Angel had a headache. Not a normal, take-two-aspirin-and-sleep-it-off kind of headache but a true why-the-fuck-did-I-think-drinking-four-shots-of-tequila-and-all-that-cheap-beer-was-a-good-idea headache. Except that, in this case, Angel did not have even the satisfaction of knowing said headache was a result of a wild evening out but rather was because her dumbshit caseworker had blackmailed her into showing up for an “emergency appointment” this morning. It was now going on two hours that she had been sitting in the cruddy once-white plastic chairs that lined the wall outside of Kitty Pryde’s “office” which was really just one cubicle set in the center of an endless row of others. Listening to the whining, moaning and general bitching as underpaid government workers all around her stumbled through the hoops of the Department of Child and Family Service’s red tape circus was enough to get on anyone’s nerves. Add in the constant stream of protests and general insolence of a rotating roster of half a dozen or so delinquent teens dragged in on Friday to see their caseworkers and Angel was ready to start banging her head against one of the walls just to make it all stop. Unfortunately, the cubicles' fiberboard would probably just fold right over and snap before she would be able to do any real damage. Pryde had better have a good reason for putting her through all this bullshit, Angel decided.
When Angel was just about ready to walk out and catch the bus back to her end of town, a harried-looking Kitty Pryde finally swept into view, arms spilling over with files and paperwork.
“Hey. Sorry. Another of my kids just punched his school’s Peace Officer in the nose. Dumbass. You guys know I can’t help you when you willingly fuck up your own lives, right? I swear… It’s not even noon yet…”
Angel said nothing. She slouched into the cubicle after Pryde who immediately dumped her armful of paperwork onto her already-overflowing desk. Angel had enough problems on her own without needing to hear about another of Kitty’s troubled children.
“Ok, but you, on the other hand, have a much better reason for seeing me today. Thanks for coming in, by the way. And, you know, waiting.”
Angel said nothing. It wasn’t like she really had a choice. Or anything better to do, for that matter.
“You know how I’ve been trying to get you into that one home on the East Side for, like, half a year now?”
Angel said nothing. Kitty talked a lot about getting her into a new place but it rarely happened unless it was an “emergency.” The Greer house, the place that fostered her now, was not the worst place she’d ever been. But it certainly wasn’t the best either. The lady in charge was just, sort of, checked out. She wasn’t around much which meant Angel and the four other kids in the home were basically left to fend for themselves. But that, she knew from experience, was worlds better than having a foster who was always around. Even sometimes at night, in the dark, when everyone was supposed to be asleep.
“Well, the guy finally had a spot open up. I had to fight six other case workers, tooth and nail, to get you in. Practically lost an eye. But it’s a done deal. You’re in, Angel. I can take you over as early as Monday night, if you want.”
Still, Angel said nothing. Switching homes was always a bit of a gamble. Especially when you were already with a house that wasn’t as miserable as it could be. There was always the risk that the new place was going to be a shithole that made the last look like a refuge, despite however bad it had seemed at the time. And even the best experience with a foster could still be ruined if the other kids were assholes. Angel had enough experience by now with The System to know dealing with the devil you knew was usually better than starting over with the devil you didn’t. She had just about decided to say as much to Kitty when the caseworker interrupted the thought.
“Look, I know moving sucks. I know it’s always hard to start over at a new home. But Angel, this place, this guy who runs the house, he’s a goddamn saint. He’s really good, we’ve never had a complaint about him, never had any Requests for Transfer, and his kids age out and get real jobs, Angel. Like, real, grown-up jobs. They don’t end up in prison or dead or homeless or on drugs. They move out and they move on, just like they would if The System didn’t chew them up so bad first. I wish we had twenty, no, two hundred more fosters like him.”
Caseworkers were usually idiots and, although Kitty seemed to be less of an idiot than most, it was easier (and safer) to just assume all of them wouldn’t smell smoke even if their hair caught fire. And yet, in the thirteen years Angel had been a ward of the state, she had never heard a foster described quite like that before.
“Ok, whatever.” Angel shrugged.
Kitty smiled and began digging through her stacks to find the forms she wanted for the transfer.
“Great. Monday, then? He works late but says he can be home by seven to get you settled. I’ll swing by the Greer’s around then and we’ll head over. It’s a different school but it’s still early in the year… you ok with another transfer?”
Angel shrugged again. Truth be told, she hadn’t been to school in a while. The Greer Lady had never bothered her about registering when the year started a few weeks back and no Truant Officer had since been by to drag her skinny-ass to class. Funny how little people seemed to care about shit like that once you hit a certain age and time in The System.
Angel pretended to listen as Kitty went over all the transfer forms with her. She signed where she was supposed to, nodded and shrugged when she was supposed to, and took her bus tokens for the ride back when she was supposed to. Kitty promised to be by at seven sharp on Monday and then walked with Angel to the bus stop and made sure she got on. She even waved as Angel pushed her way onto the crowded bus. Angel pretended not to see the gesture and tried to squash the seedling of hope that was threatening to grow in her gut. It was easier not to hope. That way, when everything turned to mierda, it really wasn’t a disappointment. Really. Not at all.
Angel hefted her duffel higher on her shoulder and waited for Kitty to deal with the small river of crap that had splashed out of her car when she opened the driver’s door. Angel looked at the neat, little, two-story track home in front of her, unconsciously cataloging exit routes and security features, as Kitty cursed under her breath and shoved the tide of case files back into her car where they apparently belonged. It was nearly 10:30 PM and the neighborhood was quiet and dark. Another of Kitty’s kids had been picked up for vandalism and the caseworker had spent the afternoon (and most of the evening) trying to get him released to the custody of his fosters. Angel had remained seated on the stoop in front of her foster’s apartment building waiting, duffel under her feet for safekeeping. It was either that or stay inside and get into a fight over the remaining food in the house with the other fuck-ups.
Kitty walked up the low steps to the front door and knocked while Angel trailed behind. A low light was on in the main room and the curtains by the front window fluttered softly as someone passed close by. The door opened to reveal a short man with tired blue eyes. He had a very loud tie loosened around the open collar of his shirt and his sleeves rolled up to the elbows.
“Oh, hello Katherine, how’d you do with the other boy? Did you get him home all right?” he asked, his accent caressing the vowels and slipping consonants in a way Angel had only ever heard before on television.
“No, not tonight. They want him to stay overnight. This isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble but they said they’d send him home with only a warning if they got to keep him overnight. He wasn’t happy but I’ll take it. Maybe it’ll get him to calm down a little. Sorry we’re so late,” Kitty added, tiredly
“Not a problem at all, I’m afraid the others are all in bed, though.” The man opened the door wide and motioned them inside.
Angel followed Kitty inside but was stopped just inside as the man caught her eye and offered his hand to shake.
“Angel, yes? I’m Charles Xavier and very pleased you’re finally here. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you all weekend. Have you eaten anything tonight? There’re some leftovers from supper…” and he swept into the kitchen to rummage around in the cupboards and fridge without waiting for a response. He also seemed unoffended that she hadn’t moved to shake his hand.
Kitty shot Angel a wink just then and sat down in one of the mismatched chairs at the round table that consumed most of the open space in the kitchen. She motioned for Angel to join her.
“Can I get you anything, Katherine?” Charles asked from where he was putting a kettle on the stove and heating up some kind of soup in the microwave.
“No thanks, and Charles, you know everyone calls me Kitty,” she responded with a smile.
The man blushed prettily as he gathered mugs and cutlery from various storage places around the kitchen. Angel noticed that the dirty dishes and general crud that comes standard in all foster homes appeared to be lacking here. She didn’t know whether to take this as a good sign or a bad: neat and tidy was one thing but a clean-freak, task-master who set lists of chores the length of an arm and had a fit if one of the kids left something out of its proper place or, God-forbid, spilled something was quite another. Her musings were interrupted however as the man, no, Charles, placed a heaping bowl of thick, reheated navy bean soup in front of her complete with a steaming roll and mug of chamomile tea.
“There’s more if you want, love— Oh! You haven’t any dietary restrictions, have you? Sorry, I suppose I should’ve asked first… The others, they hardly pause to question what exactly they’re tucking into until it’s half gone. But I did have a nice young lady once who was terribly allergic to nuts… not that there’re any nuts in the soup, mind you!”
He and Kitty both laughed at that like it was the funniest thing either of them had ever fucking heard. Angel shook her head when Charles seemed to remember he’d lost a question somewhere in his ramble and then she devoted her attention to eating her soup as quickly as possible without burning herself. It was always a good idea to eat quickly so that if someone got angry or tried to take the food away she would get some first.
Charles joined them at the table then with a mug of tea of his own. He had chosen, to Angel’s relief, a seat on the other side of the table. She didn’t like it when people got to close or tried to touch her without warning.
“So, Angel,” Charles began, “I don’t know how much Kath— er, Kitty has told you about us here but it’s just me and the four, well, now five I suppose, of you all. Henry (he prefers Hank) has been with me for around… six years now? Lord, I’m getting old… Anyway he’s an excellent resource if you need anything and I’m not around or if there’s something you don’t understand about the way we do things here. Mostly, as far as 'house rules' go, really the base of everything is that I ask you be respectful of everyone here and that you come to me first if you have a problem with one of the others. Violence is never the way to solve a problem and I have a very low tolerance for it in this house. Other than that, we’ve a chore wheel on the fridge there… Oh, I see the others have already added you to it. I suppose they think that’s a clever way of welcoming you…”
As Charles rattled on about curfews and the value of education and all that other happy horseshit, Angel did her best to look disinterested. Not enough to be labeled as “insolent,” mind you, just enough to prove to Charles that she knew his so-called “house rules” were really more for Kitty’s benefit than hers. Every home she could ever remember being in since she was small had begun their relationship with an explanation of Rules. And every home’s stated Rules would have likely pleased her caseworker but invariably not aligned with what were The Real Rules of the house. The Real Rules were the ones that mattered, in the end. They were the ones that took days, sometimes weeks, of living with the other residents to figure out. Sometimes it was Don’t Make Noise After Foster Dad Gets Home, or maybe If You’re Going to Drink or Fight or Smoke, Just Don’t Be Obvious, often it was Anything You Leave Out is Up for Grabs, and sometimes Always Always Lock and Barricade Your Door At Night. So really, Angel thought, whatever Charles was saying now meant very little to her life here at this new house. She tried staring dispassionately at the table, the wall, the floor and her nails but her gaze always seemed inexplicably drawn back to Charles and his unwavering smile.
“Now, this is important, Angel,” he was saying as she unwillingly tuned back in, “we make every effort to eat dinner together in this house. I know it may seem a little silly or old-fashioned but really, please, do make the effort to be about by seven or whenever we’re eating that night. Everyone is so busy these days I like to have at least that time catch up with each other. Sometimes, like tonight, it’s unavoidable to miss, obviously, and please don’t think that means you won’t eat or anything horrible like that. I just want to see you more than once in a blue moon, you understand? And it certainly makes a meal more enjoyable when we share it together.”
Angel repressed, barely, the urge to roll her eyes with that last statement. Where had he picked that gem up, a Hallmark Special? Maybe one of those “How To Be a Great Foster Parent!” pamphlets that she always saw scattered about the DCFS office. She wondered how that particular Rule was working out for him. This guy was really starting to seem too good to be true. That was never a good sign especially this early in the game. It made Angel worry that he was trying to hide something. She’d just have to be that much more careful until she figured this place out.
Kitty broke out the paperwork then and they had more than a few minutes of reading, witnessing, signing and co-signing to go through before Charles asked if Angel had any questions or wanted anything else to eat. When the answer to both of those questions earned him a scowl and a disdainful shrug, he simply smiled and cleared away Angel’s bowl and mug. All too quickly, it seemed, it was time for Kitty to leave.
Angel liked to think that she didn’t need a lot of extra attention or emotional care from her caseworker. She had learned early that it was better to rely on one person and one person only in life, namely, herself. Whether or not Kitty was with her shouldn’t have made any difference at all to Angel’s feeling of safety or wellbeing. She was a big girl. She could handle her own shit as she had many times before. And yet, when Kitty began to pack up her things and started to say her goodbyes, Angel felt her stomach clench. She had forgotten just how much she hated being in a new house. Especially one that had only one foster, a male one, at that. Granted, Charles looked ok, so far. At least, he didn’t look like one of the men who liked to watch or drink or touch or hit. But, then again, Angel had met men that “looked ok” before and had been proven so very, very wrong within only a few hours.
Charles wished Kitty a safe drive home and luck with her other kids in the coming weeks. He promised to keep in close contact if they needed any help with the school registration or any of the other day-to-day minutia involved with taking in a new ward. Then he leaned forward and kissed Kitty’s hand like some kind of fucking English prince. Kitty giggled and practically came all over the floor. Then she turned to Angel.
“Ok, kid. You got my number if you need anything. You all settled here? I’ll see you again on Friday to check how things are going, ok? I’ll pick you up this time so if I get side-tracked again you aren’t stuck downtown waiting.”
She winked at Angel then and Charles walked her to the door waving and wishing her a good night one last time. Then he quietly closed and locked the door and came back inside. Angel couldn’t help but notice that the door had two locks and a solid-looking chain to keep intruders out. Or, maybe, they really were meant to keep several someones in.
Charles came back into the kitchen and leaned languidly against one of the counters smiling softly at Angel. She noticed he had a precision to his movements that was almost… graceful? It was weird, she immediately decided, and sure did nothing to dispel her anxiety at being suddenly very much alone in a strange place with a strange man.
“Given the late hour, how about we save the grand tour for tomorrow and settle for an abbreviated version tonight, Miss Angel?” Charles left his perch near the counter and crossed towards the hallway leading, presumably, to the rest of the house. Angel jumped slightly as he came close. It was remarkable, actually, given how tightly wound she had become in the last few minutes following Kitty’s departure, that her reaction to his nearness was anything less than a full-tilt sprint out the back door and away from the house. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time she’d bailed like that. Charles, however, missed neither the movement nor what it implied.
“Hey,” he said softly, slowly lifting his hands, palms out and open. “Hey, love, it’s all right. This is a safe place. No one is going to bother you here. You have my word.”
Angel only glared warily. She’d heard those words too many times before for them to have the calming effect he’d no doubt intended. But the pause was enough for her to get herself under control and fix her mask of indifference back into place where it belonged. She took a few breaths before nodding to the small man to just get-the-fuck on with it. Whatever it entailed.
Charles backed up a few steps then, still watching her and waved his arm to the room now behind him.
“This is the den,” he said, “and that,” he gestured to a door in the far corner Angel had failed to notice before, “leads to the basement where Hank bunks. He chose to move down there a few years ago when we needed more space upstairs. Hasn’t left since and it gives us another bedroom for another kid. Let me show you the rest,” and he moved cautiously into the hallway up the stairs before pausing halfway. Carefully, Angel followed, unaware that she was clutching tightly to her duffel.
Now whispering, Charles gestured, “The upstairs loo—sorry, been a long day—bathroom, is on the end there. The room next to it is Ororo, she’s five next month. This in the middle is for the Summers brothers, Alex and Scott, fifteen and twelve respectively. I’m up here at the top of the landing and you, my dear, are right here in the corner between me and the boys.”
He proceeded up the stairs onto the L-shaped second floor and opened the door to the corner room. Angel noted the heavy reinforced lock and breathed easier when she saw it was operated from the inside. She followed Charles into the room as he flicked on the light.
It was small, barely big enough for the twin bed and a desk under the window on the far wall. There was a beat up old bureau against the wall her room would share with the boys’ bedroom. But Angel cared little for any of those things once she saw what Charles was holding out to her in his hand: a key.
“There’s a master,” he warned as Angel reached out to take the shiny object reverently from his outstretched hand. “But no one has access to it save me and I will not use it unless there is a life-threatening emergency that necessitates opening your door. Do you understand? I take this very seriously, Angel. This is your space as long as you live here. No one will come in here without your permission.”
Yes, she’d heard that one before too but… no one had ever given Angel her own key before. Half the places she’d been in hadn’t even had locks on the doors, all in the name of “safety” for the residents of course. How letting a bunch of juvenile delinquents have free pick of your caca was supposed to be safer, Angel never could figure out.
“There’re spare toiletries under the sink in the bathroom. Help yourself, please, and I asked the boys to clean out a shelf in there for you too (whether or not they actually did though, remains to be seen) and you’ll find a clean towel in there for you as well. If there’s anything else you must have tonight, just give me a shout and we’ll see what we can do. We’ll go shopping sometime tomorrow to pick up any other odds and ends you might need, all right?”
Angel nodded, her attention still mostly focused on the key quickly warming in the palm of her hand. Charles made for the exit then, wishing her a good night and assuring her he’d see her in the morning. He stayed well clear of her as he left the room and closed the door quietly behind him, giving Angel her privacy. She listened for a few moments as he descended the stairs and rummaged about on the ground floor, setting things to rights for the night. Angel quickly fled to the bathroom then, marveling at the novelty of locking the bedroom behind her as she left.
She began to wash up and, sure enough found an unclaimed shelf in the cabinet against the wall complete with a spare toothbrush and a worn but fresh-smelling towel. Angel snooped interestedly in the belongings of her fellow residents. It was not wrong, she reasoned, merely self-defense and a way of getting to know the people she was supposed to be sharing a space with for the foreseeable future. There were two nooks clearly claimed by boys as they held various antiperspirants and assorted Axe and Old Spice products. Why so many boys seemed to think that swill was attractive, she would never know. Shaving cream and a razor were stashed in the highest of the spaces so Angel assumed that one belonged to the older brother. The final shelf contained what appeared to be an entire dollar store’s worth of bath playthings. There was also an assortment of brightly colored hair ribbons and a few components of a fake plastic make-up kit. The towel in what was clearly the little girl’s section was, though just as threadbare as the others, pink and patterned with Disney Princesses. Angel, against her better judgment, felt herself hoping that the little girl’s bath times were as happy and normal as they seemed to be.
She finished washing up then and escaped back to the bedroom. It was, reassuringly, still locked. Angel changed into nightclothes and crawled into the bed only after carefully locking the door and tilting the desk chair under the handle. She curled there, under the mismatched blankets, and listened to the night sounds of this strange, new place settling around her. At some point, she heard the creak of the floorboards and soft footsteps on the stairs followed by the sound of a bedroom door opening and closing. Running water in the pipes told her that the master bedroom must have its own bathroom. Good. She didn’t want to share that space with a strange man. The two teenage boys would be bad enough. Sometime later, Angel heard the telltale creaking of bedsprings from the room next door. Soon after, Angel followed her new guardian to sleep.
Angel awoke to the shrill screech of a teakettle and the banging of pots and pans. “Ay, Díos…” she began sleepily. Angel was not, by nature, an early-riser but this time she felt justified in her irritation. It had been, after all, a stressful day and a late night in a new place. She yawned spectacularly as she crawled out of bed and trudged down the hall to the bathroom. She was distracted however by the door standing ajar halfway into the hall. Peeking inside, Angel saw a set of bunk beds and two skinny boys in various states of undress, one with a hairbrush stuck in an impossible snarl of brown hair.
“What the fuck, creep!” the older of the two shouted as he caught sight of her peering into the room. He slammed the door hard enough to rattle the pictures on the hallway wall.
“Nice to meet you too, asshole,” Angle muttered under her breath as she continued to the bathroom.
By the time Angel made it downstairs, the smells of coffee and morning cooking were heavy in the house. As she approached the kitchen quietly, she first saw Charles, dressed again in a ridiculous tie and pair of tweed slacks, flipping pancakes at the stove with one hand and sipping tea with the other. At the table now sat three boys who were alternately mauling a stack of steaming pancakes and drowning themselves in orange juice. The eldest of these was a boy who had the look of somebody who’d gone through puberty too quickly and hadn’t yet adjusted to his size or new proportions. He shoved his glasses, with too big hands, back up the bridge of his nose and continued trying to wipe the face of a wiggling, dark-skinned little girl who seemed to have more syrup on her face than plate. The girl shrieked happily as she squirmed away and proceeded to get the syrup into her hair. She likely would have continued to dress herself in breakfast condiments if she hadn’t, at that moment, caught sight of Angel at the threshold of the room. She suddenly went very quiet and broke from the bigger boy’s grasp only to hurl herself into Charles’ legs by the stove.
“Oof!” Charles said as he was nearly knocked to the floor by the small child. “What is it ‘Ro—ah. Good morning, Angel. Everyone, say hello to our newest resident, Miss Angel Salvadore.”
All three boys gaped at her for a few moments before reacting. The blond from earlier scowled, his brother blushed and smiled at his plate and the big guy stood and stuck out a huge hand.
“I’m Hank. Welcome to… um… to home, I guess,” He flicked a glance over at Charles who smiled and nodded reassuringly as he tried to pry the girl from out between his legs.
“Say hello, Scott. Alex?” said Charles as he finally extracted the girl and lifted her into his arms.
The blushing boy grew redder and whispered, “Hi” very quietly to his shoelaces. His brother continued to shoot Angel a death glare.
“Stay outta our fucking room, man!” he finally spat at her. Charles quickly covered the little one’s ears and was about ready to scold the teen for his outburst when Angel exploded, “I wasn’t in your room, asshole! I was walking by and you had the door wide open! How the hell is that my fault?”
Angel was not one to sit back and take that kind of abuse especially if it was undeserved. The boy sprang to his feet then, clenching his fists and knocking over his chair. His brother flinched horribly at the sudden aggressive movement and managed to give the impression of curling in on himself without actually moving. Angel was not surprised that she was about to get into a brawl before breakfast; similar things had happened at other houses in the past. Some dumbshits just couldn’t wait to take their beating and Angel had no problem with delivering an express helping if this pendejo was so impatient.
But Charles, apparently, had other plans.
“Sit down, Alex! Just what do you think you’re doing, hmm? Are you really trying to get into a fight beforeschool even starts today? Take a breath, young man!”
Angel had a fair amount of experience with yelling, angry fosters. The trick was determining which tone was an everyday, ok-to-ignore shouting and which was the sit-down-shut-up-or-get-slapped-up bellowing. She was very good at quickly figuring out the difference. Survival depended on it. But Angel had never come across a foster who could apparently diffuse a situation without ever raising his voice. So when Alex huffed out a few times noisily before picking up his chair and planting himself back in it, arms crossed, Angel wondered what horrors Charles must be capable of to have that effect on the roiling pot of blond testosterone before her.
The little girl was now buried in Charles’ chest, her eyes screwed shut and her thumb sucked halfway to the bone. The younger brother was sitting very stiffly on the edge of his seat gaze flicking back and forth nervously from his brother, to Angel and back again. He looked ready to bolt at the first sign of renewed hostilities. Charles shifted the girl to one arm and hugged her tightly to his chest. He moved behind the young boy’s chair then and laid his free hand softly on the boy’s shoulder. As he felt his guardian’s warmth behind him, the tension in the boy’s body drained visibly. Charles then looked pointedly at Alex who uncrossed his arms and slumped back in his seat immediately looking repentant at the sight of his brother so worked up.
“Angel. This is Scott Summers,” Charles said patting the boy’s shoulder beneath him, “and this short-fused young man is his older (and, therefore, hopefully more mature) brother Alex.”
He hitched the girl in his arms higher then and introduced her as Ororo Munroe. “Can you tell Miss Angel how old you are, love?” he coaxed from the frightened child. Ororo peaked out at Angel from the folds of Charles’ shirt for a moment before burying her face back into the material and shaking her head.
“No? Can you show her on your fingers then? No? Well, maybe later then, darling. Hank? Will you help Angel get something to eat? I think I might have my arms full for the moment…” and he began to tickle and kiss Ororo out of the burrow she had made in his shirt.
Hank brought Angel a plate of pancakes then and, in an obvious attempt to help diffuse some of the tension in the room, asked her, “So, where are you coming from? I mean… um… what part of the state, you know? Or are you from here in the city or… um.”
Angel shrugged in response. She sat, picked up her fork and glared at Alex who was shoveling the rest of his breakfast into his mouth at top speed and pointedly not paying Angel any attention. He stood suddenly, said, “Let’s go, Scotty. We’ll miss the bus,” and grabbed both their plates for the dishwasher before his brother could protest.
“Bye, Charles,” Alex said stiffly as he grabbed his backpack and stomped out of the house.
“Have a nice, calm day, Alex. See you tonight,” Charles called to the teen’s retreating back. Scott made as if to scurry out after his brother but paused when he reached the door.
“Bye Charles, bye Hank…. bye Angel,” he said to the doorknob before slipping out to catch his brother.
Charles laughed and shook his head then and set Ororo (who still was clinging to his arm and sucking her thumb) down on the countertop next to the sink so he could finish de-syruping the girl.
“Don’t mind Alex,” Hank said quietly, “He’s… uh… not really good with new people. Or, well, most people in general… He, just, sometimes can be like a mother Helarctos malayanus, you know?”
Angel most definitely did not know and would have said so if she wasn’t interrupted by a squealing giggle mixed with the sound of a loud, wet raspberry being blown on Ororo’s newly un-sticky cheek.
“That’s more like it!” Charles said throwing the still-giggling child over his shoulder like a sack of rice and joining Angel and Hank at the table. He tugged his charge down into his lap and began to cut her remaining pancakes for her, avoiding the syrup as much as possible.
“What Hank means,” Charles began, “is that Alex has a tendency to be a bit territorial, sometimes. He also was likely startled by you this morning, reacted badly and was then embarrassed by his rather, er, abrasive outburst. All will be forgotten by this evening, you’ll see, and then you two can start to get to know one another properly.” He smiled sweetly. Ororo was apparently finished with her breakfast but was still eyeing Angel warily and showed no signs of wanting to leave Charles’ lap.
“If you’re ready to go, Angel,” Charles said between bites of Ororo’s abandoned pancakes, “we can drop these two off at their respective daycares and then head over to the high school and get you registered.” Hank grinned at that and began clearing the table.
“I’m not in a daycare, Charles—“
“What else would you call a place that serves to keep you from getting into trouble or hurting yourself when you’re not in school or at home? And they just let you play all day, I know it for fact!”
“It isn’t ‘playing,’ it’s research! And just because that generator caught fire one time doesn’t mean I’m not meticulous about safety protocols!”
“I believe it was more than once, Mr. McCoy. By my count, three times, actually—“
“That one last spring was a flaw in the prefabricated wiring!” Hank argued, his face turning red, “I haven’t used prefab components just for that reason since!”
Charles was chuckling now at the teen’s reaction. He shook his head and said to Angel, “All right, we drop Ororo off at daycare, Henry off at his lab and then we can pop over to the high school, better Hank?” and the boy huffed in mock indignation.
“How come he doesn’t have to go to school?” Angel piped in.
“Hank takes afternoon and evening classes at the community college. He’s in the first year of his Master’s studies in physics and he works in one of the graduate playpens (“Hey!” from Hank), yes all right, laboratories, in the mornings. He’s really quite brilliant,” Charles answered, beaming at his eldest charge. Hank could only shuffle his feet and blush at the praise.
After the eventful morning, Angel found herself being lead unwillingly into the imposing grey concrete of the local high school by her new tweed-covered guardian.
“Just some placement tests today and you’ll be set to start with classes tomorrow. I understand you’ve had a bit of an, er, break in your education recently, Angel?”
If by ‘break’ he meant ‘haven’t been to school regularly since last winter recess’ then yes, Angel thought, it has been a bit of a break. Frankly, she was not sure even what grade she would be enrolled in today seeing as she hadn’t exactly finished much of the last one.
Charles marched into the Administration Office like a man who knew what he was doing. He flashed his teeth and spoke quietly to the secretary while Angel slouched into a chair. She wondered vaguely, as she looked around the office, if admin buildings were all designed by the same person. Angel swore she had seen that exact picture of a boat at sea in three other offices while she waited to be yelled at by various administrators.
Charles motioned her to follow then and they entered through an office door lettered with “Vice Principal James Howlett, M.Ed” on the front. He managed to trip over the threshold somehow and Angel heard a gruff voice from inside growl, “Very smooth, Chuck. You got another one for us then?”
Charles laughed at himself and straightened his garish tie before sitting down across from a very hairy man who looked more uncomfortable wearing a suit than anyone Angel had ever seen.
“Logan, this is Angel Salvadore. She’s my new ward and is eager to start classes as soon as possible,” Charles said, motioning Angel to sit down as well.
Angel couldn’t remember ever being described as “eager” before and certainly not about anything academic. The administrator looked her up and down once before snorting.
“Eager. Yeah, I’m sure. Just like Summers, right? Well, listen here, kid. The name’s Logan and I’m the VP in charge of attendance and discipline and a bunch of other shi—uh, stuff I don’t really ever have time for cuz I always end up spending my day chasing your scrawny butts back to class. So let’s just get things straight from the start: don’t try to ditch and don’t try to start something and you won’t end up on my list. If you got a problem with somebody, you come see me and I’ll handle it, capiche? Unless, it’s like a feelings problem or something. Then you can talk to Charlie here cuz he’s got the market cornered on that junk. Right?” He smiled sarcastically at Charles who, incredibly, laughed again like he hadn’t just been the butt of a joke.
“Oh, Logan, don’t scare her. Angel, Mr. Howlett is just teasing really, he’s here to help you with whatever you need. I’ll leave you in his capable hands for the rest of the day and if you need me I’m just a phone call away, all right? Alex will make sure you and Scott get on the right bus back home at the end of the day.”
Well that wasn’t too reassuring. The kid already hell-bent on hating her responsible for making sure she got home in one piece? Yeah, right. Charles was a naïve idiot if thought that was going to go well. Her guardian, however, was preoccupied with going over some paperwork with the VP. Angel watched their strange interaction warily. The teacher looked like he belonged in a backwoods somewhere with an axe and a flannel shirt, not in an admin office of some poor urban high school. He kept growling little snide comments at Charles who did nothing but smile and bat them carelessly back. They were clearly used to dealing with one another, if nothing else.
Eventually, the two men finished signing away Angel’s likely-short future and shook hands before Charles collected his coat and turned to Angel to say goodbye.
“Now, don’t fret, love, but I won’t likely be home when you return from school today. I work most afternoons and some evenings but there will be someone there to get everyone settled and started with homework before I get home, alright? Have a good day, Angel, and good luck with your exams!”
Angel was afraid for a moment he was going to try to give her a goodbye-kiss to go with his sappy little send-off but Charles merely touched her shoulder lightly and smiled on his way out. He stumbled again as he left the office and Angel jumped slightly at the voice behind her.
“Heh. Idiot. But he’d sure be a lot easier to not like if he wasn’t such a damn bleedin’-heart. Come on kid,” Logan flapped the stack of assessment exams he was carrying at her, “Let’s get you started so we can all get outta here on time, ok?”
When Logan the Lumberjack-cum-Vice-Principal let her go at the end of the school day, Angel was surprised to find Alex Summers and his brother waiting for her under a tree near the bus turnaround.
“Finally!” Alex said exasperatedly, “Let’s go already!”
Angel wondered when she was going to discover the catch. She followed the Summers brothers onto the crowded yellow school bus and took a seat a few rows behind the boys, careful not to leave her back exposed. She tensed when the driver’s attention was fully on the road knowing from experience that if an attack was going to come, it was likely coming now. But the elder Summers never looked at her. Scott kept shooting Angel furtive glances but he, too, said and did nothing the entire ride back. When Alex got up to leave at their stop, Angel and Scott dutifully followed.
She trailed the boys several paces as they made their way back to Charles’ house. They didn’t wait for her as they walked inside. Angel made to follow (once enough time had passed to prepare for the sneak attack that was no doubt waiting for her) but she paused when she saw a bright blue car in the driveway. That hadn’t been there before, had it?
Angel made it inside far enough to take shelter behind the sofa without blows raining down or having blade slashed in her belly. She considered the maneuver a success until she turned and realized she was not alone in the den.
“Hi,” said a leggy blonde folded into the armchair with a copy of some gossip magazine on her lap. Ororo was combing the hair of a one-armed Barbie Doll at her feet.
Angel scowled at her once the initial shock of not being alone wore off. Charles had said “someone” would be here when she got home but apparently “someone” meant his damn super-model girlfriend. Angel knew to be wary of her foster parent’s significant others. Where there was a girlfriend there was usually a crazy-ex or five and that shit could get real nasty real quick.
Alex stuck his head in at that moment, “Raven, are you making dinner tonight? I just need to know whether to eat now or not.”
“Screw you, Summers! I cook great!”
“Really? Why don’t we ever see it then?”
“You are such a little… Gah! Go do your homework or something!”
“No, but, seriously, you’re not making dinner, are you?”
“Erik’s coming over, you turd.”
“Aw yeah, sick!”
The woman laughed.
“Since when do you think that’s a good thing? Just last week you were complaining to me what a jerk he is!”
“He is a jerk but ‘least we eat good when he’s around.”
“Jesus, you have your priorities, don’t you? Now go do something productive.”
“Ha!” Alex called as he disappeared back into the kitchen. Ororo, however, chose that moment to notice Angel. With a squeak she scrambled up into the woman’s sprawled lap.
“Hey kiddo, it’s ok,” she soothed before turning her attention back to Angel.
“So you’re Angel, right? I’m Raven, the better, prettier, cooler version of Charles. Are you just going to stand there and gawk or are you actually going to come sit down or something like a normal person?”
Angel knew a challenge when she heard one. She also needed to make it clear she wasn’t going to take any shit from whoever happened to be banging her guardian that week.
“What’s it to you, bitch?” she snarled back.
“Hey! Four year-old ears here!” Raven replied as Alex called, “Wow!” from the depths of the kitchen.
“…almos’ five,” came the quiet correction from Ororo as she immediately started sucking her thumb again, gaze fixed worriedly on Angel.
“Stand down, girl, geeze,” said Raven. “Just trying to be friendly.”
Angel was not impressed by whatever game Miss America was playing. She gave her one last scowl before heading up the stairs to her room. Her room with a lock and a door that could be slammed in irritation. If Mr. Cotton-Candy-Ass wanted to make something of how she’d treated his whore when he got home, well, Angel would deal with it then. The “just trying to make you feel welcome, love!” routine was wearing thin already and she looked forward to time when they could just have all the ugly out in the open.
Two hours later Angel was asleep on her bed with her shoes kicked off by the (locked) bedroom door. She woke to the rumble of a male voice downstairs. A lifetime of experience had taught Angel to be on guard around people who sounded like that. She listened, but it was too muffled to hear what was going on or to infer any tone or inflection. She sighed. This was turning out to be one of those places with a constantly rotating cast of characters. It was best if she knew all the players sooner rather than later then.
When Angel came back downstairs, she perched on the bottom step and peered into the kitchen. Scott was working on homework next to Ororo who was humming quietly to herself and coloring. Alex was slouching in a chair, arms crossed while a tall, wiry (nice ass) stranger loomed over him reading something out of a composition book.
“What is this? I do not understand your words here,” he gestured broadly between Alex and the notebook as he spoke. There was a heavy accent there that Angel couldn’t place.
“That’s cuz you don’t speak English, man,” Alex said.
The man swatted him lightly with a loose sheet of paper as he replied, “Or maybe it is that you do not write English, hmmm? This ‘ain’t!’ There is no such word as ‘ain’t’ in English, boy.”
Scott clapped his hands over his mouth as though to keep the smile and giggle bubbling out of him from escaping. He was unsuccessful and his older brother glared at him when he snickered.
“It’s just a draft, Lehnsherr! It doesn’t matter! We’re gonna do peer edit tomorrow in class anyway.”
“Oh, well, if it ‘doesn’t matter,’ why do you ask that I waste my time looking at it then?”
Alex rolled his eyes, “Cuz I thought, I dunno, maybe you’d, like, help for once? Instead of just riding me ‘til I’m saddle-sore, geeze.”
The man grinned wickedly before replying, “Come now, Alex, you must know I only ride bareback.”
“Ugh! Fuck, man! That’s way TMI! Keep that shit to yourself, ok?”
“Watch you mouth, boy. You set a poor example for your brother, hmm?” He pointed to Scott who was now frowning a little trying to work out what had his brother so disgusted.
Angel decided it was high time she broke up this happy horseshit so she came into the kitchen. She noticed the blond was conspicuously missing. Probably she couldn’t be bothered to do tutoring.
“Where’s the bi—babe from before?” Angel caught herself in time. Nothing was gained from upsetting little kids with that kind of talk. Angel’s stomach clenched a little at the way the girl was humming and coloring as though she were actually enjoying herself.
The man merely raised an eyebrow at her sudden aggressive appearance.
“Raven is gone now as I am here. You are the new one, then?”
“And just who the hell are you?”
“I am Erik,” he said simply as though it were explanation enough.
He turned back to Alex’s essay. Angel goggled at him waiting for more information. When none appeared forthcoming, she demanded, “Where’s Charles?”
“He is still at the college. He will be home within the hour, I am sure,” the man-- this Erik or whatever-- never even turned around.
“The one where he is a professor. It is the community college near… that big indoor shopping center--”
“—it’s called the Mall dude, stop being weird,” Alex interjected.
“—yes, well, your vocabulary lesson aside, he has a late class this evening. Any more of your Twenty Questions?” He raised an eyebrow at her along with the edge of his upper lip. Too many teeth grinned out at Angel. She was sure it was meant to be taken as a snarl rather than a suggestion of something friendlier. And yet, Angel nearly breathed a sigh of relief at this aggression. Finally, here was the kind of interaction she was used to.
“You know where to revise,” Erik told Alex as he handed back the composition book. He then crossed to the refrigerator and began preparations for dinner without a backwards glance at Angel. She didn’t mind; she was well-practiced at being ignored. She took the opportunity to slip out the back door and—
“Be back by six if you plan on having dinner with us,” Erik called after her.
Angel didn’t dignify that with a response. She’d be back whenever she damn-well felt like it… if that happened to be by six then it wasn’t because any babysitter told her to.
Warning for offensive language
At 6:03 Angel had smoked three of her seven remaining cigarettes (she really had to see about getting some more…) and walked around the stuffy little white-bread neighborhood enough times to decide she was happy she hadn’t been born a boring-old gringa. Sure, it would’ve been nice to have something like the little playground she passed when she was growing up… And maybe it would’ve been cool to have a backyard with a fence and a puppy waiting for her every day after school… And maybe having people that stuck around would’ve been ok too… but still. It was clear Angel didn’t belong here and everyone she passed knew it. She saw those soccer-moms glaring at her ciggie like it was the devil and the only people with skin-color like hers were a couple of the gardeners packing up their truck for the day. She knew it wouldn’t take long for this shit to get old.
By 6:07 Angel was kicking a rock at the curb and thinking about maybe just hopping a bus back to a more comfortable part of town. They’d be mad at the house, probably. That Erik dude looked like he could yell for a while, if he stuck around. And Kitty would be pissed. She’d likely give Angel her “I’m really disappointed in you” speech before buying her a cheeseburger and letting her sleep on the couch at her place for the night… but then she’d still have to come back here in the morning.
It would’ve been an even toss-up between splitting and sticking around if it hadn’t been for the old grey-and-rust colored beater that squeaked to a stop right in front of her. She tensed from old habit, waiting to be struck dead by the hail of bullets that would surely follow--! Instead, the rear door creaked open.
“Out for an evening constitutional?” Charles asked as Hank rolled down his passenger window.
“That’s a really ugly tie.” Angel told Charles as they puttered the last few blocks back to the house.
The bastard just laughed. Then he slowed and meandered around a stupid bird that wasn’t smart enough to get out of the street as they drove by. Hank had hardly looked up from whatever journal his nose was stuffed in since they stopped to pick her up.
“It is rather… talkative, isn’t it?” Charles said as he flashed her a shit-eating grin in the rearview mirror.
“One of my kids gave it to me for my birthday a few years back. He’s in school in California now,” he said with genuine nostalgia. “Do you remember Armando, Henry? He would’ve left just a few months after you came along.”
Hank hummed noncommittally. Angel snorted. She’d never in her life given nor received a birthday present from a foster parent. Kitty bought her a pair of hoop earrings last year but they’d gotten jacked by the end of the week. It wasn’t worth it to have nice things.
“Did you think of any necessaries I can pick up for you tonight, Angel?” He chuckled. “And of course by ‘I’ I really mean, ‘Hank’ here. Some of us have too early of a bedtime for evening shopping.”
“Hmm?” said Hank at the sound of his name.
“Sorry, I know I said we’d go do a supply run for you today, love, but things ran late at work and… well, no excuse really.” He sighed as they pulled into the driveway.
Angel shrugged as she got out of the car. Empty promises were the only kind she knew. Charles kept chattering as they headed into the house. It smelled like garlic and chicken inside.
“Here, you and Hank can go tonight after supper and get anything essential you need. You can make me a list for the rest and I’ll go on my lunch tomorrow… oh, but I suppose you’d probably prefer to come… Raven says I’m rubbish at picking out clothing… It’d have to wait until the weekend then if you—oof!”
“Charz!” the projectile shouted from around his knees.
“There’s my favorite ‘Ro! Darling, remember we talked about being careful not to knock people over right as they come in the door? Yes? Have you washed up for supper yet? Yes, I know, I’m coming, let me put my kit down first, love.”
He was dragged off immediately (and with surprising strength!) by the little girl, presumably to wash up.
Hank continued into the kitchen without looking up from his papers. He dodged a wall, his foster-sister and guardian and slid off his messenger bag one-handed before settling down at the table.
“Hey! Earth to Bozo!” said Alex snapping his fingers in front of the teen’s face. “Hank, you—oh.” He narrowed his eyes when he saw Angel. “You’re back,” he sounded disappointed. “Well, you gotta help set,” he said and immediately dumped a jumble of mismatched flatware in front of her. He was pragmatic, if nothing else.
By the time forks and knives and napkins were sorted into some semblance of order on the table, Charles had returned (a little wet) from helping Ororo and Scott had materialized from somewhere carrying a jug of water and some cups.
“Whoa! You’re gonna drop it, little buddy.”
“No, I got it--”
“Charles, I don’t know about this data, the confidence interval looks good...”
“Maybe after supper, Hank—no, ‘Ro! Don’t put that in your mouth!”
“I said I got it, Alex! Go’way!”
“Hey, I just don’t wanna be cleaning that shi--”
“I’m just concerned about their analysis of the third trial--”
“Why don’t we sit,” said Erik as he put a platter of steaming food on the table. Not surprisingly, everyone sat.
Angel couldn’t remember sitting down to a good ol’, honest-to-gosh Family Meal ever before in her life.
There was relative quiet for exactly two minutes and thirty-seven seconds while everyone helped themselves to food and drink. Then Charles ruined it by saying, “Well, did you have a nice day?”
Since the question was directed to no one in particular, everyone decided to answer at once. Alex started to complain about his math teacher who was a “total dick” when it came to stupid things like punctuality and completed assignments. Scott blushed furiously and told the salt-shaker, in a quiet voice, that he got an A on his science test. Hank began to perseverate about whether his polymerase chain reaction probe was synthesized correctly or if he would have to redo the reaction tomorrow. Erik started talking about a piece on NPR he’d heard on his lunch break. Ororo said “Hops’otch!” excitedly and mashed some potatoes between her fingers to illustrate her point. Angel wondered when her bed at the insane asylum would be ready and if she should call ahead to get things speeded up.
The worst part was watching Charles take everything in stride. He smiled and nodded at everyone and asked interested follow-up questions as though he were really capable of carrying on five conversations at the same time.
“Alex, there’s only so much time during the school day so no wonder you maths teacher wants to make the most of it…. That’s fantastic, Scottie! I’m so proud of you!... Henry, I’m sure you did everything correctly and you’ll have lovely data waiting for you in the morning… No, I didn’t know that about the Chinese economy, Erik, how fascinating… How about a fork for those potatoes, ‘Ro? No? Well, a least try to get them in your—ah, well, it’ll wash out…”
It went on like this for some time. Everyone talked at once like they expected to be struck dumb any minute. Even Ororo participated and punctuated the cacophony with gems such as, “Peas!” and “Coloring!” and the occasional giggle. Finally, just as the tide seemed to ebb, “…what about you, Angel? Were your exams all right?”
It took Angel a moment to realize Charles had asked a question and a further moment to grasp that it was directed at her. She shrugged, knowing it would be enough. “How was your day?” was one of those things people asked Angel just to be polite but they didn’t really expect (or actually want) an answer.
“I think she is choosing ‘no comment’ as her answer, Charles,” Erik said with a snide little smile that would have gotten him punched in other parts of town.
“Oh, I didn’t think that was an option,” Charles winked. “Come now, Angel, were they very difficult? What did you think of Logan?”
“That guy! He’s really a dick!” Alex spluttered through a mouthful of food
“Chew, please, dear. And Logan is a teddy-bear, he just does his job very well and sometimes that means he has to be the bad guy and enforce unpopular rules,” Charles responded.
“Unpopular?!” said Alex after a huge gulp of food, “You mean un—un—…? oh you know what I mean! Stupid! And, um, not good!”
“Unfathomable?” Hank ventured.
“Unintelligible?” Erik tried.
“Unbelievable?” Scott asked.
“How about, ‘understandable,’” Charles argued
“What the fuck,” Angel said.
She had meant it to be under her breath but, unfortunately, someone heard her.
“FUCK!” Ororo said happily. It seemed a universal constant that children always managed to pick out the swear word from an otherwise innocuous conversation.
Alex burst out laughing. “Not my fault this time! Haha!” Scott gasped and covered his mouth to hide his smile.
Charles frowned (just as Angel was beginning to believe he didn’t know how to do that) and at once began to remind Ororo why that word was NOT ok to use.
Meanwhile, Erik was giving Angel a look that somehow made her want to crawl into a hole and hide. He didn’t look angry or ready to smack her as she’d expected but rather as though he were deeply disappointed. He said nothing, however.
“Angel, please watch your language, dear, especially around Ororo. She has some catching-up to do in the communication department anyway… and it’s easier if she has good role models, you see,” Charles finished.
Angel couldn’t stop the snort from sneaking out. He raised one eyebrow at her.
“Yeah, I really don’t think I’m ‘role model’ material,” she said.
Charles’ expression melted then. “Oh love,” and how could anybody sound that broken-up about what she’d said? It was only the bare truth. “I think you are selling yourself very short there. We’re all going to learn a lot from you, young lady, I’m sure of it.”
Angel realized she didn’t have much of an appetite any longer even though there was still food on the table and it was the best she’d had in a long time. This had all gone a little too far, surely. She wanted the games to end and to have things go back to normal. It wasn’t always great before but at least she knew which end was up, unlike in this fairy-land.
Alex stood up then. “Solid chow, man,” he said to Erik (who smirked and nodded at the boy) as he collected his plate and headed for the sink. “When’s Angel gonna start doing the dishes and stuff, Charles?”
“When is it your turn, Summers?” Erik asked as he got up and began putting away leftovers. “Tonight? Pity, then she will have to start tomorrow since I know you are always so eager for the washing up.”
“Aw, man! Not cool!” Alex said as he dumped soap into the sink and began to fill the basin.
Charles laughed and brought Alex his and Ororo’s plates. “D’you hear that? You’re ‘not cool,’ Erik.”
“Indeed. How will I live with myself.” And then he turned, smiled down fondly at Charles, and kissed him, full on the mouth.
“Yuck!” Ororo hooted happily.
“Get a room!” groaned Alex.
“Hehehe!” giggled Scott to his napkin.
“Oh, really,” smiled Hank blushingly.
“Wait,” said Angel.
She was suddenly very aware that the other shoe had just dropped.
“Wait. You guys are fags?”
Warning for offensive language and FEELINGS
For the first time that evening, there was silence. Then Charles cleared his throat.
“Well, really, I prefer the term ‘homosexual’ or even ‘queer’ or ‘gay’ if you like. Is that going to be a problem, Angel?” There was an edge to his voice that she had never heard before. The last few words bit sharp like steel but she was too upset to notice.
“You’re damn right it is! You have kids here, man! Little kids! Little boys!” She shot a look a Scott who made a picture of naïveté and incomprehension. It turned her stomach to think of him losing any of that. “That’s just sick,” she spat at Charles.
He flinched at the venom in her voice. She watched Erik’s jaw clench and when he spoke the words came out in a deadly hiss.
“You have an active imagination, young lady, if you think Charles or I would ever hurt a child let alone one who is entrusted to this household. Do not make a hurtful accusation such as this so casually.”
“This is--! I knew there was something off here! Kitty and the whole damn DCFS thinks you’re, like, some kind of foster care god but they don’t know, do they?! Díos, you people! This is, this is kids’ lives, you sick pig! I can’t do this, I can’t do this again! I’m so-fucking-over you people!”
It was like lancing a boil. All the horrible-awful that had collected and festered for years was pouring out of her and she couldn’t seem to stop it.
“This System is just here to put people like me away in a nice tidy box, isn’t it! Keep us off the streets an’ outta the nice, rich, white-ladies’ hair, huh? And they give us away to greedy pendejos y pinche maricones never thinkin’ or giving two shits about what might happen! I’m done with this! I’m done!”
And she fled the kitchen and out into the night.
When the beater caught up with her again (halfway to the bus stop this time), it wasn’t Charles or even Erik who pushed opened the rusty door. It was Hank.
That alone was the reason she stopped. Hank was a fellow inmate, after all, and maybe her rebellion had knocked reality back into place for him. He might even be trying to escape with her. But she wasn’t stupid, she had to be sure he wasn’t just brainwashed and trying to drag her back to the Child Molesters.
“The fuck d’you want?”
“Please, just get in.”
“I’m not going back there, no fucking way.”
“I know, we won’t go back, I just want to talk.”
She eyed him warily.
“Please, Angel, just get in. I promise, we won’t go back to the house. I need to talk to you and I don’t want to do it hanging out a car window.”
Slowly, she got in. She braced, ready for him to speed off as he cackled madly and the locks jammed automatically--! But he pulled off from the curb and headed out of the neighborhood without another word.
They drove for ten minutes before he pulled into a strip mall parking lot and parked. This was the part where the girl got ravaged and killed by the boy she should never have trusted. But, well, in the less-than-twenty-four-hours that Angel had known Hank, she was pretty sure he wasn’t capable of something like that. So she sat quietly and waited for him to speak.
“Look,” he finally sighed.
“Look, I know you’re freaked out right now but… you have to listen to me, ok? If you’re still freaked after then I’ll drive you to your case-worker’s place myself. Promise.”
“Did they send you to come find me? To come, what, lure me back to the lair?” she spat at him.
“No, no, well… ok, I mean, yes, Charles knew you wouldn’t want to see him right now so I volunteered but… you have to believe me, it isn’t what you think.”
She snorted. Heard that one before too.
“No, seriously! Angel, I’ve lived with Charles for over six years now! He’s… he’s the only family I’ve got. And he would never hurt a kid. He wouldn’t even dream of it! And I think he might actually slit his own wrists before he let someone into the house who would. He’s… yeah, ok, I know the gay thing is a little… I think… I think it bothered me too at first, you know.”
He had taken off his glasses and was scrubbing at them ineffectually.
“I don’t… I mean, I wasn’t like a homophobe or anything… I mean, before… It’s just, I mean, I’d n-n-never known anyone like that before my folks died and I didn’t… well, I didn’t know if it’d be… you know… different living with someone like that. But, well, it really didn’t take long for me to see it wasn’t. Charles is… well, I think he might actually be the best person I know. I’ve ever known, maybe. He just… he does everything for his kids, you know? Absolutely everything! I was really messed up after my folks died…”
He swiped at his nose with his sleeve.
“…they… well, it was a car crash so, obviously, it was unexpected. I don’t know if that makes a difference, though. I didn’t talk much afterwards. I mean, well, I didn’t talk at all actually. It just… there was a lot to think about, you know? And Charles, he just, he was just there without ever trying to replace my parents. I’m so lucky to have had him then. He was the one who started pushing me in school… my folks never liked the idea of me skipping ahead… but Charles just said that if it made me happy then why not? And I don’t know if I’d ever have been able to do that without him supporting me. He used to come home from work late and make dinner and then sit forever and help me with my homework. And he quit his job with the county too, a few years after I came, so he could have better hours with the teaching job and be home with us more. And Erik,”
He huffed out a watery laugh.
“Well. Erik. I only met him about a year after I’d first come but I guess he and Charles had been dating for a while already. Charles just didn’t want to introduce him or let him come over until he was sure it wouldn’t bother any of us. Can you imagine that? Dating someone for over a year before letting him meet your family because you’re worried it might upset them to have someone new around? And this is after he made Erik get a background check and cleared with DCFS! Then, once it was clear everyone was all right, Charles started making Erik go to all these classes with him for foster parents. Things like Conflict Deescalation and Communication Workshops because he knew it would be better if he was coming over all the time to have an idea how to deal with, you know, ‘troubled youth.’ That was what kind of did it for me, I guess. I figured, if it was me, you know, if I was dating this… um, person…. And whoever it was started making me jump through all these hoops just to come over for dinner once in a while…! Well, if I didn’t really love that person I don’t think I would have been around for very long. So I thought, if these two people, if these two men can love each other that much… and love us that much too, I suppose… enough to put up with all of us being… needy and, well, really awful to them sometimes… well, then I guess I’m ok with gay people because I don’t know a single straight person, let alone a couple, who would be capable of all that.”
He sniffed and put his glasses back on.
“I guess, well, I guess that’s it. Charles… he really is that nice, you know. I know, I thought it was an act too when I first met him. But it’s not, it’s just the way he is. Erik is a good man, too. He can seem… I don’t know, abrasive but he’s truly a good man. And being gay has nothing in common with being a pedophile, if that’s what you’re worried about. Even if it did… well, like I said, Charles and Erik would die before hurting you or another kid anyway. They just… they’re actual good people, Angel. Strange as it sounds, they are really just good people. And they’d really like for you to come home.”
He looked out the window and they sat in silence, bathed in the orange glow from the streetlights.
It was then that Angel realized how tired she was. It wasn’t a physical weariness (hell, she’d even had a nap in the middle of the afternoon today) but something else, something harder to put a name to. Suddenly, she shrank at the thought of waiting in the dark at the bus stop, getting on the right line and taking it to… where, exactly? She really couldn’t go running to Kitty if she truly meant to get away. There was nowhere else she could think of that would be safe to stay while she got her feet under her. And even if what Hank had said was complete bullshit (and she hadn’t yet decided that either)… it didn’t seem like such a bad bet to maybe, maybe give this another shot.
There was something else nagging at her too. Angel could take care of herself, sure. As wearing as it was to keep constantly vigilant, she knew what to do to stay safe. But something about those little guys back at the house had struck her. She knew girls her age who’d gotten knocked up and had babies of their own by now. As remarkably foolish a move Angel knew that to be, there were times she couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to have someone to look after. Someone to take care of the way she’d never been. Could she manage it? Could she keep a kid safe? It made her remember what Charles had said at dinner about being a role model… obviously he’d just been talking out of his ass but… it made Angel wonder if it wasn’t time that she stopped just watching her own back and maybe started looking out for those little ones too. Maybe she could keep them safe. It would be easier to do if she stuck around, that was for sure.
“Hank,” she finally said, “Can we… go back now?”
And, God bless the guy, he started the old rust-bucket without another word.
She made Hank stop at a store on the way home so she could buy some things. She really didn’t need anything but Hank mentioned that Charles had given him some money for Angel to get whatever she needed to settle into the new house so she figured she might as well spend some of it. She ended up picking out some drug-store mascara, a new notebook for school, good drawing pens, some socks and a pack of tampons. The last was mostly just to get back at Hank because he refused to buy her cigarettes. She made him stand in the checkout line, alone, clutching a box of super-size Tampax. He left the store roughly the color of a fire engine and practically threw them at her once they were outside. He was clearly afraid he might catch something or maybe start menstruating if he held them too long. Angel felt a laugh bubble up from within for one of the first times in a very long time.
By the time they got back to the house, night had fallen properly. They were the only car left on the street (which was weird) and the houses along the way were all silent with sleeping residents (which was weirder.) Angel had never lived in a place before where the neighbors all left off shouting at each other before midnight.
“Is he gonna be waiting up for us?” She asked Hank. The tired car springs sighed with relief behind them as they climbed out.
“Most likely. He’ll just want to make sure you’re ok.
She hesitated at the door. She just didn’t want to go have another Feelings Talk, that was all. Her hesitancy had nothing to do with being a little ashamed of how she’d acted before, absolutely not. No way. Not at all.
Charles was waiting for her in his office. It was a room Angel hadn’t even known existed, tucked as it was into a tiny corner between the downstairs bathroom and the stairs. Squeezed between overflowing bookshelves was an old desk and a tiny sofa that bottomed out when someone sat on it. Charles was working at a boxy laptop with “PROPERTY OF PSYCHOLOGY DEPT” stamped on the back when she walked in. He shut it immediately and rolled his desk chair back as far as it would go into a cramped corner, giving Angel space.
She curled up on the couch and waited for him to speak but he said nothing. She worried a loose thread on the cushion to avoid looking at him but still, he said nothing. Angel’s stomach was in knots. She wanted him to just start talking or yelling or hitting or scolding or for-fuck’s-sake just something so she could just get it over with and go to bed. But he said nothing.
Finally, when she could bear it no longer, Angel stole a glimpse at his face.
He didn’t look angry or sad or disgusted or disappointed. Not any of the usual ways people looked when they saw Angel. He just looked relieved.
“I’m glad you came back,” he said quietly.
Angel felt her ears begin to burn and she had to look away again.
“Is there anything you need from me?”
She shook her head. She didn’t know what was happening but it didn’t feel good.
He continued to sit there quietly, in the corner with his hands resting on his knees and not moving as though he were afraid he would spook her.
She cleared her throat.
“Can I… can I go to bed now?”
“Yes. If that’s what you want.”
Angel got up warily and glanced at him over her shoulder at the door.
“So… where’d your guy go, then?” The words were out before she could stop them. She’d been inches away from making a clean getaway but, as always, she’d just had to open her big mouth.
“He went home. He stays here some nights but… I’ve asked him not to until you’ve more time to get settled. How does that sound?”
She swallowed hard and nodded as she escaped to her room.
On Saturday, after Charles made sure everyone was well-supplied with cereal and fruit, he announced that they needed to run errands that morning. Unfortunately, one of those errands required Hank to try on his new glasses. That meant no one “responsible” would be home so everyone was required to come along. Alex groaned theatrically and complained that he had “plans” that didn’t involve grocery shopping and watching Hank “look even dorkier.” Scott didn’t say anything (because Scott didn’t ever seem to say anything) but he didn’t look excited at the thought of tagging along with his guardian and fosters sibs while they tramped through the freezer aisle. Ororo, on the other hand, clapped her hands and said, “Eeeeeee!”
Charles smiled and went to scoop her out of her chair into a sloppy kiss. “Well at least I have one enthusiastic help—ah!” he hissed in pain and set Ororo back down while he grabbed at his back.
There was a chorus of, “Are you ok, Charles?” from the boys and a concerned yelp from Ororo but he waved them all off.
“Fine, yes, sorry, I’m fine everyone. Just tweaked my back. It’s what happens when you’re old,” he smiled weakly.
Hank frowned. “I thought you went to see the doctor about that?”
“I did and his recommendation was to stop lifting heavy objects like a growing little girl!” He winked and ruffled Ororo’s hair before bending over to kiss her cheek.
“See? All better!”
The boys went back to their cereal but Hank was still giving Charles the stink-eye when Angel next looked up. He didn’t say anything else but pointedly told Charles to sit when he tried to get up and collect the dirty dishes. He also lifted and strapped Ororo into her car seat in the back of the beater instead of letting him take care of it. This gesture, however, was lost on Charles who chose that moment to realize their new logistical problem.
“Oh. Hmm. This is a bit of a pickle,” he said looking at the three remaining passenger seats and his four remaining wards.
“I’ll stay behind!” Alex offered.
“You will not.”
Alex sulked for a minute before perking up again.
“Then I’ll ride on the roof!” he said.
The boy crossed his arms. “Well I dunno what you’re gonna do then, Prof. Just trying to be helpful.”
Charles sighed and rubbed his chin. Hank looked at him doubtfully.
“Can Raven babysit?” he asked.
Charles shook his head. “She has to work today.”
“He was up all night working on a project with the branch in Germany.”
“I can get my glasses later…”
“No, you won’t get them ‘til Tuesday then. You’re squinting so much as it is, Hank.
“I… It’s really not that bad…” he mumbled and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“No, we’re getting them. Ok,” Charles squared his shoulders, “here’s what we’re going to do.”
They ended up taking the child seat out, piling Scott, Alex and Angel in the back and putting Hank in the front because his legs were the longest. Then, with a firm admonishment from Charles about how this was “not safe” and to “do as I say, not as I do,” they handed Ororo in to sit on Alex’s lap.
“Here, I’ll take her,” Angel offered.
“It’s ok, she’s not heavy…”
“Come on. It’ll be girl-time,” she heard herself say.
Ororo was very quiet and sat very straight and still on Angel’s lap for the entirety of the five-minute ride to the store. She held tight to Scott’s hand next to her and kept giving Angel a confused look as though she couldn’t understand what she’d done to deserve being dumped on this stranger’s lap.
The car wheezed at them and managed to look exhausted as they all spilled out into the parking lot of the local strip mall. Scott hiked Ororo into a piggy-back ride as soon as they were outside and they all followed Charles and Hank to pick up the new glasses and then to the grocery store. Angel saw the familiar flash of clipped coupons and an EBT card slip from Charles’ wallet as they wandered through the produce.
“So… Charles is poor then?” Angel asked Alex who was surreptitiously trying to juggle some oranges.
“What? Oh, yeah. You know how it is. Don’t get shit from the State and all.”
“I thought he had a fancy job, like a teacher or something?”
“Well, yeah but he don’t work full time. Not since we got ‘Ro. She flips if she spends more’n a few hours at preschool so he’s gotta come home and be like a stable figure and all, you know?”
Angel shook her head. She’d never had anyone cut their hours just so they could be home to make sure she had a glass of milk and a PB&J waiting for her after school.
“Yeah,” said Alex as he put the oranges back slightly bruised. “He says she’s got like attachment issues or something and that’s why she don’t talk right and wets the bed and stuff.” He shrugged. “I don’t get how that connects or whatever but he’s the shrink so I guess he’s knows, right?”
“Wait. Charles is a shrink?” Her breath caught for a moment. Shrinks were bad news. They always came before drugs and court orders that ended in having to start all over again.
“Yup. He just teaches the stuff now but he used to see patients and everything. It’s actually kinda nice…” Alex straggled his fingers along a shelf of canned green beans. “I thought it would suck at first… having to live with one of those assholes always analyzing everything you say or do and judging you and shit… but he doesn’t do that. Just leaves you alone unless you want advice or something. I’ll bet he was an ok shrink…” he trailed off thoughtfully.
They watched Charles rub at his back as he picked out cans of soup. Now that she knew, Angel could easily see him scribbling away at notes behind a big desk while some poor kid cried his eyes out about how daddy hit mommy and the kids at school were mean. She guessed it made sense then why he didn’t yell much. All shrinks seemed to have the market cornered on that particular I’m-so-disappointed look that made any juvenile offender want to squirm.
When they got to the checkout, Charles had collected a full cart of food complete with an Ororo sitting in the seat. She was now giving Angel more thoughtful looks and only resorting to sucking her thumb when something really distressing happened like Charles walking away for more than thirty seconds to pick out hamburger.
They stacked everything at the counter and the lady rang it all up. Charles got his coupons and EBT squared away but there was still a charge left so he pulled out his credit card.
“Says it’s denied,” the checker said. Charles looked dismayed.
“Denied? What do you—oh, bugger. It’s the 17th, isn’t it?” then he ran his hands through his hair and said to himself, “I asked them not to post the charges until I got paid…”
He looked worriedly from the checker, to the groceries, to his kids and the line steadily forming behind them. He bit his lip.
“Here,” he finally sighed. He dug into his wallet and handed over another card. This one flashed against the fluorescents and Angel read the name “Erik Lehnsherr” stamped in silver along the bottom. The checker gave Charles a put upon look and swiped the card doubtfully.
“That one went,” she reported in a bored voice.
Charles breathed a sigh of relief but there was color creeping into his cheeks. He apologized for the delay to the other customers and hurried them all out of the store and back into the parking lot.
They clamored into the car while Hank and Charles packed in groceries around them. By the time they got back on the road, the backseat was a tangle of knees, elbows and groceries.
Charles hardly said a word the whole way home. He tried to be cheerful when they finally pulled into the driveway and began to extricate themselves though.
“Good work, all. We’ll figure something out better for the next time, I promise. Now lets get this all inside and put away and then we’ll—ack!”
A split second and Charles was tripping, the bags of groceries he’d been holding smashing to ground around him. Eggs broke, containers shattered and the produce lay splattered and bruised all over the sidewalk.
Charles sat up and for a moment the mask slipped. Just then Angel saw him look human for the first time since she’d arrived. It made her shiver. She held Ororo’s hand as the boys helped their guardian to his feet and salvaged what they could of the food.
“Damn,” he said quietly. And Angel watched him put his hands into his pockets to hide their shaking.
Angel found herself, against her better judgment, beginning to relax. Each morning she woke in her own, locked room with everything as she’d left it the night before. There were no signs of anyone sneaking in at night or during the day. No one messed with her caca leftin any of the public spaces. She didn’t have to race anyone to get breakfast or bolt it down once she had it.
School was still school. The classes were boring, the kids were assholes and the teachers were dumbshits. But, at the end of the day, there were the Summers boys waiting for her at the bus. They didn’t shout at her or posture in front of the other kids or even ignore her outright. Scott had actually taken to sitting next to her, silent as ever but still there. She found that she didn’t hate the company.
Things had settled at the house too. One day, when they got home from school, Erik was in the kitchen. He looked at Angel with an eyebrow raised but said nothing whatsoever. She let the challenge go and went upstairs to finish her homework. Angel decided she didn’t have to like the guy, only tolerate him. She tried to be cold and ignore him for the rest of the week when he reappeared each evening. He still left every night but she didn’t miss how each night he lingered later and later.
She walked in one afternoon to a kitchen empty of everyone but Erik. The boys were downstairs playing with Hank’s computer and Ororo was watching cartoons. She thought of turning around to avoid him but whatever he was making smelled so good she couldn’t help but be drawn in.
“What is that?” she asked as he dug both hands into a bowl of something and kneaded.
He let her puzzled silence hang for a minute before smirking and squeezing the dough through his fingers.
“Potato dumplings. Very good. From Deutschland.”
“Oh,” shrugged Angel. She played indifferent but managed to linger in the kitchen while he assembled the little balls and plopped them into boiling water to cook. He fiddled with the beef stew bubbling away on the other burner adding spices and cursing in German when he burned his tongue on a tasting. Suddenly, he turned and whipped a knife from thin air only to slap it down with a cutting board and some carrots in front of her.
“Cut these,” he said before pivoting on his foot without a backward glance and turning back to his stew and dumplings
So there Angel stood, in the kitchen chopping first carrots and then celery in silence as Erik turned what could have been a meager supper into a gourmet feast. He showed her how to form more dumplings out of the mash and she plopped them into boiling water. She watched with satisfaction as each rose to the top when ready and added them to the growing pile on the counter. Her mouth watered for the stew, thick with chunks of beef and potato. Even the cheapest cut of meat could be made irresistible when coddled and nurtured like that.
When the usual commotion surrounding Charles’ arrival home sounded from the hallway, Angel frowned. Surely it was too early for him to be home? But time had flown while she watched the steam curl into swirls and the bubbles build in the pot. Erik, of course, caught her realization (because he was a bastard) and flashed too many teeth at her before collecting silverware from the drawer at his hip. He pushed the utensils at Angel and said, “Set the table,” with a nod. It was the first thing he’d said to her since handing her the knife. And that, apparently, had been a half hour ago.
If Charles was surprised to see Angel alone in the kitchen with Erik when he walked in, he hid it well. He began to coo immediately over how delicious everything looked and how lucky he was to have such a talented chef slaving away in the kitchen.
“I had help,” Erik replied and inclined his head towards Angel who was trying very hard not to look up in case she should see the two of them kissing or touching each other or whatever fag-- gay dudes did together.
“I see that!” Charles simpered. “How was your day at school, dear?”
Angel shrugged, eyes still glued to the table. She was beginning to miss the quiet of cooking alone with Erik.
“Still settling in?” he persisted.
Angel shrugged again. Charles, not so easily deterred, prepared to ask another question when Erik interrupted, gently, “Call the others, please. It’s time we should eat."
And so the ravenous hoard of teenage boys (and one growing little girl) descended upon the kitchen, scattering Charles’ focus and freeing Angel from the inquisition. The food, as usual, did nothing to stem the stream of chatter. They learned that Alex was doing marginally better in math (under Hank and Erik’s combined tutelage) and that Ororo was connecting with her preschool teacher over a shared love of glitter. Hank had managed to not light himself on fire for the third day in a row and Scott was… well, Scott seemed to be having trouble with a bully. Or at least that was what everyone was supposed to understand from him simply shaking his head miserably and Alex slamming a fist down on the table in response.
“That little fu-- freak!” Alex ground out. “Is he still bugging you, bro? I thought I taught him a lesson! And by that,” he added quickly, “I mean, I had a real nice chat with him, of course. Just like you’d’a done, Prof. Just like it!” He grinned scarily and ignored Charles’ knitted brows. Scott shrank into his chair and blushed furiously at all the attention.
“Who’s this that’s been bothering you, Scottie?” Charles asked, the picture of Concerned Parent.
Scott opened his mouth but no sound came out. His brother said, “It’s that little Stryker assho--”
“You mean arschloch, boy.”
Erik sighed and muttered something that sounded like “educational swearing” before getting up to start cleaning the pots.
“What’s he doing that bothers you so? Do the teachers know?” Charles asked, turning back to Scott.
“…he’s… he just says things.” Scott finally got out. “It’s no big deal.”
“It absolutely is a big deal! All right, I’ll tell you what, sometime this week we’ll go speak to Logan about it and you can be sure he’ll manage it appropriately. Maybe Thursday afternoon I’ll be able to pick you up and--”
Erik cleared his throat pointedly from the sink. Charles stopped talking. His face fell minutely before quickly going completely blank.
“Oh,” he said. “N-n-not Thursday. It’ll have to be Wednesday. Yes, that’ll be better, I can drop you off in the morning and then go talk to Logan.”
“Wait,” Hank said, immediately picking up the inconsistency, “wait, why not Thursday? What’s going on Thursday?”
Charles looked at Erik. There was worry in the lines of his face. He opened his mouth to speak but--
“Charles has a conference. He and I will be staying in the city for the weekend.”
“What?!” the table exploded into questions.
“Wait, hang on, just a minute, let me explain!” Charles put his hands out, placating.
“Settle down everyone, will you? Please!”
Erik stood, back straight, mouth set and arms crossed by the sink while Charles struggled to quiet down the room. There was a steel in his grey eyes that Angel didn’t like one bit.
“Hush now, just listen!” Charles had transferred a fretful Ororo into his lap. “I was invited to a conference in the city, last minute. It’s Thursday to Sunday, very packed full of lectures and discussions so it makes sense to just stay overnight and Erik suggested he come along to keep me company, but!” he shot a glance at his partner, “But Erik, does not have to come if it’s going to be too disruptive for everyone to have us both gone from home for so long.”
Alex, unsurprisingly, was the first to get a comment in.
“Why the heck would you wanna go to lectures and stuff all weekend?! That’s insane!”
“What conference is it? I didn’t hear about anything this weekend…” Hank asked with a frown.
“It’s in child psychology, very specialty-specific. They only put out adverts in my department,” Charles answered. He buried his nose into Ororo’s hair and didn’t meet anyone’s eye.
“What about you, my big girl? Will you be all right staying with your sibs and Auntie Raven all weekend?”
Ororo looked worriedly from face to face around the room. She said nothing and her thumb inched towards her mouth. Then Erik stepped up.
“She’ll be fine, Charles,” he lifted her off of his lap and kissed her cheek. She wrapped her arms around his neck and nuzzled into his shoulder. “They will all have a good weekend with your sister and away from us, yes?” He eyed them all carefully and when no one objected he said, “Good. I’m going with you.”
“I really don’t think that’s best--” Charles started.
“No. I’m going,” and the two locked eyes for a moment having some sort of gay telepathic argument before Erik finished, “Yes, it is settled.”
And that, apparently, was that.
On Thursday afternoon, after nearly an hour-long, tearful goodbye, Charles and Erik finally extracted themselves from Ororo and the rest and drove off in Erik’s car for their weekend away. Raven (who, Angel learned, was Charles’ sister, not his floozy girlfriend) quickly whisked the crying girl away to the upstairs bedroom where she had prepared all sorts of board games and finger paints and other distractions to ease the trauma of the afternoon. Scott wandered off to join them after a few minutes leaving Angel alone with the two older boys in the living room.
Alex turned on the TV to some pointless reality show. Angel thought about going upstairs to her room, but the idea of listening to Ororo cry out for Charles again made her stomach turn so she stayed where she was.
Then Hank said, out of the blue, “There’s no conference in the city this weekend. I checked online.”
Alex snorted, “Well, no shit. Charles is a crappy liar, man.”
Angel couldn’t say she was particularly surprised. Her suspicion had been building for days. She had known, really, what was coming as soon as Erik had said they were going away. It still felt like ice deep inside of her to know that, once again, she had let herself get abandoned by someone she thought she could trust. Just as things had been starting to go good for once, too.
“Guess I should go call Kitty…” Angel sighed. She really had thought something here might’ve been different.
“What? Why?” said Alex turning away from the TV to scowl at her.
“If they’ve gone and ditched us I gotta let my counselor know so she can start working on my next placement. Don’t wanna get stuck in some shitty group home again, right?”
Both of them simply stared at her for a solid minute before finally Alex said, “Huh.” Such wisdom was immediately followed by, “You really are kinda a dumb cunt, ain’t ya?”
“What the hell Alex!” Hank said as Angel exploded off the couch, every muscle vibrating with tension.
“Say that again, motherfucker!” She hissed at him. Hank grabbed at her arm but she twisted away. Really, she had thought things were cool between the two of them--
“Whoa, fuck! I mean that in the nicest way possible! Jesus, take it down a notch, chica!”
“Who’re you ‘chica’-ing, jackass! I don’t need to stand here and listen to this…!”
“Wow! All I meant was, really? You think Charles n’Erik just split? Leaving us in their house?! I mean, really?! Come on, that’s kinda fucking stupid, right? Right? Hank? Back me up here, buddy!”
“Alex…” said Hank rubbing the bridge of his nose like an old man with a migraine. “Alex, shut the hell up, please.”
“No, seriously! I mean, did you ever get ditched like that? Has anyone, ever, in the history of dead-beats ever been ditched like that?! Look! They even left us a babysitter!” he gesticulated wildly at the ceiling. “Why would they run off but leave us with a babysitter?”
Funny how Angel had missed those little details. She’d been more rattled than she’d thought.
“Well, ok smartass, then why the fuck would they lie about taking off for the weekend, huh?” Angel asked.
Now that it was apparent he wasn’t about to get the snot kicked out of him, Alex relaxed a little and smirked.
“Well, duh, ‘cuz a guy can only hang for so long, y’know what I’m saying?”
Both Hank and Angel frowned at him in confusion.
“Come on! Really? Do I gotta spell it out for you guys?”
When neither answered him he rolled his eyes dramatically.
“They wanna fuck, man!” he said with glee.
“Oh, geeze--! Alex!”
“Ay Díos! What is wrong with you?! Why you gotta bring that shit up?”
“Well it’s true and you know it! Come on, Hank, you remember, right? You always complained about how thin the walls were when you were up in that room! Don’t tell me you never heard nothing!”
Hank went bright red at that. “I… I n-never said… I didn’t--!”
“Yeah, you did bro! What was it? Going bump-bump-BUMP” (here he generously illustrated with a few hip thrusts) “at all hours? Or is one of them a screamer? I bet—mmppff!”
Hank had clearly had enough. He tackled Alex to the ground and covered his mouth with a pillow.
“That’s enough! God, just stop, will you? That’s—gah! Alex, just leave it alone! Have a little respect for once!”
“Christ--! Ge’off! Ok, fine, just get off me, you beast!”
Alex scrambled up as soon as Hank let him go. He scowled at them and swiped a few times at his hair before storming off muttering about, “…can’t take a fucking joke…!”
“Angel… that’s not… you know Alex is just talking out of his ass, right? He’s just… I mean, Charles and Erik have always been… well, they’ve always been respectful and, um, discreet…”
Angel had stopped listening, however. A few things seemed to be slotting into place.
“So… Erik. He usually stays over here, like, every night, right?”
Hank joined her back on the couch and sighed heavily before nodding.
“And… he hasn’t been since I got here.” Again, Hank nodded. “They done all that just for me, huh? Cuz they think I’d freak out again?”
This time Hank just looked at her. She really wasn’t asking, after all.
“Huh,” she said.
They watched TV in silence for a while. The program ended and the local news came on.
“Alex was probably right then, wasn’t he? The little turd.” Angel finally said.
“I… I don’t know. I just… I think it’s good for them to take a break though. Charles has… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s really been looking run down, lately. If they need a break, well… I get that, I just wish… I wish they didn’t feel like they had to lie about it though, you know?”
Angel shrugged. Adults lied all the time. It was just nice that these ones seemed to do it pretty harmlessly.
“Well,” Hank finished lamely. “I’ve got some research to polish up. You want this on?” He gestured to the TV.
She shook her head. She thought she might go upstairs after all. Maybe see if they needed someone else to play Go Fish of something. Or maybe coloring. She had always liked coloring…
Suddenly, Angel found herself laughing. Only a half hour ago she’d prepared to call Kitty to once again spin the wheel of chance for a placement. And now, here she was thinking about playing cards and coloring.
Clearly this place was making her crazy.
The weekend turned out to be surprisingly uneventful. Raven was so distracted by taking care of Ororo that she didn’t have any time left to hassle Angel or the boys. It also helped that she was clearly glued to her phone texting a mysterious someone all hours of the day and night.
“Oooo Rae-Rae’s got a boyfriend!” Alex sang, because he was a little shit. He also liked making smooching noises every time her phone buzzed.
“How old are you? Like six?!” She finally snapped at him. “I swear, Ororo’s more mature than you sometimes, Summers!”
Which really was saying something because Ororo seemed to have regressed even further without Charles around to steady her.
On the last night, Angel left her room for the bathroom around 11 only to find a sobbing, trembling Ororo sitting naked on the bathroom counter with Raven beside her, obviously at her wits’ end.
“Shhh, shhh, baby! It’s ok! Lemme just get you cleaned up and it’ll all be ok!” Raven soothed frantically. She was running a washcloth under the water and trying to keep ‘Ro from slipping off the vanity at the same time. Her phone buzzed on the toilet tank and fell to the floor with an unhealthy clack.
“Shit!” Raven said and Ororo only sobbed harder.
“…you need help?” Angel tried from the doorway.
Raven looked up at her in disbelief. They had hardly exchanged two sentences all weekend.
“I… yeah, I do,” she gulped. “Can you help clean her up? I need to go get started washing her sheets… again.”
Angel nodded and took over the washcloth while Raven collected her phone and swept into the other room.
Ororo was shivering now in earnest. Now that Angel was closer, she noticed the lingering scent of urine. Making a decision, she threw the wet cloth back into the sink and scooped up Ororo with one arm.
“Oof!” she said as she lifted the not-so-little girl. No wonder Charles’ back was hurting. Angel pulled back the shower curtain and began running the water in the tub. She waited until it had warmed significantly before depositing ‘Ro (who was still shivering and sniffling) and going in search of some bubble bath liquid.
“It’s on the top shelf,” a quiet voice echoed from the doorway. Angel turned to see Scott halfway hidden behind the doorjamb.
“…Thanks,” she replied and added the liquid to the running bathwater. She took a seat on the toilet lid and began poking through the shelf of bath toys for something to distract Ororo.
“She likes the boats,” Scott supplied. He’d crept further into the room but still looked ready to bolt if necessary. “And you have to use the special shampoo cuz the other one stings.”
“You wanna just do this, since you know so much, huh?” Angel snapped. She didn’t mean to but it was hard not to be irritable when you couldn’t get the kid to stop crying and everyone else was trying to sleep.
Scott blushed horribly. If he were a turtle he’d have drawn his head into his shell to hide. Angel rolled her eyes at him and picked out the boats to plop into the filling tub.
“Ay, we gotta find you some cojones, man,” she mumbled to herself.
“What’s a ko-ho-nays?”
“It’s balls, Summers. We gotta find you some balls.”
“Yeah,” Scott said hanging his head and plopping down beside the tub, “Alex says I got none too.”
“Well, your brother is just used to the extra big ones he needs to balance him out from being such a dick.”
Scott snorted a laugh before shutting off the water. He scooped up a mound of bubbles and began spiking Ororo’s hair into a foamy peak. He shushed the last of her tears and motored a boat through the drifting icebergs to tempt out a smile. Angel sat back on her heels and watched as ‘Ro calmed and began to splash along with the game.
“You’re pretty good at that,” she told Scott.
He shrugged. “Little kids’re easy,” then he added quietly, “It’s the big ones that are hard.”
Angel hummed her agreement. She still had plenty of trouble figuring out the “big kids” herself. She remembered suddenly about Scott’s not-quite-mention of his bully problem earlier in the week. He would be an easy target, she admitted. She watched him continue to make silly noises and splash along with a kindergartener in the tub. An easy target, indeed.
“That guy at school still giving you shit?”
That put a frown and worry-lines back on his face quickly enough. “Yeah, he’s an idiot. He just says stuff, that’s all.”
“What kinda stuff?” Twelve was too young to have worry-lines.
“Just… like, he thinks it’s funny Alex and I don’t have real parents, just Charles, you know? But, I met his dad… I think I’d much rather have Charles. He just calls me ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and says Charles is a fag and stuff. And that my folks left me’n Alex because we were too stupid…” He trailed off and stared hard at the water for a moment. Then he sniffed, lifted his chin and with a defiant glance towards Angel said, “I know that’s not true though. Alex says. He says we had to go live with Granny because Mom’n Dad were working for the government and then they got called to go on this secret mission but it went wrong and then there was a big plane crash… I don’t remember that but I remember living with Granny and… and I remember when Alex had to leave…” He rubbed his nose with his sleeve.
“Wait… when did he leave? Where’d he go?” Angel asked, confused. She’d never heard Scott say so much before and was going to wring as much from the opportunity as possible before he closed down again.
Scott grabbed the washcloth then and started soaping the bubbly Ororo. “He got in trouble a lot. He argued all the time with Granny too and this one time she yelled at him to get out and… and he did. He said he was gonna come back but he ended up getting arrested first for some other stuff and then they said he couldn’t live with us anymore. It… it really sucked.”
Angel was quiet for a while. She took a turn scrubbing Ororo’s hair before finally asking, “So, how’d you end up here then? And back with Alex?”
To her surprise, Scott brightened immediately. He turned and, for the first time ever, actually looked her full in the face.
“Charles came to Granny’s house one day. He was with some other people from DCFS and there were some police too (which was scary) but he made them leave me alone and we sat in the kitchen and just talked. He said I could come live with him if I wanted and that Alex would be there. And then we got into his car and we drove here and Alex was waiting for me and he wasn’t as angry as before and we got to share a room and everything.”
“That’s… that’s really awesome, Scott. I’m glad it worked out.”
“Yeah, me too.” He pulled the plug in the tub then stood to grab Ororo’s princess towel from the rack. The girl was already yawning and looking far more relaxed. Angel poked her head into the hall and saw Raven tucking the corners into a fresh set of sheets on the bed. She helped Scott wrestle the sleepy girl into a clean pair of PJs. Then Scott took Ororo’s hand in his quiet way and began leading her back to bed. He paused again at the doorway, his face scrunched as he worked something out.
“Even if… even if my folks didn’t die in a plane crash… I think maybe it’s ok, you know? I like having Charles’n Erik as my dads and Hank and Alex as brothers and Ororo and you as sisters. Jason Stryker is an idiot, I guess, cuz I like it better this way…”
Angel couldn’t say anything to that.
She heard Raven’s low voice down the hall as she tucked into bed first Ororo and then Scott. She heard her walk softly down the hall again and pad back downstairs to the rumble of the washing machine below. She finished straightening up in the bathroom before returning to her own bed. She lay there for a long while, staring at the ceiling. Eventually, the creaks and groans of the house settling around her finally lulled her to sleep.
The fanfare the greeted Charles’ and Erik’s return home was significantly subdued by the fact that Charles had somehow managed to catch himself a cold in only the few days they were away. They reported the conference had gone without a hitch but that Charles had begun feeling under the weather soon after they arrived and needed to take it easy while he continued to try and kick the thing.
Angel was unimpressed by Charles’ descriptions of the seminars he attended and his gushing about how much he had learned. He looked anxiously at Erik far too often throughout the entire thing to make it believable. He really was a shitty liar.
She had imagined herself confronting them about their little romantic getaway several times over the weekend. She thought of calling them out on their bullshit in front of everyone and using Hank’s discovery as backup. She thought about doing it quietly, fiercely, away from prying ears and leveraging the threat of revelation into some future promise of leniency or favors for herself.
It was funny though, how all those plans bled away when she saw Charles in the kitchen Monday morning in one of his usual horrible ties making scrambled eggs for breakfast. Ororo was stuck to his leg, giggling. Scott was smiling secretly as he listened to Alex complain loudly about his favorite hockey team. Hank was absorbed in the book Charles had brought back for him from the city and he kept missing his mouth with his fork.
Yes, they were lying about the weekend. But maybe that could be ok for a little while longer.
Charles’ cold got better as the week went on and seemed to be gone for good by the following Friday.
Or, at least, that was the way it looked until Angel walked downstairs early the following week to find him puking his guts out in the downstairs toilet.
“Aw, shit, man! You hungover or something?” Angel asked even as she tried to remember whether or not he and Erik had had anything to drink before disappearing upstairs the night before.
“N-n-no,” he groaned, rinsing out his mouth in the sink. “Just sick, I think.”
Angel made a face and handed him a washcloth. “You look pretty crappy,” she offered.
“Thank you, dear, I appreciate it,” he sighed.
She harrumphed in reply then fled to the kitchen in hopes of avoiding whatever death-plague he was clearly suffering from. When Charles tried to join her, she pushed him back out.
“No way you touching anything in here while you’re sick!”
“Angel, I need to make breakf--”
“That’s gross, man, stay away!”
“I got it!”
It might’ve been more of a fight if Charles hadn’t been forced to retreat to the bathroom again. Angel shook her head at the sound of his dry-heaving and decided everyone would be happier with dry toast and cereal for breakfast that morning.
The worst part was that that nonsense lasted for three whole days. Angel watched the lines in Erik’s forehead grow deeper and deeper every time Charles excused himself to go retch again. He said nothing, however, which fanned the spark of mistrust and resentment Angel felt towards the man unaccountably.
It was freaking the other kids out too.
“Charles, you think it’s time to maybe go see someone about this?” Hank asked the second day Charles ate nothing for dinner but a tiny bowel of thin broth.
“I’m ok, Henry. I just need to wait this out. I actually think it’s getting better.”
Hank gave him a worried frown in reply.
Things came to a head Friday morning. Angel came downstairs rubbing the remains of sleep out of her eyes. She yawned widely and thought about putting her head down on the nice, soft table for more sleep. Alex threw a blueberry at her because he was an asshole.
“What the fu-- fudge, man? You’re gonna stain my shirt with that!”
That launched a lazy round of bickering which everyone else largely ignored. It had become part of the comfortable morning routine.
Then a crash shattered the morning.
Charles was crumpled on the floor near the stove. Hot oatmeal, bubbling away moments before, was splattered everywhere. The room exploded and Angel couldn’t describe what happened after that very well. There was a lot of shouting. Someone was crying. A limp Charles got shaken and screamed at.
Then she was in the living room, Ororo wide-eyed, trembling and silent in her arms. Scott was sitting next to her on the couch clutching her hand, his expression a terrifying thousand-yard-stare. Alex was gone; she remembered him shouting at the paramedics when they came until Hank pushed him out the door. Then Hank was trying to keep it together, stammering through a story to the ambulance crew about how Charles had been sick lately and please, God, tell me he’ll be ok?
Charles woke up at some point. She could hear his quiet voice saying something soothing and then Hank letting out a strangled sob Angel knew she never wanted to hear him make again. They put him on a stretcher and then they were in the flashing lights outside.
“Call Erik, please.” She heard him say to Hank. The boy nodded fiercely and buried his head into Charles’ chest. They paused in loading him into the ambulance long enough for Charles to kiss Hank on the forehead and give him a tight squeeze. Then they were gone. Angel and the others were left alone.
Hank called Logan at the school and told him what had happened. Apparently, that was enough to get them all out of school for the day and Erik called them from the hospital an hour later.
“He’s all right, simply dehydrated. Too much of the vomiting,” he told them on speakerphone. “We will be home tonight.”
Hank was biting a hole in his lip and fiddling with his glasses. “Are you sure? They don’t want to keep him for observation? Maybe see if something else is wrong?”
“No. We will be home tonight,” Erik said firmly and Angel hated him a little for it.
For it was clear then that something really was wrong. Even Angel, with her less-than-stellar education could see that. Listening to Hank techno-babble himself into a corner as the morning wore on only heightened her suspicion. He only became that inarticulate when he was really upset about something
Raven showed up around noon to make lunch and check on them. She was glued to her phone the whole time and wouldn’t say anything else about her brother other than, “He’ll be home tonight, guys.” When she found out Alex had been AWOL since the morning, she took off to find him. She returned twenty minutes later towing Alex by the sleeve. His knuckles were bruised and bleeding and there was a fresh rip in his jeans. He said nothing before disappearing upstairs to his room.
Then there was the waiting. TV wasn’t distracting enough so Angel went for a walk. Without cigarettes, it wasn’t satisfying. She threw herself into cooking an elaborate dinner with Raven but no one had an appetite to eat when it was ready. They ended up piled in the living room, near the front door.
“They just left the hospital,” Raven told them from behind her phone. Angel realized she had no idea where the hospital even was in this part of town. Two minutes away or twenty? She thought of asking but the words died on her lips. They all lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Alex crept down to sit on the stairs at some point.
A lifetime later, the gravel crunched in the driveway, the keys jangled at the lock and Ororo let out a happy yelp that quickly turned to tears in Charles’ arms.
“It’s ok, my baby, shh shhh,” he soothed. He freed an arm and conceived to wrap it around Scotty, Alex and even Angel in turn. Hank had that expression he got when he was trying to work out a difficult problem. All it took was one moment of eye contact between the two of them before Charles sighed and said quietly, “Let me put Ororo to bed first, Henry.”
Then they were spread out in the living room again. Erik stood rigid, arms crossed, eyes fixed on the stairs. When Charles came slowly down, he raced to offer a hand until Charles gently pushed him off. He settled onto the sofa which seemed to swallow him with its worn out springs.
He and Hank locked eyes, neither of them saying anything, everyone holding their breath until, finally, thank God, Hank broke.
“Charles…” his voice cracked, why was he already crying?
“Charles,” he tried again, “what is it?”
Then Charles curled in on himself. Erik with an anchoring hand on his shoulder and still he melted into the sofa, burrowing into his ridiculous cardigan.
He gave a horrible, wan little smile and closed his eyes.
“It’s cancer, love.”
Angel had a headache. Not a normal, take-two-aspirin-and-sleep-it-off kind of headache but a true up-all-night-playing-Hank’s-video-games-with-the-boys headache. She was stuck, once again, at the shitty DCFS cubicle farm waiting for Kitty to get her act together and come tell her why the fuck she was here. She settled into the plastic chair and prepared for a long wait. Then Kitty came whipping around the corner.
“Hey. Sorry. Another of my kids just tried to bring a water pistol to school to prank one of his teachers but that obviously didn’t go well and…” she trailed off. “Oh honey. Oh honey, come inside.”
They squeezed into Kitty’s office. She didn’t even bother trying to get behind the desk but sat down right next to Angel.
“Angel, I was so sorry to hear about Charles.”
She shrugged. Why was it, Angel wondered, that her entire life had been punctured by that word? Sorry the judge said when the gavel fell pulling her away from her hermanitos and into the System for the first time. Sorry they said when yet another fucker tried to put his hands down her pants in the middle of the night. Sorry she told Kitty after getting kicked out of school, turned out of another home, dumped in her office once again. Sorry Charles had told them all last night, sorry I didn’t say something sooner, sorry I’m sick, sorry I can’t be there for you the way I promised…
It had really been a train-wreck last night. Hank had asked most of the questions the rest of them were all too numb to think of for themselves. Apparently, he’d figured things out on his own and was missing only the details.
“When did you find out?”
“Six weeks ago. When I went in to the doctor to ask about my back he thought it might be a symptom of something more serious… then he found the lump.”
“Where? In your back?”
“No,” Charles shifted uncomfortably, “In my right testicle.”
“What?!” Alex had interrupted at that point. “You can get cancer there? Is that… is that like a gay thing?”
This had lead to a less-enthusiastic-than-usual lecture from Charles about testicular cancer and how common it was in young men of any sexuality. He had seemed to get more into it at the end as though reducing it to an abstract clinical discussion made it less real, less personal. Less terrifying.
Hank had broken the spell though.
“But… your back…?”
“It’s… moved, unfortunately. There’s another mass in my back that appears to be pressing on some of the nerves coming out of my spine into my leg.”
Then he had shown off the ankle brace he’d been apparently wearing under his shoes and socks for the past few weeks without anyone noticing. His toes flopped towards the ground when he removed it.
“It started to go numb too. And I kept tripping.”
“That’s not… that’s not permanent, is it?” Hank had said, transfixed.
“I’m not sure, love. We’ll have to see how much they can shrink the tumors with chemotherapy and maybe radiation. They already took the primary out with surgery so…”
“Your conference in the city--!”
“--yes, Erik and I got a room at a motel so I could rest and be miserable immediately after the procedure. We… we didn’t want to alarm any of you…”
And that was what it’d boiled down to, really. That was the reason they had lied to everyone. Why they had kept such a life-changing circumstance from those they supposedly called family. She had felt angry and annoyed at the betrayal but all that was subsumed later in the night, deep in the quiet dark of her bedroom by something familiar but less-often named outright: fear.
All her life, Angel realized, she had used anger and a short-temper to crowd out the harder-to-understand fear of loss, abandonment and the uncertainty of her future. She knew Charles’ cancer wasn’t contagious; physically, it was no threat to her. But getting sick would mean her only legal guardian would hardly be able to take care of himself let alone a mess of orphan kids. How would he work? How would he be able to take care of them? Feed and clothe them? Tuck Ororo in at night or make sure Hank didn’t stay up too late messing around with his microscope? He looked like death warmed over already and surely this was only the beginning. It was no surprise really that here she was, in Kitty’s office, the morning after everything came to light. It was different now from the other times, however. By some trickery she had come to think of Charles’ home as her home and suddenly, it was about to be taken away.
“Hey,” said Kitty, bringing her back to the present. “You ok, kiddo? I know this has gotta be overwhelming.”
Angel could hardly muster a glare. It was enough to make Kitty lean back though. She had been about to commit the unforgivable sin of trying to give Angel a comforting hug. If she had gone through with it, surely Angel would have lost it.
“It’ll get easier with a little time and distance. I know you liked Charles…”
“…yeah, it’s pretty impossible not to like him. But this is going to be a long, difficult haul for him. We both think it’s best if you and the others got out of there before it gets to be too much. I’ve got a couple of options in mind already…”
“Charles… he wants me to leave too?”
“No, of course not! He doesn’t want any of you to leave! He just…” she sighed. “He understands that this isn’t going to be easy. It won’t be easy for him, it won’t be easy for you all to watch. You’ve all had enough difficulty in your lives as it is. He wants to spare you this while he can, Angel.”
“He’s the one who keeps spouting that shit about adversity breeding strength and character and all that…” Angel mumbled. She felt like Ororo, four-almost-five-years-old and already a master at digging her heels in, stubborn as a mule just because the mood struck her.
Kitty looked sadder and more serious than Angel had ever seen her. This time, when she moved in close to touch her hand, she didn’t hesitate but took it.
“Honey,” she looked Angel square in the eye. This was the thing Angel had always grudgingly liked about her caseworker: she didn’t bullshit when it came to the important stuff.
“Do you understand how serious this is? Charles has cancer and from what he told me on the phone last night,” she sucked in a breath, “it is pretty well advanced. There is a very real chance he won’t recover from this. If he does, he might not be able to take care of himself anymore let alone any of you all, no matter how much he may want to. This is going to be a long, ugly process, Angel, that likely will not end well.”
It hurt to hear it put so bluntly. Someone had tears dripping down their nose to splatter, one drop at a time, on the floor beside their clasped hands.
“There’s a lot of ugly shit in the world,” Angel croaked.
It hurt to talk around the lump in her throat. This had happened last night too when she had watched Scottie abruptly burst into tears. Alex had been at loose ends until Charles pulled them both into a hug. Then Hank had reached out and grabbed Angel’s hand. He’d pulled her onto the sofa with them and things went sloppy wet and blurry around the edges for a while. She had smelled Lehnsherr’s cologne mixing with that ridiculous aftershave the boys used. It had made her choke, gag, feel claustrophobic and trapped in the past. Now she could think of no better smell in the world.
“There sure is, hon.”
“But Charles isn’t one of them. Nothing in that house is ugly,” she said quietly, hiding her face behind her free hand. She took a steadying breath.
“Kitty, I want to stay.”
It was time to stop being afraid.
Did I forget to mention this was a series? It's a series.