Erik is saying, and he's now licking his palm, and Charles immediately knows what he's intending to do. He catches Erik's hand, then brings it to his mouth and sucks on his fingers, showing Erik exactly what he intends to do next time. Erik's low growl is gratifying, and so is the extra hard surge against Charles's hips, and Charles lets his fingers slip out of his mouth, pushing his hand down between their stomachs.

Even though Charles is already anticipating this, he still groans loudly when Erik's hand wraps messily around their cocks, but his moan is cut off as Erik leans down for one of the dirtiest kisses Charles has ever had, his hand still skilfully jerking them off. Charles is overwhelmed at the assault on his senses: Erik tongue-fucking his mouth, Erik's hand semi-wrapped around his erection, Erik's thick cock pulsing against his, Erik's sweaty skin plastered against his own, against his sheets, and Charles finally comes in slow, slow jerks, spilling into Erik's hand and lubricating his grip.

"Oh fuck, Charles--" Erik's moan sounds so low, so broken, and he watches Charles with half-hooded eyes as he continues to stroke both of them, his hand slick with Charles's come, and when he tumbles off the edge, Charles watches with delight as the man bares his teeth, eyes squeezed shut, then Erik is tumbling down into his arms, spent and utterly sated, and Charles is there to catch him.

***

When Charles opens his eyes it is already morning, but still early yet, judging from the grey dawn light filtering in through the windows. The arm draped over him is a foreign sensation, but his lips curl up into a smile when he remembers the previous night, and is bloody glad it is not a dream at all. He turns over, and sure enough, Erik is snoring beside him, his lashes so long that they almost touch his cheek, his hair mussed and sleep-rumpled, his mouth slack. Charles can't quite believe all that has happened, and he reaches out to brush some of that dark blonde hair back.

Erik stirs a little under his touch, then his snoring resumes. Charles grins to himself in the morning light, then tenses a little as he hears footsteps past his door, then the main door opening and shutting. Most likely Hank, going for his morning run. Charles yawns before letting himself nod off again, still nestled under Erik's arm.

When he awakes again he is alone, but he can hear doors opening, the kids fighting over who got to use the biggest bathroom. The sheets are still warm from Erik's residual body heat, and Charles lets his hand drift over the spot again and again. Finally he sits up in bed, stretching as his ears pick up the sound of running water in his en-suite bathroom, complete with low humming.

Erik comes out a few minutes later, fully-dressed and smiling at Charles. "Are you always this lazy?"

"Mmmpf." Charles rubs his eyes, then blinks. "Have you seen my robe?"

Erik bends down and picks it up from the floor. His smile turns sly. "If you want it, come and get it."

"Silly fool." Charles slides out of bed and walks over, trying not to feel self-conscious as Erik openly ogles him. The regret in Erik's eyes is amusing as Charles pulls on his robe. "Are you going down first?"

Erik nods. "I thought that would be best, so that the kids--"

"I quite agree." One last kiss, then Charles pushes Erik towards the door. "I'll be right down."

"Are you taking a shower?" Erik's hushed voice is plaintive as Charles gently toes him out, and now it's muffled through the door. "I can't watch?"

"Stop being a pervert!" Charles calls out, unable to stop smiling like an idiot.

***

Breakfast is a subdued affair, probably because the majority of the children are still sleep-deprived and a little cranky. The only two people in a spectacularly good mood are sitting at opposite ends of the table, and Charles is trying very hard to avoid Erik's frank gaze, because he doesn't trust himself not to launch himself across the table at a very smug Erik who is munching on his toast and reading the papers. You're fooling no one, my friend, Charles thinks, even though Erik can't hear him, despite the widening of his smirk.

The distraction is too much, so Charles turns away. "You all had better check your books and notes are in order," Charles tells the others. "Miss Frost will be here tomorrow."

"Already?" Alex groans, a huge contrast to the eager expression on Hank's face.

"We have to play catch-up, man," Darwin tells him. "We're already behind on a lot of things. Besides, she's just coming for a preliminary overview tomorrow, right Prof?"

"That's right," Charles says, buttering his toast. "I beg of you, please don't scare this poor woman off. She's good at what she does." Now he is licking the butter off his fingers, and he doesn't miss the way Erik inhales deeply.

"If she's nice, she won't have to worry, right guys?" Raven says, but Charles doesn't miss the familiar gleam of mischief in her eye, and he sighs.

Thankfully, the slow smile Erik is giving him across the table catches his eye, and Charles hides his own grin behind his coffee, replaying the images from last night over and over in his mind.

 

 

fifteen.


The first impression Charles gets when he spots Emma Frost getting daintily out of her car is how much she resembles her surname. Dressed from head to toe in gleaming white like a giant snowflake, she struts down the driveway in a cape and boots, causing both Charles and Erik to raise their eyebrows. "I didn't know Disney On Ice was in town," Erik mutters, at which Charles elbows him and tries not to laugh while Erik rolls his wheelbarrow away. As she approaches, she is quite pretty up close - not that Charles likes his women heavily made-up – and her perfectly coiffed blonde hair gleams in the sun. "Mr Xavier?" She holds out a hand, smiling broadly.

"Thank you for coming, Miss Frost," Charles says politely, noting the obscenely large diamond perched on her engagement ring. For a moment he begins to worry whether this woman will be able to connect with the children, who have probably lived in houses that cost less than that one jewel. Thank goodness she is not actually living with them. "How was the drive?"

"Long and bumpy, but scenic." She looks around enquiringly. "Could you get the help to assist me with my books and files?"

Charles's eyebrows jump up. The help? Hoping that this woman doesn't think he has an entire mansion of servants at his disposal, Charles steps forward. "Let me help you with that myself, I'm sure it can't be that heavy."

"I'll do it." Erik has reappeared behind Charles, giving Emma an even look as he strides forward to her car and opens the boot, unloading the materials she had brought for the kids.

However, Emma seems impressed, following Charles's gaze and giving Erik an appreciative once-over. "Who is that?"

"Oh, my apologies. That is my, er, associate, Mr Erik Lehnsherr." Charles doesn't miss the way her eyes linger on Erik's backside as he bends over to pick up a box, and he ignores the possessive lurch in his stomach. "He helps me out around the house."

"I see." She takes off her gloves, looking up at the mansion. "I imagine you would need a lot of help, it's such a big and marvellous place."

They walk in through the main entrance, and Charles guides her to the designated study where the students will be taking their lessons. Alex and Darwin are already inside, chatting and spinning the giant antique globe in the middle of the study as though it were a basketball, while Sean lounges in a nearby chair with his headphones on, lost in the blaring music and texting furiously. They all sit up when Emma Frost enters, eyes wide, and Sean quickly yanks off his headphones. From the boys' wide-eyed reactions, Charles gets the general idea that they had not expected their tutor to look like she had just stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair.

"Emma, this is Alex, Sean and Armando. Well, we all call him Darwin," Charles says by way of introduction. "Alex, where are Hank and Angel?"

"Huh?" Alex says distantly, still staring at Emma. After a nudge from Darwin, he remembers that Charles had asked him a question. "Uh, they're on their way."

Erik marches into the study with Emma's boxes, setting them down on the table, and she smiles prettily at him, her hand lingering on his bicep. "Thank you, sugar."

Charles admires the way Erik smoothly but politely shrugs off her hand, like a cat that doesn't want to be petted. "You're welcome," he says just as Hank and Angel enter the study.

"Ah, there you two are," Charles says in relief. "Miss Frost, this is Hank and Angel."

"Charmed," Emma says as she shakes their hands. "Anyway, shall we begin?"

As Charles takes his seat, he spots Erik's epic eye-roll behind her back just as he is leaving, and Charles has to lift a hand to hide his grin.

***

"So what did you think of Miss Emma Frost?"

Charles is smearing shaving cream on his face and rinsing the razor when he hears Erik's question coming from somewhere in the bedroom, and he shrugs, forgetting that Erik can't see him. "She's all right, I guess," he yells back. "Too early to tell, really. Give the good woman a month, then we'll see." He tilts his head and begins shaving the right side of his face, idly pondering the recent events in the household. If he forces himself to really sit down and think about it, there had been so many changes in the last few weeks, and the children have mostly adapted well. Mostly. Charles grins at himself in the mirror, hoping that Miss Frost is up to handling a houseful of rowdy teenage boys and an extremely unreceptive girl.

He rinses his razor under the tap again. To be truthful, the most startling changes for Charles had mostly involved Erik. The chain of events for them so far had been bizarre, almost comical: thinking Erik didn't speak English, saying some dreadfully embarrassing things to him, having him move in, getting to know the man, starting the whole nightly chess ritual, sharing that kiss on the rooftop, and then, well, everything else.

All in all, it has been a very odd but interesting month. And of course, Charles has absolutely no idea where he stands now. Scratch that; he does have a rather good idea where he stands, he just suspects Erik may not have come that far yet.

"Well, I don't like her." Now Erik has stepped into the bathroom, wearing nothing but a towel, and Charles allows himself to ogle that tattooed torso for a moment before resuming his shave.

"Erik, you don't like everybody."

"Really, Charles." There is now a faintly exasperated expression on Erik's face, similar to the one he would have after listening to Sean tell him fifteen lame excuses why he shouldn't have to mow the lawn. "You're far worse, you're inclined to think too highly of everyone--"

"And you think everyone's going to run off with the TV and loot the house," Charles counters cheerfully, his grin widening when Erik throws his hands up in defeat. His eyes can't help darting down to that very tempting towel, knotted right below Erik's navel, and Charles has to steel his grip on his razor before he accidentally slits his own throat. He lifts his chin and continues shaving, hoping that Erik won't notice that his cheeks have suddenly turned a bit pink.

No such luck. Erik is now stepping closer, standing right behind Charles, his nose brushing against Charles's freshly washed hair. "Mint shampoo?" Erik's voice is lower than it was seconds before.

"Yes." Charles is thankful that he still sounds relatively normal.

"Mmmm." Now Erik is nuzzling Charles's hair, his chest pressing against Charles's back. The stiff points of Erik's nipples are extremely distracting, and Charles prays he'll be able to finish shaving without them having to call for an ambulance. "You're doing it all wrong."

"Doing what wrong?" Charles asks a little breathlessly, because wasn't it normal for everyone to shave with shaky hands, especially when a really handsome man is pressed up against you?

"Here." Erik's voice is unexpectedly gentle as he takes the razor from Charles, then begins to cleanly and efficiently shave the rest of his chin, the other arm braced around Charles's chest to hold him still. Charles lets his gaze wander over the litany of tattoos, and the most eye-catching one is the Gallic cross emblazoned on Erik's right tricep. The urge to ask Erik questions about his past is there, but Charles tamps it down, for now.


"There we go." Erik is flicking the foam away from the razor, grinning in the mirror at Charles. "And now, your face."

This part is more difficult, because Erik has to lean closer, pressing him more against the sink, and Charles is now hyperaware of Erik's breath warming his neck. He can also feel Erik starting to get hard. In fact, the more he writhes under Erik's grasp, the more he can feel that hard line burning against the small of his back, a reminder of how Erik is taller than him, and he thinks that maybe Erik likes having Charles pinned under him like this, writhing and indirectly asking to be fucked.

Charles exhales deeply, his eyes jumping up to meet Erik's intense gaze in the mirror. Erik finishes shaving the very last strip of skin, then lets the razor drop into the sink with a clatter. He slowly begins to press kisses along Charles's neck, his eyes fixed on Charles all this while. Charles's breath hitches; he is a witness to his own skin reddening under Erik's eager ministrations, and his grip tightens on the sink's edges. The arm that had been bracing him now drops, and Erik is letting a hand slide under the waistband of Charles's penguin boxers, the ones that always cause Raven to shriek, 'You'll never get laid in those!' on laundry day, but Erik doesn't really seem to care what Charles is wearing, only how fast he can take it off.

They both groan when Erik's hand wraps around Charles's straining cock, and Charles watches himself shudder in the mirror when Erik's thumb brushes over the tip, smearing the head with pre-come.

"What's the matter?" Erik asks, the playful tone of his voice underlying the fact that he is fully aware that Charles is starting to breathe through his mouth, hips already thrusting up into Erik's hand. "You look...bothered about something."

"Erik--" Charles grits out his name through clenched teeth, completely losing his mind at the way Erik is stroking him so firmly and surely, just the way he likes. He lets out a soft 'aah!' as Erik nips at the crook of his neck, leaving a nice red mark there that he soothes with his soft, wet tongue. Charles stares at the wet patch of skin, shiny with Erik's saliva, and he thinks of Erik's tongue in other places. "Oh God, your mouth--"

This spurs Erik to turn Charles's head sideways and they manage a somewhat awkward, sloppy kiss. "Condoms," Erik grinds out, his strokes moving harder and faster now as he stares at Charles in the mirror. "Lubricant, do you have any?"

"No," Charles hisses, and Erik's groan of disappointment makes his chest vibrate against Charles's back.

"So this means I can't bend you over the sink and fuck you?" His breath is hot in Charles's ear, and Charles's reflection in the mirror is wild-eyed and frantic as those images assault his mind, and his cheeks are flushed and he is panting and his eyes are such a dark blue that he almost looks possessed.

"Improvise," Charles demands, biting his lip when he feels Erik rutting against him, their skin separated only by thin fabric. God, feels so good, Erik, need you inside me--

Then there is only cool air as Erik's hands and body and mouth disappear, but only for a fraction of a second as Erik spins Charles around, but Charles beats him to it, quickly pulling off the towel before sinking to his knees, barely aware of Erik's hum of approval or the wonderfully soothing effect of Erik stroking his hair.

"Mein Liebling..." Erik's eyes are half-hooded as he stares down at Charles on his knees, and his hips are already surging forward, nudging Charles's lips with the moist tip of his erection. Charles is only too happy to take the head into his mouth, sucking gently as Erik groans above him, his hands tightening in Charles's hair. "Oh, fuck--"

Charles's only response is to let his mouth slide down as far as he can while his hand wraps around the base of Erik's cock. Although they are about the same length, Erik is a little thicker than him, and Charles only just realises he has his mouth on the most intimate part of Erik's body. This makes him suck a little harder and faster, causing Erik's broken moan. "Charles, God, your mouth!" His hips are jerking forward wildly, his hands pulling on Charles's hair just on the right side of painful but pleasurable, and Charles is completely caught by surprise by the warm, salty burst in his mouth as Erik cries out his name, mixed with an intelligible mix of German and gibberish that could have meant everything and nothing.

Charles barely has time to spit in the sink before Erik is yanking him into the bedroom, and the one word he does understand is 'payback' which makes him smile far too broadly.

sixteen.

"Charles." The look of complete astonishment on Moira's face piques his interest, and he looks up as she joins him at his desk. "I have a question for you."

"What is it?"

Moira looks around furtively, not that it is necessary as the kids are having their second lesson with Emma while Charles fills in the weekly status reports of the children for Moira. Satisfied, she leans in to ask in a half-whisper, "Why is Erik being so nice to me?"

Charles stares at her, his eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" He does have an idea of what she means, but he wants to hear her say it.

Moira makes a vague gesture in the direction of the kitchen. "I was bringing out iced tea for the kids earlier, and I bumped into Erik. Before I could flee, he smiled at me - a real smile, Charles, not like he wants to gobble me up - and he says hi and that he'll help me. I was so amazed that I almost spilled the whole thing down his shirt. And he was still smiling."

"Oh Moira, you must be exaggerating." Charles can't help grinning as he flips through the folder haphazardly. "It just takes a while for Erik to warm up to people, that's all."

However, Moira definitely knows him too well to fall for that, and she's now pursing her lips, crossing her arms as she studies him intently, fighting a smile. "Oh, I don't think that's it."

"No idea what you're talking about," Charles says airily as he sets the folder aside, his smile even wider.

Moira's face suddenly erupts in a volcano of glee. "When? When?" she urges, sinking her fingers into Charles's arm.

"A gentleman never tells, MacTaggert."He smirks at her. "So what's this I hear about you and Levine?"

Her eye roll is surprisingly similar to Erik's. "Changing the subject? Very subtle, Charles."

"You're doing the same thing," he says, deadpan. "So, Levine?'

The exasperation lined around her eyes and mouth is obvious. "He's a douche," she says shortly.

Charles reaches out and squeezes her hand. "Don't worry, you'll find someone more...suitable," he says, not wanting to use the word 'douche' even if Levine really is kind of one.

"What's a girl to do?" Moira's smile is now this side of cheeky. "We can't all hire handsome German handymen to fall in love with."

"Moira!" Charles can't help the awkward laugh, his face so heated that he feels like he's going to spontaneously combust. "It's nothing like that--"

"If it's not love, then what is it?"

Charles lets out a long-suffering sigh. He had expected to be cornered by Raven like this, but he had forgotten to take Moira into account as well. "Let's not rush into things, shall we? This is very...new." And to his surprise, he feels his shoulders loosen with relief at the sensation of finally getting to articulate all the confusion that has been swirling around recently in his head. "I honestly don't know. It's too early to tell yet."

Thankfully Moira has stopped clawing his arm, but the knowing look she shoots him is equally discomforting. "Charles, I know you, and I know you're not the sort to wade into a pool, you'll dive right in."

"Come now, Moira--"

"Let me see, what was the name of that girl, the exotic-looking one?" Moira looks thoughtful. "Lilly? Lillian?"

"It's not the same thing," Charles says patiently.

"No." Moira's smile now looks a little triumphant. "No, it's not. This is different." Now she is looking over Charles's shoulder, beaming broadly. "Hi, Erik!"

Charles turns to watch Erik stride into the study with a measuring tape in hand. "Hello, Moira, Charles. Don't let me interrupt."Now his gaze falls on Charles, and he flashes a quick, secret little smile at Charles before turning away to measure the cabinets. Charles is only aware of the stupid grin on his face when he sees Moira shaking her head at him, mouthing 'So different!'

And maybe it is.

***

The children seem to be slow in responding to Emma Frost, not that Charles is surprised. He's beginning to wonder if it had been a bad decision to hire her, but at least she gets along with Hank, and Alex's work has already started to improve in as little as a week. For all her glamour and refinement, she does teach in a very straightforward way that Charles respects. "You can't expect everyone to be like you, Charles," Raven says to him one day, when he is airing his concerns to her over tea. "Not everyone can charm the pants off a sour old vicar."

Charles rolls his eyes at that old story. "I told you, I was just being nice to the man, everyone teased him for his lisp."

"Sure," Raven says with a smirk. "Coth everyone juth wanth to be friendth."

"What are we talking about?" Moira asks as she plops down at the table with the stack of folders. Her visits are becoming more and more frequent, thanks to Angel's steady improvement. "Charles being a slag?"

"That we already know," Raven says before Charles can protest over his Earl Grey. "We were actually discussing the elusive Miss Frost."

Moira cocks her head a little at Charles. "You know, I wanted to tell you this earlier but I forgot. Don't you find Emma rather familiar?"

Charles considers this for a while. "Not really, no."

"Where did you find her from?" Raven asks.

"Burt recommended her to me."

Moira is still deep in thought, frowning. "I'm very sure I've seen her before somewhere."

Raven cups her hands around her mug of chai. "Maybe she looks like some famous actress."

"No, that's not it. I think I might have seen her at some office function." Suddenly, Moira's eyes widen with recognition. "Oh, I know who she is! Remember that guy who took over Stryker as head of the department? Um, Shane? Shaw?"

Charles frowns a little. "Was this before I left?"

"Just before." Moira is beaming now. "That's where I remember her! I saw her with this Shaw guy at some fundraiser."

Suddenly it clicks for Charles, and he has a vague memory of meeting some smooth, rather obnoxious prat who had seemed to act like everyone's best friend, but underneath that howdy-folks genial appearance, Charles had sensed something rather disturbing about the man, and stayed far away from him. "Ohhh right, Sebastian Shaw. I remember he was some big-shot or something in the New York Foundling, right?"

"At least he was, until he took over Stryker," Moira reminds him glumly. "What are the odds that she's engaged to my big boss?"

"Uncanny," Charles says, ignoring the curl of uneasiness in his stomach.

"You have nothing to worry about." Raven's smile is sweet as she pats his hand, and for a second, he's tempted to believe her.

Chapter Text

seventeen.


Erik is secretive. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out, but it probably would take an entire team of Hanks to sit down in a lab and figure out exactly how to unlock Erik Lehnsherr. Charles has put in his due diligence, observing Erik night after night over the chessboard, and later, over on the next pillow. He knows sharing stories about his own childhood and past will not prompt Erik to do the same – he is usually far too busy listening to Charles's stories and laughing at them and asking questions about Charles himself. Erik is a good listener, which makes Charles yearn to be the same. But Charles is a patient man, and he knows pushing Erik is not the answer.

Unexpectedly, his opportunity comes one night after dinner, when they're playing chess (real chess, not tell-the-children-they're-playing-chess-then-rip-off-each-other's-clothes chess) and Charles is recounting something odd about Alex. "It's funny, how he and Hank get so competitive over football," he says while moving his rook forward. "I didn't even think Hank liked sports that much. But ever since that game with Moira, they've constantly been having rematches. And Alex gets into such a strop afterwards. Darwin almost got his head taken off just now when he asked if Hank had beaten him again."

Erik is smiling as he crosses his legs. "It's that temper of his," he says matter-of-factly. "He needs to learn how to control it, and not let it control him."

"Alex does have a temper," Charles says as he steeples his fingers together, just taking in the sight of Erik across from him, wearing one of his ever-present turtlenecks.

"I used to have a terrible temper too, when I was younger," Erik says, and suddenly Charles is alert and very, very still, like a bird expert who has been lying in wait all day for the cry of an endangered bird and has finally heard it. He listens carefully in case Erik continues, and he does. "I also played football, in the Fortuna Düsseldorf youth team." Now he is smiling at Charles. "It was only a while, but I had a great time."

"What position did you play?" Charles asks, fascinated by this clearly fond memory of Erik's.

"Centre forward. But they had to take me off because I kept getting carded." Erik lets out a nostalgic chuckle, shaking his head. "Eventually, the ref stopped believing that my tackles were 'accidental'." He hooked his fingers in the air to emphasise the quotation marks, making Charles laugh. He can very well imagine a ferocious young Erik going after the kneecaps of unsuspecting defenders.

"So you've had practice in being scary," Charles says with a grin. "Terrorising football referees is great training, I've heard."

"And I didn't stop there." Now Erik's eyes jump up from the chessboard to meet Charles's, and his next few words seem to be very careful. "My temper got me into trouble in prison, too. But it also pretty much ensured that no one dared to push me around. Much."

Prison. As much as Charles wants to say he's surprised, he isn't. He's seen the pattern before in Alex and a few other juvie kids, but he hadn't wanted to pigeonhole Erik. And he still doesn't. He knows his reaction now will be extremely important, as Erik will probably be assessing him for any signs of prejudice or judgement, and at the first sign of it, he instinctively knows Erik will begin to shut him out. That is the last thing he wants.

Charles leans forward, resting his chin on his steepled hands. "It must have been quite a difficult time for you." He hopes it sounds neutral enough, and it does work, judging from the way Erik's shoulders visibly relax and how he stops picking at his nails.

"It was very difficult," Erik concedes, looking thoughtful and no longer like a wary, spooked horse about to take off now that he knows Charles isn't going anywhere. "But it made me the man I am today, and I'm a lot better with my temper now."

"We all have our faults," Charles says, giving him an understanding smile. "If you want to know any of mine, aside from presumed arrogance--" this draws a snort from Erik, "--feel free to ask Raven for the full and complete list, which she will happily supply you with."

"I will." Erik's smile is warm and soft at the edges, and Charles feels an irrational burst of joy at the knowledge that he has just broken through one of Erik's many walls. It is tempting to go barging in and see what else he can discover, but as his training and natural instincts have taught him, the best course of action is a slow and steady one.

"And I'm afraid one of my many faults is that I tire easily." Charles gets up, making a deliberate show of yawning, even if he isn't that tired at all. "Time for bed, old chap."

From Erik's slow smile, it is obvious he isn't deceived at all. "What if I can think of other more fun things to do in bed?" he asks in a low voice, getting up and striding over to where Charles is standing, their lips only inches apart.

"Maybe you can try and convince me," Charles says with a wicked grin, and after a lewd and extremely arousing kiss, Erik spends the rest of the night doing just that.

***

It is Erik's day off on Saturday, and Charles had hoped to catch him for a morning run, or maybe a chess game in the gardens. Unfortunately, by the time Charles comes down to breakfast, he is greeted only with Erik's empty place at the table. Maybe Erik had already gone ahead for his run, or had decided to read the papers in his favourite spot, which is the armchair beside the window facing the garden.

However, he isn't there, and Charles flags down a passing Sean, bopping his head along to his some mysterious rhythm only he can hear. "Sean, have you seen Erik?"

"Oh, he went to town this morning with Mrs Rodriguez. I saw them laughing as they got into the car together." Sean gives him a loose, careless I-dunno shrug that only a 16-year-old can pull off . "I guess they're BFFs now."

"Very funny." Charles shoots Sean a deadpan look. "I wish Erik would have told me. There were some books I've been meaning to get."

"He was in quite a hurry to go. He said, and I quote--" here, Sean imitates Erik's dry and droll tone astonishingly well, "Charles's supplies are dismal and it looks like I shall have to rectify this myself. No clue what he meant, though." Sean is now frowning quizically. "I mean, we have more than enough food."

Charles suddenly gets the idea that Erik had not been referring to food at all, and he can feel heat suffusing the sides of his face. "Thank you, Sean," he mutters before quickly walking away, smiling to himself in anticipation.

***

Charles hears the sounds of the car pulling into the driveway around noon, but he doesn't see Erik for the rest of the day. As much as he would have liked to spent it in Erik's company, there are a lot of things waiting for him: Hank wanting his opinion on this article about neuropsychology he had seen in Scientific American, emails from Burt and Moira to be replied to, Raven looking moody and probably needing a listening ear regarding The Incredible Obtuseness Of A Certain Hank McCoy, a mountain of bills to pay and Angel needing help with her assignments. So it is a busy day for Charles, and by the time he's done going over Angel's homework, it's almost dinnertime.

Erik isn't at the dinner table either, and Charles tries not to feel like some ridiculously possessive twit who is keeping tabs on Erik. They're only sleeping together, after all, and they have never really discussed what they are, or where they stand. Charles gets the impression that Erik is the sort of man to walk if you try to box him in with limits, and as happy as he is with Erik's presence in the house and in the children's lives, he knows that to ask for more would be pushing it.

It is Raven who comes up to him and puts him out of his (reluctant) agony. "Erik's looking for you," she says, a knowing twist to her smile. Charles wonders how much she knows, or if Moira has told her anything. "He said he found a beehive on the compound, but that he'll take care of it."

"What?" Charles's short-lived happiness fades into worry. "He shouldn't have, we could have gotten a pest company--"

"Relax, he's fine," Raven says soothingly. "But he asked you to take a look. He's waiting by the garden stairs."

Charles immediately knows what she means and heads outside the house, walking to the stone dual staircase that led down to the fields in front of the mansion. He spots Erik in a grey tracksuit, leaning against the banister and gazing at the giant hulk of a satellite dish in the distance. "Thinking that if you stare hard enough, you'll be able to turn that to face us?" Charles calls out to him with a grin. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I've tried for years, my friend."

Erik gives him a dismissive wave. "I'll figure it out someday. Come, I'll take you to see the area where the beehive was."

As they descend the stairs, Charles shoots him a curious glance. "I thought today was your day off, you didn't have to do this, you know."

Erik's smirk is puzzling. "If I don't get rid of it, you know the boys will find it and fling it at each other or something."

"Ah." Charles wants to ask where Erik has been all day, but wisely bites back his words. What Erik does on his days off is none of Charles's business. It hadn't mattered before, why must it matter now?

They're now walking amidst the row of trees lining the fields, and the satellite dish looms larger in front of them than ever before. Charles remembers coming here as a boy, watching his father conduct his experiments and take readings. He wishes he had been old enough at the time to simply appreciate spending the very short time he had left with his father.

Erik walks beside him, giving him a nudge. "It's over here," he says, pointing to a clearing within the trees. Charles follows, more and more curious. As he had suspected all along, there is no beehive, but instead there is a picnic mat spread out on the grass, and he can see a bottle of wine and two Tupperware containers of rustic pasta.

"Erik." Charles is smiling so hard that his cheeks hurt. "What the devil have you been up to?"

"Wait, wait." Now Erik is fishing out some tiny remote from his pocket, stabbing at buttons and frowning. His head is cocked, listening intently for something, so Charles listens too. Suddenly there is a soft burst of music, and Charles recognises the strains of Beethoven's 7th.

"My word, Erik." He looks around in wonder. "How did you manage that? Where is the music coming from?"

Erik's grin is mysterious. "I have my ways. With the help of Sean's portable speakers, of course."

"Ah, the penny falls." Charles wraps his arms around Erik's neck, pulling him down for a kiss and it was soft, slow, with a little bit of bite to it. When he pulls away, Erik has this tender look on his face that makes Charles believe, even if only for a little while, that he might stay forever.

"Thank you for all this, my friend. I wish you hadn't spent your day off doing all this." Charles makes a sweeping gesture at the picnic, the wine, the music floating from hidden speakers in the trees, and Erik simply shrugs.

"I wanted to," he says, and that's that. He sits down on the mat, leaning against the tree, then gestures for Charles to sit as well. "Sorry if the pasta is slightly inedible, I made it myself. I wasn't able to charm Mrs Rodriguez into cooking on her day off."

Charles raises an eyebrow. "Oh? I have it on good authority that you and her are BFFs."

Erik snorts. "You need to start taking what the kids say with a giant pinch of salt." He uncorks the wine, and Charles realises it's a less expensive variety that isn't from his stepfather's wine cellar. The fact that Erik had bought the wine and cooked the pasta himself is rather touching. They eat and talk about everything, from Obama's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan to how much longer Raven can moon over Hank without him noticing it.

"It's astonishing, really." Charles has stopped eating some time ago, but he is still waving his fork around. "The other day, I saw her come into the lab, and she sat right on top of Hank's lap. And he still didn't get it! The poor boy just looked confused and suggested she pull up a stool."

Erik is laughing until his face is red. "Poor Raven! What did she say?"

"She didn't say anything, she just climbed off his lap and looked at him as though he had just murdered an entire box of kittens in front of her." Charles shakes his head with a sigh. "I wonder how much longer she can throw herself at him."

Erik's eyes gleam in the light of the setting sun as he sips his wine. "The throwing-yourselves-at-people thing sounds like it runs in the family," he says dryly, and Charles flushes. "Don't get me wrong, Charles, I was very flattered."

"In my defence, I thought you didn't know English."

"And in my defence, I thought you were with Moira." Erik reaches out, running the tips of his fingers up and down Charles's arm. "I only knew for sure that night when you suggested I crawl into bed with you."

Charles is sure that he is flushing, but there is no point turning away as Erik is scooting closer, leaning in for a kiss, and it turns into two, then three, and when Erik pulls away, Charles chases after his reddened mouth and cradles Erik's skull, shoving his tongue as deep as it would go into Erik's willing mouth.

When they break the kiss, Erik's hair is mussed and he's panting slightly. "Do you know what I did after you asked me to crawl into your bed?"

"What?" Charles is rising to his knees and straddling Erik, slipping a hand under his sweatshirt so he can brush a thumb against Erik's peaked nipple. "Tell me."

"I went to take a shower," Erik says, his breath hitching as Charles rubs his left nipple. "And the whole time, I thought about you." Now his gaze has dropped to Charles's mouth. "Thinking about your saucy red mouth, your hands, God, Charles--"

Charles can feel Erik hardening under him, and his hand moves away to slip down further south, heading for the waistband of Erik's pants. "What else?" he murmurs, his voice husky and rough.

"Thinking about you, spread out on that four-poster bed of yours." Erik leans in, captures Charles's already parted lips in a tough kiss, then continues, "Holding your hips down, spreading your legs open, hearing you begging me to fuck you--"

"God, yes," Charles pants against his lips, "we still haven't done that." The frustration must have been obvious in his voice, for Erik is now looking extremely amused.

"Don't worry about that, I went into town today." Erik's kiss lands on the corner of Charles's lips, and he can't resist turning his head to capture Erik's mouth. "But I thought it would be fun to wine and dine you first."

"And you succeeded magnificently." Charles presses their foreheads together, and he wonders if the litany of thoughts running through his mind could somehow be transferred over to Erik's, and he's thinking, this is too fast, this is too fast, this is just an infatuation, it's not what you think it is. And he thinks of his thoughts as parallel lines of light, all bright and direct and never-ending, and how Erik is stepping over those lights, over Charles's line of defences, and Charles is overwhelmed by the feeling of falling.

"You okay?" Erik looks curious but concerned. "We don't have to, if you--"

"Yes," Charles says, because even the optimist in him knows it's hopeless, and he may as well enjoy it while it lasts. "It's just-- It's a little cold. Let's go back to your room."

"Okay." Looking a little unconvinced, Erik nevertheless plants a kiss on his forehead, and for a moment, when he presses his large, rough hand against Charles's chest, right on top of his hammering heart, Charles allows himself to believe that this might actually be enough.

Chapter Text

eighteen.


The walk from their picnic spot back to the mansion takes much longer than necessary because Charles and Erik keep stopping to kiss. A few steps, then Erik would push Charles up against the nearest tree for a kiss, then they would continue walking again before Charles would slide his hands into the hood of Erik's tracksuit and tug him down, feeling drunk on the way Erik's tongue claims his mouth. To be honest, Charles has never kissed a man this much before, and it's almost embarrassing, how much he wants Erik. Thankfully, judging from the pleased sounds Erik is making in his throat, he doesn't seem to mind.

When they finally reach the house, Charles sneaks up first to his room while Erik goes to return the picnic basket to the kitchen. He has just taken off his cardigan and is loosening the cuffs of his shirt when there is a rapid knock on the door, then Erik pops in, looking a little flustered.

"What's wrong?" Charles asks, starting to unbutton his shirt and liking the way Erik's gaze follows his hands.

"Bumped into some of the boys downstairs. I was worried for a while, but I managed to get away." Erik reaches into his pockets, pulling out a tube and a small cardboard box, his eyes on Charles the entire time as he meaningfully places them on the bed.

"So you got them." Charles marvels at how his own tone is so nonchalant when his knees feel like they're going to buckle at the thought of what he and Erik are about to do. "Thank you for going to the trouble, my friend."

Eric is now approaching him, his strides slow and long and purposeful, and Charles can't help but think of a sleek black panther approaching his prey. He never takes his eyes off Erik, his throat dry and his heart pounding. He's never wanted anyone this much.

The kiss is slow, languid, a somewhat filthy hint of the night ahead. Erik kisses with focus and intent, refusing to heed any distractions, his tongue licking into Charles's mouth with purpose, as if he knows he has rightful claim. Charles kisses in an entirely different manner, led asunder by new sensations and new feelings that he wants to chase, like running his tongue over the straight edge of Erik's teeth and thinking, why does it feel like he has far more teeth than I do, and then feeling Erik's rough palm stroking the nape of his neck and thinking, oh why does that feel so possessive and so good, and Charles realises they kiss the same way they each talk and move.

When they break apart, Erik's pupils are already dilated, and he's breathing heavily, his breath warming Charles's mouth. "Have you done this before?" he murmurs, before kissing along Charles's neck.

Charles had done a great many things at Oxford, things that even Raven had put down to mere exaggeration, but it has been a while since someone has been inside him. "A long time ago," he says, his eyes fluttering shut as Erik's mouth skates over to where his neck ends and his shoulder begins. "You?"

Erik lifts his head with a smile, then kisses Charles. "I know enough. Or maybe you'd like me to tell you about our...options."

Charles simply can't keep his hands out from under Erik's tracksuit, letting them roam over the sculpted chest and those unbelievably sexy arms, lined with lean muscle from all the physical labour. "Maybe you could refresh my memory," Charles whispers, kissing along Erik's stubbled jawline.

"Oh." Erik's mouth is open in surprise as Charles lifts a knee, gently rubbing it against Erik's quickly hardening crotch. Stealing a quick glance, Charles is mesmerised by the stretch of that obscene bulge against the grey jersey material, and suddenly he really can't wait to have that thickness inside him, stretching him. "If you don't want me to come right now, Charles, you'll have to stop that."

"Sorry," Charles says, although he isn't sorry at all. "You were saying."

Erik clears his throat. "Yes. Well, there are a few positions. The easiest one for you, of course, is if you lay face down on the bed, and we lift your hips with a pillow--"

"Or if you bent me over the edge of the bed and pounded into me?" Charles's grin is wicked as Erik shivers at that image as though he has just been tasered. "Well, you seem to like that. Let's test it out in a demo and go from there."

Charles walks over to the right side of the bed, bending over and resting his elbows on the mattress, presenting his arse to Erik who makes a soft, strangled sound. He can feel Erik's large hand ghosting over the swell of his backside, and Erik makes an appreciative murmur.

"Fucking gorgeous." Now Erik is leaning over him, plastering himself all over Charles's back. Even though they're both still somewhat clothed, this is one of the single most erotic things that has ever happened to Charles. He shuts his eyes, relishing in the way Erik's longer, bigger body almost covers him completely, and he can feel Erik poking against his arse.

"It'll feel great," Erik continues, his voice slightly hoarse now. His hips thrust against Charles's, making the mattress bounce as Charles absorbs the impact of his hips, Erik's cock a burning line against the cleft of Charles's backside. "Could open you up with my fingers, spread your legs open--" as if to prove a point, Erik's knee pushes apart Charles's thighs, spreading him wider, "--and then fuck you slowly, pulling on your hair, finding that spot inside you and hitting it again and again."

"Erik." Charles is starting to pant, rubbing his own cock against the side of the unforgiving mattress, but he wants more. "What are our other options?"

He almost regrets saying it once Erik stands, leaving only cool air and the loss of his warmth. Still, Charles feels a surge of smug satisfaction at how Erik is breathing heavily, his hair already loosened from its gelled hold. "The next option," Erik says, taking deep breaths, "is for you to ride me. A little complicated, but if it's done right, you control the pace."

Control. The word inexplicably causes a tsunami of want in Charles, and he wordlessly pushes Erik back towards the bed, watching as Erik lands on the mattress with a bounce. Charles wastes no time in climbing on top of him, the two of them sharing a desperate, frantic kiss before Charles breaks away, straddling Erik who is so hard that Charles can feel the tip of Erik's cock nudging at the valley between Charles's legs, even through the fabric of their trousers."Oh, I can see how this works," Charles says breathlessly, and without warning he grinds down on Erik's persistent erection, causing the poor man to surge up with a loud uncontrolled moan. His hands are everywhere, and one reaches out to rub against the bulge in Charles's trousers while the other seeks out Charles's hand, twining their fingers together. Charles has to close his eyes at this unexpected tender gesture, concentrating instead of the feel of Erik's skilled fingers massaging his cock through the fabric. "Oh God, Erik--"

"Liebling," Erik hisses out through gritted teeth, his hips surging up and if Charles were any lighter, he might have fallen off the bed. Then they're both laughing and aroused, and Charles bends down to kiss Erik again, his mouth unusually pliant, and he thinks this is how it should be, both of them laughing and comfortable with each other, wanting each other to the point of distraction.

"What does that mean?" Charles asks as he climbs off Erik, needing to get a hold on himself before this is over far too early. He shucks his shirt and starts taking off his trousers and socks. "That thing you said earlier, I've heard you call me that before."

Erik just smirks at him, looking like some debauched Adonis in a grey tracksuit, all sprawled out on Charles's bed. "The third option," he says instead, much to Charles's disappointment, "is for us to lay on our sides. Come." He pats the bed beside him before taking off his tracksuit, flinging it to some corner of the room, then off goes his underwear, and he's propping himself up on one elbow, letting the other hand stroke himself lazily. "Come here."

The proprietary undertone of Erik's voice draws Charles to him like a siren, and he obediently lies on his side in front of Erik, so that they're spooning naked. Erik is now planting wet, warm kisses on the nape of his neck, and Charles loses himself in the feeling, aware of how the tip of Erik's cock is leaving smears of pre-come on his thigh and arse. He gasps when he feels Erik's fingers sliding in-between his cheeks, rubbing at his hole and making Charles moan. "Fuck, Erik, fuck--"

"Hang on," Erik says, reaching behind him for something, then there is a click of a tube being opened, and suddenly Charles feels Erik's cool, slippery fingers pressing against him. Charles tries to relax, lifting a knee so Erik has more space to work with, and he gasps as the head of Erik's cock nudges against his balls, causing both of them to moan.

"Charles, Liebling, mein Schatz," Erik's voice is husky and a few octaves lower than usual as he slides his fingers into Charles, and Charles grips the bedsheets, getting used to the sensation. He waits patiently, letting Erik probe and explore, and it is a while before Erik applies more lubricant, then hooks his fingers, making Charles jerk with a shout as though an electric current has just run through him. There is a satisfied purr over his shoulder before Erik twists his fingers again, and this time Charles is not above openly sobbing and begging for Erik's cock to be inside him now, now, now.

"Wait," Erik says, and Charles doesn't realise he had been begging out loud. "The last position, my favourite, because I can see you--"

"Yes," Charles says, because he already knows what it is, and Erik is rolling on top of him, so heavy and sweaty and his mouth already seeking out Charles's, and they kiss like crazed men, tongues stabbing and fighting and Charles holding the words back, determined to hang on to the last shreds of his dignity, and Erik breaks away and there is a sound of ripping foil, and Charles helps him to roll on the condom, stealing in a few quick strokes of Erik's cock. Then Erik stops him with a strangled noise, and Charles's head falls back on the pillow, his hands dragging down Erik's sweaty back as he guides himself into Charles.

They both groan shakily as Erik slides in to the hilt, Erik struggling to control himself while Charles forces himself to get used to the heft of Erik's cock inside him, but Erik is willing to wait, always willing to wait, and Charles looks up into those stormy green eyes, and he knows he's a goner, and he pulls Erik down for a kiss, then another, then another, and Erik starts to move, and he is so unbelievably massive that Charles has to cling onto his broad shoulders, eyes skating over the various tattoos and wanting to lick the sweat off all of them, or better yet, lick the tattoos themselves off and re-brand Erik entirely as his own.

Then Erik does something marvellous that changes the angle of his thrust, and suddenly Charles is shouting and scrabbling on the bed, his cock throbbing between both their stomachs as Erik pins him down with his body so Charles can't run, as though he even wants to run in the first place, and Erik fucks him long and deep, his eyes fixed on Charles in wonder as though he can't quite believe he is here, and Charles reaches down and pumps his cock while Erik pounds into him, his thrusts getting erratic, his eyes getting hazy.

Charles comes with a shout, his blunt nails scratching down Erik's sweaty back, come splashing on both their bellies and chests, and then he is loose and boneless against Erik whose face is tight, but his eyes tender, and the way he says, "Charles," in an almost wondrous, disbelieving sort of way before Erik comes, baring his teeth, makes Charles believe that Erik might be here to stay.


nineteen.


If the children have noticed anything going on between the two men, they do not mention it. In fact, Charles is sure they're too busy growing up, absorbed in their own little worlds and own little troubles the way only teenagers can be. He's glad that Alex and Hank are starting to gain a sort of grudging mutual respect for each other, even if it doesn't always show. Raven is also starting to back off from Hank, and Charles hates the sad, defeated slump of his sister's shoulders. But he can't protect her forever, and he knows that no one is spared from heartbreak, not even himself.

Erik has stopped sleeping in his own room, although he still keeps his (few) belongings there to maintain some sort of guise. Charles is always happy to let Erik in, be it for chess, a chat, a long torrid session where Charles fucks Erik in the shower or even just a kiss that doesn't lead to anything else. They're both working and busy in the day, but in the evenings, Charles is just content to lie in bed between Erik's legs and go over the children's homework while Erik reads Kafka and absently strokes Charles's hair, murmuring in German under his breath.

It's times like these, the quiet times that have nothing to do with sex, that have Charles asking himself what the bloody hell he thinks he's doing. Erik had already mentioned to him last month while they were at the hardware store that he barely stays in one place for long, and that he had not taken up an apartment because the six-month lease had been too long for him. It makes Charles wonder exactly when Erik intends to leave, and the more he delays the question, the more unsettled he feels because the mansion is now almost 100% operational, and it won't be long before Erik's job is done. Charles wants a reason for Erik to stay, but not at the risk of sounding like he is offering charity. Erik will walk, that much Charles knows for sure.

Charles knows his motives are selfish, but he does think the children will be affected by the lack of Erik's presence. Angel and Sean go to Erik for advice, and Charles suspects there is a serious case of hero-worship when it comes to Alex. Not that Charles minds, because he is closer to Hank and Darwin, and it is not coincidental that these two boys are the ones who don't have issues with authority figures. As much as Charles tries to not be judgmental and impatient, he lacks the suggestion of a gritty background that Erik carries with him in spades, making it easier for some of the children to identify with him.

"Alex and Sean are fighting, you know," Erik tells him one day when they're spent and sweaty and exhausted, about to nod off. "It's affecting the entire dynamic of the kids. You can see Darwin trying not to make his loyalties obvious, while Hank just retreats into his lab."

"Raven?" Charles asks, fighting off a yawn and wondering how Erik knows this.

"Trying to patch them up, I guess, but she's giving up after getting blasted by Alex or ignored by Sean." Erik presses his nose against Charles's hair, nuzzling it. "Can't blame her. Brats, all of them."

Erik drops off into slumber not long after that, but Charles is now wide awake. He's thinking about Alex and Sean, wondering what is the best course of action to approach them both and let them talk things out, but at the back of his mind, there is a thought that is making him smile despite the situation, and it's this thought – that Erik cares more deeply for the kids than Charles had even suspected – that lets Charles sleep a little easier that night.

Chapter Text

the scientist.


Hank is speechless when Charles first shows him the lab, obviously converted from a study or whichever this room used to be. Two rows of gleaming metal tables are lined with rows of test tubes, Bunsen burners, bottles of compounds like calcium hypochlorite and hydrochloric acid, all labelled in Erik's neat handwriting, vernier callipers, graduated cylinders – it is difficult not to drool as Hank takes in all the equipment. "Do you like it?" Charles asks, patting his shoulder and suddenly Hank resists the urge to throw his arms around a man who had not even thought twice about showing so much kindness to a perfect stranger.

"I, um--" Hank takes a deep breath, willing away the rising emotion in his gut. Instead, he pushes his glasses up with shaky hands. "It's beautiful, pr-- um, Charles. Thank you."

"The others will share the lab when they have lessons with Miss Frost, of course," Charles says. "But apart from that, this was built for you, my friend. Spend as much time as you like in this place." Here Charles grasps his shoulder and stares at him, those normally playful blue eyes now so serious, and he says, "We want this to be your home, Hank. I know the past few months have been hard on you."

Hank tears his gaze away, blinking at the floor, the tables, the bottle of potassium permanganate, everywhere so he doesn't bawl like a five-year-old girl. Charles doesn't have to do all this for him - Hank has just turned 18 and will be trundled off to college shortly, so he doesn't get why this much money is being spent for his benefit. But his impression of Charles, which has not changed much from the very first time he sat in Charles's crammed office and watched the man place a cup of coffee in front of him, is that Charles Xavier is someone who would go above and beyond for anyone, due to an unnatural large deposit of empathy God had, for some reason, left in his moral bank account.

Of course Hank has heard horror stories about foster care from movies and TV and the one kid in his chem class who ate his lunch with scared eyes fixed on the table and mysterious bruises the shape of Antarctica turning up on his arms. Hank could have been assigned to any such horrific foster home – the word 'home' is really a joke because he'll never hear his mother's warm laugh or his father booming, "Hank, my boy," with that twinkle in his eye ever again – and he also realises he really struck gold with Charles, who recognises that he can never replace them, and has never even tried.

"Thank you," Hank says again, just because, and Charles smiles at him. Then his eyes skitter over to somewhere above Hank's left shoulder, and if it's possible, they turn warmer and bluer.

"There's someone else you should thank," Charles says, and Hank turns to see Erik leaning against the doorway, smiling broadly. "Erik was the one who worked with the contractor."

Erik waves away the compliment. "Charles was the one who charmed the contractor and his crew into working overtime to finish this," he says, rolling up the sleeves of his overalls, and Hank isn't sure but he thinks he heard Charles make some kind of strangled puppy noise.

It must be his imagination, because Charles is now saying "So modest," and shooting Erik a playful grin, and suddenly Hank has the distinct impression that he has been entirely forgotten, at least for the meantime. Pulling up a stool so he can begin tinkering, he is most amused to see Charles and Erik heading for the doorway, bickering about something or other, then Charles turns to ask, "Hank old chap, will you be fine in here by yourself?"

Hank doesn't need to think hard to answer as honestly as he can. "I think I'm going to be just fine."

 

 

the criminal.


The truth is, as much as Alex butts heads with Hank on a regular basis, they have more in common than Alex would like to admit. Sure, Hank is scary-smart in a way that Alex would never be, not even if he locks himself in a library for a thousand years and reads every goddamned book in there. Hank can also be annoyingly prissy at times, insisting the cap for the shaving cream has to be put back on and the cordless phone has to be placed back in the cradle. And for all his book smarts, he can be really dumb when it comes to girls. If Alex has to sit through one more meal where Raven makes googly-eyes at Hank and Hank continues munching obliviously like a cow chewing cud, Alex is seriously going to set something on fire.

Still, despite all that, they have so much in common. Both boys have lost their parents, and in similar, heartbreaking ways – Hank's in a car crash, Alex's in a plane accident. Hank doesn't have any siblings, and while Alex has Scott, they've been apart for so long that Scott feels like a phantom limb sometimes, a missing appendage that Alex knows should be there with him, but isn't, and misses ferociously with all his heart but will never admit to anyone, not even Darwin or Sean.

So Hank is very much on his own, and so is Alex. This awkward, unspoken solidarity keeps Alex from snapping at Hank sometimes, but often it is too fun to tease the guy a bit. Also, it doesn't help that Hank reminds him of a prepubescent Charles.

Alex remembers being sceptical when he had first met Charles, who looked too naive and kind, the type to be eaten alive in prison the moment the bars slam shut. He would go on to be surprised to learn that there is a kernel of toughness in Charles, evident enough when Alex violated parole for the first time and invoked the fury of God in Charles, and it is something he wouldn't care to see again. Now, living in this house with Charles's keen eye on him, he is somewhat aware that Darwin is also watching his back – and strangely enough, so is Lehnsherr – and if he screws up again, he will have a lot more people to answer to.

No more stealing, no more selling weed to make ends meet, no more furiously taking a baseball bat to his teacher's convertible because the fucker had written the word 'hopeless' in Scott's report card, no more taking out his anger on everyone and everything he loved because his life had been taken from him when he was six, because a bolt had come loose in the engine of some plane, just..no more. For the first time, Alex sees light in the wake of his self-destruction.

"Alex?" Charles pops his head into his room, grinning when he spots Alex sitting by the window. "Come on, Erik's agreed to let you ride his motorcycle."

Alex's eyes almost pop out of his head. "Are you serious?" he says, eyeing Charles suspiciously. "That dude said he'll run me and Sean over with a lawnmower if he catches us anywhere near his precious bike."

"Ah, Erik," Charles says fondly, shaking his head. "Fortunately I've managed to convince him otherwise. Come on, before he changes his mind!"

Still in disbelief, Alex peeks out of the window where he can see Erik in his badass leather jacket, wheeling out his Ducati with a familiar expression of resignation on his face. For a minute he wonders what on earth Charles could have said to convince him otherwise, and a tiny whisper of suspicion flickers in his mind.

The excited shouts of Sean and Hank beside Erik in the driveway snap him to attention, and Alex hurries down to join them. Just because Scott is not here doesn't mean Alex is any short of brothers.

 

 

the singer.


Having grown up with six siblings in a tiny terrace house, Sean is used to sharing, to being overlooked. His brother Patrick had been the first one to escape, winning a football scholarship to Arizona State, and he had never come back, not that Sean could blame him. Dean, the second oldest, had also managed to flee, but in a different way; the last Sean heard, Dean had been serving six years for aggravated assault and carjacking. Their mother wore a constant haggard, heartbroken expression, and as for Sean's father, he still has absolutely no idea what the dude even looks like.

Compared to the other kids in the Xavier house, Sean has more than enough family, and if Alex and the others could never understand how one can have too much family, it means they have not grown up in a tiny room shared with two messy brothers who had no sense of property ownership whatsoever and constantly swiped his clothes or his records. Music is the one thing that makes sense to Sean, and also his only escape since he didn't want to go to jail and couldn't play football for shit.

But, fortunately, Sean can sing.

He started out small, fronting a few high school bands that wanted to do nothing but play Nirvana's 'Nevermind' over and over again, albeit their own crappy renditions of it, and he finally struck it big when he got a paying gig to sing at a dive a few blocks from his house. Staying up late on school nights meant that he cut classes sometimes, but it was worth it. For the first time, with the band and the crew at the dive, Sean felt like he had finally found family, like-minded souls.

Sure, hanging out with Logan and the older boys at the bar meant that Sean had to keep quiet when they got fucked up and did shit like smashing windows and destroying property. Of course, it was only a question of time before they got caught, and Sean, out of some blind misguided sense of loyalty, refused to tattle. His exasperated guidance counsellor, tired of getting no response from his haggard mother, had called in a social worker, and that was when Sean had met Charles Xavier for the first time, scoffing at the tweed-wearing, perpetually smiling dweeb who looked like a lame professor-wannabe.

Now, a year on, Sean can't quite believe he is living in a house that is bigger than his entire block put together, and for the first time, he has his very own room. When he had first moved in, he had just gawked and gawked, and Charles had simply stood in the doorway of his room with his hands in his pockets, the biggest grin on his face.

"That's yours too." Charles had nodded at the turntable sitting by the bed, as well as the boxes of records scattered all over the floor. "Most of it is my father's collection, but some of it is Raven's, I'm afraid."

"It's okay, I like the Spice Girls," Sean had said, and it had been always easy to laugh with Charles, who never looked through him and saw his past, but looked into him and saw what he could be.

"Nice digs, Cassidy," Alex had whistled as he joined Charles in the doorway, watching Sean unpack. "But nowhere near as sweet as mine."

Charles's mouth was twisted with amusement. "Aren't all the rooms the same?"

"Mine's more awesome because I am in it," Alex had said, scurrying away quickly when Sean had aimed a pillow at his head. To be honest, Sean didn't even care if he had been given the smallest room in the house. The fact that this was his to call his own was already beyond awesome.

"Thanks, Prof," Sean had said whole-heartedly, and Charles's laugh when Sean had grabbed him in a clumsy hug had been entirely worth it.

Chapter Text

twenty.


When the mail comes, Charles sifts through it, looking for good news from the Department of Social Services. There is something that he had asked Moira to do for him a while back, but so far there has been no results. The system is bogged down with so much red tape and paperwork, and they're also ridiculously understaffed as it is, so understandably it would take a long time to track someone down. Still, Charles is ever willing to wait and hope. He just prays that Alex will be just as patient, which is the reason Charles is keeping him in the dark for now.

There is no mail for him aside from the usual bills, but there is a package for Raven from one of her friends in the city, as well as some cute, hand-drawn postcards from Sean's little sister. Charles has to pause and laugh at the drawing of Sean as some kind of giant orange fish. Putting them aside, there is also a thick manila envelope, addressed to 'E. Lehnsherr'. The address is that of the hardware store, so Charles suspects Otto must have come up here to drop it off for Erik.

For a moment, Charles can't help but indulge his curiosity. The return address is that of a steel firm located in Philadelphia. Curioser and curioser, then. Feeling bad for spying on Erik, Charles goes upstairs to Erik's room and leaves it on his dresser.

"There's mail for you," he says during dinner as a sweaty Erik strides into the dining room, having spent the entire day working in the east wing, and Charles is fighting not to ogle him in front of the children. "It looked important, I left it in your room."

Erik nods at him, his gaze lingering on Charles's arms, and Charles wonders why until he remembers that he had rolled up his sleeves of his blue shirt earlier. Maybe Erik likes that look on him. "Thanks," Erik says, the 't' always particularly heavy after a lifetime of danke's, and Charles tries not to watch as Erik mops the sweat off his face with a towel.

"Excuse me, Charles," Erik says with unnecessary politeness, lips curling into a slight smirk as he squeezes past Charles much closer than necessary to sit at the table, and Charles just barely manages to keep a straight face as Erik's chest deliberately brushes against his, the scent of his sweat clean and sharp and very, very male. It fills his blood with hot lust, making him want to just bend Erik over the table and take him now, and only the thought of mentally scarring the children and having to pay for years of therapy stops him.

It turns out Erik doesn't even check the mail until late, when they're ensconced in Charles's room and deep in the middle of a particularly gruelling chess match. Well, it's gruelling for Charles at least because bloody Erik keeps letting those bloody long fingers rub the rounded points of Charles's captured pawns as though they are nipples, and Charles is having difficulty concentrating, or even breathing, for that matter. He is torn between laughing and attacking Erik right in that chair when he sees Erik's mouth quirk up into a sly, knowing smile, fully aware of the effect he has on Charles.

 

While Charles is brushing his teeth after the match – that magnificent cheat Erik won, of course – he hears Erik stepping out of the room, then coming back in and closing the door. Then there is the rip of paper, and when he emerges in his pyjamas, he sees Erik reading his mail by the bed, eyes skating over the fine print.

"Do you want some privacy?" Charles asks, but regrets it as soon as Erik gives him a look that clearly indicates he is insane.

"Why would I?" Erik raises an eyebrow. "You want me to leave?"

"No," Charles answers a little too quickly. "No, it's just that, you're reading your mail."

Now the other eyebrow joins its twin. "And?" Erik looks down at the papers, then holds it out to Charles. "Actually, it does sort of involve you, so you can take a look."

Charles sits down on the bed beside him, cautiously taking the stack of papers from Erik. "What does this have to do with me?" he asks, but Erik just gestures for him to continue reading. It doesn't take long for Charles to figure out it is a contract offering Erik a very decent salary much higher than what Charles is paying him.

He hands it back to Erik when he is done, working down the small lump in his throat. "So this was what you meant when you said a six-month lease for a flat would be too long for you," he says quietly. He doesn't have to look up to know that Erik is nodding.

"I took the job offer before I met you at the hardware store," Erik says, running a finger over the fine corporate print. It's inhuman how the man has such sinfully long, dextrous fingers, and Charles knows from recent experience – and various marks on his hips and shoulders – the extent of their strength. But now Charles is a little too distressed to allow his mind to journey down its usual lustful path whenever he is in such close proximity to Erik.

Now Erik is looking at him, his eyes rather intent and searching. "What do you think, Charles?"

"When do they expect you to start?" Charles is amazed that his voice sounds so calm and normal.

"Next month. I'll have to sign these and fax it back to them." Erik casts his eyes down at the contract again, the corner of his mouth crooked in contemplation. "The repairs on the mansion should be completed by then."

Charles doesn't even begin to know what to say. He wants to take Erik's hand in his, run his fingers up those arms and trace the ink of the tattoos, imagining he is following the flow of blood under that warm skin, all the way back to Erik's heart. He wants to say, Stay, stay with me and stay with the children, we need you here. But if Erik wants to leave, he doesn't want to guilt the man into throwing away a perfectly good job offer just so Charles can be selfish.

"I need a drink," he says instead, and Erik doesn't stop him as he gets up and heads for the door. Even after he closes it and heads for the study, he can feel the intensity of Erik's eyes still on him even through the door, drawing him back into the room with some invisible magnetic pull, but Charles miraculously manages to resist that pull for the first time ever since Erik had come to the mention, and he spends the next few hours drinking extravagantly from his stepfather's old stash of scotch.

***

Charles shuffles back to his room at some time past two in the morning. Erik is no longer in his bed, but Charles can see the thin slice of light under Erik's door. He raises a hand as if to knock, but knocking will lead to begging, and no good can come of that. He presses his forehead against the wooden door, as though willing Erik to hear his thoughts through the various barriers.

After a few minutes, Charles feels foolish and stumbles back to bed.

***

Breakfast the next morning is quiet and terse, and the children are confused and subdued. Erik finishes his breakfast in record time and leaves the table quickly, mentioning something about getting the empty pool refilled. It had long been a joke amidst the children, the useless hole in the ground that used to be a splendid pool where Charles and Raven had spent countless hours splashing about and cannonballing in as kids, and the children are excited that it's finally going to be functional again.

Charles doesn't see Erik the whole day, not even at dinner, and he would have been concerned if he had not glimpsed Alex receiving some sandwiches from Mrs Rodriguez with stern instructions to deliver them to Erik and not eat them himself. Charles sees there are four, so he is assured that at least two will get to Erik.

That night, Erik doesn't come to Charles's room for their usual nightly chess match, or for anything else.

***

"Is something going on?" Raven asks after lunch the next day. Moira is having an interview with a much improved Angel, while the boys are outside shooting hoops in the yard behind the garden where they have installed a basketball hoop and net. Charles misses the times when it is just the two of them, talking about everything and nothing, but right now, he doesn't want to talk to Raven – or anyone, really – about this. "Are you on your period or something?"

"Absolutely hilarious," he says dryly, and according to her wide grin, she seems to agree. "Does everyone who goes to NYC inadvertently become a stand-up comedian?"

"It's a prerequisite to live there." Raven dries the last of the plates and fixes Charles with her best you-can't-hide-from-me look. "Quit changing the subject, and please tell me why both you and Erik are being moody and douchey. It's bad enough, what with Alex and Sean being mad at each other."

"Yes, I meant to ask you what is going on with the two of them," Charles says. "I tried talking to both of them indirectly about, but Sean just refuses to talk while Alex just looks like he wants to punch something."

"I don't know either." Raven looks crestfallen. "I hate conflict. And men being on their periods. Did I mention I hate conflict?"

"You did." Charles tugs her close and kisses her on the cheek. "And I love you just as much."

"Idiot." But Raven's wide smile takes the sting out of her words. "Oh, and Charles?"

"Yes, my dear?"

"Don't be afraid to ask for something, if you want it."

"What do you mean?" Charles sets down the dishcloth, rolling up his cuffs.

"Since we were young, we've always gotten what we wanted, without having to ask for it," she says, brushing her hair back and tucking it behind her ear, a familiar gesture that never fails to put Charles at ease. "Maybe you just need to be more, I don't know, direct. Not everyone can read your mind, you know."

Long after she's left, Charles thinks about Erik, thinks about Alex and Sean, and about how asking doesn't always necessarily mean getting what one wants. This whole process of becoming a foster parent has been too smooth, and so has everything with Erik, until recently. What Raven probably doesn't know – or might already know, Charles wouldn't be surprised at all – is that Charles is afraid of asking precisely because he has always gotten what he wants, and someone with a difficult background like Erik or the children may think Charles feels like he is entitled to always have everything handed to him on a silver platter. This couldn't be further from the truth, of course. His life hasn't always been easy.


Right now, what Charles wants is very simple. But, as always, the simplest things are always the hardest to ask for.

 

 

twenty one.

Of course, just as Charles finally mans up and decides to talk to Erik, his body conveniently takes the opportunity to break down and fall ill. The sneezes come first, causing Emma to look at him in concern while they're in the midst of going over Sean's progress, and she fishes out a Kleenex from her equally white handbag. "Are you all right, Charles? You look a little under the weather."

"I'm fine," he assures her, taking the tissue and wiping his nose, gesturing for her to go on, which she reluctantly does even as he is struggling to pay attention, his head a little fuzzy. Much later on, after Emma has left and everyone is sitting down to dinner, Charles wonders why his forehead is so sweaty and clammy even though it is so cold. "Does anyone else feel it's a little chilly?"

Now Raven is looking up, a little worried. "Charles, you don't look so good."

Darwin is frowning too. "Yeah Prof, you look as white as a sheet."

"I'm fine," he insists, even though there is a flicker of anxiety as the others begin to gather around him, their eyebrows knitted in worry. "Please, everyone just sit down--"

"I'm bringing him up," Hank announces, bending down and slinging Charles's left arm around his shoulder, and Charles wants to protest as Alex quickly scoops up his other arm. However, what comes out instead is a very violent sneeze, making the children wince.

"That's it, get him upstairs," Raven is saying. "I'll go find some non-prescription meds."

It is odd because just earlier Charles felt fine while talking to Emma, but now his head feels woozy and the deep voices of Alex and Hank on either side of him sound interchangeable, even indistinguishable, and by all rights he shouldn't need their help to just walk upstairs, but the heat flooding his head is terrible, and his hands feel icy. He's barely aware of it when they help him into bed, and when Raven reappears, her palm is scorching hot against his cold and clammy forehead. Then she's making him swallow something round and white – ibuprofen, maybe? – and the pills sit at the back of his throat, bitter and gritty.

"I really am fine," he says again, blinking up at the sea of concerned faces, but Raven's hand stroking his hair is warm and soothing, and as he drifts off, he irrationally wonders why Raven isn't reading Kafka.

***

The room is dark when Charles opens his eyes again. It is far, far too hot, but when he flings off the blankets, the icy chill is equally unbearable. Thankfully, someone has left a box of tissues beside his bed, and he quickly grabs a few before sneezing into them. There is also a glass of water which he drinks gratefully, but it sits oddly in his stomach and he finds himself stumbling to the bathroom, throwing up bitter bile and water. Burning, he thinks as he crawls back into bed, wiping his mouth, and he wonders how delirious he must be as he's drifting off again, thinking he hears Erik's voice outside the door, asking one of you tell me what the hell is going on with Charles.

***

Now sunlight is streaming through the window, and yet he feels even colder. He is a little hungry, but his hands are a little too shaky to even hold a glass of water. So he simply pulls the blankets tighter around himself, knowing he must be delirious because he can smell the aroma of chicken soup wafting from somewhere, and he thinks he sees a copy of The Trial face-down at the foot of his bed.

He kicks at the imaginary book – it must be imaginary – and the last thing he hears before he drifts off again is the soft thump of the book hitting the floor.

***

Charles has to be delirious now. His eyelids make an effort to flutter open, but it's too bright so he keeps them shut. He hears voices, mostly saying, Make sure he gets a lot of bedrest and How many of these yellow ones is he supposed to take again? and Sean's always recognisable, somewhat slurred voice sounding worried, is the Prof going to be okay? and then someone else familiar saying, thank you for coming, Herr Doktor.

***

The next time he wakes, it is night again, and while it is still chilly, Charles feels the warmth length of someone's body spooned against his back, as well as a heavy arm draped over him. Charles looks at the arm, disconcerted to see that it is covered with wavy, swimming lines – are the lines moving? He pushes it away, reaching for the ever-present glass of water on his bedside table and gulping down the cool liquid gratefully.

"Hey." The now empty glass is being taken from him, and when footsteps pad towards the bathroom to refill the glass, the loss of heat is disconcerting. Thankfully, Charles has enough presence of mind to take the multitude of pills offered to him, and now he is made to lie back down, once again cocooned in warmth and safety. "You feeling better?"

"Mmmrrh." He burrows into that warmth, feeling too ill to be embarrassed about wanting to be taken care of for once, and he tumbles back into sleep with a slight smile on his face.

***

The medicine must be potent, because Charles has never slept this much and still want to continue sleeping. He isn't sure if he is still delirious though, but he is very glad to find out the scent of chicken soup is not fictional, because there is a steaming bowl of it waiting on his bedside table. Charles devours it with as much relish he can muster, enjoying the unexpected treat of matzo balls.

Raven comes in just as he has finished half of it. "Glad to see your appetite has improved," she says with a radiant smile, squeezing his hand. "You could barely keep anything down three days ago."

Charles's eyes widen. "Has it been that long?"

"Yeah, you were pretty sick. But once your fever broke, it was much better." She takes the bowl from him, shushing his protests. "Don't you dare get up. Here, take these. You should be much better very soon."

Charles blinks as he leans back against the headboard. "How is everything? Wait, what about the childr-"

"Everything has been taken care of," Raven says soothingly. "We've got it under control."

It is only after she leaves that Charles blinks. "We?"

***

That night, Charles feels someone crawling into his bed, and their exhaustion is evident in the tired, slumped lines of their body. Although still a little sleep-addled, Charles manages to reach out and pull his benefactor into his arms, and he doesn't let go, not even when he mumbles I love you, and for a minute it feels like nothing moves. But Charles is awake enough to feel the rough palm cupping his cheek, soaking in the unnatural heat of the last of his fever.

***

Charles is now well enough to keep down an entire bowl of soup and ask for extra matzo balls and ask for bread as well. It is as if he is trying to compensate for all the food he had missed out over the past five days, not that Raven or Mrs Rodriguez is complaining. In fact, he can't decide which of them is beaming more at the return of his appetite. "This soup is fantastic, Mrs R," Charles tells her whole-heartedly when they are alone in the kitchen, even though she looks confused. "And your matzo balls! Perfection."

"Is not me, Mr Charles," she says politely.

Emma is just as polite, if not a little amused. "The children all did their homework, and Erik even helped Hank with his Intermediate German. You'd think it wouldn't be easy, trying to run a house while making sure the kids did the assignments I set for them. But Erik and Raven did it so well."

***

When Erik slips into Charles's bedroom that night, Charles pretends to be asleep, and he waits for Erik to climb in before he places a firm grip on his wrist. "Why are you sneaking in?" he asks, both genuinely curious and feeling an odd twist of hurt in his stomach. He had trusted Erik with everything, given over so much of himself to Erik, and still Erik walks on eggshells around him.

Erik's face is impassive, his eyes searching Charles's. "Do you want me to leave?" Although his face is still giving nothing away, his pulse under Charles's thumb is racing, and there are lines of exhaustion around his eyes, at least enough to dislodge whatever remaining hurt Charles has left.

Do you want me to leave?

Charles wants to say no, but instead he says, "Never," and when Erik smiles at him, he's never been more glad to let his mouth disobey his brain. When Erik leans in as though to kiss him, Charles says with their lips only inches apart, "I still might have the bug."

"I don't care."

Erik teases open his mouth, his tongue sliding in to claim Charles completely for himself, and Charles lets himself be claimed. Now the kiss is rougher, a little frayed at the edges – Charles is sapped from the fever, Erik must be exhausted from running the house - as Charles sucks on Erik's bottom lip, wringing a low, muffled moan out of him. His breath is hot against Charles's mouth, and Charles can't resist cupping Erik through his trousers, rubbing the tip of Erik's cock in little circles just the way he likes it, and Erik lets out a broken groan, sending a little thrill through Charles especially when he can feel the material getting damp.

"So hard for me," Charles murmurs, his grin turning wicked, his fingers splayed out so he can accommodate all of Erik's girth. Erik draws in a ragged breath, his eyes smouldering with need, burning into Charles's own. "You want so badly to fuck me, don't you?"

Erik's mouth opens to answer, but his words are apparently forgotten as Charles slides his hand under the waistband and into Erik's briefs, wrapping around the velvet smoothness of his cock. "Ngh, C-Charles," he stutters out, and he's trying so hard to lean down and kiss Charles again, but Charles is deliberately denying him this kiss, whether because of the fever bug or because he wants to watch Erik unravel right in front of him, he doesn't know.

"Wait." Erik's voice sounds rough and used, which is just how Charles likes it. "You're still recovering. Just lie back and...let me."

"Let you what-" Charles's words are cut off with a sharp intake of breath as Erik scoots down and almost rips off his flannel pyjama bottoms, shooting him a predatory grin before placing a hand on each of Charles's knees.

Then, with his gaze fixed on Charles's, he very slowly and deliberately spreads Charles's legs open.

"Erik." Charles lets out a ragged whoosh of breath as Erik settles his weight between Charles's legs, planting a kiss on the back of Charles's knee as a sly smile grows on his face. Now he's letting his mouth trail down the inside of Charles's thigh, and Charles tangles his fingers in Erik's hair, taking delight in seeing it uncharacteristically messy and unslicked. "Oh God, Erik, your mouth..."

"What about it?" Erik asks, shooting Charles a quick smirk before running his tongue along the seam where Charles's thigh meets his groin. Charles is unbearably hard, his erection jutting out bare inches from Erik's cheek, begging to be licked, but Erik ignores it in favour of driving Charles crazy. Charles can also see Erik subconsciously grinding his hips against the mattress, and he wants Erik's weight on top of him again, pinning Charles under him as he fucks him within an inch of his life.

Not now, though. Now Erik is inspecting his handiwork, the skin slick and shiny with moisture. "You're so pale, Charles." He slides a finger down the underside of Charles's cock, making him hiss. "Especially here."

"Such a tease, Erik." Charles lets out a breathless laugh at the indignant look on Erik's face. But the way his hand cups Erik's stubbly cheek is close to giving away his real feelings, and so is the way Erik nuzzles into his touch. Charles can only watch as Erik's head dips down, pressing open-mouthed kisses to the head of Charles's cock, and Charles apologises when his hips surge up of their own accord, his cock slipping further into Erik's surprised mouth. "God, sorry--"

However, Erik seems to take the hint, and his eyes are smiling as his unbelievably warm, wet mouth takes in as much of Charles's cock as he can, and Charles can't help remembering that dream he first had of Erik, with Erik sucking him off in the shower. He can't hold back his embarrassingly broken moan, letting Erik pin down his hips with his arm so that Erik can control the pace. And he does, sucking faster and harder, driving Charles crazy with his mouth, with his tongue. Such a warm and wet mouth, so sinfully slick as Charles watches Erik's head bobbing up and down, and his fingers tighten in Erik's soft hair as he arches up with a sharp cry, spilling everything into that amazing mouth.

Charles is still trying to catch his breath as Erik crawls up, wiping at his mouth. He feels unusually exhausted – the fever must have taken a lot more out of him than he thought. Erik's weight settles beside him, and Charles slips a hand between Erik's thighs, pressing the heel of his hand against the hard line of his erection. "Do you--"

"No." Erik nudges his hand away, scooping Charles up in his arms instead. "You're still recovering, so go to sleep, Charles."

"But--"

"You'll have plenty of time to make it up to me later." Erik's lazy smile is still there even as he closes his eyes, effectively shutting out Charles's protests. Eventually Charles relents, still rather boneless, just enjoying the feel of Erik wrapped around him again, as well as those wonderful three words bouncing around his head, lulling him to sleep.

Plenty of time.

Chapter Text

twenty two.

 

For the next few days, Charles just can’t stop smiling. He knows he looks like a complete idiot, and the children are exchanging odd looks around him, wondering if he is still delirious from the fever. Raven can only roll her eyes so many times before they pop out of their sockets and end up under the sofa, while Moira is possibly the only person on the planet who can look both smug and adorable at the same time. Still, Charles doesn’t care, spontaneously hugging his ladies and planting not-unwelcome kisses on their cheeks even as they chuckle and pretend to bat him away.

The one blot in Charles’s general happiness is, of course, the tension simmering between Alex and Sean, and he has a pretty long discussion with Erik over their chess game that night on how to handle the matter. They both know Alex has a temper, while Sean, even though he is generally easy-going, can be stubborn at times. “I’ll think of something,” Charles says with a sigh, his mind not really on the game as Erik collects his queen.

“You overthink things too much, Charles.” Erik’s look is one of fond exasperation, more than used to Charles’s habits. “The boys will work things out.”

“I hope so,” he replies, giving up entirely on the game and letting Erik take him to bed, welcoming the more pleasant distraction of Erik slowly unbuttoning his shirt and his slow, drugging kisses.

***

The next morning, Charles gets his opportunity when he finds Alex in the kitchen, making himself a snack that comprises of something disgusting involving bananas, crisps and an entire jar of Nutella. “Hey Prof,” Alex says cheerfully. “You want some?”

“No thank you, I have no wish to get my stomach pumped,” Charles says, ignoring Alex’s snort. “Anyway, I need to talk to you about Sean--”

“I’ve nothing to say to him.” Alex’s words are clipped and curt as he suddenly abandons his snack, heading out of the kitchen.

 “Alex--”

“Ask Sean to grow up already. Jesus, it was just one record.” Alex throws over his shoulder as he stiffly stalks out of the kitchen, and Charles is left staring at the steaming teakettle and Mrs Rodriguez’s raised eyebrow.

“¿No es bueno?” he asks with a sigh, and she just laughs, shaking her head.

***

Sean is not as antagonistic, but no less stubborn. “Alex took my record without asking,” he says quietly. “And now he’s broken it.”

Charles runs a hand through his hair, while Erik is standing by and watching, his arms crossed and his face impassive. The library – Sean’s favourite new hiding place, of late - is silent and cold. “Is it true he offered to buy you a new one?” Charles says.

Sean scoffs, but protectively folds his arms closer around himself, a mass of gangly freckled limbs, and he looks so vulnerable that Charles wonders how on earth any mother could have ever wanted to desert this boy.  “It’s not about replacing it. I don’t like people taking my stuff without asking. I just don’t.” Sean’s about to sulkily put his headphones back on when Erik snaps to attention, beckoning for him to get up.

“Come on Cassidy, we’re settling this.” For a moment, Erik looks over to Charles with an eyebrow raised, as though asking permission, and Charles nods immediately, curious to see what Erik has to say.

They all march up to Alex’s room, where he lays sprawled on his bed, mutinously spinning a basketball on his finger. “What--” his words die in his mouth when he sees Erik is there.

“Okay, let’s settle this once and for all.” Erik gestures between the two boys. “Sean, I want you to hit Alex.”

The utter surprise on the boys’ faces is entirely dwarfed by Charles’s own. “Erik, could I have a word, please?” he asks, but he frowns when he notices Erik holding up a hand in a trust-me gesture. Against his better instincts Charles keeps quiet, but he continues to lean in the doorway, watchful and ready to stop any madness.

“Go on, hit him,” Erik says to Sean, who is still staring at Erik as though he has just sprouted breasts.  “He took your record, right? It’s irreplaceable, right? So throw him a punch, even the score and stop putzing around and making everyone walk on eggshells around you two.”

Sean seems torn between incredulity and shock. “I can’t hit Alex, why would I want to do that?”

Erik looks at Sean meaningfully. “And why don’t you want to hit him?”

“He’s my--” Sean stops, compulsively swallowing a lump in his throat, and he won’t quite look at all of them, but Alex’s furious expression seems to be softening. Although the word ‘brother’ isn’t quite spoken aloud, it is obvious enough. Sean is now kicking at the carpet, his hands deep in his pockets, and Erik lets out a sigh.

“Look, it’s either you two forgive and forget, or you save your anger for the really serious issues,” he says quietly. “If it’s not worth punching your friend – no, your brother over, then it’s not worth being angry about for days and days. Get over it, or get on it.”

Charles is blinking, still trying to absorb Erik’s extremely unorthodox approach to this when Sean steps forward, reluctantly holding out an outstretched hand to Alex who eyes him, his jaw clenched. After a long moment, he gruffly shakes it, once, both boys avoiding eye contact. “Good,” Erik is saying, as though he hadn’t expected any less. “Now go do your homework and stop upsetting the others.”

Sean slouches out of Alex’s room, slipping on his headphones again and Charles lets him go, making a mental note to check on him a while later. Now Erik is perching himself on the edge of Alex’s bed, talking to Alex in a low voice, and Alex is just nodding stiffly, but Charles doesn’t miss the way his lower lip trembles. He just hopes he hears from the Department of Social Services soon. After all, how hard could it be to find just one Scott Summers?

He turns to leave so Erik and Alex can have a little privacy, and as he closes the door, he can’t help feeling relieved at not having to bear all the weight entirely on his own shoulders. He’s forgotten how exhausting it can be, at times.

Charles has never been more glad that he is not alone.

 

twenty three.

 

Sleepy Erik is one of Charles’s favourite kinds of Erik, because his mouth is unusually pliant then, open for Charles to plunder, and his hands feel softer, not yet roughened by the day’s work. Charles lives for the quiet times in the mornings when Erik’s hands skate over his skin, warm and smooth, awakening a white hot bolt of fire in Charles just from mere touch alone. Then one of those hands will slip in-between Charles’s legs, and really, it is a perfect way to wake up, getting stroked by Erik like this.

However, this time, it is Charles who is awake first, staring at a sleeping Erik, those long eyelashes curtained down. He can’t stop looking any more than he can stop the tight squeeze in his chest whenever he looks at Erik, and he knows he’s so far gone that there’s no going back. Charles reaches out, brushing back that soft, sandy hair out of Erik’s eyes, and Erik mumbles something in his sleep before turning over, his back now facing Charles.

Undeterred, Charles scoots closer so that he is spooning Erik, pressing a kiss to the nape of Erik’s neck. His scent is different there, a little earthier and almost herbal, and Charles breathes Erik in, feeling a little foolish and romantic at the notion that he wants every part of Erik inside him, even his smell.

His body is inevitably reacting to the smell and feel of Erik so close to him, and Charles rocks his hips against Erik’s for a bit, his morning erection already hard and wanting. He reaches for the lube that they keep on the nightstand, flicking it open and coating his fingers liberally with it. They had done away with condoms two days ago, ever since Erik had gotten the results from the clinic in town that showed he was clean, and Charles had already taken a test when he was applying to be a foster parent. It had taken their lovemaking to new heights, knowing Erik was inside him with absolutely no barriers, and vice versa. More sentimental foolishness, then, but Charles honestly can’t bring himself to care.

Erik sleeps naked, which makes it easier for Charles to maul him in his sleep whenever he pleases, and he still remembers yesterday morning when he stroked a half-asleep Erik to full hardness, then climbed on top of him and rode him until they were both shouting and incoherent. Sighing, Charles slides his knee in-between Erik’s thighs, spreading them so he can slip his lubricated fingers into Erik, causing him to stir, his voice low and rough. “Charles?”

“Morning,” Charles murmurs into Erik’s hair, desperately trying not to think about how tight and sinful Erik feels, or the way his breath stutters whenever Charles is inside him. “Had a good dream?”

Erik stretches back against Charles like a cat, shamelessly rubbing up against him. “God, yes,” Erik whispers. “Dreamed about you.”

“Oh?” Charles scissors his fingers, relishing the way Erik’s head snaps back with a gasp. “What sort of dream?”

Erik is beginning to pant, a fine sweat breaking out on his forehead. “Dreamt I tied you up,” he manages to get out, his arse rubbing against Charles’s prodding erection. “You kept begging me to fuck you, fuck you so hard. Fuck, Charles!”

“That’s it,” Charles croons, knowing he’s found the angle he wants as he crooks his fingers again, watching Erik spasm on his fingers. He can’t wait to get his cock inside this beautiful man. “You know I love to beg you.” He decides he’s tortured Erik enough and withdraws his fingers, drawing a groan of protest from Erik.

“Wait.” Charles lines up his cock, guiding himself in carefully while Erik clutches at the sheets, breathing like an overworked horse. “Oh God, Erik, love you so much--”

“Charles,” Erik huffs out, grabbing Charles’s slicked hand and guiding it to the heavy appendage between his legs, and Charles plants a sloppy kiss on Erik’s ear as he begins stroking in earnest, trying to keep in time with his thrusts into Erik’s wickedly tight body.

Erik turns his head, mouth already searching for Charles’s, and the kiss is sloppy and awkward at this angle, not that either of them cares. Charles fucks Erik’s mouth with the same staccato rhythm he’s fucking Erik’s body, hand wrapped around Erik’s stiff, beautifully cut cock, stroking him hard and fast just the way he likes it. And Erik does, judging from the low, keening noises rolling out of him, but that could also be from the way Charles’s cock is pounding slowly into him, stretching him. It is unspeakably beautiful to watch Erik unravelling under him like this, and Charles slides the fingers of his other hand into Erik’s noisy mouth, muffling his moans. He feels like a man possessed, and ironically this means he has to possess every inch of Erik, to be inside him in every way conceivable. And right now, with his cock inside Erik and his fingers in Erik’s mouth, slick and warm from the way Erik is sucking on them, Charles feels like he could spontaneously combust from lust and love alone.

Erik suddenly jerks upwards with a cry, and Charles’s hand is slick with come. He uses the extra lubrication to continue stroking Erik off, and now his body is heavy, pliant. Charles bites down on the crook of Erik’s neck and shoulder, sucking hard and thrusting a few more times before he tumbles off the edge, pushing his face up and moaning Erik’s name into his sweaty hair. He doesn’t pull out immediately though, and he sees it as an encouragement to remain inside Erik as he takes Charles’s hand, lacing their fingers together.

***

Emma usually leaves around five, five-thirty if any of the kids require extra attention, so Charles is surprised to see her car still in the driveway when the clock chimes at six. He finds her sitting in the garden, dabbing at her reddened eyes. She seems embarrassed for him to have caught her crying, but he won’t let her hide that easily. “What’s wrong, my dear?”

“It’s just--” She wipes fresh tears from her eyes. “Sebastian promised me he would take me out tonight, and now he has to work. It’s always work with him.”

“Ah.” Charles doesn’t know what to say, so he wraps a consoling arm around her, rubbing her back. “I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how disappointed you must be.”

“He keeps doing this, and I keep letting him.” Emma blows her nose, crumpling the Kleenex into a tight ball which she keeps in her fist. “I keep believing him when he says he’ll make an effort next time. I thought it would be different today, since it’s my birthday and all.”

“It’s your birthday?” Charles feels both sympathetic and guilty, even though this isn’t his fault. “Oh Emma, happy birthday.”

They hug for a while, and for a moment she offers him a wan smile, but at least it seems genuine. “Thank you.”

“Emma, now you’ll have to stay for dinner,” Charles says determinedly, patting her knee. “I’ll send someone out for a cake, Mrs R can prepare something a little more special--”

“Oh no, sugar.” Emma is shaking her head with a frown. “Please don’t go to all that trouble for me. I’d love to stay for dinner, though.”

“Great!” Charles is beaming as he helps her up. “And don’t worry, it is no trouble at all.”

***

It is amazing what the kids can do when they’re united, and they must have liked Emma very much to bother gathering all the last-minute decorations they can find. Charles sends Erik a text to ride out to town on his Ducati and get a cake for Emma, and he’s grateful when Erik immediately replies, I’m on it even though he knows Erik has never really warmed up to Emma. Charles can hear the roar of his motorcycle pulling into the driveway by the time dinner is ready, and he makes his mind up to thank Erik properly – and agonizingly slowly – in bed later.

The cake Erik had managed to get is a lovely chocolate babka, and Emma seems to love it, giving Erik a wet kiss on the cheek and making him turn red, amidst the cheers and catcalls of the boys. She blows out her candles with a smile, a marked improvement from the despondent woman Charles had seen earlier in the garden, and no one mentions it when she ignores the buzzing of her Blackberry all evening. Sean is telling them the story of how one of his brothers tried to bake him a cake once and almost set the kitchen on fire, and this leads Erik to proclaim a lifelong ban on all Cassidys from the kitchen, which Alex and Raven support whole-heartedly, making Angel giggle.

Just as they’ve finished the cake and are about to clear the plates, Darwin and Hank stand up and present Emma with a gift: a bouquet of an assortment of flowers from the garden. Emma takes it tearfully, hugging the two boys and of course the rest of the kids join in and Charles stands at the head of the table, smiling proudly as he takes in this scene, unbearably proud of the children and how they’ve rallied together, and when he meets Erik’s gaze at the other end of the table, he wonders if it is possible to be this ridiculously happy.

Chapter Text

twenty four


When Charles steps out of the shower, he's surprised when he checks his phone and sees that there are six missed calls from Moira. He's making a mental note to call her back when the phone buzzes again in his hand, startling him and making him drop both the phone and his towel. He paws at the phone quickly, pressing the 'Answer' button and worried out of his mind that it could be something about the kids. "Moira?"

"Charles!" Thankfully, she sounds ecstatic. "I found him!"

"Who?"

"I found Scott Summers!"

Charles sucks in a deep breath, then breaks into the widest, most relieved grin ever. "Oh, God bless you, Moira."

"Don't thank me, thank the DSS," Moira says, the smile evident in her voice. "How fast can you make it over to the head office?"

"As soon as I can find some clothes."

There is a long pause, then, "Charles Xavier, do you mean to tell me you're talking to me while you're naked?" An even longer pause, and now she sounds slightly panicked. "Oh no, I didn't interrupt anything, did I? Erik wants to kill me again, doesn't he?"

"What?" Charles is laughing as he scrambles for his fallen towel. "No, no, I'm just out of the shower. Anyway, I'm on my way, let me just tell Raven and Erik."

"Okay, see you later at my office."

***

It had been hard for Charles to keep to the speed limit all the way to the city, but he had mostly succeeded. In retrospect, it had been even harder to convince an excited Raven to keep the news from an unsuspecting Alex for now. Thankfully the kids had been in the middle of their lessons with Emma, so Erik had promised to keep an eye on everything else. "Call if you need anything," he had told Charles, the biggest grin on his face, and Charles had to forcibly stop himself from leaning in and kissing him silly in front of the entire household.

At the Department of Social Services, it feels a little odd that he has to stop at the security counter and sign out for a visitor pass, and he nods hello to some familiar faces. Normally he would have loved to stay and chat with some of them, but the pressing reminder that Scott is only a few floors up hurries him along.

When Charles steps into Moira's office and finally meets the boy for the first time, his first thought is how different Scott is from his brother. Scott is around twelve or thirteen, and his hair is dark, almost darker than Moira's, his eyes hidden behind the thickest pair of glasses Charles has ever seen. Where Alex's features are narrow and compact, Scott's are softer and rounder, but both brothers have the same sharp jawline, the same wary fight-or-flight expression in unfamiliar territory.

"Scott," Moira says to the boy gently. "This is Charles, the man I told you about whom Alex is staying with."

Scott looks at Charles's outstretched hand, then shakes it a lot more readily than Alex did when he had first met Charles. "Hello Scott, I'm Charles Xavier," he says, squatting down so that he's eye-level with the boy. "I'll bet you're looking forward to seeing Alex again, my friend."

Scott's steady gaze does not flinch, but there's a tiny lift of the corner of his mouth in a crooked one-sided smile, which reminds Charles of the way Alex smiles at Sean's and Darwin's antics sometimes. "Yeah, I am."

Charles beams. "Come on Moira, are you ready to leave?"

"I was ready yesterday," Moira says with a grin, and Charles signs the necessary papers before herding Moira and Scott downstairs to his car, and back to Westchester.

***

When they finally pull into the driveway, Charles is surprised to see that no one is waiting for them. He had expected Raven, or Erik, at least, who always helps with the luggage of the new arrivals. Mystified, he takes out Scott's luggage himself and helps Moira out of the car while Scott gapes at the enormity of the mansion. "This is all yours?" he asks, as though he can't quite believe his luck.

"No, this is ours," Charles says with a grin, jerking his head towards the front door. "Come on and meet the rest. I have no idea where the devil they are, but we'll find out soon enough."

There is no one waiting inside the house as well, but Charles can smell the aroma of ham wafting from the general area of the kitchen. More curious than ever, he and Moira bring Scott upstairs to the room beside Alex's. At least Raven had enough time to air the windows and change the linen, and Charles can see that Erik had brought in a desk and a lamp, as well as the carving of a wooden submarine that Erik had been working on in his spare time.

Scott's eyes are large and huge behind his glasses. "Is this the room I'll be sharing with Alex?" he asks.

"Oh no, this is entirely yours," Moira says with a smile as she ruffles his hair. "Alex is right next door though, isn't that right, Charles?"

Charles nods, pleased at the barely-disguised delight on Scott's face. "And I'm not far off either, if you need anything. Now I have to say, where on earth is everyone?"

He leaves Moira with Scott so the boy can unpack, and in the kitchen, he finds Mrs Rodriguez fussing over a smorgasbord of food. "Hello, Mrs R! Where's everyone else?" he asks as he dips a finger into a bowl of guacamole to taste it.

"They are outside, preparing for the picnic," she explains, pointing out of the kitchen window. From here, Charles can see the main courtyard, and the flurry of activity as everyone is scrambling to prepare for Scott's arrival. He doubts Raven has spilled the secret, so the children probably have no idea who the new addition is. Still, everyone looks excited: Darwin is supervising the hanging of little lights in the trees, and Sean is perched on one of the branches, concentrating on his task while Alex yells at him to hang it higher. Erik and Hank are dragging together various mismatched tables to make a long communal table, while Raven and Angel are chatting excitedly and cutting decorations.

Charles just allows himself to take in the moment, a warm glow spreading throughout his chest.

***

After Scott has unpacked and taken a shower, Charles brings him down for dinner, but Moira looks confused when they walk past the dining room, which is empty. "Where is everybody?" she asks, but Charles only smiles as he brings them outside to the main courtyard. There, everyone is helping to arrange the food, and there is a glorious golden roasted ham as a centrepiece. Raven spots Charles first, and she practically squeals when she sees Scott.

"Everyone, our new guest is here!" she shouts, and everyone cheers loudly, but when Alex spots Scott standing tentatively beside Charles, the welcoming smile slides right off his face.

Everyone watches as Alex puts down the dish of potato salad he is holding and edges forward, his lower lip trembling. "Scotty?" His voice is broken, full of disbelief as he stares at Charles as though for confirmation, and Charles only nods, too moved to say anything else.

"Alex," Scott bursts out, and the two brothers are stumbling towards each other and into a rough, clumsy hug, and Moira is wiping at her eyes and Raven's hands are clasped over her mouth, her eyes filled with tears. Darwin is the first to get it, his mouth an open 'O' of realisation as he tells the others, "Jesus, that's Alex's brother," and the other teenagers look both surprised and happy. Erik is just standing there with his arms folded, his smile wider than Charles has ever seen, his expression fondly paternal as he watches the two boys.

"Come on." Charles's voice is a little husky as he squeezes both Alex's and Scott's shoulder. "Plenty of time to catch up over dinner, boys."

Now that it is getting darker, the impromptu picnic looks a little more magical as Hank switches on the little lights hanging in the trees and Angel lights a few more candles. Sean has brought his portable speakers out, and music is playing softly in the background, something quiet and soothing, reminding Charles of the night he and Erik had first kissed. He catches Erik's gaze at this point and they share a little secretive smile as Erik passes the ham over to him.

Scott is squashed between Alex and Darwin, rather awed and completely entranced as the kids are competing to tell him embarrassing stories about his brother, and Alex is threatening everyone ineffectively while Sean almost falls out of his seat with laughter. Charles, rather tired from his long drive, just lets the excited chatter wash over him while Moira keeps an eye on Scott, and he's sipping his wine when he feels something brush against his leg, and he looks up to see Erik smiling at him as though he is the most wondrous thing.

"What?" Charles asks, a little confused, and Erik's smile just grows wider.

"You're a good man," Erik says, and when he turns away as Moira asks Erik a question, Charles allows himself to feel light-headed for the rest of the evening.

***

When dinner is over, Raven brings the rest of the kids upstairs so everyone can get further acquainted with Scott, not that Alex is letting him wander away from his side even for a second, understandably. Charles, Moira and Erik end up finishing the rest of the wine, laughing and chatting until the candles start to flicker out. However, Hank has left the lights hanging in the trees, and Charles is enjoying the serene atmosphere.

"I'd better go upstairs and check to see Scott isn't feeling too smothered," Moira says at one point, but she gives Charles a meaningful glance behind Erik's back before she leaves, and he hopes he isn't flushing, although the heat in his face tells him otherwise.

Now it is just him and Erik, sitting side by side at the picnic table. Erik is looking at him with an inscrutable expression, a little half-smile on his face as his gaze rakes over Charles.

"It's not polite to stare," Charles reminds him with a smirk, not that he minds because it is very clear that Erik is undressing him with his eyes.

"It's also not polite to look at me all evening as though you want to sweep all the plates off the table and jump on me right here," Erik says, laughing as Charles scoots closer to smack him on the arm.

"I wanted to do no such thing." Charles is a terrible liar, really. "I'm not about to destroy my mother's china just for lo-- I mean, for sex."

They both fall silent, because it's no secret that Charles has repeatedly told Erik how he feels, and so far Erik has still kept all his cards close to the chest. However, now, Charles is studying his face, and Erik's eyes are like an open book. Charles lets his thumb rub at the crinkles at the corner of those eyes, wanting to say so much but still holding it in. What are you so afraid of, my friend? Even if you don't love me, just tell me everything.


"Charles." Erik is leaning in, pressing his cheek against Charles's touch like a cat. "Charles, I--"

"Yes." It is more an exhalation of breath than a word, and it is so quiet, so still. Charles can only hear the sounds of their breathing, and the evening chirping of the crickets echoing throughout the night.

But Erik doesn't complete his sentence, and he shuts his eyes, still pressing Charles's hand to his face. His troubled expression speaks of some internal battle that makes Charles both frustrated and sad, but he knows he can't rush Erik or force him to say something he isn't ready to say. It hurts, of course, but the fact that Erik shows no signs of leaving is sufficient, for now. At least Charles and the kids mean something to him.

Or maybe it is just the kids.

 


twenty five.

Scott takes a few days to settle in and get used to the idea that he is living in the same house with his brother again, and Emma readily agrees to plan a new eighth grade curriculum for him. The other kids accept him just as easily, although Charles wonders if Scott is slightly defensive and envious of the easy relationship Alex has with Darwin and Sean. As a result, Charles suggests more group activities so that Scott wouldn't feel left out, and that is how they came up with Prison Movie Night, where they're all in the rec room, lounging on the couch and beanbags and watching The Shawshank Redemption.

"That's gotta hurt," Alex says with a wince as one of the guards on the screen whacks a prisoner in the face. Scott flinches but doesn't look away, while Angel and Darwin are on the edge of their seats. Hank is back in the lab, having promised to join them an hour ago, and Raven is getting up to go and fetch him.

Charles is sitting on the chaise longue at the back of the room, only half an eye on the movie while his mind runs over his tasks for the following week. Emma needs to meet him and go over what she has planned for Scott, and Hank has already agreed to teach him physics and chemistry to help take some of the load off Emma's shoulders. Charles also makes a mental note to take Scott shopping for new clothes – some of his shirts are so threadbare, and his sole pair of shoes have holes in them, the poor chap.

He is so lost in thought that he's startled when Erik slumps into the chaise longue beside him, clearly exhausted after a day of working and arguing with the pool subcontractor. Charles rubs his shoulders at an attempt at consolation, and Erik offers him a wan smile before stretching out to watch the movie. Charles closes his eyes for just a while, feeling lulled by the warmth of Erik's body pressed against his.

When he blearily opens his eyes later, he realises that the movie seems to have ended, and all the children are turned around and staring at him, Raven looking especially amused. "What?" he asks, and it's only then that he is aware of the heavy weight of Erik slumped against him, his head resting on Charles's shoulder, their hands twined together. "Oh."

Sean is the first to break into a grin, nudging a slack-jawed Darwin. "See, I told ya, I told ya! And you said I was crazy."

"You serious, Prof?" Alex says, but he doesn't look too shocked, only curious.

"Um." It is difficult for Charles to think of an answer when Erik stirs, then burrows against Charles even more, his arms possessively trapping Charles in the chaise longue. Everyone's eyebrows jump up at this except Raven's, because she is simply smirking at him.

"It's kinda sweet, actually," Angel says, resting her chin on her fist. "I was wondering why he stayed, because back then he told me he had a job waiting for him in Philly."

"I'm sure he stayed because of all of you," Charles says immediately. "He's grown very attached to you lot, you know."

"Sure, and I'm Jabba the Hutt," Alex says with a snort, despite Scott's uncomprehending expression. "Everything makes so much sense now, man."

"How long have you known?" Darwin shoots Raven a mock accusatory glare, while she holds up her hands in a don't-look-at-me gesture.

"So all of you are..all right?" Charles tentatively asks, and the resulting nods and hearty shouts of 'yessss' make him wonder why he's ever tried to hide it from them.

***

Apparently news travels fast, because the next time he sees Emma, she shoots him a toothy grin. "I thought I was imagining things, you know. You and Lehnsherr."

"My God." Charles palms his face. "Which of the brats told you?"

"You mean which of them didn't," she says with a roll of her eyes. "Sean looked quite disappointed that Hank and Darwin had already gotten to me first. But they're excited. And happy for you." Now Emma looks thoughtful as she gathers her things, packing up for the day. "You and Lehnsherr work well together. And you're always doing this thing--"

"What thing?" Charles doesn't really want to talk so much about Erik with someone else, not when things are so tentative between them still.

"Oh, you know, that secret language you two have," Emma says with a wave of her hand. "You two could have an entire conversation without words. It's quite obvious, really."

"Erm, all right." They both fall silent at the approaching sound of Erik's heavy footsteps, and when he comes into the room, his smile falters when he sees Emma. They exchange a civil nod, which is the best that Charles could ask for, for now.

Fortunately, a car horn outside breaks the tension. "Oh Charles, would you like to meet Sebastian?" Emma says, not waiting for his answer as she takes him by the hand and leads him outdoors to the driveway. A beautiful black Rolls Royce is waiting outside, a uniformed driver stepping out and opening the door, letting a tall man with long sideburns step out of the car.

Charles vaguely recognises him from the society pages and a few fundraisers, but Sebastian Shaw is still rather intimidating in the flesh. A hearty grin is fixed on his face as he extends his hand in a handshake to Charles. "Ah, Mr Xavier! Emma has told me so much about you, and so has Burt."

"A pleasure to meet you," Charles says politely, even as he is wondering how it's possible that Shaw has already spoken to Charles's old boss about him. "Would you like to come in?"

Frankly, Charles would rather invite a tankful of crocodiles and snakes into his house, but he has to be polite here. Unfortunately, Shaw accepts his invitation. "Don't mind if I do, I would love to see where my dear Emma works."

They walk in and head for the main study, where Charles pours Shaw a snifter of brandy while Emma refuses anything to drink. Shaw makes a deliberate show of sniffing the brandy appreciatively, while Charles tries to keep the smile firmly fixed on his face. They talk about people they mutually know in the DSS, and Shaw is simply very pleasant, very polite. Still, Charles can't help but suspect something is up.

Thankfully, once Shaw has finished the brandy, he refuses a refill. "I should get going, I promised Emma I'd take her out to dinner," he says, glancing meaningfully at Charles. "I wouldn't want to break my promise again, would I? Then you'd have to take over again, Xavier! Can't let that happen too often, can we?"

Finally understanding, Charles fights to keep an impassive expression on his face, but it's all too obvious why Shaw is being so deliberate and polite with him. Apparently, Shaw seems to hold some sort of grudge against Charles for outdoing him when it came to Emma's birthday. Still, it isn't as though that was Charles's fault. "I'm sure Emma fully understood you couldn't be with her because of work."

"Of course I understand." However, Shaw doesn't look like he understands at all, and Charles thinks he sees a glint of menace in his eyes. Then Shaw turns away, looking around the study. "Before I go, could I use the facilities?"

"Definitely. It's further down the corridor, then turn left," Charles directs him, and Shaw nods before whistling as he heads down to the restroom.

Emma looks distinctively uncomfortable, wringing her hands in distress. "I'm so sorry Charles, I didn't know he was still hung up on the birthday thing."

"It's all right, my dear," he says soothingly, before he hears footsteps outside. "I'll be right back."

He almost bumps into Erik in the corridor outside, and Erik looks triumphant. "Charles, you have to come and see the pool. We've finally found the reason why the water was so green."

"That's fantastic, I will be down in just a minute," Charles says, keeping an eye over Erik's shoulder for Shaw.

"What's wrong?" Erik asks, his brow furrowed in concern. "You look...worried."

"I'm just--" Charles shakes his head. "It's fine, Erik, I'll explain later."

"Is it about that day at the picnic?" Erik says in a low voice. "We can talk about that--"

"Not now, Erik." Charles is sure that his face is flushed as he grips Erik's hand urgently. "I promise, we'll talk later, but just not now."

Erik doesn't seem convinced, but he nods anyway. "Okay." Then he bends down and kisses Charles intently, and when he pulls away, Charles half-expects to see Shaw standing there and watching the two of them.

Thankfully, no one is there.

Erik has left by the time Shaw is out of the restroom, and Charles is showing him and Emma out to the driveway again, trying not to make it look like he's hurrying them along. He almost breathes a sigh of relief as Emma climbs into the car, and Shaw is about to get in when his head pops out again.

"Say, Xavier, who was that gentleman with you in the corridor?"

Charles's skin prickles with fear and caution, and he fights to keep his voice steady. He didn't think Shaw had seen Erik at all. "Just the handyman. Why do you ask?"

"Nothing," Shaw says, looking perfectly innocent. "I thought I had a headcount of all the adults in the house. He wasn't in it." Now his smile bears the full brunt of the menace that Charles had glimpsed earlier. "Can't be too careful in a house full of minors, can we?"

"No," Charles says, his shoulders slumped in defeat, his heart sinking with dread. A headcount from Burt can only mean that Shaw had been checking up on him prior to coming here.

"Take care of your little house, Xavier," Shaw calls out cheerfully before closing the door, and as the car gets smaller and smaller in the horizon, Charles's heart gets heavier and heavier.

Chapter Text

It's not that he doesn't love Charles. He does, probably more than he's ever loved anyone, and sometimes it keeps him up at night, watching Charles sleep beside him and tamping down the very real fear that Charles will find out things about Erik and his past, things that will make Charles change his mind. And Erik can't leave now, not when he's grown so fond of these brats and he wants to watch them grow up, wants to guide them away from the mistakes he made as a youth and even if he can't, he at least wants to thwap them gently on the back of the head and set them on the right path again.

For a long time, Erik had been on his own, never staying in one place for long. He had found it easier to be alone and not be held accountable for anyone else and their actions. The job in Philadelphia had been meant to be his new start, his clean slate. He had been passing by Westchester, that's all, taking a short break and earning some quick cash doing short handyman gigs before riding on to Philadelphia.

And then, Charles Xavier. Charles, Charles, Charles.

He came so close to telling Charles how he feels that night at the picnic table when the Summers boy first arrived. And he had failed to go through with it, even though they had not been interrupted by anyone. He could sense Charles's disappointment; he has never held back on telling Erik how he feels, and every time he says it, Erik doesn't think it's possible but he falls a little deeper. Charles accepts him unconditionally, scars and all, and maybe it's time Erik accepts himself as well.

He has just come back from a morning run when he sees Emma sitting in her car, in the driveway. She gets out when she sees him, and he only nods at her in greeting. They've never really gotten along, and all pleasantries he's given her way are all for Charles's sake. He's about to sidestep her when he hears her say, "Wait," and her voice sounds desperate and frightened.

"What is it?" he asks, turning to face her. The harried look on her face strikes a chord of dread deep in the pit of his stomach.

"Erik, I know you must think I'm crazy," she says, hugging herself and avoiding his gaze. "But there are things I must tell you, and you must not tell anyone else, especially Charles."

Scorn tugs down the corners of his mouth. "I promise nothing." Who is this woman, to ask him to put his loyalty to Charles above hers?

Now her eyes finally meets his, and he can see that she's been crying. "Not even if he's in danger of losing the children?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Erik snaps out of impatience, and as much as he hates to admit it, fear.

Emma is now shaking her head. "I really shouldn't be telling you this. But I have to, because I know Charles loves the children so much." Here, she bites her lip and Erik has to forcibly restrain himself from stepping forward and shaking the truth out of her. "Charles is going to be investigated by the Child Protective Services very soon."

Erik stares at Emma in disbelief. "Why? He's the best damn thing that's ever happened to them."

"Because of you." Emma's voice is a little shaky as she pinches the bridge of her nose.

Erik's mouth is open to ask why again, but even without Emma filing in the blanks for him, he already knows. He has a prison record, and his history with drugs only makes things look worse. He isn't sure how the foster care system in the States works, but if it's anything like it is in Germany, he suspects Charles may be in trouble for failing to declare Erik's presence in a house full of minors.

The anger leaves Erik like a deflated balloon, and he runs a hand through his hair, staring at the gravel on the driveway. "What do we do now?"

Emma checks her watch. "I know CPS will be investigating Charles very soon, within 24 hours at the most. They will come and ask questions, talk to the children, talk to you." A wretched sigh from her makes Erik believe she hates this almost as much as he does. "When they interview you and run background checks and find you're truly rehabilitated, the charges of neglect may be dropped. At least, that's the best case scenario I'm hoping for."

"This is ridiculous," Erik is unable to stop himself from snapping at her. "Charles frequently puts the children's welfare above his own, and I've never laid a finger on them."

"That's not the point," Emma says wearily. "The point is that the nature of your relationship with Charles will be questioned, and why he didn't include you in the headcount. It's going to be supremely messy and may drag on for a long time, and the children may get taken away temporarily--"

"What if I leave?" Erik asks, so quietly that he isn't sure if Emma has heard him. But judging from the thoughtful look on her face, it has not escaped her.

"It would be easier," she admits, after a long contemplative silence. "Then we can all stick to the story about you just being a temporary worker, and you left once your contract is up, which is why Charles didn't think it was necessary to declare your presence."

"All right." Erik nods, more to reassure himself than anything else. "Then I'll leave."

He is about to walk away when her hand catches his elbow. "Are you going to tell Charles?"

"No," Erik says shortly. "And you shouldn't either. Because if he knows the real reason I left, he'll try to find me or keep in contact, and then CPS will find out."

Emma's face looks stricken, but she nods reluctantly. "You are right. Charles's face is an open book, they'll know."

"Right." Erik gently shakes his arm out of her grip. "You leave Charles to me." As he walks away, trying to swallow the lump burning in his throat, he remembers to turn and look at Emma. "I...thank you."

Her tired, wan smile tells him that he may have been wrong about her all along.

 


twenty six.

Charles doesn't tell anyone else, but he spends the next few days trying not to be worried out of his mind. Shaw's visit had been ominous, and Charles can't quite shake the feeling that they have not seen the last of him. Emma has also become quiet and withdrawn over the next few days, and Charles wonders if it's just his paranoia or merely his intuition telling him that something is wrong.

Normally he would have liked to seek Erik out for a chess game, a quiet chat or even a long, slow quiet session of lovemaking where Erik drags the length of his body against Charles's to drive him crazy with want. But Erik is quiet and distant, barely able to focus on their game and, even more stunningly, retiring to his own room at the end of the night, not even looking Charles in the eye when he says good night. Charles lies in bed tossing and turning, running a hand over the right side of the bed where Erik normally sleeps, wondering when his life had taken such a turn for the worse.

After a sleepless night, Charles decides to walk over and knock cautiously on Erik's door just after dawn, determined to talk things out. When he pushes the door open, nothing can prepare him for the sight of Erik stuffing his clothes into the bag that he had brought when he first came to the mansion, his hair already slicked back. Erik looks freshly shaved, and he's wearing his leather riding jacket.

He looks ready to leave.

"Erik?" Charles barely hears the hitch in his own voice as he steps into the room, his hand shaking as he pushes the door open further. "What are you doing?"

Erik refuses to look at him, his eyes fixed on his bag as he stuffs in more clothes. "I've decided to take that job in Philadelphia."

"What?" Charles doesn't even know how to begin processing this. "But you said--"

"I didn't promise you anything, Charles." Erik's mouth is twisted in a bitter, sad grimace. "And I already signed the contract with them, so."

Charles leans back against the dresser. "And the children--"

"They'll understand. They're yours." Charles thinks he sees a flicker of something sad and sorrowful cross Erik's face, but he must have been mistaken because it is now an indifferent mask again. "They won't miss me."

What about me, then? But Charles doesn't ask, because it'll only make him sound like a petulant five-year-old, and he's beginning to suspect he might have misread Erik all along. Maybe this is why when he's told Erik about his feelings all those times, Erik has never really reciprocated.

Instead he watches Erik pack, and when he is done, he looks around the room for a final check of anything he may have forgotten, but the room is as bare as the day he first arrived. He still avoids Charles's gaze, picking up his bag and hitching it onto his shoulders before he picks up his helmet.

They walk in silence, heading out to the garage where Erik's motorcycle is waiting. Charles is still too much in shock to process everything properly, and the only thing he can think about is that dead, sinking feeling in his chest that makes him feel like he's drowning. But he says nothing, stuffing his hands into his pockets so that Erik can't see that they're shaking badly.

"Will we see you again?" Charles asks, and this is his only refuge, really. Polite questions that mask the important ones he really wants to ask, like how Erik can do this to him and the children, and why he doesn't seem to care.

"I don't know," Erik says, and this time when he does look at Charles, he can see a glimmer of something, the same emotion he had glimpsed when they were at the picnic tables and he had Erik's face in his hands. "Yom Kippur is coming soon, and I promised my father I would spend it with him."

"So you're going back to Germany before you start the job." Charles feels like his words are coming from someone else, someone further away who sounds calm and dignified like his heart isn't breaking.

"I am," he says. "Thank you for....everything, Charles." Erik is staring down at the helmet in his hands like he doesn't know what to do with it, and he doesn't look at Charles again as he straps it on, then wheels his Ducati out of the garage. Charles follows, even though he knows he should turn and walk away so he doesn't have to watch Erik leave.

They're standing at the exact same place where Erik had first asked Charles to hop onto his bike for a ride around the grounds, but the only difference is that now Erik isn't asking Charles to come to him, he's the one walking away. Erik slings his bag into the bike box, then straddles the Ducati and starts the engine, letting it roar into life.

Just as Charles thinks he is about to ride away, Erik kills the engine and climbs off, whipping off the helmet and stalking over to Charles. Before he can say anything Erik is claiming his mouth in a desperate, fumbling kiss, and Charles, damn him, Charles should know better and push him away and let him leave, but Charles is kissing back, desperate, his hands fisting in Erik's leather jacket. Stay, stay, stay here with me and never leave.

Then Erik wrenches his mouth away and stalks back to his waiting bike, clumsily shoving his helmet back on and starting the engine again, and when he rides off down the driveway, Charles lifts his fingers to his mouth, still too mindful of the ghost of Erik's breath on his lips, and when it all fully sinks in, he punches the door of the garage so hard that his hand is ringing, bright with fresh, searing pain, and so are his eyes.

***

It is Moira who warns him, who confirms all his suspicions about Sebastian Shaw's motives. She texts him to let him know that the Child Protective Services are coming to investigate, and judging from the way her message is badly spelled, Charles wonders if she had been texting with her phone hidden in her pocket. It is yet another blow that he is not prepared to deal with, not with Erik having left the day before, and the dismayed, shocked reactions of the children once they found out. Charles had wanted to lie to them, to promise that Erik will be back, but really, he wonders if the lie is for them, or for himself.

Sure enough, he spots the two black cars pulling into his driveway a few hours later. A very pale and harassed Burt and Moira are in one car, while the other is filled with people he doesn't recognise, getting out of the car and squinting up at the mansion. However, Charles does recognise the main investigator, a tall Hispanic man with longish hair and pensive eyes. He's heard of Janos Quested, of course, one of Shaw's trusted lackeys with a long history in CPS.

When he opens the door, Janos is already standing there, a folder under his arm and he nods respectfully at Charles. "Mr Xavier, my name is Janos Quested. And these are my associates, Ally Leavitt and Ralph Greene." He shows him some ID, even though it's just for official purposes. Behind Janos and his team, Charles can see the worried faces of Moira and Burt trying to peer over at him. "We are here because we are investing a charge of child negligence, filed by a concerned party."

"What charge is this?" Charles asks. He's familiar with the whole song and dance, of course, and he knows his rights. He's already called up his family's solicitor, who advised him to record everything and co-operate with CPS as much as he is legally obligated to.

Janos takes the folder from under his arm and flips it open. "It is to our knowledge that you have five minors here under your care, as well as your stepsister and a Mr Henry McCoy, previously your ward who has just turned eighteen? Is he still living here?"

"That's right." Charles knows he can deny them entry, but he wonders if it is a good idea. It will just make him look like he has something to hide.

"The concerned party came to discover that there is an undeclared guardian living in the house with the minors? A Mr. Erik Lehnsherr?" Janos is now putting away the folder. "We wish to speak with him, please."

"He is no longer here," Charles says flatly, despite Janos's frown and Moira's look of open-mouthed shock. "He was a temporary worker, but once his contract is over, he left."

Janos turns to speak to his associates in a hushed voice, and the three of them are nodding in agreement before Janos turns back to face Charles. "Can we enter the premises and speak to the children?"

Charles considers fighting this, especially since he knows his rights and what he can or cannot do, but he's exhausted and desperately raw from missing Erik, and he just wants to get this over and done with, and while he feels a stab of anger in Shaw's general direction, his innate sense of fairness knows Shaw has a right to be concerned about minors living under the influence of an ex-con, even if Erik has never even harmed a hair on any of the children's heads. "Let's just get it over with," he says tiredly, and when the CPS agents enter his house, Moira is finally able to step in and wrap her arms around him in a hug, and he allows himself some comfort for the first time in days.

Chapter Text

twenty seven.

 

Moira is talking, but Charles is barely paying attention to half of what she's saying. It's not her fault, and he knows that he should be grateful to her and Burt for all they've done today. They're sitting in his study, sharing a pot of tea while she updates him on the case. She seems to have suffered just as much as he has, the bags under her eyes so dark and sunken that they look like giant bruises, and he wants to make her sleep for a thousand years. She definitely looks like she needs the rest, and so does he.

"Anyway, don't worry about it, it's almost over." Moira is now patting his hand, and that jerks him to attention, at least. Her hand is slim and tiny – no long, elegant, work-roughened fingers there - but still soothing. "Janos and his team has interviewed everyone except for Angel, and I doubt she will say anything the other kids already haven't. Scott is the main concern, of course, but I heard his interview went well so you don't have to worry."

"All right." Charles runs a hand through his hair. Something in his expression must have touched her because she is now pulling him in for a hug.

"Oh Charles, I'm so sorry. You don't deserve any of this."

"Please, Moira dear, none of this was your fault." And it isn't. It's his for not following protocol. It really is as simple as that, but he doesn't know why the mistake feels like it has swallowed him whole and cost him so dearly.

She pulls away, her face hidden behind a curtain of auburn hair as she discreetly wipes at her eyes, and Charles massages her hands, trying so hard to offer her the comfort he himself so desperately craves.

"Mr. Xavier."

It is Janos's clear, soft-spoken voice, but Charles would be a fool not to hear the underlying steel in it. "Yes, Mr. Quested?" He looks up at the doorway, which is crowded with the CPS agents.

Janos steps into the study without hesitation, while his other two colleagues hover outside in the corridor. "We have concluded our first round of interviews for today, and will be going back to headquarters to report on what we saw." He tips his head in acknowledgement. "Thank you for your cooperation today."

"I cooperated because I have nothing to hide." Charles lifts his head, staring directly at him. It's the truth, after all.

Janos only nods, looking not at all surprised. "However, we will need to come back at some point next week and speak to Scott and Angel at greater length."

"Are they all right?" Charles is more worried than anything else, especially since Scott had only recently settled in before the whole mess with Shaw happened, and Angel had taken Erik's sudden departure rather badly.

"They're fine." Janos fishes out a slim Moleskine notebook from inside his suit, looking through his notes. "We'll see you soon, Mr. Xavier." Janos nods at Moira, who gets up reluctantly, giving Charles's shoulder one last squeeze.

After they leave, Charles buries his head in his hands, fighting back the heat burning behind his eyes.


***

This entire week, sleep is an elusive old friend that doesn't want to be found. In bed he finds himself staring up at the ceiling, wondering what else will get taken from him. All he knows about the ongoing investigation is that all of the children were interviewed extensively about life at the mansion, along with Hank, Raven and even Mrs Rodriguez, who Charles heard was more than happy to whip out proof of her citizenship before proceeding to scold Janos in rapid-fire Spanish, presumably over why they are investigating Charles. He had smiled a little when Moira first told him the story, but it hadn't lasted long.

The children have helped greatly, of course. They had come to hug him as soon as the CPS agents had left, reassuring him that they hadn't said anything about Erik or his past and promising they will be on their best behaviour. "Why is this happening?" Sean had asked, truly bewildered, and for once Charles had not had an answer for him. He had tried his best to keep a smile on, telling them everything would be all right, but of course they were old enough not to believe him. The pinched look on Raven's face had told him the same, but at least she had shepherded them all off to bed so Charles could have some rest.

Since then, the children have troublingly been quiet, muted versions of themselves. Darwin, the de facto ringleader, keeps hanging around Charles, asking if he needs help with anything, trying his best to keep everyone's spirits in good cheer. Hank - although he is old enough to leave the mansion if he wants - sticks saliently by Charles's side, reading up as much as he can about child protection laws in New York and discussing everything he has learned with a worried Raven. Sean's headphones are a permanent fixture on his ears now, blocking out the world, and Charles had caught him sitting at his room window, plugged in to the turntable as the boy stares at the silhouette of the satellite dish in the distance.

Alex has a haunted look in his eyes, his jaw tightly clenched, his entire expression screaming, I'm not going back to being on my own again. Understandably he doesn't ever let Scott out of his sight, and Scott is more than happy to comply, sticking to Alex or at least any one of the older boys wherever he goes. However, Angel is the most worrying one, back to how she was when she first came to the mansion, locking herself in her room and refusing to come out for meals. If it weren't for Raven bringing food up to her and leaving it outside her door (and the plates coming back at least half-eaten) Charles would have been worried.

Maybe she misses Erik as much as he does. He doubts that, though.

Erik's departure is still a raw wound, one that Charles doesn't dare to examine too closely for fear of making it bleed all over again. The worst part is that it still bleeds no matter what he does, how he tries to put the pain out of his mind. The mind is easily deceived, but the heart never is, and Charles carries the pain even as he is going over Sean's homework, paying the electricity bills or talking on the phone to Moira and Burt. Erik's absence is a black, gaping hole in the mansion, in the children's lives, in Charles's bed.

Charles turns over on his side, fighting away the image of those green eyes crinkling at the corners, the phantom hand cupping his cheek.

 


twenty eight.


"Hello, Mr. Xavier, it's Janos Quested here from CPS."

Charles's grip tightens on the phone. "Yes, what can I do for you?" He's amazed at how impossibly polite his voice is, even though he knows Janos is just doing his job.

"We're coming back this week, as you know. Also, I thought you should know that for the purposes of the investigation, it would be better for us to directly contact Mr. Erik Lehnsherr as he is the main point of concern."

"You can try and contact him if you like. I think he might have gone back to Germany to visit family." There is a tight twist in Charles's chest. "I can give you his number, but he doesn't answer my calls or texts."

There is a brief silence, before Janos says, "No need for that, we have managed to contact him. He has not left the country yet, and he has agreed to come back for a drug test."

Charles's knees feel like they're going to give out under him, so he staggers into the nearest chair. "He has?"

"We explained to him very clearly that if he were to cooperate, the investigation will be concluded far more swiftly if he is indeed not a threat. Once he understood that, he agreed to come back to New York for a drug abuse assessment. We'll be bringing along a specialist during our next visit."

Charles tries to swallow, but his throat is too dry. "Is there anything we need to do?"

There is a low sigh on the other end of the line, then Janos says, "Not at the moment. We'll see you then, Mr. Xavier."

Charles stares at the phone in his hand long after the tone has gone dead.

***

He is waiting with Raven in the main study, her head resting on his shoulder as they wait for Janos and the other CPS agents to finish interviewing Angel. Other than her, the rest of the children seem in better spirits for the second round of interviews once it has become apparent that none of them are going to get immediately taken away. Their questions about when Erik is coming back are hard to answer, though, and Raven tells the rest of the kids to go and wait in the living room until Angel's lengthy interview is over.

However, Charles jolts upright when he hears the familiar roar of the motorcycle coming up the driveway, and Raven sits up too, staring at him worriedly. "Charles, are you all right?"

"Yes." It is taking every inch of his self-restraint to not get up and immediately go out to the driveway. He feels sickened that despite how hurt and angry he is, his Pavlovian reaction to Erik has not wavered in the slightest. "I'm fine."

Raven's eyes wander over Charles, probably taking in the tight line of his shoulders and his clenched fists, and she nods warily. "I'll go let him in."

Charles remains in the study, staring hard at his whitened knuckles. Much later he can hear Erik's voice outside in the corridor, talking calmly to Janos, and his name is mentioned several times, but he refuses to come out.

After what feels like an agonizingly long stretch of time, stretching out like taffy, Raven opens the door again, her eyes a little red-rimmed. "He's leaving. The kids are downstairs with him, saying goodbye."

Charles has already rehearsed saying, "No," a million times in his head, far too proud to go downstairs and throw himself at the man who rejected him. Instead he gets up, following Raven downstairs to where Erik is standing in the hallway, surrounded by all the children in a tight group hug. "Don't cry, Schatz," he hears Erik say as he squeezes Angel's shoulder. That is when he catches Charles's eye, and he looks away quickly, patting a distraught Alex on the back instead. Erik looks rumpled and unshaven, as though he has spent several days travelling, and Charles hates the wave of concern – and want - that floods his stomach.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Lehnsherr." Janos, who has been eyeing this display silently, seems to have softened after witnessing how the children still refuse to let go of Erik. "We will call you if there is anything else that concerns you."

"Good." Erik seems reluctant to pull away from the grip of the children, and Charles can see him quietly murmuring something to them, which finally makes them release him. Erik bends down and ruffles Scott's hair, smiling a little at the boy's eye roll. "Don't give your brothers a hard time, okay?"

"Are you coming back?" Raven asks. Charles realises he had forgotten she is even beside him.

Erik's eyes slide over to Charles's again, and he shakes his head. "I have to get going."

"Come on, kids." Janos begins shepherding the children upstairs, even though they are reluctant to leave. "We just have to talk to you one last time for today."

As everyone files upstairs, Charles is left with only Erik and Raven standing in the hallway. It takes only a second for Raven to say, "Uh, I'm going to go up and see what's going on." Charles only nods, his eyes still fixed on Erik's shoes as Raven leaves.

"Thank you for coming back. For the drug test." Charles looks up again, his hands limp against his sides.

Erik's head dips, and Charles thinks he sees his lower lip tremble a little. "I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused, Charles."

"What?" Charles steps forward, eyes narrowed at him. "This is not your fault. None of this is."

"I shouldn't have--" Erik's mouth is now a tight grimace. "Never mind, it doesn't matter."

Something is nagging at Charles, the notion that there is something not quite right about this situation but he can't quite put his finger on it yet. He just stares at Erik, taking in the slumped set of his shoulders and his crumpled brown jacket, and he realises Erik looks just as tired and tortured as he does. "You do matter, Erik."

Before Erik can move, Charles takes the last step forward and wraps his arms around him in a tight hug, and he can feel Erik stiffen a little before he finally relaxes and slides his arms around Charles too, and Charles takes as much comfort as he can in this, hating how Erik can stir up so many conflicting emotions within him with just mere touch. Erik presses his mouth to Charles's shoulder, murmuring something that sounds like, 'loaf' or 'loathe', but before Charles can ask, Erik is already pulling away and striding towards the door, refusing to look back as he closes it behind him.

Charles remains in the doorway, long after the departing roar of the motorcycle.

Chapter Text

twenty nine.

It is finally Charles's turn to be interviewed, and his palms are sweaty and clammy even though he is already familiar with the whole song and dance, having been on the opposite end of the process several times. Thankfully the CPS agents are professional and polite, and it helps that Burt and Moira are seated across him, occasionally offering encouraging smiles that go a long way in soothing his nerves.

For most of the interview, the questions are routine, perfunctory, and Charles is quite relaxed by the time Janos springs the next question on him. "Mr. Xavier, could you please tell us about the nature of your relationship with Mr. Erik Lehnsherr?"

Charles folds his arms and stares at the table. He knows the kids have tried to 'protect' him by telling CPS that Erik was just an ordinary contract worker, but at the same time, Janos is not stupid, and there must be a reason they keep interviewing Angel at length. "I hired Erik as a handyman a few months ago to help out at the mansion," he says, watching as Janos's colleague, Ally, studiously takes notes.

There is no change in the quiet, polite tone of Janos's voice. "Is that the full extent of your relationship with him?"

Charles taps his fingers on the table in contemplation, and when he catches Moira's eye, she nods at him. "Erik and I were involved for a while." His own voice sounds distant, faraway.

None of the CPS agents appear in the least bit surprised. Janos whispers something in his colleague's ear, then turns back to Charles. "Is there any reason you failed to declare his presence, despite the fact that he was quite close to some of the minors?"

By now Charles just feels tired and defeated. There are a lot of things he could say, of course, but right now, only the truth seems like a viable option. "Erik didn't give any indication that he would stay," Charles says quietly. "And in the end he didn't. Stay, that is."

To his surprise, there is a slight frown on Janos's face, the corners of his mouth turned down in sympathy. "We only ask, Mr. Xavier, because all the children told us Erik was just a handyman." Janos rubs his chin before saying, "Well, most of them did."

Charles doesn't need - or want - to dig deeper. "But Erik passed the drug test, right?"

Janos nods once, sharply. "His background check is another story altogether, I must say. But the reports from his RO in Germany are positive, and Erik doesn't seem to have been a bad influence on the kids."

Charles is more relieved than he would like to admit. "Erik being around helped. A lot."

To his surprise, Janos smiles at him. "We know, Mr. Xavier."

***

It seems like the longest time for CPS to finish the last of their interviews and conclude their investigation, but Moira assures him that the outcome looks good. Sure enough, Janos comes alone on a Tuesday afternoon, asking to speak to Charles. They sit in his father's old study, and Charles hastily puts away the chess set which had been left out since before Erik's departure. Janos watches him without comment, then looks around the study without a word.

When Charles sits down at the table, Janos takes the seat opposite him. His next words are surprising. "May I smoke in here?"

"All right." Charles nods his assent as Janos shakes out a cigarette, then flicks his lighter before taking a long drag. "Mr. Quested--"

Janos holds up a hand. "Janos, please."

"Okay, Janos. You must understand I'm quite anxious to know the outcome of the investigation." Charles doesn't know what to do with his hands, so he lets them rest on his lap, then changes his mind and clasps them on top of the table.

"I'm sure you are." Janos lets out a stream of smoke away from Charles's direction, then sighs. "I'm sure Moira and Burt would have already told you if it had been bad news. Since I'm here alone, you must have guessed that we are concluding the investigation."

"I was hoping for that, yes."

"Officially, I can tell you that while Erik isn't exactly Mother Teresa, we found that the kids were none the worse for having been in his presence." Here, Janos leans forward, his eyes dark and serious. "In fact, we found that Alex and Angel were particularly close to him, probably because he came from a similar background as them, and we realised this is the only foster home where Angel has shown marked improvement."

Charles leans back to take all this in. "I always knew Erik and her were close. She confided in him a lot."

Janos nods. "Did you know she had an older half-brother who died in a motorcycle accident? This wasn't in her file, so you might not know this. We didn't know this either, until Armando told us. And it seems Erik and her half-brother were quite similar in many ways."

Charles let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. "She took it very hard when Erik left."

"She thought it was her fault, which was why she was quite emotional during our interview with her." Janos takes another deep drag of his cigarette. "I don't think she meant to let it slip that you and Erik were, well, together."

"But is she fine?" Charles asks insistently. "It doesn't matter what she said about me. I feel responsible for her."

"I know you do, Charles," Janos says with a growing smile. "Well, I am here to officially tell you the investigation is concluded and we have found the charge of child neglect to be unfounded. And we apologise for all the inconvenience we have put you through. But you must understand--"

"--you were only doing your jobs," Charles finishes for him. "You forget I was once on the other end of the process."

Janos only nods as though he had been expecting nothing else. "You can speak to your attorney about any forms of legal recourse if you wish to pursue the matter with Sebastian Shaw." Now his brow is furrowed in reluctance. "Since Shaw is my superior, you must understand if I stop here. I am just informing you of your rights."

"Of course." Now Charles is more relieved than anything else, but the option of legal action is something he will discuss with Raven and possibly Hank. "And the kids are fine, right?"

"They're happy here." Janos gets up, walking over to pick up a glass ashtray and putting out his cigarette in it. "Scott is still adjusting, but he's happy to be back with his brother, of course. I can't speak for Angel, but I expect she'll be fine once she gets in touch with Erik again. And Armando is looking out for her as well."

Charles stares at the spiral of smoke wafting from the crushed remnants of Janos's cigarette. "I don't know if Erik is ever coming back."

To his surprise, that faint expression of sympathy is back on Janos's face, and he seems to be considering something for quite a long while before he finally speaks, "This is off the record, all right?"

Charles narrows his eyes at him cautiously. "Fair enough."

Janos leans forward. "With gay marriage now legal in New York, there are options you and Erik can consider." His voice is gentle and serious. "I'm not saying it will be easy, but if you want to work at it, it can be done."

Charles just stares at him, not knowing what to say. Janos seems incredibly invested in this issue, and he's beginning to have his suspicions. "I don't even know if Erik wants to come back," he says helplessly.

"Well, if he does and you want to make a go at things, you should consider it." Janos takes out his wallet and when it flips open, Charles catches sight of a photo of Janos with his arm wrapped around a goateed man in a black mandarin suit. Then it's gone as Janos flips it closed again and hands Charles a name card. "This is my personal number. If you ever need help regarding gay couples and adoption, give me a call. If I can't help, I may know people who might."

Charles stares at the name card, then tucks it into the pocket of his cardigan, feeling as though he is in a dream. "T-thank you." The words sound funny, but Janos's smile is easy and genuine, and when he shows Janos to the door, their handshake is warm and firm, and Charles feels genuinely hopeful for the first time in weeks.


thirty.

The days pass by quickly enough, which is not surprising as a house full of growing teenagers comes with a demanding set of responsibilities. Charles more than welcomes the heavy workload, which is great at keeping his mind occupied so he won't think of fanciful, impossible things. Raven and Hank are also helping out tremendously, and for the first time, Charles thinks he sees Hank returning Raven's soft, lingering glances. He's glad for her, he really is: both Hank and her make a good team, dividing the chores that Erik used to do and making sure they're done and taking care of a million other things Charles may have overlooked.

Besides, it's good that at least one of them is happy, for now.

He still feels Erik's absence, of course, and he occasionally takes out his father's old chess set and arranges the pieces as though Erik is due home anytime and they're getting ready for a game. Darwin once asked Charles to teach him the game and he obliged, of course, but it wasn't the same despite the boy's best intentions to cheer Charles up. After that he leaves the chess set locked up in the study. It is far too depressing to keep taking it out and reminding himself of Erik.

However, Charles is caught off-guard when Emma seeks him out in his study one evening after her tutoring session with the kids, handing him a crisp white envelope. He doesn't need to read the letter to know its contents; her face is unhappy, pale and stricken. But he reads it anyway, his suspicions confirmed when he sees the words, I would like to tender my resignation with effect from-- His eyes flicker up at her. "Emma, why?"

She shakes her head, tucking her hair back behind her ear, and he realises her garish engagement ring is missing. "I feel like what happened with CPS was partly my fault--"

"Emma, we already talked about this, none of us blame you," Charles says gently. He walks around his desk to perch himself on the arm of her chair. "Please stay, the children adore you."

"No, I can't." Her mouth is a wry twist. "I'm leaving New York. I've got some...thinking to do, and I should make a clean break." She wiggles her ring-free hand at him, smiling a little.

"Ah, I see." Charles more than understands, and if it isn't for the children, he might have considered doing the same, getting away from everything that reminds him of the past. "Where will you be going?"

"I might stay with my mother in Miami," she says, her smile widening. "I'm looking forward to the weather at least."

"Since I can't persuade you to stay, I wish you all the best." And he does mean that, extending his hand as they both get to their feet, and she shakes it warmly.

"I've recommended some people you might want to consider to take over me," she says with a sigh. "In the meantime, I think Hank is more than able to help oversee the others."

"I thought of that as well," Charles admits. "At least, until we find someone. But we could never really replace you, my dear. I hope you know that."

At this point Emma bites her lip, and Charles is surprised when she grips his arm. "I need to tell you something about Erik."

"Oh." Charles doesn't know if he wants to hear this, but her grip is tightening on his arm, so he nods. "All right. What about him?"

"He left because I warned him."

Charles frowns at her, stepping forward and putting an arm around her shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"I knew what Shaw was up to, and I warned Erik, because he was the one that CPS would be investigating." She starts picking at her nails, distressed. "I only meant for him to come clean and tell you everything, I didn't mean for him to leave. But when he suggested it, I thought it was a good idea because it wouldn't bring your relationship to light. Now that I've thought it over, I know it was a bad idea."

"Emma." Charles is just blinking, stunned. Poor Erik, poor poor Erik. "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"I felt responsible for Erik leaving." Her voice is small, frightened now. "I'm so sorry, Charles. I truly am."

He watches her leave the study without a word, and even when Raven comes to tell him dinner is ready, he still hasn't allowed the words to fully sink in yet.

***

Charles sends several text messages over the next few days, telling Erik he knows now, telling Erik to come back, telling him that the investigation is over and everything is clear now and they can make a life again. But there is no response, and when Charles finally summons the nerve to call, he realises the phone has been disconnected. It feels like another slap in the face after the recent series of events, but a part of Charles hopes that it's only because Erik might not be in the country. Yom Kippur is around the corner, after all, and maybe he is back in Germany.

He doesn't know how else to reach Erik, so he decides to wait until Yom Kippur is over and Erik might be back in Philadelphia. In the meantime, he focuses his energies on sharing tutoring duties with Hank and Raven, now that Emma is gone. A big part of him has forgiven her, he truly has, but he remembers how tired and despondent Erik had looked when he came back for the drug test, and the anger wells up all over again, fresh and bitter.

Most of all, Charles is angry with himself for letting this happen, for not trusting Erik's intentions. Erik's departure had made things easier for the investigation, yes, but there were still other ways they could have worked things out. But it's too late now, and Charles only wants to repair things, to get them back to the way it used to be. He's more than sure that the children want Erik back, too.

He is walking past the gardens one afternoon when he hears someone singing softly, voice low, tender and raspy. It is Sean, completely oblivious as he croons along to the song blasting in his headphones as he rakes the leaves. It's ironic how Erik had always complained about the difficulties he has had in getting Sean to do his chores, and now that Erik is gone, Sean seems to be doing them willingly. He tugs off his headphones when he spots Charles approaching him, flashing him a sunny smile. "Hey, Prof."

"The lawns look splendid," Charles says warmly as he looks around, hands on his hips. Sean nods proudly as he leans on his rake, surveying his handiwork. "Well done, Sean."

"Thanks." Sean looks at him, head tilted as he seems to consider something. "I mean, if you need more help, just ask. I'll make Alex do it."

Charles bursts into laughter, shaking his head. "You boys are terrible."

Sean's grin is sheepish. "Alex will probably make Scott do it."

"How heartwarming." But Charles squeezes his shoulder. "But I mean it, thank you for chipping in."

Now Sean isn't quite looking at him. "You're not going to get someone to replace Erik, right?"

Charles is a little taken aback, but he keeps his expression as neutral as possible. "I wasn't planning on it, no."

Sean is now teasing the pile of leaves at his feet with his rake, cheeks flushed red. "Do you think he'll come back?"

Charles doesn't want to give any of the children any false hope, so he just gazes into the distance. In his line of vision is the man-made lake, the water gleaming like an overturned mirror, and overlooking it is the giant, hulking satellite dish beneath which he once had his picnic with Erik. "I don't know," he tells Sean at last, his hands digging into the pockets of his slacks. "I hope so, but I'm not sure at this point."

"Do you want him to come back?" Sean sounds even younger than his years here, hopeful and eager.

"Yes," Charles says without any hesitation. And then, "I miss him." It feels good to finally admit this out loud, and judging from the wistful look on Sean's face, the sentiment is a shared one.

"You know something?" Sean offers him a crooked grin. "Erik was the one who said I should look into music school if I wanted to. He wrote to Peabody and got me some brochures. How cool was that?"

Charles is just smiling now. "Erik always knew how to encourage each of you to be yourself, to pursue what you're good at."

"So do you ," Sean says seriously, a hand clasping Charles's shoulder. "Don't discount yourself, Prof. You two...you're like the dynamic duo, y'know?"

Touched, Charles squeezes Sean's hand before letting it drop.

***

Getting ready for bed these days takes Charles through an entirely new routine, one that isn't centred around Erik. He has a glass of scotch sometimes, then he reads for a while before checking in with the children. They usually stay up late anyway, but they know Charles is strict about them turning in before midnight. Hank and Raven stay up a little later, and Charles can't help smiling one night when he sees them asleep in front of the TV in the rec room, Raven's head resting on Hank's shoulder. He switches off the television and pulls a blanket over both of them, then goes to brush his teeth.

He is about to head to the kitchen for a glass of water when he hears running footsteps, then he spots Alex speeding down the corridor, a furious Darwin in tow. "Alex, give it back!" Darwin yells at him, but Alex heads straight for Charles before skidding to a stop in front of him. Grabbing Charles's hand, Alex dumps a mobile phone in his hand before grabbing an astonished Darwin and hauling him off in the opposite direction, both boys arguing in hushed whispers before they disappear into Alex's bedroom.

Charles stands there in his pyjamas, blinking. "What on earth?" He looks down at the phone's LED screen and realises someone is on the line. The caller display is a long line of numbers, starting with '+49'. Which country code is that? Charles frowns down at the phone, and when he hears a faint voice going, 'hello?', he brings it up to his ear. "Sorry, who is this?"

There is a long silence, interrupted only by the crackle of long-distance static. "Darwin, you there?" a very familiar voice says, and Charles feels his heart plummeting down to his stomach.

"Erik?"

Another long silence, and the disbelief is clear in Erik's voice. "Charles?"

"Erik." The words are jammed in his throat, and Charles has to think fast before Erik decides to hang up. "It's me. Sorry, Alex just ran up and shoved Darwin's phone into my hand."

"Oh." Erik clears his throat, and Charles can feel the seconds ticking by. "How are you?"

"I'm fine." The lie is necessary to keep Erik on the phone for as long as possible. "I've been trying to get hold of you."

"Why?" The guarded, suspicious way Erik says this hurts a little, but Charles just closes his eyes, leaning back against the wall of the corridor.

"The investigation is done, everything's fine," Charles says. "And Emma told me why you left. You didn't have to, you know."

The silence is so long this time that Charles is truly afraid the connection has been lost. "Hello? Erik, are you there?"

"Yes." And there he is, sounding so lost and forlorn that Charles wants to crawl through the phone and wrap his arms around him. "The investigation is over?"

"Yes, it is." Charles presses the phone closer to his ear. "Please come home, Erik."

Erik's sigh on the other end is long and laborious, and Charles can hear the rustle of something in the background. Maybe Erik is running his hand through his hair, and Charles desperately wants to do that for himself. "It's not that easy, Charles."

"What do you mean?"

"If I come back, then what? I go back to working for you and taking a salary from you?" The note of distress in Erik's voice is a little strange. "And what if this happens again and there's another investigation? It's really not that easy."

"I know it's not." Charles is aware of how close he is to begging, and he forces himself back from the edge. "But there are options we have, Erik. If you care about the children - and me - there are ways around this. Just come home."

Erik doesn't say anything for a long time after that, but Charles can hear someone speaking in German in the background, the voice low and gravelly. "My dad needs me to do something for him now," Erik says reluctantly. "Get my German mobile number from Darwin. We'll talk tomorrow."

"Yes, I will." And suddenly Charles allows himself to believe that things may actually be fixed. "I'll call you around this time?"

"Yeah." Erik pauses, then his voice is a lot lower, more intimate. "And Charles?"

"Yes, Erik?"

"It's really good to, um--" Erik lets out a low exhalation of breath. "I mean, I missed you."

Heat burns behinds his eyes as Charles rests his head back against the wall, his mouth tugging up into the biggest smile, slow warmth spreading from his chest to the tips of his fingers. "I missed you too, Erik."

Erik hangs up at that point, and when Charles goes to return the phone to an apprehensive Darwin, he surprises the boy - and himself - with the tightest hug he can manage, and Alex is grinning wildly, probably relieved his stunt worked. Later that night, for the first time in weeks, Charles falls asleep easily with a smile, his arm stretched over Erik's side of the bed.

Chapter Text

thirty one.

 

The next morning, Darwin immediately seeks Charles out after breakfast, explaining that Erik had started calling him last week just to keep tabs on everyone, and he had made Darwin explicitly promise not to tell Charles what he was doing. "I wanted to tell you, I really did," Darwin says miserably. "But Erik was very adamant about not letting you know that he was still in touch with one of us."

"It's really all right," Charles tells him, concerned about how Darwin seems to feel personally responsible for the whole mess. "I've talked to Erik, it was all a misunderstanding. We've cleared it up."

The relief on Darwin's face is obvious as his shoulders sag with new ease. "Good, because I didn't want you thinking I was holding out on you," he says, his expression now serious. "And, you know, it's kinda nice that Erik still cares about us."

"It is." Charles mulls it over, seeing the situation through Darwin's eyes now. After all, Erik was supposed to have left for good, but he keeps tabs on them out of no certain obligation. Because he cares. Charles lets the thought linger, like the woody notes of Erik's aftershave. "Erik is a good man."

There is a particular way that Darwin has of looking at people, intense and all-consuming as though the recipient is under heavy scrutiny, and he is giving Charles that very same look now. "Is he coming back, you think?"

"I'm working on that," Charles promises, and the ensuing smile that Darwin gives him, wide with delight, is as blinding as the sun.

***

That night, Charles calls Erik from the land line this time, the cordless handset tucked between his chin and shoulder. Erik sounds livelier, happy, a little breathless, and Charles imagines him enjoying the time he's now spending with his father. Erik's mother had died when he was younger, so Charles is glad that Erik still has a fulfilling enough relationship with his one remaining parent. "Do you want to speak to him?" Erik asks, and Charles concedes to a short, awkward conversation in broken English and German with the senior Mr. Lehnsherr.

"You take good care Erik," Mr. Lehnsherr booms haltingly, towards the end. "Come visit Pempelfort, ja?"

"I will definitely do that," Charles says with a laugh, before Erik rescues the phone from his father.

"Sorry." Erik sounds gruff, but pleased. "Sometimes I can't tell if the inevitable senility has kicked in yet."

"Your father was just being hospitable," Charles says, putting his feet up on the opposite armchair. Down the corridor, he can hear the blare of 'Guitar Hero' starting up in the rec room, as well as Alex yelling for Hank to get his ass down here, pronto. "Should I take him up on his offer?"

There is a pause while Erik clears his throat. "You know you're welcome here anytime," he finally says.

"Erik." Charles closes his eyes, feeling the miles between them melt away like the last vestiges of a dream. "Please come home."

There is a long, wistful sigh on Erik's end. "It's not that I don't want to, Charles," he says patiently. "It's just-- I have to take care of a few things first."

Charles keeps his eyes shut, imagining Erik standing near his window and staring out of it. It would be dark outside in downtown Düsseldorf in the wee hours, although twilight has just befallen Westchester. But the good thing is that Erik didn't say 'no' outright, and he wonders what matters Erik has to take care of. "Do you need any--"

"No." Erik's refusal is immediate and firm. "It's all right, Charles, I've got it under control."

They talk for a while more, skirting around the subject of money even though Charles is dying to ask, but he has to trust Erik now like he always has, just like how his eventual faith that Erik's unorthodox approach would work in patching up Sean's and Alex's friendship. Instead he tells Erik about Emma breaking up with Shaw and leaving New York, Janos and his surprising advice as well as the conclusion of the investigation.

Charles sees that this is a good point to bring up a question he's always wanted to ask. "Erik, you've never really told me what you were in prison for."

There is a heavy silence, and Erik finally sighs. "I appreciate that you're asking me directly instead of digging up my background."

"You know I won't judge you," Charles says gently. "You're a different man now."

"I was in a gang in my teens." The regret is heavy in Erik's voice, which now sounds hushed, an octave lower. "My friend and I beat up someone from a rival gang for something so trivial that I can't even remember now. The guy almost died."

"Did he?"

"No, but he walks with a limp now. After I got out from jail, I went to see him, but his family wouldn't let me." Erik is silent for so long that Charles glances at the display screen to see if they were cut off, but the line is still connected. "It wasn't easy to get a job after I left prison. I was proud and impatient, so I resorted to less than legal ways to make money."

"That happened to some kids I know after they left the foster care system," Charles says, thinking about how glad he is that he is able to help the children under his care, at least. He just hopes Erik doesn't get the impression that Charles is judging him, but it doesn't seem like it, from the way Erik is continuing calmly.

"I must have broken my father's heart so many times, so when he begged me to go straight - figuratively speaking - I agreed. I went to America to see my Uncle David, who got me that job in Philadelphia. So I was waiting to start the job and hanging out with Otto, who is my uncle's friend. And, well, there you were, in Otto's shop." Erik now sounds a little amused. "You really threw a spanner in the works, Xavier."

"Ah, my apologies for getting in the way of your glamorous steelworker career," Charles says dryly, while Erik chuckles.

"Anyway, I have to go," Erik says reluctantly. "Call me tomorrow, same time?

"Definitely," Charles says, finally opening his eyes and a little disconcerted to find Raven standing in the doorway, watching him with an odd little smile. "Take care, Erik."

"You too, Charles."

When he hangs up, Raven's smile has widened into a grin. "I take it that went well. I hope I didn't interrupt the phone sex."

"Oh please Raven, I expected more from you." Charles rolls his eyes as she wanders off with a cackle, and for the rest of the night, he walks around the mansion, mulling over what Erik has just told him.

***

They talk every night for the next few weeks, no doubt making AT&T a small fortune, and Charles makes sure that each of the kids gets to talk to Erik at some point. Charles's study turns into a makeshift central gathering point every evening, Darwin dragging in mismatched chairs from the other rooms so they can all come in and listen and talk to Erik on the phone. But it is the private conversations that Charles treasures the most, long after the kids have gone to bed, Erik's voice soft and intimate in his ear late into the night.

They have just finished laughing at a silly story Erik told him about his childhood when Charles surprises them both with, "Please come home, Erik. You don't have to keep punishing yourself."

"Charles--"

"For the longest time, I haven't asked for anything for myself," Charles says, not wanting to think of how desperate he sounds. "I just want you here, the kids want you here. They need us. I can't do this by myself. Help me guide them, shape them, lead them."

Erik is silent for a long time, and then he finally says, "I thought I'd surprise you, but I'm coming back in a few days' time."

Charles almost drops the phone. "You are?"

"I've just booked the plane ticket back." Although he can't see Erik, he can hear the smile in his voice. "Do you have a spare bed?"

"Sure," Charles says, grinning so widely that his cheek muscles hurt, "and if not, feel free to crawl into mine."

Erik's surprised laughter fills him with a buoyant joy that he can't quite describe.

 

thirty two.

 

It is a cold early November day for Westchester, the trees on the compound already rapidly shedding leaves, stark brown branches starting to peek out. Charles arranges the pillows in Erik's old room while Mrs Rodriguez sprays the linen with lavender water, filling the room with its sweetish calming scent. She is humming a Spanish lullaby, warm and evocative, making Charles imagine the welcoming, loving home he never had as a boy, and it makes it all the more bittersweet now that he can provide such a home for these teenagers, and all that is left is for Erik to complete the picture.

The children in question are downstairs, some helping to set the table while the others are working on a huge 'WELCOME HOME' banner that had been Angel's idea. As Charles clatters down the stairs, he can hear their laughter and banter, Angel yelling, "For god's sake Sean, that's enough glitter, Erik is not a 13-year-old girl!" and the resulting horrified groans of the other boys. Sure enough, when he strolls into the living room, Sean looks sheepish with glitter stuck to his right cheek in the shape of a handprint, while Angel fumes over her banner and Alex is snickering with Darwin and Scott at the other end of the table, blowing up balloons.

"How is it?" Angel asks him anxiously, shoving a petulant Sean aside as they showed Charles the banner. It is crude and homemade, the letters jagged at the edges, and Charles thinks it looks all the more lovelier for the obvious effort poured into it.

"It looks quite magical," he tells Angel sincerely, and her mouth curves up into a sweet smile as he draws her in for a one-armed hug. Things had been better between them since the aftermath of the investigation when Moira had sat her down with Charles, the three of them having an open, honest dialogue, and Charles is completely glad for it.

"What time is Erik arriving again?" Raven asks as she emerges from the kitchen with their mother's best set of dinnerware, Hank following behind closely with an armful of utensils.

Charles checks his watch. "His flight landed in the afternoon. He probably stopped to rest before getting his bike out of storage, and I imagine it'll be a long ride over, an hour at least. So maybe late at night?"

Raven shrugs. "Oh well, it doesn't matter as long as he's coming back."

They have just finished laying the table and hanging up the banner when there is a familiar roar of a motorcycle approaching outside in the driveway, and everyone stills. Sean is the first one to jump to life, hopping over to peep out of the window. "He's back!" Sean cries, delighted, and suddenly everyone is scrambling to the door eagerly, all except Charles who can't seem to make his feet budge, his fingers turning icy and trembly with anticipation as he remains rooted to the spot.

"ERIK!" Charles hears Raven shriek, and then Angel is squealing and there is an excited babble of voices, drowning out the most important one Charles yearns to hear. He finally spurs his feet into action and makes his way to the open door, stepping out onto the driveway and the sight of Erik - as always, in his trademark turtleneck and brown leather jacket - standing there beside his bike, and it all hits him like a freight train. Erik still has his helmet on, but the visor does nothing to hide his brilliant smile as he hugs the children to him, all clinging to him like oversized koalas.

"Okay, come on, let me put down my things," Erik says, laughing, and then he pauses because he has finally spotted Charles hovering near the door, and he pushes up his visor so that his eyes are unobstructed. Erik's eyes still have that chameleon-like tendency to veer between varying shades of green and blue, but now, in the fading evening light, they're oh so green and razor-sharp, intense and entirely fixed on Charles, the rest of the world forgotten.

"Come on," a subdued Raven says as she discreetly wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. "It's cold, let's bring Erik's things inside first."

The children shuffle in reluctantly, but Raven is firm, and Charles shoots her a grateful smile before she heads inside. Now it is just Charles and Erik in the driveway, and when Erik finally takes off his helmet, Charles sees that his hair is shorter and darker now, flattened by the helmet. Erik's eyes are now reddened, his lower lip trembling. "Charles?"

"You're home." Charles clasps his hands tightly together so he won't burst into a million different fragments of joy, gratitude and disbelief. "You're really here, you're finally home."

The word 'home' seems to unleash something in Erik, making him stumble forward into Charles's waiting arms, and in turn Erik's arms are wrapping around him tightly like he is a life buoy and Erik is drowning. Charles squeezes his eyes shut, because this is too much, too much to absorb all at once. Erik smells like leaves and aftershave and the recycled air of a plane, and Charles realises Erik must have gone straight from JFK without even stopping to rest.

The helmet drops to the gravel with a crunch, forgotten, and Erik is cupping Charles's face in his hands and kissing him clumsily, catching the corner of Charles's mouth and his nose and left cheek. Charles wraps his arms around Erik's neck and aligns their mouths properly, kissing back and vowing never to let Erik walk out of his life again. Just once was enough heartache for a lifetime.

"Don't ever leave again, please," Charles huffs out when they break apart, their foreheads pressed together.

Erik is shaking his head, his hand brushing back Charles's hair. "I don't think I could even if I wanted to."

"Good." And then Erik is blurring in front of Charles, no matter how many times he blinks. "Because there's only so many times I can tell the children you ran away to join the circus."

Their soft laughter is an odd contradiction to the moisture on Charles's cheeks, but for once he can't bring himself to give a damn. They stand there in each other's arms until the sun is almost done setting, and by the time the first stars come out, Charles has managed to collect himself and smiles a little shakily at Erik, who is looking at him with wondrous, languid eyes, as though Charles is a sight that he's been deprived of. "Come on," he says, squeezing Erik's hand before letting it drop. "The kitchen sink has been blocked for ages, and the DVD player's subtitles setting is stuck on Punjabi."

Erik's laugh is low and tellingly husky as he bends down to collect his fallen helmet. "Glad to see I'm still needed here."

"Oh, Erik." Charles's smile grows wider as they head inside together. "You'll always be needed here."

***

The last of the children to fall asleep is Darwin, who dozes off halfway through the 'How To Train Your Dragon' DVD. He is snugly settled on the couch between a snoring Scott and Alex, while Sean is curled up on the chaise longue, smothering himself with a cushion, tufts of red hair peeking out from under it. In the nearby La-Z-Boy, Raven is stretched out, the only one old enough to be flushed with too much wine while Hank is sprawled out on the floor by her feet, the air whistling through his noise with every deep breath. Angel looks uncomfortable scrunched up on the armchair, so Charles gently wakes her up. She blearily rubs her eyes, but she's asleep again by the time Erik carries her back to her room.

It is barely a minute before Erik returns just as Charles is taking out the DVD and putting it back into its case. "You're not going to wake the rest up?" Erik asks in a hushed voice.

"Leave them be, they'll be fine," Charles whispers back, picking up the dirty bowls of half-eaten Doritos. Erik helps him and they troop down to the kitchen, depositing the bowls in the dishwasher and clearing up the mess from earlier.

Charles is rinsing his hands in the sink when he feels strong arms wrap around his waist from behind him, and he looks down at Erik's familiar tattooed forearms locked around him, holding him tight. Erik's forehead is pressed against his shoulder, and Charles can feel the warm huffs of Erik's breath against his right shoulder blade.

They stand like that for a while, just taking in the fact that they're together again, and Charles rests a trembling hand on top of Erik's, which is splayed over his abdomen. He squeezes the hand, and Erik lets out the long, deep, contented sigh of a man who has been searching for something that has eluded him for a long, long time. Maybe peace, Charles thinks, feeling Erik's fingers curl around his own. Or acceptance.

"Let's go upstairs," Erik's voice is rough with exhaustion and long hours of travel, and Charles squeezes his hand once more before letting go.

He collects two bottles of beer before they head upstairs to his room, Erik ignoring his own and heading straight for Charles's. After they've lit the fireplace and the chess pieces set out, they start a match more out of habit than anything else. It's already one in the morning, though, and Charles's body is confused with the conflicting sensations of tiredness and adrenaline, making him jiggle his leg a little harder than necessary.

"Did you take care of what you needed to?" Charles asks calmly, once it's apparent that this familiar routine has made Erik feel more at home with his surroundings. Erik nods, his fingers steepled against his chin as he contemplates his next move, and to Charles's surprise, Erik is smiling. "What is so funny, my friend?"

"I can't come back to work for you," Erik says as casually as though he is talking about the weather. "We need to get that straight."

Charles swallows around the lump in his throat. "So why did you come back?"

Erik shoots him a look as though Charles has just asked a particularly daft question. "Because you asked me to."

"I don't understand."

Swiftly rising to his feet as though he has been expecting this, Erik leaves the room, then comes back with one of his bags. He rummages through it for something before his face lights up as he pulls out a sheaf of papers, handing them over to Charles. "Read it."

Charles does. And then slowly, a lot of things Erik has been saying over the past few weeks regarding 'taking care of a few things' is now making sense to Charles. "You bought Otto's hardware shop?"

"I was a little short," Erik admits as he sits down opposite Charles again. eyes back on the chess board. Nothing betrays his composure except for the way his hand is shaking as he reaches out to push his rook forward. "That's why I wanted the job in Philly, so I could save for this. But my father understood, and lent me enough to make up for the shortfall."

Charles stares at the papers and the deed, then looks up at Erik, who is steadfastly avoiding his gaze. "Erik."

Erik keeps his eyes fixed on the board, clearing his throat nervously. "Your move, Charles."

Charles sets down the papers on the nearby dresser, then shoves aside the chess board, startling Erik as the pieces scatter to the floor in a mixed tumble of black and white. And then Charles is straddling Erik in the chair, grabbing Erik's gloriously stupefied face and kissing him deeply, urgently, sliding his hands under Erik's turtleneck and feeling more than hearing him moan, the sound rumbly and shocked, resonating through Charles and making him suck on Erik's bottom lip, refusing to let go.

"Charles--" When Erik pulls away for breath, his pupils are blown apart from lust, lips puffy and reddened, and Charles imagines he looks the same, his desperation for Erik magnified by abstinence. "Oh God, Charles--"

Charles claims his mouth again, the kiss turning sinful and exploratory, his tongue sweeping into every littlest corner of Erik's mouth, tasting coffee and mint and the smoky aftertaste of cigarettes. Erik is greedily untucking Charles's shirt, a hand sliding proprietorially over his belly, warm and callused and achingly familiar. Charles rolls his hips forward, and both of them gasp as he grinds the hard line of his trapped erection against Erik's stomach, communicating his intense need for Erik to carry him to bed and fuck him right now. He can't think of any other way to show how he feels about Erik giving up so much for him, and from the pleased noises Erik is making in the back of his throat, he hopes this might be enough.

Erik breaks away from the kiss again, letting Charles chase after his mouth once or twice before firmly gripping Charles's hips, motioning for him to get up. Charles obeys, but once they're on their feet, Erik pulls him closer and bends down to kiss him, and this kiss is gentler, sweeter, the soft press of his lips speaking of so many different things; the nights they've spent sleeping together, Erik's knees tucked behind Charles's, the jokes they've made about the kids, the unrelenting support Erik has always given him without needing to be asked, and the unconditional acceptance Charles gives him in return, hoping Erik feels it without needing to be told.

Apparently he does, because he's pulling away and raking a hand through Charles's hair, eyes impossibly vulnerable as he squares his shoulders, preparing to say something important. "Just so you know," he says, "I've never loved anyone as much as I love you."

Charles fights to take deep, deep breaths. After months of doubt, hearing this is like salve for a wound he didn't even know he had. "It's about time," he says with a shaky laugh, because if he doesn't laugh, he's afraid he may cry. His voice is a little lower now. "How I feel about you hasn't changed one bit."

Erik chuckles deeply in between kisses, fond and slow, before pulling away reluctantly. "Good. Why don't you wait in bed for me? I haven't had a shower and I'm beginning to smell a bit ripe."

Charles hooks a finger in the belt loop of Erik's jeans, tugging him closer until their bodies are pressed together. "You know, I could do with a shower too."

***

It's like that dream he once had of Erik, the two of them in the shower, Erik whispering the filthiest things to him - in English - at a time when he thought Erik could speak anything but. He chuckles a little at this while Erik is soaping his back, making him pause. "What's so funny, Charles?"

"Nothing." Charles bites back his laughter, letting his head droop forward so Erik can rinse the foam off his back. The luxuriously huge shower stall is filled with steam and the scent of cranberry, and Charles thanks every deity in existence for letting Raven buy his toiletries from the Body Shop, which smell so much better than his regular soap.

Then Erik's mouth is skating over his skin, leaving a trail of wet kisses up his shoulder, and Charles hisses with pleasure when he feels Erik's teeth scraping against the joint of his neck and shoulder. "I've almost forgotten how good you taste."

Charles arches back against Erik's lean body, hissing in pleasure when he feels Erik's long cock sliding down the cleft of his buttocks. His wet hair is flopping in his eyes, water beading his lashes and he braces an arm against the shower wall, rubbing teasingly against Erik. "You need to get reacquainted," he huffs out, making Erik growl against the back of his neck.

"Thought you'd never ask." Although he can't quite see Erik, he can hear the smile in his voice, evident despite the sound of running water echoing in the stall, and the sound of the 'click' of a tube being opened doesn't escape him either. He's fucking aching for Erik to wrap him up in his arms and make love to him, looking forward to being surrounded by Erik's voice and hands and body and everything else he's missed.

Erik prepares him with the silicone-based lube as best as he can, and Charles's breath hitches when he feels Erik breaching the ring of muscle, his fists tightening as he presses his forehead against the cool, wet tiles. Then a low, strangled groan as Erik slowly, slowly slides in all the way, a tattoed arm braced around Charles's chest, a thumb lazily flicking at his left nipple and sending random electric tingles through him. Charles feels physically full the way Erik always makes him feel full with contentment and love and light, and he lets out a soft groan when Erik thrusts into him experimentally, slowly. It's been a long time.

"Charles--" The concern is evident in the way his name is turned into a question, but Charles just nods again, letting Erik spread his thighs further apart with his knee. "Charles, if you--"

"Please, Erik, if you don't start fucking me, we're never taking joint showers again," Charles warns him, and suddenly Erik's hips roll forward, making Charles gasp and then bite his lip. "Oh, oh Erik, I didn't know--"

"Fucking love you," Erik growls, a hand slippery with lube and soap reaching forward to palm his cock, his strokes agonizingly slow and his grip just on the right side of tight, and Charles starts panting, letting his body take over, glad that Erik knows how to play him like a well-loved instrument. Erik is breathing heavily in his ear, stopping ever so often to suck on Charles's earlobe, the water from the shower gradually turning cold but neither of them caring, Erik thrusting harder and harder until Charles is on the tip of his toes, supported by the wall and Erik's weight, and he feels it when Erik comes inside him, crying out his name in the crook of his neck, and Charles strokes himself off together with Erik before letting out a wordless shout, their hands clasped together, his cheek pressed against the tiles as he thinks, I will never want anyone else and he slumps in Erik's arms, Erik catching him with a low, sultry laugh.

***

They are playing chess by the heated indoor pool, because Moira is visiting and she decides playing water polo on a Saturday morning is better than getting carpal tunnel from too much Guitar Hero. Charles watches her while Erik contemplates his next move, and he is pleased to see how Moira laughs more these days, her cheeks flushed with good health and happiness. Apparently she is seeing a young lawyer named Clint, whom she has promised to bring over for Sunday dinner some time, and Charles looks forward to meeting him. Moira has also suggested that Charles and Raven talk to Clint about taking legal action against Sebastian Shaw, on which Charles is still undecided. Erik is back, after all, and Hank is currently applying to Harvard, so Charles doesn't want to distract him - or any of the kids - with any family trouble.

"Your move." Erik rakes a hand through his hair, which is noticeably longer now even though it's been a month since his return. Charles doesn't get to see him as much as he would like due to the work Erik is putting in re-hauling the hardware store, but Erik returns home every evening like clockwork in time for dinner and to help with any chores that need fixing. Charles has already put in an ad in the papers for a new handyman, although he doesn't think anyone could ever fill Erik's shoes.

It's probably too early to bring up marriage, although Erik shows no sign of going anywhere, and for now, that's good enough for Charles. They're still treading water, and Charles is willing to wait until it's time to talk about something more permanent. He smiles down at his knight, a thumb gently caressing its base, and when he looks up, Erik is watching him, his smile soft at the edges.

"What?" Charles asks, flicking his nose. "Is there something on my face? Is something wrong?"

Erik just grins wider at him, nudging Charles with his socked foot. "That's it," he says serenely, happily. "Nothing is wrong. For the first time, I'm exactly where I want to be."

"And where precisely is that?" Charles keeps his voice calm and steady as he pushes his knight forward diagonally.

Erik's expression turns serious. "By your side, of course."

Charles can't quite stop his lips from curving up into a smile. Even after a month, and he is still smiling like a loon. "And the kids?"

"Entirely optional," Erik says with a careless flip of his hand. "Although useful for occasionally raking the yard."

"You're an evil man," Charles says, laughing as Erik reaches over to tackle him to the ground, hovering over Charles, his eyes bright with a nameless emotion.

"And you are a good one," Erik says in all seriousness, and as they kiss, Charles ignores the catcalls of Moira and the children, holding onto Erik and thinking, like he did at the beginning when he first stood in front of an empty mansion, this could work.