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"Only three books tonight"

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By the time Erik's finished filling the dishwasher, Raven is already in her Batman pajamas and bouncing on her bed.

"You know," Erik says, not for the first time, "your father would yell at me for enforcing gender stereotypes on you, but we really need to make you some Batwoman pajamas. She's much cooler than Batman."

"Not-uh," Raven says. "Batman's the coolest. Scott likes Superman, but Scott's dumb."

"Don't call Scott dumb, Raven, Daddy wouldn't like it," Erik says, though she's right about the Superman thing. "And stop bouncing or I won't tuck you in."

She gets in one last good bounce, of course--she is Erik's child, after all--and then scrambles under the blankets and scoots over enough for Erik to curl up on the edge of the bed with her. There's a stack of picture books next to the bed--Charles wants to start reading her a chapter of a "big kid book" every night, but Erik's slightly concerned that the nuance will be lost on an almost-four-year-old with the attention span of a particularly hyper head of cabbage. Charles is the teacher, though, so he'll probably get his way eventually. For now, Erik grabs one of Raven's current standards, How I Became a Pirate.

"Not pirate!" she says before he can even open it.

"You made Daddy read this to you three times last night," Erik says.

"Yes," Raven explains patiently, "Because Daddy does good pirate voices."

"I don't do good pirate voices?" Erik asks.

"No," she says. "You do three good voices. Daddy does like...a hundred."

"Daddy does a hundred good voices?" Erik asks. "And I only do three?"

Raven considers this.

"Maybe four," she allows.

"Mm, wonderful," Erik says. "I'm glad I've been upgraded."

"Do Olivia," Raven says. "The first one! And the circus!"

"One story, Raven," Erik lies. Maybe if he says it out loud he'll believe it and stick to it, though he doubts it.

"The first one," Raven says, and Erik dutifully pulls out the first Olivia book and leans back against the headboard of Raven's bed. She crawls closer, nestling under his arm and against his chest so she can see the pictures.

"This is Olivia," he reads. "She is good at lots of things. She is very good at wearing people out. She even wears herself out!"

Raven knows most of the story and recites her favorite parts along with Erik, making him pause on certain pages so she can explain her personal interpretation of the pictures. ("The cat is in the way, Papa, so she has to move the cat and then she's helping it remember what it has to do to and bringing it places," Raven says. "Sure thing, baby," Erik says.) He follows it up, of course, with Olivia Saves the Circus because, despite the fact that they're not genetically linked, Raven has still managed to inherit Charles' ridiculous puppy dog eyes. Erik likes Olivia Saves the Circus better anyway; there's more of a story to it and he finds it much funnier. It's a better read aloud, too, as Olivia's fantastical story about the jobs she takes over at the circus lends itself to vocal performance.

Not that Erik thinks about these sorts of things when buying books. He certainly doesn't. Just like he certainly won't be quietly practicing his storytime voices so he can do better than "three, maybe four."

Raven's not quite out when he finishes the second story, but she's quiet and sleepy. He rubs her back for a few moments in the soft glow of the stars projected onto the wall from her nightlight.

"Will Daddy be home soon?" Raven mumbles.

"I hope so, liebling," Erik says. "I'll send him in to kiss you good night when he gets home, okay?"

"Even if I'm sleeping?"

"Yes," he says. "I'll make sure."

"Okay," she says. "If I'm asleep it's okay, but he has to come in."

"He will, baby," Erik promises. "Sweet dreams." He pulls the blankets up around Raven's shoulders and kisses her cheek. "Night night."

Raven mumbles something in response and Erik quietly creeps from the room and closes the door behind him.

Erik's more tired than he should be--Charles has been out consulting on a mutant child endangerment case since five. Raven's been good, all things considered--he picked her up from daycare and got her fed, washed, and in bed with little to no fuss. He supposes it's the idea of what's to come that's exhausting him. He knows Charles will come home quiet and exhausted and hunched in on himself. He knows this has the potential to color the rest of their week.

He knows that Charles will be sad and after being married for two years and being involved for four, he's still not as good at making Charles happy as he'd like to be.

He forgoes the television and brings his book into the bedroom, kicking off his jeans and lying on top of the covers. Charles texted half an hour ago saying he hoped to be home within an hour, but he knows better than to trust the state to do anything in a timely manner. It took them so long to mail his citizenship paperwork after he married Charles that he had to use his German passport on a business trip four months after their wedding. The German passport that he renewed in one afternoon by going to the consulate with the appropriate paperwork and walking out two hours later with a passport. Land of the free, indeed.

If Charles was here, he'd tell Erik he's taking a mental meander off the point. But Charles isn't here. And that's rather the point.

Erik tries to push it all out of his head and concentrate on his book, but it's hard not to think that every car is Charles' even though Erik knows Charles' car, knows the bits of metal on the inside and outside and can feel it coming from the end of the block.

It's an hour before the car approaches, making it an hour and a half after Charles texted and almost exactly when Erik actually expected him. He marks his page with a receipt he's been using as a bookmark and he's downstairs reheating leftovers by the time the garage door is whirring shut. Charles wanders into the kitchen, weary and vacant, and wraps himself around Erik without even removing his jacket.

"Hello, dear," Erik says. "I'm heating some mashed potatoes."

"I would marry you again," Charles murmurs against his shoulder.

"Yes, yes, I know, you only love me because I feed you," Erik says, rubbing Charles' back soothingly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Charles says, and grips Erik more tightly. That bad, then.

"Why don't you go stick your head in Raven's bedroom and I'll finish up in here?" he suggests, but Charles doesn't move until the last thirty seconds on the microwave pass with a shrill beep. He sighs and pulls back, leaning up on his toes to kiss Erik.

"I am very thankful for you," Charles says, eyes serious. "Every day." He runs his fingers through Erik's hair and then kisses him again, just briefly, before heading upstairs.

Really exceptionally bad, it seems.

He finishes making Charles' plate and makes him a cup of tea. If he pours a little scotch into that tea--well. He doesn't think Charles will mind much. But five minutes pass and then ten and Charles doesn't come back downstairs. He doesn't think Raven's woken up--he would have heard her shrieks of joy from here. It is entirely possible, however, that Charles fell asleep, so he leaves the food and the tea and climbs the stairs, thinking, gently, so as not to wake him if he is asleep, Charles? Charles?

In Raven's room, Charles replies.

When Erik opens the door, he finds Charles sitting on the floor next to Raven's bed, just staring at her. He's still wearing his jacket.

Really, truly, entirely exceptionally bad, then.

Some kids are saved from the system, Erik thinks. And some relationships aren't sucky or abusive or unstable. I'd say the majority of them, even, which is a lot coming from me, given you know I'm a pessimist.

Charles looks up from Raven with a sheepish smile.

"Come eat something," Erik whispers, and Charles pushes himself to his feet, leans over to kiss Raven's temple, and then does just that.

He all but inhales his food, still not saying much, and sends out a warm pulse of gratitude when he sips at the tea. Erik picks at the morning's crossword puzzle in lieu of making stilted conversation and then stays behind to clean up Charles' dishes when Charles gets to his feet and mumbles something about a shower.

There are nights when all Charles really needs to feel better are a stiff drink and sex. The other nights are a little more complicated, and it looks like this is going to be one of them. Erik can roll with the punches, though. He's getting better, at least. When they were first dating, Erik was so blind to emotional cues that Charles brought home a pack of feelings flashcards from the daycare.

"Study these," he said, half serious. "Memorize them. Then put them to good use."

He's still not great at it. He's pretty shit, as it turns out, with the human race as a whole. Charles, though, he's nearly fluent in. He's not perfect and he's still struggling to be better, but he can follow the plot, as it were. And tonight's plot seems to be, Let me take a shower and get my head in order and then make everything stop being so awful, but keep your pants on.

Erik's back in bed, reading, by the time Charles wanders out of the shower. His skin is pink; it's warm to the touch when he crawls across the bed and curls up against Erik's side. Erik holds his page with his thumb and loops his other arm around Charles, resting his fingers on the skin peeking out of the gap between his t-shirt and shorts.

"You should have seen the scars lining that little boy's back," Charles says, voice low. "The mother, too. No--no, you shouldn't have seen them. No one should have seen them. He wasn't even dangerous. He had a tail and wings, and the father--the father--"

He swallows, hard, and closes his eyes.

"We live in bloody Westchester County," Charles says when he looks back at Erik. "I don't fucking understand people. I don't--"

He cuts himself off, choking on a growl, and wraps his arms around Erik. Erik wants, more than almost anything he's ever wanted, more than anything except maybe Charles, to have a way to fix this. To make the world over into a more peaceful place where parents didn't abuse their children for being different and everyone was respected for who they were. He wants to make the world into a place that Charles would be proud of, a place where Charles never came home with dark circles under his eyes, his shoulders hunched like someone twice his age.

He can't do that. He can't do much, actually, except microwave mashed poatatoes and make sure that Raven has a bath and goes to bed on time.

And hold Charles, of course. For as long as he needs to be held.

"What can I do?" he asks.

Charles sighs. It's a suspiciously wet sound.

"Keep reading?" Charles asks. The words squelch a little, but Erik tries to ignore that. Charles is hardly shy when he wants Erik to wipe away his tears. By silent agreement, Erik ignores them when it seems Charles wants to pretend they don't exist.

"Out loud?" Erik asks. He taps Charles' temple. "Or in here?"

"Out loud," Charles says. "I like your voice."

"Okay," Erik says. He takes a moment to reach out with his ability to check the locks on all the doors and flip off the downstairs lights. He turns off the overhead light in the bedroom, too, putting on the bedside lamp in its place.

"You're such a show-off," Charles murmurs, but he almost manages a laugh, so Erik congratulates himself.

"Not really," he says. "I'm just lazy."

"Yes, that too," Charles says. "Now get on with the reading."

Erik rolls his eyes, but lifts the book up again, shifting so that Charles is curled more comfortably against his side.

"Not even Batu knew what the zombies were up to," Erik reads. He concentrates on the tone of his voice, on keeping it level, on the proper inflections for the sentences. He doesn't need four different voices--he thinks Charles will be happy just listening to his usual voice. But he wants to make this good. He wants Charles to find it soothing and warm and maybe a little hypnotic. The best storytellers are always a little bit hypnotic. "Sometimes he said that they were just another thing you had to deal with in retail. They were the kind of customer that you couldn't ever satisfy, the kind of customer who wanted something you couldn't give them, who had no other currency, except currency that was sinister, unwholesome, confusing, and probably dangerous."

Charles hums against his side, eyes already closed, but still awake, still aware. Erik can feel him in his mind, curled up like a cat, but not listening in or rifling around, just lying there and following the timbre of Erik's voice as he reads.

It's nice. It's really nice, actually, sitting here like this, connecting this way. They should do it more often, Erik thinks, and not just on days when Charles is so depressed he can barely lift his head up.

"The zombie customers made him feel guilty. He hadn't been trying hard enough. The zombies were never rude, or impatient, or tried to shoplift things." Erik keeps reading, eyes sliding over the words a half second before he says them out loud. "He hoped that they found what they were looking for. After all, he would be dead someday too, and on the other side of the counter."

Maybe reading a chapter book to Raven isn't a bad idea. Maybe they can take turns. Maybe Erik should make sure they do it at least once a week, the three of them together, spending time in the same room, focused on each other and the story.

Maybe Erik should shelve this topic for later, take his own advice, and focus on the story in front of him.

Erik keeps reading.