Chapter 1: but I know I'll see your face again
There was someone across the street who looked like Charles. For a moment it was bitterer than lye, because for a moment he always believed it. But after a brief start, he grasped Emma's hand on his arm comfortingly – as she gave him a questioning look – and moved forward again.
Except. Except he glanced back, quickly. The resemblance had been so very vivid – however delusional. He was used to these tricks his mind liked to play on him. But it was nearly two years now, and he was a little tired of them – of himself.
So he looked back to reassure himself, or maybe for a little self-flagellation. Looking for gingery hair, for an early-middle-age belly, precisely pointed features or an extra five inches height, for a ludicrous absence of any likeness. Anything to mock himself with, for the self-trickery, to hammer home the truth to himself one more time. Charles was dead.
He looked back, and there was nothing, but then a grey-haired old guy moved out of the way of a kitchen goods store window, and, yes, that was the one, the fellow. Dark shirt, dark suit, bent head. Emma had stopped a moment anyway, was looking into a jeweler's window, did not urge him on. He watched the guy examine, what, triply-overpriced minimalist condiment shakers, it looked like.
About the right height – half an inch under what Charles had always claimed for himself, with comfortable vanity. The hair, too long, but the right colour. At least he'd not been so very embarrassingly deluded, this time, and as the guy lifted and turned his head a little, he-
Erik's brain felt like sparks were fizzing out of it, like someone had taken an angle-grinder and was shearing off pertinent and useful parts, slicing out sections of his life and mind. Broad nose, broad cheekbones, a priss to the full lip as a clearly disapproving thought clearly crossed – crossed – crossed Charles' mind-
He didn't stop to think, to choose or decide. He was just running, a homing pigeon mixed with moving traffic. Not a good combination, and horns and screams and a brush with pain that sent him staggering were what met him and stopped his course.
As he was harassed and barraged with contempt and concern, Emma's arms and a redundancy of strangers offering to call ambulances, he must have looked like a baby chick. Six feet of cracked patella and craning head and desperation – disbelief – uncertainty – certainty.
Charles was dead?
Strapped and bandaged on his sofa in the evening, he didn't know anything any more. Well, he knew that he was having – some difficulty – talking himself out of this one. Usually, it was much quicker and easier. But usually, the resemblance was less striking. Less like a blow to the heart.
Usually it didn't result in him running out in front of a car and giving the little old lady driving it a heart attack – fortunately metaphorical, or he might have wound up sued, instead of with insurance and paperwork problems. Usually he didn't even have to consider the nuclear option, that he had never taken.
But he'd been considering it for an hour, no, two hours now. And finally he gave up on considering. He took his phone up from the coffee-table, and phoned Raven's number.
Chapter 2: can't you see, it's not me you're dying for
Raven hasn't talked to Erik for two years either. She makes up for lost time.
Erik goes on a quest.
Chapter title from the Ben Folds Five's 'Brick', a very apposite tune.
There was a pause after someone picked up, and Erik could both feel and hear his own heart, thunderous and slow. Had she sold her phone on? Why would a Xavier bother selling a phone? Changed her number?
'Well, hello, stranger.' Her voice was so exactly the same – so exactly her, peach and blonde and syrup, and utterly unsurprised as if she was born knowing the secret heart of everything. It was a warm, delightful, familiar agony. Unsurprised. As if she'd been expecting his call this long, long, long while. 'It's been a very long time.'
Erik was good at calm, at smooth, had been complimented on his stone face many times. There was a slight waver in his voice now though. 'Hasn't it? I suppose you're wondering why I'm calling.'
'Not at all,' Raven said, quiet. 'After dumping my brother without so much as a Dear John, leaving me as his only support while he lay dying, I'm just amazed you have the brass neck to call at all.'
Worse than he had thought. Oh, so much worse. When had the sweating started? He had to talk fast: had to get the reassurance he needed, before Raven hung up on him. The words tumbled over one another. 'I'm not going to apologise, Raven-'
'No, you never did. Not for anything,' she interjected bitterly.
'Because it would be an insult,' he emphasized, holding his reaction down. 'But I needed to talk - I needed to ask you, one or two things.' How to put it, he thought wildly, without her calling the alienists and emergency services? Your dead brother, is he still alive? He skirted it. 'It's not that I didn't care. You know that, Raven. I cared too much, and the kids too, I couldn't-'
He found himself unable to speak. Someone had spiked his drink with spurge, it seemed. His throat was closed.
The pause was long. And when it came, Raven's voice was softer. 'What do you want to know, Erik?'
His face was in his hand. But she couldn't see that. 'How was it for you? How did you cope? I wish, I wish I'd been stronger, I wish I could have...'
Her response was chilly, remote, but there was still a faint turbid kindness in the water. At least he hoped for it. 'I wish you'd been stronger too. You know, I had to fight it out with him over Do Not Resuscitate orders,' she recounted: without further prompting, as if this had always been waiting to tumble out. 'I pressed the panic button twice, once after he'd signed the DNR, and screamed at the doctors till they swerved around their medical ethics and brought him back.'
'I'm, God, Raven, I'm sorry,' Erik tried, but she was talking over him now.
'I wiped his arse, I cleaned up puke that was mostly stinking black water after his organs started failing, I screamed at the nurses about the state of his arse and legs - did you know you can still get bedsores in a fancy private wing? You can.' She was speeding up: he was regretting he'd asked. It was horrible, and utterly familiar, lived, known. 'While he could still eat I brought him anything, coaxed, the nurses didn't mind. They weren't so bad. They loved him - you remember. I smuggled whiskey in, but he didn't want it any more. That's how I know you're sick, I used to say to him.' She laughed, was no doubt crying too. 'He slept so fucking much, Erik - well, unconscious really. All those last days we were losing, I used to do anything to wake him up, keep him awake. I needed those last days and hours with him. Of course Sharon and Kurt didn't come near. Well, Sharon twice, early on while he was still presentable and attractive, for last pictures. Kurt a few times alone: he'd just sit there without saying anything. I think he felt bad, but really who knows, with Kurt? Cain came and cried, the bastard. I threw something, and he didn't come back. But mostly it was me and Charles. Me and Charles, after you'd buggered off, and he'd finished crying about it. I think he stopped crying just because he was too tired. You know, rather than because there were no more tears left.'
Erik's chest was burning. This was so bad, so much worse than... 'What did he say about me?' he managed. 'Raven. Did he, did he forgive me? Did he understand?' It was awful, to have wanted to ask, wanted so much to know these things for so long.
Now Raven had them, and him, in the palm of her hand. And she had no reason to be merciful. 'What makes you think we talked about you?' she asked, cool. 'We didn't talk about you,' she said, cold and precise. 'He didn't want to. He'd washed his hands.'
That was more awful than he could describe, though he knew he deserved it. After a few moments' quiet panting for breath, he thought that he really needed Raven not to hate him, at least one day. Who else was he ever going to be able to talk about Charles with? And he wasn't the only one hurting.
And at least now he had some reassurance. He was just crazy. He wasn't actually seeing Charles or anything.
'I wish I'd gone, to the funeral,' he mumbled. 'Was everyone there? Hank? Sharon and Kurt? Was it, was it... I don't know. Was it how he would have wanted?'
Sharper than ever, more clipped, more British than usual. 'Apart from the glaring absence? I don't know. I don't know about Charles' funeral specifications, Erik: when that day comes I hope to be cheerfully senile and pissing myself in a nursing home. Why don't you ask him about them? Oh, and you could ask him about that forgiveness you'd like so much at the same time.'
The click of the phone was emphatic, and Erik knew, right away, that she would never pick up again. It didn't stop him trying though, hands shaking, several times before giving up.
Google was Erik's friend, nice and smooth, unctuously reliable, tentacles in every pie. He'd always been so wary of it before. Avoided the name, the mention, any area of interest that might bring up things that couldn't be borne and shouldn't be thought of. He hadn't wanted to see stuff in the In Memoriam column, way back. He didn't want to see tributes to the late, brilliant, charming, promising scion of the Xavier clan. Their tragic loss.
He didn't want to see a word. He didn't want to be reminded. He was more thorough in his avoidance, his no-touch technique, than a mamma with a toothcomb, and a school circular warning of a mass nits epidemic.
Now, though, he needed to know, if there was anything to know. If Raven wasn't just torturing him, because she could.
Raven wasn't torturing him, it turned out.
No. Charles Xavier: there on the staff section of the Columbia website. Returned after a hiatus: fellow of the Genetics Department, research only, contact details as per la de da de da. The photo was awful, old and blurred and at a bad angle.
Erik wondered, himself, what his reaction was. Because his brain was numb: everything was white, a fizzing cloud, a humungous nothing that he couldn't access through all the cotton candy and mist, the electrically sparking forcefield. But distantly and dimly, he felt the forceful and singular direction: something was going on, telling him what had to be done.
Charles. It was very necessary to find Charles, now, if possible before Raven contacted him. Because if he left it too late, he might not be allowed. It might be forbidden him. Very like an automaton, he gathered his things and left.
Very briefly, he'd had a spell as a TA in uni himself. He knew the drill and the likelihood and the probabilities well enough. Lab, possible, probably shut by now without personal keys and passcodes. Faculty offices, maybe locked up barring the staff entrance, security on patrol. Charles' personal address: was it likely he'd still be living in the Xavier apartment block? Even if so: he was less likely there than anywhere to successfully gain admittance.
There was Charles' phone number: still pathetically listed on Erik's contacts, if he ever looked at it on his phone. He never looked at it. Not sober, anyway.
Charles would have changed his number. Obviously. And anyway, there could be no worse way to contact him. Anything that gave Charles the out of dismissing him by the click of an off switch... no. Face to face: that was the thing.
Even if dragging himself around on crutches, with a strapped-up knee.
Chapter 3: 'cause I passed down my old street
Old friends meet again. Bit of a shock all round.
Chapter title from the Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work'.
So, no go with the labs. The bio sections were half shut down with the lights out and nobody home. The active parts, he hung around every entrance, made a few swift, limping departures when he thought security might have been alerted. He wondered about just hanging around the staff car park for the department, but then caught himself at it. How desperate. Well, it was: he was. When he'd done shaking, eyes squeezed and not, not crying – no credit there, maybe he was the heartless bastard Raven would paint him – he had his head rested up against a wall, and probably looked a madman. Appearances might be right.
So he re-examined his map, and tried the faculty offices instead. And that was a score, second try only. He followed what was probably, from the dress sense, a grad student in, as the guy keyed the code and never bothered to check who was following on behind. Typical. Thank God for the slackness of... the human race. No system was proof against it, Erik thought. Lurking slowly along, he waited till the guy was out of sight to start scoping, to let it show that he didn't know the fuck where he was heading.
But after a while he oriented, surveyed the signposting, narrowed down the specialties and floors and options. Eventually he was lumbering, halting and cursing and wishing he'd brought the pain meds he'd been prescribed, down a narrow poorly-lit corridor. He checked the name on every door.
Many times he'd been told he wasn't in touch with his feelings. That was his problem: he couldn't have diagnosed it himself, but he didn't need to, since so many people had done it for him.
Right now, he felt it was better. If he just went ahead and let himself actually feel what he was feeling – behind the superdam reinforced concrete walls he'd erected in his mind – anything could happen. Anything.
An hour ago, he'd been a solitary fuck-up single dad, with an on-off girlfriend who regarded him as a fixer-upper near-hopeless charity case. And an hour ago, Charles had been dead.
Oh, no. Much better not to think about it. Privilege action over thought, he decided. He could think later. Or just postpone it permanently.
Door with cartoons – no – door with office hours affixed, rudely scrawled on by students proclaiming their inaccuracy. Door with pre-Raphaelite postcards and an interview clipping, presumably featuring the incumbent. No. Door with... Damn it, sweet God almighty.
He wasn't ready for this.
Case in point, one university research fellow office door. Charles Xavier, PhD., and a door number. No decorations, no additions, no comment.
The door was ajar, in a quiet darkened corridor, and a light burned within. And someone was talking on the phone, a one-sided conversation.
Dammit. So much not ready, there had never been so much not ready in the world before now.
Erik turned his back. Flight and hiding, and never facing up to this, seemed like a damn good idea. What in the world had ever made this seem like a good idea?
Chapter 4: well I never pray, but tonight I'm on my knees, yeah
A cosy chat in Charles' office.
Chapter title from the Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony'.
He wasn't sure, he hesitated, his crutches skittered on the shiny tiles. And then his eyes squeezed shut and he had to swallow, as he felt, heard the office door open up behind him. It was silly how he froze up. What difference would it make? Now? But he couldn't turn around, playing grandmother's footsteps.
'Erik. Always legging it away from me, aren't you, love?'
Erik supposed that the strip lights didn't actually dim, nor the magnolia walls sway around him. No. That would be him. But this was what he'd come for: this was what he'd wanted. So he turned around. It was Charles.
It was really Charles. Disbelief continued on for a minute. Because, no-one gets what they really want, not in this world, and dreams don't come true. And it's generally accounted pretty bad news, these days, if your dear one comes back from the grave, walking and talking and sniping at you with snide remarks. (Depending on which films you watch).
But then it flooded in, and it was real, but not real enough, not seeing and hearing. He needed to touch, and lunged to seize at the dear, dear known face and body and-
'Seriously?' It came out as rather more of a squawk than Charles' usual smooth cultured tones. But it got the message across, especially combined with the arm flung up to ward off Erik's idiot attempt at a lover's welcome.
'Friendly,' Charles observed, in more temperate tones, moving slowly, backing off. His face, a little more worn, still beautiful, was more wary than the moments before, and that was going it some. 'Rather inappropriately so. I suppose it would be too much to hope that you'll just kindly piss off, now that you've come all this way for the sake of old times, Erik?'
They stared at each other. Erik hadn't been able to forget Charles' eyes, but he hadn't felt the force of them for a good long while now. It seemed enough answer for Charles.
'Well,' he said, and sighed. 'Why don't you come in and sit down, then, love.'
And that was how Erik found himself sitting opposite his old dead love, tumbler of scotch in hand, silence like a forcefield in the air as they assessed each other. It felt like being assessed by a lethally armed opponent, about to slice you to pieces. A calmly undisturbed foe: neither surprised nor expectant. Not someone who'd just been put on guard by a raging, emotional call from a sibling.
'Raven didn't tell you, then?' he asked.
'Didn't need to, old love, though I take it you've had words with her,' Charles said, running a hand through his hair. It was much too long. Though he looked well-cared for and groomed - and healthy, vibrant with it, a world away from the fragile bundle of bones Erik had last laid eyes on - there were a million little things that were just wrong and different and changed. Things he'd had no chance to witness and ease himself into getting used to, these past two years.
He felt, with irrational and urgent strength, that he should have had a say in when Charles got this hair cut, and to what length, and style. He should have been consulted.
Charles tipped his head to one side, and grimaced at him.
He realised how his stare must be annoying, and tried to stop. 'I talked to her today, on the phone. For the first time, since... since.'
He processed a little, shook his head. 'You were expecting me?'
'Oh yes. Eventually. Perhaps not so soon: I didn't give you enough credit there,' Charles said, and nodded towards the crutches, propped against Erik's chair. 'Since you spotted me this morning, and had your little accident. Anything major damaged? You're walking and talking, at least.'
'Just my right patella,' Erik said, slowly. 'Nothing that serious, I should be walking normally within three months.' Charles had known - known that it was Erik, that Erik had seen him. Had witnessed the accident, Erik's frantic stumbling pursuit. And walked away? Without further enquiry, or making himself known. Without checking that Erik wasn't maimed, or, or, dead?
'Shame,' Charles said coolly.
Chapter 5: do I take you for a lover, or just a deceiver?
It's not exactly a reconciliation, and Erik has more to worry about than a re-animated ex-fiance.
Charles has Erik to worry about, now. Raven will assist him with that.
Chapter title from Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Don't Renege On Our Love'.
South Park ref. Also, Logan here somewhat based on Henry Rollins. Just picture Hugh Jackman as an alterna-rock star in baggy shorts. Also, knitting!Logan filched from various wonderful prompts.
Did I make it clear Logan is the manny, not the live-in boyf? Oops.
'You know, as it happens it's not such a shock, but it might have been. You might have thought to warn me? Give me a call, maybe?' He raised one eyebrow, and his smile was so pleasant, so impervious, Erik wanted suddenly to hit him, when he'd never in his life before felt that with a loved one-
But of course, he was in the wrong, and had better remember it.
'I assumed you would have changed your number,' he said, harsh with a voice he couldn't trust. Better to keep it brief. 'And if you're talking about getting a shock?...' He cut it off there. Still, he couldn't keep a lid on it, the pain and the anger? Still?'
Charles seemed unaffected, maybe oblivious. 'Oh, Raven used to lecture me about that. She said if I keeled over from an unexpected call one day – from you, of course – then she wouldn't be held responsible, and she wouldn't be going to my funeral either!' He laughed, heartily. Momentarily Erik could have wished him dead, for daring to laugh about it.
But Charles' voice hardened in the next breath. 'But I just always say to her, don't kid yourself, Raven, my love. Erik hasn't a sentimental bone in his body. He's not going to be dialling my number in a maudlin booze-soaked fit of nostalgia. Fat chance.'
Erik had come perilously close to doing just that, enough times to make his failure to follow through – or restraint, perhaps – irrelevant. But he had a feeling that pleading the case for his yearnings and sorrows would do him no favours. Not right now. He shovelled them into a hole in the back of his mind and covered them over. Concentrated instead on the slight, challenging figure lounging before him, legs crossed and leaning back, sizing him up.
It was all wrong. Charles was his. Had never been able to hold him at a distance like this, to maintain what looked unpleasantly like civil indifference.
'You don't know that,' he said, sufficiently non-committal. 'Anyway, it must have been enough of a surprise to see me. Even without the whole vehicular interface deal going on at the time.'
Charles examined his manicure a moment, face critical. 'Oh, I already knew you were in town,' he said casually. 'I was half-expecting to see you around here and there. Funny how that always happens, with people you know.'
He might as well have lashed Erik with a whip, but, knowing Charles, this was his equivalent. Breathe, Erik thought. Breathe deep.
'You've been keeping tabs on me?' he asked. The idea was comforting. You had to care a little about a person to put a P.I. on them.
'Oh, that as well,' Charles kind of agreed. 'But I also spotted you at our old coffee shop last week. You know, the one over by the craft market, two blocks on from the clock tower.'
It pushed the tightness of Erik's chest that last inch towards unbearable. 'You didn't come over to say hello.' He was trying for a dry note, or trying to look as if he might be. Charles just laughed.
Erik did suppose the notion was ridiculous. Charles composed himself. 'No. But it's true, I have been - what shall I say - following your career with interest. Did you enjoy Europe?' This was descending into social chit-chat. A lot like a cat down a greased slide.
And Erik couldn't damn well stop it. 'It served its purpose.' The purpose of getting the hell away from anything that might bring Charles to mind, cutting connections, running away in essence. He supposed all of that went without saying.
Charles stood and reached around the desk for a briefcase. 'Well, it's been awfully nice catching up again. But I'm about done for the night, and planning on walking home. Care to join me?'
So, yes: on this day, starting like any other day, he walked - limped - Charles Xavier home, to, yes, the dignified old apartment block the Xaviers owned, within ten minutes of campus. Nothing of use, nothing honest was further mentioned beyond the fact of terminal and, after all, non-terminal illness, the essentials of Erik's call with Raven. Charles took his number at the door.
'I did rather think you'd have changed it,' he observed. 'I suppose you remember mine.' There was a question mark in there somewhere.
'I don't suppose you ever tried calling me,' Erik asked, staring down at him: thin and dark and unreadable, face obscured more than revealed in lamplight.
Charles laughed. 'Oh love. Why would I want to do that?'
Charles threw his case on the sofa when he got in, and poured himself a drink before taking his phone out. If ever anyone was going to require a nightcap... She picked up immediately. Of course.
'Hello darling. Light of my life. Do you know what I'm going to say to you?'
He struggled out of his jacket as he listened to the response, then threw cushions around the sofa before arranging himself horizontally.
'And is your meltdown over now?' he enquired. 'I hope too many glasses didn't get broken. I gave you those, Ray. They weren't Walmart, they were Waterford, Christ's sake. Just because we can afford to replace them doesn't make it... never mind. Is Az in one piece?' More burbling.
'Well,' he sighed. 'I rather wish you'd prioritised giving me a heads up, over taking your emotions out on your environment and your husband. He came round to see me.'
That required holding the phone away from his ear for a few moments. He returned it when he adjudged it safe for his eardrums. 'Oh, darling, what did you think he'd do? Yes, it was quick. He's a very resourceful man, even maimed and halfway concussed. What did you expect from our dear Erik? It's not like I was making much effort to keep a low profile. Hiding in plain sight, you might say. It was bound to happen sometime.'
There was some more chatter, and he closed his eyes with a frown, pushing the hair back off his forehead. 'Oh, love. I'm fine. No, I'm not going to pretend it wasn't... disturbing. I am a bit stirred up. But fine. Oh, nothing much. It wasn't exactly a heart to heart. Just catching up in the most superficial way.'
Pause. 'Really, darling, I'm insulted. As if I would let him crawl back in bed, even if the subject had come up... No, we just updated our contact details and.. Oh, dear God, Raven. I'm not going to treat the old bastard as some kind of leper. No, I'm still not very happy with him, but he did what he felt he had to and... No, I'm not sending him to flipping Coventry, Raven. Nor are you. What are we, twelve? Anyway, I must go, darling. No, I'm fine. I will see you tomorrow. Now I have a single malt and a warm bath calling me. Good night, love.'
Erik got home via taxi, stumbling out with a piece of paper in his pocket, a number scrawled across it diagonally, in Charles' near-illegible hand. Made for a doctor, not a researcher, he used to say, squinting hopelessly at shopping lists and love notes.
Of course he could just have called straight away, said and asked all the things Charles hadn't permitted. The kids, Charles hadn't wanted to hear about, had shut the subject down. Erik had tried: had obscurely felt it tactically useful.
But somehow he didn't want to push his luck. Charles was alive: alive and just barely speaking to him, more to the point. Compared to his awakening that same morning, he was well ahead of the game.
Still, he wished he had less of a feeling of being handled in an aseptic room, at arms' length. Possibly via tongs.
Logan greeted him when he stumbled into the kitchen, seated at the kitchen island reading Ursula Le Guin under a single light, fouling up the atmosphere with a stogie. At first he got only a quick glance and a salute: then a closer examination. 'You look like shit,' Logan said, pleasantly, jaws still clamped. 'What the hell happened? I mean apart from the whole death wish and crutches stuff et cetera, Em clued me in on that.'
Erik pulled a beer out of the fridge and set himself down, with difficulty, before giving Logan a quick preçis.
However quick, it took some digesting.
There was a long expressionless period: then a slight snigger. 'Fuck me. Had a day and a half, ain't ya?'
'Thanks for the sympathy,' Erik said drily. 'How are the kids?'
Logan gazed into space and inhaled, exhaled deeply, as one who has to think, ponder and adjust to harsh realities. 'Wanda's been plotting world domination via Facebook with her satanic sidekicks,' he said absently, a smirk pulling at his lip. 'Literally: it's a class project – 'What would you do if you ruled the world: discuss.'' Asking for trouble with your kids, if you ask me. Pietro busted my ass at chess, and tried to persuade the cat to volunteer for a study into feline gender reassignment. Born vivisectionist, that one. He'll do well in med school.'
Not for the first time, Erik thanked God for stumbling across Logan at a point, after Charles, where he was singularly failing in being present, in mind if not body, for the kids. His enduring image of the guy was of Logan in the London kitchen, bottle-feeding cousin Marta's new baby in one hand, knitting with the other, all the while declaiming fierce spoken-word poetry into a digital recorder. Logan treated child-rearing as an experiment and was writing an anthropological doctoral thesis. It was called 'The Feral Child And Its Capacities'. Erik suspected it might be a survivalist tome about rearing children as living weapons. He was borne out by, well, his kids.
'But enough of that,' Logan said, a hairy hand brushing the matter away. 'How about you, you with the earth shattering revelations? What are you gonna do about your surprisingly pink-cheeked and alert late ex? What you gonna do about Em?'
Erik pushed himself up from the table and limped off. 'My mind's too fucked for a plan of action right about now. I plan to think about it in the morning. Now I'm going to go see my babies.'
Good as his word, he headed up the stairs to look in on them. But he was lying about the plan: he couldn't hold off for so long. Even now, already, his brain was ticking over, formulating an approach. Certainly it had to be conceded that, at present, his strategy resembled the gnomes' set of steps from underpants to profit, except it went something like: first step, have Charles' number... fifth step, get Charles back.
But it was a start. And not one he felt Logan's input would be helpful in re-formulating and fine-tuning. The man might be resourceful, multi-talented and devious... In fact, he was resourceful, multi-talented and devious. But Erik could organise his own nefarious wooings, thank you.
True to his word – this once – he stopped off at the twins' doors, set facing each other dead centre of the upstairs corridor. It was a mistake: both of them were hair-trigger sleepers.
While he was still lost in thought, Wanda had slipped out of bed and was beside him, face discontent and very much waiting. He looked down without overmuch surprise at her stealth. She was a ninja in training.
'Hello, baby. Sorry I've been gone all evening: Daddy had business to attend to.'
She breathed out stertorously: Wanda liked to make a production of every little thing. 'Never mind that. Daddy, Man City are selling Tevez. They're selling Tevez. Can you believe it? I can't believe it.' The main thing Wanda had picked up from their European sojourn was a fixation with British soccer. One might say fixation, or monomania, or psychotic obsession. Her foot swung idly, clad in her Gunners-branded peejays. When irritable and frustrated Wanda tended to start kicking things randomly, and Erik moved discreetly out of range.
'Is your leg hurt, Daddy?' she asked consideringly, and prodded the strapping on his knee. Erik winced, and moved further. His squeak alerted Pietro: two of them awake now, dammit. If it was Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers he'd be a walking vegetable pod by now.
Both he and Wanda drifted over and sat on Pietro's bed, where he greeted them with loud inarticulate grumblings on wakefulness. Then he began pinging peanut shells at them from the discarded bag on his bedside cabinet, which Erik barely noticed and Wanda maturely disregarded. 'Boring,' he mumbled. 'You're both boring. Being awake is boring. Daddy, what happened to your leg?'
Erik sighed, and tried to ease said limb, stretching, flinching and cursing. 'An argument with an automobile, number one son. It's nothing: will be right as rain after weeks of discomfort and some painful physical therapy.'
Pietro began to ping some peanut shells from one hand to the other, side to side, entranced. 'Okay. Is that all?'
Erik was a touch insulted. 'Oh, yes, quite all. Your progenitor and giver of life just had a life-threatening incident today, that's all. Nothing to worry about, child. Go back to sleep.'
Wanda opened one eye from where she'd begun to doze on the end of Pietro's bed. 'Pietro's right. You seem grumpier than would be justified by the circumstances, reasonably.' The twins' teachers alleged they both had a reading age of fifteen, at eight years old. Erik put it more at twenty-six, and it creeped him out sometimes. God knew where they had got it: both he and Magda had been smart enough, but nothing to justify expecting this end result from a conglomeration of their DNA. Maybe it was Charles' fault, and him being a quasi-step-parent to them for a few months, way back when, was enough to do permanent psychological, er, damage.
Also he did not know what to say. It was unusually hard breaking the news of Charles' life to them: harder than telling them Charles was dead had been.
When the yelling and the tears were over, and Logan had intervened and threatened some butt-kicking – mostly at Erik – peace of a sort was restored. He retreated to his own room.
It had been a relief to hang with the kids and Logan. a), he loved them. Even Logan, kind of: mostly for metaphorically saving his life, or sanity, at some point back there. And b), it had meant not thinking about Charles.
Mostly about a Charles who was indifferent enough to walk right on by after Erik was knocked down. Who'd known he was in town, and walked past him like a stranger in one of their own old favourite haunts. Who'd spent almost two years not calling, while Erik hid out in Europe, from ghosts, from anything that might connect him or make him think of Charles. As if that had worked.
He didn't think he'd sleep, but he slept. It was not sleep of a high quality, high on the weird and disturbing dreams. But it was sleep.
Still, it didn't take much, when he had to fight his way up to the surface and wake. It was his phone ringing on the nightstand beside him. Three a.m. When he grabbed it, it was both terrifying, and the most right, normal, comfortable thing in the world, to read Charles' name on the display.
Chapter 6: remember, when we were hand in hand
Erik's sleep is disturbed, Charles has a few things to get off his chest.
Chapter title from Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Don't Renege On Our Love'.
There was no time for any cautious queries, no time even to be happy, to feel like some things were meant to be, this moment oncoming always. Because Charles launched straight into it.
Not even drunk, or not very. A year and a half they'd had, dating and steady and engaged and nearly-not-quite married, then the horrible surreal hospital hell, all told. Not to call his love an amiable dipso, but still Erik had learned to read the subtle gradations, every shade through mildly oiled to flat-out pissed. This was mild indeed, in one way.
'Okay, you want it, you got it. And I can tell you want it. No more dancing around, love.' Erik's heart leapt, but erroneously, it was proved. 'You have, oh, let's say, one hundred and eighty seconds, to justify leaving to pick up the kids, while they injected poison in me to keep me going a little bit longer. You were supposed to be back at seven, Erik. At seven. That's seven p.m., not seven years later, by the way. Now go.'
Erik didn't waste seconds arguing, or feigning incomprehension. God, the adrenalin, it was like he was the one with poison rushing his veins. Nought to sixty, unsettled sleep to pleading his case in the witness stand.
'I didn't want to do it,' he said, didn't even have to think about it. How often had he defended himself, to himself, in his own mind? He knew his case inside out, the stronger planks of his defence, the weaknesses. He was his own counsel, and prosecutor, no-one could do better.
'You get that, right?' he asked desperately into silence, and wasted three seconds waiting for response. But at least he got the idea then. 'I didn't want to, I had to. Everything the kids had been through with Magda, they were only just recovering. I couldn't, Charles, I couldn't see them every day. They'd try to corner me, tell me you looked better and were going to get better. Try to force me to agree. Because if an adult said it, if their daddy said it, then that was a contract and they could force it through, point out the clause and enforce it in, I don't know, the heavenly court. Like they were in A Matter Of Life and Death. If they were promised you'd be okay, you had to be okay. They needed me to promise.'
Silence. And still more.
'I couldn't lie to them, Charles. Maybe it would have been better – got them through – but I couldn't.'
That was the easy bit. The ugly bit was what remained. He sucked down some air to keep going, sweating. He was going to break the phone if he didn't let up on it.
'I couldn't be strong enough, either. I couldn't do it all a second time, Charles,' he said, sitting up in bed and huddling, the covers pooling round his hips, sweat sticking. Cocooned like he was flinching from imaginary blows, hiding. 'When you met me I was a bag of broken pieces. You know. You're the one who put some of them together again.'
He hesitated, wondering how far to string out a metaphor without being yelled at, some extra. 'I was still weak, I was still... Glue and love and eighteen months of family and feeling whole, it only goes so far. I knew I was going to break, Charles. From day one when you came home with the diagnosis, I knew I was going to run at some point. It wasn't that I wanted to. I just knew I would. Love,' he risked, 'I thought it was better than at the very last minute. Maybe for you to have a little time to rebuild, with Raven.'
'Before I died.' The voice: he'd expected screams, fury. This was cooler, harder to read. Musical and husky and lovely, also, still, and that hit triggers that he really needed to ignore, right now. He wasn't getting what his body was telling him it was expecting, there was no way, right now. And if he wasn't something of a sneaky calculating ass, now, then he might never. If he didn't use what was true, just as much as if it was a lie.
'Well, see how well that worked out.'
Erik presumed his one-eighty seconds were up. But he still needed to get one more thing across. 'I wish so much I'd stayed, Charles. You can't imagine...'
'Oh, I think I can.' Charles laughed. 'Isn't hindsight wonderful? I'll bet you wish I'd got better earlier, too: before you ran. Storybook telemovie recovery, family photos, the wedding we talked about. Cosy. I would never have known you weren't to be relied upon in a tight spot. I rather think I had a narrow escape.'
And that was just the sucker punch that left him wounded and breathless, as the phone clicked and Charles abandoned him, sitting alone in the dark with wet eyes.
Obviously that was only the first call of the night.
Chapter 7: your eyes don't meet mine, you got a pulse like fever
Charles isn't impressed. Emma laughs at him. The kids are incandescently furious.
Poor Erik, say I.
Chapter title from Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Don't Renege On Our Love'.
The second call was the screamer. Even straight off there was just a little hyperventilation. 'Honestly, I know I shouldn't be surprised, you always had gall enough for anything. But the godalmighty front of showing up at my own fucking office – words are fucking failing me, Erik. I could identify the letters of the alphabet and spell out polysyllabic words at eleven months, and I do believe that words have finally fucking failed me. Do you have any idea what it was like for me, Erik? Does that ever cross your mind? Did you ever even think of me, when you picked up the kids and ran? Alone in a hospital bed with my body turning traitor: too busy puking and sucking down breath to cry, half the time. But only half the time.'
The only reason that Erik could get a word in was Charles' gasping for breath. 'I did, love, I thought of it all the time, I never stopped.'
'Don't – you – dare,' Charles said, and it was a lot less venomous than thin, reedy, on the verge of tears maybe. 'Don't call me that, I want to hear none of that from you. Keep your loves and lieblings for your kids. Poor little buggers, how many times have I thought about them these past two years? The only reason I was ever tempted to call. Sometimes I almost did, thought I'd risk you picking up instead of one of them. How are they? More like you than ever, I suppose? From all I ever knew Magda was a lovely woman, though. I suppose they might have got lucky.' It was spat out, but the fury was weakening. Charles sounded mostly tired now.
Erik might have laughed or cried, wavered and wasn't sure. 'Wanda looks more like Magda now. Pietro's drawn the short straw. Temperamentally, yes. More like me than ever. You must have had some effect, though. They keep winning science fairs, and correcting my English.'
Charles laughed weakly, still not a friendly sound. 'You sound better,' Erik said, emboldened.
There was a pause, and he wondered if more was coming. 'I feel better,' Charles allowed. 'A few metric tonnes of better, getting that off my chest. I think I could sleep now.' And with that, without a goodbye, the phone clicked and he was alone again.
It wasn't as if he'd got to sleep, or anything, for the third call. Not likely. He'd breathed himself through it, breathed through despair and negativity, till he'd got back to a bloody-minded secret resolve. A lot of things, he'd always had to know better than Charles, to get where they needed to go. He knew about this too. And after all, a Charles who cared enough to scream at him, instead of snipe at him from a cool distance... He was definitely still ahead of the game.
So he was calm enough, for the third time. So was Charles. This was the one where he was tranquilly told just how over him Charles was. But that secret little promise knot held tight in his heart, and he stopped up his ears, all the while civilly asking both the appropriate stuff, and what he actually wanted to know, and commenting where indicated. It was his chance to actually ask about Charles' sickness, without being shut off and shut up, to ask about, well, how? When? (When? How? The doctors had been so sure. They had offered no loopholes, no reprieves. He wanted to go back and throttle a few smug, kindly, condescending necks, now.)
'Really it's thanks to you,' Charles said, to what of this he could coherently express. He was so languid, Erik wondered if sleep was far off. 'You know... in a way.'
I was so angry, you can't imagine,' Charles said, in a wondering, lazy voice, and growled as he stretched. Erik didn't need to be there to know it, just from hearing it. He'd teased Charles enough about the way he stretched and yawned: called him a wookie, imitated his luxurious wiggles and exaggerated contortions, mimicked the popping of his spinal vertebrae.
But Erik could imagine. He had imagined it all the time.
'I didn't think about anything else. Not being sick, or dying, or the rest of my life, childhood, anything. Just how insanely angry I was, and various ways I would fucking kill you if I ever had the chance.'
Erik couldn't say anything: he was too busy not feeling the hurt, holding it away with a mental forcefield. He imagined the field: buzzing fizzing crackling, bouncing back Charles' barbs, closer to a trebuchet at this point. It was utterly ineffective.
'The only thing I wanted was not to be alone, going off into that good night. To have the ones I loved there. Not the kids, of course I wanted them spared that. But I was afraid of dying alone. For preference I wanted both you and Raven with me. And of course I didn't get that. But you gone, it multiplied the chances of dying alone, with Raven off getting a drink or a loo break.' It wasn't much more than a whisper, Charles' voice, but it wasn't getting any kinder. Colder if anything. 'And after a while, I stopped being afraid. The homicidal rage just ate it up.' Cold, and weirdly genial: speculative. 'I was still sick, and getting sicker, though. I could feel everything in my body giving up: organ by organ, system by system. It's not really any kind of help, in that position, to have some understanding of what's going on.'
'No,' Erik said numbly. He wasn't sure what he meant. No, he supposed not? No, don't tell me any more, I can't hack it, I can't stand it?
'Then Hank came to me: middle of the night, actually,' Charles continued, pleasant, chatty. 'He was in the middle of assembling a stage two drug trial: appropriate to my particular cytological profile and stats. But I didn't fit the criteria for the study: too young, too far gone. He would have got thrown out of the department, maybe struck off, for lying about it to get me on the study. The results were awfully promising, though.'
'What did he do?' Erik asked, and the darkness around him was so dark it glowed, his eyes resisting the night, inventing an aurora. He had a feeling he knew the answer.
'Oh, he lied,' Charles answered cheerfully. 'Of course. Through his teeth, a permanent paper trail of evidence, quite shameless. Just between you and me, of course. It could still get him in an awful lot of trouble, one day, should it ever come up.'
Of course. Hank was Charles' good friend, his old college buddy. Of course he had lied, done whatever he had to do. 'And it saved you,' he said tonelessly. It was good to know someone had saved Charles: had cared enough to do it.
'Shouldn't've,' Charles answered thoughtfully. 'As it turned out, the initial results were a chimera. When the final data was analysed, the effects weren't just worse than a placebo: they were worse than neutral.'
Erik processed that a moment. 'It was harmful?'
'Killed quite a number of sick people off like flies before they pulled the trial in a hurry,' Charles agreed, still weirdly chipper. 'I shouldn't be alive myself: the side-effects kicked in for me. And they thought I'd be gone in an hour. Then I closed my eyes... felt a little strange when I woke up again. Apparently I'd been out of it for a couple of days. I'd forgotten what it felt like to feel... okay. Just okay, mind you. Not exactly ready for a triathlon. But a couple of weeks later I was up and about. A week after that I was home again. And after a year's recuperation I called my old department and asked for my job back.'
'Was it the drug?' Erik asked. He was talking on autopilot: as if he cared. Charles was alive: what did the details matter, really? Except they always entranced Charles so.
'That's the question,' Charles said, rather pleased, by his tone. 'Of course, as practically the sole survivor, I'm statistically insignificant. You can't draw any conclusions from my survival: might be the purest co-incidence, the merest remission. But it's very hard not to hypothesize, isn't it? I do wonder: was it the drug, combined with my total fucking fury at your defection?'
The worst of it was, it wasn't a stab at Erik's heart, or not a deliberate one. Charles was, only too clearly, just curious.
'I've drawn together some initial foundations for further enquiries, putting together some metadata review articles from the existing research. I keep thinking, well, as you know, emotional states have physiological effects. The primary drug was attached to a probe for delivery... My adrenal system must surely have been in overdrive: quite probably resulting in sub-optimal promoter DNA binding sites opened up due to the cortisol locked on everywhere else, neuronal involvement, a subtly different profile of enzyme translation, WBC production dialled down... It could open a new avenue of enquiry, activating the adrenal system and other emotionally-triggered systems at the same time as primary drug application... Erik, do you actually care about any of this?'
Erik murmured, vaguely, nothing close to coherent response. He really didn't.
It wasn't anything close to the affection that would have elicited, once, in Charles' voice. But there was amusement, at least, in there. 'Shame on you. I can understand with Raven, but you at least had the basic biosciences grounding before you specialised.'
'I know,' Erik said, vaguely. 'I'm paying attention, Charles,' he lied. 'I'm... interested. I know it's important to you, to understand things.' That much at least was true. And the least lever was worth heaving on for all he was worth. 'But, the important thing is the final result: to me, anyway. You're here. If you're angry with me, I can live with that. If this is the end result I can pay that price. It's worth it.'
'True enough,' Charles conceded. And how could he sound so simply cheerful, pleased? 'Of course, things are different now,' he allowed. Erik could hear the stretch, the spinal curl, all over again.
Erik must be a double-dyed doubly proven fool, because his heart rebounded like rubber in his chest. 'Is it? Are they? Charles, you know I'm, how sorry I am.' He winced with the effort: of not stepping out of boundaries, of expressing himself clearly but cautiously. 'I know you're angry: how different can things be?'
Charles hmmed, and his tone was sharp, narrowly enunciated. 'In many ways. There's the notion that the arsehole you were may actually save a few lives in the future. The research on emotional states and terminal drug regimens could be... interesting. Maybe I'll think it all worth it in the end. And of course,' he mused, 'there's Steve.'
That was something Erik immediately wanted elucidated further. It was something he definitely wanted expounded further upon. Unfortunately it was also exactly where Charles decided to ring off: and not to call back again. It was a sign-off that kept ringing in his ears, ominous.
Erik couldn't quite summon up the foolhardiness to try to call him back, and get an adequate explanation, conduct an aggressive and detailed interrogation. Really it would have been no good if he could: he needed to be face to face anyway. Cheek to cheek, lip to lip.
Charles had always been soft for him. It wasn't as if Charles' rational mind had ever decided in his favour, even way back when he was in favour. He'd just worked on Charles' weaknesses in the past, knowing he was one of them. Knowing that if he was losing an argument or not getting his own way, then he needed to get his actual hands on Charles. Because Charles liked Erik's hands on him - for all the epithets it might get him, Erik. And there was a shameful triumph in the knowledge. Arguing, mumbling, backed literally and figuratively into a corner, with Erik's mouth wet on his neck, Charles always knew when he'd lost the war. Unfortunately it didn't seem like an advisable tactic at the moment. Even if it could realistically have been done, without getting ejected from his apartment block by security.
In the morning, he wasn't popular with the kids. A Saturday, after his eventful mental and physical health day, and they should have been relaxed, condescending, ready to spend a little quality time with the AP, before disappearing off to more important pursuits.
Not today. Logan gave him a warning glance from under beetling brows even as he stepped barefoot into the kitchen. Aware of the little black cloud over his head, the impending doom that was a lot more than imaginary.
The synchronised head swivel, the plastic impenetrable stares were unnerving, if he could have fully appreciated them at this point. Logan shoved a plate of turkey bacon and eggs in his hands. 'Sit, man. Eat. Know your place in the pecking order about now.'
But he was fool enough to try chatting anyhow.
'Any plans today, guys?' he enquired, painfully jovial. As if last night's shunning had never happened.
'Not talking to you, Daddy,' Wanda mumbled, looking down and stirring her cereal to mush.
'Then I think you've confused the basic fundamentals of the process, little lady,' he tried, nudging her elbow hopefully. Her mouth was still tight, but the droop of her neck was so limp it took the heart out of him.
'I'm sorry, guys.' He gave in, acknowledging the pall that was hanging over them. 'I know this is upsetting for you, but isn't it better that Charles is alive? It's good news, right?' Sure, their entire lives were upside down suddenly, and stirred around. But even so?
Wanda still wouldn't look at him, and Pietro chewed toast in stoical silence. But his exhales were fast enough, eyes glinting dangerously, to suggest an outburst brewing. More of that.
Suddenly Wanda flung a spoon down, and without nifty reflexes on his part it would have hit the floor. As it was he was spattered with milk. 'He's been alive, Daddy. He's been alive for two years, and we thought he was dead! Because you said he was dead! I thought you had checked. We thought you'd made sure. I can't believe you never made sure.' She was a tragic and ridiculous figure, four feet of hair electrically wild, pointed face dismayed, huge eyes accusing. The Tottenham strip pyjamas, this morning.
Well. She was always rational, though. He felt Wanda would do well in law, if she wasn't the first U.S. national to manage the England soccer team.
'I'm sorry for that, darling, and-'
'I cried all the time when he died, right up past Christmas,' she disclosed. 'I cried all the time, Daddy.' He hadn't actually known this. Had tried, to help, to communicate, as far as he was able, in the midst of his own pain. But they'd both shut him out, amazingly tough, plasticized, mini-adults. He didn't know how he and Magda had produced them. Or maybe it made sense, for his part.
'I cried at night. I cried in the girls' at school. Then I got that hamster and called it Charles and it died too. Like I'd cursed it!'
It was, honestly, reprehensible that he laughed right then. He didn't at all blame Logan for the vicious dig between his shoulder blades.
'I don't even care about how you cocked it all up, Daddy,' Pietro put in, turning and pointing a stubby finger at him, a hard-faced, chubby miniature cross between Winston Churchill and Oliver Hardy. 'What I notice is that Charles has been alive for two years, and he hasn't come to see us. Not once. He never even let us know he was alive. So he's not just mad at you, he's mad at us, too. And that's your fault.'
He did bring the kids around, largely through judicious bribery, and assurances that Charles would come around and they'd see him pretty damn quick. Which left him rather over-committed and under-resourced.
He still didn't like the mention of Steve, and that not at all. Not that he'd ever worried about that wholesome grass-fed lump of American beefsteak back in the day.
He hadn't had to, then. His claim had been unassailable, and Steve's aspirations made to be mocked. He wondered if those aspirations – largely winning Charles' heart, arse and attention – were still the same – and how much progress he'd made on them.
The thought produced a raw urge to rip and destroy, and also a slight wish to crumple in a corner of the sofa with a box of tissues and one of Logan's chick flicks involving Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts, or both. Both, even.
Obviously this couldn't be indulged in. But what was he going to do? Ask, say, his technically-current significant other for advice on winning back Charles' heart, forgiveness and rump?
It obviously wasn't any kind of acceptable idea. So it was obviously exactly what he did.
Emma met him for lunch at a place she insisted on, one he'd never frequented with Charles. Toney and white-upholstered and crisp, the vibe more art gallery than restaurant. He felt an urge to order frikadella deep-fried with ketchup, and belch at the waitperson.
Her arrival was prior to his, and she clicked her tongue, tilted her head back to assess him as he heaved and clicked towards her. 'You're not walking awfully well, darling. And those slacks are awful.'
'Be thankful I'm not in sweatpants, Em,' he said shortly, lowering himself awkwardly onto the banquette. 'Comfort is at a premium right now. And the walk may be due to the whole knocked-down-broken-knee thing. Remember?'
'You could make it into a motif,' she pointed out, nibbling on a breadstick. 'Style is paramount, lover.' One finger carefully shepherding a tiny stray platinum lock, she subtly eyed herself in a mirror on the far wall, half her attention clearly straying to a drill-sergeant audit of her immaculate, chilly beauty.
He sighed. It was really fine to communicate with a fuck-buddy on the barest surface of thought and feeling. They'd been doing it for six months or so to mutual comfort and convenience. But he could do with a heart to heart about now.
So he was businesslike, to the point. There was never the least point obfuscating or bullshitting, with Emma. She got the full load, off his chest and on her lap.
He did feel a faintly smug achievement at leaving her unbecomingly open-mouthed at his disclosure. At least he wasn't the only one pole-axed and panting with it.
Credit to her, she took a decorous sip of her mineral water, and regained her composure entirely, prior to a response. 'Really, only you, Erik.' Her raised eyebrow was a reproof.
'Yes, I conjured a living-dead ex–fiancė merely to spit in the eye of social convention,' he said drily. 'I feel the only thing I live for is to be a slightly annoying thorn in your side.'
'Well, ' Em sniffed, 'even if you'd been a little less vague to begin with... Really, Erik, all I or any of us knew about was his mere existence. If you'd disclosed more than that to your friends, one of us might have stumbled over him by now.'
'What friends?' Erik asked bleakly.
Emma laughed pitilessly. 'Good one. You do have a point. Well, besides me, there is at least Logan. I'm sure he offered you tea and sympathy. He does rather fancy himself the amateur counsellor. Do let him know he's in the shit for not giving me a heads-up on your delicious contretemps, too.' Her grip of her glass was slightly wobbly, as he mildly lobbed a sugar-lump at her.
'Em. Can you stop parodying yourself for one moment and remember you're a human being?'
Reluctantly she put her glass down, and, with an apprehensive glance first, took his hand. It was a touch creepy. Whips, chains and discipline from Em were one thing: normal, unironic, platonic human contact entirely another. She patted at him, inexpertly, womanfully.
'Well, darling, I take it lunch is on you.' Erik raised an eyebrow: he didn't object to feeding Em, but damned if he was going to admit he knew the reason he was footing the bill.
'Oh, less of the innocent,' she said drily. 'You can't break up with a girl at lunch and expect her to go Dutch.' Erik was a little shamefaced: but it was true enough. There was something difficult about courting your old love while still technically attached to your later flame.
Em kicked her heels off under the table, and leaned in: gossip, and eviscerating a human heart, were the only things that could have her stretching as luxuriously, as comfortably, as a pure-bred Persian. 'So, tell me about my rival for your manly Teutonic affections, love. At least, more than you have previously, which would amount to pretty much anything at all. Beyond the whole dead thing, and you really need to get a fact-checker on your biography, by the way. You do know I expect to meet him within the week, right, darling? Bring him round on Sunday, in fact: I'll get catering in and we'll have lunch with Phil and Natasha.'
He didn't fight it much: caved almost immediately. She might in fact be useful as back-up: but he begged off before dessert, settling up and bussing her on the chilly cheek. He had to regroup and consider strategy, digest her astringent advice, and marshal the troops. Time for a tactical assault, perhaps.
It was a little distracting to have a job to do, and he couldn't say he didn't resent it just now, though he had blessings enough on that score. As a former materials director at the Bonn branch of Stark Industries, he owed Tony a lot. Certainly for shuttling him between continents and departments without question, also for maintaining hands-off tact on matters he might be said to have a personal interest in.
It might have been tricky, certainly back in the day, what with Tony and Charles being old acquaintances. But a college romance and a soured friendship had put paid to communication between them, which would explain why he'd never heard from Tony about Charles.
He was senior enough for some flexibility: and made the fullest use of it, pulling the kids out of school despite Logan's disapproval. (Perhaps at the threat to his free time dalliances, and plotting out his next world tour, rather than disruption of an education he only regarded as cookie-cuttering beautiful free spirits and trainee apocalyptic survivalists. He kept reading Illich to them. Erik wished he would stop. It wasn't that he disputed Logan's ends, it was his means: rigid regimentation and religious single-sex schooling hadn't stopped Erik turning out fine, after all. Didn't he hate the system every bit as much as his little anarchists? Know your enemy, that was the thing.)
'Where are we going, Daddy?'
Truly, only his kids would regard a gratis day free from the onerous duties of Jewish private day school as a possible trick. Certainly Wanda was eyeing him with misgivings as she pulled on her miniature camel-hair double-breasted high-collar. 'Where exactly are we going, Daddy? I'm missing Sarah's clarinet recital for this, I hope it's worth it.'
'Ive got nature project,' Piotr said shortly. 'I don't care where we're going, it's all good.' For a future biologist, Piotr hated most carbon-based life-forms.
When Charles had died, Erik had been worried about Pietro. Bedwetting, lighting a couple of fires, was torturing small animals next? Now he'd just turned into an unusually pessimistic and misanthropic eight-year-old, but was doing phenomenally well at school: so it was hard to pinpoint what was wrong. Apart from everything. He wasn't even friendless, though his friends seemed as much oddities as he was. He wanted to be an entomologist: Erik wondered if it was an aspect of biological sciences, so he could feel close to Charles, without ever actually getting close to another warm living mammal. But he never talked about Charles to them, and they barely mentioned him any more, so it was hard to know.
Wanda had retreated into an aggressively pink princessy girliness: he wouldn't have minded if it appeared to bring her any satisfaction. She insisted on regular sleepovers with her loud and screeching chums, involving miniature cases of imitation cosmetics, and identikit, not especially awful boybands, and theoretically staying up late. (But collapsing into sleeping heaps by about half past ten.) When the house had been deinfested of them the next day, she sometimes made grim pronouncements about the stupidity of the entire feminine sex, and dug herself in at the kitchen table, eating ice-cream and reading the Brontes and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Sometimes she allowed him to join her, reading the weekend papers spread out on the table beside her in silent companionship.
Chapter 8: joyous reunion
Isn't it lovely to see old friends? Not when it's Wanda and Pietro.
He didn't tell them much, let them work it out for themselves. When they piled out of the car in the university's visitors' car park, they were already alight and buzzing with glee.
Pietro tugged on Erik's sleeve as he was checking the keyfob and backseat. 'Does Charles know we're coming, Daddy?'
Erik smiled down at him. 'Not exactly, son. Don't worry about it. He'll be pleased to see you.'
'I'm not worried,' Pietro said stolidly. 'I just wish I'd brought my South American sub-legal Latin-American megacephala collection to show him.'
Erik thanked God for leaving the house in a hurry.
Wanda jumped around, hair flying, unable to contain herself to immobility. Her eyes were bright, and Erik suspected unshed tears that he was careful not to notice. Wanda despised public emotion. She got on well with Emma, without loving her the way she'd loved Charles. The way she did love Charles, he reminded himself, with a flare of emotion, that hit him in the stomach, made him hangover-sick with excited dread. Present tense.
It wasn't that Erik was exactly stalking the man. He just had supervisory responsibility for multiple Stark interns with friends in Columbia graduate programs. He just knew Charles' old schedules, and could deduce alterations from published changes in teaching and research programs. He knew where Charles lived, he knew his office and labs, he used to be a regular guest in the staff restaurant.
Where the service manager was still the same service manager, and she still had a thing for him, fortunately enough.
'You know you're supposed to be a staff guest to be eating in here, Mr Lehnsherr?' Angel said, after she'd got them all sitting down, and the kids were pacified and quietened with biscotti, and promises of embarrassing tales of their dad's desperate early courtship/stalking of Charles. (Dammit.)
He just smiled fully at her – the smile she'd always weakened for back in the day, even when it just seemed to unnerve anyone else. 'We're meeting Dr Xavier?' he said, hopefully.
'Oh, of course!' she sparkled in response: it was clearly wonderful news. 'He's in here most days – it was lovely to see him come back! You must be so glad!' He could see she had only the loosest grasp of Charles' illness and the complications of their interpersonal relations: if any at all. Maybe he should be a little bit jealous: she'd always liked Charles just a hair-shade better.
'There he is!' she announced, delighted, craning her neck to see the far entrance. 'Perfect timing!'
Erik cringed, but there she was, calling out for Charles' attention. Calling him over. Now he was in for it.
And there Charles was, vaguely becoming aware, in the moments before his face turned to Erik. The bloom of youth rubbed off him now, decisively, probably as much by illness as by twenty-four months passed by. But thirty wasn't old – he was just a little leaner, sharper, harder, a little less the ingenuous delightful charmer. And maybe Erik had had something to do with that. And hated himself a bit extra, for it.
But the kids weren't waiting to be noticed and greeted, for the element of surprise to wane in its aspect of tactical advantageousness. They were, both, off and running, silent and swift before Erik was even aware, or could reach out and grab them. Damn, but they were good. He couldn't help but take a moment and admire the handiwork, both his and Logan's, and way back, Magda's. They'd need barely any training to qualify as Navy SEALS, or ninjas.
He had more pressing concerns, though, and limped after them swiftly, calling. Dammit. Rumbled. And all he'd wanted to do was to take it at a controlled pace, and have time to think.
Charles' eyes fell on Pietro, first, who was fast taking the lead, and barely yards away. Then to Wanda, bringing up the rear, hair flying and swinging the school bag she'd insisted on bringing along for some reason. Then on Erik – unsurprised, at this point, after a moment's shocked immobility. Charles was like stone, like a sphinx, like a doom that was going to come upon Erik quite shortly indeed. It was like a silent film, all action, no sound, the hum of the other inhabitants of the restaurant hushed, undisturbing.
Then the sound kicked in, when Pietro hit ground zero and kicked Charles – hard, Erik could tell, damn that kid could kick, a future as Wanda's top team player awaited him – in the shin.
Charles' cry wasn't especially embarrassing, not high or girly. But certainly loud, indignant and pained. Pietro was a sturdy lad. And it could hardly have been the reunion Charles briefly anticipated.
But there wasn't time for analysis: because here was Wanda, a wolf on the fold, and... Erik wanted to cover his eyes. But they were his kids, and he was certainly largely responsible for their codes of conduct. Too late, though. He stumbled and winced, incapacitated, too late, as Wanda flung herself upon a red-faced, angry, startled Charles, grabbed his hand and bit down.
There might well have been something a trifle girly in the squeal that rent the air at that. Erik scarcely blamed Charles. Magda had cured Wanda of biting at eighteen months, after resorting to biting back: but up until then rabies shots had been a regular recommended feature of life in the Lehnsherr household.
There was a tussle, some fairly excusable cursing from Charles, and then Wanda – perhaps a little reluctantly – unclamped her jaws, just as Erik hit ground zero in time to be too late. Charles backed off a couple of large, unsteady steps, nursing his hand with wide eyes, and looked at Erik accusingly. It was just between them: the kids' attention was all trained on Charles, eyes ferocious and tragic, as they panted with silent hostility.
'You fucking bastard,' Charles silently mouthed, above their heads, very quietly, eyes screwed up with discomfort and rage. And Erik knew it was nothing to do with the rather nasty flesh wound from a wild animal he'd just sustained. Erik shrugged. Charles knew him. What on earth had he expected?
It was distinctly awkward. And so rather handy that Wanda chose that moment for a second attack, throwing herself, kamikaze eager, at Charles' other hand and managing, with the speed and surprise of her frenzy, to put quite a handsome dent in it.
'For sweet fuck's sake, Wanda!' Charles wailed, shaking and chivvying in an attempt to dislodge her. 'Get the hell off me! Bite your father if you must!' His volume was uncontrolled now, his fury close to real, even at the child that had been something close to his own child. Erik closed in, and between them Wanda was strongly dissuaded from extorting her pound of flesh.
It wasn't such very good news, except perhaps for Charles. As she was dislodged she began to cry: and Pietro, who Erik had been vaguely aware of, clutching at a pillar and glaring, joined her. Or at least there was a suspicion of it: his shoulders heaved, once, twice, and then he was off running, his solid hobbitty form bent over and squawking with either distress or rage, probably both. He was out of there before either Erik or Charles could arrest his progress, and Erik looked after him helplessly, then back at Charles.
All he got was a disgusted look, then Charles's gaze fell to Wanda, who had begun to howl in a low-key, low-volume way that was rather affecting. Perhaps due to the lack of her usual knack for staging and amateur dramatics. She shuffled forward a couple of steps from where she'd fallen back, and grabbed at Charles' hand again. Erik winced, and Charles flinched rather unsurprisingly: but the assault was over. She only began to give out a gentle eldritch whining, with intermittent intelligibility. 'M'sorry.... sorry Charles... missed you... TWO YEARS... your fault... sorry...'
'Yes, all right, love,' Charles said, distractedly patting her especially wild hair with his free hand. 'I wish you'd find some other way of communicating it. Erik, for god's sake go and find Pietro. Hell knows what he's doing to the infrastructure while he's having his own emotional meltdown. I'll look after your other horrid brat while you track him down.'
Erik found Pietro in the nearest gents' in the building, identifying it as likely by the speed with which a prospective patron jumped back out of the door as he approached, chased out by violent howls and verbal abuse. 'Good God,' the poor man muttered. 'I think I'll just hold it, for the time being.'
Pietro hadn't done (much) damage to the porcelain: there was only a dent in a wall and an upended trashcan. As Erik guided him back into the restaurant he did a lot of inelegant, glutinously wet, vigorous sniffing, and wiped damp streaks onto his dirty face. Scanning around, Erik found that Charles had settled at a corner table, with Wanda opposite him. Drawing near, she was scoffing what looked like cheesecake, and as they reached the table a limp and fatigued Charles pushed his own plate towards her, for her to devour. She was utterly oblivious to Erik and Pietro, though still pink-faced and damp-eyed. Charles glanced up at him scathingly: then screwed his eyes shut as Pietro leaped.
Oh hell. It was a re-run of Wanda's grand finale all over again. When the restrained sobbing, half-defiant apologies and manly hand-shake were done, both he and Charles got Pietro sat down next to Wanda. Charles ordered more cake, and Erik sat down next to him. What the hell: he figured if he waited for an invitation he could be waiting a long time.
He stalled a couple of minutes for any kind of attention, conversation or acknowledgement from Charles, who only deigned to chat a little, desultory and intermittent, with the kids as they chewed. Then he gave up, and said, 'I'm sorry. We didn't mean to disrupt your lunch quite so... epically.' He leaned a little closer, angled his body in since he couldn't resist it. Charles had the wrong cologne on, and by wrong Erik meant not the one he was used to smelling on Charles. Never mind. Details like that could be fixed over time.
Charles did look at him at that, sideways at least. 'Never mind. I'm sure my meeting with the Dean can be re-scheduled.' His warm, curving mouth was hard and straightened, but Erik thought, encouragingly, that it was suppressing a laugh.
'Not really?' he asked.
Charles nodded up to the far end of the long room, at the good seats. The sober greybeards inhabiting them were vaguely familiar from old dead days: and one of them nodded, disapproving, at Charles.
'Shit,' he said weakly. 'I am really sorry.'
'Never mind,' Charles said, with a lightness that suggested just one more thing added to Erik's tab, and suggested that it also contained its own opposite. 'Prof. Schmidt came over and told me to call him for a personal appointment later in the week, since he could see for himself I was otherwise occupied for the time being. I quote: 'I see you've got yourself entangled with your dubious heterosexually-active former inamorato again, Xavier. And his descendants, too. How unwise of you.''
Fucking Schmidt. There was a reason Erik had never liked him.
Charles got in in the evening and didn't pour himself a drink. Rather like crying, he thought that if he once got started, then it was possible he might never be able to stop. First he called Raven: then he got her to put Az on the line and talked another half hour. Then he called Hank, and then Steve.
Rather sadly, this fairly accurately mirrored his priorities, he thought. Which was forty-nine per cent of the problem. The other fifty-one being frigging bastard Erik Lehnsherr, and his spawn from hell.
Then he laid on the sofa in front of the widescreen for half an hour and watched style guides and house improvement specials, and some really awful talent show, full of judges with a talent for being born in the UK and faking a Windsor accent, and contestants with a talent for nothing. Then poured a drink, then passed out. So much for Monday evening, so much for love, so much for will-power.
Chapter 9: give me just an ounce of sympathy
Erik has a go at massing the troops for his campaign. They're not co-operating.
Chapter title from Richard and Linda Thompson's 'Don't Renege On Our Love'.
Erik was cautious, for a couple of days after that. The kids couldn't be relied on the same way: he figured they didn't need to be like he did, and in any case, any attempt at a circumspect approach was well down the Swannee at this point.
He did take them aside, first off, and try to get down a few ground rules. It was his attempt to give them a more realistic picture of the situation, and though he didn't mention Steve by name, the man featured heavily in his thoughts.
'Do you understand what I'm saying guys?' He crouched down before them as they lounged in front of Nickelodeon on TV, a wrecked weekend morning langour writ heavily on their unlined faces.
Pietro raised one hand, flipped Daddy the bird first, then began ticking items off. 'One. Charles isn't going to be moving straight back in with us. Two. Charles isn't your boyfriend any more. At the moment. Three. Don't do anything that can get traced back to Daddy. Amirite?' His brows were almost pencilled in, in their doll-like heavy precision, and now they tried to climb off his forehead.
He was laying on the sarcasm too thick, and Erik was going to have to have a word with him at some point about appropriate filial respect. But just now he was too relieved that the message had got across. Pietro winked, very slowly. 'We won't get caught doing anything you wouldn't do, Daddy.'
And Wanda gave him a solemnly ironic salute, eyes not leaving the screen at any point. 'Message received loud and clear, commanding officer, Sah.'
Logan eyed them from the piano, where he'd been idly picking out some Fats Waller. 'I'm making ice cream sodas, buds. You want in? You want a finger of gin in yours, Erik?'
Erik nixed that, and sagged against the sofa, fairly relieved. He thought of struggling up, but his knee ached with the east wind, and he just lay there instead. Back At The Barnyard was pretty terrible, but not bad enough to get him to move his ass. The kids patted his hair with fond patronage, and Wanda leaned forward to whisper in his ear. 'Don't worry, Daddy. Nothing shall prevent our eventual triumph. I've been re-reading Sun Tzu. He doesn't stand a chance.'
Pietro picked at his toenails – right up against Erik's face – then rested his head on Wanda's shoulder. He didn't bother to whisper. 'There is no low to which I won't stoop, in order to get this project finished, Daddy. I still remember Charles promised me an ant farm and a wormery when you got married. That clause still holds as far as I'm concerned. I'm fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, Daddy.'
'Of course you are, son. I'm proud of you.' Erik quietly wondered if Pietro might be better suited to law school rather than biology.
'That's The Merchant of Venice, Daddy. Volume one.'
Erik had actually known that. Well, all right, not the actual volume, perhaps.
'I can give you the lines if you like. And the full quote. And put the irony in context for you, considering our Judaic heritage.'
'No, son, don't do that,' Erik said soothingly. Pietro was a wonderful, complex, amazing freak of nature. Erik appreciated him, and especially the fact that the kids were so goddamn amusing, a bonus he hadn't expected from breeding. But he hadn't yet learnt not to rub it in when he was smarter than Erik. Given who still held the family purse-strings, that rendered him not quite as smart as all that.
But overall Erik felt a frail contentment. It was good to know you'd raised your kids right. 'I'm proud of you, guys.'
There was no point at which Erik hadn't expected to get called in to answer a few police enquiries. Or at least, substitute 'Raven' for police, and you had the general gist of the matter. There might as well have been a digital recorder, a notebook and an overhead light, and maybe a good cop to counterweigh Raven herself. The fact that she chose to hold her inquisition in the same coffee-shop she'd often enough frequented with Erik and Charles in olden days, was neither here nor there.
There was no request – no such euphemism would have described the abrupt text he received, with the place and time he was required to attend. And he didn't bother calling back: just cleared his schedule and showed up. Raven was quite sure enough of herself to take silence as assent. Inexorably, it was going to happen sometime: might as well take his lumps now, with a little prior warning.
If he was going to acquire a sister-in-law somewhere down the line, he might as well get used to being glared at and kicked under the table, in preparation for many a stressful Thanksgiving and Hannukah.
She kept him waiting, and he tried to look appropriately tense and angry when she deigned to turn up. It wasn't so hard, he was certainly uneasy. But when she slid into the booth opposite him, complete with a baby bump Charles hadn't bothered to mention, he had her specific, detailed order waiting for her too, and had prepared better than for his intern interviews in the summer before grad school. No eventuality was uncovered, from 'Who the hell do you think you are?' and 'I know someone who'll break your legs for cheap,' to 'You will sign a pre-nup agreeing to adopt 2.6 babies, do all the housework including the guttering four times a year, and wear a frilly apron while cooking.'
Raven might actually do that – any of it. But he could always just cross his fingers while signing. He was only ultimately answerable to Charles, after all. And Charles could mostly cope with Raven.
All she did was take a sip of her drink, then push it away with distaste. 'You got it wrong.'
'How?' he demanded. 'And hello to you too, by the way. Cinnamon, extra foam, light on the arabica. Exactly how you always had it.'
'Two years is a long time,' was all of her explanation. Then she cocked her head. 'Isn't it, Erik? We should know.'
'What am I doing here then?' Erik asked. Maybe a bit surly. She was entitled to an inquisition, complete with thumbscrews. Didn't mean he had to enjoy it.
Raven scrunched her brows together, stroked her belly absently. 'Well, you could get Pietro to stop friend-requesting me on Facebook. I love the little frootloop like an almost-nephew, but he has to be kidding. Big fat juicy praying mantises eating littler insects is not what I want to see when I check in with my life over breakfast. You know he shouldn't have an account, right? Not big on the parental oversight, surprise, surprise... But apart from that... Just wanted to suss out what you're up to. Open-ended, right?'
She let the pause lengthen, and gazed into his eyes. But Erik wasn't going to crack at an opening tactic like that. He was nowhere near that soft.
'Because I know full well you're going to be planning something,' she continued, as if she hadn't waited expectantly for him to fold, to give it up. 'Because you're you. I know you, Erik.'
'You think,' he muttered.
'Yeah, I think I know a few things about you,' she said sharply. She counted them off on her fingers, one by one. 'One: you love my brother... all the time.'
Something eased in him, to have her cede that, straight off, but she didn't stop. 'Two: you think you know what's best for my brother, most of the time. Three, you know damn well what's best for you, and you have a perpetual eye out for the main chance and your own advantage. Four – you and your kids? Chips off the old block. Ruthless little bastards to a man, and especially Wanda.'
There was a flicker, an awareness in her eye, as she clocked his overall response. His unspoken, content assent, he supposed.
'Oh, don't be so pleased with yourself,' she said dismissively. 'It's not anything to your credit, loving Charles. Everybody loves Charles. It's like a law. Contravening it would be like assassinating Santa on Christmas Eve. I love Tiffany giftboxes, does that mean I should get a gold star and all the over-priced baubles I want? It doesn't mean I'm giving you any encouragement on your mission to worm your way back in. Worm.'
Erik gave it his best innocent face. But sadly that was something his face had never been designed for.
'Wouldn't really expect your support for my campaign,' he assured her. 'Although any donations would be most welcome-'
''Would a wooden nickel and a cap bomb do you?' Raven enquired caustically. She sat and contemplated him a moment. 'I think you're wasting your time. I hope you're wasting your time. Charles is too smart to get snowed by you a second time.'
She didn't sound quite sure, and he held on to that. 'If you're that confident, then what was the point keeping me in the dark all this time?' he asked. It rankled. Not that he was owed any favours. But the kids perhaps...
'Not our choice,' she said absently, draining her drink. 'If it was up to me I'd have rubbed your nose in it. But it was how Charles wanted it. He didn't want to be bothered with you. He asked us to co-operate, so we went along.'
The hurt was only briefly incapacitating. Pain wastes time, and apparently is all in the mind anyhow. He exercised some will power, some control. Then ran through that last bit in his head again.
'We? Who's we?' It was unnecessarily sharp, and slow. There was something he'd missed. 'Who's we?'
She looked up, and what twisted the knife was the look on her face. Not a mock-innocence, just a real surprise. 'Oh, Erik, love... Obviously. 'We', is everybody. Me, Hank. Steve. Jean. Tony. Everybody. Charles asked all of us, everyone, to keep quiet, not to tip you off. Everybody knew. How would they not know? Since they didn't run out before the big finale got pulled and re-written.'
Well, obviously everybody knew. He just hadn't got around to thinking about that side of it. He'd been too busy with that run-over-by-a-truck feeling. That back-from-the-dead soap opera surprise.
Hank had known, of course he had known. And Steve. Jean?
Hank never used to like him – at least, up until the point where he'd begun to consider Hank one of the family. That marked the transition, for Erik Lehnsherr, from Rottweiler to labrador puppy, in manner, and after that, in ancient days, Hank had warmed up considerably.
That was all a fair amount of time ago, of course. But Erik still felt a considerable desire to discuss the matter with the fluffy-headed nerd. So he rocked up at the appropriate university lab around lunchtime, after carefully observing most of the support staff hiking off to the refectory or sandwich shop. Typical Hank. No doubt he was waiting on some riveting results from a leaf mould... gel, or constructing a probe for jellyfish sucker nodule RNA, something like that. Erik's contempt was fairly scattershot and slung together. It had to be directed at Hank's researches, since he didn't have hold of the man himself.
It was a matter of pride to slink into the research-staff-only section of the labs on panther feet, and catch his target unawares. Not, of course, that he was childish enough to take satisfaction in Hank breaking some delicate glass tubing in his hand, when Erik leaned in over his shoulder and ground out a, 'Hello, old friend.'
Hank mewed like a very loud, very startled kitten, and Erik should definitely have had his phone out and taped the whole thing. There might have been a small amount of micturation going on. Nerd-boy swerved around, staggered back two hefty steps, and yelped. 'Fuck me! Fuck ME! Jesus... Erik. Erik. For God's sake.' His face was wild, and apprehensive. With good reason, Erik thought grimly. Although he had to be indefensibly stupid not to have expected Erik to turn up, at this point.
Erik moved in closer, relentless. There wasn't going to be any escape until he got a few answers.
But Hank, actually, seemed to pull himself together rather quickly. He didn't back off at Erik's advance: and something in his face, harder and older, squared off and just seemed to say bring it.
That wasn't a look he'd ever seen on Hank's face. Not that he was stopped. What stopped him, gave him some pause, was Hank's curt bit of advice, and the look at his big shiny silver nerd-watch. 'Okay: I should have known you'd turn up. Points to you, Erik. You've got three minutes before I call security on your ass. Would you like to ask actual questions, or shall I just run through my part in events for you?'
Erik gave it a moment, as they stared each other down. 'Well,' he drawled, feeling the faintest touch shaken. Not showing it, though. Never show it. 'Little Hank's a man now. I'm so proud.'
Hank impatiently shoved the pieces of broken tubing down on a lab bench, fragile as sugar icing, his big meaty hands seemingly unscathed. 'a), Erik, you're wasting your own time. b), I hope you don't seriously think I won't be telling Charles about this, and it won't do you any favours. Do you want my report back to be more lurid than it need be?'
It was a good enough point. Erik held a sulk down to mere surliness. 'Fine. Justify yourself.'
That got him a bark of a laugh, a slow considered exhale. Shy antsy socially awkward Hank would never have held his eyes like this in days gone by. Perhaps dumping the hulking great nerd-specs helped: these were narrow and thin-lensed, and Hank was older, better dressed, a thicker invisible barrier between him, and the world that had always seemed to poke at his vulnerable spots.
'Don't really feel the need. We did use to be friends, you and me, Erik: friends at one remove, anyway, transitive property. Charles was my pal, he seemed to have a blind spot about you and I made the best of it. Then you treated him like a candy wrapper, dumped him when you couldn't get any more use out of him. Was I going to come running to you when he decided to play Lazarus on us? Especially when he asked us to mind our mouths and not put you on the scent. Turning up with apologies and flowers and a dozen excuses, probably.' Hank folded his arms, stared some more. The three or so inches he had on Erik were really starting to grate.
'Anyway,' he added, very soft, very quiet, 'you dumped him. I saved him. Where do you think you get off judging me?'
Erik suddenly couldn't get out of there fast enough. Literally: Hank still managed one parting shot. 'You know, you could just call Steve and Jean and offer to buy them a coffee, like a civilised person, if you want a chat. Since you seem to be set on doing the rounds.' The lab door was closing on Erik, but Hank wasn't done yet. 'Or maybe I'll get them to call you. Bung you an email. Yeah, maybe I'll do that.'
Erik was rather carefully not calling Charles, so far – carefully judging and spacing out his approaches. A lot of small-hours night-time yearning, and endless waiting for calls that didn't come, seemed to beat out a botched and hurried approach, and being barred from Charles' society permanently. He'd restricted himself to a couple of short-form texts – neutral, apologetic, inoffensive – after the reunion with the kids hadn't gone quite as well as it might've. To call Charles' response antiseptically minimal overstated its poetry and effusion.
Now he knew he'd overstepped the mark with Hank: and his phone was a temptation that sat and itched at him on the coffee-table. To distract himself, he scratched instead under the webbing that was chafing away at his injured knee, sly and covert. Not covert enough – never covert enough – when it came to the kids, or to Logan. The hairy one turned away from the dining room table, and the robot-building project he had the kids working on – no doubt complete with missiles, weaponized nanobot capacity and reproductive empire-building AI ambitions. Something landed, pinged hard on Erik's protective knee strapping and hurt, rather. One more thing.
'That hurt. You hurt me,' he said pathetically.
'Stop scratching,' Logan said irritably, turning away and considering his work, and judging by his face, deeming it good. 'Stop pining. Stop lying around and feeling sorry for yourself. Just call him already. You want the kids to call him instead? I take it that's why you keep leaving your phone lying around?'
'They still haven't called?' Erik said incredulously. Both he and Logan turned to watch the kids, who pretended blithe insensibility, industriously labouring over circuits and welding torches. He didn't say anything. Logan didn't say anything. Sometimes you just had to wait till they were ready to devote a little attention to you.
Logan adjusted the orientation of a robot arm, tactfully pointing out the problem if you set the thing up to shoot itself in the foot, rather than, say, your father. They waited some more, and Pietro examined the work in progress as it towered over the table, chin in hand. Wanda came and rested her own chin on his shoulder, joining him in contemplation. 'We're working to our own schedule,' Pietro said, tight-mouthed and secretive, eyes still seeking a far, far place. He might or might not have been referring to Charles, but the odds were he was. 'It's strictly on a need-to-know basis.'
Wanda smiled dreamily, but they were still barely acknowledged. 'More haste, less speed, Daddy. You've got to let the moment ripen. Sometimes you have to let the universe come to you. I could read you a little Kafka that's very apposite.'
'Sometimes I wonder,' Erik replied. 'Whether you'd prefer getting Charles back in his proper place, running this house and keeping the rest of us in order, like it used to be. Or whether you're having too much fun torturing me over this.' He might have sounded a little dismal. Amusingly heartless was amusing enough, but though he knew the kids had hearts, they were sparing enough showing it. Magda had read them Lola and Charlie, Harriet the Spy too often, Frances Hodgson Burnett insufficiently. They could have done with a few more Victorian tearjerkers jerking their tears, it might have enhanced their moral and emotional development, stunted as it sometimes appeared to be.
He got two one-armed hugs out of the pathos, the emotional manipulation, at least: strangling, but affectionate. Wanda kissed his forehead. 'We want him back, Daddy. But you can't make him, not till he's ready.'
It was probably the wrong thing to say. Pietro got a speculative look in his gleaming black button eye. 'But we have a cellar, though. We have a cellar, right?'
Chapter 10: I hope you're thinking of me, as you lay down on your side
Some of Charles' ancient history revisited.
Tense switch, a little narrator interfacing, hoary old plot device. We're going forwards, we're going backwards, don't get seasick.
Chapter title from the Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work'.
No, back up. Twenty-two months or so. Yeah, just there, that's right.
Raven stands waiting in the hospital corridor, and leans closer into Hank. Almost, she leans against him, but he looks a frail enough support, eyes shadowed, red-rimmed, mouth compressed like someone holding in words or tears. His white coat isn't immaculate – when is it ever? And the ridiculous spotted design on his white shirt is red as blood.
'Everything okay with you?' she asks him.
But his grin is a grimace. 'Fine. Good. Skies are blue, birds are singing, pot of gold round the next bend... just as long as no-one takes too close a look at the paperwork, of course. Because then I'm so fucked you wouldn't believe.'
At that she does lean her head on his shoulder. He reaches up, spindly, tender, more boy than man even now he's proven himself bold enough, a little ruthless. Strokes her hair.
'Worth it, though, right?' she whispers back.
'Oh, love,' he says, voice suddenly comfortable, audibly easing. 'Of course. I'd do it again a hundred times.'
He startles a little when a thickly-accented Russian voice booms out, someone rounding the corner. 'Unhand my lady, you swine, you dog. Or I'll see to it you never travel via public transit in this town again.'
Hank relaxes and laughs, hands up in surrender. 'Okay Az, okay, see, hands off. You don't have to set every ticket collector and traffic cop on my ass.'
Raven swivels, and in one step, two, a twirl, she's out of her ex's arms, into her husband's. 'Give it a rest, darling. If you were really so worried about Hank still being after my sweet ass, you wouldn't have had him as your best man.'
'Even so,' Az says, gripping that same ass with comfortable and conspicuous delectation, stroking his beard with his free hand, 'I watch all contenders for my woman with suspicion. Even old Hank. We Russians, you know-'
Raven sways into his solidity, not fat but a wall of man, and snorts pleased-like. 'Yes, you Russians. All you Russians, down in Queens. If you call your old Gran 'Babushka' one more time, she's going to brain you with the samovar.'
Az shrugs, too pleased with himself to be insulted, settles her closer while Hank watches and wrestles with a smirk. 'Hey, it worked in college.' His accent doesn't waver: he's shameless. She leans back in his arms and eyes him narrowly.
'Worked for what?'
Hank rests against the hospital-green wall, grinning finally. 'Not a great justification, Az. Not to your wife.'
The beard-stroking indicates confusion, delay: but Az is spared the need for devising further tactics, when a nurse leans out of the door they're hovering around. She raises an eyebrow at Raven. 'He's ready.'
Az turns to Hank as Raven dives in there. 'She didn't want to help pack?'
'He threw her out,' Hank says. 'Saying a last goodbye, maybe.'
Az shrugs, as continental and exaggerated as he can possibly make it. 'Sentimental memories? I would not have thought so. He nearly died in there. We expected him to do so.'
Hank's eyes stray to the half-closed door. 'Laying ghosts, maybe, then. Saying goodbye to- well.'
Az doesn't bother to assent, just frowns. Their eyes do not meet and the silence is grim.
A squeak of wheels breaks the brooding, and the door yawns open as Charles appears in a wheelchair. He clutches a few odds and ends, but it's Raven who's burdened with his luggage and boxes, some of which Az quickly relieves her of.
'Thanks, Az – how's the job going? Sorry to keep you waiting, Hank.' Charles' voice is thinly stretched: like he's too tired for each word, pushes onto the next with reluctance.
Az preens a little, a hand through his smooth hair, tugging at his cashmere scarf. 'The new mass transit communications executive for all outlying boroughs is very well, thank you, Charles. And you, you look yourself, once again.' He grabs Charles' hand and mangles it a little: then seems to think on, about fragility and bird-bones, perhaps, and lets go. 'A happy day: it's good to be taking you home.'
Charles laughs. 'I look like shit, Az. But I think I have some excuse.'
He doesn't look good even now, it's true. But at this point, it's more malnourishment and exhaustion than actually being sick. There's at least a tinge of colour high on his cheekbones. A couple of freckles remain, even in his indoor-reared condition, and stand out in ridiculous relief on his nose, his white white (grey-white) skin. He's rail-thin despite i.v. feeding, followed by a calorie-dense diet, scarecrow-haired, dressed in striped pyjamas and a heavy cable-knit sweater. It makes him look like a loosely-attired puppet, dressed by a child wielding a toy sewing machine. His feet are done up in heavy sheepskin slippers, but still look blue and swollen with cold – though it isn't cold at all - and marked with slowly healing scabs.
It's an orphan child look, intolerably young, for someone who also looks like he hasn't a laugh left in him.
'What's with the wheelchair, you lazy old bugger,' Raven says, smoothing his hair fiercely, so brief and rough it's as if it must burn her. 'You've got a clean bill of health, you just want to play wacky races, right?' Her voice is so near the edge, taunting is the only option open to her bar tears.
'Against hospital policy, miss,' the orderly pushing Charles explains.
Charles leans back and smiles at him. 'I wanted to walk, but Tom here says it's more than his job's worth. That right, Tom?' he asks.
The orderly shrugs, a fat old white guy with scant white hair, skin red and shiny, mouth good-humoured enough. He looks like the embodiment of blood-pressure problems and card games and tolerant evasion of management initiatives. 'Actually the wacky races thing sounds like an idea. If your sister feels like laying odds?'
Hank steps over, takes the oddments – a magazine, bag of sweets, phone – out of Charles' hands. 'Maybe not in front of the medical staff, eh?'
'I always forget you're one of the doctors, Doctor,' Tom says equably. 'You look so much like you're here from high school for a couple weeks' candystriping.'
Raven and Az snicker, and Hank just sighs. 'I get no respect. Let's get you out of here, Charles. Get you home.'
Then they're actually barrelling down corridors, too shiny, still shabby, too many lights. Charles is wincing, and Tom actually takes a cracking pace. In the elevator Raven half-sits on the arm of his chair. 'What are the first things you're going to do when you're home, love?' she asks, high, croaky.
'Order take-out,' Charles says idly. 'Even if I can't actually eat it. Practise drinking a little bit again – shh, Hank didn't hear that, did you Hank? Against doctors' orders – but Hank knows me. Watch PBS about twelve hours a day. Sit out in the grounds a lot. So tired, love, still.' He grasps Raven's hand fiercely. 'You know it's not going to be a case of going straight back to normal, right? I don't know how long it's going to take.'
They all stare straight ahead, at the elevator wall as it clanks and brrrs, and Raven just breathes a lot, noisily, till she's calmed down a bit.
'Maybe call Erik?' Az asks, his tone quite as light as if it's something a normal person might say.
The most modern, smoothest elevator isn't perfectly silent. But the quiet's fierce and deep and whistlingly lonely enough to crack like glass if anyone breathes.
It's the normality of Charles' tone that burns up the past to ash, in a moment. 'Who?' he asks.
When Az gets kicked by Hank coming out of the elevator, he only yowls a little, and even that like someone who expected it. 'Someone had to say something,' he mutters. 'Now it's done: we don't have to think about it, we don't have to worry about someone bringing up the subject. I think I deserve a medal. We Russians, we do not shrink from-'
He sees a second kick coming, and shuts up.
Chapter 11: love wars
A call from an old adversary for Erik.
Chapter title from the Womack and Womack song of the same name.
So Erik's phone went off, and he didn't want to grab it one more time. It wasn't going to be Charles. Not considering it was never Charles, all these days he was carefully counting, creeping into double figures now. What was the point of disappointment, one more time?
Logan turned around and watched him a moment. The kids were too absorbed, or too used to his whims and assholery. 'You get that I'm not your manservant, right?' Logan asked with narrowed eyes, getting up and grabbing it, checking out the screen.
'Nobody asked you,' Erik replied irritably. Then, since he couldn't help it, and might as well get it over with, 'Is it Charles?
'Nope,' Logan said, flicking it open. 'Unknown number,' he said, then reverted his attention to the call. Erik did try to grab it, but Logan was inhumanly quick. And Erik, well he was having some discomfort that he wasn't going to complain about, more than eight times a day, as if he was some sissy. And, well, it might be something he wanted to know about. Better for Logan to find out.
'Number of Erik Lehnsherr, esquire,' Logan said smoothly. He started to weave about the room, graceful like he was dancing, like a drunk gorilla, kids following as instinctively as if he was the Pied Piper. 'Man about town, behemoth of industry and marvel of engineering-related virtuosity, pain in my ass. Father to two of the sweetest little monsters who've ever gone door to door claiming to be Jehovah's Witnesses on Halloween. What can I do for you, bub?'
As an aside, he leaned down to the kids. 'You know that was actually sadistic, right? You put fear into those good folks' hearts. There's a reason you struck out on the candy issue.'
But, back to the call, and he spent a moment or two pulling mysteriously surprised/appalled face (it was hard to tell) and grunting affirmatively. 'Okay. You just hang on a minute: I'll get a hold of him for you.'
He held the phone to his chest, and stared impassively at Erik. 'You wanna talk to Steve Rogers?'
Erik's heart flip-flopped and pounded in his chest, like it was trying to climb out and smack something. Well. Yes. Kind of. But he was also worried about what he might find out. On the other hand the bastard might need warning off, and... he would have to be very adroit and careful about that.
Still. Have to talk to the smug asshole sometime. He grabbed the phone, and Logan gave it a mimsy ballet step away, pinky-tweaking an imaginary tutu. ''Scuse you, pal! You're welcome!'
Erik gave him a slight apologetic glower, and barked, 'Steve? It's Erik,' into the phone.
All he heard for a moment was a slight pause and scuffling, and some kind of admonition. 'Hey! Stop that! Now behave!' Was the fucker talking to him? Then a smooth, confident voice hit full volume, 'Erik! Nice to talk to you again! Sorry about that: I've just adopted a wire-haired terrier, and she's a great gal, but feisty!
Of course he had, Erik thought. The mental picture of lovely wholesome sickening Steve Rogers was incomplete, without an adorable dog pulling at him on a lead. 'And other than that? What can I do for you, Steve?' Might as well put the fucker on the back foot, even though he'd been debating calling himself.
Steve hmm'd a bit. 'Well, I heard you were back in town - from the sources you might expect, natch - and getting back in touch with old friends. So I guess I thought I'd jump the gun a bit.'
'Old friends,' Erik repeated. 'Is that what we are?' It was a little harsh: and with anyone else he might have exercised more restraint.
But there was no phasing Steve. He just laughed. 'Interpret it loosely, Erik. Relax. We have things in common, you'll admit.'
A burn started up in Erik's gut, and he had a hunch it was a good thing they weren't face to face. 'Such as?'
'Friends,' Steve said, in a unusually hard tone. Hank wasn't the only one who'd grown some in two years, evidently. 'A friend. One the rest of us stuck with, after you scrammed. Remember now?'
There was such repellent satisfaction in his tone. It was a reversal that was unacceptable to Erik. He'd barred Steve from Charles' sickroom a time or two at first. And then again, and again. They weren't yet married, and he had no authority. But Charles was too tired, too sick not to go along, though Raven had been scandalised and fought him over it. She'd thought he should be ashamed, to keep a friend from Charles' side at a time like that. He personally thought Steve was lucky Erik didn't bar him altogether: just when Erik was around, which was any time that he could wangle off work, and when the kids could manage without him.
'He's not a friend,' he distinctly recalled saying to Raven at the time. 'He's an also-ran. He's a reject, he just can't get the message. If I wasn't right here he'd be on the bed like a spoilt dog, tiring Charles out, acting like a grieving fucking husband. It's my place, and even now he's trying to ease his way in: you think I'm the one who should be ashamed?'
He had a notion he'd understood vaguely even then what was coming, a shadowy monster looming behind him: maybe displacement was the reason he was always so angry with Steve.
'Good for you,' he said shortly now. He might be forced to give Steve some credit, but a little grace about it was too much to ask. 'Yes, I'm back. No thanks to any of you guys: but Charles and I have talked it over, and I'm back in his phone contacts. So I suppose you'd better get used to seeing me around the place again.' Shot over the bows, he thought vindictively. See what that kind of provocation gets you.
'I expect I will,' Steve said, voice calm. Erik was very good with voices, though: he could spot fake calm in the faintest tremor. 'Next time Charles cooks kleftifko I'll suggest he invites you over.'
Oh no no no NO, Erik thought. No and three-quarters, to all that passive-aggressive hinting. There were either grounds for that sort of posturing, or there weren't. 'So, you and Charles,' he said, flatly. No need for elaboration: Steve was capable of interpreting a tone of voice as a question.
An innocent silence deteriorated into silent fury. 'Not exactly,' Steve conceded.
'No, I didn't think so,' Erik pinged back. And he knocked off the call and shut his phone. Then went for a look in the mirror and a scruff through his overgrown hair, to see what triumph looked like.
Chapter 12: bring it on home and drop them guns on the floor
The troops mass, all right, a united front keeping Erik off.
Chapter title from Womack and Womack's 'Love Wars'.
Charles had a week or two to occupy himself before he was even going to deal with the whole nameless dread problem. Or, maybe, more accurately, the dread with the name he wasn't going to think about.
He was, at least, rather proud of himself for keeping himself productively occupied all that time. The number of pep talks required was absolutely minimal: he'd had the last two years to prepare for the inevitability of this eventuality, after all. In the meantime, he marked papers, re-drew lab practical directions for next semester, ran through the third edit of his current scholarly submission, signed up for the Madrid conference, kept his alcohol consumption manageable and had sex a couple of times.
He sincerely wished that the afterthought was more than an afterthought, but that was the way it generally seemed to work out these days. Both the time with Steve, and the other time.
He wondered – a lot, a lot, too much - whether it was better just to leave Erik to stew, and finally make his move (after the botch with the kids) at his leisure. Or perhaps to take matters into his own hands, and manage Erik's expectations into the ground. If he let events merely play themselves out, they might soon become unmanageable, after all.
Of course, that might be said to have already happened. And when thoughts laden with foreboding like that started troubling him, he generally got his running shoes out. He thought about his life as he ran, or maybe just chanted mantras, and warded off thinking in that way. Not cursed, not cursed, his brain insisted, forward, forward, stride, stride, dammit, these shoes were a mistake, heel-striking there, dammit... Still not cursed though. Even with his glucose tolerance still shot to hell, and the pronation issue, and his bad knee – shit, the bad knee, maybe better to cut this one short, back to the doc's... He'd known these were half-way to trail shoes, whatever that idiot track shop assistant had insisted. And the thing with his shins, maybe he was over-training, but he'd still not achieved much improvement in elevation this year... Not cursed, no way nohow, he thought, and ran on. Still here to think about it, after all. To think about Erik, and the kids, and what to do about living in general, rather than what he'd been led to expect for about this point in time, and whether to fight on for adequate funding or just give in and quietly inject some Xavier funds into his research.
But really, the important thing. His knee: was the cartilage absolutely buggered, or salvageable? And had he gone for enough elevation this year, in his training schedule?
Erik counted days off, and when he was done wondering when Charles was going to call, he stopped kidding himself. He started thinking about how to engage in some creative disruption, that might fall out to his advantage. This, about a week or so after becoming a – wait, a fiance, instead of a presumptive near-widower. A fiance, he considered, slouching up in bed, six a.m., day twelve after Charles' second coming. He thought about it like that, and wondered if a punny text to the dear one, about the many second comings they'd enjoyed in days and years past, would be unacceptably inappropriate. Yes, of course, he knew it would. But he thought about doing it anyway.
Of course, he was still technically Charles' fiance – given the absence, ever, of a Dear John or a formal break-up. And once the thought traversed his bleary mind, it woke it up like a splash of Emma's drink in your face after you'd mixed it wrong. Not that he was going to be dumb enough to point it out: not yet. Maybe later. (But he might just take his ring, from their matching pair, out of the bedside drawer, and put it on. Who could stop him? No-one, not even Charles.)
Two hours later he was still thinking about it: pleased, harassed, yelling at the kids about we're leaving in eight minutes, where is your homework goddamnit, and at Logan about why am I the one yelling at the kids what do I pay you for. And Logan smirking and inhaling coffee, sniping about you don't pay me enough to risk my life plus I ain't your wife man. Or your husband. Not even your live-in girlfriend. I look good in heels though, ask Emma.
Steve wasn't the only one bearding him in the Lehnsherr lair before he could come calling, it turned out. But Jean chose email over a call, and he appreciated the courtesy. It gave him a chance to recover before responding, and it seemed like he needed it.
I got your email from Raven and thought I would get back in touch. You may remember me, I was one of Charles' grad students when you were together and babysat the kids occasionally. I really don't want to get involved in any personal matters, I hasten to establish before writing further. (Raven told me more than I wanted to know.) But I'm aware that Steve Rogers was meaning to give you a call, and thought I would give you a heads-up. Charles and I are long done and remain good friends, but whatever the state of affairs between yourself and Charles, you should know that Steve is a very ruthless opponent, and those innocent farmboy looks of his are deeply misleading. Take care: I'm probably the only person from way back who remembers you fondly/wouldn't push you off the Statue of Liberty. How are the kids, Erik? I remember what sweeties they were and the rumpus they used to create!
He'd never been much of a drinker: always the sober and responsible one, the designated driver, with Charles and before him with Magda. (Reasonably enough: both of them kept him in line, reined in, households running immaculately and hard-ass professional positions held down. Both had been the ones to stand up to him, stop him being a domineering ass, treated him with a minimum of respect and a lot of fond firmness. Had been a home embodied in a human body, fingers tangled in his hair and the threat of discipline and correction, in a world that had been bending to his will, to a sometimes unnerving degree, for most of his life. Somewhere he could bend the knee and bow his head and rest, follow a lead. (Probably related to why he had got along sexually with Emma: but she hadn't the willow-osier quality of either of them, the bending without snapping.)
They were, had been, probably entitled to get rats-assed every now and then and expect him to pick up the slack. He'd always been willing to concede it. But now he wanted a drink too.
Jean. Good God almighty. It was nice of her to think to warn him about Steve, though, even if a little too late. Although no doubt it served her own interests as much as Erik's. 'Charles and I are long done', his ass. Nothing about that email smelt of someone who'd given up and settled for the friend-zone, not to Erik.
Jean, Charles' student. It was Charles they were talking about? Charles, so hyper-aware of every ethical line that might be crossed, so respectful of privacy and dignity and whatever-you-may-have, that he'd run a mile from Erik initially, once he'd found out he was a recent widower? (And that, after coming on to him in that bar, way back when, like a horny grizzly ready to throw down and get naked in the woods, Erik thought fondly. Extremely fondly. Then he thought about it some more, and went and had a shower.)
Of course he had to talk to someone about Jean. Now that he knew. (He had to find someone to pump for information about Jean, but he preferred the more tactful and discreet terminology, even to himself. Still, certainly, he believed in knowing your enemy: the better to crush them.
Raven wouldn't have been his first choice, except that he had a good idea that she would be the most amenable. (If only for her own amusement, and the sake of being able to torture him a little, or a lot, with what she knew, or via withholding it.) Who else was he going to pick, anyhow? Hardly Steve: no doubt any information from that source would be as biased as it must surely be going in the other direction.
And not Tony. He was still brooding about Tony. He was saving that one up, for the works meeting next week, when their illustrious CEO was due in town.
Raven slung herself into her seat in the same old booth, same old coffee bar as last time. Or, well, to be more accurate, squeezed in: her bump was growing apace, and she was looking good with it.
'Making a habit of this!' she observed, awarding him a cheesy, cheerful grin. She looked like someone expecting a decent morning's entertainment in return for anything she might choose to divulge, Erik thought grimly.
She leaned in and beamed at him, clearly thrilled to see him glower. It always had delighted Raven to get on his last nerve, even when he'd been in favour with her and her brother both. 'It's a real pleasure to see you again, Erik, don't get me wrong. But it'd be even more of one if you'd got me a drink. Seriously, you expect a pregnant lady to pay for her own mocchachino?'
Erik just twitched, vehemently, hands slack in his lap so he wasn't tempted to prod a finger in her smug face. 'Seriously, I was waiting to get your exact order, considering your pissy response to a few minor discrepancies last time,' he responded, too acid maybe. 'And it's not going to be mocchachino. You're pregnant. It's unsuitable and unhealthy. In case no-one's pointed it out to you yet.'
Raven pouted. 'You're no fun. As bad as Az, even. You'll be telling me gestation and gin don't mix next.'
'Oh, you're so provocative,' Erik said limply: it seemed a good bet for better retaliation than outrage. 'What herbal tea do you want?'
She screwed up her face, but sent him off for blackcurrant and mint, and he brought her back a selection of cookies and a muffin with it. For which he got a hand grabbed, and snuffled at with some approximation of a sloppy, soppy dog-like kiss, and then his cheek too as he sat down.
'I always liked you best!' she cried, smiling wide, ripping one open. 'I'll just kick Charles to the curb: you can be my bro instead, you likey?'
He'd forgotten how exhausting she was, even now. Poor Az. She sobered up, though, as she watched his irritable eye-roll, his restraint. (He wasn't going to tell her to piss off and stop getting off on torturing him: not until he'd milked her for what she could tell him, anyway.) But she ate half the cookies, and made him go back and get her a vanilla milk with more ice, before she'd talk, at all.
Finally, chewing with minimal discretion, she asked him – no, told him - 'So, you wanted to know about Jean.' It had been covered in his invite to coffee. No point in ambushing her for intel: she might just clam up and keep schtum on principle, without time to think it over. Digging a fingernail into her muffin – and then sucking at the nail, oh God, she was never baby-sitting Wanda ever again - she shrugged.
'It was while he was recuperating,' she explained, and took a swig of herbal tea with a wince. 'Charles always liked her – oh, yes, he did,' she said, grinning. Evidently his thoughts on that were clear in his face.
Erik wouldn't and couldn't believe it. He knew better. Charles had never thought about Jean in that way, not once...
'You didn't see it because you didn't want to,' she continued, shrugging. 'It was fine while he was well – but then later, you were gone, and he was too weakened to be all ethical and noble and all that shit. You did at least know she had a dinosaur-sized crush on him, right?'
Pietro had dragged him through the Natural History Museum again at the weekend – complaining all the while that Charles used to always accompany them, and why couldn't he just ring Charles, and why couldn't Pietro just ring Charles, and why, Daddy-. He'd been in one of those moods, and so had Pietro. Charles had always managed both of them very well out of those moods. It did cause him to mutter that there were all kinds of different-sized dinosaurs, and define your terms, Raven, but she wisely ignored that.
'Anyway,' Raven said, pulling the last of her muffin apart, 'she took advantage of his delicate state to get him to take advantage of her – claim a bit of ground from Steve. I expect it served Charles well: helped him hold Steve off a bit, otherwise they'd probably be married by now. Now he's managed to officially disengage from both of them... sort of. Uses them against each other to keep 'em both off.'
'But Charles is basically gay. Right?' Erik felt unutterably stupid, being forced to phrase this as a question. He knew, right? That was just the way it was.
Raven just snorted at him. 'As you please, Erik. Whatever you want to believe. He went to Ampleforth, right? You know, it's got two comprehensives, three private girls' schools and an art college in the vicinity? Charles worked his way through the female population of all of them, in his time. As well as a number of the guys.' She scrutinized Erik closely. 'Just because he was going through a major guy-on-guy phase when he met you, it doesn't mean that sums him up from soup to nuts.' She was clearly pleased by the clearly unintended pun, and reached over to elbow him in the ribs. 'Nuts! Nuts, man, nuts! You haven't summed up his nuts!'
'Funny,' Erik said sourly. 'You're a funny pregnant lady. Nuts is the word.' He felt a little bit threatened all of a sudden. It would be so much simpler if Charles was totally gay. After all, in that game he had the requisite equipment to compete.
Chapter 13: flashbacks and uncovered tracks
Erik's got a lot on his plate. It takes him a while to work things out, sometimes. Tony isn't going to co-operate more than necessary.
Chapter title from Womack and Womack's 'Love Wars'.
He had a very strong impulse to kiss Raven goodbye on the cheek, when she dumped him and ran off to meet her husband, probably for a dirty hotel afternoon, giving their vanilla married life a spicy kick. That had always been the sort of couple they were: embarrassing whole rooms by exploring each other's underwear in company. At least they spared two less exhibitionist and voracious individuals, fixing on each other. Poor Hank: or lucky Hank, considering his narrow escape.
Looking her in the lovely lucent eye, he thought better of it. Raven was willing to tolerate his company: as part of her surveillance. He didn't kid himself on that issue.
Before the company meeting, and bearding Tony to have a word or two on the Thursday coming, he allowed himself two texts, one email, established the number after careful thought, eked them out sparingly. (Logan's response on being asked for advice: he locked himself in the bathroom with Emma's left-behind bath bombs and a pile of biking magazines, yelling about how if he heard one more word about Erik's non-love-life, then he was setting out for a trek to Katmandu with no forwarding address.)
One text was a cautious enquiry after Charles' health, carefully non-specific and open-ended, late on a Sunday evening. No reply. One standing on the subway on the Tuesday morning, typing one-handed, coffee in the other hand. A suggestion of getting together for a drink, because there was no harm in being a bit ambitious. No reply.
Erik mostly felt the danger of beginning to forget the basic facts of their positions, to feel justified in grievance and resentment. To begin to feel he had a claim and an officially recognised role. He wouldn't have been feeling the danger, if he hadn't been feeling it anyway. Steve, Jean, Stark, any of them: he'd have liked to see them stake a claim and hold it, against his assault. Any of them, any one of 'em could be throwing a condom out of bed, adjusting the promise ring on their fingers and signing the pre-nup, he felt pretty strongly. And given the right circumstances, and a situation where he could remind Charles of a few basic facts of their history and prior encounters, all he'd need to do was crook a finger, and he could have Charles pushing any one of them under a subway train, pulling his clothes off and crawling into bed with Erik.
That was the trouble, really. Over-confidence based on prior experience, perhaps. It was hard to remember that they were in a different world, now. One where Charles was forewarned, wary. And listening to anyone except him.
Anyhow, he couldn't get one damn word out of Charles before the big works meeting. It made it difficult to meet the kids' eyes in the morning. Pietro especially was becoming silent, with a manner suggestive of resignation. Wanda, Erik thought, was incapable of resignation. She'd give up about the same time that the universe expired of heat-death. But there was something unpleasantly forgiving in Pietro's manner, that suggested he'd already given up on the possibility of his father's efforts being crowned by success. Erik would sooner have been harangued and harassed over his failure, up until this point. It would have been more bracing, less of a depressive weight dragging him down. There was also the possibility that Pietro had given up relying on Erik's efforts, or perhaps even Wanda's, and was hatching his own schemes. That was something that could lead to juvie, at best, and Erik didn't even want to contemplate the worst case scenario.
In any case Erik was consciously calming himself, ready for a point only hours ahead, where he'd have to look and speak to Tony Stark. Just as if he wasn't someone who'd sat across from Charles and said, 'Sure. You want me to act like you're dead around Erik, I can do that. You want some gummy bears, sweetheart? What do the doctors say about your bloods results?'
At the Thursday meeting he surprised himself, had though himself past the point of pretence. But it was easy. It was precisely the fact of just how much he wanted to stick a Stark Industries pen in Tony's eye, that made it so easy to smile blandly and shake his hand, man to man, good fellows. Just to cover his own tracks, in case he decided, later, that that was actually what he was going to do. A good front – and no established motive – counted for so very much.
And mostly, he was incandescently angry, with himself. Because – with the knowledge of Tony's betrayal, his moral turpitude already tucked under Erik's belt – it wasn't as if it was hard to spot. If he'd ever thought to look, then he'd have known immediately. But, since Charles had been dead – hadn't he? – that thought had never crossed his mind.
And in these short weeks, since Charles had risen like Lazarus – not even a month, by God – Erik would have thought, for sure, that he'd have said something to Tony, called him up and given him fair warning. That Erik might be on the warpath, on the rampage, looking for someone to blame. Other than himself.
Oh, for the good God's sake, it wasn't as if Erik wasn't fully onto his own little peccadilloes. He knew how he thought, and he knew, too, just how Charles thought that he thought.
But Erik rested his forearms over the mirrored, highly polished surface of the meeting room table, and looked over at Tony, splayed back and relaxed at the head of the table, swinging his legs in his swivel chair and smiling up at Pepper, flirting like she hadn't been through two engagement rings and a pregnancy scare and finally a low-key, miserable break-up with him. Tony was unconcerned, barely bothered to acknowledge Erik, blasé.
Charles had been slack, very slack indeed. Erik tried not to be eyeballing Stark too obviously as the assembled directors, including himself, worked their way through the running order of business. It was terrifically difficult to concentrate on mineral supplies and medical innovations, impossible. But all the same he schooled his face to a stern, impassive alertness – the expression that seemed to best terrify his PA – and tried to focus his attention.
Then he threw in the towel absolutely on that, and thought about the first month after he'd grabbed the kids and run, after making arrangements through half a dozen sweating, agonised meetings with Pepper. The meetings had been hideous: to have anyone know the full extent of his planned betrayal, his moral turpitude, and to have to look them in the eye at a scheduled hour while they flatly advised you of the responsibilities of your new role and the company-provided temporary accommodations... It had been difficult to ever look Pepper in the eye since. Pepper, of course. Another one who must have known. And he flicked a glance at her serene and lovely face, and wondered if the penalties for manslaughter were really so very punitive these days.
Tony had been away, when he'd done a flit, with pressing obligations in the Middle East. He'd emailed his blessing, along with a couple of sentences that included the words 'regrettable' and 'understandable'. It was possible Erik had never felt quite so utterly condemned by anything, including Edie's expression the day she found him with twin sisters in his room, when he was fifteen. (“One thing to cat about, my son,” she'd said, tightly disapproving as she escorted the hastily dressed pair out of the Lehnsherr family home. “But entirely another to disrespect your family home. And to get caught!”)
Three months later, Erik had escorted clients to the opera in Bonn. He'd felt utterly dead inside, like his head was hollowed out and painted matte black. There was no control over his thoughts: they only had three subjects. Charles, and what an irredeemable asshole he himself was, and his responsibility to the children. He owed it to Magda, and to them, to function.
It didn't seem, in fact, as if the clients noticed a thing. His poker face had always been excellent. It all ran smooth as fuck, the chit-chat flowing without him having to engage his brain, especially in the bar at the interval. It was in the bar that he got the tap on the shoulder, and turned to find a beaming Tony, having sneaked up on him.
At the time, he remembered, he was glad to see Tony. The bastard. It chipped through the defences he'd so assiduously erected, invulnerable up until that point. All that really registered at the time, was the familiar face, the face that had known Charles, and loved Charles too. Even if that included having bruised Charles' heart, when he'd realised their casual college fling was, well, a casual college fling. Erik hadn't even been able to try to maintain composure, to retain a professional manner. He'd opened his arms and Tony had hugged him back, and if his eyes weren't completely dry, when Tony slapped his back, pulled back, tipped him upright, then how was that surprising?
Now, though, he could bring back things he didn't even realise he'd clocked at the time. He'd never had an eidetic memory. Maybe the trauma was bringing it out of him. He remembered the smile on Tony's face. Except that now, with the benefit of hindsight, he had to call it more of a smirk.
Of course Tony had been kind of occupied while Charles was ill, noticeable by his absence. It wasn't just the strained relations between them that had gone on for too many years: the whole 'getting kidnapped in Afghanistan' thing had put a crimp in Tony's social life and duties to loved ones for a while. Erik, even as a divisional head at Stark Industries, had found it difficult to give that little blip in the higher echelons of the company his full attention. There wasn't much in his head, barring Charles, for a long while, and he was aware he'd shuffled off responsibilities of both crisis and press management, and liaison with military and governmental bodies at the time. The effect on Charles comprised most of how it had affected Erik, watching the worry and the loss, at a time when Charles' mind and body could hardly take one more stress.
Of course Tony had made it out fine, in the end. Teflon-coated, prone to hold-the-front-page crises that bounced off his resilient invulnerable metallic exterior, without leaving a scratch. None that he let anyone see, in any case.
Of course he must have visited Charles when he got back, after the emergency meetings with heads of states, with big cheeses in numerous related companies, healing personal relations and business agreements. All of this, after Erik had scarpered.
And then, popping up in Bonn, with a sympathetic grin and a warm hug. Bastard, bastard...
Of course, also, Erik thought, it had been subtly done. He'd been incoherent at the opera, barely capable of composing a sentence, sounding out words. “Tony... Is he... Was it...” Yes. He couldn't claim exact recollection, but was pretty sure it had gone something like that.
He did remember Stark's response, though. A tight grip on Erik's forearm, sincere, sympathetic. “I'm sorry. So sorry, Erik.”
And Erik was brought back to himself, in the present moment, ripped right out of that recollection. The people around him at the meeting table were looking at him in surprise, and his hand was hurting. Looking down, he'd busted it up, the Stark Industries pen, and there were fragments scattered around him on the table. Pretty damn awkward, really.
At the head of the table, Tony flung himself forward in his chair, leaned over the table. “You okay there, Lehnsherr?” he asked. Yeah, that was the right sympathetic tone of voice, all right. “Little bit stressed, today?” Oh, the man was a fucking piece of work. When Erik decided what he was going to do about it he was going to...
“Fine,” he replied, with a thin smile. “Don't know my own strength.”
So sorry, he thought, and maybe his grin got a little wider, bitterly. Yeah, clever bastard. Hadn't even had to lie, Erik had been in such a number of pieces at that time, crumbling into dust.
Meeting over, he hung back, didn't even get out of his chair. Pepper looked at him thoughtfully as she exited, but didn't speak to him beyond a civil smile, face as unreadable as ever. Tony was sprung up out of his chair immediately the meeting closed, kicking at the shatterproof glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows, onto his phone in an instant, to the labs, to colleagues, to potential business associates.
He cast a glance or two Erik's way as he motor-mouthed on. And Erik got the distinct impression that he was being waited out. Maybe he knew after all? Maybe Charles hadn't been so slack after all, if the asshole was forewarned, forearmed and avoidant. Not surprising if Stark didn't want to have certain discussions with him. But Erik could wait him out. Why would he want to discuss this, after all?
Tony didn't display any notable reluctance, though, when he ended his last call, threw his phone into his vacated chair and wedged his ass onto the massive meeting room table, next to where Erik sat in the middle of the room. Nice tactical move, Erik thought: looking down on Erik, emphasizing the CEO/director status gap, warning him off without words.
Yeah, yeah, right. No way anything was stopping Erik having certain words. He felt it boiling up inside him, but he wasn't quick enough: Tony got in first.
“So you'll be wanting to talk about Charles, right?” And Erik got the benefit of Tony's press-junket smile: brilliant and insincere, closed off behind door after door after steel impenetrable door.
Erik relaxed a little, elaborately easing back in his comfortable chair. Ostentatiously relaxed, even. See how well dumb-ass powerplays played off with him. And also, this was better than beating about the bush. He almost felt grateful to Tony, almost. As well as wanting to introduce his face to a garbage disposal unit.
“How did you guess?” he asked. And kept his voice down, face relaxed, calm, calm.
Tony shrugged, and leapt off the table again, started patting his pockets no doubt in search of some technological doo-dah. “What else would it be?” he asked. No, evidently it had been his wallet he was in search of: he flipped it open and took something out, a photo, stared at it as he paced a little bit, over to the windows again and staring out, alternating back to the photo. “I suppose you want to state your grievance, over me not tipping you off that you weren't, after all, a grieving fiancé?”
His voice was just so fucking absent, preoccupied. As if this was about twentieth on his list of priorities, way behind co-ed hook-ups and instructing the Stark Mansion rooftop gardener and picking up sex toys for Pepper. No, probably inventing sex toys. (Erik wasn't going to think about that.)
“It isn't a question of a grievance,” Erik said, stifling his anger, trying to at least sound reasonable. He stood and walked over to the window himself, not flatly facing Tony (who was leaning against the window and gazing out in any case), not oppositional. But to try to get him to listen, really listen.
But Tony sprung back and faced him, and looked irritated, and genuinely engaged, for the first time. 'Isn't it? If it's not that, then what is it, Erik?”
Chapter 14: friendly fire
Erik is shot by both sides.
Erik wasn't precisely stymied. He was just in a difficult position for backtracking, that was all. “I can't understand how you could have done it,” he prevaricated. “You saw the state I was in, in Bonn.” He'd been in pieces. He'd been in pieces. There had been brick-dust everywhere.
Tony's face went from confrontational, to lit up with an uncharacteristic lick of fury. “Boo hoo, poor you,” he snapped, and got up that little bit closer. “Poor Erik, poor, poor Erik. I'd just got back from seeing the state Charles was in, you want to hear about that? I can tell you, you don't. And that was after the experimental treatment had kicked in.”
Erik could see the sweat on his forehead, the slightest curl of his upper lip. Even his designer suit suddenly seemed a little bit less pristine – more like a disguise, slung roughly over a proletarian street-fighter, who wanted nothing more in life than to sock him on the jaw. “You're just lucky Charles isn't by nature a vengeful person,” Tony said, collecting himself back in a moment, into the urbane plutocrat who bought and sold modern art galleries, more than modern art. “All it would have taken is a word from Charles, one fucking word and you would have been out on your ass. We may not be an at will state, but it would have been a case of see you in court, fucker and enjoy the lawsuit damages, good luck on ever working in your field again.”
He paused a moment, maybe just to get a breath, flushed, sweating. Erik was beginning to have second thoughts about this whole issue of having it out with Charles' social circle, old flames included. Maybe the overall resulting conflagration wasn't going to be worth the satisfaction. Too late now by a massive margin, though. And Tony wasn't by any means done. “Or maybe revenge wasn't the issue. I guess he still thought of those little hellspawn of yours as being halfway his own. Didn't want to turf 'em out onto the street. Even if it meant showing you some undeserved mercy. I got a real finger-wagging lecture about being the bigger person – he may have expressed it as 'not being a dickwad' – and staying hands-off. Otherwise...”
He paused, and they stared at each other. Might as well have been assessing each other for damage done, by all that slagheap of unwonted honesty.
“Thanks,” said Erik. He felt sick. “ I guess I was looking for your unvarnished opinion, as well as your reasoning.” Yes, definitely a mistake. If only he could refute any point in the sequence, the cascade of unpleasant fact-checked incontrovertible actuality.
But Tony grasped his arm as he turned on a point to leave. And when Erik turned fast, anger finally reigniting, Tony put his hands up, in some sketchy show of peaceableness. “Okay, I'm done here, Erik. Maybe I went a little far. ”
“No, you didn't,” Erik said, keeping his voice down, soft. “You said exactly what you thought, what you meant. Which is what I wanted to hear.” However much I might regret it now, he mentally added.
“I could have tried for a little tact,” Tony offered. “But it's not really my thing.”
“I know that,” said Erik. Everyone knew that.
Tony flipped that rather worn little photo from finger to finger, one-handed, took a glimpse, flashed it briefly at Erik. It was old all right: Tony and Charles, a ton younger, college-age, arms around each other's shoulders and making sucking kissy faces at the camera. Charles looked like the most carefree beautiful bratty rich kid ever born, maybe in love, certainly without a trouble in the world. It was clearly taken a long time before sickness left a mortal handprint on him. A long time before Erik. Tony shoved the photo back in his wallet.
“Anyway,” Tony hesitated, “maybe I should just add a coda.” He looked doubtfully at Erik. Erik stared back, in what might have looked like impassiveness. He figured impassive might be how you looked, when someone hit you with a sledgehammer. After a moment Tony went on, so he figured he'd passed some test of readiness, or of not being about to pass out or throw a psychotic rage.
“You're going about this in the wrong way, Erik,” he offered finally, cautiously, looking awkwardly away out the window, flapping a hand at Erik's indicated person packed with wrongness and romantic incompetence. “And I completely realise that I might not be the go-to person most people immediately think of, when they're experiencing romantic woes.” He shrugged, half-laughed, as if Pepper had never crushed him between finger and thumb, like the tiniest manikin. “But maybe sheer weight of expereince qualifies me, some ways. That, and being the greatest loser in love the world has ever known in the New York greater metropolitan area. All bow before me!”
He stepped a little away from the panorama the window offered, and patted Erik's back, rather offensively impersonal. “So take it from me,” he said, shrugging. “Or don't. Take it with a pinch of salt, or just throw it out. You're coming on way too strong.” He stood looking reflectively at Erik, sideways on, a lot less confrontational than five minutes ago. “And I've been there. I mean, I've never been an asshole on the Erik Lehnsherr scale of assholes, you've set a new low for the bar, there. And for Tony Stark to be able to say that...” Tony shook his head. “In some ways, Erik, you're my new favourite person. I look so good, next to you. No matter what I do, I can point at you, and Pepper kind of sees my point immediately. But I digress.” Yeah. It would probably be a bad idea, to stick that pen in his eye, Erik thought. Although he was having to strenuously remind himself of that fact.
So he patted Erik's arm, again, and Erik was crushed enough not to object. “You need to back off. You're only annoying Charles, and making his friends and family want to kill you. Where is that going to get you? Back off, way off, give him some space to breathe. Let him think for himself, about you, and him, and what he really wants. And once he's decided that he wants you to drop off the edge of a cliff, you'll be way off on the peripheries of his life and you can just both forget about the whole thing. Nice and civilized and quiet. Because, Erik. Listen to me.”
Now he turned again, to face Erik full on. Something in Erik's palm ached for a club, something that could bludgeon a skull into pulp. Tony's manner was still civilized, urbane, the momentary aggression abandoned. All except in the eyes, the severe sobriety of his expression, where something atavistic was lurking like a golem peeking out. “Erik.” he said pleasantly, “Froggie is not going to go a-courting. Take it from me. Froggie had better not go a-courting. Because, if he does – and in the unimaginably awful event that Froggie successfully went a-courtin' – then, Erik, I am Tony Stark. I hear you've mixed it up already, with most of Charles' other closest friends. But Erik,” he finished, and leaned in close to Erik's ear. “I am Tony Stark. Anything they can do to you, if you hurt Charles again, pales in comparison to that.”
His smile was brilliant, and sweet, when he leaned back again. He slapped Erik on the shoulder, just as Pepper opened the door and walked in towards them. “Now don't you forget that, Lehnsherr, right?” he asked. His geniality was utterly synthetic, which was comfortingly familiar. And he walked out, kissing Pepper on the cheek. She slapped his ass as he left: perk of PA'ing and on-off girlfriending the boss at the same time. He gave a little skip, and giggled, with it.
Yeah, sez you, Erik thought. But he felt a little ill, and sat down in the meeting room chair he'd vacated. He wasn't afraid of Tony: and he'd gone to school with some excellent lawyers who were still good friends, if that veiled semi-threat was ever made good. Moira, for one, would walk away with a settlement from Stark Industries, that would have Erik and the kids holidaying in Bali while Erik wrote textbooks about ferromagnetic applications in medical advances, on the beach, cocktail in hand.
He was afraid of the things that Tony could say to Charles, though. And the strength of an old established friendship, and its powers of persuasion. He was caught up in that, in a grey nightmare fog of malign threats too insubstantial and deniable to combat, when Pepper coughed, politely. It wasn't that, so much, that got his attention, though. More the way she leaned in, to where he was sat back in the chair, and rested a knee, hard, on his thigh, one hand on his shoulder.
Well, hello. It was startling: but Erik wasn't really inclined to make much objection. Not even when she cuffed his face up, a hard chuck under the chin, to get his attention, and gazed seriously into his eyes. “Erik. Wakey-wakey. Are you listening to me? Good, then we'll begin.” Her smile was lovely. She looked, barring the business suit and the heels, like a country girl who should be dressed in gingham, dungarees and braids, like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, like embodied sunshine. The epitome of wholesome innocence. And she leaned in, to speak right into his ear. (Fuck, and would people stop doing that. He was going to have to get the pipes syringed out, with the amount of saliva he was getting sprayed in lately.)
“I take it you had a lovely civilised chat with Tony, just now,” she said.
Erik laughed, at that. “Not so much,” he began, but her fingers dug harder into his shoulder.
“Shut up. Listen, Tony's a good man. He worries about Charles, but he draws the line. There's only so much he'd do, to protect him. But me, Erik?” She drew back a little, so that he could get a better look at her blandly sweet smile. “Pepper Potts: liaison for Stark Industries with weapons cartels, military chiefs of staff, revolutionary factions all over the world. Contacts in every shadowy governmental security agency. Legal, sub-legal, proscribed. Erik, I have trained assassins on my speed-dial. I get my nails done with a couple of them.”
Erik could feel the faint sceptical twitch of his eyebrows. “Trained assassins,” he repeated. Maybe his lips twitched, too.
Pepper didn't seem amused. “Yes, that's right, Erik. One of them is a trained Parisian charcuterier, in her spare time. She can de-ball a corpse so neatly and undetectably that the sac is sufficiently intact to replace the testicles with hardboiled eggs, isn't that interesting? And I could have that personally demonstrated to you, Erik. Any time I like. So why don't you just step very carefully around Charles, Erik, why don't you.” And she removed her knee from his thigh – really a bit uncomfortably close to the crotch, given her apparent lack of amorous intention – and stood straight again. Stood straightening the little pearl buttons on her blouse, a moment, smoothed a hand down the line of her pencil skirt. “Don't hurt Charles again, Erik,” she said, almost absent, not looking at him any more. “As a Stark Industries senior advisor... I advise against it.”
She slipped out of the room again quietly, with no further fuss. Erik slumped further back in his chair. Luckily, it was comfy. If it wasn't, then his spine would have been moulding and settling into some pretty odd shapes right about now. Well, he thought. Interesting interview, with Pepper. Very enlightening.
Although. Ehhh, he shrugged. If she'd wanted to give him an erotic kick, being menaced and threatened with bodily harm by a pretty woman, she should have just have given him a list of her fees. He would have been willing to pay good money for it.
Eventful day, tough crowd, and a nascent deal that was going worse than tits-up in the hammering-out stage, then. Erik pretty much crawled home not much short of eight p.m. - way later than he liked to be home for the kids, and if it wasn't for Logan he'd probably have an incandescently furious nanny, yelling at him about her free time, and her boyfriend, and inconsiderate employers.
Thank God for Logan.
Who was playing a lone hand of We Cheer on the Wii, his fellow pom-pommed ladies of cheer synchronising on the big screen in the downstairs games room, in Erik's big bland old suburban executive McMansion. When Erik caught him at it he was not only not embarrassed, he didn't even stop: greeted him while giving it continuous high kicks. “Give me five, bub!” he cried, as Erik slung his briefcase down on the ratty old couch at the edge of the room. “I just scored a winning cheer and wiped the floor with the opposing team's girls!”
“Yeah,” Erik said vaguely, following his briefcase onto the couch, and kicking his shoes off, watching with more than faint perturbation as Logan bunny-hopped and began a victory dance, fists pumping the air as the score came up with a landslide in his team's favour. “When it's accepted as an Olympic event we'll come and cheer you on, carry the bunting with pride. The kids, Logan? You remember, I used to have some kids? Unless you've let 'em wander out and play in traffic?”
“Upstairs,” Logan explained succinctly, knocking off the menu on the remote and wiping his sweaty face with a tiny, insufficient handwipe. “Wanda has a couple of buds round, they're using Pietro as a model for the junior prom looks they're trying out and scoring. Last I saw of him he was wearing a delightful strapless tulle number and a corsage.”
“Hmm.” Erik pondered. “Did it suit him?”
Logan shrugged. “About as well as you'd expect. Fair play to the little monster, he seemed to take to a spot of cross-dressing like a duck to water, not a qualm. Started yelling about how you couldn't cross-match beige silk with orange carnations, and they could stuff it if they thought he was going to wear T-straps with a micro, because slut-wear wasn't what he'd had in mind when he'd agreed to play mannequin.”
Erik put a hand over his eyes. “You think maybe I should go up, have a word about appropriate vocabulary around gently-reared politically-conscious females?”
Logan considered. “Nah. They're capable of spiritually de-balling him via readings of Andrea Dworkin and Kate Millet themselves, if they feel the fancy take them. Anyway,” he pointed out, whipping off a sweaty check shirt, and revealing a lot more of his overgrown torso under the wifebeater than Erik wanted to see, “your kids are hanging out together, engaged in a shared activity, and despite the odd attempt to commit ritual sacrifice or sabotage each other's spelling bee performance, they love each other. You're doing okay, man. Don't go looking for trouble. You're never going to make bland little vanilla cookies out of those two. Eighty per cent cocoa solids and extra chilli, that pair are. Heaven help their future S.O.s when they're finally of age and let loose into the wild.”
Erik wished for a beer, but couldn't quite bring himself to climb up off the couch just yet. He sighed, and batted at Logan with a cushion, as the barbarian sat on the couch arm with his feet up on the seats, examining Erik like a curious gorilla at the zoo. “All good, then?” he asked for confirmation. “No storms? No crises?” No Charles?, he mentally added, but there was only so many times you could trail around the house whining about your non-love life, before Logan decided to eviscerate you as a charitable act of mercy.
“Come on, man,” Logan drawled, trying to put his feet in Erik's lap before Erik vigorously discouraged him. (Having Logan around the house was often a lot like having a platonic boyfriend: all the homey annoying drawbacks and none of the sex.) “The day we have twenty-four hours of completely smooth sailing in this little homestead is the day the Four Horsemen rock up at the gates. Wanda's been getting out and about and making new friends, online.”
Erik closed his eyes, and prayed for the best – or least worst – possible news. “Yeah, okay. Hit me with it. Tell me it's not a pervert, at least.”
It took a few minutes for Logan to contain his muffled snickering at his internal thought processes, in order to answer. “Naw, not this time. Nope, she's just got a hold of your Charles' locked Twitter account handle somehow. She's been fuckin' tweeting at him for the last three days – I'm surprised he hasn't been onto you to get her to cease and desist, man. Anyhow, he hasn't acknowledged her existence yet, which has been sending her quietly up the wall. At this point she's throwing fits, sending him all caps tweets about how her hamster was better company, and if she had to dispense with one Charles to the quiet of the grave – that's what she said – then she thinks she let the wrong one go. Major, man. This is big-league full-on freakout material, here. She's having a public online paddy, the likes of which the world has never seen before. And not a word to any of us these past three days, not even Pietro. Coming down to breakfast, eating her cheerios and guacamole – your kids, man – trotting off to school, calling her buddies to synchronise the latest fad or vendetta – all that time, she's been waging all-out war against your honey, and he's yet to take a blind bit of notice. Where did you get her from, Erik?”
Erik had his hands over his eyes at this point. “I don't know,” he whispered. “But do you think they'd take her back?”
“We could try,” Logan conceded. “But it's the hamster thing that's getting to me. What hamster is this? Hamsters? Zombie hamsters? Tell me about the hamster, Erik.”
That was before Logan's time. But Erik didn't feel up to explaining it. When he went out into the hallway, to go have a serious discussion with both his kids – because there was no getting around it, and the county probably wouldn't take a well-to-do single-parent Stark Industries executive's kids off his hands, not on the grounds that Wanda and Pietro were cruel and unusual, and no-one should be expected to cope with Wanda and Pietro – then Pietro was already, very slowly, making his way down the stairs, halfway down and gazing at Erik curiously through the struts of the banister. He had on some kind of eyeliner, an aqua vest a size or two too big, a hippie-girl grungey-net-and-lace long skirt, and diamante thong sandals. And also, a sheet pulled around one shoulder, toga-style, heroically daft.
But then, there'd always been a touch of the insane and decadent Roman emperor about Pietro.
They stared at each other a moment. And Erik turned around, and went for the beer after all.
Chapter 15: I wanna split now, I can't quit now
Charles is in the dragon's lair, now. But he's too wily and forewarned to get eaten. Isn't he?
Christ. I had a vague impression that there was a ride called the Hurricane at Coney Island, and was therefore going to call this chapter 'like a hurricane' or some quote from it, maybe 'i want to love you but i'm getting blown away'. And then I did a little Youtubing and HURRICANE SANDY! Bloody hell, massive tactlessness with multiple hurricane jokes and references narrowly averted.
Actual chapter title from 'You Really Got A Hold On Me' by multiple artistes.
Two mornings later and he had his appointment for the strapping taken off his knee and the official final examination. It was feeling a little awkwardly articulated around the joint, but he was pain-free, finally – the physical kind, anyway. The medical examination was odd because of the associations: death and resurrection, potentially fatal accidents and re-encountering his own particular homme fatale. He sat on the examination table, with his trouser leg rolled up, and a pretty woman in a white-coat putting the joint through its fullest range of motion. (He was certainly frequently striking lucky with the women he was meeting lately. If he was really lucky then maybe she'd get frisky with the patella hammer, and give him a strict lecture about prescription adherence before – no, Erik thought. Perhaps trains of thought like these, were at least indirectly related to the reasons why he was a single man at this point.
But odd, yes. Because of the associations: with the day he'd first found out Charles was still alive. Or more accurately, perhaps, the day he'd thought he was having some really troublesome and persistent hallucinations, until Raven had put him right. Before that day, he'd been subject to a grinding acceptance of duty and reality, and a nagging habitual background grief and feeling of loss. His heart carved out with a blunt steak-knife, and him expected to carry on just the same. And since then, a continuous switchback of elation and frustration. It was getting to weigh heavily on the side of frustration, though. A month, and he was no further along.
He'd had the morning off for the exam, then had second thoughts and booked the whole day. And he had coaxed Logan into letting the kids skive, too. No point them suffering through a day of school if he was getting to play hooky, he couldn't help but feel. Or maybe it was just guilt: considering he'd led them to believe that resuming their two-parent family status was just a matter of time, and now look at them...
But he tried to stuff all of that out of his mind, and headed for home with the intention of picking the kids up and taking them to a theme-park in New Jersey. What the hell, Logan too, if he fancied it. Let them all eat candy-canes and ride the dipper, and put their troubles out of their minds.
The house was quiet when he let himself in, and he fussed about for a bit in the hall, putting his jacket away, wondering if they were all just still asleep for the place to be so peaceful. It was only late morning after all, just getting on for lunch-time. The steps behind him in the hall he thought to be Logan, though something in his subconscious tipped him off that the gait was too light and quick for that amiable bruiser.
“I believe this is the point at which I put my hands over your eyes from behind, and say, 'Guess who?'. Isn't it?”
It was Charles. He knew it before he turned around, both good, and bad for his blood pressure. Good, since he had a chance to school his face, catch his breath and come up with something that wasn't an unpremeditated grab.
More than odd, to stand there in the hallway, close up to each other, with Charles giving him that same curious stare from that first evening of his resurrection. Charles raised one eyebrow: might as well have said, “Your move, buster.”
“You used to do that, sometimes,” Erik observed, and it was true. Pleasingly clichéd, the warm hands over his eyes and the slight body pressed up against him. It was enough to have warm tears threatening, the thought of those early courtship days, and the initial months after he'd coaxed and badgered Charles into moving in. But Charles despised easy tears every bit as much as Wanda. He blinked, Charles shrugged.
“Don't go accusing me of cliché,” he said, not at all defensive. “You're the one who used to yell hey honey I'm home”.
God. Was this trip down memory lane going to take them all the way to first meetings? Half-battering a drunk and amorous Charles off, in a bar Moira had dragged him to. (Shameless, not quaking or having a qualm about bringing out the lines about genes and zippers and whatnot. Erik had to wonder if he still used those, with sufficient ethanol-based lubrication.) She'd adjudged that even without grieving being over, he still needed social stimulation amounting to nuisance and sexual harassment, just to keep himself decently socialized.
But no. Charles shrugged, and moved away down the hall, heading kitchen-wards. “However. Irrelevant,” he threw behind him as he moved. “You may wonder why I'm here.”
“Just a little,” Erik allowed, dumping his case, his phone on the hall table, and following.
“I got a call from your man-of-all-work,” Charles explained. “Logan, is it? Apparently he was having a sudden acute attack of gall-bladder discomfort and had called an ambulance. A regular problem, he says? Bit of a facer, as you can imagine. He swore up and down to me that he couldn't find anyone else to babysit – Moira in L.A., your mother back visiting in Europe, Sean doing grad work up in Toronto... I tried to volunteer Raven, but apparently she's already formally and officially disowned your two brutes via social media.”
Charles turned back to the kitchen counter, and began making coffee. Two coffees, Erik saw. He repressed the urge to remind Charles how he liked it. Charles had a near-eidetic memory. He would remember how Erik liked everything. Everything.
“He didn't actually put the kids on the line and get them to sob in my ear,” Charles added. And Erik sat down on a stool by the island, because he'd had little enough opportunity lately, to sit and watch the line of Charles' back, to think about how his soft navy-blue lambswool sweater would feel up close under his hands, and then how it would feel to take it off, pulling it off and disordering that really too-long hair where it was falling in soft waves, curving in to the nape of his neck.
“But,” Charles continued, “it was still a masterly bit of emotional blackmail. Did you train him up yourself?”
Erik shrugged and accepted a mug, steaming with java, yes, exactly how he liked it. “He's naturally talented,” he said. Which was true. Logan needed lessons from no-one on manipulation of heartstrings, purse-strings or guitar-strings. It was also significant that, although he'd only known the guy a scant fifteen months, he'd never heard word one about any gall-bladder problem.
Not that he was about to announce that. “Sorry about the whole thing,” he said, casual as he could manage. “He must have got your number out of my phone sometime. Not exactly big on permissions and etiquette, Logan. It's the whole hardcore punker culture he springs from. You know his band used to break into places, send the local scene kids out flyering, and really truly do the show right there?” It was hilarious to think of Logan ever having been a shaven-headed tattooed teen-punk screamer. But looking at Charles' blank face, he realised that this wasn't his audience for that kind of story. Chamber music and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, he'd more often attended with Charles in tow.
And in any case, there was one issue they hadn't established the facts on. “You mention the kids,” he added, looking around the clean, empty, quiet kitchen. “But...”
“Still asleep,” Charles explained. “Your man said that you'd be home before lunch, so I didn't see any reason to wake them in advance. How's the knee, by the way?”
Erik wasn't really listening, not properly. Erik was watching Charles' hands on his mug, flattening out on the kitchen counter, fiddling with the hem of his sweater. More restless than they ever used to be, thinner, less flesh on bone altogether. He wondered if Charles was really properly well yet, or at all, and that was a chiller. So busy watching and thinking, he was, it made him flinch when something – the top off a bottle of coffee syrup – hit him on the ear.
“Sorry,” Charles said, clearly not one bit sorry. “You needed waking up.” Or he could just have said stop staring at me asshole, but that was something he wouldn't do.
“If you want to throw things at me,” Erik said, clearing his throat, “there are heavier things. Try the coffee-grinder,” he suggested, nodding at it.
That got him an actual grin, warmer than an invitation to actual bodily harm would normally warrant. He grinned back. It felt easier, warmer, than anything had for weeks. It felt like breathing properly again.
But of course that was the moment he heard little mouse voices on the stairs, consulting with each other on tactics before they were discovered. It was Charles who called them on it and called them out, quicker on the draw, though. “Babies. You wanting breakfast?” he sang out, though his eyes were still on Erik. “Your dad's home. Don't lurk out there and make us nervous. Come and sit down. Where we can keep an eye on you.”
And there was still a whispered battle-plan drawn out, loud enough to be audible but not decipherable. Way to make the adults feel like their days were numbered and their every move monitored, Erik felt. He hadn't intended to have them in pre-training for the NSA, but...
Shuffling feet announced their arrival, as they slowly emerged around the kitchen door and stalled a couple of feet in, staring at both Charles and Erik impassively. Pyjama'd and scruffle-haired, they should have been underwhelming and unimpressive figures, but somehow commanded respect, if not intimidation, anyhow. “We're not babies, Charles,” Pietro said. “We haven't been babies for a long time.”
“My apologies,” Charles said, solemn. “You make a good point. In the debating society yet, Pete?”
“You'd know we weren't babies any more,” Wanda added, ignoring his interjection and heading over to the other side of the kitchen island, hauling herself up onto a stool and beckoning at her wary brother, his eyebrows semaphoring her some message the adults in the room had not the subtlety to decode. “If you'd been around for the past two years, Charles.”
She wasn't looking at him, but Charles still mimed someone clasping his hands to an arrow in the chest. “To the heart, Wanda, right to the heart. You know how to wound a guy.” And it was all perfectly light-hearted, except so much not.
“Good,” Wanda said coolly, as Pietro settled beside her. “You said something about waffles? What are you doing here, Charles?”
“Logan,” Pietro mumbled into the table, where he was digging something – hearts and flowers, initials, death threats, who knew – into the wood with a blunt table knife. “Where's Logan?”
Charles turned away and opened a cupboard, presumably on a waffle-hunt – and in the most craven abandonment of all parental duties to the natural parent present, and however reasonable, Erik was still appalled. But he stepped up to the plate anyhow.
“He's sick, guys,” he said, in the most vague, casual tone of voice he had available, non-specific and not inviting further enquiry. God help them if the kids got a hold of the gallbladder story. They had intensive and detailed files on every adult in their vicinity, and not the least discretion or respect for the subtle social misinformations of others.
But his fuck-up was brought home, as Wanda's head swivelled round, her mouth a round black 'O' that made Munch look like a Simpson's animator. Pietro just kept his head down – a little further down, like one more blow wasn't even a surprise, was expected, one more and one more and one more with every step through life. He was a lot too young for that, and Erik was quite glad to find he could still feel a sick vein-burning jolt of rage at what any deity available had done to his kids. Never mind him, he was probably past help. But the kids.
Magda, Charles, odd stray hamsters, Logan... “He's fine!” he said, quick as anything, not quick enough. “It's just... the...” Fuck. Don't mention gall-bladders, he thought. Whatever you do.
“Nothing life-threatening,” Charles said, unusually blunt. When he set the pack of waffles down on the counter, it was a bit unnecessarily forceful. “You want that turkey bacon in the refrigerator, Erik? Maple syrup?”
Ten minutes, and Charles had them arrayed round the island eating waffles, eggs, the kids pleading for coffee and getting none. It was, surreally, exactly the way it had always been. If he blinked and pretended a bit, Erik could have sworn he'd imagined the past two years. Surely he'd just had an unpleasantly dystopian, miserabilist daydream, surely... No. “Well, according to Logan you've just been having your knee felt up by the appropriate professional joint-setter, Erik,” Charles said pleasantly, setting himself finally down at the table, with a blueberry muffin and the very latte-with-extra-orange-blossom-syrup that Erik had once had down to a fine art. Not that long ago. It wasn't that long ago. “Which is why I didn't bother calling you: just waited for you to show your face. What did he have to say to you?”
“She,” Erik corrected automatically. And he was looking at Charles with a full unbreakable gaze, hardly aware of itself. Mostly he couldn't believe what he was seeing, so he was, truth told, a little bit afraid to look away. That was when he'd wake up from the dream, right?
Charles' face twisted up some, like the information triggered some automatic reaction in him, and he never for a moment broke off staring right back at Erik. Less a stare-out, more a mind-meld, with the ratcheting of tension accompanied by a high-pitched tuneful rackety rising whistle that only they could hear. They weren't opposite sides of the island: same side, seated further than necessary apart, with the kids on the other side watching them surreptitiously, glances flitting up, jelly and syrup on their faces. “Really,” he said. The very sound of it approximated to oh yeah? “Any fun element of violence and menaces in it for you? Did she offer to pin you down while she gave you the full Marathon Man experience?” he asked drily.
Busted, that's when your old love knows you a bit too well. Much too well to feign offence and outrage at their entirely too accurate intuitions and insinuations. But Erik had at least one avenue of defence open to him. He gave a quick, emphatic glance the kids' way, and then back to Charles. Who was narrow-eyed, dry-expressioned... offensively dear. Erik's own affections seemed like a weapon raised and levered against him, right then. “Do you mind?” he asked, pointedly.
Charles gave them a look too. When they stared back at him, it mostly seemed like collusion. But he shrugged, pleasant and acquiescent. “”Whatever you say, Pater,” he drawled. “Although I think that horse is bolted. These two know you pretty well by now, Erik.”
Erik let it go, because it was unarguable. But the kids had him distracted with speed and probably deliberate skill, which was all to the good and spared him having to feign anything like composure. “Logan said you were taking us out, Daddy,” Wanda said, composedly puttering through contacts on her phone as she spoke, not troubling to look at him. “Where are we going?”
Charles was rinsing off plates and cups in the sink by that time, and he was apparently absorbed in the task. Not that Erik didn't know better than that. When did Charles ever miss a trick?
Erik felt, himself, as if he was about to perform a rather complex magic trick, and one with about a fifty percent chance of a successful outcome. “I thought I'd take you guys to Coney Island. Seeing as we're all playing hooky,” he said slowly. There were a couple of high-pitched strangled yelps that went up. That was the twins, fervently cheering.
“I was going to drag Logan along too, but that's effectively nixed, now. I guess it's just the three of us.” That was the point for the key move, but he was foiled. From the first mention of Coney Island, Charles had stilled like a squirrel aware of observation. Then he wiped off the draining board quickly, gave a careful skim round the kitchen for neatness and order, and put a hand through his hair.
“Well, if you good people – “ oh, and it was very dry, that, “are going out, I'll get out of your hair,” he announced pleasantly. “I'll just grab my coat and case.” And there he was, gone, the prey neatly eluding them, muttering quietly to himself out in the long hallway. Erik was willing to bet most of it was about the Lehnsherr clan, and very little of it at all flattering.
He exchanged glances with his kids, though, and he didn't need to say a word. A truly inspired and inspiring team captain doesn't need to run through the drill every time, when he sends his team out on to the field.
When Charles reappeared, the composure on his face was steely. He was clearly prepared to maintain iron control as he said his farewells. No luring him in, no cunning devices succumbed to. (He was wearing no shirt or tie with the blue sweater, and the long suede jacket was new and made him look still more soft and touchable and gentle and still youngish, the charming professor that half the undergrad population was probably crushing on. If Erik caught any one of them making a move, then it'd be their windpipes getting crushed.)
“Well, I'll be off,” he said, matter of fact. “Have a good day on the rides, kids. Don't let your father get away with anything.” His face softened slightly. It wasn't possible for Charles to bear much in the way of illusions about Wanda and Pietro, he'd known them too long. Erik knew he loved them just the same, just the same as ever.
The kids – quiet and stealthy as ninjas – had moved off their stools and were standing closer to Charles now. Not close enough to startle and scare off the target, though. Pietro was closest, standing with slightly hunched shoulders and looking down at his hands, while Wanda looked airily off into space behind him. “We're going to Coney Island,” he said.
“Yes. Isn't that nice of your Dad,” Charles said. It wasn't a question. He was fidgeting a bit.
“Dad's taking us to Coney Island,” Pietro said, again. Twice, then. He exhibited a masterly lack of eye-contact. That defeated posture, Erik shouldn't have let it get to him before. It was a master-stroke, the signature-note of the artiste. He felt a swell of pride. For the first time, herding and carefully shepherding Charles back into the fold seemed not entirely impossible. Even without the slightest co-operation on his part.
Wanda didn't even interject anything, and he had to salute the restraint. They both just let the silence yawn, Charles standing looking down at the pair of them, his face utterly mutinous.
It stretched too far, and broke. Charles gave a full-body spasm of rage, very like St. Vitus' dance in miniature. Then he slammed his case down on the kitchen counter, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and stormed over to sit back down again beside Erik at the island.
“Fine,” he snarled. “Fine. At least if we're going to spend the afternoon getting sick on kosher hotdogs, and puking on rides you're not tall enough for, let's plan it out right.” And he got right on that, flicking through amusement park review sites, using his research powers in the name of prioritising and grading rides, slots, refreshments and public conveniences. Before they all spent the day together. As one big, happy, united mixed family.
And Erik shared another glance with his kids, and high-fived neither of them. It didn't seem like the wisest move. Victory can be temporary, and fragile.
Chapter 16: open parentheses
Have the TARDIS on standby, we're taking another trip backwards through time.
Take it six years back, and where are you? Where is Charles?
He’s in a bar.
Of course he’s in a bar. It’s Charles we’re talking about.
He’s drunk already, though it’s not quite ten in the evening yet. And flushed, a little glaze to the eyes. Standing up, and toasting his companions.
Chapter 17: locked and loaded for bear
Two perfectly mis-matched people meet in a bar and fall in love.
Or, another way of looking at it. Two funny burning nitro monster-trucks drive at each other head-on, 1000 kmph, heading for a collision.
Someone’s gonna die. And if they don't, maybe that will be still more chaotic and damaging in the end.
Title from Mary Karr's 'Lit' - 'Come on, I'm locked and loaded for bear down here'.
(His companions. Raven, of course. Raven with Hank's arm around her, slumped back in the boot, both of them gazing up at him tolerantly. Az, who’s watching them - covertly - as much as he’s watching Charles. Alone, sleekly suited, very much the fresh keen young politico straight outta Harvard Business School and a prestige internship. There’s Steve - sweet Steve, looking earnestly at Charles. Like he wants to take him home, sober him up, dry him out and get him living a pure righteous God-fearing life, confession three times a week, five services on Sundays. Perhaps a side order of fellatio, followed by frantic guilty rosary-telling on an occasional basis. But a nice Catholic boy can pull in favours with the penguins and the Pope, when he needs it.
Good luck with that, Steve. (He’s going to need it.)
Also Steve has brought with him an old friend from his hardscrabble Brooklyn kidhood. One James Buchanan Barnes, an army brat grown up on some unspecified leave. Who watches Steve, watching Charles. And gives Charles an occasional hard look, like he’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a blue-eyed blue-blood dipsomaniac toerag,. Who's alienated the affections of the old buddy he’d been saving for later, for a serious adult love, when they’d got through fooling around and sowing wild oats.
Steve has described Barnes, vaguely, as being in ‘military intelligence’. He’s an enlisted grunt who worked his way up, a kid from the streets who proves that in America, anyone can excel. If they have abundant natural talent, and powerful patrons, and never never put a foot wrong. There are years mysteriously missing from his resume, after his service in Afghanistan, that don’t seem to prevent him disappearing for months at a time on vaguely-designated assignments. His actual current status within the armed or secret services is unknown. And that’s despite Charles’ best efforts. Because he has a mother hen complex, and likes to keep tabs on his friends’ friends, with his infinite network of Xavier contacts.
All of this causes Raven to lean and whisper into her dear brother’s ear, this evening. Along the lines of, “See secret agent man Barnes, over there? Other corner of the table.? Well I swear, if you put your hand on Steve one more time tonight - anywhere, doesn’t matter where, hand or shoulder or in the men’s room - you are not going to survive the night, Charles. And don't look to me to protect you. I’ve got my hands full, fending off the red peril over here.” That's what she says, giving the slightest subtle jerk of the head in Az’s direction.
But Charles isn’t listening, heedless in victory. He lifts his beerstein high, the only one standing at the table, with the hum and murmur of the crowd around them. The bar is rammed.
And Cain laughs at him, pleased with an innocent unconsidered malice. Cain, the other member of their group, Charles’ step-brother, Raven’s adopted brother, a shared nemesis. “Charlie, look at you,” he chortles. “You’re bladdered, man. i remember the first time I got you hammered on Dad’s Macallan. You puked in the swimming pool, and fell into it wearing nothing but a thong, a bedsheet and your ma’s high heels. The EMT gave us some stick about that, after I’d dragged you out.”
Raven’s quick hard look at Charles, here, says a lot. It says ‘he let you take the blame for nicking the scotch, you remember that?’ And also ‘he only pulled you out of the pool when I couldn’t, and I screamed at him, soaking wet and trying to hold your face out of the water, that if you died and I had anything to say about it, I’d see him swing for manslaughter’. And also, ‘why the fuck did you invite him, anyway?’
But Charles - ah, the ways of a Xavier are a mystery. He chooses to look away, to deflect Raven’s urgent glare. Instead he grins back at Cain, and says, “a), Cain, I’ll have you know I was playing at being Caligula. In my own head, at least. That wasn’t a sheet I was wearing, it was a toga, pal. And also, b), that’s Doctor Charlie, to you, sunshine. Doctor, mate, since that's what we're officially celebrating. Doctor Charles Francis Xavier, PhD., associate fellow of Genetics at Columbia University, having successfully defended my dissertation against that bastard Sebastian Shaw - amongst other bloodthirsty academic hyenas. Bachelor of this parish, seventeenth on Tatler’s ‘Brains, Beauty and Benjamins’ Venn diagram list, and…”
He pauses, stops, and everyone in the group can feel his attention dribble away from them. But he’s still tautly attentive, all right. It’s just that it’s directed over and away, to the other side of the room. He has the air, this moment, of a carnivorous beast on the savannah. A tiger, who’s spotted something delicious across the plain, something that can’t possibly outrun it.
“And, folks,” he finally adds, a purposeful gleam in those baby-blues - “it’s my special day, here. Very special, by the looks of things. I’m highly degreed, single, available, and a man with a soon-to-be-published thesis and a sadly under-utilized Grindr account. After years of monastic study - practically celibacy. And in addition to that, I’m locked and loaded for bear. You can take care of yourselves for twenty minutes, right, kiddies? Expect me when you see me, anyway.”
And he drains his glass, slams it down on the table. With one single wink in Raven’s direction, he plunges into the heaving mass of the crowd at Joe’s Cosy Nook.
It isn’t as if anyone’s surprised. Par for the course, really. “What’s he spotted now?” Az enquires of the company at large, resigned. “Or should I say, who? Or,” he adds, thoughtfully, “should I say what?”
Raven is craning her head to see what direction Charles is headed. (Not that it’s easy: his pocket-sized frame is quickly lost in the heaving masses of the crowd.)
“I’ve lost him - lost him - no, there he is,” she announces triumphantly, using Hank’s sloping shoulder as leverage to elevate herself up high enough to give a crow’s nest view of the heads of the crowd.
“Ow,” Hank mutters piteously. But no-one pays the faintest heed to that. Not with Charles on the prowl.
Raven is pointing, having identified her target. And Charles’ target, too.
“Bit unfair of the lad,” she observes, critically. “I wouldn’t say a bear, exactly. A damn sight too well-dressed, for a start.”
At this point she isn’t the only one standing or kneeling on the vinyl cushions of the booth seats. They’re more like a troop of meerkats, eagerly peering, heads jerking this way and that. “Bit furry, though, you have to admit,” Cain says critically, from the vantage point of his freakish height, a hand over his eyes shielding them from the club lights, the better to focus on Charles’ prey. “Has evidently yet to discover the joys of a decent-quality five-blade razor complete with swivel head, right? Or hedge-trimmers. Unless he’s just going for that Thoreauvian backwoodsman look, in tune with nature. When he’s not dynamiting the lake, by his little cabin in the woods.”
He’s looking - they’re all looking - at the target a purposeful Charles is drawing a bead on, intent, where it’s propping up the end of the bar on the other side of the room.
Propping it up, talking to a pretty black girl with strangely beautiful grey-white hair, and odd opaque contact lenses. But Charles is undeterred - clearly undeterred - moving through the waves of a human sea like a shark, like a targeted missile with a mission to find, detonate, implode.
“Should somebody stop him?” Az wonders, gazing after the pocket-sized Romeo with misgivings warping his fine features. “He’s got to be punching above his weight there. I mean, if the dude weren’t even keeping company with a woman, right there in front of him,” he adds.
“What are you suggesting there, buddy?” Cain demands here, less than amiably, turning his broad, bovine, handsomely beefy face towards the faux-radical young political staffer. “Are you trying to say that my little bro there can’t take his pick, of the finest benders this hostelry for queers has to offer? Are you? Do you want to take that assertion outside, eh?”
And Raven and Hank, Steve and Barnes, are instantly plunging in there, making peace or poking through the bars, according to their inclination. But Charles is gone, now, hitting ground zero, drunk and flushed-rosy and inspired by Bacchus. Meeting his destiny, in a hot crowded bar, yet failing for a minute to recognize Destiny for the lady she is. There is no other explanation for his approach.
“Hallo, darling,” Charles opens with, wedging himself between two barstools. Two barstools that - clearly - belong to two people who, for this portion of the evening at least, conceive of themselves as being, in some sense of the word, together.
Not that Charles cares about that. He has his back to the girl - pretty, striking, with a distinctive flair to her assymetric dyed blue-grey hair. And he addresses himself solely, as if they were the only two people in the room, to the man she is with. “Sorry it took me so long to get to you,” Charles says. "You can see the place is rammed. But you were clearly in urgent need of medical attention. And i happen to be qualified in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
He nods, significantly - up a little closer than necessary, even in the jostling scrum of the bar. Close to this pretty stranger - pretty even under the growth of a good two week’s beard. He’s wearing a damn nice suit, though. A suit that nevertheless looks like the wearer has slept in it, maybe a couple of times.
The pretty stranger is looking back at Charles, now. Looking a little bit bemused, it has to be conceded. But also curious, and possibly just a little intrigued. Even beneath the downward turn of a fine mouth, the dark shadows under greenish eyes.
His reply is polite, if concise. If not giving much more than the bare minimum of the facts. “I don’t actually require resuscitation, thanks,” he points out. “Not even ‘mouth-to-mouth’.” He is possibly smiling, just the very littlest bit. “I’m not unconscious. Pretty sure.”
“Really?” Charles asks. He’s short, and standing. His prey would have half a head on him anyway, but is perched up on a barstool like it’s an eagle’s eyrie. If Charles says, ‘How’s the weather up there…’
He resists the temptation. His head is bent back, and those eyes that he knows how to use are gazing up steadily. Steady, hypnotically drunk, plastered. Determined. Only a jeweller examining a superior gem, or a man in danger of alcohol poisoning, could summon up such intensely focused, reckless concentration.
He leans forward, further, and murmurs, “Well, I can take care of that, my friend. I can make a man faint, any old time. Done it a dozen times.” And he almost tips forward, to hiss in this dude’s ear. "With my mouth.”
When he straightens up, not a hundred percent steady, there’s an idiotically pleased grin on his face. It’s not wiped off when his new pal’s companion - presumably gobsmacked enough to explain the delay before she’s interfered - taps him on the shoulder. Taps him hard, more of a good hard poke.
“Excuse me,” she says from behind him, her voice civil but hard-edged. “I don’t think my friend is interested in hearing about your -”
Charles, though, doesn’t turn to look at her when he speaks. He just flops a hand back vaguely in her direction. “Don’t worry about it, love,” he says. “Your job here’s done, now. He doesn’t need you to play Mum for him, you can run along now. I’ve got this.”
O, and that’s when it all kicks off.
Chapter 18: I just met you, and this is crazy, but
Charles isn't what Erik was expecting from the evening. Along with the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects Charles Xavier.
Title from Carly Rae Jepsen's masterful 'Call Me Maybe'. Nothing wrong with autotune, people. Perfect Pitch for the People: egalitarian musicality!
Did Erik want to come to a gay bar, after a late evening finishing off the estimates for the municipal renewal project? He did not. To be dragged there by a Stark Industries intern - admittedly the most promising of the bunch, something of a protegée of his? (At least, before, she’d been a bit of a protegée. In the last year - since the diagnosis, since the sickness, since Magda’s death - he’s not been in a place in his head fitting him for mentoring anyone. He’d have expected that Storm would have moved on, found someone else’s brains to pick, someone more enthusiastically ready for the ego-boost of sculpting and turbo-boosting a favoured acolyte’s career. But evidently she hasn’t forgotten about him. If he still had a heart, instead of a dark burnt-out cavity in his chest, he’d be touched.)
No, he didn’t volunteer for this. He was volunteered, and not without vocal protest. But Storm - a nick-name well-earned - is a force of nature, a virago to be reckoned with, and she has dealt with every protest with the prompt firmness of a British nanny naughty-stepping him. The kids? At his mamma’s house. The lateness of the hour? It’s Saturday, and Tony Stark has put a temporary moratorium on senior execs coming in to work on Sundays, after one pulled four all-nighters in a week on a project, and wound up with a cardiac arrest in the ER. The unsuitability of the upper echelons of the company socialising with the neophytes? For that, he got a disdainful look up and down, and a shake of the head. “You think you’re my type?” she’d asked, and he’d shut his mouth on the issue.
Now, he tries the truth, here where they’re sitting in front of bright fussy drinks in a noisy bar, with a clientèle that’s too young and too loud and too full-on, for a tired wiped-out family man past thirty. “I’m not ready for this, Ororo,” he says quietly to her, their heads close enough for her to hear him even amidst the din. “I’m not - I can’t do this yet.”
And she turns to look at him, from where she’s been flirting with the pretty barkeep. She gives him another assessing up-and-down look, but for a different purpose. “That’s valid,” she agrees, and Erik almost sighs with relief. He can go home! To a silent house, and photos on the wall, and nothing, nothing…
But she continues. “It’s valid, but what are you going to do? If you wait till you’re ready, you might never be ready. You make yourself ready by getting out there. You get ready by doing.”
That might be true, or it might not. But on the other hand, does he really want to go home yet, to that silent house? Erik takes a look around the bar. The crowd literally heaves, like muscles flexing, especially around the slo-mo struggles to get a bartender’s attention. They’re mobbing around the foci of a handful of hot young servers, swarming like buzzy bees. It’s packed with pretty twinks, muscle queens, closeted business types just loosening up for the weekend. He smiles, slightly, and catches her eye again. “I don’t think I’ll be doing anyone here, Ororo. Why’d you bring me to a gay bar, anyhow?” It’s a question as valid as his excuses.
Ororo shrugs. “Good practice. Low pressure. Anyhow, you never know! Don’t typecast yourself! It isn’t exactly gay, anyhow - it’s just cosmopolitan, Erik.” She smirks, turning back to flirt some more with the bartender - purple-haired, impressive cleavage, a question mark tattooed on her shoulder.
Erik sighs, takes a draught of his drink, and takes another look around the bar. Or he would, except that there’s something that obscures his view.
Someone. A pretty someone, with bright blue eyes, and a creased blue shirt, flushed and looking a little the worse for wear. Standing up close, and smiling at Erik.
A pretty guy, in a gay bar. Is this wild-eyed male maenad coming on to Erik? Although, it has to be said, Erik did let Ororo drag him to a gay bar. (Cosmopolitan, Erik's ass.) It isn't exactly the most unlikely thing that might happen.
In fact, there are worse things that could happen. Erik has experienced some of them, of recent date.
Chapter 19: -here's my number, call me maybe?
Charles may have over-estimated his ability to bring down juicy prey, out on the savannah. He's the one who gets savaged.
Raven only jumps back into the fray when she realises that Charles’ hunt is ending up with him as the prey. Across the bar, she can see him pink-faced, horrified looking - with his target’s girlfriend/faghag/companion spitting out words at him, physically interposing herself between Charles and her fella.
And when she gets closer, in earshot, none of it’s good. Oh, good Lord, none of it. “...doesn’t need your crude, pornographic approaches, thanks a lot… get a lot of action with lines like that?... widowed six months ago, not gay, and even if he was then… presumption… compared to his lovely wife, that’s a laugh… rude… alcoholic… rude… horrible… rude...”
Charles is immobilised, appalled, clearly both too tipsy and too crestfallen to get the wherewithal to get the hell out of the situation. Her arms go around him as she rides to the rescue, with Hank close behind. “So sorry!” she clarions out, shrill and cheerful and determinedly upbeat. Because, even with the minimal gist she’s got out of what she’s heard, Charles has probably crossed a line - he can be simply awful when he’s drunk - and pacification is no doubt the best policy. Even if she’d like to smack this snippy, lippy little harridan into next week, for leaving her darling Charles red-cheeked and consternated like that. She kisses his cheek hard, protectively, and begins to shepherd him away, shielding him with her whole body, nudging him to safety.
Except it’s not to be as easy as that, it seems. Because Furry Bear, Fozzy, Paddington - well, she needs some kind of shorthand for the recipient of Charles’ inappropriate attentions, and this is so very much not the moment for introductions - steps out from the shadow of his midget protector, his gatekeeper to the Magic Kingdom.
And speaks. To Charles. “You said something about giving me your card?” he asks, and smiles. (Oh, exactly the kind of smile that Charles would go for, every time. Unsafe, unwise, looking-for-trouble drunk Charles. This is all perfectly intelligible to Raven, at this point. Charles.)
His female friend launches herself back into the fray, now - her hands on his arm and his shoulder, and something derogatory about Charles on the launchpad and ready to go. But this guy grips the hand that’s gripping him, and smiles at her, equally firmly. “I don’t need you looking after me, O. Look, ma, this is me - all ready.” He turns back to Charles. “Your card?” he asks again, one eyebrow raised. “Your number? I mean,” he adds, “I could have a terrible accident. I could need mouth-to-mouth resus, anytime, you don’t know. I might feel faint.” He smiles again: here, and now, Charles is clearly no longer the alpha predator.
And oh, God, that is quite recognizable as one of Charles’ lines repeated back to him, verbatim. Charles, who has his hand over his face, now, and is whimpering slightly. Raven can see that the situation needs winding up, stat: but Charles has already come to that conclusion it seems. He’s backing away, moving backwards into the crowd, staring horrified at his former quarry: then he turns, and outright flees.
And Raven would follow him posthaste. Where Charles goes, Raven follows, so it is and so it has been and so it always shall be. Anyone else in her life just has to get used to her priorities.
Except this fella grabs a hold of her arm, too quick. “Hey, what’s your friend’s name?” he asks, smiling at her, now, like he thinks maybe turning on the charm will work with any old Xavier. “How do I get a hold of him?”
She looks into his face a moment, searches it. Any boyfriend of Charles has to go through her, she vets ‘em, hazes ‘em, grades ‘em on a curve. She watches them come and go, and any long-term residency will take formal approval and certification signed in triplicate. By her.
This guy… no. Just no. Whatever damage he’s currently recovering from - a widower, crazy psycho chick said, right? Whatever it is, under the stubble and the shadows and the PTSD, behind the flinching at ghosts and the burn of recent trauma… this is not the guy to get Raven’s final seal of approval, her permission to date her brother, significant-other him, ask for his hand.
So why even begin it, under those circumstances, with that understanding?
Chapter 20: close parentheses
“Catch him if you can,” she says instead, flashing him a quick grin. And she rips her arm away, threads coming loose on natty silver designer threads, and dives after Charles.
That guy, no. Bad news, too precisely Charles’ type to possibly be good news. They don’t want to see him again.
Chapter 21: go, I'll be waiting when you call
Oh, so very much earlier on. Courtship days, what could be sweeter: a jar of honey with a thousand bee-stings thrown in.
Chapter title from Crowded House's 'Fall At Your Feet'. Just wanted to use a line from it really.
It's nice, to have Raven lounging around his apartment on a Sunday night. Even though Charles has a hundred different things to do, edits to go over, lectures to prepare, calls to make... texts from Erik to chew his fingernails over...
It's early days, very early. Wonderful early days, and Charles is packed to the gills with anxiety and thrills and foreboding.
He paces about -- while Raven lies on the sofa, listening to the Sonny Rollins Charles has put on, that's the only thing that doesn't grate his nerves that bit more. And she swills the bucket-sized glass of wine she's filled almost to the brim. It's a good thing she's not a blood relative, otherwise Charles would be worried about any kids he might produce in the future. No class at all. She is Kurt's get, in a few minor ways, after all.
"He says I took his 'mouth virginity'," Charles muses, looking out the window, over the city from his penthouse pad. It's worth the embarrassment, to have Raven splurt her nice Portuguese Shiraz all over her white lace blouse. "So therefore, I owe him an engagement ring," he adds. "You follow the logic, right?"
Now Raven really busts a gut, and Charles is grinning, too. Tense, yearning and denying that yearning, trying firmly to expunge it. But also, it's bloody funny. "Because he's a nice Jewish boy. Allegedly," he explains further. "Apparently he doesn't do that with just anybody. Or anyone at all, previously. He was quite threatening, explaining that bit," Charles says.
"I bet you loved that," Raven says, topping up her glass, after she's spilt half of it. "Menaces and cuddles. Is semen kosher?"
But Charles just sighs, leaning full-body against the glass of the wall-length windows, and it's a good thing it's top-notch toughened glazing. He's doing the full Mimi outta La Bohème: knows it, and can't help himself. It's a joke, but Charles is barely laughing. He's trying, really hard, not to be in love. He's dreading the day when Erik recovers, thaws out from bereavement enough to find himself a new girlfriend: to recover from his current safe retreat from the arena, his cosy delusions of suddenly-discovered bisexuality.
Then, Charles will be relegated to the status of drinking buddy, ole pal. Oh, there'll be casual barbeque invites, he'll be godparent to new babies, no doubt. New babies! The very thought is painful enough to make his eyes sting, in his current pathetic state. An occasional handy for old time's sake, maybe.
"Charles," says Raven - who knows a thing or two, knows it even just from looking at his face, gazing out at the hurling rain. "Are you already in love with him?"
"Possibly. Little bit," Charles says.
Chapter 22: "Oh God, to die so young!"
Later on, and Charles is dying, or thinks he is. He has good reason, after all.
Chapter title from 'La Bohéme', obvs. You tell 'em, Mimi!
'Mean Girls' quote.
Dylan Thomas quote.
Theoretically, it's nice to have a private room, when you're dying. It's certainly nice to be able to afford it, with the state of U.S. healthcare, even in the age of Obamacare.
In the dark, in the night-time, it's not so good. Not with Raven lost into sleep on the little cot at the side of the room. Cain won't come, because a) Raven is present, and everyone is very carefully not telling her that he does visit, because she went nuclear the first time he tried it. And b), he already popped in, early morning yesterday, and sat with Charles for twenty minutes, stealing the time away from his Wall Street schedule. Cried a bit, and held Charles' hand, and maundered through unbearably revisionist, minimizing, sentimentalized versions of childhood memories. Cain has improved a good deal, and Charles even loves him, now. It's a pity he's not capable of honesty about the past, not even in the face of death.
And Az has not yet arrived, though he's promised to pull the night-shift on the little rota they have going. Charles has dubbed it the 'Keeping Charles Company While He Dies' roster, although he can't get any of them to take it up. It's not going to go viral. For some reason it seems to get everyone down. He tried it last night, and Raven blubbed a bit. Then she toughened up, leaned over him and cuffed him -- gently. And said, 'Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen. It's not going to happen.'"
Right now, it's midnight exactly, the very middle of the night, the blackest point. Charles is on the best meds and painkillers that money and contacts can buy, barter or steal. But his head feels like it's burning on the inside. His heart has no rhythm, couldn't make it in the most amateur-hour ska covers band. He can most literally feel everything falling apart.
He's tried to hold it together, tried to will himself into recovery. He's controlled every little last thing, the way that money and privilege makes easy, all his life.
But this, this is definitely out of his control. The reins slide out of his hand. Charles thinks that he might be dying, now.
He's so angry. 'Rage, rage, against the dying of the light...'
Of rage he has plenty. But it has nothing to do with the light.
Chapter 23: what it's like to meet the man of your dreams but still be in love with an ex you despise
Now, now, now.
Raven stirs the pot, probably with the best intentions. Probably.
Chapter title from Iliza Shlesinger's Girl Logic. Wow, that book REDACTEEEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD.
"We're having a barbecue, on Sunday," Raven said, after she'd mostly - mostly - masticated her current mouthful of sumac-laden Turkish meatballs. "You're going to be there."
"What?" Charles expostulated. Because, what? His amazement wasn't at the form of the invitation -- if you could call it an invite, and not a command performance. That was par for the course, with Raven an unavoidable, non-blood-relative part of his life. It wasn't as if he'd invited her to dine with him in the faculty restaurant today, either. "A barbecue? Holy Hell, Raven."
"I know," she said, rather smugly. "My sweet baby is really going to town on the suburban-couple bit. I don't exactly get why he does so much like to pretend we're, like, Tom 'n' Barb, government employees, joint income of less than seventy kay between us and a spare broken lawnmower rusting by the above-ground pool. But he so much does. Maybe he's got a side fantasy going on, that we're also undercover secret agents."
Charles shook his head. There was no accounting for Az. He was quite a fella.
"I think I'll invite Erik, too," Raven mused. She prodded her insanely-preggers belly, pleased with herself.
That was when Charles choked on his seitan and marjoram vegan lasagna.
Chapter 24: 'the two worst inventions of humanity - romantic love and gunpowder'
Charles really can't get on board with this idea of Raven's. Namely, a barbecue. Oh, and inviting Erik.
Chapter title: from Andre Maurois, author of 'Fattypuffs and Thinifers'.
"What about the kids?" Charles asked, sounding slightly rattled, which simply couldn't be helped.
"Them too," Raven shrugged. "Poor little monsters. You can't blame them for their sperm-donor. Besides, consider Erik's past history. You trust him to make responsible choices hiring a babysitter?"
Chapter 25: a knock-down drag-out romance
Oh, is a barbecue ever really a good idea? Especially a Xavier barbecue.
I believe that the Law of Preception comes from Buckminster Fuller.
'Claret' is how Bertie Wooster, or possibly Georgette Heyer, might refer to bloodflow from a broken nose.
ETA: Precession! Law of Precession! And apparently Buckminster Fuller went by 'Bucky'. SPOOKY huh.
Of course, Raven possibly hadn't considered the Law of Precession, as applied to throwing a barbecue. Of the whole list of conceivable consequences -- it was a fair bet that even she hadn't anticipated a fist-fight, a broken nose, and a liberal flow of the old claret.
Of course, knowing Raven, it wouldn't have stopped her anyway.
Chapter 26: After All, He's Just a Man
Well. This barbecue, then. Devilish tricky issue, that.
Chapter title is from 'Stand By Your Man', by Tammy Wynnette. About as far from being Charles' theme song, currently, as it could possibly be.
Also a Philip Roth quote, 'a nice Jewish boy'. Roth still sucks, though, don't forget.
It wasn't unreasonable -- surely -- for Charles to be a little apprehensive. A suburban barbecue was by no means his natural habitat.
And beyond that, there was Erik. Not that Charles was remotely spooked by the idea of encountering Erik, socially. In an uncontrolled environment. After the shenanigans that the devilishly attractive beast had already got up to, since discovering that Charles was a living breathing revenant, ticker still tocking on, inexorable.
Oh, in the name of Satan. What had anyone ever done to deserve Raven?
On the other hand... To not attend would look as if...
As if Charles were afraid. Not, crucially, afraid of Erik. Erik Lehnsherr would be affronted at the very notion, stoutly insisting on his credentials as a nice Jewish boy. As Edie Lehnsherr's gently-reared pride and joy. As a respectable suburban gent, who'd managed to con at least one high-quality, highly-educated, discerning citizen into a life-long commitment.
Even if the other one had got away, and was determinedly swimming up-river, even as we speak. Faster than Nemo, and considerably less keen on being found.
Chapter 27: "Tammy, stand by the JAMMS!"
A barbecue. With Erik. Possibly not the best idea.
Chapter title from 'Justified And Ancient', by the KLF and Tammy Wynette. All the glory and the lyrical grace of the KLF, and Tammy too! We should all be so lucky.
No. No, no no. Afraid of himself, that was the thing. It would look as if Charles were still partial. To Erik. Had still, even now, a bit of a pash. Was still capable of being a complete mug, if confronted by that handsomely smug mug.
As if he thought, himself, that he might be too tempted. In the flesh.
Chapter 28: you better not stop 'em 'cause they're coming through...
Erik employs a bit of strategy, and has probably read Sun Tzu. Or at least Pietro has read him the Cliff Notes, as a bedtime story.
Chapter title from 'Justified And Ancient', by the KLF and Tammy Wynette. Glory, and beauty, and Fab icelollies.
Seventy-two hours later, and Erik Lehnsherr had proven suburban barbecues to be a hellishly bad idea, a small hell on earth. At least, he'd proven it to Charles. And possibly even to Raven, and Az.
But, it seemed, not to himself. Not judging by the way he was laughing, laid out -- knocked down -- in the middle of a bought-in ice-cream cake, and the broken bits of the deal table, that Steve Rogers had punched him into. (Hell, or the middle of next week, not being conveniently available.)
And Rogers stood looking down at him. Noble, angry, disgusted, a marble Greek god in a grandma-knitted sweater. Not laughing at all. "What the hell's funny, Lehnsherr?" he asked, now. "Don't you understand that you've lost?"
"Steve, Steve," Erik said -- and his nose felt like someone had put it through a nutribullet, thickly trying to speak. "Don't you know, that sometimes the best way to win is by losing?"
Chapter 29: a couple of tough monkeys
Erik wouldn't cause trouble at a Xavier social do, would he? WOULD HE?
Chapter title is a quote from Seinfeld.
Screwtape Letters reference.
Charles squinted suspiciously at the stack of wineglasses on his sister's kitchen table, and picked up a flute to scrutinize more closely. He rubbed a limescale mark off the stem, onto his nice clean Turnbull and Asser shirtsleeve.
"You know that most people hire glassware, when they've got more than twenty guests coming?" he called. Even though Raven was only at the other end of the kitchen. In a cavernous, offensively flash and glitzy suburban kitchen like this one, he might as well have got his phone out otherwise. Or tried semaphore.
Raven didn't cease in 'testing' the orange-almond vegan icecream that the caterers had just unveiled -- didn't even look up.
Although the girl was eating for -- well, about ten, by the looks of it.
"I did," she said, shrugging. Then back to the icecream. A hard day at the coal-face, for a Xavier.
"Really?" Charles had another squiz. "Really, Ray. Lead crystal? Oh, and marked - is that Baccarat? Christ. It would only take Erik starting a bust-up with, oh, say, Steve, and the breakages would amount to--" He hesitated, and shrugged himself. About a hundredth of Raven's discreet monthly check from her financial manager, thanks to her genetic lottery win. Which had never prevented Charles understanding the value of a buck. But sexy proletarian roleplay, with Az, was probably as close as Raven was ever going to get.
To take his mind off his fucking family, he peered instead out the window, onto the lush green backyard, on the morning of little sis's threatened, delivered barbecue. And if he wasn't mistaken, there was the Devil himself, strolling amongst caterers, and actually welcome, invited guests. With his hands in his pockets, relaxed as you please. He had a pair of minions, Screwtapes in training, at his heels, too, sneaking cake off servers' trays as they went.
Erik, and two junior Lehnsherrs.
And a little beyond him, at the far end of the extensive garden, Steve, suddenly alert as he clocked the latest arrival.
The air might have been less electric, if two gorillas were challenging each other for alpha male of the troop.
Chapter 30: Eileen, too-rye-aye
Erik is perfectly sober. That's no defence.
Chapter title from Dexy's, Too-Rye-Ay still an amazing long-player. Where's the second E, though?
Just a brief leap forward at this damn barbecue, maybe twenty minutes or an hour or so, then. En avant, mes braves!
"Erik." Oh, and that was Charles' very firmest voice. That voice meant that he meant business. Tickling him out of it might have been a viable option at one time, but that had been under quite different circumstances. "Erik. My name isn't Eileen. And I am not wearing a fucking dress. And stop serenading me."
Chapter 31: 'Eileen, tell me yes!'
A pissed-up singsong at a barbecue. Yay!
Chapter title from Dexy's 'Eileen'.
"If you were even drunk, then I could understand it," Charles added. "But you're not even drunk." (Never, in the history of the world, could those particular words have been uttered quite so disparagingly. The man himself, he had a flute of bubbly in his hand. And, if not actually pissed, Erik could tell from the subtle clues of his mien and gait that it wasn't the first of the afternoon. Who would know better than Erik? Erik Lehnsherr could have written a doctoral thesis on Charles Francis Xavier. 'Pecadilloes, Sexual Preferences, Pissed-up Preening: A Thoroughgoing Inquiry Into an Rare and Subtle Creature.' Charles would have bought up every copy, in an attempt to frustrate Erik's attempt at hagiography.
He was lovely in the afternoon sun, with that slightly inebriated flush. His eyes, the same exact shade of blue as the sky, just now. Erik could have swooned, was every bit a teenage girl for a moment, might have written fanfic in his praise. Harry Styles had nothin' on it.
The kids were on the other side of the garden, being served ice-cream to puking-point by an indulgent, amused, drama-loving Raven. And Erik hadn't given up yet.
He stepped a little closer. (And Charles stepped a little away.) "Eileen, tell me yes?" he half-hummed, notes a little askew. But the sentiment was what counted. And he was feeling incredibly sentimental.
Chapter 32: and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes
Az wants a working man's beer. Erik wants Charles. Both are doomed to frustration, for the time being.
'Frasier' beer brand Ballantine borrowed for comedic purposes.
Chapter title is a James Joyce quote, cuz I like read Joyce ALL THE TIME rah rah lols snort.
"No," Charles said, quite sharp. "For God's sake, Erik." And he turned on his heel, and walked away. Quite reasonably steady, given the state of the lawn with about three score barbecue guests tromping over it, and the glass in his hand.
Erik stood and watched him go, not noticeably dispirited. That no had been quite definite and emphatic, true. But damned if he hadn't discerned the faintest trace of a quirk, to that soft and welcoming lower lip, a repressed twinge of amusement.
Oho, the game wasn't done, not yet. Not by a mile. Erik grabbed a beer off a harassed-looking server, who was pretending not to hear Az's cries of complaint about the foo-foo microbrewery IPA he'd just been handed, and what the hey was wrong with an honest blue-collar Ballantine, anyhow? And Erik just appreciated the view, watching Charles go, finding safe landing in the arms of Pepper Potts. (No designs on his property there, he was damn sure. Still all hung up on Tony, however many times they went through the wringer.)
The hand landing heavily on Erik's shoulder was not -- despite the lack of warning -- completely unexpected.
Chapter 33: silence, exile and cunning
WE DON'T NEED ANOTHER HERO! WE JUST NEED TO KNOW THE WAYYYY HOME!
Chapter title, more James Joyce.
Mad Max quote.
It was Steve. Erik hadn't been expecting anyone else. They gave each other a good thorough examination, a look up and down.
It would have been Steve a bit before now -- the moment they'd laid eyes on each other, in Raven Xavier's upscale backyard, festooned with bunting -- if Charles hadn't appeared, by grace of mysterious serendipity, and distracted him. Erik was pretty sure. And now he'd annoyed Charles out of his peace mission, and the poor boy had left his suitors to it.
Thunderdome, then. Two men enter... one man leaves.
Possibly with some kosher leftovers, wrapped up in greaseproof paper.
Chapter 34: the green-eyed monster
title is Shakespeaare
"What are you even doing here, Erik?" Steve asked. Oh, that proud Grecian nose, that magnificent jawline. That clenched-teeth, righteous indignation. His strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure. Whatta man.
Erik would have liked to dress him up as an Aunt Sally, and use him as a coconut shy.
Chapter 35: i'm here to tell you gal to lay offa my man, if you don't wanna go to fist city
It's probably not a good idea to rile a man-mountain like Steve intentionally. But it's fun.
Chapter title is from 'Fist City' by Loretta Lynn.
Probably wiser to exert a little restraint, though. Given the setting. Passive-aggressive provocation was generally more fun, in any case. "Invited," he said. With a slight flourish in the hand gesture, shoulders back, a smirk he could feel on his face. And he could swear he'd never mastered camp, prior to Charles' climactic irruption into his life. Just another thing he had to thank the sweet boy for.
"Really," Steve said -- and someone oughtta warn the insufferable prig that that sneer was liable to crack the immaculate marble of his perfect features. The note of faint disbelief wasn't meant to be missed.
"What, you don't believe me?" Erik asked, genially. He was beginning to enjoy this. Plus, there was the faint flicker at the edge of his field of vision, which he instantly knew -- by telepathy, through love and a resonating awareness -- was Charles. Charles, shrugging his shoulders, washing his hands one more time. It might as well have been permission. At least, in Erik's interpretation.
"You think I'd drag both my kids here -- at 2pm in the afternoon, in broad daylight -- in order to cause a scene, and chase around after Charles? Sans invitation?" he asked Steve now, actually curious. It was a fair question, he felt.
Steve was a little red in the face. The lad was plainly fuming, at this point. It was a pleasure to witness. "Excuse me if I find it hard to believe that Charles, or anyone close to him, would sanction your presence here, Lehnsherr. Considering what an unmitigated, irredeemable asshole you've proven yourself to be." O-hoh, the volcano was about to blow.
Erik almost felt in his pockets for matches. Black powder, plastic explosives. Well, considering the kids' multiple science kits and ongoing experiments, surely he must have some species of accelerant or detonator about his person.
Chapter 36: when I hit you you're gonna topple like a pine
Someone's looking to spill some unvarnished home truths, someone's cruisin' for a bruisin'.
Chapter title is a quote from Mary Karr's wonderful memoir 'Lit'.
Dr Phil reference.
"If you really thought I was a gatecrasher, you'd be trying to throw me out, right about now. To impress Charles, with all your manly muscle and heroism. Ya big damn hero," Erik pointed out. "How's that working out for you, by the way?"
Steve gave him some more blue steel, an infuriated laser glare. "You're -- you're a monster, Lehnsherr! Even if someone was dumb -- or reckless -- or just plain stupid enough to invite you, you'd think you'd have the base human decency to be ashamed to show your face. Have you forgotten just what you did to Charles? Christ, do you imagine anyone else has forgotten?" He looked about ready to blow a cerebral artery. The bright angry flush didn't go well, with the cheap poster-paint blue of his eyes.