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But The Cat Came Back

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Curiosity killed the cat-
Satisfaction brought it back.
~Folk Rhyme

***

In retrospect, Erik possibly should have been suspicious. All of the mannerisms were the same, the coloring was almost exactly correct, and whiskey in the milk? A dead giveaway.

Although, to his credit, the last thing a man thinks of during the week after he’s broken up with the person who he’s certain is the love of his life is, upon seeing a bedraggled, frantic cat crouching on his stoop on a rainy night, “Oh, look! It’s Charles, and he’s been transformed into a cat by a malevolent government program! I wonder how I can change him back and thereby secure his love forever and ever, amen?”

(Erik’s dilemma was entirely understandable.)

***

The breakup was, without question, the worst he’d ever had to endure. There was no throwing of items - he’d have been able to duck those - nor were there weapons pulled -he’d done his stint in the Israeli army, thank you, and then German special forces, and now shady British things. It wasn’t even very loud, Erik’s entire universe ending not with a bang, but a whimper.

The whimper was his, and the lack of bang was Charles’s. He had sat Erik down and quietly explained why half the furniture was missing, and everything that they catastrophically didn’t have in common, and that he’d found a flat out in Islington and please don’t look up the number, there’s a good chap. He even closed the door quietly as he left and took Erik’s reason to stay shaven and sober with him.

Not being able to tell his lover anything about his work had been difficult. He hadn’t realized that the secrecy and long hours would be a death knell.

Emma was surprisingly sympathetic. The blonde American liaison from Langley’s branch office had come over, taken one look at Erik, and turned on her heel and walked out. He didn’t want to know what the expression on his face had been like. She reappeared half an hour later with several bottles of expensive Polish vodka and another five boxes of tissues, saving him from sitting on the couch in the dark and listening to That Year, the female singers' melancholy voice wailing on repeat for hours on end.

They sat together in silence through the first bottle, and around the middle of the second one - and Predator vs. Alien, because every breakup needs blood - she belched daintily and said, “That fucker. I’ll make my dog piss on his dissertation for you.”

Erik managed something that tried to be a laugh, but it didn’t last for long.

He cried into the shoulder of her expensive cashmere sweater all that night, and promptly forked over twenty pounds so that she could take it to her fussy organic drycleaner the next day.

It didn’t really help, but it gave him the incentive to bathe and get dressed and leave the flat, if just barely. After all, time, tide, and M waited for no man, whether or not he was walking around with half of his heart missing.

(M was especially impatient on days when his asshole younger brother had gotten bored and synthesized mustard gas in his kitchen. But, then again, if that happened, anyone would be feeling pissy.)

***

It was about a month after the Awful Day that he came home late, later than late, so late it was almost early, and in a torrential downpour, only to find that he wasn’t the first one to reach the doorstep of his building.

A cat was huddled there, miserable and soaking, shaking from a combination of cold and fear, and crying out ever so often, as if calling for someone. Probably its owner, or possibly its mate, but no matter: no living being had any business being outside this time of night.

Erik folded his umbrella shut and walked forward slowly, so as not to further frighten the poor animal. It didn’t have any collar on, but looked too sleek to be a stray. It was a tabby, dark with rain, but a tweedy sort of color, with little white front paws and a white bib. Erik was willing to bet that, when dry, its belly markings would make it look as though it were wearing a suit.

He very carefully did not think about the last person he knew who wore tweeds on a regular basis.

The cat shivered, hard, as a gust of wind blew a sheet of rain across its back, and whimpered, trying to huddle tighter. It started when Erik crouched down in front of it, jerking back, its bright blue eyes very wide.

Erik reached out one finger and carefully stroked it behind the cat’s ear. “Hey there, puss. I won’t hurt you. Come on now, let’s get in out of the rain, shall we?”

He’d expected to have to coax the poor thing to have to come to him. He hadn’t expected that the cat would let out a relieved trill and practically worm its way around his neck and over his shoulders, wet little cheek pressed to his own and purring with relief.

The cat was a tom, something Erik had been at an angle to discern when he removed it from around his neck. It wasn’t a particularly large cat, just a middling size, small enough to get stuck under things but more than large enough to steal one’s entire pillow at night. It also had rather fluffy fur once he’d been rubbed down with one of the godawful expensive hand towels Emma had made Erik buy when he finally got a living space that wasn’t built by one government or another.

“I’ve got to come up with a name for you,” Erik said conversationally, as he puttered around the kitchen making heavily spiked Ovaltine for himself and warming a little extra milk for the cat, which was perched on the counter next to him and busily washing its face. “Calling you “puss” all the time is inefficient.”

The cat flicked its tail at him and fixed him with an intense blue gaze. Erik felt a small, sharp pain at the familiarity of that gaze, but pushed it harshly away even as the cat’s ears pricked forward. “Charles is as good a name as any, isn’t it? And, to be honest, you rather remind me of someone. I suppose it’s not fair to you, but I’m damn tired and it’s the best I can come up with.”

He floated the saucepan of milk over to the other side of the counter and divided it between a mug and a bowl, making sure that the spoon stirred in the drink mix and whiskey at a steady rate of speed. Charles the newly named cat batted at the spoon with fascination then turned to look at Erik with what could only be described as surprise.

“Anything with metal in it, puss, sorry, Charles, and I can move it. I don’t tell many; in fact, I don’t tell anybody at all, including your namesake, though in retrospect I wish I could have.”

He put the bowl of milk on the floor and absently added a small slug of whiskey. Erik blinked and shook himself; why had he done that? Charles the cat had his face buried in the bowl before he could take it away, however, and was purring again, so he figured it wouldn’t do him any harm.

Charles finished the milk just as the sky was beginning to lighten, rain still pouring down and flooding the back garden. Erik had been nursing his drink, and he started slightly when a small, warm weight landed in his lap. The cat crawled up his chest and settled in the crook of his arm, front legs wrapped around Erik’s bicep and soft little head resting on his collarbone. The cat’s entire body vibrated with a low, quiet purr, and it reached up to rub the top of its head under Erik’s jaw.

It wasn’t the same as the real Charles curled up against him in a rainstorm, but it helped some, and felt oddly familiar. All the little trivialities and hurts that Erik had collected over the course of the month, as well as the dull ache of loneliness, trickled quietly out of his mind, leaving him calm in a way he hadn’t felt since the last time he’d spent a morning in bed just pressed close to Charles.

They fell asleep like that, man and cat, and if something nudged away any nightmares that might have woken Erik, and if the cat’s front paws twitched when it happened, nobody was around to see.

(Or at least nobody of any importance. Who likes to cry in public?)

***
It was actually rather nice having someone to come home to again, even if they couldn’t speak. Well, not being able to speak was a matter of debate, as Charles the cat was as annoyingly intuitive as his human namesake had been – was, really, because he wasn’t dead or anything, just gone from Erik’s life as effectively as though he had died.

The cat sniffed around the empty spots in the apartment where furniture had been that Erik didn’t have the will to replace; it played with old, crumpled post-its that had indecipherable notes on genetics written on them; and it was damned uncanny about knowing just when Erik was going to make himself a cup of tea, twisting around his legs and yowling when he reached for the milk until a splash of it made its way into a saucer. Erik had taken to adding a spoonful of whiskey, too, after the first night; it hadn’t seemed to do Charles any harm, and it kept him from shedding extravagantly on Erik’s suits in retaliation. Besides, he always seemed to know where Erik was hiding the bottle.

And if Erik cried into the cat’s fur a couple of particularly maudlin evenings, and if Charles the cat purred and licked his cheeks dry – well, that was neither here nor there. Besides, if anybody at work other than Emma, who could keep a secret in a diamond fist, knew that Erik had functioning tear ducts, he’d be “assigned” to his boss’s asshole younger brother as a distraction from ennui.

None of this comfort or mild domesticity kept him from nearly having a breakdown when Hank McCoy called and asked Erik, stuttering all the while, if Charles had been in contact with him lately because nobody at the university or the lab had heard from him in three weeks and they were beginning to get a little concerned.

The next thirty six hours were spent holed up in his apartment, making increasingly threatening phone calls, with one two hour break to go and therapeutically beat someone up under a bridge and hang them from an impossible point on the London Eye by their belt. He pulled in every favor he had on four continents and found absolutely nothing. Not a whisper, not a trace, not even a rumor of where a brilliant geneticist of middling height with a fondness for tweed, whiskey, and, at one time, eating Erik’s toast off his plate might have disappeared to in the middle of a work day in London.

Charles the cat had listened in on the first phone call with wide blue eyes, and had scooted out of the living room once Erik started shouting in Spanish at his South American contacts. Later, when he slumped into the bedroom feeling exhausted and defeated and afraid, he found Charles curled up in a tight little ball on the right side of the bed – Erik always slept on the left, not that it mattered, now that the bed was too big – eyes squinched shut and little white paws pressed over his ears.

Erik sighed and slumped over on the bed, just barely managing to kick off his shoes before scootching over and curling himself around the cat, fingers rubbing gently at the soft spot behind the little ears. Charles-cat opened his eyes and untwisted, snuggling against Erik’s front with a tentative little mew.

“I don’t care where he is now, you know. I’m three hours and one check-in from Russia away from not even caring that he left me.” Erik was muttering under his breath, just barely audible. “I just want to know that he’s safe. I want him back, even if I never see him again. I just want him back.” The cat licked at his face, even though Erik’s eyes were too sore and dry for him to cry.

Days went by, and nobody knew anything at all, and everybody was suspicious that nobody knew anything. Erik’s Russian contact, who went by the pretentious title Azazael, went so far as to say that everybody knowing nothing was the most unlikely part of this tale, that somebody had to know something, and that he, Azazael, didn’t trust anybody about anything, including himself. Erik told him to lay off the vodka and disassembled the phone in frustration.

In spite of everything, Erik felt that the answer was right at his fingertips; felt like he was missing something that was right under his nose.

(Which, of course, he was. But that was a given.)

***

It is worth noting that Charles had not appreciated going to the vet at all. He’d more or less tolerated the physical exam, but had yowled in indignation when the vet prodded more tender areas, and made a beeline for the door when the subject of neutering was brought up. Erik had found him already sitting in a cab outside, tail lashing and a pissy expression plastered across his fuzzy face. Erik laughing until his sides hurt hadn’t helped matters.

Things came to a head the day Erik came back from that particular veterinary visit and found his boss and his boss’ asshole younger brother, longsuffering flatmate/live-in boyfriend in tow, sitting on the couch, drinking all his tea, eating all his biscuits, and doing something horrible to a violin.

Erik set the cat carrier down, slowly, as sudden moves would not be wise around any of the three men making a mess of his tea service. M smirked at him from the sofa as the Asshole Little Brother plucked idly on the strings of his violin and nibbled on a jammy dodger. Charles the cat made an odd, surprised sort of noise, but Erik didn’t think anything of it.

“Herr Lehnsherr. Have you made any progress in your search for the elusive Doctor Xavier?”

Erik felt his lips thin with rage, but took precautions against doing anything career-threatening to M, and made sure to keep the tea table between himself and the Longsuffering Roommate. He’d read the man’s service file. “As much as can be expected, I’m afraid. None of my contacts have any information.” Dimly, he was aware that Charles the cat was howling at the top of his lungs from the inside of his cat box – odd, as he rarely raised his voice at all.

Erik, completely ignoring the Asshole Brother saying something snappish in French, reached down and unlatched the door to the cat box. Charles darted out and leapt gracefully up on the back of the sofa. He sat very carefully nose to nose with M, an expression of what Erik supposed was, for a cat, deep concentration on his face.

M blinked, looked surprised for a moment, and then turned back to Erik with a pleasantly bland expression on his face. “Well, it seems as though all our worries have been for naught. How clever of Doctor Xavier to make his way here after the lab accident.”

Erik boggled. “I beg your pardon? He’s not here. Where is he?”

A quiet voice in the back of Erik’s mind whispered I’m right here. You’ve been adding a tablespoon of whiskey to my milk for weeks. And before that, you used to pour bourbon on my cereal on Sunday mornings. Erik looked down to see Charles the cat sitting at his feet, tail curled primly around his front paws. Don’t give me that look. It’s not my fault you’ve been too agitated to hear me. My – abilities – are not as strong as they would usually be.

Erik frowned. “Charles?”

“Mrow.”

“What the bloody hell have you done?”

The Asshole Brother let out a jackassy “HA!”, turned so that his legs were draped over the arm of the chair, and proceeded to do something to the violin that made it sound like a panther in heat. The again, it might have been Mahler. Charles laid his ears flat back against his head and hissed.

M, raising his voice to be heard over the noise, said, “I’m afraid that Doctor Xavier was the victim of a laboratory accident, part of a project he was working on with Doctor McCoy. Someone, I believe one of”, he smirked “the very late Mr. Shaw’s associates had heard about the work. In an effort to protect the project, Doctor Xavier was exposed to the genetic agent he’d helped to create before testing was finished, resulting in the state of affairs you see before you WILL YOU KINDLY QUIT THAT INCESSANT NOISE.”

The Mahler torture stopped with a screech, and its perpetrator draped himself over the back of the chair in a boneless manner. “Found him. Bored now.”

M’s eyes narrowed, and he gritted his teeth. “I hardly think that we are at all finished. We have yet to ascertain just who broke in, and what they were looking for.”

“Tant pis. Je suis ennerve.”

M and his Asshole Brother at this point lost their composure, M making increasingly vicious comments about how Mummy Would Not Approve, and the brother snarling rude insinuations about M’s precise relationship with food, Her Majesty, and his omnipresent umbrella. Charles was still nattering away at him in his head, nobody seemed to have any sort of logical explanation for anything, and Erik’s knees gave out and he sat heavily in one of the armchairs.

The Longsuffering Flatmate handed him a cup of tea laced with the last of his whiskey and a couple of Jaffa cakes balanced on the saucer. He patted Erik’s shoulder companionably. “If it makes you feel better, mate, this isn’t the strangest thing that’s happened this week.”

Erik sighed as someone threw a teacup, and then bit into one of the Jaffa cakes, Charles’ whiskery face buried in his tea. “No, that really doesn’t help at all.”

(Well, come on. Finding out that the love of one’s life had been a cat for two months and washing their balls on one’s bed is rough for anybody.)

***

It turned out that Her Majesty’s Government, and M in particular, were very, very good about hiring every mutant they could find. As far as Erik could tell, their reasoning was that if they gave mutants good jobs in sensitive fields, paid them extravagantly, and gave them every governmental freedom they could manage, said mutants would fight tooth and nail to protect their position.

Erik could confirm that they were quite correct, even to the point where they had mutants of exceptional power and intelligence flooding in from other countries, looking for work. When the inevitable conflict came, the United Kingdom would be a virtual safe haven.

Taking into consideration the fact that the people who came up with this idea – M and his family, specifically – were not at all mutants but simply very, very clever, it was devious in a way that made the hairs on the back of Erik’s neck stand up if he thought about it for too long.

At any rate, Doctor McCoy was overjoyed to find that his mentor and coworker had been living in relative comfort for two months, albeit with the inconvenience of having to wash his ass with his tongue on a daily basis. Reversing the change was a matter of a simple injection, and then three hours’ worth of cramping agony as Erik sat outside the door of the clean room, listening to Charles scream as his body changed back from that of a small tomcat to a medium tall human male.

It was everything he could do to not rip the door off its hinges and send shards of steel through everyone between him and Charles. The Longsuffering Flatmate, who was an actual medical doctor, therefore useful, therefore allowed to stick around, seemed to understand this, sitting next to him and being entirely what Erik needed by actually keeping his goddamn mouth shut. Erik silently promised to introduce him to Emma as soon as possible in thanks. He had the impression they’d hit it off.

All the waiting was worth it, though, when a discreet black car helped Erik drag an insensate Charles back to his flat and into his bed. Erik, upon making sure he was settled, bribed the driver to fetch a very large bottle of whiskey, made sure that the pantry was full, and hid anything that could be used to communicate.

He walked quietly back into the bedroom and stretched out on what was once again his side of the bed – well, it had been all along, but having Charles back, in his own body, made all the difference. Erik quietly watched him breathe, saw his eyelids flicker and then open, and felt the lightest brush of love/affection/trust/heartache/love against his mind. When Erik held his breath, heart hammering, and leaned in for a kiss, he wasn’t told no; Charles slid his hands through his hair, stroked his fingers against his jaw, and smiled.

They had a few things to discuss. Like the mind thing, and the metal thing, and the whole bit with not telling each other Very Important Secrets, and possibly Charles taking back that side of the bed that he’s been sleeping on anyhow for the past two months.

Except without the shedding this time.

(Later, of course, there will be that talk, with Charles making the excuse that he dumped Erik for his own good, for protection, and Erik insisting that he didn’t bloody well need it, and anyhow they can protect each other.)

(Later, there will be makeup sex, with Charles whimpering, high, in the back of his throat, and twisting his hips and clenching down around Erik’s cock in a truly indecent manner while Erik holds his wrists in place with twists of iron from the bedstead and their minds quietly melt into each other.)

(Later, there will even be shrieking when Emma walks in on them on the couch and tries to kill Charles with the sheer power of her hate, and when Erik finds out that there was no new flat but that Charles had put all his things in storage and was living miserably on a cot in his office after having Given Up His True Love for Science.)

(And much, much, later, there will be a kitten drowsing on their once again shared couch and shedding on all of Erik’s suits.)

(But that comes later.)