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Marrying a Mob

Chapter Text

Intro: waking up not alone.

Charles has been shot. This is almost the only thing he knows. Questions pound into him about almost everything else. Where is he? Who is with him?

Are the children safe?

The thought stays with Charles in his heavy, drugged sleep as he heals, tugging him relentlessly towards waking. He’s a teacher; the children are his responsibility. He has to know.

Are the children safe?

He fights against the drugs and his injuries, trying to open blurry eyes and force words from his uncooperative tongue. Machines bleep and make noises, and the needles sting. He tries to talk.

“Whuh—where-?”

“Don’t worry, sir. Go to sleep,” someone professionally kind says, and everything blurs and slips away, leaving Charles alone with his question.

Are the children safe?

Finally, finally, days or hours or years after he began to wake up, Charles manages to wake up enough.

“Are-are th’y s’fe?” he mumbles into his pillow, eyes shut. He’s not really expecting an answer; he’s just trying to persuade the question to leave him the hell alone. Doesn’t it know he was shot?

“Wanda and Pietro are fine, thanks to you, professor,” a soft, accented voice tells him. Charles manages to force one eye open. The light is dim. It must be late. He doesn’t recognise the bulky form perched next to his bed.

“Safe?” Charles presses his point.

“Yes.” The voice is patient. “The children are safe.”

“Don’ know you,” Charles tells the voice, through the vast wave of relief flooding through him. It lifts him further towards wakefulness, where the pain has obviously been waiting for him. Why won’t his other eye open? He reaches towards it, but his hands are strangely uncooperative.

“No?” A dry chuckle. “My boss said to watch you, Professor.”

“Uh?” He reaches for his eye again. A warm hand catches at his wrist.

“Don’t do that, Professor. Let it heal.” His hand is tucked back under the bedclothes.

“The children,” Charles insists. He needs to be certain. “They—there were guns.”

“I told you,” the voice says, still patient in the dim night. “My boss’s children are fine. Thanks to you. You, you are not so fine. But I think you know that.”

“Wanda was crying.” Charles remembers, vaguely. “But they didn’t shoot her,” he adds, pleased. “Or Pietro.”

“They couldn’t find them. Only you.” The voice sounds dryly amused at who-knows-what.

“Doesn’t hurt much,” Charles tells the voice. It’s almost true. His leg—his knee—is sending out insistent signals that something is very wrong, but it doesn’t seem to matter terribly. The children are safe.

“Given the amount of drugs they've pumped into you, it should not be hurting at all,” the voice replies, and it doesn’t sound very happy.

Oh dear. Now he’s annoyed it.

“Sorry.” Charles’s used to apologising to angry people, why can’t he think of more or better words? “Sorry,” he adds, just in case repetition will help.

“Sss, not your problem.” A bell rings. The chair by his bed squeaks and groans. Alarmed, Charles tries to reach out, and fails.

“Wait—” he says, and bites his lip. He’s not supposed to ask, not strangers—

“Don’t tug on your intravenous lines.” His arm is, once more, tucked back under the covers. “Bad as Erik, I swear.” That last part is muttered, and Charles isn’t sure if he’s supposed to reply or not—who is Erik?—so he says nothing, and is not left alone.

“Is there a problem?” Light, dazzling and hurtful, spears Charles’s open eye, and he rolls his head away with a protesting whimper. Too much. He squeezes his eye shut.

“He’s awake. He’s in pain,” the voice says curtly to the new voice. “Fix it.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but—” New voice is bland and smooth, but it’s not a nice voice. Not like Charles’s Voice. It’s impatient and it doesn’t want to be bothered.

“Fix. It.” Charles’s Voice puts steel in the tone. “He was protecting two children; he should not suffer for that.”

“Teacher,” Charles reminds them. “My job.”

Someone—his Voice, maybe?—takes his hand, and holds it.

There’s more conversation, but he’s too busy to follow or understand it. He’s not quite sure what happens next, but a rising tide of soft darkness washes him away from his pain, from his answered question, from his Voice.

Are the children safe?

Yes, Charles thinks, he told me so. He slides into sleep contented.

Chapter Text

Ch1: A simple error?

The bruises and swelling go down until Charles can actually see out of both eyes, but by the time Charles is actually able to stay awake for more than five consecutive minutes, his Voice has gone away. He tries not to feel bereft. He’s in the hands of a good hospital, and he’s not entirely sure if the Voice actually was a person, or just a shadowy waking dream.

He’s not alone, not really.

Alex drags Scott along to see Charles and they spend an uncomfortable half hour not really taking while Scott examines all the entertainment options (There aren’t very many) on Charles’s hospital TV. Charles doesn’t blame him; he knows the reasons his roommates hate hospitals.

Raven is on the other side of the country, knee-deep in some massive case; she calls him twice and then disappears, eaten by law enforcement duties again. Charles doesn’t blame her, either; he knows she’d be at his side in a heartbeat if there were two of her, or there was something he needed her specifically for.

It still makes Charles feel a little sad.

He’s staring glumly at his lunch, wondering if identifying the individual foodstuffs will make it easier to eat it or not, when an angry man in a good suit stomps in.

“Where’s the police guard?” He snaps that over his shoulder to someone unseen. “They’ve all got to be watched, all the time.”

“Hello,” Charles says, carefully. “Are you sure you’re in the right room, Mr, er?”

“Oh, you all know who I am.” Angry Man says. “Detective Stryker,” he adds impatiently, as Charles looks muddled. “And you know why I’m here.”

“Ah,” Charles says politely. He doesn’t know why Stryker’s here, actually. Probably he’s come to take Charles’s statement about the attack on the school, and his getting shot. He shifts in the bed, and winces. He hopes the painkillers come round soon.

Stryker takes a strangely long amount of time to draw up his chair. He pulls a little voice recorder out of his pocket and sets it on Charles’s lunch tray with a flourish. Charles eyes it, bemusedly.

“Just for the record,” Stryker says bluntly. Charles nods.

“I do know a little about how this sort of thing works.” He says, more smoothly than he feels. He wishes there was someone else there while he makes his statement; but then again, he’s feeling pretty shaky, so perhaps it’s better if he just plunges on and gets this over with.

“I’ll bet.” Stryker looks disgusted. “So. Beginning at the start—” he thumbs the recorder on, and gives his name, and the date. “You understand you don’t have to say anything—” and he warns Charles about speaking and not speaking, tells him he can have a lawyer present, and then launches into a question that is so completely off the wall, Charles gapes at him.

“How long have you been working for Erik Lehnsherr!” Stryker barks at him again, impatient at his slow response.

“I… Haven’t been?” Charles says, bewildered.

He knows who Lehnsherr is, at least by reputation. One of the city’s “prominent businessmen” where everyone and their aunt knows that that’s simply a polite code for “mobster.” But he’s a fairly sane one, as far as Charles has heard; and he’s never had anything to do with kidnappings before. Why would he want to employ a teacher, of all people?

Charles’ head hurts. He reaches out for his water glass.

Stryker’s hand slaps down over the top of the glass.

“Answer the question!”

He sounds like every “tough cop” in every bad Hollywood movie, ever. Charles has to fight not to grin, fleetingly.

“I just did, Detective.” Charles says, coolly. “I have never knowingly worked for Erik Lehnsherr.

“Yeah?”

“Yes.” Charles says.

“Then why,” Stryker gloats, sure he’s caught Charles out, “is there a check on your nightstand for $250,000, signed by him?”

”What?” Charles bolts upright, and collapses back down with a groan of pain.

“Here.” Stryker waves a piece of paper in front of Charles’s face, taunting. Charles grabs it from the tweezers he’s using to hold it, and stares at it. It does indeed seem to be a check for $250,000, as described. And it is signed by an Erik Lehnsherr.

“I… I have absolutely no idea what that’s doing here.” Charles reaches out for his water again. Stryker moves it out of his reach.

“You can have that when you stop lying,” he sneers.

“I’m not lying,” Charles says, tired (and beginning to feel irritated). “I’ve never worked for Erik Lehnsherr, and I’ve no idea how that got to me, or if it’s a real check, even.”

“Yeah? You’re saying you were just an innocent bystander?” Stryker’s face is ugly with anger and aggression. “Then how’d you find yourself at the scene, in time to get shot? Coincidence? It was a goddamn school, not some nightclub.”

“I’m. A. Teacher.” Charles says it slowly. “Where else would I be, if not at the school where I work?”

“What?” Stryker gapes at him.

“Charles Xavier.” Charles says, “I’m Wanda and Pietro Maximoff’s homeroom teacher. That’s why I was with them; their driver was late collecting them.”

Stryker’s face is a picture.

Charles takes a moment to curse that driver, and the disinterested parents—neither of them have come to any parents’ evenings since Charles has been working at Frost Academy—that led to the attempted kidnapping of two of his pupils.

“You’re the teacher.” Stryker mumbles, and releases the water glass, distracted.

He picks up the voice recorder and snaps it off. Charles seizes the opportunity to pick up his glass, and he gulps thirstily. The glass is strangely heavy in his hands. Charles leans back against his pillows, exhausted. His knee has started throbbing, a low dangerous pulse of pain that can only get worse.

“That explains the check,” Stryker mutters at last, frowning at it.

“Er, it does?” Charles asks.

“Yes.” A familiar voice speaks from the doorway. “Mr Lehnsherr wished to, ah, recompense you for the saving of his children.”

Charles turns his head and narrows his eyes. He can’t deny that he’s pleased he’s no longer alone with the detective, but he’s feeling a little angry, too.

“Erik Lehnsherr is Pietro and Wanda’s father?” He voices none of his feelings aloud. Internally, Charles is seething. How dare Lehnsherr think that money is always the only answer, that he can use cash like a substitute parent or a substitute knee? How dare he think Charles can be bought, or paid off like this?

The tall, goateed man in the doorway nods, and smiles at Charles. Charles blinks. That smile is warm and friendly, and he does not know why it’s being aimed at him. Or why he can remember, albeit fuzzily, a mob lawyer sitting with him as he recovered from surgery.

“He is. Maximoff is their mother’s name, may she rest in peace. I am Az. I am the family lawyer, as I am sure you know.” Stryker snorts, disgustedly. Az shoots a glance at him. “I confess I am very curious. Why were you here, Detective?” The smile he focuses on Detective Stryker is not at all friendly.

“Getting a state—I don’t answer to you!”

“A statement?” Az pauses just long enough to politely indicate his disbelief while Charles stares, open-mouthed. “For this you remembered the recording device, but forgot to bring a lawyer or support for the heroic victim?”

“‘M not a hero.” Charles says, mostly to the congealing remains of lunch.

Az raises an eyebrow at him. It’s quite impressively sarcastic, that eyebrow. Charles frowns at it. He isn’t stupid. Charles knew he wasn’t much of a hero that awful evening. As soon as the goons with guns had found the twins, they’d have put a bullet in his head so he couldn’t describe them.

Because Charles has kept quiet; they’d had to take the time to interrogate him, and shooting out Charles’s kneecap had delayed them long enough for the other people with guns to get there and shoot back at them. Better Charles’s knee than his skull.

Stryker stands. Charles flinches back, automatically, as he moves. The lawyer’s eyes narrow.

“Go on,” Az says to Stryker. “Explain. Or quit harassing him.”

“Yeah... I guess I’ll go and, and—we’ll take your statement another day, Mr Xavier.” The big detective hurries out of the door, barging past the Lehnsherr lawyer as he does.

“It is good to see both your eyes open.” Az drops into the seat by the bed. “I came to—”

“Would you be good enough to take that cheque away?” Charles cuts across the smooth speech. He’s feeling very tired now. “It’s not necessary.”

“Mr Lehnsherr thinks that it is, Professor.”

“Money isn’t the answer to everything, you know.” Charles hunches in on himself. “I don’t—I didn’t know—”

“You didn’t even know whose children they were.” Az observes, smiling. Charles frowns at him.

“Were you eavesdropping just now?” Az raises his hands in a display of innocence Charles cannot believe for one second. He scowls. Az beams at him delightedly.

“And, no. I did know whose children they were. Mine.” He snaps the last word out as Az starts to grin more widely. “I’m—I was—” he amends. “Their teacher. In loco parentis and all that.”

“Was?” Az’s smile vanishes. His saturnine features are very watchful.

“This knee is probably going to stop me from teaching, at least for a while.” Charles shrugs. No need to go into the rest of it, the reconstructive surgeries he’s been warned he’ll need, the fact he’ll probably always need a cane. It’s not anyone else’s business. Or problem.

“All the more reason for you to take the money,” Az says, lightly.

Charles wraps the arm that is not spiked with intravenous lines and stents around himself and shakes his head. “If you don’t take it, I’ll just tear it up.”

Charles has no interest in the sort of games people play with money, with gifts or gratitude. He saw enough of it growing up, before he got out. And to take money from a criminal, a gangster…

Stryker only had to see the check before he thought Charles was mixed up in that; what would have done if he thought Charles had actually taken the money?

Charles is tired, and everything hurts. He needs a rest. He needs painkillers. He closes his eyes for what feels like only a moment. Yet, When he opens them again, the remains of his lunch have softly and silently vanished away, and so has the check. And the lawyer.

Propped up against the lamp on the nightstand is a hand-drawn card. It’s of a big, smiling sun, and someone has written on it, in wobbling capitals: “Get Well Soon Perfessor X!”

Charles leans back, smiling. He doesn’t have to open that card to know who sent it.

Chapter Text

The office is small, but well kept. Erik’s used it for years, since he and Az—and a few others—first started out in a slightly more official line of business. The pictures on the wall—framed posters of famous paintings—had all been chosen by Magda. The sunlight has faded some of them, but they’re still there, hanging crookedly on the walls.

Light pours in through the old-fashioned blinds, striking sparks off dust fragments hanging in the air. Magda would disapprove of that dust, Erik thinks, and cuts off the thought there, through force of habit. It’s been four years. He’s had plenty of practice.

He walks to the window and stands out of the line-of-fire as he peeks through. No watchers on the street below. Maybe he should have rented or bought better premises when their fortunes increased, but this office, set over a bagel shop on a busy street, has the security of being in the public eye, 24/7.

There’s a reassuring pattern of knocks at the door. Erik eases away from the window. He’s not going to get caught scoping out the street like a nervous kid. He starts pacing as his lawyer enters, letters in one hand. Pacing is acceptable, he tells himself. Erik has always paced.

“Returned again,” Az says cheerfully. “What a surprise.” He waves the envelopes—the very familiar envelopes—at Erik, almost gleefully, before dropping into the chair he’s claimed as his own in Erik’s office.

Erik scowls. He stops pacing and perches on the desk, stuffing his hands in his pockets. It’s been a bad day, and Az’s calm, amused presence isn’t helping matters at all. The scrawny little bullet magnet teacher has no right to keep wandering into Erik’s thoughts like this. If he’d just take the money, Erik would be free to think about more important things.

“Well, have you tried looking for him els-?”

“No,” Az says, heavy with irony. “I have only worked for you for fifteen years; I know nothing about locating people in this city.” He tilts his head and looks at his boss reprovingly; he doesn’t need to be taught his job, and they both know it. The problem is not one of locating Charles Xavier.

“You said both cheques were returned to the bank!” Erik says, not quite apologetically. He rubs a hand through his hair. He drops back into his office chair and glares, impersonally, at the pile of paper on his desk. It, like Az, is undisturbed by Erik’s mood.

“Yes,” Az says, patiently. “That does not mean he’s moved from his new address; it simply means he’s returned the cheques.”

As I told you he would, he does not say. He has met Charles Xavier; and granted, the man was injured and under the influence of strong drugs at the time. Az was still able to evaluate him as a rare, but genuinely decent man—and a very, very stubborn one to boot.

Az’s not surprised Xavier won’t take what he believes to be mob money; he’s only surprised Erik’s managed to keep trying for so long. Well. Soon enough he’ll give up, and they can get back to real, serious work, such as shaking down the company again to make sure all of Shaw’s hidden maggots have been found.

“But—but—” Erik stares. “He—it’s money. Money. I—there weren’t any strings to it.” he says, as near helpless as he’s likely to allow himself to get. He knows how much those checks were for, and he knows how expensive hospital visits tend to be, once they get their claws into a patient.

“Congratulations,” Az says, dryly. “You have found first man with complete integrity and principles in the entire damn city. We should have a party.”

“He’s a schoolteacher,” Erik observes, frustrated. “I don’t think he’d like our “parties” somehow.”

“Was a teacher,” Az says. “Right now, he’s an invalid.” Erik opens his mouth. Az raises a finger, and his boss remains silent. “And if he had been amenable to being bought off, your children would likely be dead. Or worse.”

“That’s why I’m trying to thank him!” Erik half-shouts, shooting to his feet and starting to pace again.

Az doesn’t blink. He has worked for and with Erik Lehnsherr for fifteen years, after all. Az knows his boss well. He waits.

“Thanking is not the same thing as paying someone off,” Erik says, at last, grumpily. Az raises an eyebrow. It’s been getting a lot of work, that eyebrow, lately.

“Perhaps, to a quiet civilian with one working knee, it is hard to tell the difference when the thanks and the paying off come in an identical format.” He waves the returned cheque as if to demonstrate.

“Just because that damn detective—” Erik doesn’t mention Stryker’s name. He doesn’t have to. He’s been a thorn in Erik’s side ever since Erik decided that he needed to clean up his act and his operations, ironically enough, for the sake of his kids.

Az shakes his head. “He won’t just take the money, this Charles Xavier of yours, boss. I’ve tried. You’ve tried. Better think of some other way to thank him… if that’s really what you want to do.”

“Why wouldn’t I-?” Erik bites his words back, and leans against the wall, glowering.

“Protection is our oldest line of work,” Az reminds him, unmoved.

Erik sighs.

“If he tangles with our kind of business, and is left alive, but harmed,” Az continues. “And we leave him alone, likely our… competitors will conclude he is no player or pawn, and leave him be also. He didn’t recognise any of the ones who lived, so. Pay him off and… they might re-focus, now the children are safe.”

“Safe,” Erik says, bitterly. “They won’t leave the house.” Children who, like their mother, had been afraid of nothing, nothing in the world, serene in their own abilities (and under Erik’s guard). They cry, they shake. Erik hasn’t the heart to force them, not when it would only make things worse.

“They will heal.” Az’s face softens.

Erik doesn’t reply. A wave of familiar guilt washes through him. Protection; yes, he’d always been good at that. Until it really mattered, until Magda had got sick, and nothing he could do would stop the cancer eating her life and health and laughter. Exactly the way Shaw’s clumsy attempt at snatching Wanda and Pietro had eaten into their childhood, taking their joy in school, their security away.

“I don’t know what to do.” Erik stares at his hands, loosely clasped between his knees. “For the twins,” he clarifies, when the silence starts to stretch. “I can’t force them out of the house, but they have to—education is important.”

“Home tutors,” Az suggests, smoothly. Erik shakes his head.

“No. No strangers in the house. Not with Shaw still sniffing about our organisation. Too much chance of a plant, or a spy.” Always assuming Wanda and Pietro would actually listen to a stranger, let alone learn from them, when they could be running and hiding. Or duct taping said stranger to a handy wall; they’ve gotten wilder since the snatch attempt.

“Then employ Xavier,” Az says, not particularly seriously. “We know he is unlikely to be a plant.”

“Do—” Erik breaks off, looks away. He won’t go down that paranoid path.

No one he knows would take a cover job as a teacher—well, alright, few of Erik’s enemies would be capable of being or hiring a teacher in the kind of school the Institute was. However he knows of no one who’d willing risk being crippled for life in order to get a toehold into an organisation like Erik’s family.

“Yes. He’s been teaching at the Institute for three years. Also, you had me run background checks on all the teachers when Wanda and Pietro started there. And he’s a good teacher.”

“I don’t want Wanda and Pietro reminded of—of the shooting.”

“If they see him,” Az says, practically. “Perhaps they will stop having nightmares that he’s dead.”

“Point,” Erik says, thoughtful.

“And if he starts teaching them again, well. Maybe the nightmares will become dreams.”

“I don’t think they hate lessons that much,” Erik says, slowly. “Not when their teacher is smart.”

Stupid teachers—hell, stupid adults generally—the twins tend to derail, discombobulate or just plain decimate, when they’re feeling all right. Their mother had reined them in a little, when she was alive, but the veneer of civilisation is still pretty thin at times.

“But,” Erik says, “If we employ him, he becomes a target, like the—like everyone else of mine. He’ll need protection.” His hands curl into fists as he thinks about it.

“True.” Az smiles brilliantly. “However.” He holds up a finger. “If he works for you, you can pay him. In fact, you’ll have to.”

“Az, my friend.” Erik smiles. “You are a genius.”

“And that is why you pay me,” Az murmurs, grinning.

Chapter Text

Charles’s knee—his whole leg—pulses with steady, familiar pain. The kind he’s got all too used to since the hospital let him leave. The kind that means he needs to take a dose of something serious now before the muscles around his damaged knee tighten any further, and he loses the ability to walk, or think at all.

Charles shakes the bottle of prescription painkillers. It rattles loudly, nearly empty. He hates it. The bottle is not moved by this. Charles reaches out for his crutches—handy for short hops—and limps to his kitchen. Like everything else in this new, tiny “efficiency apartment,” it’s not far away. It’s also somewhat bare.

It’s another problem.

Charles can’t take the pills without at least a banana or a piece of bread; not if he wants them to stay down. There’s nothing in his fridge except three kinds of pickle and half an onion. Nothing he can eat and not throw up anyway. He thinks about pizza, and has to swallow. Charles’s current cash flow somewhat precludes ordering food delivered.

The landlord said he’d have the elevator—the reason Charles’s food and other stores are so low—fixed by now, but Charles can’t make it out of his flat to check. The stairs down to the street level are a whole new level of no, all by themselves. A painkiller would help, of course.

But to take a painkiller, Charles would have to go get some food. And maybe take some painkillers. In order for Charles to be able to leave the flat… he has to leave the flat.

In a fit of temper, Charles takes the little plastic bottle out of his trouser pocket and hurls it across the apartment. It thunks against the wall and falls to lie sullenly next to the over-full bookcase. Charles bites his lip and limps back to sit in his only chair.

He can’t call Alex and Scott again; it’s so much harder for Alex to come help him since Charles moved to the other side of the city in an attempt to find cheaper lodgings. That had been part of Charles’s desperate efforts to keep his costs of living below his insurance payouts. He can’t ask Raven for money; she has as few resources as he does, thanks to Kurt Marko’s financial ineptitude back when they were kids.

So far, he’s been managing, but he’s had to cut back on a lot of things; housing quality was really only the first. Charles has been keeping a careful eye on his medication use as well; he’s often in pain these days, but he’s also very wary of ending up like his mother, who was… well, a little bit of an addict, in some ways.

Scott and Alex were very good about helping him move, but he misses his old building. Mrs Leaven on the other side of the hall was always making Charles a casserole or willing to take in the odd package from the mailman. Also the building had a janitor who could usually be relied on to come fix things that need fixing.

If there is a janitor for this apartment block, Charles has never seen them. His neighbours here… Charles doesn’t know any of them well enough to know who’d be willing to help him out or go shopping for him as opposed to simply taking his money and vanishing, never to be seen again.

Charles is tired, and in pain, and hungry, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to fix these things. Well. Two of them, anyway. The tired can be fixed with a nap, maybe. He closes his eyes. Sleep is elusive, but he manages to drift a little, just sitting and letting things fade away.

 

Charles is jerked back into wakefulness by the loud knocking at his door. He gets up, grumbling a little, and clatters and staggers his way to the door.

“Coming!” he calls; he takes so long to get anything done, even just seeing who’s at the door, these days.

Of course, when he actually gets there, the two men at the door are not people Charles really wants to see. He had enough trouble with the police and the hospital, before everything was sorted out. He can’t deal with people he knows or assumes to be mob… employees in his home as well.

One of the pair of doorsteppers is the genial, sharp-featured lawyer who sat with Charles when he was first in the hospital, the one who sent the stupid police detective away. And left the children’s get-well card for him. Which is a point in his favour.

Charles decides he’ll hear them out, instead of slamming the door in their faces.

The other man, Charles doesn’t know. He’s tall, with clear, grey-blue eyes. Handsome muscle for the lawyer’s boss, maybe. Strong, good looking, but probably not all that bright, judging by the way he’s smiling at a—damaged—ex teacher. Well. Hopefully the lawyer can keep him leashed.

“Yes?” Charles keeps it brief. If they’ve decided to track him down at home, he might have to start accepting and then tearing up the cheques instead of returning them. He has no defences if Lehnsherr decides to use force to make Charles compliant to his wishes; and it rankles.

“I still don’t need any money,” Charles says wearily. “You can just tear up the cheque yourself.” He starts to close the door. The lawyer moves faster, and wedges his foot in the way. The handsome stranger snorts, apparently amused.

“Everyone needs money,” Handsome Muscle confides to Charles. “But that’s not why we’re here today.”

“This would be more easily discussed indoors,” the lawyer says.

“I don’t need a saviour in my life either,” Charles snarks; he thinks they both grin. He stops trying to close the door on the lawyer only due to pure practicality. He can’t force it closed against that foot and keep his balance, between the knee, the door and the crutches.

“Mr Xavier. We are not here about money. Or religion,” the lawyer says, quickly. “My employer does have a request to make, it is true. But we have no cheques today.”

“I—I can’t help you,” Charles says conclusively to the faintly familiar lawyer and the handsome, complete stranger, in the doorway. He can’t. Hell, he can scarcely help hmself, these days.

“Perhaps you might want to find out why we’re here before you decide that,” Handsome Muscle says. His smile is wide and white—even his teeth are handsome. Charles is not at all charmed by it. His knuckles whiten on the doorframe.

Handsome Stranger opens his mouth; the lawyer shoots him a glare, and he closes it.

“As I just said—” Charles has to increase his grip on the door just to stay upright for a moment. The lawyer’s eyes narrow.

“Please,” he says softly, as Charles sways. “The doorway is no place for lengthy discussions.”

Charles gives up.

“Fine.” He walks away from the door.

Charles heads back to his armchair.

It’s sit down or fall down, his knee and leg are informing him, and Charles doesn’t want to fall at the best of times, let alone when he’s being stared at by a shady lawyer and his handsome muscle in Charles’s own home.

“Make yourself comfortable.” He waves at the small room expansively. “Afraid I can’t offer you a drink; and I’m out of milk for coffee.”

Actually, he’s out of coffee, too, but Charles has his pride; he’s not going to tell them that.

The lawyer grins a little, and leans against the wall by the bookcase. Handsome Muscle takes the folding chair from the kitchenette and turns it round, straddling it backwards and smiling at Charles. Why is he smiling like that?

Charles knows he’s not looking his best right now; between the faded jeans and the warm sweater he’s not going to win any style prizes; and he can hardly hope to distract them with witty talk or good looks.

“So,” the lawyer says. “The request—” Handsome Muscle holds up a hand, and the lawyer stops talking. Charles wonders if he actually is the muscle he resembles or if—

“Come to lunch with me,” Handsome Muscle says, and Charles blinks, because, what.

“What?”

“That’s my first request,” Handsome Muscle says. “Let me buy you lunch and say thank you for saving my children.” He looks very earnest.

Charles’s eyes slide over to the lawyer, who seems to think there’s nothing very surprising in the request; and the man mentioned Charles helping his children, so that must mean Handsome Muscles is actually—

“You’re Erik Lehnsherr,” Charles says, blinking.

“Ah… yes?” Handsome—Erik’s eyes crinkle as he smiles again. “And this is Az, my right hand lawyer, who you’ve already met.”

Az inclines his head gravely. Something seems to catch his eye, and he bends to pick up the fallen pill bottle. He carefully sets it on the bookcase.

“You’re Erik Lehnsherr and you want to take me out to lunch.” Charles seeks to clarify the point.

“I do,” Erik Lehnsherr says, gravely.

“Why?”

“I would—I need advice, and, possibly, I have a proposal for you,” Lehnsherr says, slightly tensely. Charles feels his eyebrows rise to his hair line.

A proposal? This just keeps getting worse.

“I. Um. I—I’m not much use for anything, ah, nefarious,” Charles says, very, very carefully.

Az looses a gleeful crack of laughter; Lehnsherr gazes at his lawyer reproachfully.

“I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do anything illegal, Professor,” he says, with some dignity.

“My apologies.” Charles rubs his eyes; he’s getting a headache now, too. “Ah—I don’t suppose you used the elevator to get here? They’ve been out all week.”

“This affects your decisions?” Az asks, surprised. Charles glares at him, and gestures to his crutches.

“These days, yes.” He’s very glad the wheelchair is folded up out of sight in his bedroom. He hates that wheelchair; but sometimes it’s necessary. “The stairs are a little more of a challenge for me now.” The lawyer flushes and murmurs apologies Charles feels safe ignoring.

“It was working,” Lehnsherr says. “We came up in it. And the car’s on the corner. You won’t have to walk far.”

Charles thinks a little more. He does need to go out; and if Erik—if Lehnsherr is buying him food, he can take a painkiller once he gets there. After lunch, if he can wrangle a lift back home, he could walk to the corner shop, get a few supplies in. Maybe he could get his prescription refilled, too.

“Well…” Charles says, slowly, reluctantly. “I suppose I could eat. Did you have a place in mind?”

“It’s not far from here, actually.” Lehnsherr nods, and stands.

“Where’s your coat?” Az asks as Charles slowly prises himself out of the armchair.

“Ah, it’s behind the door.” Charles is slightly confused when Az hands it to Lehnsherr instead of—what? Handing it to Charles? Lehnsherr holds the coat out cautiously, as if he’s trying to entice a timid woodland creature.

Charles snorts and stumps across the floor. He was planning on yanking his coat from the mobster, but said mobster flips the coat in a move that speaks of long practice, and holds it out so Charles can slip into it, one arm at a time, without dropping both his crutches.

Coat on, and slightly discombobulated, Charles reaches for the pill bottle. Az hands it to him, and he slips it into his pocket, checking that his wallet and keys are there at the same time. He sets his crutches firmly and wraps his fingers around the grips securely.

“Shall we?”

Lehnsherr tips his head in silent assent, and heads for the door. Az moves to clear Charles’s path, and then they’re all off. To lunch. A teacher, a lawyer and a mob boss.

Sounds like the beginning to a bad joke, Charles thinks, gritting his teeth against his knee’s complaints. His stomach rumbles. Hope he’s picked somewhere with good food.

Chapter Text

About thirty seconds after walking through the door at Martha’s, Charles Xavier stubbornly limping along behind him, Erik realises that he’s made a huge mistake. Not in the choice of venue: Martha’s is a small restaurant, family run, and it serves whatever the hell the current Martha (there have been several) feels like serving, at any given time.

Xavier doesn’t seem the type to prefer over-priced pretention disguised as style.

Here, regulars eat whatever Martha puts in front of them; which is always delicious and always what they want, or at least what they need. People who are not regulars do the same, although Martha’s waitresses will always check for food allergies and intolerances.

Erik’s mistake is not in the food Martha serves, nor is it in wanting to see and speak to the man who saved his children’s lives. The mistake is not in making the snap decision to ask his advice/offer him a job over food, even.

Given how tired, thin and vaguely grey Xavier is looking, the man clearly needs feeding up; Martha likes to feed people. Ensuring they met had seemed only logical.

(Something also needs to be done about where and how Xavier is living; the man saved his children; damnit.) But that’s a minor point; Xavier also has a world-class case of stubborn, so Erik’s back-burnered that for now.

The mistake Erik made is in exposing Charles—Xavier—to Martha without warning him, first.

The poor man looks a little shell-shocked. This probably wasn’t the fine dining experience he was anticipating. Erik hides his grin and waits for Martha to stop fussing over her latest project. Martha ensures Xavier is seated comfortably and his crutches are stored safely away.

She ruffles Xavier’s hair in passing and turns back to scolding Erik, something she’s quite fond of doing.

“He saved your children.” She glares at Erik as Xavier’s jaw drops. “It’s been months, Lehnsherr. You couldn’t have brought him in before?” she adds, sternly, and Xavier’s jaw stays dropped.

Erik holds up his hands in innocent self-defence.

“Martha,” he says, soothingly. “Of course I would, I’d bring everyone here if I could but—some things take time—your rules—”

Martha snorts, and stumps off back to her kitchens, unconvinced.

Erik seats himself, smoothly, and turns to the waitress who’s trying to hide her giggles. She sets a basket of bread rolls on the table. Absently, Xavier takes one, and starts pulling it to pieces and nibbling on it.

“Drinks, sirs?” She’s grinning. Erik lets it slide. Martha’s employees are pretty similar to Martha, really.

“House red for me, please. Xavier?”

Xavier jumps a little, abandoning the bread on his side plate.

“Oh, I’d—water please,” he says, hastily. Erik nods. He doesn’t much care why Charles—Xavier—is avoiding alcohol; but it makes sense.

“Better not mix wine and painkillers,” Xavier explains to Erik, apologetically.

Erik frowns slightly to himself; the man must need a serious amount of painkillers still. Better get Az onto obtaining the teacher’s medical records, too. He wouldn’t put it past Xavier to conceal just how badly he’s been injured for some reason or other.

“Ah… Are there—will we be looking at menus?” Xavier asks softly.

Erik comes out of his reverie to reassure him. “Here, you get what Martha feels like cooking you,” he explains. “One of the reasons I like eating here. No fuss, no pretension. Just good food.”

And she won’t have any business in her restaurant, either. It’s a place for food, and for eating. That is one of the reasons Sebastian Shaw and his like are restricted to take-out only. Pissing Shaw off might have been a risk; but allowing him and his minions access to the food, if not the seating, seems to be the compromise Martha has gone for.

Erik’s not quite sure should the FBI or the police try bugging him—or any other businessman—in her kingdom, whether Martha would shred them for suggesting there are things more important than her food, or else accept the bugs knowing most of her clientele are too well trained or too terrified to talk business, so she can seize the opportunity to try and feed the law enforcement officers.

“I—How are Wanda and Pietro?” Xavier looks like he’s genuinely interested in the answer; the first of many questioners to do so.

“Alive,” Erik says. “Thanks to you. They—They were worried for you, for a while.”

Worried was one way of putting it. They’d been sure he’d been killed, and only clever Az had been able to reassure the pair, bringing back a photograph of an awake (if very woozy) Xavier posed next to that day’s newspaper as proof he hadn’t been lying when he said Charles Xavier had survived the shooting.

“I got their get-well card.” Charles—Xavier—smiles, warm and fond, and Erik has to smile back.

The waitress brings out their soup. It’s a chicken broth, light and fragrant and warming. Xavier stops fiddling with his bread roll, and swallows a pill from his bottle before tasting the soup. His eyes open wide at the taste. His eyes really are very blue, Erik finds himself thinking.

They sip soup in companionable silence for a while; Xavier’s eyes flick about the restaurant, registering who-knows-what. Erik gives himself over to enjoying Martha’s cooking. He doesn’t get down here as much as he’d like—or as much as Martha likes, either. It’s good Xavier lives so close.

The waitress carries off their empty bowls, and Xavier coughs. He sips his water, and leans in towards Erik, blue eyes earnest and deep. Erik does not stare at his mouth.

“You said—in my apartment, you said you had a—a—”

“I need your advice, yes,” Erik says, a little reluctantly. Xavier raises his brows. “The children,” Erik says. Xavier sits up and folds his hands over his empty plate.

“You said they were well.” His voice is bland, professional, but Charles Xavier’s face is intent and his eyes are very focused on Erik. “What appears to be the issue?”

“I said they were alive,” Erik says. “But they don’t—can’t—leave the house. Not for school, not for trips, they—they stay home.”

“Why is that?” Xavier doesn’t look up as the waitress sets loaded plates in front of them. There’s a slight, thoughtful crease between his brows which is nothing to do with pain or anger.

“They’re—they’re afraid,” Erik says. They cry, he doesn’t say. They have nightmares, he also doesn’t say.

Xavier tilts his head, thinking. “And what kind of advice are you hoping I can give you?”

“How do I help them stop being so afraid all the time?” Erik almost whispers it. “They need to get an education, they need their friends—I’m not letting them lose their childhoods like this. Not if I can do anything about it.”

The twins lost their mother to cancer, and learnt about death. They lost their innocence to Shaw’s attack, and learnt about betrayal. Erik will not let them lose anything else, if he can help it. He just has to approach this in the right way.

He doesn’t understand why Charles—Xavier, damn it!—looks so approving. He hasn’t even tasted his lasagna, yet.

“Can I assume therapy—”Xavier starts, and Erik answers before he finishes. Yes he’s considered therapy. He’s considered many things.

“I can’t—finding a therapist who deals with children, who understands the meaning of confidential, who isn’t pushing their own pet theories, and is someone the children can talk to is proving a little difficult.”

“Well.” Xavier considers. “I’d—I’d have to think a little more about that. I think I can get some resources together for you and so on, for therapy or therapists, but off the top off my head—if they can’t leave the house, how are they with strangers in the house?”

Erik shakes his head. Doesn’t add anything more; doesn’t have to.

Xavier looks down at his food, as if seeing it for the first time, and takes a bite. Erik doesn’t have to ask him if he’s enjoying it. Judging by the look on his ridiculously expressive face, he is. Erik cuts into his own lasagna, and it’s delicious. He notes Martha’s adjusting portion size again—he’s fairly sure Xavier’s helping is bigger than his.

“The reason I asked that,” Xavier continues, after a pause to swallow, “Is that home-schooling or tutoring for a time might take away some of the pressure on leaving the house. Without them withdrawing too much more, or finding it too upsetting.” He returns to his lasagna.

Erik nods, slowly. It’s certainly what Az had suggested. And he’d mentally short-listed Xavier for the role if at all possible. It’s good to hear that the teacher is already thinking along those lines. It might make getting him to work for Erik that much easier.

“I know a number of tutors I could recommend.” Xavier sips water. “A slow introduction might help turn one of them from a stranger to a teacher. If you trust them—”

“I’d—what about background checks? What if one of—” Erik shakes his head. A look of irritation flashes across Xavier’s face.

“Wanda. Pietro. Your children,” he says quietly. “Helping them; helping them now, is vital. You know that, or you wouldn’t have come to me.”

“I trust you.” Erik’s tone is firm. Decided. Xavier blinks. “They trust you,” Erik adds, more thoughtfully.

“Ah,” Xavier says, cautiously. “I’m not sure—”

A grin slides over Erik’s face, briefly revealing many healthy teeth. “In fact, now I think about it; it would make a remarkable amount of sense.”

“What would?”

“Ch—Professor.” Erik leans forwards. “Could I hire you to tutor my children?”

 

“I.” Charles stops.

“Please,” Lehnsherr adds, the word almost wrenched out of him. He looks like he’s thinking about saying more, but he stays silent.

Charles forks up another mouthful of delicious lasagna to cover up how hard he’s started thinking. He doesn’t want to work for Erik Lehnsherr. He really doesn’t want to get involved with… nefarious people or nefarious activities again. He slips a hand under the table to rub his aching knee.

But. Wanda and Pietro are refusing to leave their house, because of nefarious people’s activities. They’re frightened—and Charles presumes there’s more going on than simple hiding, there. He was—is is a teacher. A good one.

As well as these highly moral thoughts, Charles has a few other calculations, re: his rent. The cost of living. The likelihood of ever being able to pay off his medical debts through his insurance and disability allowances alone. The look of relief on the Principal’s face when he’d said he was resigning from the Academy because of ill health.

Charles is proud, maybe, and certainly he’s careful, but he’s not a fool.

If he can earn a little (for surely Lehnsherr will pay him something, although he doubts he’ll get, say, health benefits out of the arrangement), then managing his medical debt, his disability and his life will be much easier all round. And surely this will only be temporary. The twins will recover themselves swiftly.

He eats a few more mouthfuls and watches Erik—Lehnsherr—do the same, both of them trying to pretend that all’s well and nobody’s worried about anything over here.

“If I did come to teach the twins… How do you see that working out?” Charles asks, almost hopefully. Has Lehnsherr just decided this on the spur of the moment, as he apparently did with the lunch invitation, or has he been thinking about home schooling for a while?

“How d’you mean?” Lehnsherr doesn’t bother clearing his mouth before his reply.

“Just the practical side of things. Hours. Rates of pay. Any... other arrangement.” Charles pretends he can’t see the relief crossing Lehnsherr’s face when he realises that Charles has tacitly accepted that he’s prepared to teach the twins.

“I don’t know what the going rate is; I’ll certainly pay at least that,” Lehnsherr says, promptly. “As for the rest… I don’t know what works best for you or for them, but I’m assuming a few hours teaching daily?” Charles nods, eyes bright. “I’ll, mm.” he breaks off. “I’ll get a contract drawn up; and you can look it over before signing, if you like?” Charles nods.

“That would be helpful.” Charles smiles a cautious smile.

“When can you start?” Erik—Lehnsherr—smiles back.

Chapter Text

Az slips back into the teacher’s apartment deft and easy.

It’s true; the habits and skills you pick up in childhood never really leave you; although metaphor users usually go for bicycle riding and not lock picking as the one to cite. Ah well. Most metaphor users aren’t Az, after all.

Erik’s off wining and dining their potential new teacher; and Az hopes he can keep him out of trouble for at least a couple of hours. Martha will probably insist on them having desert. He frowns critically at the barren landscape of the three-room living space, and wonders which of them he hopes will be able to keep the other trouble-free.

Well they’re going to Martha’s; there’s less trouble to found there than many places.

Time to go to work.

His first stop is the laptop sitting on the table; closed and powered down. When it powers back up, Az cracks the password in two minutes, and fast searches through it to find no immediately locatable inappropriate porn, no viruses and only four illegally downloaded songs. Must have been the one he used at work, Az thinks, but it’s enough of a check for now. Time to move on to other things.

Az would normally farm this background check out to one of the juniors; it’s good practice for them, especially when they already know a fair bit about Charles Xavier’s reliability. Less risk if the puppies miss something. However, the Professor isn’t a usual recruit, and he’s not going to be a usual employee. Better to keep any information learned in the immediate family, as it were.

Xavier’s been living here for two or three months…pretty much ever since he lurched out of hospital. The place is bleak and bare still; boxes as yet unpacked still lurk in corners. Az sighs expansively at the folly of men and goes to check the bedroom. Quiet, clean, empty. Rumpled covers on the bed, a modest amount of clean clothing in the closet. Idly, Az wonders why so much of it is tweed or knitted, as he searches on.

He’s finding very little that he’s looking for. No bugs, no illegal drugs, nothing that hints of blackmailable activities so far. Xavier seems like a decent man, for a civilian but Az needs to make certain. The teacher’s taken bullets for Erik’s children; but Erik is not his children, and he’s inviting Xavier over many of his thresholds by asking him to teach his children.

Az won’t let either man make themselves vulnerable through ignorance.

Az slides open the drawers in the nightstand, and is rewarded with the sight of a number of empty or near empty pill bottles. The address is the same as on the one bottle Xavier took with him. Handy. Az nods to himself and fires off two quick texts to Sean, resident headache and medical informant.

One text directs Sean to research Xavier’s doctors and medical information, the other tells the red head to lock it down to any further enquiries. Erik’s people aren’t the only ones interested in Xavier; the least they can do is see the teacher’s protected from other researchers; ones who won’t have his good -or Erik’s- in mind

He searches further, and uncovers little of interest. He notes Xavier’s preferred brand of lube and condoms, just in case—he knows his own boss very well indeed, and watching Erik looking at Xavier had been informative as well as amusing. No harm in being prepared. Bedroom done, he glances at his watch—still time—and heads for the kitchenette.

What he sees—or rather doesn’t see—makes him frown. There’s very little edible in any cupboard or in the refrigerator. If Erik hadn’t invited him out, what was Xavier planning on having for dinner? Pickle soup? Take out? Az wanders over to the garbage can. It holds little as well, beyond a few aged receipts.

The lawyer sighs. Clearly Xavier needs a keeper, or a guardian of his own. Absently, Az leafs through the grocery ones. He’s definitely going to have to research Xavier’s financials a bit more. He assumed the teacher was better off than this conspicuous lack of spending seems to indicate.

Although perhaps I was seeing his pride and not his wealth, when he refused the money, he thinks to himself as he spots the pile of financial papers and letters stuffed into a shoebox in the last kitchen cupboard he finds.

Skimming them quickly enables Az to come to another decision. He sends another text to Sean Cassidy; and turns to check through the grocery store receipts for further clues for Xavier’s likes and dislikes. A shopping list is easily assembled, with a little thought, and Az fires that off to another minion; with instructions to have it here within the hour.

If he is going to work with—for—Erik Lehnsherr, Xavier needs to know that whatever reasons, or excuses, he has for neglecting himself; it stops now. Lehnsherr’s people take care of themselves and each other. And if he isn’t going to take the job—all that stubborn pride? Well.

Xavier's going to find groceries already in his kitchen and prescription drugs already in his medicine cupboard a lot harder to return or tear up than a cheque.

 

Az strolls into the office thirty-five minutes after Erik drops Xavier at the elevators within his apartment block.

The lawyer is smiling the worryingly pleased smile that has Erik half afraid to ask for details or explanations. Five minutes after that, Erik gets a phone call. He eyes the number on his personal cell, and blinks; he only gave Xavier the number at the meal. He hopes Xavier hasn’t changed his mind.

“My kitchen is filled with food,” Xavier says, flatly, in his ear. Erik blinks.

“It… is?” Is this some code? Does Xavier need rescuing? Or is he actually feeling drunk after the single half glass of wine Martha gave him? Erik glances over to Az. His lawyer smiles at him blandly, and returns to studying some papers with an air of considerable satisfaction

“Lehnsherr,” Xavier says, almost patiently. “That food was not there before I left to go to lunch.”

“It wasn’t?” And yes, now he knows what’s going on. Or can guess, at least. “What kind of food?” He keeps his voice serious. He shouldn’t laugh at another man’s pride; but the exasperation Xavier is so clearly feeling makes Erik almost fond of him, stubborn little schoolteacher bastard that he is.

Az looks up from his papers, grinning. He raises an eyebrow. “Xavier?” he asks, softly. Erik nods, and thumbs on speaker phone. He places the cell on the desk between them.

“Groceries. Eggs. Vegetables.” Charles Xavier snaps, as if being forcibly donated vegetables is the most terrible thing, the insult to end all insults. Erik is glad they’re on the phone, because he has to grin. “And—” he sounds bewildered. “Drugs.”

“Drugs?!” Erik sits up straight and glares at his lawyer, who continues to look innocent. “What kind of—”

“Oh—no, no, just—all my prescriptions have been refilled, looks like. I mean, all of them.” A faintly wondering tone fills the teacher’s voice. “That’s—well, quiet a lot of money, if nothing else.”

“How very strange.” Erik flashes a thumbs-up at Az, who looks smug.

“Mr Lehnsherr—” Charles—Xavier—sounds very tired, but still teacher-stern. “I—do you know where this came from?”

“No,” Erik says, instantly, and almost truthfully. He’s no idea what kind of shops Az used, or transportation means, either. Az starts laughing almost silently.

“I—I don’t want to—I’m sure I’m not important enough, for anyone to, to bother, but—what if it’s tampered with?”

“It is safe,” Az assures him, drawn by the anxiety invading the teacher’s voice, and then he slaps his own forehead.

“Ah.” Xav—Charles sounds suddenly enlightened. “I wondered why you didn’t come along to lunch, Mr Az.”

“Just Az,” Az says, hastily. “Those are my initials, that is all.”

“His surname is Zazel; if you’re feeling an attack of formality, Charles,” Erik injects, lazily. Az glares at him. Erik bares his teeth in what might charitably be called a grin. If Az’s little trick costs Erik his, his… home tutor, he won’t be happy.

Of course if it works, he’s going to have to buy the man a drink to reward his genius.

“Mr Zazel.” The teacher sputters. “I—I assume you—”

“I did a little research and a little more shopping; yes,” Az says, cheerfully. “You do not need to thank me.”

“Why?” And the teacher sounds honestly bewildered.

“You needed it; please do not try and convince me otherwise,” Az says calmly. “Also: harder to reject than a single piece of paper.”

“Well, yes.” Charles falls silent for a long moment. “But really. I am going to tutor the children anyway; you didn’t need to, to, try―”

“You are? Good,” Erik says, unable to stop himself.

“No, I did not need to,” Az agrees. “But you did, Charles Xavier. Do not try to convince me otherwise.”

“Um.” Charles says, and then falls silent for a moment.

“If you are willing to be Wanda and Pietro’s teacher again, I have a number of forms for you to fill out, or file, once signed,” Az says, before the silence gets too strange. “Accounts will handle sending the relevant information to the IRS.”

“You worry about the IRS?” Charles says, skeptically. “You? I find that very hard to believe.”
“Oh yes, we do Charles,” Erik assures him, voice warm with amusement. “Don’t you know, that’s what they arrested Al Capone over?”

Chapter Text

The twins peer through the glass together, noses smearing the windowpanes, staring at the outside world they refuse to be a part of any more.

“Move over!”

“You move over!” Pietro lovingly shoves his sister sideways, so she can peer out of the other window, and he can keep staring down from this one, the window with the best view of the drive and the front of the house.

Wanda sends him a quick snarly scowl, to remind him that His Time Will Come, and settles down to watch for the arrival of their new… old teacher.

“He’s definitely coming, right?”

“Uncle Az showed us the paperwork. And Dad said so.” Wanda reassures her fidgety twin. They both relax a little. If dad says something is happening; he makes sure it gets happened. Mr Xavier will be coming to teach them stuff, safely. Safety has become so much more important, now. Even more than just after Mom died, and Wanda was sure dad or Uncle A or someone else important would be next.

“Will he want—will he want us to like, leave the house?” Pietro gnaws at his lower lip. He doesn’t want that. Sure, there are cool places you can go to—Dad had tried to bribe them out of the house with promises of movies and pizza and trips to Disneyland, but all Pietro could think of was the way Mr Xavier had yelled, when the men hurt him.

Wanda turns to Pietro.

“Maybe. But you know he was good, in homeroom and stuff, we can—we can ask him not to.”

Brother and sister exchange glances.

“He got hurt before,” Pietro says, finally, reluctantly. “So maybe—maybe he won’t want to get hurt again.”

“Yeah.” Wanda uses the sleeve of her shirt to polish the glass smeared by her breath.

“It’s—Dad will keep him safe, too,” Pietro rushes on. “He will. He’s good at that.”

“He’s only visiting,” Wanda says. “He’ll—he won’t be staying.

“Yeah, but—he’ll be here, when he’s with us, right? We won’t be out there with him. So that’s—”

“Shut UP,” Wanda says, suddenly fierce. She turns back to the window, hunching her shoulders defensively. The nice, clear, bulletproof glass that shows them there’s no one around, no one outside the house to be afraid of. “We might miss him,” she adds, over her shoulder. Pietro huffs, and turns back to staring out of his window. He blinks rapidly a few times. He misses their Mama, suddenly and fiercely.

Mama’s death was no one’s fault; Uncle Az had said, and dad—when he stopped crying—had also said. They both know that sometimes bad stuff—like cancer, or car accidents—just happen. But the bad people came to the school, came into their classroom because of the twins.

They don’t talk about things which are their fault, but they know. The school being attacked: that was their fault. Someone shooting Prof X because he wouldn’t tell them the twins were huddling in terror behind the bookcase: that’s their fault. The twins know they are dangerous, outside of this house.

Inside the house they’re safe.

No one would dare come to Dad’s house, even if they wanted Wanda and Pietro again. He has guards and cameras and stuff, anyway. He showed them. When Mr Xavier goes to his house, the twins won’t go with him; so he won’t need anything like the guards and cameras that keep the bad people away from the twins.

“We’ll have to be good.” Wanda mutters, and Pietro nods, tensely.

“We’ll learn lots,” he promises his sister.

They do have to be good. If only Mr Xavier hadn’t had them in his class. The bad men would never have made him have to go to hospital. Uncle Az showed them the picture; but even if it showed their teacher alive, it also showed he’d been hurt. It’s their fault―

“What are you two imps up to now? Let the poor man arrive before you start plotting.” Angel’s voice breaks in on their self-imposed watch, and the twins jump and stare at their housekeeper reproachfully.

“We’re not plotting,” Pietro says.

“Except to be good,” Wanda adds, righteously.

Angel’s eyebrows hit her hairline. She shifts the basket of laundry to rest it on her hip.

“Is that so?”

“Yes?” Wanda bites her lip, and wishes she could make herself sound as certain of things as Dad can. “He protected us.”

“I know.” Angel smiles, a little. “Why else do you suppose you dad is letting him in the house?”

“We have to be good,” Pietro mumbles. Angel sighs slightly.

“Everything will be ok, sweethearts.”

“S’long as we’re good.” Wanda swings round to gaze in excited hope as a car draws up outside the front door.

Angel hovers for a moment, uncertain, and then carries the laundry down the stairs. She’d better put the kettle on; someone told her that the Professor was English, and that means he’ll probably he happy to be offered tea, not coffee. She wonders if he’s had breakfast, or if he’d like to share the kids’ next snack.

 

Charles slides out of the chauffeur-driven car and stares up at the large house hunched before him. It’s not an enormous mansion, not to someone who grew up in Westchester, but it’s sizeable enough. Less pretentious though. And newer.

“Big enough for a really good game of hide and seek,” he murmurs, setting his crutch to the ground and leaning for a moment. He thinks of Raven, still caught up in her case, and hopes she won’t mind too much, if she ever finds out just whose children he’s teaching now. He shifts his bag on his shoulder.

He’s put together some temporary lesson plans and work books, but mostly today he plans to evaluate where the children are, both educationally—when did they stop going out, and how have they learnt since then?—and emotionally. In some ways, Charles feels he’s not so much there to improve Wanda and Pietro’s education as he is needed to help them heal emotionally from the attack.

“Sir?”

Charles blinks and steps forwards, repressing the wince of pain automatically now, shaking himself out of the clouds.

“Please, Mr Armando. Call me Charles. I only get called Sir in very specific situations.” Charles says, attempting politeness with the driver Erik sent, who probably has far better things to do with his time than schlep a slow-moving teacher from Point A to Point B and back. He replays what he just said, and then wants to bite his tongue as the driver snorts.

“”Nah, I’m just Darwin.” The driver grins easily. “And I’ll take it you meant the classroom and not—”

“The army. Or, or something like that, yes.” Charles flushes. “Thank you for collecting me today; I’m sure as soon as I work out the bus-routes you can go back to your regular routine. I’m sorry for disrupting—” He’s babbling. Why is he babbling?

“Hey.” Darwin smiles as he guides Charles to the front door. “It’s my job for as long as Mr Lehnsherr tells me it is.” He shrugs as Charles stares at him. “Can’t argue with the boss, man. Even if I wanted to, an’ I don’t.”

Darwin doesn’t mind playing driver from time to time.

Picking up the kids’ teacher—and very polite and friendly he’d turned out to be, too—and getting him safe and sound through the security checks to the house, and out again, is hardly unpleasant work. The teacher had been ready on time, no delays, no maundering—straight out the door and into the car, safe and speedy. A milk run, almost.

Even if Xavier had been late, or difficult, had been arrogant or rude, Darwin would have done his utmost for him, and not just because he was a professional. The other man had taken bullets, resisted interrogation, to protect the twin devils about to arrive. Darwin’d seen movement at a window, and the stairs are probably shaking as the twins descend on them.

“Oh, but—” Xavier’s still trying to be less work, which is kind of sweet, really. And he’s still blushing. Polite to a fault; Darwin hopes the kids are gonna restrain themselves around their new-old teacher. They’ve been wild, lately. Not that that’s surprising, really.

“The buses aren’t all that good out this way,” Darwin says as the front door swings open. The thunder of feet becomes the sight of two very excited kids running at them. Darwin braces himself. “You might have problems getting back—”

He starts to say more, but gets cut off when Pietro hurls himself at Darwin.

 

Charles watches them, the small pale boy and the laughing dark man, and is very glad Pietro chose Darwin as a target. He’s not very sure if he’d be able to stay standing if the sturdy ten-year-old had thrown himself into Charles’s own arms.

“Hello, Professor,” Wanda says, almost sedately, and holds out a small hand for Charles to shake. “Welcome to our home.”

“Thank you very much.” Charles's heart breaks as he recognizes the fear and hope Wanda is trying to disguise with a thin layer of shaky dignity. He shakes her hand, gravely.

Chapter Text

Pietro greets his father with a whispered instruction to be Very Quiet. Erik grins, but nods solemnly as his daughter tugs on his hand impatiently. He lets himself be led into the small office he’d fitted out for the twins to learn in before he’d even hoped to employ Charles there. They like showing him their workbooks and the things they’ve learnt. Although the insistence on silence is new.

“What—” He doesn’t get more than one word out.

“Shhh!” Wanda hushes him forcefully, as Erik gazes on the vision that reveals itself to him, a small, worryingly crumpled heap of wool and tweed and brown hair. He takes an alarmed step forwards, but slows when a reassuring snore floats out from under the hair. It’s not a dead body in his house, not this time.

This time, Erik has a schoolteacher asleep on his couch.

He gazes bemusedly at the sight. Charles is half curled in against the arm of the couch, one had outflung across the drift of workbooks and papers spilling across the couch and the floor, the other arm folded close by his side. Wordlessly Erik starts gathering stray papers, before they get crumpled or stepped on.

It’s good to see even a few days teaching the twins has relaxed the other man (or exhausted him) to the point of such ease; but Erik’s mildly concerned. Normally Xavier’s hours in his home don’t overlap Erik’s by all that much. Why is he here so late? At least the slight flush sleeping has left on his face makes him look healthier.

Erik’s tired of people around him being unhealthy… ill, when he could fix it for them. He likes fixing things; it’s one of the reasons he is so good at his job. This situation, though, other people could fix for Charles just as easily as Erik could. Why hasn’t he been taken back to his apartment?

Erik won’t call the place Charles’s home; the poky little place doesn’t match Charles like an actual home should match its inhabitant.

“He fell asleep,” Pietro says, helpfully. “’Cause we were being really quiet and good,” he adds, pointedly. Erik raises an eyebrow.

“Uncle D’s car had to go to the garage. Miss Angel offered to run him home, but he said he was fine, he’d wait,” Wanda mutters. “So we did out Silent Reading. An’ he did marking but then he leant over and then he was snoring.”

Erik looks at Charles again. The teacher is frowning in his sleep. Erik diagnoses pain from falling asleep with his knee bent; he didn’t read Charles’s medical record in full, but he has noticed that Charles keeps his bad leg as straight as possible at all times. Erik sets the papers aside.

“Wanda.” Erik speaks in his normal tone of voice; Charles doesn’t wake, but he frowns a little more in his sleep. “Grab those two cushions for me, will you?”

“But we don’t want to wake him,” Pietro hisses. Erik looks down at his son, jiggling anxiously at his side, and smiles.

“Better we wake him by talking than Charles wakes up with his knee hurting.”

Reluctantly, Pietro nods and goes to help his sister with the cushions. Erik very carefully maneuvers a straight-backed chair towards Charles’s leg. Wanda and Pietro pile the chair with cushions. Erik squats and slowly, gently straightens Xavier’s leg out until he can rest it on top of the padding on the chair.

The small creases in Xavier’s forehead smooth themselves out. He doesn’t wake. Erik’s not sure how. Helping Magda when she was ill has taught him how to move—or not move—people who are sick, or hurting, but still. He’s not that good.

Wanda surveys her teacher, head on one side.

“Daddy, is he sick?” Her eyes are wide, and she’s biting her lip.

“Maybe he needs a blanket,” Pietro suggests, hopefully.

“Good idea, Pietro,” Erik says. “Go fetch-?” Pietro’s already running out of the room. To Wanda, he adds firmly, “I’m sure he’s going to be fine, sweetheart. Just tired.” She still looks worried though, so Erik starts― “Would you mind getting Mr Charles a—a—” before he recalls Pietro went for the blanket. Shit. What should he ask Wanda to fetch?

“A snack!” Wanda decides, and just like that, she’s out of the room too, pleased and relieved that there’s something she can do to help in the Mystery of the Sleepy Teacher.

Charles snorts, still placidly asleep. Erik sinks into a handy chair and waits. He glances at Xavier from time to time, but he’s definitely not staring or watching the man sleep like an escapee from a rom-com. Not at all.

Charles’s forehead creases again. His eyes, under their lids, flicker from side to side.

 

(He’s dreaming.)

Everything seems and looks a little vague, a little underwater, but Charles’s fears, his emotions are razor-sharp; they cut through the blurs like fish trying to escape the hooks and nets.

The hooks are always there, along with his stepfather’s temper.

His stepfather wants something.

He’s angry and he wants something from Charles. Something Charles knows.

Charles doesn’t know anything at all (please), it’s so important Kurt understands that.

He doesn’t know where they are (please, he doesn’t).

(Not that he would tell anyone, let alone Kurt, where the twins are hiding)

He frowns. Something’s not right here. Why would the twins be hiding in the Westchester house? Why aren’t they in their home, safe with Erik? It doesn’t matter. They’re hiding. And he’s older and… he knows he can’t tell.

Kurt keeps looming over him and he just can’t, he can’t think. He just knows he has to keep quiet, can’t talk, can’t give them away, shsshhh. If he starts talking, they’ll—Kurt will—he mustn’t.

Charles keeps his mouth shut.

He can’t move. Kurt’s pinning him down, gripping his knee crushingly tight.
It hurts.

He wants to know where the children are. He won’t hurt Charles if he tells.

Charles knows Kurt will hurt him if he doesn’t tell. Kurt will hurt him if he does tell. It’s what his stepfather does. And then he… or someone (who?) will hurt the children.

Xavier?”

Charles knows he can’t (mustn’t) tell. They’re only children.

(He’s only a child himself right now, but that doesn’t matter.)

”You’re dreaming.”

Yes, he knows, but he also knows Kurt has a gun; and he’s pointing it at Charles.

The barrel scrapes his forehead, pokes at his jaw, prods at his chest. Kurt wants answers, damn it , boy, why must you always be so difficult?. Charles won’t give him anything. He won’t. The gun digs into his thigh.

(He knows when it gets to his knee, Kurt will pull the trigger)

”Wake up, Charles.”

Charles opens his eyes with a jump, and sucks in a breath of air. He blinks at an unfamiliar room.

“Xavier? Charles?”

Charles turns his head to see Erik Lehnsherr staring at him. For a moment he’s very confused, and then memory kicks in. He’d been marking, waiting for a lift home and... he must have fallen asleep. Charles flushes, embarrassed.

“I,” he says, and coughs. “I’m never taking that one again.” His mouth tastes disgusting.

Erik raises an eyebrow. Charles shifts a little, and tries to sit upright without losing the support of the chair that’s keeping his bad knee straight. He frowns a little, he doesn’t remember arranging the cushions under his leg at all. Could the new pill cause memory loss as well as vivid dreaming and increased sleepiness?

“Side effects?” Erik prods, gently. “Did you know that-?”

“That it would make me fall completely asleep in the middle of the day like this, no, I didn’t. I wouldn’t have taken it while teaching, if I had. It’s a new prescription, a trial run.” Charles smiles, strained. “I’m sorry, I hope I—”

“You were dreaming,” Erik says, a little flatly. “What about?”

“They warned me I might. Another side effect,” Charles says airily. “Sorry, did you just ask me about my dreams?”

“It looked... it looked bad,” Erik says, awkwardly. “I wondered…” He looks a little haunted.

“Oh, no, just my stepfather, again.”

Erik’s eyes narrow.

“Really—it’s an old, recurring thing.” Charles waves a hand. He’s embarrassed enough as it is, he’s not going to start gossiping about his dreams, or his trauma, with a mob boss, let alone one who is also his boss, for heaven’s sake.

Erik’s probably been in more shootouts that Charles has had parents’ evenings. Erik opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again. Charles braces himself for mockery or prying concern.

The moment is ended by the advancing sound of thumping feet, as Pietro thuds into the room, trailing several blankets. He holds them up proudly, and then seems a little disappointed to see his teacher is awake again.

“Mr Charles, are you cold?” he asks hopefully. “I have blankets.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, Pietro, but no, I’m not.” Charles thinks again about standing. He swings his leg (he still can’t work out how it got there) off the cushions. “I’m afraid it’s time for me to be getting along.” Pietro sighs, and turns to stare at his dad.

“I’ll drive you.” Erik smiles a little crookedly. “I understand Darwin’s car needs repairs.”

“Oh, n-no, that’s—that’s fine.” Charles demurs hastily, if politely. He reaches for his crutches: Erik hands them to him without comment. “I can catch the bus; it’s really—”

“The bus takes over an hour,” Erik points out. “And you might have to wait for one a long time,” he adds, logically.

“I don’t want to be a bother.” Charles sounds stiff, even to his own ears. He starts to lever himself up. Erik stands, extending a hand. When Charles takes it (the couch isn’t going to let him go easily either, it seems.), Erik helps haul Charles to his feet.

“Or you could always stay the night.” Pietro looks hopeful. “We’ve got room!”

Charles looks down at their linked hands. Erik releases him and steps back, hands raised.

“We’ve got a chair-stair!” Pietro offers, ever so helpfully.

“Stair lift,” Erik corrects. Charles raises his brows. “Magda… she needed it, towards, before—”

“Right,” Charles says, hastily, and lurches forwards a step. “I don’t—I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pietro.” Pietro gives his best impression of a pleading puppy. Charles sighs. “But thank you, all the same.”

The door pushes open wider, and Wanda comes into view, very carefully carrying a plate of finger sandwiches. Behind her follows Angel, who’s carrying the heavier stuff: mugs, milk and a pot of coffee on a wide tray.

“Ms Salvador, you are indeed an angel,” Erik says, stepping away from Charles.

“I brought snacks!” Wanda announces, unnecessarily. “Mr Charles, will you try one? I helped make them!”

“I have to go soon, sweetheart,” Charles says, gently.

“Just one?” Wanda’s proud, hopeful smile wavers at the edges. “They’re really good!” Charles looks torn.

“Yes, Charles,” Erik murmurs. “Stay for just one.”

Charles sits back down again.

Chapter Text

That first week didn’t go so badly, Charles thinks as he hauls himself from the elevator to his front door, post from his box in the entry stuffed into his bag. The letters bulge out, threatening to fall to the floor. Charles ignores them guiltily. At least today he’d managed to bring them upstairs with him. Most of the week, he’d just left them in the box.

Charles has to admit he’d underestimated quite how tiring he found teaching the twins. He’s still recovering from being shot—and although the doctors and rehab specialists had warned him, he’d expected to be, well, if not well by now, better than he is. At least in terms of energy, if not mobility.

Still, at least he’s only fallen asleep at work once, and Erik hadn’t seemed to be angered or worried by coming home to find the man nominally in charge of his children passed out and snoring on the sofa. And the new medication had been responsible. Charles stopped taking it and although his knee is stiffer again, at least he’s not falling asleep as soon as he sits down.

The twins are already looking happier and calmer. It’s a good challenge, teaching Wanda and Pietro, but it does leave Charles a little drained at the end of a day. Not that he’s planning on dropping his teaching, not at all. The twins aren’t happy, but they’re bright, and they want to learn so much.

How could Charles turn away from that?

He flicks the light on and reveals the same faintly dingy apartment he left this morning, undisturbed. No one’s sneakily broken in (How had Zazel managed it? Is lock picking a required course at mob lawyer school?) or left him more food, or medicines, or, or a diamond-crusted pony today. Not that he’d put it past Zazel to sneak more food or ponies into Charles’s place if he thought Charles needed them.

Charles eyes the coffee machine accusingly. It sits there, outwardly the same coffee machine as it was before Az laid eyes on it. Inwardly, someone has wrought an unholy witchcraft on it; for now the coffee machine produces decent coffee without the need for ritual sacrifices, swearing or tears.

Charles doesn’t know what sorcery was required for that, and intends to never find out. He abandons his bag on the armchair and stumps off to put the kettle on. He needs tea. The evil coffee machine is required in the mornings, but at night he needs tea, dammit. And ten minutes without having to think.

Which is exactly when someone knocks at his door.

Charles swears under his breath, and limps to the front door. He juggles his crutches into one hand, and opens the door, chain on.

“Xavier?”

Oh, great.

“Detective Stryker,” Charles says, coolly. He doesn’t take the door off the chain.

“Good to see you back on your feet,” Stryker says, and he’s almost believable. “Got a minute to help the police with our investigations?”

Charles sighs.

He’d sort of expected at least some form of contact with the police after he started working for Erik. This is a little faster than he’d anticipated, though.

Charles decides he’s not making Detective Stryker tea or offering him coffee. Az and Erik remained perfectly civil in his home without a beverage, Stryker can do the same. Although that means Charles doesn’t get any tea, either.

“I hear you have started working for Lehnsherr,” Stryker says, glancing about the small apartment. “Guess you had more bills than I thought.”

“My financial situation is both fully compliant with the law—” thank you Az, and your fear of the IRS—and also none of your business,” Charles says crisply, ignoring the not very subtle insult to his housing. The detective blinks.

“Now. I’m rather busy,” Charles says, as Stryker seats himself in the upright chair. “How do the police need my help?”

“It’s good to see you being co-operative, Mr Xavier. More than you were—” Stryker seems pleased. Charles moves to correct him.

“In our last meeting, you assumed I was an employee of Mr Lehnserr, and were prepared to deny my access to water and aid until I co-operated with you, despite the fact that I was in a hospital bed at the time.” Charles raises an eyebrow, and the big detective flushes.

“Yeah. A mistake,” he mutters.

Charles sits back and waits for him to get to the point.

“We have Lehnsherr under surveillance,” Stryker says, eventually.

Charles keeps his face politely blank. It’s not exactly news; Az had warned him he might be looked at by the police—“So stay away from hookers and blow, please”—he’d said, cheerfully, more cheerful than Stryker—who is still talking—appears to be right now.

“We think he’s likely planning something,” Stryker explains. Clearly he thinks Charles was shot in the head as well as the knee, if he needs that explained to him.

Charles raises the eyebrow again. It seems to work.

“Something criminal. ‘Cause of his kids, and, well. You.”

“I don’t think what happened to me would make Erik contemplate anything illegal,” Charles murmurs. He’s almost sure it’s not a lie. “In any case, why are you discussing it with me? I am not aware of any illegal activities being undertaken or discussed in my workplace.” And that’s all he wants to say about that.

Charles has no intention of being dragged into a discussion about possible illegal acts with Stryker, or any other LEO. Not even Raven, and he’d talked with her before he took the job. (Raven had been refreshingly calm on hearing her only family was going to work for a mob boss; apparently Lehnsherr’s rep hadn’t been too bad to her experienced eye.)

Charles tilts his head and looks at Stryker, quizzically. “I do hope the police aren’t delaying a detailed investigation into an attempted kidnapping at a school, simply because of who the parents are.” There. A distraction. Charles hopes, anyway.

Stryker blinks.

“Huh,” he says, cryptically. He doesn’t leap into a defense of the police force’s investigations, though. Pity. Charles squares his shoulders.

“Detective Stryker. We’ve had the introductions, the vague warnings and or threats, is there any chance you’ll come to the point before I have to think about my evening routine?”

“We’re worried for the kids. And, well, for most innocent bystanders, if this gang war escalates,” Stryker says.

“Oh, so you do suspect an organized gang was behind the attack on the school,” Charles says, and Stryker looks irritated.

“Who else? Lehnsherr’s been dirty for years. Probably stepped on a few toes on his way up.”

“Surely that’s something your investigators would be telling you. Or were you out of the loop for that, as well?”

Stryker scowls. Waves away Charles’s points.

“Look, I didn’t—I came here tonight to ask you to do something good, Mr Xavier.”

Both Charles’s eyebrows hit his hairline.

“For the kids, I mean, hell, maybe for society as a whole,” Stryker blunders on. He holds out a plastic bag, filled with… technological things.

Charles’s eyebrows do not appear to be descending any time soon.

Charles makes no move to touch the bag. The detective sets it on the coffee table. Charles looks at it. They certainly know how to make things small, these days, don’t they? He wonders how they work.

“They’re bugs,” Stryker says. “Simple to use, just tuck ‘em where they won’t be seen. Voice activated. We need someone to put them in the Lehnsherr properties. We’ve no ears on the ground. He’s got everything locked up tight, no new people in or out. Except you. And, like you said, first time we met… you’re no criminal.”

“What.” Shock steals all the tone from Charles’s voice.

“They’re easy to use, just stick somewhere they can’t be seen. We can do the rest,” Stryker says, as if ease of use is the only thing that’s giving Charles pause.

What is giving Charles pause is actually the fact that this is the stupidest plan Charles has ever heard. Charles might be a law-abiding man, but he’s a teacher, not a spy. Besides, Erik never discusses business in the house. He opens his mouth to tell Stryker that, and just in time, stops to think. Better not to say anything about Erik’s house and what does or does not go on there.

Stryker goes on, oblivious. “Lehnsherr—you don’t owe him anything.” Charles tenses. “If his kids had gone to another school, you’d still have two kneecaps. Wouldn’t be scraping and saving, trying to save up for yet another operation.” Charles blinks, at that. “You’d be—as a consultant, you’d be eligible for police protection, and pay…”

Stryker’s still blathering on, promising unlikely things, when Charles feels his temper give way.

“I think you’ve come to the wrong man with this, Detective.”

Stryker scowls, and Charles feels a pang of alarm. “You don’t want to make a mistake, here, Xavier.” He looks around Charles’s little shelter and nods, meaningfully. “We can make your life real… difficult, if we have to.”

“Is that a threat, Detective Stryker?” Charles snatches up his crutches. “Get out.”

Stryker frowns, and Charles swallows, trying not to panic. The carrots haven’t worked on him, clearly. Charles knows if he shows a second’s weakness now, he’ll probably get the stick.

“I do not respond well to being threatened.” He starts to stand. “As you may recall, given that the last set of people who tried to get me to do what they wanted shot me, and it still didn’t take.” Charles sucks in a breath. He’s almost shaking.

“At least think about it,” Stryker says. “I mean, hey—you’d be in trouble if you got a criminal record, wouldn’t ya, as a teacher?” His tone is oily, cheerfully insinuating.

“Are you threatening me, if I do not cooperate? Please leave.” Charles bites the words out.

“Or if Lehnsherr thought you were working with us, now, you’d be in a bit more than trouble, I guess. Wouldn’t you.” The smile Stryker turns on him practically stings. He puts a heavy hand on Charles’s shoulder, and pushes. Charles sways backwards, and his knee crumples in a spasm of pain. He has to sit back down again.

“And the poor crazy kids wouldn’t have anyone to look after them an’ teach them useless shit.” The detective says, as Charles gasps in pain. “Real sad.”

“Get out—I won’t have anything to do with this—” Charles swallows.

“You think about that,” Stryker says. “You think long and hard about what might happen. To you. Lehnsherr ain’t exactly the trusting type; so if he thinks we have you in our pocket…” He smiles. It is not a friendly smile.

“We wouldn’t even have to inspect his books; you disappear, we get a crime we can pin on him. You put those bugs in, soon as we get a crime we can pin on him, you’re safe.”

“I’ll call the police,” Charles says, and wants to kick himself.

“I am police, Teach, remember?” Chuckling, Stryker looms over Charles, and smiles. “I’ll just… leave them here. You know. In case you change your mind.”

Chapter Text

Charles doesn’t sleep much that night. He doesn’t know what to do. Nothing Stryker had asked or threatened could possibly be legal, but that didn’t mean that that it couldn’t happen.

The bag of bugs squats in the room, and by about 3 am he’s half convinced it’s laughing at him. He can’t bug anyone, least of all the children, but if the police decide Charles is a fit target for harassment; or tell Erik he’s co-operating with them…

A small voice at the back of Charles’s head refuses to believe Erik would ever harm him, but he can’t listen to it. He knows who Erik is, how he made his money. Charles is fairly sure a crippled teacher wouldn’t seem like much of an obstacle to Erik if he thought Charles was a threat; any more than his refusal to co-operate seemed to be a problem to Stryker.

In the morning, waiting for his ride, Charles picks up the phone and dials all but the last digit of Raven’s number, before dropping it back in its cradle at the last minute. He can’t drag her into this. He’d promised her, when he told her who his new employer was, that he wouldn’t drag her into this.

And besides, what if his phone or the apartment is bugged? What if they hear him talking to Raven about it? Charles doesn’t know what to do, at all. He can’t co-operate with the police. He can’t not cooperate with the police, if Stryker is to be believed. He can’t think.

Charles stares at the plastic sealed bag again, and comes to some kind of decision.

He doesn’t eat breakfast. He lurches his way to the lift, bag slung over his shoulder, and is on the street as Darwin’s car turns the corner. Charles lets out a sigh of relief to see it.

“Hey, Prof.” Darwin’s eyes are sharp, under his smile. “You okay?”

“Hello, Darwin. Bit of a bad night, I’m afraid.” Charles smiles, and knows it for a poor effort. Hopefully he can pass it off as knee-related; and avoid any difficult questions.

“Well, I’ll make the journey nice and smooth. Get some rest in, Angel’ll make you a coffee when we arrive.” Darwin always does know when not to push; it’s a great skill of his.

“Thanks.” Charles smiles at Darwin’s eyes in the rear-view mirror.

Once Darwin has pulled away from the curb, it’s surprisingly easy for Charles to follow the driver’s advice. He stretches his leg out and closes his eyes, and something about the car sends him straight off to sleep. Perhaps it’s being awake most of the night, or perhaps it’s the feeling of being enclosed in armoured protection for the first time that day.

Perhaps it’s just the soft steady sound of the engine, humming away under his ear.

In any case, Charles doesn’t open his eyes again until he’s actually poked (carefully) by Darwin, as he apparently wouldn’t wake when the car stopped. Charles yawns, stretches and rubs first his eyes and then his leg before lurching inelegantly out of the car.

Erik is standing by the door, obviously planning to leave in the car once Charles is out of it. His face is set the way that means he’s trying not to smile. Charles’s heart pounds oddly, part fear, part relief, and he suddenly knows, not so much what he should do, more what he must do.

“Erik. Have you got a moment? I need—I have something to say.”

Erik frowns, clearly reading something he doesn’t like in Charles’ face and voice. He nods, sharply, once.

“Sure. Darwin, I’ll be a few.”

“Sure. I’ll go get Angel to give me a coffee.” Darwin grins and heads off towards the kitchen.

“Charles.” Erik tilts his head, and his eyes are sharp, sharp, stripping away at Charles and reading him bare. “Walk with me.”

Charles wraps his hands around his crutches, and walks. His leg aches more, and he’s chilly. He’s not sure why they can’t go inside, until it hits him, in a flash—Erik never discusses business in the house, and he gulps, nervously.

“Last night,” Charles starts. Erik makes a faint noise of encouragement. “Detective Stryker came to—to my apartment and—” The whole stupid story tumbles out. The bugs. Charles’s refusal. Erik looks faintly startled at that, and then he scowls as he hears about the threats.

Charles mentions his inability to contact his sister. For fear of phone taps. Worryingly, Erik looks approving, rather than scornful, of this paranoia.

“You—she’s not behind this, then?” his tone is oddly careful. As if he’s not sure how he, or maybe Charles, feels about that.

Charles shakes his head, not even bothering to question how Erik knows what Raven does for a living. “She’d—she wouldn’t ask; because she knows I’d say no.”

Erik looks surprised. Charles wishes he could put his hands in his pockets. He’s cold. Fumblingly, he explains.

“If I decided I could work for you, morally, I mean, I’d also decide. Well. Other things. Morally.” He pauses. “She understands that.”

Erik does not look as if he understands Charles, or what he’s saying, right now, so Charles tries to clarify.

“It’s a betrayal, of the children, if nothing else, and you—you don’t deserve that.” He must be blushing right now. Erik looks faintly pleased for some reason or another.

“So this is definitely from Stryker,” Erik murmurs to himself, thinking aloud.

“I just—I don’t know what form this supposed police targeting will take, and—” Charles closes his mouth. Enough. He’s told Erik enough. No need to show himself as completely weak.

“He specifically threatened you? If you didn’t co-operate with his little scheme?”

“With the police, and also with you.” Charles bites his lip. He doesn’t want to tell Erik this part, but he thinks the other man needs to hear it.

Erik looks at him, puzzled.

“He said, they’d leak it to you that I was, uh, co-operating and that way, even if they didn’t get anything on you from the bugs, they’d—they’d be able to pin a murder change on you, when I. When.”

Erik’s walking too fast. Charles has to stop and breathe. Erik storms on ahead for a few paces, stops, seems to notice Charles has fallen behind, and comes back.

“When I, presumably, did whatever thuggishly brutal thing he wanted to imply I do? Did.” Erik looks thunderous.

Charles nods. Breathes. Erik puts a hand under his elbow, carefully.

“And I—I just. I knew, if I resigned, said I couldn’t teach, he’d not—it would be the same as saying no.” He sets his crutches more firmly on the ground. Erik’s hand slips out from under his elbow.

“I’m sorry, Charles.” Erik genuinely sounds it, too, which sends another bolt of fear through Charles’s system. “I—I should never have got you involved in my kind of business.”

“You didn’t,” Charles points out. “You hired me as a teacher, not as... well. Whatever.” What sort of job would he have, if he were a mobster, anyway? Book keeper? Chemist? Charles shakes his head, dispelling his musing.

“Charles. My business got you shot. And now this.” Erik looks pained. Charles leans forwards on his crutches, and touches Erik’s overcoat-clad arm.

“Erik.” Erik twitches, but he doesn’t move away from Charles’ touch. He stares at Charles, grey eyes silvery in the morning light. “I wasn’t bringing you this to complain, I just. I don’t know what the best course of action is. For us, right now.”

“Come back to the house,” Erik says abruptly, and swings round. “Charles.” Erik sounds as if he’s trying for “casual” and hasn’t quite got there. “We’re going to need Az, for this, and he’s probably going to ask you many, many annoying questions.”

Charles turns to follow him, mildly puzzled, but so relieved his sudden instinct—tell Erik everything—was the right one.

“Questions?”

Erik purses his lips. “I probably don’t—or maybe I do—have to tell you, that that is not the normal way the police recruit, ah, assistance in, um.”

“Data gathering?” Erik nods. “It didn’t seem like the TV shows, no,” Charles admits, cautiously. “I mean. Well.”

Erik lets out a bark of laughter, and then sobers.

“And that means we need to know precisely what’s going on here before.”

“Before?” Charles hops over a small puddle and looks up at Erik.

“Before I decide what steps we take to put a stop to this bullshit, for you.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble,” Charles hurries to say. “I—”

Erik stops and regards Charles fondly.

“That’s the thing, Charles, it isn’t any trouble. Not for you.”

Chapter Text

The office Erik drove him to, ignoring the children’s protests that Mr Charles was theirs for the day, is quiet. Empty apart from Az and Erik and Charles. Charles wonders if anyone else ever goes there. The blinds have been drawn closed, and the pictures look faded in the harsher artificial light.

Charles takes a deep breath, pausing partway through his recounting of last night’s fateful meeting with Stryker.

Az leans forwards. “And then, he used physical force on you?” Az’s voice is calm, and so is his face, but his hands have curled into fists. He regards them, quizzically, unclenches them and adjusts his position perched on his desk. Charles shuffles his feet.

“He pushed me back into my seat. Nothing violent. My knee gave way, but—it wasn’t. He was just trying to threaten me.” It had hurt, certainly, but it hadn’t been—it was just his knee. Charles knows physical violence quite well, and Stryker hadn’t even left a bruise.

“Pushing you down? That is physical force, Charles.” Az gestures with a hand, underlining his point. “And I imagine it was not entirely comfortable?” His voice is so calm as to be almost toneless. Charles shakes his head. No, it hadn’t been comfortable. His fingers creep over his bad knee, before he can quite catch them.

“He is a senior detective. You are a… civilian,” Az says, patiently. “He should have known. He should not have done that to you.”

“No.” Erik almost growls from where he’s leant against Az’s office wall, behind Charles. “He should never have laid a finger on you.” Charles smiles down at his feet, strangely warmed. Az looks over his head and mouths something to Erik Charles doesn’t quite catch.

He can’t tell, because Erik is behind him, but he rather think the man makes a crude gesture by way of reply.

“What I mean is, that is illegal. And uncalled for. And stupid. All in all, a most odd story. His actions make little sense, from a police perspective,” Az re-starts the conversation.

“I’m not lying,” Charles says, defensively, and then winces. He isn’t, but that’s not exactly a convincing argument.

“No one is suggesting you are,” Az says, gently. He grins, suddenly. “For one, it would make less sense for you to invent this, and for two, where would you find such a collection of bugs to back up your story?”

Charles blinks. They believe him. Just because he told them something. Well, and showed them a large bag of unused spyware. He feels heartened by that belief.

“So why are the police doing this, then, if it doesn’t make sense?” Erik moves forward, standing so close to Charles’s seat he can almost feel body heat against the back of his neck. A mysterious shiver finds its way down Charles’s spine.

Az grins. “I am sure we can think of many interesting reasons, but before we discuss THAT, we should perhaps consider Charles’s interests.”

“Hmm. You’re right.” Erik sounds thoughtful, but he’s moved his hand to grasp Charles’s shoulder, so Charles is suddenly—unaccountably—distracted.

“Sorry, what?” he says, after a moment. Erik lifts his hand, to drop into the empty seat next to him.

“I said, professional confidentiality only takes us all so far, in the eyes of the law,” Az says, mostly patiently. There’s a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“Oh. OH.” Charles’s eyes open wide. No, he probably doesn’t want to listen to a mob boss and his lawyer brainstorm police motives and intentions. “I, ahm, take your point.”

Az chuckles.

“So. To things we can talk about.” He shifts on his desk. “What do you want, Charles?”

“Uh.” Charles glances sideways at Erik.

“To happen,” Az says, patiently. “What do you want to happen, now?”

“I don’t know.” Charles rubs at his ear, ducks his head. “I just. I don’t know how…”

“How to what, Charles?”

“The best ways of dealing with, well, police harassment. If it starts,” Charles mumbles. It sounds so stupid, put like that. But he doesn’t deal with hostile authority figures very well. Also, and here Charles acknowledges his social privilege, being white, male, middle class means he’d never have thought to be wary of a police officer before.

“It’s not likely—” Az starts. Erik holds up a hand. Az stops talking.

“It’s a pretty specific threat. Co-operate or be harassed. Or worse.” he rumbles. Charles nods. “But he doesn’t know you didn’t do it, does he?” Erik grins.

“He knows that I won’t,” Charles says, cautiously.

“We know that,” Az puts in, with a sharp smile. “He doesn’t know you at all; or he’d never have tried to bully you into doing his dirty work.” Erik nods and pats Charles’ shoulder in agreement.

Both men regard Charles with mutual approval. Charles flushes, and tries to hide the warmth stealing through him. He’s supposed to be an adult, beyond childish pleasure at such simple gestures of faith and friendship.

“At least I know you won’t believe anything he tries to leak in your general direction.” He’s not mumbling. Not really.

“No, but that is a good point. How does he expect us to be informed of that lie?” Az tilts his head at his boss.

“Believably, if he’s confident he can entrap me—us with a murder charge, on the strength of it.” Erik’s voice is quiet. “Although it’s an interesting show of how he thinks of my, ah, methods, if he thinks I would kill over this, let alone someone to whom I already owe a very great debt. I shall have to think of an, ah, appropriate method of reply.”

Charles swallows.

“I, for one, cannot wait to find out who or what would be the source.” Az’s grin is sharp. Eager, almost.

“We’re getting past the matter of Charles’s safety, again,” Erik says.

“Ah, yes.” The lawyer drums his fingers on the desktop, thinking. “Move,” Az says to Charles, cheerfully. “Get yourself, and your valued things out of that, ah, small place, leave it as a lure. Go somewhere harder for the police or other trouble to locate. In the short term, this should solve a few things. Longer term… we will know more.”

“Good idea,” Erik says, to Az, approvingly.

“I’ve only just moved in,” Charles protests, feeling sweat dampen his palms and his forehead. He can’t move; he can’t afford break his rental contract; he hasn’t the cash for another deposit. And he couldn’t possibly afford two places, or—

“Move in with me. I have the space,” Erik says, abruptly. Charles blinks at him.

Az’s face freezes for a long moment.

“It’s easier than a commute?” Erik adds, appearing to flounder. “And, and, you know it has a stairlift.”

“Well, yes,” Charles smiles. “But—”

“You would be safe.” Erik looks Charles in the eye. “The house—my children live there.” He smiles, crookedly. “Nowhere more protected by me or mine.”

“Yes,” Az says, through his teeth. Erik looks away from Charles long enough to scowl at his right hand man.

“And I wouldn’t charge rent,” Erik adds, invitingly.

“I couldn’t—” Charles isn’t entirely sure what he’s protesting. The idea of moving into Erik’s place, somewhere large and friendly and protective, somewhere he’d see Erik and the children every day—he can’t deny it’s tempting.

“Yes, you could.” Az smiles more widely. “The question is, will you?”

There has to be a trap in it somewhere. Some drawback, some issue that will bite them all when they least expect it. But try as he might, Charles can’t think of a drawback sufficient to make him turn the invitation down out of hand.

“I think he will,” Erik murmurs to Az.

In fact, right now, gazing into Erik’s gunmetal eyes, alight with welcome and amusement, Charles is finding it quite hard to think at all.

Ah.

Yes, that would be a drawback, wouldn’t it?

Nervously, Charles moistens his lips. He’s been working quite hard on forgetting his characterization of Erik at their first meeting. He suspects describing Erik as Handsome Muscle, while accurate, may indicate Charles is harboring feelings—of purely aesthetic appreciation—that Erik would not, well, appreciate.

“Wouldn’t the children mind?” he asks, weakly.

“Charles, Charles,” Erik says, shaking his head and smiling. “You’re too good a teacher not to know they both adore you.”

“Well. They’re good students.” Charles tries hard not to squirm. “But—moving in—that’s a greatly extended length of time to have to put up with me.”

“They’ll cope,” Erik says, airily. “And between you and me—” He leans forwards, confidentially, “Angel’s been bending my ear about making sure you eat enough. So has Martha. She keeps telling me to bring you back to the restaurant.”

“What—why would they—I can look after myself,” Charles protests. He feels like he’s sliding down a very slippery slope.

“Not demonstrably,” Az says, with an edge to his voice. Charles gapes at him. “Please. I remember shopping for your groceries. I remember it distinctly.

“Yes, but—”

“Please, Charles. At least consider it,” Erik says, very seriously, looking at him with his very seriously attractive eyes.

Charles gives up. He lets the slippery slope take him.

“Well. If you’re sure I won’t be in the way,” he says, at last. “And that—that it will help you with. Things.”

“Of course,” Erik promises him, beaming. “Of course you won’t be in the way.”

Chapter Text

“So.” Erik re-enters the room, having waved a much calmer Charles off in Darwin’s car. He tries not to look too pleased; he’s got the twins their best present ever—a live-in Mr Charles! They’ve been worried about him not looking after himself. Erik has to admit a live-in Charles is something to smile about.

Even if, with Charles a civilian, an employee, and already injured in Erik’s service, nothing is ever going to happen, well, thoughts are free. Looking (not spying, no, just… being aware of another person’s face, and, ah, attributes) hurts no one.

We’re not even 100% sure if Charles is gay, Erik reminds himself, and then sets himself to protecting Charles’s ass rather than mooning over it.

“Detective Stryker,” Az says, and smiles, slow and sharp. This effectively helps Erik conceal his good humour, by removing it, and replacing it with a simmering rage.

“Can we kill him?” Erik drops into a chair and stares at the ceiling. “I think we could definitely kill him.” He stretches his spine and cracks his neck, sharply.

“We do not kill cops,” Az reminds him. “Not even dirty ones.” Erik scowls. “Especially not dirty ones who attempt wildly illegal monitoring activities of our operations.”

“Why?”

“Because it helps destroy any case mounted against us, if the police are provably acting outside the law,” Az says, patiently. “Why am I telling you this? Not killing police officers is one of your Rules.”

“Can we at least maim him? He’s all-but forcing us to drag Charles into the middle of things, just to keep him s—out of trouble.”

He’d promised himself he wasn’t going to do that to another innocent civilian, not ever again. But Erik had also promised himself he’d do whatever he could to repay the teacher for saving his children’s lives. And if the police had identified Charles as a possible way into Erik’s stronghold, then keeping him close was probably safer for everyone.

“And he hurt him, yes,” Az adds, grimly certain of vengeance at some future point. “He needs to suffer. But not yet. Not until we now more about why. And who he’ll use to communicate with you.”

“I hate waiting.” Erik complains. “Can’t we just have a good old fashioned gun fight or two?”

“And drop the property values in this city? No. Stare at Charles some more; the pretty should distract you,” Az advises him, and yanks a drawer open. “Do more than stare; you have been grumpy since you took him to lunch.” He shoves the plastic bag of listening devices into the drawer. Closes it.

“Az…” Erik smiles a little, leaning back in his chair. “It alarms me when you simultaneously encourage me to distract myself with someone pretty and stockpile bugs.”

“I will not be using them on you,” Az promises, promptly. “Or Charles,” he adds as Erik frowns. Then, with a thoughtful gleam in his eye, he adds, “Or you and Charles.”

“Good.”

“Shame, really; could turn a tidy profit that way…” Az trails off, invitingly.

Erik shakes his head. He does not blush, but he looks a little heated, brows slanting down, corners of his eyes crinkling, talking a little fast. “I like him to look at, certainly, but I’ve recently become his boss and now I’m his landlord. I’m not going to make him uncomfortable or hurt him—”

“Enough care and sufficient lube would prevent that,” Az murmurs. Erik glares.

“Because I think the twins need stability; if Charles leaves because of me—”

“He won’t. I see how he looks at you.” Az sounds sincere, for once.

“How does he look at me?” Erik blurts, before shaking his head, dismissing the obvious distraction for what it is, and getting back on track. “The children have had enough upheaval in their lives.”

“So you never intend to date again? To deny yourself happiness, care, support so you alone provide stability for the twins?” Az sounds honestly curious. “How do you think that is going to work out for you?”

“No, I mean―” Erik shakes his head, irritated. “Charles matters to them; I won’t—I won’t interfere with that.” The children have lost too much already. As has Charles. He won’t take more.

“Ah, so you never intend to date people your children will like,” Az says, in a tone of deep enlightenment. “Much more sensible.” He raises a mocking eyebrow. “Tell me; why is it you are limiting yourself in your future to either hate sex or to celibacy? I do not feel this is a healthy approach, Erik.” He regards Erik soulfully, head tilted to one side.

Erik gives him the finger. There is a brief silence.

“Charles,” Erik says, after a pause, “is not up for discussion. Nor is dating.” There are other options than hate sex—what kind of a phrase is that, anyway?—or celibacy, for Erik. He’s sure of it. Even if none of them are coming to mind right now.

“I know, I know, he is yours,” Az says, laughing. Erik frowns, this time for real, and Az sobers, leaning forwards. Back to business.

“Stryker.” Erik does not quite snarl the name. “How’s he going to set Charles up for us, d’you think?”

“Not sure. He might have only meant to scare Charles into doing his dirty work and getting caught.”

“Entrapment.” Erik looks at the ceiling. “So maybe they’ve been looking, and there’s nothing current they can feel confident over?”

Az nods. It’s possible.

Since Magda died—well, to some extent since the twins were born, but Erik’s been more focused since he became sole parent—he has been moving them away from the uglier, if lucrative areas of criminality. He wants the kids to have at least one parent around, to have someone focused just on them, and he can’t be that parent moldering in prison.

“So if the police—or a force behind the police—is looking to nail you down, an easily proved crime, such as murder, might come in handy,” Az speculates, chin cupped in his hands. They’ve maybe made money slower since they went fully legal (ish), but it’s been solid money. Clean.

“Except, why Charles?” It puzzles Erik. “He’s not what I’d call likely murder-bait.” Erik would call Charles a great deal of things, really but not that. He coughs, lightly, and stops thinking about his teacher’s eyes, alight with interest, the teacher’s hands, lips, mouth…

“I can think of a few reasons…” Az mutters it darkly, snapping Erik back from his little reverie. Az can think of more than a few reasons. Some people are so bright; the dark world seeks to do nothing but dim their flames. Some people see gentleness and intelligence in others as insults, thefts, things to be picked apart and destroyed.

“They must have known he saved the children,” Erik reminds him. “I’d not kill someone who saved my kids even if they didn’t know who he was and he had done something to me. It can’t just be opportunity; there’re other who come to my house.”

“Not many of them. Civilian?” Az counters. “Or they think you as ruthless as your opponents.”

“Now, Shaw would kill anyone who thought of crossing him; even if he owed them something.”

“Especially if he owed them something,” Az murmurs, and looks down at his desk.

Erik hums in agreement.

“Unless, of course, they weren’t going to wait for you to do anything,” Az says, suddenly.

“What?”

“Easiest of all. You employ teacher; a good, upright man. Yes?” Erik nods.

“He takes work because he needs money. Yes?”

“I tried to pay him…” Erik subsides, muttering, when he sees Az’s frown. Az continues, smoothly, dramatically.

“He finds out you are breaking the law. He tries to bug the house he works in—because he is a good citizen, because he will try to blackmail you, because he has worms in brain—who knows?” Az waves a hand, dismissing theoretical doubts. “Certainly not because dumbass dirty cop made him.”

Erik nods again, lips twisting as he contemplates Detective Stryker.

“Then—teacher turns up dead. Who is the prime suspect?” Az throws his hands in the air and fixes Erik with an accusatory glare.

“The law breaker?” Erik doesn’t want to claim even the role of suspected murderer of Charles personally.

“So.” Az’s grin is far from pleasant. “And then, you are suspect; warrants, investigations… if they can’t find something really criminal, they can still frame you for poor dead Charles.” He licks his teeth.

“Poor dead Charles,” Erik says. “Who has a sister in law enforcement?”

“Charles,” Az insists. “Who, being a gentle, civilized man with a bad knee and a sister living on the other side of the country, probably has fewer defences than any other likely victim of yours.”

“It’s elaborate.” Erik frowns. “Relies a lot on flimsy logic.”

“Elaborate for the police.” Az nods meaningfully. “Not so much for those already outside the law.

“Stryker’s dirty,” Erik muses. “We know that; but who is he dirty for? Who’s behind this?”

“Who’s interested in hurting you through what’s—who’s—yours?” Az counters Erik’s question with one of his own.

Their eyes meet.

“Shaw,” they say as one.

Chapter Text

Charles surveys the small apartment doubtfully. He doesn’t want to bring too much, in case people—well, Erik, mostly—think he’s trying to make a mile out of the offered inch. But Charles also wants to make sure he doesn’t leave anything behind he’d mind losing. Stryker had been so sure he could get away with it all, Charles felt certain that if the Detective couldn’t get at Charles, he’d get at his belongings.

“Don’t worry about packing if time’s worrying you, man.” Darwin says, endlessly adaptable to whatever task Erik throws at him, obviously. “Just mark the stuff you want; I’ll make sure it ends up at the house by the end of today.” He smiles, looking at the pictures taped to Charles’s fridge. “Pretty sure the kids’ll draw you fifty more of these if you want ‘em.”

“I’m mostly worried about space.” Charles hobbles into his bathroom and opens the medicine cupboard. A tidy row of full pill bottles look back at him. “I don’t—it’s only temporary, after all.”

“Erik’s house is pretty large. This place would be lost in a corner of it,” Darwin assures Charles. He’s got a cardboard box under one arm. Charles eyes it.

“I’ve got a couple more in the trunk.” Darwin says. “never know when they’re going to come in useful.”

“Always prepared?” Charles smiles, slightly. “I don’t- I’m not sure how long I’m packing for.”

“Point of moving is to protect the important stuff, right? Charles nods.

“Well, then let’s just grab what’s important for now- we can always come back for more, some other time.” Darwin’s brisk, business like tone is good to hear. “I’m gonna go out on a limb, here, and say you probably want all of these.” He points to Charles’s mini-pharmacy, cheerfully.

“Um, yes.” Charles flexes his fingers on his crutches, vaguely embarrassed. “At least for the moment.” Some of them Charles will likely need for the rest of his life, but if he keeps up the physio exercises they showed him in rehab, he’ll hopefully be able to wean himself off some of the painkillers.

“Cool. So why don’t I pack these, and you put some clothes in a suitcase—you’ve got a suitcase, right?” Darwin glances at Charles, still frozen in the doorway on his crutches.

“Right.” Charles smiles. “I’ll… get started, then.”

 

“You sure this is all you’re taking?” Darwin regards the three cardboard boxes and Charles’s suitcase and duffle. “Don’t seem like all that much, once we take out the medical supplies. Sure you don’t want to take a few pictures or something?”

“Quite sure,” Charles says, briskly. “I have my teaching materials and papers, and I’ve seen E… Mr Lehnsherr’s library. This is going to be fine.”

He has his financial papers and personal documents, he has enough clothes for a few weeks (assuming he’ll be able to use the laundry) and he has the one or two breakable relics of his and Raven’s childhood. A childhood that taught precisely how much importance he should place in material belongings, anyway.

Not much, not really. Things break, or are broken, things can be taken away, or used against you. Charles has long since focused on keeping only what he needs to manage in life, and nothing that could be used to manage him.

His self-control falters. “Apart from the wheelchair.” Darwin simply nods, still businesslike.

He hates that wheelchair. He hasn’t had to use it much lately, but sometimes, on particularly bad days, he needs it, if he wants to leave the bedroom, or his apartment at all. At some point in the future, when he’s re-built the savings eaten by medical debt so far, or has better health insurance, Charles intends to go for the final operation which should make sure he can throw the damn wheelchair away.

Until then, he’s keeping it. However much he hates it.

“Ok.” Darwin’s brisk voice snaps Charles out of his gloomy thoughts. “You grab the duffle, and I’ll follow you down with the first batch.”

Wordlessly, Charles scoops up the duffle and slings it over his shoulder. Moving into his new place—the same place he’s now almost moving out of—taught him of the extreme difficulty carrying boxes causes his crutches, but he’s sure—

“I can manage the suitcase, next time,” Charles says over his shoulder as he stumps out of the door.

“Great.” Darwin sounds like he’s smiling, but the boxes he’s carrying and the duffle make it hard for Charles to say for sure.

Somehow, piece by piece, the important parts of Charles’s life are stacked in the trunk and the back of Darwin’s car, and driven to Erik’s house. They stop at a drive thru on the way for burgers—Darwin’s guilty pleasure, apparently—and so Charles is deposited, baggage and all, in Erik’s house, by early afternoon.

 

“Mr Charles!” Wanda calls, racing out of the front door.

Pietro is just behind her, babbling, “Mr Charlesmrcharlesmrcharles!”

Charles braces for impact just as they throw their arms around him.

“I’m sorry I’m late.” Charles feels unaccountably touched by how eager and happy the twins are to see him. “We don’t have any time left for lessons today.”

“You came back,” Pietro says, staring at the boxes in the hallway. “And you brought stuff.”

“Of course I came back.” Charles smiles down at the boy as they shuffle inside. Wanda closes the door behind them. “I said I would, this morning, remember?”

“Yes,” Wanda says, happily. “This is a lot of stuff. Is it for a big lesson?”

“No, not all of it.” Charles licks his lips, faintly nervous. “I’ve come to stay.” They gaze at him, wide eyed, so he hurries on to explain. “It’s—your father was kind enough to offer me a room here—” just for a short while— Charles meant to go on to add, but the twins’ gleeful dance of triumph stops the words in his mouth.

Patiently, he waits for the noise to die down. It takes a while.

“Which room?” Pietro demands, eagerly.

“Did he say?” Wanda adds. “There’s lots of rooms upstairs, come see!”

“You can use the stairlift,” Pietro says, generously. “Dad told us not to play on it, but you can use it.”

It’s a good stairlift. Charles hopes his using it doesn’t remind the children of their mother’s last illness, but it doesn’t seem to distress them any as he sits down and is swept upstairs in stately comfort. He hasn’t gone up stairs this fast or this painlessly since before he was shot.

“Hi, Professor!” Angel steps back on the stairs to give him space. He gives her a helpless little wave as he moves past her.

“Hello!” he calls back. Charles thinks she might be giggling, but he can’t really tell.

“Here.” Wanda hands him one crutch and Pietro the other. Charles thanks them, and stands up straight.

“Which wing first?” he asks brightly, covering his fumbling with the handles.

They try to tug him in opposite directions, and then the twins have a short, low-voiced argument, before Wanda says, “This way is closer to the big bathroom.”

“The big bathroom?”

“The bath is like, a, a Jacuzzi. Or a hot tub,” Pietro says hopefully, and Charles’s knees nearly grow weak. “We’re not allowed to use it.”

“Like the stairlift?” Charles smiles.

“No, it’s ‘cause we’re not old enough,” Wanda says, incomprehensibly.

“Which way to the bathroom, then?” Charles tries to control the dreams of soaking in hot water. A bath sounds like heaven to his aching muscles, after the months of very careful showers in his new apartment.

Erik is never going to get me out of this house, Charles thinks, a few minutes later, staring longingly at the whirlpool bath with adjustable waterjets. Possibly he’ll never get me out of the bath.

“That’s a big bath,” he says aloud. Later, he promises the bath as Wanda and Pietro tug him along to the spare rooms beyond.

Charles makes a show of carefully surveying them all, because the twins seem so pleased to be able to show someone around. He quietly decides not to take the one with the hospital-style bed in it, even though it’s handiest for that bathroom, mostly because he’s sure that one was used by Erik’s wife.

Charles also manages not to investigate Erik’s bedroom, after a short tussle with his conscience when the twins point it out. He doubts Erik would appreciate him poking about in there. Nor is there any reason why Charles should want to poke about in there, either, he thinks, hastily.

Charles eventually picks a neat, cream-colored room with a blue carpet.

It’s near the big bathroom, of course. The window looks over the garden at the back of the house. It has a queen-sized bed and a sturdy dressing table that, with a little bit of work, will make a very good desk. There’s no radio or TV, so Charles makes a mental note to ask Darwin if he’d be willing to take Charles collect his own on his first day off.

Charles thinks Erik and the children will probably appreciate Charles keeping himself to himself a little; he might be living in the family home for a while but it’s not—it’s for his own protection. It’s been a long time since he felt part of a family. Or a home.

He’s distracted from the disproportionately lonely thought as Wanda tugs on his hand to lead him away from the room and back to the stairs.

Pietro has already dashed away to ask Darwin to bring the things he can’t carry to Charles’s new home. (The things Pietro can’t carry turn out to be everything that isn’t Charles’s duffle; the boy is willing but not strong yet.)

Charles tells himself he hasn’t been adopted, he’s not one of the family, or Erik’s other employees. It’s just shelter, because Charles has been threatened. He tries to remind himself of this as the evening unfolds with Wanda trying to help him unpack, while Pietro plays with the empty cardboard boxes. It’s not easy.

“You don’t have a lot of clothes,” Wanda observes, bouncing on his bed.

Charles smiles at her. “I have enough. I’m not going to grow out of them, am I now?”

Wanda laughs and shakes her head.

Downstairs, a door bangs, and Erik’s voice rings out.

“Daddy!” Both twins dash from the room. Charles continues hanging up shirts and putting his medicines away on the high shelf in the built in closet. He’s only a guest, he reminds himself. He doesn’t want to intrude on―

“Ah, Charles,” Erik says from the doorway. “Settling in? Need anything?” His sharp eyes roam the room, noting the piled books on the desk, the small stack of papers on the nightstands.

“I’ll—this will all be sorted in no time,” Charles says, quickly. “It’s not—this is very generous of you―

Erik’s face twitches, and then he says, cutting across Charles’ stumbling attempts at thanks, “Well, there’s plenty of time to get things orderly later. But now, Angel tells me, dinner is ready.”

“Dinner,” Charles says.

“I generally tend to eat with the children.” Erik shrugs. “And we don’t want to annoy the cook.” He steps back from the door and extends an arm in invitation. “Coming?” he asks, glancing over his shoulder as he heads for the door.

“Apparently so,” Charles murmurs under his breath. He picks up his crutches, and follows Erik down to the family dinner awaiting below.

Chapter Text

Charles is asleep. Deeply, dreamily asleep, spread out comfortably in a soft, cosy bed. The blankets are warm, the pillows are downy, and he’d be absolutely perfectly situated, if it weren’t for the voices. The voices scratch away at his beautiful sleep, pulling on Charles’s attention and irritating his dreams.

“Is he alive?”

“He’s breathing, duh.”

“Is he awake?”

“Dad said not to bother him unless he was awake.”

“Mfrgl?” Charles is still asleep. Go away, voices.

“I don’t know. Let’s check.”

Reluctantly, Charles wakes. Instinctively, he knows he’s not alone, although the bedroom is still hushed and dark. He keeps his eyes closed, listening to the low hissed whispers. Stealthily he moves his left hand, the furthest away from the whispers, towards the light switch.

“No, we can’t poke him. It’s like dogs, if he’s asleep we don’t poke.”

Poke him? That does not sound good. Charles blinks his eyes open, hastily.

Wanda and Pietro are standing over Charles, staring intently at him. Again.

The noise that Charles makes is far too dignified to be called a yelp, really. The children blink, and keep on staring. Charles is reminded of cats attempting to persuade their owners that the food bowl is empty and needs refilling, now. They’re leaning forwards, so he’s almost nose to nose with them.

It’s faintly disturbing, first thing in the morning. Third time this week, he thinks, blearily.

“Mr Charles!” Pietro crows, happily. “You came to stay. And you’re still here!”

“Ah, yes, yes, I am. Amazing.” Charles hears a little dryness in his tone, but the kids don’t seem to notice. “Still here, two weeks in. No vanishing in the night.” He sits up on one elbow, grateful he chose pyjamas to sleep in, and turns on the light. The children hop up onto his bed, careful, as always, of Charles’s bad knee.

“We weren’t really afraid,” Wanda says, all earnestness, and Charles’s heart melts, just a little. “Not really. You said you’d stay.”

“I did.”

“What are we learning about today?” Pietro asks, bluntly.

“Tigers,” Charles says, promptly. “Tigers and elephants, and… and mongooses.”

“Ooh,” Wanda says. “Like they have at the zoo?”

“Just like they have at the Zoo,” Charles says. “And later, after lunch, we’ll go for a drive around the grounds again.”

The twins cheer.

Charles smiles. This is part of his unofficial program of getting the twins back into interacting with the outside world. It’s nothing underhanded; he’s just using the extra time he has with them now he’s living here to desensitize them to things. Like the car. The first couple of days Darwin parked it near the house instead of putting it away in the garage. Then Charles used it as a subject lesson.

Charles likes to do that, cluster the lessons of the day around a single focus. Today, for example, they are going to use all the animals that Charles happens to know can be found in the local zoo.

Math for the car day had all been on mileage and how far or fast a car might go. Geography covered where cars could go in the city. They looked at the history of the motor car in history. They learned how to talk about other cars in French. They’d loved it.

The next day, they’d gotten in it for a short drive. To the gates and back. The twins had been scared, but they’d managed it, and now they were enjoying short trips in the car, piloted by Darwin, without worrying.

Today, there will be calculation on how many days of an elephant’s diet it would take to fill a swimming pool. Debates on the advisability of exporting of wild animals from endangered species to safe zoos vs captive breeding. Researching local legends and tales attached to elephants and monkeys and otters. And so on.

Eventually, Charles hopes they’ll be ready and able to try a trip to the zoo itself, all the way off the grounds. That should be exciting and fun for all concerned. Erik will probably insist on coming with his children, as will any number of bodyguards, but if they twins are focused on the zoo, and learning more, perhaps the situation will feel less stressful for them.

Charles pushes his hands down on the mattress and tenses, preparing to sit all the way up. The twins keep staring at him.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Wanda says, quickly.

“WE just. We’re glad you’re here.” Pietro ducks his head. “And so is everyone else.”

“Really.” Charles pulls the covers back and prepares to move his bad knee. He sets his teeth as he lifts his leg with both hands, and then edges his good leg down so his feet touch the floor. “I’m sure it’s just the pancakes. IS it the pancakes?”

“Professor.” Pietro smiles. “We like you for lots more than pancakes.”

“Here.” Wanda holds out one crutch.

Charles smiles wanly at her and takes it. He’s given up on urging the children out of the room when he gets out of bed; hell, he gave up on that much more quickly than he gave up on the idea of keeping them out of the room altogether. That attempt to enforce privacy or, or standards lasted precisely two days, before the sad staring broke him. He’s started to keep his quizzes and test papers in his lockable briefcase.

Which leads to this, being startled awake by nine year olds most mornings because they wake up sooner than he does and are then (they claim) gripped by an anxiety that Charles has died or disappeared or become hurt overnight.

They check on their father, too, but, lucky man, they don’t tend to wake him. Or so Erik says.

Charles limps his way to the large bathroom, carefully closing the door and locking it in the face of his tiny and devoted attendants.

He cleans his teeth and attends to all other necessities. The whirlpool bath calls to Charles, but he ignores it with stern self-control. It’s morning (some ungodly o’clock or other), and that means he has to get moving, not soak for hours in the most perfect bath ever created. Besides, he promised to cook the twins breakfast pancakes again.

Charles loves that bath. The water jets are almost as good as an actual masseuse, and the heat and weightlessness of the water are better. His knee hurts less, and all the muscles dragged awry or left tense and hurting at the end of the day soften and relax in the bath’s warm embrace. Charles would marry that bath if he could.

Charles steps out of the bathroom and heads for his room to get dressed.

“Up early,” Erik comments from behind him.

Charles turns and his mouth goes dry. Erik is shirtless again, towel draped over one shoulder. His sleep pants hang low on his perfectly molded hips. The left side sags down slightly further as he watches. Charles blinks, and kicks himself into communicating like a sentient being.

“They were watching me sleep again.” Charles shrugs, and looks around for the twins, forcing his eyes to stop tracing the muscled lines of Erik’s chest and arms. Mysteriously, the twins have vanished. Instinctively, the two men automatically listen for sounds of mayhem. “But the whispering gave them away.” No mayhem can be detected, so they both relax, slightly.

Erik’s face twitches, hiding a scowl or a grin—Charles isn’t quite sure.

“I told them not to do that.”

“No, you told them not to wake me. Apparently.” Charles smiles.

Erik’s eyes crinkle at the corners, which is the most his face will do in the way of smiling before coffee, Charles has discovered. Also, his beard stubble is ginger. The things Charles never thought he’d come to treasure. He refuses to stare at Erik’s belly.

“They’d probably claim that sitting and staring aren’t covered under that ban.” Erik shifts his towel to his other shoulder. “They’ve spotted a loophole. Az would be proud of them.”

Charles fidgets with his crutches; he might be wearing pajamas, so his scarred and pasty body is not on display, but the tired pajamas aren’t precisely supporting the kind of façade he’d like to portray to Er—to the world.

“Come out with me tonight,” Erik blurts. “Um. Not on a date,” He clarifies. “I, um, that is—do you like art? Outside of work?“

Charles blinks, slowly. Wishes he could take Erik’s pulse, lay a soothing hand on his charmingly creased forehead. In order to take his temperature! he reminds himself, sharply. Good lord, he’s nearly as incoherent as Erik. Perhaps there’s something in the water.

“That is,” Erik says, more coherently. “The new Rembrandt exhibition opens tomorrow. They always do an evening thing the night before; for the local businesses, journalists, donors, celebrities and so on.”

“And they invited—”

“My invitations are always for me and another person,” Erik explains, a little more calmly. “Az comes, sometimes, Angel once or twice.”

“Hadn’t you better ask them?” Charles says, gently. Erik’s face falls. Just a little, but Charles sees it.

“You don’t want to come,” He says, and Charles can see him squaring his shoulders.

“No!” Charles says, quickly, and then, “No, I do want to come, but... they’re your people, Erik, I don’t want to tread on any toes, or—”

“Oh, that’s alright,” Erik says, relieved. “Az is busy and Angel says she’s not very interested in Rembrandt’s works. She’s happy to watch the kids, though.”

“Oh. Well, in that case, thank you very much, I’d love to.” Charles smiles. Erik relaxes. Charles steps towards his bedroom. He turns his head to thank Erik again and he could almost swear Erik is staring at his arse. “Do you want chocolate chip pancakes today?”

Erik jerks his head up hastily.

“You don’t have to cook pancakes for the children every day,” he reminds Charles.

“I don’t. Sometimes they have eggs. Sometimes toast,” Charles says airily, pushing his door open.

“Then, yes, please.”

And Erik actually smiles broadly, teeth white and as sharply beautiful as the rest of him. Before coffee.

Chapter Text

Charles squints at himself doubtfully in the mirror. He’s lost weight since he last wore this jacket, and it shows. Well. It may be tweed, but the elbow patches are still neat, his trousers are clean, his shirt is ironed and his face is shaved. At least his crutches have been polished, although he’s not sure by who. It all will just have to do.

There’s a knock on the door.

“Ready to go?” Erik asks, slightly muffled, beyond.

Charles emerges slowly, and gapes. Erik looks good. Erik is wearing a sharply cut black suit and a bow tie, and a faintly anxious smile. Charles is suddenly uncertain that what he’s wearing is good enough.

“Um, I—I’m not sure what I’ve got on is appropriate…” he ventures. “Are you—is this smart enough?”

“Well, wearing nothing at all would be more inappropriate.” Erik’s eyes glaze over, briefly. Clearly fashion etiquette bores him. Mentally, Charles shrugs; if they’re going to look at art, they won’t be looking at him, the rich and important people who are going to be there.

Mind you, Erik’s bringing him, so Charles bets there’ll be a few odd ones out, like him, invited as a favour, or as friends, rather than emotionally significant others.

“Shall we?” Erik coughs slightly. Charles smiles.

“We shall.” He agrees, grandly, and they sweep off to the car together.

 

The Museum of Art is at its grandest tonight, doors flung wide to ticketed guests and their plus ones only.

The lighting has been dimmed a little to make everyone think of candlelight, whilst still being able to see. String quartets lurk in corners paying discreetly classy chamber music. Waiters and waitresses, as discreetly classy as the music, flit about offering decorous nibbles, sparkling wine and orange juice.

Most of the guests, Charles sees, are not like him. Smartly dressed, or overdressed in some cases, they’re here for the networking, not the art. Ah, well. It makes for less of a crowd around some of Charles’s favorite pieces. Erik lingers by him, but Charles doesn’t want to hinder him, so he waves Erik off do to his thing easily enough.

It’s not like he has a real claim to Erik’s time or attention, anyway. Charles drinks in the art, and the orange juice, and watches Erik work the crowd of important or importuning people out of the corner of his eye. It is, in its way, as impressive as the paintings.

“Who let you in, Charlie?”

Charles jumps. The mood of the evening is shattered by that voice; he knows who’s speaking before he looks.

“Hello, Cain,” he says, politely. Charles doesn’t feel up to the effort of being rude to his ex-step brother.

“Yeah, hi,” Cain snorts, runs a hand through his slightly grubby hair in a way that reminds Charles chillingly of Kurt, his father, and attacks again “I said, how’d you get in here? You can’t be working for this place—” Cain’s wineglass makes an unsteady arc, encompassing the museum. “Nobody here’s dumb enough to hire a cripple.”

Charles sighs. Cain moves forwards. His suit creaks alarmingly. It was obviously tailored for the leaner, more muscular version of Cain that Charles remembers disappearing off to college, not this flabbier, older version. Charles steps back to maintain the distance between them, and feels the wall press against his back.

“I assure you, I have a ticket,” he says. “Not that it’s any business of yours.”

Cain scowls. Steps forward again. Charles swallows, tightly. He isn’t afraid of his stepbrother, precisely, not as he was when they were both children. They’re in public, and Kurt’s dead, so Charles supposes Cain’s bullying ways are probably just habit. Cain leans one arm against the wall, half boxing Charles in.

“Yeah, well, it’s been a long time since we had any business in common, isn’t, Charlie?” He grins and sneers. It’s a poor combination of facial expressions.

“I don’t think we ever had much in common, Cain,” Charles says quietly as he gathers his crutches and tries to sidestep. Cain moves with him.

“Even before you got yourself damaged,” Cain says, agreeably. His foot flickers out, knocking Charles’s crutches askew at just the wrong time. Charles stumbles, his weight comes down on his bad knee and he nearly falls, saving himself at the last minute.

“Charles, Charles, Charles,” Cain oozes sympathy. “You need a keeper. Or someone to take care of you.” He grips Charles’ elbow with bruising force. Charles supposes it must look like he’s trying to help, to anyone watching. “Word on the street is, you’re mixing in very bad company, lately—

“Bad company?”

“The police,” Cain says, disapprovingly, and Charles bites his lip. Almost, he could laugh; Cain of all people, warning him about Stryker. He decides not to tell Cain that he knows Stryker’s dirty, or that Erik has said he’ll sort everything out—

“Is everything all right?” The voice is smooth. Almost silky. But Charles can hear the underlying threat, even if Cain obviously can’t. He relaxes.

“I—” Charles starts. Cain whirls, scowling, clearly recognizes Erik, and converts his menacing look into as charming a one as his bloated features can manage, which is not very.

“Mr Lehnsherr,” Cain says. “Just catching up with my stepbrother. Later, Charlie.” He flicks a hand in dismissal. Charles appears to vanish from his mind completely. Erik’s expression cools a little.

“Mr Marko.” Erik slides his hands into his suit’s pockets and leans back on his heels. Raises one eyebrow as Charles slides sideways another step, backing away from Cain. Charles smiles a little, waveringly. He’ll be fine. Cain didn’t really hurt him. Erik nods, slightly.

“I—I didn’t know you were coming to this,” Cain says, and Erik’s expression doesn’t change.

“I confirmed at the last minute,” he says, bland. “Found a guest who’d really appreciate the art.” Charles smiles a little more. Erik’s face lightens a little.

Cain is still trying to do business, if somewhat badly.

“Mr Lehnserr—I—about the parking slots in Renton Street. I have a minor proposition—”

Charles steps further away, knee aching furiously. He bites his lip and gropes in his pocket for his pill bottle.

Erik takes two swift steps and backs Cain to the wall. Puts a hand out. Charles sees the bright, sharp glint in his hand; he doubts anyone else can. Cain yelps and freezes, sweat pouring down his face. Erik’s hand moves from Cain’s arm to his belly. He says something to Cain, something low and firm.

“But!” Cain says loudly, and Erik’s hand moves again.

Cain clamps his mouth shut, and Erik continues his low voiced murmuring. Charles can’t hear what he’s saying. It’s a pity. He’d give anything to know what words Erik is using to make Cain look that scared. It’s rather bad of Charles, but he finds he’s actually enjoying Cain being the one who’s afraid, for once.

Quiet as Erik’s words are, the low pattering noise when Cain pisses himself is distinctly audible, though. Erik steps back, and his hand goes back into his pocket and comes out empty. He looks vastly satisfied, although Charles cannot imagine why.

It’s not like Erik to want people to be afraid of him. At least Erik’s never seemed to want Charles to be afraid of him. Charles knows too well the kind of person who confuses fear and respect; Erik’s not one of them. Cain was, when they were younger. Possibly he still is.

“Mr Marko, you appear to be unwell. Perhaps you should leave.”

Erik says it loudly enough to draw the attention of others in the elegant crowd. Cain’s face goes from the stark white of fear to the full crimson of shame and humiliation in seconds, as people look from the wet patches on his clothes and the floor to each other, murmuring. He hastily squelches away.

“All right?” Erik murmurs, almost in Charles’s ear. Charles nods. “I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner, I could have drawn—”

“Don’t apologize.” Charles smiles into Erik’s eyes. “Never apologize, that was just brilliant.” Erik looks down at him, a little startled, and begins to smile himself. Charles doesn't know what Erik said to Cain, but he thinks he knows why; and it feels—it feel very pleasant, to be protected. Erik protects his people, Charles thinks. He didn’t think he was one of them, but apparently he is.

“I-I mean, I know it’s not very—mature, or, or forgiving of me, but back when we were children—” Erik frowns. Charles hurries on. “His father married—”

“Your mother, yes, I know; there was a background check, you know,” Erik says, dry. “Even for you.”

“Well. When I was a boy; it was—sometimes I’d imagine it, him getting told off; embarrassing himself in public or something.” Charles shrugs. “Childhood rivalry, I suppose.” It was never that; and in some ways Cain was worse than Kurt; at least Kurt cared about being found out beating his stepson. Cain hid it behind rough-housing, boys being boys and so on.

“Hmmm,” Erik says blandly, but his eyes are sharp, and Charles doubts he’s concealing much about what growing up within Cain’s reach was really ()like.

“I’m amazed he actually pissed himself though.”

“He was drunk,” Erik says, and his face lightens. He bites at his lower lip.

Charles finds himself fascinated by those lips. He wants to kiss them. Badly. He shoots the orange juice in his glass a suspicious look.

“Now,” Erik says thoughtfully, “do you want to keep looking at the art, or shall we sneak off to see if Martha will feed us?”

Chapter Text

Charles is silent as the car takes them both towards Martha’s, and hopefully a solid meal, rather than the dainty nibbles the museum seemed to think went with Rembrandt’s paintings. They’d been well enough made to be tasty, but they’d hardly been filling.

Erik looks at his fellow passenger out of the corner of his eye and decides not to risk speaking again just yet. Certainly, Charles had seemed pleased, when Marko had been dealt with, but Erik’s sure that once the implications of what he witnessed have sunk in, Charles will realise how different the worlds he and Erik live in.

Erik mentally curses himself for being fifty shades of idiot earlier tonight.

He exposed himself in front of Charles. Not literally—more’s the pity, he thinks, a little wistfully. Erik has no illusions about the reactions his unclothed physical appearance usually causes. Although opportunities to fully gather Charles’s reaction to same haven’t really worked out yet, he’s begun… thinking. About Charles. And his reactions.

And maybe now he won’t ever know about Charles’s… reactions; because now he must have a clearer picture of who Erik is when he’s not being the twins’ personal gym or beating Charles to Angel’s last home-made cookie (of course Erik always shares them with Charles.)

Charles has seen violence, thanks to Erik, and has endured harassment, again thanks to Erik. But he’s never seen Erik being violent, or even contemplating it. Erik’s been careful to hide this side of himself, up ‘til now. I used to have more self-control than this, he thinks.

Erik saw Charles being hurt, and he lost his temper, in way he hadn’t since before Magda.

Since before Magda died. The lights of the city slide past the windows of []the car, splashing Charles, sitting so quietly next to Erik, with gold and orange and white. Erik looks out of the window before he can see fear or reproach on Charles’s face. This is Erik’s life, the legacy he has to leave, but he’d hoped Charles wouldn’t experience it directly.

He saw Marko assault Charles, and the angry street thug Shaw had once tried to groom into his perfect monster had surged to the surface. Erik had forgotten the location, the audience, even the amount of threat the pathetic Marko had represented, once Erik had him away from Charles.

All Erik had been able to see was one of his own, one of his people, under attack, and he reverted to type. He resists the temptation to bang his head off the window and maybe howl about the unfairness of life and his own stupidity.

“What did you say to him?”

Erik whips his head back to stare at Charles. Who is smiling. He blinks.

“Say to him?” he echoes, uncertainly. Is Charles pretending the last ten minutes in the musuem never happened? He could live with that, Erik supposes.

“Cain. Marko,” Charles says, a little tightly. “What did you say to him to make him lose control like that?”

“I’m sorry,” Erik blurts, and then wants to kick himself. Charles looks at him, a little puzzled.

“Apologising to Cain made him piss himself?”

“What; no, no, I meant—I’m sorry I. Sorry I did that.” Charles’s face falls. “Not the end result!” he hastens to add. “Just, I never—I never wanted to. To expose you.” Charles’s eyebrows go up. “To, well, more violence.”

“Violence?” Charles repeats, bemused. “Erik, you didn’t even bruise him.” He tilts his head. “Or did you cut him? Did you actually—your knife, did it draw blood?” His eyes gleam with interest.

“Of course not,” Erik says, slightly wounded. He’s always been good with knives. “I know my way around a knife.”

“I’m sure you do.” Charles’ eyes glaze over, briefly. “But. The point I was making—you didn’t, you know, actually hurt him.”

“I wanted to.” Erik does his best not to growl. “I saw him—” touch you—he wants to say, but manages to rephrase the words before they exit his mouth. “Hurt you. On purpose.”

“Yes,” Charles says, and he smiles. “And then you came right over and threatened, I mean, stopped him.”

“Of course.” Erik smiles tautly. “You’re one of mine, Charles. One of my employees,” he clarifies, quickly. He’d like Charles to be his—Erik stops short; blinks at the thought and files it away carefully, for future pondering.

“Hrgh.” Charles coughs, slightly. “Yes well, my point… my point was, you have to know; if you knew he was my stepbrother; we grew up together, Cain and I. And if you knew some of the things he—if you knew what he was like, back then, or his father…” He trails off. Bites his lip.

Erik grasps his shoulder, reassuringly.

“If you’d seen him then, you wouldn’t describe this encounter as violence,” Charles adds quietly. “I mean. No one even got bruised.”

“Now I’m sorry I didn’t cut him,” Erik mutters.

“I’m pretty sure public bladder malfunction is far more damaging, long term.” Charles smiles. “In fact, if Martha will let us, I’m going to drink a glass of wine to the beautiful memory.”

Erik smiles back, hopefully.

 

Something is up with Erik. Charles steals a glimpse of Erik’s set, stern profile, clean lines against the blurry world past the car window, and considers starting a random conversation to see if he can get Erik to open up to him. He considers the images that phrase sparks behind his eyes, and loosens his collar.

Erik stood up for him. To Cain Marko. It’s an interesting thought as well as a beautiful memory. Charles blinks, and his mind’s eye replays the scene: Cain’s swift collapse from pompous bully to humiliated coward fleeing (damply) for his life in five minutes or less.

He feels warm and happy, remembering Cain’s exit.

Oh, it’s not the first time Erik has tried to protect Charles, or help him out. Given that he’s living with Erik right now and working for him, it’s not even the first time Charles has let him do it. It is the first time it was… not really necessary for Charles’s future wellbeing. Cain’s temporary destruction had been enjoyable, but Charles wasn’t exactly in danger of anything much more serious than a bruise or two.

Cain likes to bully a bit (a lot really), but they were in public, so he wasn’t going to break anything of Charles’s.

But Erik had been watching Charles, even as he’d been working the crowd. Erik had come storming over, a wrathful stormcloud in a well cut suit, as if. Charles’ brain stutters. Well. As if Charles mattered to him. And he’d cut (hah) Cain down to size instantly, without breaking a sweat or damaging the line of his suit.

Only now, Erik’s quiet, tense, and Charles is a little worried that perhaps he’s regretting it. Regretting causing such a very memorable scene, maybe already on his way for resenting Charles for being there and starting everything off—Charles stops the thought, and takes a deep breath.

“What did you say to him?” Charles blurts the question out and is almost distracted from Erik’s stumbling apologies by the speed with which Erik focuses on him, grey-green eyes sharp in the dim light.

Wait a moment.

Why is Erik apologising, let alone to Charles, of all people? It doesn’t make sense; Charles is the one Erik just rescued, a little, from Cain, why is he apologising for it now? It’s not as if Charles regrets what Erik did; only the potential consequences if it means Erik is annoyed with him, later.

Wait another moment.

Erik considers what he just did to be violence? (Also that Charles is a delicate frail thing who can’t see one grown man piss himself without swooning away?) Does Erik not recall how they met? Well, why they met? Charles had been shot! He’s used to actual violence.

But saying that aloud wouldn’t be kind, given how Erik is with guilt. Also, Charles doesn’t want to risk starting up the whole cheque debacle again. Erik—well, Az—has his bank details now; he wouldn’t even have to give Charles the cheque, just do a bank transfer.

Erik mentions he’s good with knives. Charles hopes the bolt of lust (if he’s honest with himself) he feels at the thought of Erik’s dextrous hands skillfully handing… blades is not immediately visible. He coughs.

It amuses Charles just a little that Erik thinks he doesn’t know what violence is like, given his past history with the Markos.

He helpfully points this out. Cain wasn’t bleeding, wasn’t even bruised, when he fled the scene. That’s not violence. Aggression, certainly, but nothing compared to the times Charles “fell down the stairs” or “walked into a door” around his stepfather and stepbrother, growing up.

In any case, now that Erik’s hopefully no longer worried about Charles’s delicate nature, Charles finds he still wants to celebrate Cain’s shame, and the line of Erik’s spine in that suit. He’s going to drink a glass of wine, pills or no pills, and that’s final. He says so aloud.

Erik smiles.

Chapter Text

“Your delivery boys only dropped off half my cash.” Detective Stryker leans in the doorway, blocking out the light from the windows behind him, half threatening and half wary. “And in cash, too. Kinda hoping you could explain that for me.”

“I pay by results, Detective. You know this.” Sebastian Shaw does not look up from his notebook. He doesn’t even stop writing, filling the little moleskin with neat careful script in his own personal code. Sebastian does not write his diaries in the hope of ever impressing an audience. “Poor results; poorer pay.”

“Results!? I bust my butt trying to keep up with everything you want me to do.” Stryker flushes; but he has at least learned better than to raise his voice. If only there were other skills he could be taught; but no. Sebastian only has this crude clay to work with. Stryker is a poor tool.

Sebastian sighs, and recaps his fountain pen. “Detective Stryker. As I recall you have two on-going projects, not dissimilar. Correct?”

He looks up, at last, and Stryker sways backwards, hesitating. He nods.]

Sebastian surveys him silently for a long moment, considering the best way of recalibrating this tool’s attitude. He comes to a swift decision. He waves the bulky, fading Detective into his office, and points at the hard chair opposite his desk, before clearing his throat to speak.

“One of your projects was to find and furnish the police department—and myself—with evidence that would bring Erik Lehnsherr down; evidence of unlawful activity that would result in a heavy jail sentence. I note Mr Lehnsherr remains free to go about his—” a muscle by Shaw’s eye twitches. He massages the bridge of his nose. “―merry, apparently law-abiding way.”

“Well, yeah, I mean, he’s slippery, but—”

Sebastian is on a tight schedule now, and so he cuts to the meat of the matter. “The other project you have been assigned is that of the recruitment of the teacher, Xavier. And how is that going, again?” Sebastian tilts his head in mock enquiry. “Oh yes, he’s fled his apartment with his valuables and is now holed up in Lehnsherr’s stronghold with his brats. Good work.” Sebastian snorts.

“I offered him money and—”

“I told you to offer him protection, not coercion,” Sebastian snaps. “Anyone with half a brain, having met Xavier, would realise a show of force or bribery would only harden his attitude.” He sighs, and frowns down at his desk. Stryker fidgets, guilty and clumsy as any schoolboy caught behind the bike sheds by the headmaster.

Men like Charles Xavier are rare, Sebastian knows. Men whose internal priorities are congruent with their expressed moralities. Men whose physical or financial well-being comes second to a drive for independence, are hard for Sebastian to recruit by his more usual methods. Finesse is required.

Which means that I am the fool, here, for ever delegating this job to Stryker, Sebastian thinks, and resists the temptation to sigh again. Good help is always so hard to find, and even harder to keep loyal once recruited. He does not think of Erik, Max, as he had been, a surly teen who’d been hungry and loyal and obedient until that stupid slut-bitch had stolen him away, ruining all of Sebastian’s hard work and dedication in a few short weeks.

He’d had to let Erik go; too strongly entrenched for a swift bloodless takeover and re-education. He’d had to simply watch as Erik moved back into the dull mainstream, abandoning his mentor’s teachings, spawning children, moving from strength to strength while Sebastian’s own resources dwindled.

Sebastian had laughed, when he’d heard Magda was sick, when he knew she was dying. It had saved him the chore of having to kill her himself; and it had taken long enough for him to savour Erik Lehnsherr’s every minute twitch of distress during those last months. Erik had believed he’d loved his wife; he’d honestly believed himself capable of such an emotion.

Shaw might have tried to disabuse him of the notion had the consequences not been so funny.

Xavier; well. He’d thwarted Sebastian’s plans; stepped into the middle of an on-going feud because it had erupted in his classroom. Foolish, but then, he’d have to be worth something to be able to do it, and he hadn’t known—no one had known—whose toes he’d been treading on, there. Ignorance was no excuse of course; but it went a long way in preventing some people’s executions.

At first, languishing in the hospital and limping about afterwards, he’d seemed too pitiful a cripple to kill out of hand. It had been diverting, in the middle of the, ah, disruption caused by little Erik’s crusade to locate the evil doers, to watch his pathetic failures at silencing Xavier, or buying him, whatever he’d been doing sending the teacher money.

And Sebastian had watched, dug a little deeper, and seen in Xavier a weakness of Erik’s. One that Sebastian could so easily exploit. If he’d been able to win Xavier to his side with offers of protection; why, then the teacher would have been his, and an unwitting window on to Erik’s repulsive brats.

His sister’s job only sweetened the pot; Xavier seemed to be unusually loyal, so a few threats to her would have bought compliance, if force had been necessary. But creating an obligation was something that Sebastian infinitely preferred, and it would have been far more effective.

“You should have known crude threats wouldn’t work,” he says, dry, and Stryker flinches. “I told you to scare him; tell him all about the wicked, dreadful mobster whose spawn he’d been teaching.” So he would run, yes, but run in the correct direction, to me, not to Erik Lehnsherr.

“Well, I—”

“You didn’t even evaluate him properly at the hospital.”

“I—he was half out of his head on painkillers!” Stryker blusters. “Couldn’t tell a thing from that.”

“Detective. You spent ten minutes, if that, with him, under the belief that he was one of the brats’ bodyguards, and were chased out of there by a lawyer. Your report was worthless. I had to get a second opinion. Such wasted effort, doing things twice.”

“Yeah, but—”

“I despise wasted effort.” Sebastian regards his linked fingers thoughtfully. “Then again, Detective, I also despise you. I suppose there’s some symmetry in that.” He looks up.

“Hey now.” Stryker’s face darkens. “There’s no call for that. You’re being pretty damn rude, talking like that to a man you need.”

“No, I’m not.” Sebastian flashes a swift white grin. He always feels more peaceful when he know he’s come to the right decision over an employee.

“You just told me you despised me. That’s plenty damn rude for me,” Stryker splutters.

“I did. Do. Despise you, that is.” Sebastian smiles almost pleasantly. “But… detective, you are no longer a man I need. Nor a man I can rely on to do a simple task right the first time, it seems.”

“W-what?”

“I’m, ah, letting you go.” Sebastian says it gently; implacable will overlaid with silken manners. “There is of course, no severance fee.” He presses the discreet button tucked away under his desk with his left knee.

“Y-you can’t do that!” Stryker seems to have forgotten his earlier, sensible fear of Sebastian. He jumps to his feet, and slams his hands on Sebastian’s fine oak desk. Sebastian does not flinch, jump or look away from the contorted face a few inches from his own.

“Yes, I can,” Sebastian says. “I am aware of the photographs and written statements you believed you’d secured against my displeasure; they were disposed of approximately three months ago.”

“But I—”

“The notary will, of course, also be taken care of.” Stryker pales and clenches his fists “Please be calm, Detective Stryker. I don’t want to have to make it unpleasant. I’m sure any contact of yours will be… how shall I put it? Purchasable.”

“You -!” Stryker shuts up when two of Sebastian’s most-trusted bodyguards appear; one from the door beside Sebastian’s desk and one from behind Stryker.

One is lean and viciously deadly, the other is broad and even more thuggishly built than the detective. Shaw gives them a cheerful smile. He does like employees who enjoy their work.

“Janos. Victor. Please escort Detective Stryker off the premises. See he reaches his home.”

“Sure thing, boss.” That’s Victor. Janos simply nods, silent and alert, and rests a meaningful hand on his holstered gun.

“Make sure he takes his effects with him.” Sebastian dismisses them all: raging Stryker, raucously laughing Victor, ghost-quiet Janos, with a cheerful nod, and turns back to his notebook. With a small sigh of satisfaction, he uncaps his fountain pen again, and starts to write.

Ten minutes in, a thought strikes Sebastian. He picks up his mobile and dials Victor’s number.

 

“Victor? Please make it unpleasant. Efficient, but unpleasant.”

Thank you, boss! This guy’s really grinding my gears, an—”

“Show some self-restraint, Victor. Efficiency before enjoyment. Report back to me when everything’s done.”

He makes another note as Victor promises to be very, very efficient in his forthcoming lethal—and now unpleasant—disposal of Detective Stryker.

The cash money Stryker received was taken from one Erik’s less legal business interests. It should be traceable back there. When Stryker disappears, that tracer money should have them looking straight at Erik. It’s unlikely it’ll actually be a successful frame; but―

“Every little helps,” Sebastian says aloud.

Because, one way or another, Sebastian Shaw is going to ruin his strayed protégé, utterly and completely, and leave him destroyed in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of his friends—and, sweetest of all—in Erik’s own eyes

It’s what he wants most of all in the entire world. And what Sebastian wants? He has long made sure he gets.

Chapter Text

The kitchen is hushed. The members of the secret group huddle round the table in shared conspiratorial co-operation. Az leans forwards expectantly.

“So. The team is gathered. Have we the supplies?” He looks at his co-conspirators sternly.

“I made popcorn,” Angel murmurs, smiling. She pushes the heaped bowl to the centre of the table. Az grabs a handful and starts chewing.

“There’s cookies and milk and jelly beans!” Pietro is bouncing on his seat. Az eyes him for a moment and turns to the final member of the team while he swallows the last of his mouthful of excellent popcorn.

“I have crayons an’ paper so we can make notes.” Wanda smiles proudly as she hands them out. Pietro gets a green crayon, Angel a gold one and Az a red one. Wanda keeps the rest of the crayons for herself; she might need to make extra-special notes. Pietro starts drawing on his paper.

“Well done,” Az says gravely. “Now, do we all know why we’re here?” He takes a jelly bean and chews it, thoughtfully.

“Personal amusement.” Az looks hurt. “Oh, and also keeping you all out of trouble.” Angel grins. “Just like usual.” She sips the milk as regally as if it had been the finest wine. Az takes a moment to enjoy the sight.

“Cookies!” Pietro says eagerly, reaching for his third. Wanda thumps him in sisterly love. “And Daddy.” He adds, around the first mouthful.

“To see if we can help make Mr Charles happy and want to stay. And make Daddy happy, too.” Wanda stars at Pietro, reprovingly.

“Well put, Wanda.” Az steeples his fingers, regards them all sternly. “And are we all prepared to do our best?”

“Yes!” the twins say as one.

“We’re not boy scouts,” Angel points out, chin on hands. Az looks at her. “Fine, yes!”

“So.” Az taps the kitchen table with his hand. “I declare this meeting formally open.” The twins cheer. Angel reaches for the popcorn.

“So, in our last meeting, we decided to research. Since then, Subject One and Subject Two have both been cleared to date each other.” Az ticks off a line on his notes with the red crayon.

“By who?” Angel says, curious and pretending to be indignant. “I wasn’t consulted.”

“By the primary close evaluation team.” Az points at the twins, who giggle. “And by the background expert.” He points to himself. “They like him.” Az doesn’t have to explain that “him” means Charles, not in this group. “And I say his background checks out—he’s safe enough for our Illustrious Leader.”

“Always assuming that said leader pulls his head out of you-know-where and actually notices that Charles—” Angel cuts in, dry.

“Mr Charles!” the twins chorus, happily.

“Fine, notices that Mr Charles is probably hoping Erik wants to check out his back…ground. Along with everything else.” Angel makes a discreet gesture, out of the children’s line of sight.

“That.” Az eyes Angel, narrowly. “Is what we are here for. Head extraction.”

“How do we do that?” Wanda ponders, aloud.

“We could lock them in a cupboard ‘til they agree to kiss?” Pietro suggests. Az gives him a startled look. “It works! I read about it!”

“What have you been reading?” Az isn’t really sure he wants to know.

“Locking people in cupboards is mean,” Wanda points out. She thinks for a bit. “Would it work?”

“Probably… not. Not with those two,” Angel says. “Not a bad start though.”

“Erik is stubborn when he feels pushed to something,” Az says. Nobody comments. They all know that. Calling Erik stubborn is like talking about the weather; it’s always there and sometimes it’s raining.

“Mr Charles is nice,” Pietro announces after some intense thought. “Maybe if we’re really nice to him he’ll stay even if Dad doesn’t kiss him.”

“Yes, but maybe Mr Charles would like to be, ah, kissed,” Az says carefully, lips quirking. “And for a certainty, Erik would like the kissing.”

“So why doesn’t he?” Pietro frowns.

“He is worried that Mr Charles would not want to be kissed,” Az says swiftly. “By him.”

“But he does!” Wanda says. Az raises an eyebrow “He smiles at him lots!”

“Not always a reliable guide,” Angel says. “Also, and this is important, your dad pays Mr Charles to teach you.”

“So?” Pietro looks puzzled.

“So maybe your dad is worried that Mr Charles might kiss him for the wrong reasons,” Angel says, very gently. The twins look puzzled. “Like, what if your dad got angry with him if he didn’t, and stopped paying him? Or—”

“He wouldn’t!” Wanda almost shouts. “That would be, that would be mean, and wrong, and he’s not, Daddy’s not like that! He hates mean people.”

“Shh, little darling.” Az shifts his chair and puts an arm out. Wanda cuddles into him. “We know that.”

“Oh yeah,” Angel says, lost in her own memories for a little while. “We really do.”

“Then why-?” Az holds up a finger.

“But what your Dad does not know is if Mr Charles knows that he would not be angry or mean. And it’s—it would be risky to ask.”

“Because if he does think that, if he gets asked he might… might fib a bit? Because of Dad paying him?” Pietro looks up from his scribbles.

“Yes,” Az says, reluctantly.

“That’s OK,” Pietro says, matter-of-factly. “We can get Mr Charles a, a lottery ticket. Then he can win lots of money and he won’t have to worry about Daddy not paying him—and Daddy will know that Mr Charles is ok and not fibbing if he says yes.”

“That’ll only work if he wins the lottery,” Angel says, gently.

“It’s not a sure thing,” Az agrees, solemnly eating another jellybean. Pietro slumps. “But a good idea, thank you, Pietro!”

“We can tell him!” Wanda sits up away from Az’s reassuring hug in her eagerness. “We can tell Mr Charles that Dad doesn’t get mean or angry with people if they say no thank you very much. And then they can kiss, and Daddy won’t be worried.”

“Ah…” Az hesitates.

“That’s a… interesting idea, honey,” Angel jumps in. “But you’d need to be careful about the words you use.”

“Oh, I won’t use bad words.” Wanda smiles serenely. “Not the S-word or the B word.”

“Or the eff word,” Pietro chips up, helpful.

“Pietro Maximoff, what do you know about the F-word?” Angel asks sharply.

“That saying ‘Effing’ is bad and you shouldn’t,” Pietro says. “F is the rude letter of the alphabet.”

“Well, it looks like words can be tricky.” Az tries not to laugh. “Perhaps we had better think very carefully before talking to Mr Charles about this?”

“Beginnings are hard.” Pietro nods sagely.

“Well, they’re out on a date tonight,” Angel says. “So maybe it’s started without us?” She hides her smile as both the children pout; they want to be involved in this, too.

“Oh, no,” Az assures her. “That Erik thought Charles might want to go; that was him. That he asked Mr Charles to go… that was me.” He smiles again. “I know Erik very well.”

“So do we all, pal. But well done.” Angel pats his hand.

“We could write Mr Charles a nice note from Daddy,” Pietro says, staring into the distance.

“No, writing notes and pretending they’re from other people is mean,” Wanda corrects her brother. “Remember what Mrs Winchester said, about Ellie and Sarah and Dan and Valentines that time?”

“Dan was lying, that’s why it was mean.” Her brother reminds her. “But yeah.”

“Well, what can we do?”

“Your father and Mr Charles have gone out tonight to look at art,” Az says. He softens his voice: “Perhaps—you have been driving in the car for some time now; you and Mr Charles might invite him to sit with you?”

“That wouldn’t be a date.” Wanda objects. “Dates mean flowers and wine and candles. And maybe chocolates or spies, in the films.”

“This would be to get them used to going to things together,” Angel says. “Practice dates, like tonight. Until they aren’t scared to actually date.”

“It’s still just the car and the driveway though,” Pietro says, grumpy. “No candles or wine in the car.”

“There’ll be us!” Wanda disagrees. “We’re better than chocolate, Mr Charles said.”

“Boring,” Pietro shakes his head. “Even practice dates should be a bit fun.”

“We could… we could maybe go somewhere?” Wanda suggests, very tentatively. “In the car?”

Az holds his breath. He looks at Angel and neither of them dare say anything. Pietro frowns, biting his lip.

“It wouldn’t… would it be safe?” His knuckles are clenched tight on his crayon.

“Daddy would be there,” Wanda says, instantly. Pietro nods. “Daddy and Mr Charles and—” She smiles. “They can get a driver and then they can look at each other in the car instead of the road!”

“Can we—would the zoo be alright?” Pietro raises his eyes to look at Az. “I—would it?”

“It’s a public space,” Az says, not promising what he cannot control. “Many cameras, many bystanders. That is often safer that small, quiet, isolated places.”

“Penguins and wolves and tigers,” Wanda says, dreamily. She pokes Pietro. “You could see a penguin.”

Bravely, Pietro nods.

Chapter Text

The journey from Martha’s to home is quieter and easier than the ride to Martha’s. Erik feels a strange tug of gratitude in his chest; he hasn’t scared Charles off just yet. In fact, if anything, his display of aggressive protection seems to have won him more of Charles’s smiles than he’s ever seen before.

The meal was delicious, steak and hand cut fries. Martha had looked at them, smiled, and led them to a quiet table for two, and then they’d almost been left alone. Just the two of them, and the food.

Charles’s head flops sideways onto Erik’s shoulder for the third time in ten minutes.

Erik braces his shoulder so that Charles’s head won’t wobble off again. That’s probably what woke him last time. Automatically he checks the position of Charles’s bad leg and how bent his knee is. Flexed enough that Charles won’t fall off the seat, straight enough it won’t hurt so much when he has to get out of the car. Erik nods to himself. It’s good.

Carefully, Erik adjusts the coat he’s draped over his companion. The car’s got heating, he’s warm enough. Charles mutters something, and wriggles even closer. He’s very warm, lying against him. Erik smiles down at the sleepy teacher. Even he has to admit the smile is probably a fond one.

“Professor,” he says, teasingly. “Are you quite comfortable?”

“Mmm,” Charles says, happily, eyes closed.

He turns his face towards Erik’s chest. His breath is warm and faintly damp through Erik’s shirt. The car takes a corner, so Erik wraps an arm around Charles’s surprisingly broad and sturdy shoulders, to keep him from sliding across the seat. Charles licks his lips in his sleep.

Sternly, Erik tells his goose bumps to knock it the hell off; Charles is almost asleep, and is also under influence of wine. Erik is not taking advantage of the situation. He’s only holding him now to keep him safe. And warm. And close to Erik’s side…

“Mmrruph-! What?” Snorting, Charles jerks wide awake. Erik keeps his arm where it is, and Charles settles, but his eyes are open now.

“I—Um, Erik, I’m sorry. I appear to have fallen asleep on you.”

“I noticed,” Erik tells him. “No drooling, though, so I didn’t mind.”

Sleepily, Charles rubs his nose. “I—sorry. It must be the wine.” He tilts his head up to meet Erik’s eyes, blushing faintly. “But you make a very good pillow.”

“Higher praise a man cannot hope for,” Erik says solemnly.

Charles grins, and Erik has to look away, out of the window, before he does something Charles might regret, later. The car turns another corner, and they slide down the seat together. Pressed to Charles almost shoulder to hip, Erik fleetingly hopes this dreamy, close car trip never ends.

“This is interesting,” Charles says cheerfully, almost under Erik’s chin. “I suppose I ought to try sitting up by myself—” Erik’s arm tightens around Charles without any previous instructions from Erik. “—um. And be less of a bother.”

“You’re not a bother, Charles,” Erik tells the top of his head. “And don’t worry—just keep your leg straightened out.” he shifts his hips slightly; so far nothing of what Erik’s feeling would be detectable by touch, but movement—movement feels good. Distracting.

“My leg’s fine,” Charles says, slowly. “I.” he stops. Wriggles a little so he’s sitting more or less upright. Erik tries not to read anything into the distance growing between them. “The rest of me is feeling pretty good, too.” He smiles. Erik blinks.

“Charles…?”

“If I’m doing something you don’t like—” Charles murmurs. Why is Charles staring at him like that? And leaning forwards? “Please stop me.”

“What--?”

Charles presses his lips to Erik’s, soft and sure. Erik’s questions and Erik’s thought processes pretty much halt there for the moment. Then Charles is pulling away, looking up at Erik, eyes dark, and no, that’s not what—

“Come back here,” Erik finds himself saying. “Please.” Charles does.

They’re kissing again, Charles’s mouth opening for him, trading wine-flavoured kisses in the back seat of a car racing though anonymous city streets. It’s nothing like kissing Magda was, and everything like kissing a man Erik l—. That Erik likes.

Charles hums into Erik’s mouth, and one of his hands slides up, running fingers through his hair. Erik smiles as the kisses deepens. He drops his arm around Charles’s waist from his shoulders, pulling him a little closer.

But a thought, an unwelcome, worried thought rises in Erik’s mind. Wine flavoured-kisses. Sweet, hopeful kisses, but still. Wine. Wine and painkillers and Charles. Wait. What if Charles is confused? What if tomorrow Charles regrets this, wherever these kisses are leading? Erik doesn’t want Charles to get hurt.

He pulls back, trying to think. It’s not much, but obviously Charles notices. He pulls away too, raises a hand to his own lips, slightly swollen and redder than ever.

“Sorry. I—Sorry.” Charles mumbles through his fingers, flushed with more than the warmth of the moment, now. “I won’t—I’m sorry.”

“Charles,” Erik says, the word jerked out of him by the pain of perceived rejection. “No, It’s not—I don’t—”

“You don’t want to kiss me, I’m sorry.” Charles makes a painful attempt at smiling. “The wine, you know.”

“Exactly,” Erik says swiftly.

He doesn’t want to take advantage of Charles if his judgment is impaired; and while he’d like to claim that this is solely down to his own inherent decency as a human being; Erik’s inherent practical side has pointed out that if he lets Charles kiss him and Charles then regrets it, any likelihood of things going further will become much less likely.

“What?” Charles blinks wide, hurt eyes. Erik reaches out, and takes Charles’ hands in his.

“Charles. I wasn’t saying I didn’t want to… kiss you; or whatever, I just—you’ve had some wine, I didn’t—”

“One.” Charles holds up a dignified finger. “I had one glass.”

“Yes, and I know you’re also taking painkillers,” Erik gently reminds him.

“I’m not drunk. Perhaps a little—elevated, but not drunk,” Charles clarifies, mulishly. “I’m sorry if that—if kissing me wasn’t something on your programme for the evening.”

“I just—I didn’t want to be something you regretted in the morning,” Erik says, mostly to his shoes.

“Oh,” Charles says, almost silently. And then he smiles. He reaches out, tugging at Erik’s chin until Erik looks up. “You could never be something—or someone—I regretted, Erik.”

Erik raises an eyebrow.

“And if you ask me that tomorrow, I’ll say the same thing,” Charles says, smiling a little. “Only, with a lot more stammering and blushing, probably.”

“And you say you’re not drunk.”

“I’m not. I’m just not self-conscious and anxious, either.”

“I’m not willing to sleep with you when I know you’re a little—” Erik gropes for the word.

“Tipsy? One over the eight? Inebriated?” Charles cocks his head and gives Erik what he obviously imagines is an amusing parody of a coy smile. “How about staying awake with me instead?”

“Charles!”

“Only joking, sorry,” Charles says as Erik tenses further. “Alright, no non-sober euphemistic sleeping,” he mutters to himself, clearly thinking hard. Erik has to bite back a smile; Charles has no idea how adorable he is, slightly fuzzed like this. “How about non-sober snuggling?” Charles asks hopefully, at last.

“Snuggling?” This is not an activity Erik has spent much time doing; of late. He’s a busy businessman, he—

“And perhaps some kissing.” Charles licks his lips, because he is a terrible flirt who knows what that does to Erik, damnit.

“Kissing,” Erik echoes. “Like we were just doing?”

“Possibly you could use your hands,” Charles says, shameless.

“To kiss you?” Erik grins. “How do you see that working, Professor?”

While you kiss me,” Charles corrects him. “Or while I kiss you; that bit’s much the same, really.”

“Ah. Of course,” Erik says, gravely. “I think it could be arranged. On one understanding.”

“Which is…?”

“We do the majority of this… snuggling somewhere more comfortable—for both of us—that the backseat of a car. Even this car. We’re hardly teenagers anymore.”

“Oh, God.” Charles turns scarlet. “I forgot about Darwin. Um.”

“It’s all right.” Erik reaches out, trying to uncoil Charles from his hunched up embarrassment. “He put the privacy panel up back while you were resting your eyes.”

“Oh, thank god.” Charles moves back into Erik’s arms, happily. “I’m—I wouldn’t want to make an exhibition of us.”

“I don’t share,” Erik says, short and harsh and certain. He tries to ignore how Charles’s pupils dilate at his words. He coughs a little, trying to soften his tone. “Not this. You. I won’t share.”

“Uh. Well, I don’t want to share this, either,” Charles says, a little weakly. “Except with you.”

Erik smiles.

“Now,” Charles says. “I know a great way to pass the time till we get h—get back.”

“Oh?” Erik rumbles, amusement edging out possessiveness now the idea of sharing and audiences has been done away with.

“It’s called kissing,“ Charles says, wide-eyed and mock serious.

“Kissing? Tell me more of this strange human custom,” Erik says, equally serious. “No, wait! Better still, show me.”

“All right,” Charles says, happily.

And they kiss.

Chapter Text

Charles opens his eyes slowly. His head aches and the light from the new window is too bright. At least he’s warm; the new blankets have wrapped themselves around him very snugly. His knee is its usual dull grumble of discontent. He’s still sleepy, though, so he sets his head back down on the warm blanket and closes his eyes.

Slowly a nagging thought trickles through his mind. New window? Charles’s eyes shoot open again as he realizes; the window isn’t new. He’s in a new bedroom. A different bedroom. Erik’s bedroom. Next to Charles, his blanket grumbles incoherently and winds itself more tightly around him.

This would be a little alarming—Charles’s blankets have never spoken to him before—but he’s not completely asleep any more. That’s no blanket, Charles realises, with an interior grin. That’s Erik, coiled around him, keeping him close. He ducks his head under the covers—they both appear to be wearing sleep pants and t-shirts. He’s not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.

He settles for awkward. Because this is. Charles can remember the evening in great detail; and although parts of it—the art, Cain, the art of Erik threatening Cain—are not in any way unpleasant to remember, the draping himself all over Erik in a faintly drunken haze is, if not unpleasant, embarrassing. As is the fact that these are not his pyjamas.

He’d clearly been so dazed from the wine and painkiller interactions that he hadn’t even been trusted to go to bed by himself. Charles draws cautious hope from the fact that Erik clearly put them both to bed in his room. If he didn’t feel a little… something, for Charles, he’d have put him in his own room, or called someone else to keep an eye on him.

Instead, Erik settled them both down in his wide, comfortable bed; and then, it appears, mutated into an octopus, and fell asleep beside him. The octopus snorts and mutters something. Charles smiles down at him, fondly. A sudden thought causes Charles to tense. Cautiously, he raises his head and stares at the door.

“Wh’tizzit?” Charles glances back at Erik, who is displaying the most dramatic bedhead he’s had the good fortune of observing in quite some time. He’s only got one eye open.

“The door,” Charles says, softly, in case Erik’s still mostly asleep. Erik sticks out a grabby hand; Charles allows himself to be reeled in close.

Erik plants his nose on Charles’s neck, and hums happily. Charles shivers as Erik’s lips brush the skin under his ear. “S’okay,” Erik tells him. “Security system’s on. An’ monitors.”

“I was thinking of your children,” Charles says. “Um—”

“They’re safe too. Az,” Erik says, eyes open a bit wider. “Also, the door locks.” He shoots Charles a sly smile. “No chance of early-morning staring today.”

“Oh, thank god,” Charles murmurs. “It’s beginning to get a little creepy.”

“Well, they are my kids.” Erik smiles. “They need to learn how to loom, just a little.”

“About last night.” Charles speaks hurriedly. He needs to get this out before he gets too awkward. “I’m sorry.”

Erik stops smiling.

“I—um. Nothing bad, I just—I wanted to apologise,” Charles says quickly. “I, I was, um—”

“You weren’t that drunk.” There is pain in Erik’s eyes Charles doesn’t quite understand.

“No, but I think I may have drooled on you,” Charles says, and Erik’s face lightens. “And I—I may not be recalling details but I think I kissed you.”

“You did,” Erik says, a little stiffly. “You also promised not to regret it the morning.”

“I don’t,” Charles says, surprised. “I just—we, ah—”

“Snuggled,” Erik says, as Charles gropes for words. “There was no drooling or otherwise undignified behavior.”

“Oh.” Charles rolls on his back, and stares at the ceiling with a sigh of relief. “I was worried I’d made a fool of myself; except, well, this is your bed, so it couldn’t have been too much of one and—”

“Professor.” Erik leans up on one elbow, and his face appears in Charles’s sight, hovering over him. “Breathe.”

“Right.” Breathing is good. Erik licks his lips and keeps talking. Mesmerized by the sudden close view of flickering tongue, Charles listens as best he can.

“As long as you want to be here, I want you here,” Erik says, low and certain.

“Here?” Charles can’t resist his need for clarification.

“In my bed, my house, my children’s lives.” Erik blinks. “It’s selfish of me; we should be trying to let you go, not drag you in further, but—”

“I want,” Charles says, fast, before the chance can dissipate. “I want to be here.”

“Good.” Erik’s answering smile is slow and sweet and just a little bit hot.

“Now,” Erik says gravely, “If I’m doing something you don’t like—”

“What?” Charles says, startled by the echo of his words from last night.

“Please stop me,” Erik continues, and then he leans forwards and kisses Charles, as if morning breath is something that doesn’t exist. Maybe it doesn’t. In any case, Charles cannot bring himself to care very much. Erik is sober; Charles is sober, and there is kissing. Nothing hurts.

Erik plants his hand on the pillow by Charles’s head, and slides the other under Charles’s borrowed T shirt. Charles gasps into his mouth at the feeling of skin on skin. Erik chuckles. Determined not to leave Erik out of this touching businesses, Charles lifts a hand to his face and traces invisible lines around his jaw.

Erik tilts his head almost exactly like a cat, encouraging Charles to pay attention to his neck and nape. Charles’s eyes almost cross; he’d swear Erik would purr if he could. There’s rather more kissing and touching, and then Charles becomes aware that Erik is trying to get Charles’s shirt off him, without removing his own.

Well, that won’t do.

“No,” Charles says aloud, ignoring the way Erik’s hands freeze instantly, not revealing him further to the rest of the world. “If I lose my shirt, so do you. Fair’s fair.” He grabs the bottom of Erik’s shirt by way of demonstration.

Erik laughs, and squats back on his heels to obey. Charles fumbles his own shirt off hastily, and then it’s back to mouths and hands, gliding across skin and—

Erik tweaks Charles left nipple. Charles, being a grown man, does not squeak; so the noise he makes can’t be called that, but it’s definitely a similar sort of sound.

“Oh,” Erik says, in some delight.

“E-Erik—” Charles says, breathlessly.

Erik ignores his warning, and pays close attention to Charles’s other nipple. Charles’s hips jerk, bringing his leg into contact with something of Erik’s that’s hot and hard and heavy. Something Charles would quite like to explore some more, when he’s not being distracted by—

“Don’t you—Aigh!”

By Erik lowering his head and actually biting softly at Charles’s nipples, one after the other and back again. Charles briefly dissolves in the rush of little sparks of pleasure-pain that seem to lead directly from his nipples to his cock. By way of his spine.

“Erik.” Charles pants rapidly. “We don’t have condoms or lube, as far as I know, but if you don’t—if you don’t let me touch you- your cock, something terrible will happen. To you.”

Erik raises his head, and if he’s laughing at Charles now, there will be vengeance.

“Terrible?” He runs a lazy hand over Charles’s quivery stomach. “What kind of terrible?”

“Guess,” Charles says, attempting dignity. Erik’s hand wanders lower. “Erik…” Charles warns.

“Nobody’s stopping you,” Erik assures him, serenely, as he grasps Charles’s extremely interested cock in his long, elegant fingers—the sight alone nearly tips Charles over the edge. “Please,” he says, every considerable inch the graciously concerned host. “Do help yours—”

The words strangle themselves in his throat as Charles gets his hands on Erik’s cock and sets to work.

After that, despite the lack of any more lube than a little sweat, things move rapidly for both of them, and no sooner is Charles choking back the cries that try to spill themselves from his mouth as he comes, than Erik is grunting and gasping out his own release.

Erik thumps down to the pillows besides Charles, dazed and sticky and almost deliriously happy. He kisses Charles again, sticky hand turning Charles’s head to just the right angle. Charles ignores the stickiness and trusts Erik will do the same for him, as he wraps his arms around Erik and does his best to draw the other man close.

Chapter Text

“Hmmm,” Erik rumbles in Charles’s ear some uncertain length of time later.

“Hmmmm?” Charles responds, politely, without opening his eyes. He’s comfortable, dammit. Erik’s chest is a little sweaty and a little sticky, but it’s perfectly ergonomically proportioned for Charles’s head. He hasn’t slept so well in ages. And without being melancholy or bitter, he doesn’t know when—or if—this situation will occur again.

“We may have to think about getting up soon,” Erik observes, gentle and firm, just like Charles likes him. But getting up… Charles whines a wordless protest. He doesn’t want to leave this cosy little bubble and face reality just yet.

“Or at least washing,” Erik adds, and Charles can hear the smile in his voice. “We can’t stay here forever; the children will break down the door if breakfast is late.”

Washing. Children.

Reluctantly, Charles opens his eyes. He tilts his head, and Erik’s face comes into view, smiling down at him.

“Hello.”

“Good morning, Charles.” Erik grins. “Again.”

“Washing.” Charles shifts slightly, unwinding his arms from around Erik so he can sit up. “Urrgh,” he adds, on general principles. They’re not quite stuck together; but neither of them made much of an attempt at clean up earlier, something Charles regrets almost as much as having to move at all.

Creating distance between himself and Erik is not something he wants to do, but he needs to start getting up. Charles doesn’t want to push his luck with Erik’s children, not when things are starting to get easier for them, and have gone so well with Erik so far today. Well, yesterday and today.

The twins haven’t stolen in yet for their morning ritual inspections, but the door will start rattling anytime soon, if Erik is correct about having locked it; or they’ll try to sneak in through the windows, or something equally dangerous. And much as Charles loves Wanda and Pietro, and they like him, he doesn’t think they’re really ready to see their dad entangled with another naked man just yet.

“My en-suite doesn’t have a shower chair,” Erik says, pulling Charles back into the here-and-now. “Will you be able to manage-?”

“Probably not,” Charles says, honestly. It’s more the risk of falling than the effort involved in standing that worries him. And in any case he much prefers the large bathroom.

“But I fully intend to marry your whirlpool bath at some point in my time here, so don’t worry.” He’d steal that bath if he could; but baths are rather hard to shift, and in any case it’s partially the endless supply of hot water that makes this one so fine.

“My bath.” Erik’s voice is flat. His expression is slightly bewildered.

“I like that bath,” Charles tells him, serenely. “It’s like a hot massage, only free.” It is a glorious bath, that bath. The only thing that might improve it would be the addition of a naked and willing Erik to the hot bubbly waters; Charles makes a mental note to see if he can bring about this state of affairs at some point.

“Well,” Erik murmurs, eyes alight. “If free massages are the price of your hand in marriage, I’d like to remind you that I actually have skills beyond that of a mere basin of hot water.”

“Indeed you do,” Charles agrees, tangling their fingers together. “But they get me dirty. The bath also gets me clean, after.”

Erik winces, and the playful mood falters.

“That was supposed to be a funny line, I’m such an idiot!” Charles flushes. “I just—I think we may be a little, hmm, sticky right now?”

“Oh. Yes.” Animation returns slowly to Erik’s face and voice. “Well, if being clean matters to you so much, Charles—I suppose I can help with that, too.”

“Oh?” Charles asks, archly. “Care to explain more?” Erik grins.

“Most certainly.”

Some discussion later, Erik reluctantly accepts he will not be carrying Charles anywhere anytime soon. Not even to that bath.

“Stubborn,” Erik mutters, wrapping Charles in his bathrobe, instead.

Said robe is sinfully fluffy and warm, is both too long for Charles and also too narrow; but it preserves his modesty and the general decencies well enough. Charles doesn’t bother to argue about that; he can still hop along to the bathroom wearing this, and Erik looks better wearing just a towel, anyway.

The progression to the big bathroom is hushed; the children are somehow still asleep, but they have the hearing of bats or similar creatures. And Az stayed overnight; as did Angel, to keep the children safely occupied while their father and their tutor looked at some paintings.

“How hot do you like it?” Erik’s eyebrows are as sly as his tone of voice.

“The bath?” Charles asks cheerfully, around a mouthful of toothpaste. “Steaming.” He winks for good measure. “But hopefully you’re joining me, so pick a temperature you like, too.”

Erik’s hand scrabbles briefly at the taps before he regains his grip.

“Charles,” he says, and seems to lose his thread, staring at the filling bath. “I don’t want to hurt—” He reaches out to turn off the water.

“I’m not fragile.” Charles spits into the sink. Looks up and over at Erik. “And I don’t want to hurt you, either.”

“I—” Erik blinks. He seems a little surprised. Clearly he’s not regarded Charles as capable of causing significant hurt before. Or perhaps, perhaps it’s the significant part Charles has got wrong…

“Or your children.” A horrible, gut-sinking anxiety seizes Charles out of nowhere. He starts talking faster. “And they—we ought to consider them. Unless—perhaps I’m wrong in thinking this is going to some kind of, of, repeat event or, or r—”

“I’d certainly hope so.” Erik smiles, prowls a step closer. “Not just ‘repeating this event’ with you, Charles, but much, much more.”

The fear leaves Charles almost as fast as it arrived. “Ah.” He blinks. Erik really is very close now. Charles braces his hands on the sink behind him. Erik is coming closer. Erik is… removing his towel? Charles’ eyes move downwards almost of their own accord. Erik raises the towel and dabs, carefully, at Charles’ mouth.

“Toothpaste,” Erik explains laconically, one side of his mouth quirking up.

Charles kisses him.

Then he carefully unties and removes Erik’s bathrobe from around himself.

“Health and safety,” he explains to Erik’s questioning eyebrows and appreciative look. “Got to be careful of my footing, after all.”

“Not sure how nudity will help you do that, Charles, but I’m not exactly complaining.” Erik’s eyes rake over Charles with the same fine appreciation as if Charles were one of the paintings from last night.

“Ah, well, I—I suppose it might encourage you to stay close?” Charles looks upwards and tries for a small, inviting smile.

“Charles,” Erik breathes, eyes alight as they step towards the bath. “You don’t have to be naked for me to want to be close to you.”

“But I suppose—” Charles reaches out, grabs the first of the handrails that he uses to get in and out of the bath. “It helps?”

“Everything about you helps,” Erik says solemnly, following Charles into the water. “Everything.”

Charles hisses in pained pleasure as he sinks down into the bath’s hot embrace. Erik breathes a half laugh into his ear and leans over him to hit the button that starts the jets pumping.

Charles groans “I love your bath,” as Erik manoeuvres them both, so Charles is sitting between Erik’s legs, back resting on Erik’s chest.

“Does it make you want to be closer to me?” Erik teases, and rubs soap onto the sponge.

“Doesn’t everything?” Charles breathes out a sigh as the heat and support and movement of the water ease his aches and pains.

“Let’s find out.” Erik thoughtfully circles the soapy sponge around and around Charles’s nipples.

“I. Um.” Charles falters, shocked by the wave of arousal one innocent sponge can inspire, when it’s wielded by Erik Lehnsherr’s beautiful, wicked hands. “Let’s-AH!” He slips a little lower in the water.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” Erik says, mock primly, as the sponge wanders lower and lower, trailing down Charles’s stomach. “And… hmmm. I think I want to keep you clean. Clean and perfect and all mine—” He lets the sponge float away, and begins to touch and stroke with his fingers, instead.

“All. Yours,” Charles says, hoarsely, mouth almost at water level. He can feel Erik’s erection behind him, gently prodding at his buttock. He tries to shift, to give some friction back, and sputters out a mouthful of bathwater.

“Steady.” Erik gently hauls him up. “Put your hands on the rails. No drowning, please.”

Charles wraps his hands around the smooth chill metal, and tries to keep himself upright on jellied arms and with a liquefied spine. Erik kisses and nips at his ear.

“I—” Charles moans. “I… Erik—”

“Shhh,” Erik says, laughter in his voice. “Think of the echoes in here.” He begins to stroke his hands up and down Charles’s cock, underwater.

“But—you—”

“I can wait.” Erik runs a thumb over Charles’s cockhead, and ducks the wave thrown up by Charles’s resultant thrashing. “I’m—” He twists his hand. “—a very—” Twists again. “—patient man.” Twists his hand again and again.

Charles hiccups and moans and comes, jerking, held up by the hot, pounding water and Erik’s arms.

Chapter Text

It’s not so much the hunger—or even the cooling bathwater—as it is the nagging awareness that his children will be looking for both of them very soon that gets Erik and Charles out of the bathroom and into clothes, and downstairs.

Erik would rather have dragged Charles back to bed for some more quality time, and he feels reasonable sure Charles would have been amenable, but whatever he has with Charles, it needs a little time to settle down before he tells his children. Also the staring might have made things awkward, later.

Later. Erik grins to himself. He and Charles are going to have a later.

“You’re both up early. The kids haven’t moved yet,” Angel says as Erik and Charles slope to the kitchen.

Angel is cooking. Erik gazes at the sight until it makes sense.

Of course, she stayed over last night; for the children, that’s why she’s here, and creating breakfasts, for once in their lucky lives. Although Angel makes sure the house runs like freshly polished clockwork, she draws the line at arriving early enough to prepare or serve breakfast, barring emergencies.

Until Charles moved in, everyone fended for themselves. Which meant Erik fended for the twins, usually, out of paternal love and also a desire to keep the kitchen and children un-burnt, un-broken and un-blown up.

Now a day without someone else making Erik pancakes or porridge is a sad day indeed for him.

“Are w—am I early?” Charles blinks at Angel with his big blue eyes, and she smiles.

“Maybe you aren’t,” she says fondly. “But this one—normally I wouldn’t expect him to risk the kitchen just yet. Still, I heard the bath running, so I knew one of you was likely to want food soon.”

Charles turns a little pink. Angel’s eyes narrow, but she makes no comment, for which Charles looks profoundly grateful.

Erik busies himself with boiling water and teabags. He sets a steaming cup in front of Charles, and retreats to tackle the coffee machine. It burbles away happily and Erik smiles at it; he feels a bit like burbling joyously himself.

“Bossman?” Angel tilts her head. “You feelin’ alright?”

“I’m fine, thank you Angel.” Erik’s gaze wanders over to where Charles is sitting, slumped at the table, propping his head on his hands as he waits for the first cup of tea to kick in. “Just fine.” His lips curve upwards in what is not a sappy smile.

“Mmm. Tea…” Charles mutters. He jumps as Angel sets down a plate in front of him, toast and lightly scrambled egg. “Oh, thank you.” She ruffles his hair and darts away before he can stop her.

“No trouble.” Angel smiles as she walks back to the stove. “Erik. Eggs and toast?”

“Please.” Angel reaches for the egg bowl. Erik watches her. He won’t have to tell her how he likes them; not after her years working here. She knows him well; he’s lucky she’s loyal. A sudden thought strikes Erik. “Has anyone spotted the twins? They didn’t come in to me this morning.”

“Think they went in to see if they could wake Az by staring,” Angel says, cheerful. “He doesn’t sleep over so much; so they get to check up on him less,” she explains to Charles’s sleepy questioning expression.

“Mmm,” Charles says, a little vaguely. “They don’t wake you?”

“First time they tried, I duct taped them to the wall.” Charles’s eyebrows go up. Erik laughs in fond remembrance. “Didn’t let them down ‘til the pancakes were all gone.”

“They respect authority, my kids,” Erik says, happier than he’s been in a long time. “And duct tape.”

Angel sets down two more plates of eggs, one in front of Erik. The other she sits down to herself. For a short while there’s nothing in the kitchen but the sound of breakfast being consumed.

“aaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Az hurtles into the kitchen: fully dressed, but more than a little wild around the eyes. Wanda is clinging to his neck and giggling. Pietro is hanging off his belt and giggling.

Angel sips her juice, unsurprised. Charles drops his toast, and picks it up again. He’s still easily startled, but he’s getting used to the level of noise the twins seem to generate around themselves.

“Here,” Az says, stiffly. “Your progeny, Lehnsherr.” He straightens to his full height, shrugging his shoulders, until Wanda drops to the floor via her brother’s head. “Take them before they consume the last shreds of my sanity.”

“Too late for that.” Angel stands and plants the kids on various chairs. “Not too late for eggs, though.”

“Yay!” the twins cheer. “Eggs!”

Az drops into the nearest chair, between Erik and Wanda. Without a word spoken, Angel hands him coffee, toast, and preserves.

“Sleep well?” Charles asks sweetly, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“Yes,” Az says. “Until the sanctity of my bedroom was invaded, earlier.” He mock-growls at the twins, and waves a fist at them.

Wanda and Pietro giggle. Charles twitches. A game, he reminds himself, just a game. Az would spill every drop of own his blood before he actually hit a child. Mentally, he shakes his head at him nerves; old patterns that have no relevance in this household.

Erik pours Charles another cup of tea.

“I’ve no sympathy.” Charles swallows down the last of his toast, firmly. “You two have been waking me most mornings since I came to stay.”

Angel puts plates of eggs in front of the twins and hands them spoons.

“You don’t snore.” Wanda tells her tutor, eyes wide and almost solemn. Angel sputters into her coffee. “He doesn’t!” Wanda assures the whole table. “Not even when he fell asleep on the couch!” She takes a large spoonful of her scrambled eggs.

“I was there for that,” Erik says, and adds hastily, “The couch thing I mean. Not—it doesn’t really matter if anyone snores, really.” The twins eye him, unconvinced.

“Thank you,” Charles says between his teeth. Az’s shoulders are shaking with laughter.

“It’s true, Dad.” Pietro hastens to assure his slightly bemused parent as he peppers his eggs with a lavish hand. “He doesn’t. Not even at night.”

“I’m afraid to ask how you came by this knowledge.” The stern expression Erik’s trying for is completely ruined by his grin. Charles is sure his ears are going pink.

“We checked,” Pietro says, simply.

“I—Ah, when?” Charles asks, slightly desperately. “When did you check that I—check that?” He doesn’t ask why. He’s taught the little darlings long enough to know that asking the two of them why they do certain things will only lead to answers he doesn’t want or know how to deal with.

“Not every night.” Wanda says seriously. “Just, a few times.” She absently gnaws on a knuckle.

“YOU only sneaked in to watch me sleep a few times.” Charles says, blankly. He turns to look at the children’s father. Help me, he mouths. Erik shakes his head, face alight with a laugh Charles wants to either choke or kiss him into ceasing.

Pietro says reproachfully, “If you snored, we wouldn’t have to watch you.”

Charles opens his mouth.

“We could just listen from outside,” Wanda clarifies. “But you don’t snore.”

Charles closes his mouth. What can he say?

Angel giggles a little. Az pours her more coffee.

“Wanda. Pietro.” Erik speaks quietly but firmly. “Waking people up in the morning is one thing, but it is not appropriate to sneak into our guests rooms while they’re sleeping or spy on them at night. It makes people uncomfortable.”

“But…” Wanda’s lip trembles ominously.

“Charles?” Erik tilts a hand in his direction.

“As a guest,” Charles says, carefully, “I do find it a little, um, awkward. Mornings are one thing, but not—not spying.”

“But he’s not—” Pietro pouts at his father.

“No,” Erik says to both of them. “That needs to stop. Do you understand?”

“Yes, daddy.” Wanda sadly slips out of her seat. Pietro echoes her.

“Good.” Erik glances across at Charles. Raises an eyebrow.

“Thank you,” Charles says, softly. Pietro doesn’t look at him. Wanda turns to him, wraps her arms around as much of him as she can while he’s sitting down, and buries her head in Charles’s chest.

“But Mr Charles isn’t a guest,” Pietro says.

“Uh huh,” Wanda tells Charles’ collarbone. She lifts her head to stare at her father. “He’s not a guest. He belongs here.” Her arms tighten around Charles.

“Family’s not the same as guests,” Pietro says, darkly. “You said.”

Dazed, Charles raises a hand and pats at Wanda’s wrist. Family? Belongs here? He hasn’t belonged anywhere in a long time, has had no family save his far-away sister for even longer.

“I did,” Erik rumbles, after a pause. “But—”

“Then that’s settled,” Wanda says firmly. “But we won’t spy any more, Mr Charles, if you don’t want us to.”

Chapter Text

“Make your report.” Sebastian’s back to drawing in his notebook. He finds it gives off the right air, at least to people who don’t work for him.

“I—look,” says the nervous gardener. “There isn’t much I can tell you this time. Never is—”

“I wonder, then, why Mr Stryker recruited you.” Sebastian does not bother to hide his impatience and contempt. “I need data!” How can he attempt a proper reply to Erik’s continuous defiance if he can’t get a line into events at that house? Honestly.

The gardener stiffens. “Recruited me? He said he’d put a bullet in my cousin and get my nephews arrested for drug dealing, if I didn’t!” the gardener says, blunt and edging closer to anger. “That ain’t recruitment, that’s—”

“Blackmail,” Sebastian says, encouragingly. He wonders at himself. What could he possibly have seen in the dearly departed detective, to make him think the man was any way reliable or worth nurturing? Detective Stryker was a waste both of space and Sebastian’s time. He’s suddenly glad he told Victor to make Stryker’s ending unpleasant.

“He said all he wanted was records of comings and goings. That I might have to testify what I saw, but I’d always be able to tell the truth. He didn’t want anything dangerous. Just who came, who went, how long they stayed. Stuff like that. I did tell you that. But I—we can’t get anything further.”

“What do you mean, you have no further information?” Sebastian looks at the miserable specimen of humanity quivering in front of his desk, and holds back a mental sigh.

“I—I can’t get any closer to the house.” The nervous man twists his cap between his fingers. “I—I told the other guy; the garden team don’t come near the house, ‘cept if we’re invited, or trimming the edges. And there’s usually someone around, if we’re doing yardwork then.”

“This is unacceptable.” Sebastian steeples his fingers. “I need more information.”

He does. Erik was always a possessive brute—he called it protection, but Sebastian knew him better, even then—and since the attempt to snatch the brats had been fumbled by the underlings he’d assigned, and then foiled by one irritating teacher, this has only ramped up further.

The children aren’t allowed off the grounds of Erik’s extremely well-guarded house. Even the irritating teacher has been sequestered there, and the attempts Sebastian has made to recruit assistance from the guards around Lehnsherr has met with failure. Also bloodshed.

He’s three men down from his attempts to secure the lawyer. Sebastian had dismissed him when he’d met him as a younger man hanging around Erik, as the kind who’d simply vanish in a puff of smoke when the going got hard, but it seemed he’d misjudged him slightly.

And as for the housekeeper…

The man he’d set on her had lost five of his teeth and been arrested. No angel of the house, she. It’s all rather trying. Sebastian’s disposable resources have dwindled to the point where, for want of anything better, he’s blackmailing the groundskeepers.

Honestly. Gardeners. As far as Sebastian’s concerned, the next step will be ferretting through garbage, or Erik’s literal dirty laundry himself.

“They’ve been driving about the grounds a lot.” The gardener is sweating. “The kids and the prof.” He starts to say something and then visibly pauses. Uncertain. Wary.

“Hmm?” Sebastian says, encouragingly. “That’s all you can tell me?”

“For now, sir. Yeah. They don’t do so much now they don’t go to school.” Sebastian stifles a yawn. “The kids keep yapping on about going offsite,” the gardener rambles. “Prof says it’s educational.” He snorts. “Going to the Zoo, educational?”

“Right. Well, I see,” Sebastian says, mouth running on automatic as his mind seizes on the scrap of information. “You’re clearly doing your best under difficult circumstances.”

The gardener grimaces and nods.

“At least,” Sebastian says, sudden and silken. “I hope you are. On behalf of your—cousin, was it? And nephews.”

The minion stumbles out. Sebastian leans back and stares at his desk. An idea is starting to coalesce in his mind. The teacher. The children. Erik. The Zoo.

 

 

Charles leans away from the phone. He waits until the volume of yelling has died down before he puts it back to his ear.

“Thought you were still at the physio place-!”

He takes the phone away from his ear and stares at it, waiting. Across the room, Erik raises an eyebrow.

“Raven,” Charles says, succinctly. “They just processed her back out from working undercover, and she’s catching up with all her news.”

“Undercover?”

“I—she can’t give me details, but it’s why she’s been so out of touch these last few months.” Charles looks away. “Or, after—after the shooting, she’d have been right here.”

“Hmm.” Erik keeps it non-committal. He watches as Charles’s face goes through an extraordinary set of expression as he goes back to listening to the yelling. He’s not sure he likes this new development, of Raven contacting Charles instead of Charles scribbling letter after letter that never get replies.

Erik knows he’s unfairly judgmental towards Raven. So far, he’s managed to keep it hidden from Charles, whose intelligence and sweetness of character is enhanced, most times, by his loyalty. Not to say stubbornness.

He’s not clear if his bias against Charles’s sister is because she’s law enforcement, and therefore instinctively classified as enemy, or because she didn’t come to help Charles when he was stuck in a tiny high-rise apartment with a bad knee and no money, or because—and this is the hardest of all to admit—as Charles’s sister she has a claim on Charles’s time and heart Erik can never hope to supersede.

Erik has always been possessive of the people and things he really cares about.

“No, really, Raven, it’s not like that!” Charles sounds as indignant as his sister now.

Erik goes back to watching Charles talk, using his phone-free hand to gesture, pacing and grimacing as if Raven can see him.

He has always been a little possessive, or protective, but he knows he must go carefully, go lightly with Charles. Charles is not native to the world Erik comes from, and Erik is the last person to want him to become accustomed to it. Not after it cost him his knee (and, possibly his career).

“Raven. Raven. Raven.” Charles repeats it steadily until it looks like he can finally get a word in edgewise. “I—no. No, I’m perfectly fine. Yes, I’m following my physio. Keeping active.” He flicks a glance at Erik. “Oh, for-!” He advances on Erik and thrusts the phone towards him. “Explain it to her,” he bites out. “Seeing as she won’t listen to me.”

Cautiously, Erik takes the phone. “Explain what, Charles?”

“My sister seems to believe you’ve either brainwashed me or kidnapped me and in either case are not caring from me properly.” He makes a strange face; half touched, half furious.

“I assure you, Ms Darkholme, I see to it your brother is fed and exercised regularly,” Erik says into the phone, and grins at Charles until his ears turn pink. Well, he certainly does keep Charles active. Hopefully Raven won’t want details.

“Listen to me, you piece of shit! You release my brother right the fuck now!” a woman hisses venomously into his ear. “Or you’re really going to learn the meaning of regret.

Erik’s eyebrows go up. “But-!” he protests. The woman—presumably Raven—continues to breathe astoundingly graphic threats into his ear.

“I AM NOT HOLDING HIM CAPTIVE!” Erik snarls down the line.

Charles puts his hand over his eyes.

“I invited him to stay because he’s a brilliant teacher, and he needed a helping hand.” Charles’s face falls. “In that order!” Erik assures him and his sister. Just in time, Erik remembers Raven’s law enforcement background, and manages to not mention Stryker, or his threats as factors. “He chose to take a live-in teaching position—”

“And what kind of a hand did you give my brother?”

“Nothing he couldn’t do for himself if he hadn’t been shot,” Erik says, frankly. “On site work, access to regular meals. Physical assistance.”

“I could cope!” Charles protests, loud enough for Raven to hear. “And-!”

“Knee,” Erik says, laconically. “Az,” he adds, as further evidence. Charles shrugs reluctant agreement.

“Make sense,” Raven snaps.

“Regardless of my…reputation, you should know that my home is, if not my castle, my sanctuary. I do not do business here, my children live here.” Erik sucks in a breath and pinches the bridge of his nose. Smiles at Charles.

“I wouldn’t bring anyone into that sanctuary unless I could trust them, absolutely, with my children’s lives. Your brother had already shown me that I could do that.”

“Oh.” Charles blinks.

“Oh.” Raven echoes him on the phone.

Erik decides not to mention that the idea of deliberately and visibly isolating someone in such a safehold would also be stupid. Charles plucks the phone from his hands.

“Look, Raven, there are details we—I’m not going to discuss over the phone,” he says, pressing the phone against his ear. “But, just for clarity’s sake no, I’m not here under duress, no, I’m not being isolated or tortured or—anything pulp-fiction. I’m teaching two traumatized children.”

Raven must say something then, for Charles’ lips thin, and his eyes flash.

“Stockholm syndrome is not the same thing as falling in love, Raven.”

What.

The rest of Charles words fade away from Erik’s attention.

Love? Did Charles mean—no, he must, must mean the children, or—

“Yes, Raven, I love him,” Charles says, completely sincere and unashamed.

Apparently, no—he had meant love of Erik. Erik blinks.

“And his magnificent—” Charles jerks the phone away from his ear as Raven shrieks. “Alright, bath, I was going to say bath.”

“You are not marrying my bath, Xavier.” The words come out without any conscious intent on Erik’s part; Charles flicks him a bright grin nevertheless.

“No, he’s just possessive of that bath,” Charles tells Raven, one eye still on Erik. He puts out a hand. Erik takes it, and folds Charles under his chin. Charles comes to him without resistance, willingly.

“It is a magnificent bath,” Erik says, tightening his arms around Charles. “Tell her—” he pauses. But no, Raven is Charles’s sister, Charles told her he loved Erik—the risk to the children, to Erik’s sanctuary, isn’t too great. “Tell her she should come visit, find out for herself, one day.”

Chapter Text

“I’m wondering whether you’d be up for a zoo visit,” Charles says, early in the sunny morning, folding himself towards Erik’s bare chest. He likes Erik’s chest. Actually, he likes everything about Erik, but his chest in particular.

“Zoo?” Erik looks puzzled. He shoves the pillow under his head, and rolls to face Charles fully. The sun touches the tips of Charles’s hair with bright stars. Erik can only approve.

“They’ve—the children have been talking about it,” Charles says, almost lightly for such ground-shaking news. Erik blinks.

“You mean—they’ve actually said they might—they’ve talked about leaving the house?”

Charles nods. One corner of his mouth tilts upwards.

“I’ve—we’ve been working towards that; but this is far more progress than I ever hoped—”

“Charles.” Erik reaches out to him. “You’re a miracle worker.” Charles shakes his head, half laughing. “What made them think of the zoo?”

“Apparently they feel it’s a very good place for a first date.” That is definitely a smirk on his lips now, not a smile. Erik still finds himself wanting to kiss it off his face. He restrains himself; something even more important than Charles’s face and kissing is being discussed. Practically the only thing more important to Erik than Charles.

“They—First date?” Erik can usually follow the twisty, terrifying leaps his children’s thought processes make; but this is a new one. “Neither of them is old enough to date.” Nor will they be for the next century, in Erik’s mind.

“Us,” Charles clarifies, and trails his fingers across Erik’s shoulder, tracing invisible lines over smooth skin and scars alike. Erik’s forehead contracts in puzzlement at Charles’s answer. What is Charles doing to him? He never used to be this slow and stupefied after sex.

“They think it’s a good first date for us,” his lover says, patiently.

“But we’re already dating,” Erik says, blank. Charles laughs a little, and runs his fingers across Erik’s scalp. A shiver chases its way down his spine.

“Technically, we’re in the sex part of a relationship, right now. This is not dating.” Charles smiles, a little wicked. []“Or, well, it’s the morning after, but still. You see my point.”

“This?” Erik raises an eyebrow. Charles is still smiling.

“I think dating requires at least clothes, and possibly leaving the bedroom, if not the house…” He thinks for a moment. “Technically, I count our first date as the excellent trip to see the Rembrandts. Or possibly, possibly, the first time you took me to lunch at Martha’s.”

“Wait, we were dating beforeretrospectively,” Erik rumbles. He shifts onto his back and reaches out for Charles. Charles, ever willing, drapes himself across Erik. The blankets have shifted. He’s glad to help them keep Erik warm.

“Your knee…” Erik frets. Charles cups his face with one hand.

“Is fine,” he murmurs. “I’m fine.”

Erik turns his head and kisses Charles’s palm.

“Why do they want us to go on a first date, then?” His dry lips brush over Charles’s skin, tickling.

“Well, Wanda thinks I’d be good for you.” Charles folds his arms on Erik’s firm chest, rests his chin on his arms and looks down at Erik, eyes twinkling. “And Pietro says they want me to stay.” His smile is softer now, almost surprised.

“I knew they liked you,” Erik says. “But that’s close to disturbingly mature of them, to try and pair us up for reasons like that.”

“Well, I’m paraphrasing a little.” Charles slides his fingers through Erik’s hair again, cupping the back of his skull.

“Paraphrasing?”

“It was during their French lesson,” Charles admits. “So, perhaps not so much paraphrasing as translating. Have they not brought this up to you at all?”

“Not the dating.” Erik smiles. “And I suppose we probably should have a conversation with them if they think we still haven’t done that.”

“Oh, only after we head zoowards,” Charles says quickly, sliding off Erik and sitting up. “Not because this—” He waves his hand between Erik and himself, vaguely—“is something we want to conceal, but I think the idea of helping us go on our first date is—”

“It’s going to help them work through their fears, isn’t it?” Erik says, throat tight, as he sits up. Oh, my brave children, he thinks. Brave and generous.

“Yes,” Charles says quietly. “Normally, I’d never conceal something from a child, especially not something like this, but—” Wordlessly, he wraps an arm around Erik. Erik hugs him back, and there is no need for words for a few moments.

“So,” Erik says, a little later. “Zoo.”

“It’s a public place.” Charles thinks out loud. “Wheelchair accessible, mostly, if my knee gives out.”

“Ah—”

“It’s not likely to.” Charles smiles; Erik feels his lips curve against his skin.

“I’m going to need to think about security,” Erik says, bluntly. “After what…after your knee, after Stryker and—I have to keep this safe…”

“I know,” Charles says, breath warm on the skin of Erik’s collarbone. “I mean—part of the issues in working with Wanda and Pietro is that they’re smart, loving kids, and there’s a real threat driving their anxieties. Isn’t there?”

“His name is—”

“Can you—are you sure you should be telling me this?” Charles says, quickly.

“You need to know; seeing as I’m reasonably sure he’s behind the attempted kidnap.” Erik sighs heavily. “Sebastian Shaw. I’ll show you a photo.” His mouth twists. “Later.” Charles nods, accepting.

“What sort of security?” he prods, a little later. “If—I don’t want to tell you your job, but it’d be better if it was someone they knew, or had met—”

“Of course,” Erik says. “You know Darwin, and so do the twins; he’s driven you all before. He’s very good at adapting to environments; and—”

“Darwin’s a bodyguard?” Charles’ voice goes up in surprise.

Erik gives him a mildly impatient look. “Of course. He’s the driver; he keeps his passengers safe.”

“Will one be enough?”

“I can’t shut it down, or flood it with people; but I’ll send a couple to check it out before we get there…” Erik frowns, thinking aloud. “I think I’ll be able to have everything in place in a week or so.”

“Brilliant!” Charles suddenly smirks. “Now… do we tell them that it’s a date, but not a first date?”

Erik grins back. Tucks a hand behind his head and uses the other to pull Charles closer again.

“I’m sure they’ll work it out… eventually.” Charles snuggles closer and kisses Erik’s earlobe. Erik shivers.

“And if you keep doing THAT, Charles, this is going to stop being the morning after, and start being the morning during.”

“Oh, no,” Charles whispers, hot and damp in Erik’s tingling ear. “You have spotted my cunning plan.” His lips move from Erik’s ear to Erik’s mouth. Erik growls a little, deep in his throat, and moves to loom over Charles, still kissing.

“I see you, Charles. And all your plans.” He thrusts himself, carefully, pointedly against Charles, and is rewarded with a choked gasp; Charles’s eyes flying wide and dark. Erik leans down and murmurs in Charles’s ear, returning the favour. “And I love them.”

Charles grabs his shoulders, pulls Erik down to him.

“Do you?” He kisses Erik again, fiercely. One hand slips down between them, rubbing, teasing, playing. “How much?”

“Beyond measure,” Erik breathes, intent. “Want me to show you?” His back bows towards Charles’s touch.

“Please,” Charles says, hungry. “Please.”

Erik moves. He shifts off Charles, away from that taunting hand. Charles makes a protesting noise that Erik ignores as he slides down the bed until he can take Charles into his mouth. Charles lets out a choked-off shout.

Erik takes a moment to thank whatever higher power developed soundproofing, and then continues on his quest to make Charles shout in earnest. He runs his tongue along Charles’s slit, wriggles a hand free to play with the precious weight of Charles’s’ balls, and sets to in earnest.

Charles writhes, gasps, and, yes, finally—shouts aloud. Erik drinks in the noises eagerly. Warned by the increasing urgency of Charles’s incoherent pleas and bitten-off words, he pulls his mouth away in time for Charles to come, in shuddering bursts of pleasure, all over Erik’s face, Charles’s own belly, and the bed.

“Up here,” Charles mumbles, as Erik, immensely pleased with himself, wipes his face on the sheets. “Please, Erik.” His hand pats the pillow beside him, vaguely.

Erik, with a feeling of quiet accomplishment, props himself next to Charles and waits for him to come back to earth.

Charles blinks across at him for a moment, eyes a little cloudy, and then his gaze re-focuses.

“Erik,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I need to suck you now.”

“Please.” Erik waves a hand. “Help yourself, Charles. I’m all yours.”

“Right now, you are,” Charles tells him, solemnly, as he negotiates his way around his knee and the bed.

“What—” Erik’s voice breaks mid-word as Charles gets to work “—ever you say, Ch-arles. Oh God.”

Charles grins to himself and kisses Erik’s inner thigh, before getting back to the main meat—as it were—of the situation at hand.

Chapter Text

The patiently waiting car drawn up on the driveway gleams clean and bright; a quietly anonymous thing in sober grey. Charles approved of it even before he knew it has bullet-proof glass and bodywork, and a shielded engine. It's a new car for the trip. Fortunately the children seem to like it as much as the old one.

Charles leaves the front door ajar behind him and limps towards the car, following the twins. His knee is better than before, and this new walking cane Erik found is better at supporting his weight without straining his wrist. It's heavier, too. Not that Charles is complaining; he knows why, and he knows why Erik gave it to him, too.

"Everyone ok?" Charles asks lightly, climbing into the back. Darwin nods at him while ensuring that Charles's cane is safely stowed, then closes the door, moving to the driver's seat. Wanda and Pietro give Charles wide-eyed, nervous nods from their seats. "Erik said he'll be out in a minute."

"Uh, Can― Can I sit in the front?" Pietro asks. Charles ignores the way his hand is locked in a white-knuckled grasp of his sister's.

"The front?"

Pietro nods, tensely. Darwin turns his head and smiles, catching Charles's eye in the rear view mirror.

"Mr Darwin explains stuff almost as good as you," the boy says.

"And I get to sit in the front on the way back," Wanda chirps, sweet and innocent as apple pie.

It's not until Pietro has climbed into the front passenger seat, and Erik has emerged from the house looking smart and casual, that the penny behind this maneuvering drops for Charles.

With one of them in the front seat, and only one in the spacious back of the car, the kids have ensured that Charles will have to sit next to Erik. Erik sits himself down, careful of Charles's bad knee and cane. Their legs press against each other, a welcome line of supportive warmth.

Cunning little matchmakers, Charles thinks, amused, as Erik snaps his seatbelt closed. They perhaps should have made it a little more clear to the children that their attempts to get their dad closer to their Mr Charles are, although appreciated, unnecessary, but they've been so sweet this past week, he hardly likes to.

Erik flashes him a quick grin.

"Need help with your seat belt, Charles?"

"No, thanks." Charles hastily fastens it. The twins look a little disappointed, but Charles recognises the light in Erik's eye. He doesn't want to sit in a car with two children while―or after, for that matter―their father fits in a sneaky grope or two, however fun it would be in some ways.

His eye meets Erik's again, and then he has to look away, or laugh, and reveal everything to the ninja cupids in the car.

"Angel put the picnic food in the cooler." Charles runs a careful eye over the twins as Darwin starts the car. Not too stressed or fearful yet. Good. "But she won't say what's in it."

"We helped," Wanda happily informs them. "We made the―" She stops and giggles a little.

"SHHH!" Pietro hushes her frantically. "It's supposed to be a-a surprise!"

"You never know," Erik says, softly. "They might have planned a romantic dinner for two later, as well. Or we might just have to brace ourselves for peanut butter sandwiches and Banana Surprise."

"They're doing all right so far," Charles murmurs back. "But I imagine there'll be enough food for all, at least." Even if it is Banana Surprise—the twins' current favourite attack foodstuff—Charles will eat every bite with a smile.

The car rolls down the driveway at a steady pace, and the children don't seem to notice, caught up in their efforts to hush each other before they give away precisely what culinary delights lie in store for them all later.

Wanda goes pale and Pietro bites his lip as the car swings onto the road.

"Sean has gone ahead with Az to check the route," Erik says, gently.

"An-An you're here, and so is Mr Darwin and Mr Ch-Charles." Pietro takes a deep breath.

"And I have my heavy duty cane with me. So we can definitely do all the walking, and you can see all the animals you want," Charles adds. "Have you decided which ones to visit first?"

"Giraffes!" Wanda says, almost eagerly.

"Gorillas!" Pietro counters, and they're off again, unease diminishing as they name animals they want to see.

"I'm looking forwards to the butterfly tunnel,” Charles adds, as the conversation begins to lapse. The traffic seems lighter than usual; and then Erik recalls—it's a weekday. Less of a crowd at the zoo means fewer cars on the roads to it. He turns and raises an eyebrow at Charles.

"Butterfly tunnel?"

"It's seasonal,” Charles explains, smiling slightly. "It's a walkthrough experience—they take a greenhouse full of tropical plants. The flowers are supposed to smell beautiful. And they add butterfly pupae in a number of locations."

"You want to walk through a tunnel ofeggs?" Erik asks, bewildered. Flowers and jungle plants are one thing but- eggs?

Wanda and Pietro laugh. Charles grins warmly at Erik's confusion.

"They’re not eggs. Eggs then caterpillar then pupa then butterfly.” Wanda says, stern in her zoological expertise. Erik nods, gravely. It looks as if Charles is biting the inside of his cheek, trying not to laugh. Wanda continues explaining "You walk through butterflies.Silly Daddy."

"And they fly about all over the place, and sometimes—sometimes they land on you." Pietro twists round, waving his hands to demonstrate the path of the butterflies.

"Now that does sound more interesting than eggs."

"Pupae!" Wanda says. "Sometimes you see them hatching out. It takes ages, but it’s really neat!"

"We saw a video." Pietro turns, including Darwin in his explanation. "They come out all crumpled and then they. Just unfold and, and fly away. I'd like to see it for real."

"We might not be able to do that—it depends on the pupae,” Charles cautions him. Pietro shrugs.

"Can we feed the animals?" Erik finds himself asking. Charles shakes his head.

"Not really. There's a close up session with the penguins—” Erik tenses, shooting Charles an alarmed look. Charles pats his mobster's knee reassuringly.

"Penguins!" Wanda bounces in her seat. "And we can pet them!"

"You can't pet the penguins,” Charles says apologetically, and Erik feels a breath of relief. Fond as she is of them, putting Wanda within touching distance of a penguin would likely have risked an embarrassing scene later, when they would have had to force her to return the now-stolen penguin to the Zoo.

"There aren't any penguins in the petting zoo. Only sheep, and rabbits and so on,” Charles murmurs to Erik.

"Still not entirely safe,” Erik says out of the corner of his mouth as Pietro eyes them suspiciously from the front seat. "There may be hamsters. Kittens. Small fuzzy things I never remember the names of. Pocket sized fuzzy things, Charles."

"We'll have to rely on Janos’s and Az's keen eyes to prevent grand theft fuzzy, maybe,” Charles murmurs back. Darwin looks up at Erik, in the rear view mirror, and raises an eyebrow. “You know if they try and employ puppy eyes on us-“

Erik's stomach roils; they're relying on his lawyer and his lawyer's assistant’s eyes for a lot more than that. He knows this has to happen; they have to risk the children in the outside word to help them heal and grow. The Zoo is a very public place, watched and checked by reliable eyes, but still, with Shaw on the prowl, it's hard.

Charles pats his knee again. Wanda's eyes narrow at the movement. Charles smiles at her and raises his voice.

"Possibly we can distract the children from rampant animal thievery—”

"We'd be rescuing them!" Wanda interjects, indignantly. "Like with the mice!"

Erik’s wince comes from an entirely different mental direction at THAT reminder.

"Distract them with offers of stuffed toys." Charles's voice is studiedly light and cheerful, and Erik forces a smile. It won't do to let the children know their father's suffering from anxiety, too. Everyone needs to be calm around them.

"Sounds like a good plan,” Erik says. “It’ll be fine."

They will be. They have to be.

"We'll be fine,” Charles chimes in. "All of us." He cocks his head, smiling at Erik. "If burdened with stuffed animals for a little while."

Stuffed animals, yes.” Erik agrees, thankfully, and somehow manages to resist dragging Charles into his arms and kissing him senseless in front of his children.

Chapter Text

The children have stopped talking by the time Erik returns from the pre-booked tickets booth, trailing maps and receipts. Charles lets them process things in silence. Forcing them to speak when they’re so clearly distracted and anxious won’t help matters any. At least the weather’s good, cool and bright with sunshine.

“According to the map—” Erik hands one to Wanda—Pietro makes a grab for it—and one to Charles— “Pietro, I’ve one for you as well.” Erik sounds a little tired. “According to the map, the gorillas are this way.” He stuffs the tickets and his wallet into his jacket pocket, where they bulge out over his hip.

“Gorillas first, then?” Charles asks, with a smile, and is rewarded with decorous cheering by the twins.

Darwin takes a step back, surveying the small crowds of people staring at their own maps, arguing, wandering. He gives Erik a short nod: Area clear. Charles spots it; but says nothing. This is Erik’s life; this is what being close to Erik is like. He can’t exactly complain; it’s been so long since he was out and about in crowds that Charles feels a little jumpy himself.

They head off towards the gorillas almost like a normal family. Darwin hangs back as if he’s just another visitor, unconnected to the children running and jumping between their father and their tutor.

The gorillas are all close to the bars and windows, so the crowd is quite thick; people cluster and stare at the great apes, so close to human, so very different.

Charles flicks a look at Erik, who’s frowning slightly.

“Erik-?”

“It’s fine, Charles. Just a little on edge.”

Erik smiles as Pietro and Wanda wriggle though the groups of children, eager to touch the bullet-proof glass that divides them from the huge silverback male on the other side. Darwin hangs back and smiles at one of the mother gorillas. Her infant is tiny, and she holds him or her up to the glass as if soliciting photographs.

The silverback Gorilla suddenly stands, beating his chest. He bangs on the glass, sending up a great noise, before bouncing around the enclosure, hooting and beating his chest again. Children squeal and leap back from the glass, and the adults jump a little too.

Wanda and Pietro burst into laughter.

“Daddy, daddy, did you see? He was showing off!” Pietro giggles as he reaches towards Erik.

“He wanted to make us all jump,” Wanda says to Charles. “Didn’t he?” She beams.

“It certainly seems that way.” Charles tucks his hands in his pockets and smiles at the world. “Where shall we go next?”

“Penguins!” Pietro says.

“Butterflies!” Wanda counters. “Look at the map, they’re on the way to the penguin pool.”

“Before we leave the gorillas, I’m going to have to check your pockets,” Erik says. “Just in case you’ve succeeded in smuggling one into them.” Charles nods sternly, in support.

The children laugh as their father seizes each one in of them in turn and sweeps them up in the air, tickling them as he “searches” for contraband animals. He dumps Pietro into Charles’s arms, and Charles nearly drops the boy, juggling his cane and the giggling child.

Fortunately for his peace of mind and the happiness of the group as a whole, Charles is able to slide Pietro down to the floor without bruising him or falling over.

“Right then! Butterflies!” he declares firmly, and they set off.

The butterfly tunnel looks like a large greenhouse, one of the long, plastic covered kind. The walls are opaque, though, unlike a greenhouse. Charles squints, but the swing doors are obviously only the first set in a pair, and he can’t see through them. A slight pulse of anxiety? Concern?—he’s not quite sure which—works its way through Charles’s spine.

“Butterflies!” Pietro whoops and Wanda cheers.

“You realise we’ll have to check them again once we’re out of the butterfly tunnel,” Erik says loudly. Leaning closer to Charles he adds, “I need to speak to Az.” His breath is warm on Charles’s neck, his fingers clasp Charles’s shoulder like a promise remembered. Charles shakes himself; this is not the time to get distracted.

“Is there a problem?” Charles wraps his fingers more tightly around his walking stick.

“Just checking in,” Erik says, and smiles. From this close range, the effect is fairly devastating. “We’ve no reason to panic.”

Charles nods, and smiles back. He probably looks a little dazed. Erik’s smiles can do that do him. Erik takes a long step backwards and reaches for his phone. Charles feels the loss of his closeness already.

“Darwin’s ahead of you,” Erik murmurs, eyes already on his phone. “I’ll follow in a minute.”

Charles follows the squeals of the twins, and ducks into the butterfly tunnel. The first set of doors push open easily; and then something metallic taps him on the cheek. Charles staggers sideways half a step, startled. He glances up, and there are chains and long strips of plastic dangling from the ceiling, almost brushing the floor.

A neat sign by the door urges him to check that there are no butterflies resting on him before he goes through the outside doors. Then the chained plastic strips make sense; they’re obviously supposed to keep the butterflies inside, in the warm. Charles pushes the inner door open, and questions about butterfly security leave his head entirely.

The butterfly tunnel is warm, damp and full of tropical—maybe semi-tropical—Charles isn’t sure—greenery. An over-sweet scent fills the air, from the slices of fruit and little cups of sweetened water laid out everywhere. The trees and bushes are laid out along a winding path around benches, and the air is full of butterflies.

They wing through the air, bright points of colour, and cling to leaves, to the fruit, and to the walls. Charles watches a large sulphur-yellow butterfly flutter around his cane before clearly deciding that there’s nothing worth its time, and settling, instead, on a slice of orange wired to a sturdy tree branch.

“Mr Charles, look!” Wanda tugs at his arm. “This one’s just hatching.”

They watch the butterfly together for a while, as the chrysalis shivers, stretches and splits wide enough for the new butterfly, a crumpled heap that will become a glass-winged thing of beauty, to crawl out and cling to its twig, wings dangling.

“Its wings are see through,” Wanda says, fascinated. “Why are they all crumpled?”

“SO it can fit in the cris—Khrsa—” Pietro falters, and glares at the helpful explanatory signs.

“Chrysalis,” Charles says. “Look how the wings are starting to stretch out already.”

It’s very quiet, in the butterfly tunnel. Only the humming of the air conditioning that keeps the butterflies’ shelter warm breaks the silence.

Where is everyone? Charles wonders. He steps away from the twins, still oohing and ahh-ing over butterflies, and looks about. No one. He starts to worry. No one, including Darwin, seems to be around in their section of the tunnel. Perhaps Darwin’s keeping people away?

A few more steps, and Charles realises there seems to be no one in the butterfly tunnel at all. Strange. The zoo is fairly full of people, and the butterfly tunnel is a charming attraction; something’s wrong. Where is Erik?

He reaches for his phone.

“Oh, please don’t do that.”

Charles’s fingers spasm, and he nearly drops his phone. He looks up to see a tall, thin man, harshly handsome, smiling at him.

“I’m sorry?” Charles’s mouth says, automatically. The rest of Charles is too busy sending out all the alarm signals possible, at the sight of this stranger’s hungry, almost blazing eyes. He takes a step sideways. The stranger steps with him, closing the gap between them.

“Don’t apologise, Professor Xavier,” he says smoothly. Charles silently asks the universe to keep the twins interested in hatching butterflies for just a few more minutes, please. The stranger smiles, and his hand dips into his pocket.

“How do you know my name?” Charles demands, sharply, trying not to panic. Trying not to acknowledge he already knows the answer. He turns his phone over in his hand, trying to tap in a number without looking.

“Oh, I’m always interested in learning everything I can about Erik’s things,” the stranger says, adding sharply, “I said, don’t do that,” as Charles keeps gripping his phone.

“I don’t—” and the stranger is right there, striking the phone from Charles’s hands, leaning into him. The phone clatters away onto the concrete path.

“Professor.” And his voice is still so calm, so polished. “Let’s keep this—orderly.” He shoves against Charles, body to body and there’s something hard and heavy in his pocket that Charles realises must be a weapon. Gun, knife, half brick in a sock—he can’t be sure, but—

“Who are you? What do you want?” Charles jumps backwards, stumbling over flower beds, and setting off a stream of disturbed butterflies. He staggers and nearly falls.

“Dear Erik hasn’t told you about me?” The stranger grins like a fox as he circles around. “When he owes so much to me? I think I’m hurt.”

“Sebastian Shaw,” Charles says, and then, hoping the children can hear him and will realise it’s time to hide. “Dear god. You’re Sebastian Shaw.”

“Correct,” Sebastian Shaw says, still smiling, and takes his hand out of his pocket.

It is not holding a half brick in a sock.

Chapter Text

Charles freezes at the sight of the knife. His fingers clutch at his walking stick and he swallows. Panic hammers at him; he forces it down. The Zoo is not a safe space: the butterfly tunnel is a trap, and there’s Erik’s worst enemy, so close to his children, and Charles can’t work out what he’s doing there.

“Why-?”

“Oh, it had to be you,” Shaw assures him, sounding bizarrely charming. “You’re the one thing Erik’s taken into his circle since, oh, since before dear Magda died.” He steps closer. The air is breathless and hot. The smell of the over-ripe fruit and flowers is suddenly nauseating.

“I don’t understand.” Charles backs away, taking care to move further from the children. He prays that they’ll keep staring at the butterflies, will think of heading outside to find their father—where is Erik?

“Erik has forgotten some of the lessons I taught him, back when he was still just another street rat.” Sebastian smiles, absently raking a hand through his hair. “I taught him everything he knows, you know. But he left me. My way of doing business didn’t agree with his new wife, and, well, he’s always been prone to make emotional decisions.” He sighs, dramatically. “Such a pity.”

“You find Erik Lehnsherr is too emotional?” Charles can’t quite keep the incredulity out of his voice. Erik is—well, certainly, at home, Erik’s gentle, loving, but blinded by emotion? Not in matters of business, as far as Charles has seen. Sebastian Shaw’s eyes flicker, briefly.

“Sentimental,” Shaw corrects him, a faint smile on his lips. “Stop trying to move away, Professor Xavier, there’s nowhere to go. I have people at both ends of the tunnel.” A yellow butterfly investigates the reflection on Shaw’s knife. He knocks it out of the air and steps on it without a blink.

“I’m sorry,” Charles says, falsely apologetic and truly sarcastic. “I’m finding the knife a little off-putting.” He doesn’t look at the battered butterfly. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor.

Shaw frowns briefly at the knife, and then smiles.

“It’s a more… visceral weapon, compared to a gun,” he says, and his smile… that is not a comfortable smile. His tone sharpens. “I said, stop moving. I know the brats are here as well. It might be better for you—for them—if you don’t try to make me angrier than I already am.”

“Why his children?” Charles asks, desperately trying to keep Shaw’s attention fixed on himself. “They’re not a threat to you, and it’s not—they can’t help who their father is.” He shifts, knee aching. Standing for this long is not the most comfortable thing, not that he intends to sit in Shaw’s presence.

“I told you,” Shaw says, smoothly. “I was always interested in Erik’s things. Right back to when he was just another street rat. Right back to when I was the one he looked up to. When I was the one who gave him everything he had.”

“Ah,” Charles says, very carefully. “But I—people aren’t things.”

“You are Erik’s,” Sebastian says with the air of a genial man rapidly losing his patience. “I don’t care if you don’t understand that. You started out teaching his children, you even managed to prevent my first efforts at reaching Erik—”

“The attack at the school… that was you?” Charles interrupts the monologue almost against his will.

“The first time you got in my way, yes.” Shaw gives Charles an unloving look. “But you were properly punished for getting in my way.” His eyes flick to the walking stick and Charles has to swallow down a bubble of hate. “And then—he took you in when you were a useless cripple, fed you up, got you a job—of course you’re his.”

Charles said nothing. It wasn’t true. He was with Erik for more than just—

“You understand gratitude, Professor,” Shaw tells him, approvingly. “But Erik—I’m afraid you would have had to learn this the hard way, if I hadn’t intervened—Erik doesn’t.”

“You’re attacking Erik because he’s ungrateful?!” Charles cannot follow Sebastian’s reasoning here at all. He knows the man was some kind of mentor-in-crime, when Erik was younger, hungrier and angrier, but does he really think the man Erik had become owed anything to him now?

“He had nothing, when I found him,” Shaw tells Charles. Again. “Nothing.” He waves the knife as if to demonstrate just how little Erik had. “Only a sick mother, and misplaced loyalties dragging him down. I showed him; I showed him everything.”

Charles doesn’t want to know, ever, what everything means, said by a man like this Shaw, in that tone of voice. He’s still rambling on. A tiny scraping sound draws his attention, and Charles has to fight to keep his eyes on Shaw. He doesn’t dare look round, in case it’s one of the children. He hopes they’ve overheard enough to know they must hide, now. Leaves rustle faintly behind him.

The tunnel, so full of green growth when they walked in, seems pitifully bare and empty to Charles now. Nowhere to hide at all, where two small children won’t be found within minutes of Shaw starting to look. Keep him occupied, Charles thinks to himself. As long as you can.

“He found that damn woman; he found that lawyer, and somewhere, somehow—he left me.” Shaw sounds bewildered, broken, lost, but his eyes are clear and hard, and the knife still looks very sharp.

“And then he grew up,” Charles can’t help but say, despite the presence of that knife. “Became his own man.” His knee aches fiercely. Charles shifts his weight against his walking stick, adapting to his situation.

Because it’s true, that is what Erik did. Charles knows. He’s seen it. Erik grew up, he learnt that sometimes doing things the legal way, the hard way—was more rewarding, or at least safer, for those he loved.

“My vision of the world wasn’t enough for him; he insisted on retreating back to that bourgeoisie morality he aspired to as a child.” A tiny patch of spittle flecks the corner of Shaw’s mouth, now, and he’s sweating with the intensity of his feelings. “Couldn’t be done, of course,” he says. “And at first it was amusing to watch him try. But then—”

“He was happy,” Charles said. “And he didn’t need you. Is that really what all this is about?” Is Charles about to die, simply because of one man’s weak ego and hurt feelings? It’s all too ridiculous to believe, somehow. He’d thought a crime lord would be more… rational, more businesslike than that.

“He’ll need me now,” Sebastian Shaw says with such dark anticipation, Charles’s heart nearly stops. “He will.”

“You honestly think Erik would come to you for help, after—”

“When he’s lost everything again; he’ll need something to hate,” Sebastian says. Smiles. “Someone. He used to hate the world you know, but I think it will be different this time. I’ll—I’m going to make sure he loses everything possible, today. I’m sure you understand.”

“This—this is going to hurt you too, you know,” Charles counters. “You don’t think—this is so showy, so—“ he falters. He wants to tell Shaw he won’t get away with it, but it’s so very clichéd. And he’s afraid it’s not true. Surely Shaw hasn’t gone into this as a suicide mission? He’s planning on earning Erik’s hate—something he already has, really—that must mean he’s intending to live through whatever he’s got planned, mustn’t it?

“Of course it’s going to hurt me too,” Shaw tells him. “I wanted to turn my dear protégé’s children against him, not kill them and his pet cripple, but, well you got in the way before, and now here we are.” He shrugs. “They say shared pain creates a bond; but I don’t think Erik will understand the sacrifices I’m making here.”

“My heart bleeds for you,” Charles says, sarcasm bitter and strong.

“Not yet.” Shaw smiles. “Not yet.”

“Erik—” Charles starts to say, and then he hears the gunshot. It sounds close, but it’s definitely somewhere outside the tunnel. And the screaming starts, as the happy crowds of Zoo-goers learn something terrible is happening in their midst.

A tiny frown flits across Shaw’s face and is swiftly gone. He changes his grip on the knife. Charles braces himself.

Chapter Text

The chrysalis case is fun to watch for a bit, but Pietro finds it dull once the glass-winged butterfly is nearly ready to fly for itself. He reaches to tap the glass.

“Hurry up, girl!” he urges it.

Wanda says, pointedly. “We don’t know if it’s a girl or a boy, but you shouldn’t tap the glass. It’s rude.” She points to the sign the Zoo has left, asking people not to touch the case. “They don’t like it.”

A big butterfly rustles past, and they both watch as it settles on the outside of the chrysalis display case.

“Alright,” Pietro says, remembering the lesson.“It isn’t ready yet. But it’s boring now. Let’s go see if we can get a butterfly to sit on Mr Charles’s nose.”

“You can’t-!” Wanda begins furiously, but Pietro cocks his head and then claps a hand over her mouth.

“Shhh!” he hisses in her ear. “It’s gone all quiet.”

Wanda freezes, and listens. It has gone all quiet; and that’s a bad sign. There should be little kids yelling, and people ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the pretty butterflies. There should be the whir and click of cameras. Instead the silence is only broken by the clicks and humming of the air conditioning, keeping everything warm and damp.

This kind of silence is all wrong in all the movies, anyway, and this is—this is outside. It’s the Zoo, so it’s supposed to be safe, but it’s outside. Bad people can happen, in the outside. And Daddy isn’t here; he’s not in with the butterflies. Wanda takes a deep breath. Something cold and heavy settles in her stomach.

“Let’s get off the path and look for Mr Charles.” Pietro nods, mouth a thin, determined line.

Together they creep into the bushy undergrowth; it’s not much in the way of cover, but it’s slightly better than walking down the middle of the tunnel on the path. They crawl through to the outside edge of the tunnel; it’s some kind of tough plastic woven stuff. They press against it, and it gives way, slightly.

Briefly, Wanda thinks about trying to cut through it; before she realises: they don’t have anything sharp enough. There’s probably bars or, or the chicken wire-mesh stuff a lot of the cages have, on the outside, anyway. Otherwise people might try to steal the butterflies a lot. Not that Wanda had been making plans, or anything.

Pietro tugs at her hand, and they start crawling again. Silently, they creep along until Wanda hears a voice, and they both stop, freezing like deer in the forest when they think humans are coming.

The voices are Mr Charles and a stranger. Wanda peeks out carefully. Mr Charles looks scared. He’s trying to hide it, but scared. Just like he did that night when the bad men came looking for them at the school. The stranger—she can’t see his face very well, but he doesn’t sound scared. He sounds mean.

In a way, it’s almost a relief. They’ve been waiting for things to go wrong, Wanda and Pietro, since the car left the driveway this morning. At least now it’s finally started happening, and Wanda can stop worrying she’s going to miss something important. At least it’s just one man, and some scary silence.

Wanda had been scared that the wrong thing would be fire, or guns, or explosions. Apparently, it’s just Mr Charles, leaning on his walking stick and talking to a man in a suit. The man in the suit is smiling, but he has a knife. Wanda swallows down her fear. It’s not going to happen like that again. Daddy promised. Mr Charles promised. And besides, Wanda won’t let it happen like that again.

“We can’t let him hurt Mr Charles,” Pietro breathes, damply into her ear. She squeezes his hand in silent agreement. They can’t let that happen, no. Mr Charles has been hurt too much already, and, and, last time it was—they’d been looking for the twins. That meant looking after Mr Charles now was their responsibility.

Mr Charles has been getting happier and better since he moved in; he doesn’t limp as much and he smiles properly now. And he’s been talking to Dad a lot, and—Wanda wants to use a really bad swear—they had this all planned so Mr Charles would like Dad enough to kiss him—and then he’d never have to move out. They’d be able to keep him, and have Daddy.

Grown-ups who kiss each other live together. Or they end up living together. That’s what the TV shows and movies say. Of course, sometimes people kiss the wrong people, and stuff; Wanda’s not dumb or too little to understand that there’s more to it than kissing, but that’s not the point.

The point is, they were hoping today would make Mr Charles and Daddy understand that they should kiss each other. Now this strange man with the knife and the empty butterfly tunnel have spoilt everything. She glares at him.

Pietro nudges her foot. She looks down, and his moves his foot to point.

The ground is covered in a thick layer of bark chippings; but scattered among them are stones, some of them quite large. She looks back up at Mr Charles; he’s trying to back away, but the man with the knife is following him, and shouting weird things about, things and gratitude and stuff.

“Throwing stones is bad,” she breathes into her brother’s ear.

“Because it hurts,” Pietro whispers back. He points at the knife; at Mr Charles’s pale face. Wanda nods. Quietly as they can, the twins bend down and pick throwing rocks. Wanda makes sure hers are all nicely pointy. They edge forwards.

Suddenly, there’s a loud bang, and lots of yelling outside. Mr Charles staggers back a step and Wanda knows now, now is the time to act. She runs forwards, with Pietro at her side, and she lets fly with her first weapon.

 

Charles barely has time to brace himself after the gunshot, before he’s startled again. A large stone flies out of the shrubbery, and clips Shaw on the shoulder, arresting him mid-stalk, face twisted into an unpleasantly determined scowl. He staggers and swings round, leaving his back to Charles.

Charles heart comes into his mouth when the first stone is followed by others; and then the twins come into view. Shaw laughs, slightly wild.

“Wanda—Pietro—RUN!” Charles calls. “Don’t worry—just, please, run!”

“You leave Mr Charles alone!” Pietro yells.

“Feisty as your father… and just as impractical, I see.” Shaw chuckles. He flexes his knife-holding hand very deliberately. “At least I don’t have to bore myself, hunting you both down.”

The next stone Wanda flings hits Shaw in the face. There’s a cracking sound. The angry noise that Shaw makes isn’t human. Charles doesn’t stop to think, he simply raises his walking stick and limps forwards fast. He brings his heavy cane crashing down on the hand holding the knife, hard enough to send the blade skittering across the path.

Outside there are more gunshots, more noise; but Charles doesn’t pay them any attention. Shaw whirls to face him.

Pietro scrambles forwards enough to grab at the knife.

“Get behind me!” Charles orders his children. “Stay out of his reach.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Shaw’s voice is no longer smoothly confident. It’s jagged with rage and insanity. “I think you’ll do just as I tell you. Give me the knife, boy.” He breathes harshly through his mouth, and Charles hopes that Wanda at least broke the bastards’ nose.

“No,” Pietro says, backing away, towards Charles. Wanda scurries straight to Charles’s side and presses against him, trembling.

“Leave them be, Shaw,” Charles says, pleads, even. “They’re only—”

“They’re Lehnsherr’s,” Shaw says, flatly. “Like you. He’s going to lose you all.”

“No he’s not.” Charles says in what he hopes is a calming voice. “Mr Shaw, please.”

“Oh, I like the sound of that.” Shaw turns to face Charles again. “I really—”

“The authorities obviously are aware something’s happening. You’re not—you’re not going to get away scot-free, here.” Charles wants to point out Shaw’s lost his weapon, but he doesn’t dare risk reminding Shaw about Pietro.

Shaw snarls. “I. don’t. care.”

“He’s hardly going to waste time hating you when he knows you’re either dead or in prison,” Charles says, and Shaw rushes at him.

Charles sidesteps, dragging Wanda with him. He ducks Shaw’s first wild swing. He doesn’t duck the second, and for a moment Charles thinks his jaw is going to explode. He staggers, and only Wanda’s slight strength keeps him upright, as his bad knee protests the movement.

Shaw punches at him again, and it’s only his childhood reflexes that keep Charles out of reach. He knows he can’t keep it up much longer. His knee is a bright blaze of agony, and his leg is going to give out any second. When that happens—

“Wanda, go with your brother.” He gives her a little push.

“That’s right, child,” Shaw pants, eyes fever-bright. “Desert the cripple.”

“HE’S NOT A CRIPPLE!” Pietro yells, behind him.

Chapter Text

Charles’s grip is slipping on his cane; his hands are sweating and slippery. And Wanda refuses to run, and Pietro is far too close to Sebastian Shaw.

“You—leave—us—alone!” Pietro shouts. Wanda cries out and hides her face in Charles’s jacket.

“RUN, PIETRO!” The boy doesn’t listen, doesn’t run. He lunges at Shaw, and darts out of reach. Shaw freezes.

“What,” he says, mildly. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The knife falls from Pietro’s hand; he doesn’t seem to notice. Events have been moving so fast, that it takes a moment for Charles to realise that Pietro has stabbed their attacker, behind the knee. He’s half impressed, half horrified.

Pietro draws a foot back and kicks at Shaw, hard. Shaw howls and staggers and falls to one knee, reaching toward the bright blood exploding onto his trouser leg. Wanda pulls away from Charles and runs to kick at their fallen tormentor. Shaw is still fumbling with his leg, but he’s not—he’s not grabbing at the injury; why is that?

“Look out!” Charles races forwards to drag the kids away, by force if he has to. Shaw lets out a wild laugh. He’s dangerous, even wounded, and they have to get away from him—

Pietro yells a warning, too late.

Charles gasps for breath. Pain sear through his arm, his side. Shaw scrambles away from them, still laughing.

“You’re definitely Erik’s children.” Shaw grins, as he staggers upright. “He’d be proud of you; if only that wasn’t what’s going to get you both killed.”

Charles shakes his head, ignores the pain and hauls the children with him, dropping his walking stick. They make it a few steps before Charles’s knee gives out. There’s suddenly so much noise from outside: yelling and shouting, sirens and loudhailers. Everyone is to remain on the ground. Put their hands in the air. Drop their weapons.

Charles does his best to comply with the thunderous instructions. The ground shakes under the impact of boots as the butterfly tunnel is invaded from both ends. The doors bang, and all the chained straps that keep the butterflies inside jangle harshly.

“On the ground!” someone yells. “Don’t move!” Charles rolls his head, and relaxes when he sees the uniforms on the people surrounding them.

“Get away from the kids!” someone else instructs, and Charles wonders how he’s supposed to do both. He decides not moving is probably the best order to follow.

“Kids? Little girl?—”

“I’m not little!” Wanda snaps, running on automatic.

The woman talking to her looks bemused. She draws in a deep breath and says, very gently, “Can you come with me, please? We need to keep you safe.”

“No, no, no!” Pietro sobs, clinging to Charles’s arm. “He’s ours, we’re supposed to keep him safe!” “Pietro,” Charles says desperately, “It’s all right. They’re police. They’re here to help.”

He hopes they are. He hopes so very much. The police can’t all be under the influence of officers like Stryker—whatever became of him? Charles wonders, randomly, suddenly distracted.

“You have to help him, then!” Wanda says to the policewoman. “The horrible man; he hurt him, and he had a knife, and, and-!” She begins to cry, noisily.

“Erik,” Charles says, trying to focus. “Where’s Erik? And Darwin, what happened to—”

“Everybody’s fine,” the police woman says. “Can you let the kids go? We’re all worried about them.”

 

The monitor is beeping. There’s an antiseptic smell in the air. Someone must be in the hospital. Erik blinks. His head—and other parts—hurt.

Oh. He’s in the hospital.

Why is that?

Erik ponders this problem calmly for about thirty seconds and then he and the beeping machines go insane together, as his memories start to re-assert themselves. He bolts—or tries to bolt—upright and stares around him. He doesn’t recognise the room, other than to label it as “hospital.”

“Are the children safe?!” he demands of the blurry people now rushing into his room. “Where’s Charles? It was Shaw! Shaw was at the zoo!! My kids! Where’s-?” His head hurts, and there’s something very wrong with everything.

“Sir, you need to calm down,” someone says soothingly.

“Charles—” Erik insists. He will not be soothed. He is not sootheable, damn it. “Wanda. Pietro.” He wants answers and he wants them now. The last thing Erik recalls is facing down Shaw’s man, Victor Creed, and his gun. At the zoo, where he’d promised his children they were safe. Rage beats in him.

“Please calm down, sir. Everything’s fine,” someone is stupid enough to say. Erik snarls wordlessly. He ignores the soothing babble, listening for news of Charles and the children, which doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. How can they know that things are fine? With Shaw suddenly crazy enough to make a move—on his kids—in broad daylight, in public; with Victor Creed pulling a gun on him—how can they—

“Heartrate’s rising,” someone says, urgently. “We need him calm. Where’re the relatives?”

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!” Erik would like to think he yells this, but he’s forced to notice his lungs don’t have quite the same power as on his better days.

“Get that damned lawyer in here, then!”

Fuck it, if they won’t tell him, he’ll just get up and find the answers for himself. Erik wallows up from his bed, struggling against needles, monitor wires and other things being where they have no place to be (i.e., in or on Erik’s person.)

“Sedative!” someone snaps, and there’s a pricking in his backside and then everything goes away. Again.

 

When Erik opens his eyes again, it’s daylight, and a strange woman is sitting by his bed. She’s pleasant enough to look at—in fact, the blonde is vaguely familiar—but she’s not who Erik wants to see.

“Where are my children? Where’s Charles?” Erik shoots at her, raspily. She smiles. He growls.

“You want some ice chips?”

“I want to know if my children are safe,” Erik says, harshly. His throat is thick with rust, it seems like. “I want to know if my—if Charles is well.”

“Yeah.” And her face softens slightly, as she scoops up a glass full of ice chips. “Your Charles is fine. So are the kids.”

Erik closes his eyes, shaken by the intensity of the relief that washes through him. Charles is fine. His children are unharmed. Although they’re probably traumatised all over again. Erik takes a moment to hate Sebastian Shaw a little more, just for that.

“Ice,” she reminds him, and Erik holds out his hand for the cup. His hands are shaking, though, so the woman holds out a spoonful of ice for him instead. Reluctantly, Erik accepts it.

“Let it melt slowly,” she advises him.

“Why are you here?” Erik demands, as soon as his mouth is clear. “Are you from the hospital?”

She laughs, a little. He glares.

“Charles begged me to sit with you. Seeing as Az, and half the bodyguards in the world are busy keeping them safe from everything expect maybe frustration. Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse has gone.”

“What?”

“OK, so there are guards on your room; but they’re all FBI, not—” She sighs as she catches sight of Erik’s face. “I’m Charles’s sister? Raven? I threatened you on the phone. Remember?”

“Oh. Right.” Erik swallows down more ice. “Thank you,” he adds, lying back. So that’s why she’s familiar. She’s Charles’s family, he’s seen photos of her. Erik relaxes a little more. Charles’s sister wouldn’t be sitting with him if something was very badly wrong with Charles, or his children.

“Hey, any boyfriend of Charles’s,” Raven says lightly. She then adds, more seriously, “Even ones with your background—I’ll do what I can.”

“Boyfriend,” Erik echoes her, partly because he’s tired, but mostly because he likes the sound. He doesn’t mention the background thing. For one; Erik tends not to discuss business with law enforcement types, which he vaguely remembers, Raven is. For another, he needs to see Charles and his children, and the fact that he’s in the hospital and still half out of his mind about their collective safety… is also to do with his background.

“At the very least,” Raven says, wry. “He didn’t like the idea of you waking all alone in hospital; and I wouldn’t let him sit with the kids and wait like they all wanted to do.”

“Thank you,” Erik says, and he really means it. “They’re all fine?”

“Yeah. They’re all fine, Erik. Bumps and bruises, but you were the one who caught a couple of bullets.”

“Not anywhere vital,” Erik says. “I can tell; because I’m still here, and Creed’s—”

“Yep,” Raven says, and she’s oddly cheerful. “Definitely not going to be making any more trouble, that one. Well done.”

“A knife to the face will do that,” Erik allows.

“And everywhere else,” Raven says, dryly. “You’re lucky he shot you in front of so many witnesses. You’d have had a lot of trouble arguing self-defence if he hadn’t.”

“Who else got hurt?” Erik asks. And then, hope and fear warring in his heart, “What happened to Sebastian Shaw?”

Chapter Text

"What happened to Sebastian Shaw?” Erik demands again, fear in his throat. He shifts against the bed, unwilling to reveal the extent of his agitation to Raven. Erik cannot deny that at the moment everything feels too good to be true. He might have ended up in the hospital, but everyone else, Raven says, got off with some bruises. So everyone is fine, but Erik knows how badly things can go wrong and how easy it is to lose what’s most precious; what if, what if…

“Eaten by the wolf pack at the Zoo,” Rave says cheerfully. Erik blinks. That makes no sense. “Well. I say eaten, but they did more chewing than actual swallowing—”

“What?” He glares. “If this is some attempt at humour—” Raven holds her right hand up, palm outwards, as if she’s taking the oath of office.

“Wolves. I swear.” Her face is serious but her eyes—her eyes are alight with glee. “Noble creatures.”

“He’s dead?” Erik asks, forgetting to disguise the hope in his voice.

“Extremely dead,” Raven replies. “Extremely,” she repeats with relish.

“How?”

“After he got away from the police during the take-down in the butterfly tunnel—”

“HOW?” Erik resists the urge to leap to his feet. He doesn’t want to be sedated again… and he’s awake enough now to recall the various needles and tags attached to him, and their locations.

“Don’t know, not my department; but the cops in this city all need remedial training, like, stat,” Raven says, briefly diverted. She shakes her head, recalling. “Anyway, in attempting to run, he scaled a fence he really, really shouldn’t have.”

“Ah.” Erik relaxes a little against his pillows.

“He might have thought he could cross the paddock in time, but wolves move fast when they’re pissed off, apparently. And Mama Wolf had just had puppies; they were really pissed off.”

“Oh dear,” Erik says. “I was hoping I could—” He remembers just in time that Raven is a LEO, and finishes the sentence differently, “see him at his trial.”

“Sure you were,” Raven says, with a smile. “Anyway, I don’t know who taught your boy to use a knife, but in the struggle in the tunnel, someone stabbed Shaw in the knee. With his own knife. So outrunning the wolves… wasn’t an option.”

“Pietro did WHAT-?” Erik abandons Shaw’s messy fate for now. The Zoo would hopefully have CCTV cameras, and bribeable technicians.

“Maybe Pietro. Maybe Charles. They both said they did it.” Raven looks away for a moment while Erik struggles with his astonishment. He doesn’t know which reply would be worse. Thinking he had either dragged his young son or his sweet, decent… Charles into the grime and blood of his dark past is equally horrifying.

“You seem… oddly untroubled by this,” Erik manages after a moment. “Charles said you were—”

“Law enforcement?” Raven huffs a dry laugh. “I am. Means I’m in the position to know a lot more about Sebastian Shaw’s activities, you know, when he wasn’t trying to kill my brother and your kids and you.” Her eyes flash. “He won’t be missed by me. Or anyone else.”

“Ah,” Erik says, carefully.

“Drink some water,” Raven suggests after a short pause. Erik does so. It’s cool and kind to his throat. He searches his mind for new questions that Raven will answer, to keep her talking about his Charles and his children, and what happened when Erik wasn’t able to be there for them.

He hopes they’ll find it in their hearts to forgive him, one day.

All the medical experts in several worlds suddenly enter the room. Apparently they’ve only just noticed he’s awake and lucid. Erik puts up with their tests and intrusions patiently. Nurses are not sudden or quick to anger, in his experience, but they can be exceptionally thorough, if provoked.

“When can I go home?” Erik asks hopefully. “I really want to see my children.”

“Yeah,” Raven echoes. “They can probably keep him quieter than the drugs.”

“Soon,” says the chief high medical acolyte, with a professionally kind smile. “Soon. We just have to make sure you can manage by yourself.” She gives him a meaningful glance.

“Uh?” Erik does his best to look responsible and capable of looking after himself. Seeing as he’s lying in a hospital bed wearing only a hospital gown and a number of bandages, this is slightly harder than usual.

“I think the catheter can probably come out now,” Another medical person says, and Erik sets his jaw. He’s been through the whole gamut of hospital visits before; and he remembers this little experience from last time.

“Aaaand that’s my cue to leave.” Raven stands. “I’ll let them know how you’re getting on; and there’ll be visitors just as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, Raven,” Erik says, something he does not often do. Even more rarely, as now, he finds he means it.

“You’re welcome.” Raven smiles and vanishes out the door.

One of the medical experts snaps on a fresh pair of sterile gloves and advances on Erik purposefully.

 

Of course, Charles thinks as he manoeuvres his chair through another doorway, Erik's house would be fully wheelchair accessible as well as secure and comfortable. Of course. And very shortly, he's going to work out how to access the whirlpool bath while his knee is out for the count, and he has stitches. Very. Shortly. The bath has been calling to him since they all arrived home.

“Honestly, Pietro, I’m fine. You don’t need to watch and worry so much,” Charles says to his current anxiously hovering satellite. Wanda must be on break. “I just needed a couple of stitches—” And a few other things, but what Pietro doesn’t know he won’t worry himself and his sister sick over.

“Seven. Seven stitches,” Pietro says, grimly. “And you strained your knee again.”

Az snorts, from his place lounging almost casually on the couch.

“The wheelchair is temporary,” Charles says, and devoutly hopes he’s being truthful. “And anyway, people in wheelchairs are perfectly capable of looking after themselves.” He adds that mostly for the children’s benefit, but he eyes Az at the same time; the tall man has been very firm about keeping Charles off his feet, since the hospital stitched and released him into the wild.

Pietro looks mutinous.

“There could still be bad guys out there,” he says, stubbornly folding his arms. “And you said Mr Darwin still has Conk Ushan.”

“Concussion,” Charles corrects, gently. “But he’s adapting just fine, too. And my sister is looking after your father.”

Az snorts again. "A fine lady, your sister… if a little, ah, forceful." Charles ignores him. Az should have known better than to try and be charming when he met her.

“So—” Charles continues, trying to pull his thoughts back on track.

“So we get to look after you for him.” Wanda informs her tutor from the doorway. She exchanges a smile with Az, and makes her way to Charles’s side. She offers him the newspaper, with the air of one trying to befriend a wary feral creature.

“There are no more bad guys.” Charles pinches his brows together. He takes the newspaper, but folds it so he doesn’t have to look at the screaming headlines. “Didn’t you hear what happened to Shaw?”

Both children grin, sudden and sharp and viciously satisfied.

“The Zoo has such good puppies. I will make a donation.” Az laughs out loud.

“He got ate!” Pietro says happily. “By wolves.”

“Wolves—the sharks of the plain!” Az declares, dramatically flinging one hand up. “Such magnificent creatures! They are related to dogs, you know.” He says the last part to Pietro, confidingly. Pietro’s eyes light up. He turns to Charles, eagerly.

“Can we-?”

“No, we cannot adopt any wolves,” Charles quickly says. He sends Az a significant stare.

“Shaw got gnawed. They didn’t like the taste, so they didn’t eat him.” Wanda smiles. “But it’s not that kind of looking after, silly. It’s the other kind.”

“Other kind?”

“Yeah! Not, like, protecting someone from bad guys—”

“You did that too,” Wanda reminds her twin. They share equally happy grins before turning back to Charles.

Charles twitches. Az makes a low warning noise. Charles is glad they’re back in the house, with only Az and only Az-picked bodyguards around to hear, but it still might be better to leave some things unsaid. Charles knows the kind of rumours and trouble that could grow around Pietro as he gets older, if the fact that he stabbed a man in self-defence when he was ten becomes public knowledge.

“The other kind of looking after is the nice kind,” Wanda says, serenely. “Like bringing someone a cookie or a glass of water, if they need one.”

“I need a cookie,” Pietro says, hopefully. His sister flashes a lightning-quick frown at him.

“It’s what families do,” Wanda says earnestly to Charles. “So there.” She pats Charles’s arm.

“Family,” Az says, solemnly, but his eyes are alight with mirth. “The good kind,” he reassures Charles, brightly.

“Right, yes,” Charles mumbles, slightly distracted. Family? he thinks to himself. “That’s—Well.” He coughs, a little. Looks to Az for help; Az simply shrugs and smiles a wise and mysterious and very irritating smile.

“So we get to look after you until daddy can do it,” Pietro says. “Which will be soon,” he adds hopefully. “Right?”

“I’m visiting him tomorrow,” Charles replies. “You can—how do you feel about leaving the house?”

The children look uncertain, and then—

“Gnawed,” Wanda says, decisively.

“You’re welcome to come too, if you’d like.”

“And it’s Daddy,” Pietro says, thoughtful. “Yes, please.”

Chapter Text

Hospitals are boring, in Erik’s opinions. Staying in them, that is. Well, mostly boring, interspersed with short, fraught periods of way-too-interesting. They smell of fake sweet air fresheners over disinfected over… worse odours. There’s nothing worth looking at. Also, the food is terrible.

He doesn’t admit to himself he hates them because they remind him of the last months and weeks and hours of Magda’s life. At all. That’s an awareness Erik keeps pushed down inside himself, and probably always will.

Still, boredom or hatred, the best way out of them, if one cannot use the doors (or windows) is sleep. Erik sleeps a lot, healing, and has strange dreams, and knows he can only blame some of this on the drugs. He dreams of Magda as she was, when she was well. He dreams of his mother. He dreams of metal sheep, of spaceships, of aliens and explosions.

This dream is proving very odd indeed, really. Muttering voices (familiar, somehow, and automatically tagged as safe) talk about unrelated things, while the butterfly-winged sharks curl up in a pack, eating beets or gnawing at old bones.

Can you get vegetarian sharks? Erik wonders, and cringes as he thinks about the size of the litter box that many sharks will need.

“Right this way—don’t drop those—” The voice rolls overhead, covering the ceiling in a splash of familiar crimson flowers.

“He’s sleeping!” the butterflies argue.

“Don’t shout.” One shark flutters past him, causing a minor earthquake. “Or he will not be sleeping, anymore.”

“But if he’s sleeping we can’t give him the cookies,” whines the smallest shark.

Cookies? Erik thinks. They sound better than what the flying sharks are eating. Also: flying sharks? Must be a dream. But maybe the cookies are not a dream. He frowns, and opens his eyes.

Correction.

He tries to open his eyes. It is not very easy. Clearly things have got a little rusty in that department since yesterday. After some grumbling (mostly internal), Erik succeeds in levering open one eye. He is rewarded with the close up view of a pillow. Which confirms he’s now awake, even if it doesn’t give him much more to go on.

“Huh?” he turns his head, and sees a flash of a familiar smile.

“Az?” His voice is croaky from disuse.

“Indeed, me, my old friend,” Az says. “Also your children. And—”

Both Erik’s eyes open.

“Wanda? Pietro?”

“Daddy!” They both shout and pile their pointy selves onto him immediately. Erik winces and relaxes simultaneously. They’re safe. They’re, well, loud, and hopefully unhurt. He’s kept at least part of his parental duties upheld.

“Uh—ow—Elbows!” Erik says, slightly incoherent with the effort of moving to sit up burdened by bullet wounds and small hugging children.

Az clucks and mutters, fiddling with the bed tilt, before he bends over the bed, lifting first Pietro and then Wanda, briefly, so Erik can turn over and sit up. Then he steps back. Erik wraps his arms around his children as tightly as they’re clinging to him, and for a long moment no one says anything.

“You’re alright.” Wanda presses her face to Erik’s chest.

“Everyone said he was,” Pietro tells his sister, knuckles white with the force of his grip on Erik’s hospital gowned-shoulder.

“Yes, but now we can see it. Him. Daddy,” Wanda says to Erik’s collarbone.

Erik’s eyes prickle, and he squeezes them shut. When he opens them again Az is somehow managing to offer him a plastic cup of water while staring at the wall. Erik takes the water, grateful for the lack of eye contact. He drinks down a huge gulp of it and sighs. A fundamental tension starts seeping out of Erik’s frame.

He’s been afraid, constantly alert, it seems, since he first saw the bulge under Creed’s jacket that meant he was armed. He hugs his children—his children, safe, alive, unharmed—again, and would thank God, if he believed in one.

Then—

“Daddy,” Pietro says, eyes, solemn. “We have an important thing to ask you.”

“Very important,” Wanda says. “About the future, and, and everything.”

Erik looks at Az a little desperately, hoping for an explanation, or a warning. Az merely raises his hands; he’s innocent, or at least ignorant of whatever it is the children are about to request. Apparently.

“I’m never taking you to the Zoo again,” Erik says, reassuringly.

“What!?” Pietro demands. Wanda pushes back from hugging to stare up at him.

“I promise. It’s—I’m sorry,” Erik says. He is. Sorry for so, so much. But he can promise them this; they’ll never have to go—

“But Daddy-!” His daughter’s lip is quivering, and Pietro is scowling. What is this, Erik meant for his children to reassured, not—“The wolves are there, and we want to say thank you!” Wanda says, urgently. It doesn’t immediately make things any clearer.

“Wolves—oh.” Erik pauses. “You mean—I thought you’d be put off for life, after…”

“Wolves,” Wanda insists. “Good wolves.”

Az chuckles.

“They like the wolves,” he says. Erik glares lightly at him, on principle. “So do I,” Az adds. “They saved me a job.” Erik half smiles. They saved Erik a job too. Good wolves, Erik thinks.

“Daddy,” Pietro asks, earnestly. “Can we have a wolf?”

“No,” Erik says, immediately, out of long habit. “They’re wild animals, not pets. It’s illegal, and also unsafe. And cruel.” He glances at Az, requesting back up, but Az simply looks at the ceiling and grins to himself.

“Can we have a dog, then?” Wanda asks, hopefully. “Please?”

“I—perhaps,” Erik concedes. “Perhaps—” he’s always liked Dobermans himself, although he wouldn’t be surprised if his children focus on cuteness over elegance. He wonders at the solemn air of request though; certainly dogs are a commitment, and he’s pleased his children recognise this. But Erik would have thought they were going to ask him something much more serious—

“Can we have a wolfdog?” Pietro says.

“Y—what’s a wolfdog?” Erik asks, suddenly wary. He looks to Az, who shrugs, helpfully.

“One of a number of breeds created by crossing dogs with wolves,” A voice says from the doorway. “Or an illegal hybrid of a wolf and a dog.”

Erik grins. He knows that voice. Charles.

“Mr Charles!” The twins shout, slightly too close to Erik’s ears for comfort. They wriggle on the bed until they can wave at their favourite teacher.

Erik looks over and the smile falls off his face.

Charles is in a wheelchair. He has one arm in a sling, and the wheelchair is being pushed by a smiling Raven. Guilt washes over Erik immediately. If he hadn’t pulled Charles into this mess, if he’d never sent his children to Charles’s old school—Charles would still be fine. But he can’t deny every association he’s made with Charles has hurt the other man. Even just a simple trip to the Zoo.

“You said everyone was all right!” he snaps at the damned lying woman. “Charles… I’m so—”

“If you say you’re sorry, I shall have to frown at you,” Charles says, cheerful and brisk. “I’m fine, Erik, I just can’t use crutches right now.” He nods at the sling.

“I didn’t lie.” Raven’s voice is crisp as she wheels her brother up to the bed. “He’s fine.”

“Charles,” Erik says, a little hoarsely.

“Erik,” Charles says, in response. He’s smiling, as he leans forwards. Erik leans towards him as much as two gunshot wounds and two children basically sitting on him will allow.

Charles puts out a hand, and Erik turns his head, kissing Charles’s palm, quickly. Charles slides his hand up, cradling Erik’s face, running his fingers through Erik’s hair.

“I knew,” Az is saying, far away and unimportant. “I knew it would come to this.”

Raven laughs and replies, but neither Erik or Charles are paying any attention, too busy leaning towards each other, wordlessly drinking in the presence of the other alive, safe, recovering.

“Shh!” Wanda says to Pietro. “Don’t scare them off!” Erik is not at all sure what she’s talking about, but she sounds happy as does Pietro, so he focuses back on Charles; too-pale face breaking into a glowing smile, blue, blue eyes sparkling with affection and joy and home.

Charles grunts a little and leans upwards to press his lips to Erik’s then, and well.

That’s all Erik thinks about for a little while.