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"Margarine," Charles deciphers at last, wishing yet again that a person's thoughts could be gleaned from his or her writing. Erik speaks five languages, but his English spellings are approximations at best and creative endeavors at worst. Efforts to teach him a few simple rules have thus far been met with raised eyebrows and dismissive smiles.

Charles shifts his weight from one foot to another, hand hovering above the shelf. He picks up a box of butter, weighing his dairy preferences against the list in his other hand.

"Erik likes margarine," Raven says, walking up behind him, a loaf of French bread cradled in one arm. He doesn't bother asking why she knows a mundane little detail like that: noticing mundanities is part of what makes her such an excellent mimic.

"I know," Charles mutters, replacing the butter and picking up a box of margarine instead. "Did he and Angel say when they needed us to be back?"

Raven shrugs with a wry twist of her mouth that suggests Charles isn't fooling her. "I don't think Erik appreciates your efforts to improve his recipes," she says, and each word hooks under his skin. Raven has been sharp since that day on the beach, pointed where she used to curve to fit the life they built together--the life he built, for the most part, but there's always been a place for her.

Charles pretends to be fascinated by the logo on the box, then checks the list again. Across the store he finds a thread of confusion. "Alex and Sean will need help identifying some of the vegetables."

Raven snorts. "Why am I not surprised?" She's put on part of her disguise for the sake of the grocery store, but her hair is a bright red banner under the fluorescent lights. "C'mon, let's go help the Boy Wonders find the carrots."

The grin they exchange is a flicker of their old camaraderie. You and me against the world. Charles brushes the thought aside as they round the corner to the produce section, where Alex has a bag of potatoes and a disgruntled expression.

"What the hell is a leek?" Alex asks, incurring a scandalized look from the elderly couple perusing the zucchini.

"Green leaves coming out of a long white stalk," Charles answers as Raven points to the pile of leeks next to the onions. Then, with a growing sense of foreboding, he asks, "Where is Sean?"

"He said something about peanut butter," Alex says, studying a leek with suspicion. Charles catches a stray thought about alien food and decides he doesn't want to know.

"Maybe that's her name," Raven says, one hand going to her hip. There is a girl at the far end of the aisle standing in the same position, only on her it looks like an invitation. Sean is juggling three apples for her amusement, grinning the grin of the besotted.

"He did seem oddly eager to help with chores," Charles muses. He really ought not to encourage fraternization with humans (and now he sounds like Erik), but this little bit of normalcy is refreshing after the tension of the mansion. No one knows where the lines on the sand are drawn anymore, only that remaining united is their best chance at survival, or so Charles put it that day in Cuba.

Then, of course, Sean drops the apples just as the store manager notices Sean's foray into circus performance. Ignoring the others' smothered giggles, Charles rushes in to smooth things over, promising to pay for the apples. "I don't even like apples" is Sean's mournful contribution as he watches the girl walk away.

Charles sighs. "You know what they say: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

"I don't think she's going to want to talk to me again."

"I meant the apples, Sean."

"Right."

Thankfully, they manage to make it through the line at the cash register without further incident, although Raven and Alex seem to have bonded through a mutual desire to mock Sean like a younger brother. Charles lets the teasing slide in hopes that it will deter repeat incidents, though he does draw the line at a crack Alex makes about "letting her scream." Mostly because Charles has to turn a laugh into a cough, lest the same elderly couple of before think even less of him.

"Like you haven't said worse in pubs," Raven says, because she's never been one for allowing him any illusions of maturity. He's never been a role model before, however.

"Raven," he hisses, as Sean and Alex's faces light up.

"What did you do in pubs, Prof?" Alex asks. Sean bites into an apple, as though that will convince Charles to regale them with tales of his misspent youth.

"Picked up girls with lines about groovy mutations," Raven answers, damn her. She's laughing, though, and Charles catches a gentle wave of affection from her mind before he shuts her out again. Perhaps she's extended the brotherly teasing to him.

Charles remains content until they arrive back at the mansion.

*

"Those are some nice flowers, Hank," Alex says with a smirk.

"Are there any asters left in the gardens?" Charles asks with a certain degree of alarm. Hank has filled several vases with admittedly lovely floral arrangements, all of which feature a high number of the lavender blooms.

"I've been wondering whether these plants belong to a different genus, morphologically speaking," Hank says, adjusting his glasses as he peers at one of the flowers in question. "Have you ever noticed--"

"I'm just going to take these bags into the kitchen," Raven says with false cheer. She's gone blue again. "You have fun, boys."

Hank heaves a sigh so pathetic that Sean pats him on the shoulder in sympathy. "She's going to get kicked out," Hank says. "They told me to prepare the dining room because I kept getting fur on the cutting board."

Sure enough, Raven returns a few minutes later. "Angel says dinner should be ready in an hour and to set the table. Erik just keeps muttering to himself about how Americans eat too much in the evening, and I'm pretty sure he's trying to murder the asparagus."

"Asparagus?" Alex asks. "Now he's just making foods up."

"Fantastic," Charles says, and pours himself a drink. He spends the better part of half an hour peering through the magnifying glass Hank retrieved from the lab and debating biological classification. He feels like he's back at university, complete with the feeling that he hasn't studied quite enough due to socialization the night before. Of course, the socialization of the previous evening had been with some tumblers of Scotch, but that aligns nicely with his university memories as well.

Down the hall, there is a shout and then a crash.

"I don't remember there being this much excitement during training," Charles says, which is a lie. There was, in fact, considerably more excitement, but it took place in a bomb shelter rather than his sitting room.

"Sorry! Got a little enthusiastic!" Sean calls from down the hall.

"It's fine, Charles! We never liked that lamp anyway!" Raven adds.

"Nice to see a return to high spirits," Hank says, which is when Charles considers throwing himself out a third story window. He has no mutation with which to cushion himself.

Eventually, Angel comes out, apron strings dangling and a smudge of flour on her cheek, and tells them that dinner is served. (Or, as she puts it, "Order up!" Raven laughs at that, so Charles suspects it has something to do with waitressing. At least one other person is comfortable with Angel's return to the team, or the family, or whatever odd unit they've formed.)

When Erik walks into the dining room, their meal hovering on metal trays before him, Charles catches his breath, because he is stupid and hopeless and a number of other unflattering adjectives. There have been any number of opportunities for Charles to tell Erik how he feels about him, up to and including the scene on the beach where he all but proposed to Erik, but he fears the moment lost forever. Erik remains helpful, affable in his taciturn way, but even their previous bond of friendship feels out of joint. Charles lies awake at night and listens to Erik wonder if he should put the helmet on, if tonight is the night he will slip back into obscurity.

"It smells wonderful, Erik," Charles says, picking up a serving spoon.

Dinner proves significantly less subdued than meals of the previous days, and Charles cheers up despite himself. After all, it takes only a few minutes of morose staring at his plate before Raven nudges him on the shin with the toe of her shoe and mouths You okay? at him. He says I've missed you so much, which makes her beam, smile bright against the blue of her skin.

"You're a lot easier to like when everyone knows what a geek you are," Raven says, flicking a piece of her roll at his head.

"Children," Erik says, amused.

"Eat your asparagus, Alex," Charles says, not to be outdone.

"C'mon, it's not even real!"

Erik turns to look at Alex, face impassive. The cutlery begins to rattle ever so slightly. Alex scowls, but he picks up his fork and spears some asparagus on the end.

"I love asparagus. Pass me some," Sean blurts out.

Charles spends the next few minutes trying to ignore twin pairs of disgusted thoughts about vegetables, which are really very good, but considers it a sacrifice in maintaining the good health of his students. Raven makes an appreciative comment about German cuisine and then Angel promises to whip up some real Tex-Mex for them on Sunday. Her excitement fades into the silence after her remark.

"I've never heard the term 'Tex-Mex' before," Hank says, just before the quiet becomes torturous. "Would you mind telling us what it means?"

Angel's face lights up and she launches into a story about southwestern American cooking, a story that starts with her mother and loops outward to encompass the whole region. Raven nods at Hank, a corner of her mouth curled upward, and for all his fur, it's obvious that Hank is blushing.

You were right. We needed a family dinner, Charles says to Raven. Though I do wonder if you had an ulterior motive.

This time, she kicks him under the table.

As the students launch into some good-natured bickering, Charles allows his gaze to stray over to Erik once more. As always, Erik eats with mechanical precision, as though someone might snatch his plate away if he demonstrated any real pleasure in the food before him. It must be an erroneous impression, though: no one can cook like this without some comprehension of flavor. All the times that Charles has been wrong about Erik, times as insignificant as this and as all-encompassing as the moment in the submarine, have been a result of what Charles imagines to be true, or what Charles hopes to be true, rather than Erik's actual nature. Raven has spent much of her teenage and young adult years accusing him of being imperceptive, but it is only now, watching Erik eat with no apparent enjoyment, that Charles allows the truth of it to wash over him. He is many times a fool.

"Something on your mind, Charles?" Erik asks, meeting Charles's eyes.

Charles flushes, but does not look away. "I was thinking that we might play chess after dinner. My evenings have been rather dull without your company."

Erik removes his napkin from his lap and wipes his mouth. Charles is aware of the conversations around them dimming, of five minds shifted in their direction, but he does not look away. He clenches his hands under the table and smiles. He has to clear his throat before he speaks, but he adds, "We never finished our last game."

The smile he receives in answer makes his clothes feel too hot and too tight at once. "So it seems," Erik says.

Charles cannot taste the rest of his dinner.

*

The chessboard has been upset at some point between the night before Cuba and now. Erik's brow creases in concentration, or perhaps a mere frown, as he sets up the pieces, retrieving their positions from a memory more than a week old. Charles settles into his seat, tumbler in hand, and watches. He feels light-headed. He could blame this on the alcohol or exhaustion or any number of things, wasted far too much time doing so in the past, but instead he contemplates Erik's hands. They resemble more the hands of a musician than a murderer.

"You've an eye for the smallest details," Charles murmurs, less out of any inclination to speak than the desire to contribute something lighter to the air between them, thick with unnamed undercurrents. "I always seem to miss them."

"It makes you easier to beat at chess," Erik replies, and makes his move.

He is going to lose his last bishop. Charles drains the last of his Scotch in one go and sets the glass aside. "You impugn my skills," he says, hand hovering over the pieces. "This particular game wasn't the first, and it won't be the last." He smiles at his own bravado and moves his queen out of harm's way. He looks up to find Erik staring at him.

"How can you be so certain?" Erik asks, leaning forward. "How can you be so certain I won't leave?" His mind is a welter of anger (after all this, he is still so naive) and suspicion (he could make me stay) and something like affection (but he won't, even if he could). He knows Charles so well, all the little facts swirling together to paint a portrait both terrible and flattering.

Charles tugs at his collar. The room is hot. "Because you came back," he says slowly, feeling his way through the conversation as one would a dark room. "You killed Shaw and then you came back to me, to all of us, because you thought about a world where he was dead and wanted to be part of it. You took your revenge, and then you found you were something more than the monster he created." At Erik's discomfited look, Charles adds, "I didn't pull any of that from your mind. It's what I've been telling you all along."

"How fortunate for you," Erik says dryly, and takes the bishop.

"That's not what I meant," Charles says, fumbling as he attempts to undo the top button on his shirt. Erik flicks a long finger to the side and the button slips free. "Thank you. I mean that I have faith in your ability to survive, and not just physically. Remember that I've felt all that you are. I know what you're capable of."

Erik turns away. His profile cuts a jagged line against the familiar backdrop of the study. Charles swallows. This conversation is several days overdue, perhaps even several months overdue, and yet words are becoming tangled with intent and veering off into strange seas. Guilt ebbs at his consciousness, somehow he's made Erik feel this way, and all he can think of is a single quotation: That is not what I meant at all.

"I know you felt Shaw die."

There it is, the knife that Erik imagines he plunged into Charles's back, whose blade has stained his hands more permanently than the blood of those he has killed. The distance between them is the length of a betrayal that does not exist, cannot exist in a world where Charles Xavier knows the heart of Erik Lehnsherr.

Charles stretches out a hand. His king rattles onto its side, or perhaps it's Erik's. "I knew the risk I took. I didn't want you to kill him, but you never lied to me about your plans. I held him still because it was you or him, and I--" His voice catches on his confession, as if his body is enough to imprison the truth. He sends his thoughts to Erik instead: There are some things worth killing for, as a last resort.

His hand rests on Erik's knee, trembling at the weight of his words. Charles has named himself an accomplice. For the rest of his life, he and Erik will know what they can do together, how far Charles will go in the name of their partnership. He has made his excuses: there was no choice, Shaw made himself an instrument of nuclear war. When he chose to hold Shaw still, he did it for Erik, for Raven, for the two people he loves most. There was no thought of bright future, only bitter present, and then the lightning bolt pierced his brain and death echoed in its wake.

The hand laid across his brings with it some measure of grace. Charles swallows again and closes his eyes, losing himself in Erik's wonder. It is wrong to welcome this warmth, it is wrong to find solace in the esteem of a killer, but it is also wrong to dream of raining fire upon the earth, of blotting out the sky and replacing it with your own image. Erik complicates Charles, but the alternative is unthinkable. Erik sweeps his thumb across the back of Charles's hand and Charles opens his eyes.

Erik wants to kiss him. Charles knows this as surely as he knows his own name, revels in the anticipation. The desire is there, but the will to act transmutes itself to speech. "There are some things worth living for," Erik says, and his gaze falls upon Charles like fingers, and they are lost.

They undo each other in every possible sense. Erik pulls Charles onto his lap and out of his mind, their thoughts mingling in a steady stream. Charles kisses Erik and scatters his apprehensions with the rest of the chess pieces. Erik's teeth catch on Charles's lower lip, rough and deliberate, and Charles transmits such a clear pulse of ardor that Erik groans. Charles clamps his hands around Erik's shoulders, with muddled appreciation of their breadth and muscle, and loses even that coherency when Erik unbuttons his shirt the rest of the way and slides his hands under fabric and over skin.

"Oh my God," Charles breathes as Erik kisses his throat; he can feel Erik feel the vibration. "You should, um, locks."

"Yes." Erik gestures and some painful shrieks originate from the vicinity of the door.

Charles winces. "I did like my door."

"It's a door. It can be replaced."

Irrefutable logic is irrefutable logic. Charles laughs and pulls Erik into another kiss, then divests him of his turtleneck. They make love (they fuck, according to Erik) ecstatically, improbably on the sofa, which is too small and not cushioned enough besides. They nearly succumb to gravity a dozen times over but manage to hold on, just barely, to each other, and to the ground beneath.

"I think I'll keep you," Charles murmurs, after. They've made their way to the floor at last, sitting up against the sofa.

Erik cards a hand through Charles's hair. "I think I'll stay."

Charles leans into Erik further and lets his eyes fall shut. He can feel the others' minds nearby: Sean, still thinking of the girl from the grocery store; Alex, irritably wondering why he and Sean are the only ones cleaning up; Angel, folding her arms and saying, "I cook, you clean," before shooting Raven a wink; Hank, getting pulled by Raven into another room; and then Raven kissing Hank, satisfied that Erik isn't around to interrupt. Charles laughs and pulls his mind away, for his sister's privacy and to better concentrate on the man by his side. The man who will stay.

Charles knows they will have to move eventually, but not just yet.