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Their Mouths Always Lie

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The metal was coarse against his back and, even though it was only October, his breath was coming out in desperate white puffs, which dissolved in front of his eyes.

He should be frightened. He was lying in the dark hull of a ship, with no one aware of his whereabouts. There was iron everywhere – his nostrils seemed to be filled with it. There was no reason why the smell of his own blood should be discernible, but it was, rich and scarlet in his mind, painting the entrails of the ship red.

Even so, he was calm. He had been a detective in Westchester for most of his life; he had accepted a long time ago that he was going to die this way.

It didn’t mean was going to take it lying down.

In the end, he didn’t even have to swallow his pride, as he looked up at the man who had long forgotten what mercy was. Charles loved living. He wasn’t too proud to beg for his life.

*****

For an institution suffering from severe under-staffing, the amount of noise and sheer chaos in the bullpen was staggering. A robbery was being reported, one that resulted in a pool of blood on the floor of the convenience store. A missing car. The rattle of a keyboard, struck at the rapid pace of a hundred words per minute. Charles glided smoothly through the crowd – how did it get to be a crowd, they barely had enough officers to pick up the phones – carried by the noise and hundreds of little lives which intersected with his daily routine. It was a precarious dance on the edge of the cliff in the blowing winds; if he kept his trot and put his feet down just so, the torrents would keep him upright, would balance him and let him walk the very edge. If he didn’t, then the noise and chaos would pour into his head, taking him over, all the way down. The free-fall would certainly be a treasured experience, and hitting the ground might snap him out of it. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe there was no ground to hit; maybe he would just keep falling, forever, with the rushing wind howling in his ears.

An officer rushed past a desk, out of balance on the high heels she wasn’t used to wearing every day, and bumped into a stack of files, upsetting the precarious tower. Charles caught the top folder as it slid off the edge and returned it to its rightful place.

“Good catch,” Moira told him.

“I live to serve, my dear.” He smiled cheekily and bowed, because Moira was looking exceptionally pretty today – she finally found the time to deflower her new bathtub, by the subtle cloud of luxury bath products that followed her every move – and hope sprang eternal, even if he didn’t need to look to know that her face immediately became serious. She still smiled, but there was a polite edge to the curve of her lips. Flirting breached a certain barrier, even with Moira, whom Charles counted among his closest friends.

He was about to regale her with the tales of his current case, when a particularly vibrant noise caught his attention. It was a sharp intake of breath, echoed by a gasp of surprise. He recognized Angel’s voice easily enough. The clatter of her manicured fingers against the keyboard tended to clutter up the atmosphere in the station, partly because it was off beat; she always hesitated before she hit the letters Q and L, but the clicking was absent now.

There was a man standing in front of her, the kind of man who instantly commandeers the focus and attention of the entire room. He wore a poorly concealed gun in the small of his back; it was a weapon as much as it was a comfort, not even to the man himself, but to his audience. Its edge stood out through the leather jacket, but the man’s back was curved around it comfortably, like his every breath took its presence into account, like his every move was made around it, showing it off and hiding it from sight in a genial sleight of hand, designed to trick the audience into believing they had the upper hand by noticing the danger he posed. He carried no other weapon, but that didn’t really matter. Charles’ eyes followed the stance of his body, the way it was taut and comfortable in the rigid set of muscles; this man was acutely aware of his surroundings. He was aware of its dangers, aware of the offbeat clatter of Angel’s keyboard, of the dismissible voices which carried through the phone lines, of the more immediate shouts of the officers on phone duty.

His head turned minutely towards the source of louder noises and his fingers, loosely held against his thigh, would hold perfectly still. The stance implied military training. The lack of obvious physical reaction to aural stimuli implied a mind honed in battle, a mind which held the body it was given to command in an iron grip. This was a mind which suffered the presence of people, as long as they were neither an obstacle, nor a target.

Charles concluded that this man was a serial killer.

“Excuse me,” he told Moira, who waved him off and retired to her office, and walked across the bullpen. He entertained the notion of tapping the stranger’s shoulder, but of course it wasn’t necessary – he turned before Charles was within touching distance. “Hello,” Charles said, smiling the easy smile of a man born into money, who knows no hardship and no defiance. “I’m Detective Xavier. Are you here to turn yourself in?”

The gaze the stranger regarded him with was in equal parts annoyance and amusement. The latter won out as the gaze traveled down and then back up. Charles was not surprised. He spent a fair amount of time each morning picking out the least threatening cardigan-shirt combination, to compliment his open smile.

“No,” the man said. “I work here, detective.” His was a face that went well with leather and guns, Charles thought immediately. His reddish hair was short and neatly combed back; there was a small scar on his temple, innocuous enough to escape attention, but to a trained eye an obvious sign of a fight with the use of a serrated edge. His eyes were pale gray, cool and hard in the station halogen lights, despite the open amusement displayed in the quirk of lips.

Charles found himself smiling back, just as dry and suspicious. “Do you now. I find that a little hard to believe.”

“Do you memorize the roster?”

“It saves us from the embarrassment of handing over detainees to random passers-by,” Charles said and spared an apologetic glance at Angel. She offered a wry smile and fluttered her eyelashes, challenging and rueful at the same time.

“Does that happen often?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Interesting.” The serial killer looked Charles in the eye and grinned. Or rather the corners of his mouth curved upwards and his teeth became visible.

The noise in the bullpen, constant like the tidal waves, crashed into a concrete block and Charles’ mind was blissfully silent for five precious seconds. The stranger was sharp in a way knives could only dream of imitating; his handsome face hid a mind as keen as Charles could ever dream of encountering and it was focused wholly on him. In those five seconds they were the only two people in the room, the only two people in the world. Charles certainly could hear no one else, could see no one else.

The stranger’s eyes narrowed and then the crinkles in the corners relaxed. The noise slowly poured back it, filling the spaces which hadn’t been empty a moment before. Charles didn’t sigh in disappointment, but he did exhale in defeat, calling forth his more welcoming smile. “If you work here, you must be new. Can I offer you a tour?”

“I was about to meet the commissioner, actually.”

“Excellent starting point. Shall we?”

Charles pivoted on his heel and started to walk, certain that he would be followed. He was not wrong.

“Ah, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Moira said as soon as the two of them walk through her door. Someone was around to oil the hinges, Charles noted, because the rusty squeak was missing from the symphony of entering the office. “You are late.”

“You lied to me about directions.”

“I did no such thing.”

“I’m here now,” Lehnsherr said, and gave Charles a very pointed look, to which he replied with an angelic smile.

“You can’t be too careful,” he said and, anticipating Moira’s invitation, took his customary seat on the right side of her desk, face to face with a folder of incoming mail. The mayor was writing again, the poor luddite, probably to command the efforts of the dedicated force in their Sisyphean struggle. One had to admire his devotion to the written word and maintaining of the better parts of the nineteenth century mentality. Charles found the man rather charming, if vacant.

“I bet,” Lehnsherr was saying meanwhile, as he took a seat on Charles’ left.

“Good, you’ve met.” Moira sat down behind her desk and crossed her legs. “Let’s get down to business, then. Charles, how are you doing with the double homicide?”

That in itself was an easy question, so easy Charles was finding it hard not to shout the answer from the rooftops. If he abstained, it was because of the ridiculous connotations. “The butler did it.”

Moira understood the connotations well, because her mouth crinkled even as she leaned back, to accommodate the disbelief. “Excuse me?”

“I’m sure he is our murderer.”

“In other words you have no evidence.”

Charles winced. “Not as such, no. But there is some, and I will find it, if I haven’t already. Hank is still going through the evidence collected from the scene. Unless I’m wrong, there would be a blood sample on the carpet by his bed, that should prove my timeline is correct, and if it is correct, getting a confession should be reasonably easy.”

“Pinky swear?” Moira asked, pursuing her lips in what Charles knew was a grin. There was, after all, no such thing as a perfect crime; it was a question of looking underneath enough stones, and the butler was hardly a master criminal.

“Absolutely.” He extended his hand over the desk and Moira curled her pinky around his. Definitely the new bath, Charles thought. Her hands were usually slightly coarse, not silky smooth, like they were now.

“I’m sorry,” Lehnsherr said and moved to get up. “I was supposed to start work in the police, not kindergarten.”

“Sit down.” Moira rubbed her temple. “This is highly unorthodox, I trust you are aware,” she told Lehnsherr. She turned to Charles next. “Charles, Mr. Lehnsherr has unparalleled experience with every kind of weaponry and an even more impressive military service record. I’m sure we could use him on the team.”

Moira was giving him her best doe-eyed look, but even the moist brown of her irises couldn’t distract Charles from what was running through her head as she stapled her fingers and looked at him imploringly. “He wants to work here, for some reason,” were the unspoken words, evident in the straining muscles of her face, which shuddered to maintain the encouraging smile, “because he took the ridiculously low salary, and we don’t have enough detectives as it is; I understand he is a little strange, which is why I’m assigning him to you, because you of all people are best equipped to handle weird. Please play along.”

The man was a serial killer, obviously. Who else would choose to work in Westchester police department?

“I agree,” Charles said, because she was right – if it wasn’t for the staffing problems, he would be in the cozy walk-in closet masquerading as a laboratory, PCRing the hell out of DNA samples. Instead, he was called to the grimiest possible haunts known to mankind, where people he would hardly classify as belonging to the same species as himself, let alone Moira, were standing over mutilated corpses and lying through their teeth.

Their mouths always lied. Only the bodies ever told the truth.

Moira exhaled and turned to the serial killer, every inch the stern but lovable commissioner. “I expect you will have no trouble fitting in with our lot. You and Charles will be partnered, and for the time being you will be sharing a desk, space is scarce, I’m afraid. I understand you are more accustomed to working alone, Mr. Lehnsherr, but I assure you, Charles is very easy to work with.” One of Moira’s more admirable traits was her ability to tell a complete lie in a way that not only sounded like honesty, but whose truth could not be in any way questioned. Case in point, the ease of working with Charles. He was, objectively, a very good partner – he looked out for his own, he shared the workload evenly, he made the effort to be gregarious in an unassuming way; he had a knack for showing up with extra coffee when his partners were having a lousy day. He had as much stated in writing, often preceded by a thinly veiled “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Thus far, he’d had ten partners. Two of them were dead, which was a reasonable statistic in the whole county, let alone the city itself. Eight, however, transferred out of the district or demanded (begged, really – Charles had witnessed one of the conversations) to be assigned to someone else.

Mr. Lehnsherr was different. He pursed his lips at the lie, but there was gentle amusement, not suspicion in his face, and when he looked at Charles his eyes were unguarded, curious even.

“That’s true, unfortunately,” Charles said and smiled. Again. His mouth was starting to hurt. “Suspecting everyone is a defense mechanism I developed as a result.”

“Smart man,” Mr. Lehnsherr allowed, and for the first time looked at Charles with anything resembling respect. It wasn’t – Charles had merely been upgraded from “who the fuck is this clown” to “desk jockey detective,” which he could work with. Mr. Lehnsherr was sharp, but Charles wore the earnest persona like he wore his cardigans – with relish and honesty. Many people thought him a clown upon first meeting him. Then they started to suspect the existence of hidden depths, the likes of which a man might keep secret, out of fear or shame, or a million other reasons. Then, if they knew Charles well enough, and not many did, they realized that there was no act, that the honesty and earnestness was real and not feigned, that Charles was only ever himself, and no one else. Somehow, that frightened them the most.

Charles already knew Mr. Lehnsherr would be different. He didn’t yet know if it would be for better or worse.

“Good.” Moira folded her hands atop the desk and considered the two of them. “Mr. Lehnsherr, I’ve been informed you are eligible for the badge pending a probation, which I’m at liberty to set.”

Charles didn’t react. He knew, of course, that they were desperate for personnel, but this was pushing it.

“I’m going to make it a year. If you get through that, the mayor will push the paperwork necessary to get you into the exam, and no further. If you pass, you get your shield and a permanent job with us. Does that work for you?”

“Perfectly,” Mr. Lehnsherr said. He probably smiled as he did so, but Charles was watching his hands. His fingers lay perfectly still against his thigh throughout the conversation, moving only when Moira was handing over documentation to sign. Charles found the stillness fascinating.

“I’ll have the temporary badge issued to you as soon as possible. In the meanwhile feel free to delegate identification to Charles. He has seniority anyway, so I expect you to defer to his judgment where protocol is concerned. You will find out sooner rather than later that this district is nothing short of insane, so I won’t be able to monitor your every move, as I rightly should. My decision of what to tell the mayor at the end of the year will depend on whatever Charles has to say regarding your behavior.”

Mr. Lehnsherr nodded sharply. “I understand.”

That was it. Moira threw in a heartfelt “welcome to the team” and dismissed them.

“Interesting,” Charles said when they stepped out into the bullpen. “Well, since we will be working together, my name is Charles Xavier. Welcome to Westchester.”

“Erik Lehnsherr,” the serial killer said, extending his hand. His grip was impersonal, firm and devoid of affection or the desire to impress. He had slender hands, tapered by neat, clipped nails. Very little callouses, discounting the hardened skin on the index finger.

Charles let go of the man’s hand before he could be accused of anything untoward. “Pleasure to meet you. Would you like the grand tour?”

“You mean there’s something here that can’t be seen from where we’re standing?” Erik cast a pointed glance to the open space crowded with desks and

“There’s the lab. The restrooms, possibly. The cafeteria, though it’s mostly a walk-in closet with a vending machine. We generally use the cafe across the street.”

“The lab, then.”

“Excellent choice.” Charles turned away. He wished turning his back to anyone was a gesture of trust on his part. Oh, he could imagine the dangers well enough, and if anyone chose to attack him, he would be very nearly helpless.

Well, he thought wryly, the extra adrenaline was going to come in handy.

“Detective Xavier!” Angel had risen from her seat and was waving at him frantically. “Fresh body on the rooftop, cooling fast!”

“Which rooftop?” he called back, diving for his desk and the car keys.

“Eastern corner of Main and Third. The Polo building.”

“Who called it in?”

“Uh. Marvin.”

Charles paused. “Do we have a situation?”

Angel’s head bounced on her neck, up down, up down. “We might, yeah. I’m not sure, he was a little shaken up, but if Marvin’s on the roof…”

“Call the fire brigade, will you? The usual set up.” He smiled at Angel and then glanced at Mr. Lehnsherr, who was standing a respectful three yards behind him, his arms folded. “Have Emma and Hank follow, I’m going to need a few minutes alone, first.”

Angel nodded and picked up the phone.

“Well, let’s go,” Charles told Mr. Lehnsherr. A dead body barely stirred anyone in this district, but Charles made it a habit to rush as soon as he was informed there was one. The fresher the corpse the more information it had to share, the clearer the message. He appreciated clarity. The Polo building was only a few blocks down from the station. They probably could have walked there, and still arrive at the same time, but it was generally prudent to take the car – you never knew when it might come in handy.

The elevators were out. Charles sighed. Typical Marvin. At least there was no doubt they had a Marvin situation.

“Stairs?” Mr. Lehnsherr held the door open for him.

“Thank you.” Charles dutifully started climbing the ten flights of ugly, concrete stairs. “Don’t mind Marvin, he does this every few months. Just try to sound soothing, he is generally amenable to reason.”

Mr. Lehnsherr raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He took the steps one at a time, breathing easily as thought this was a casual stroll in the park. His hands were in his pockets. Charles found it endearing, not that he would ever share the observation with anyone. Mr. Lehnsherr was a sharp knife in a world of easily bruised apples, and he made no attempt to conceal the fact.

“Hello Marvin. How’s your day?” Charles called walking out into the September sun on the very top of the building.

“Good morning, Detective Xavier. Don’t come any closer, or I will jump!”

Marvin was a curious case. Every few months he would climb out of his luxurious leather chair, disable the elevators, then stand on the very edge of the roof and call the police, when he had no intention of following through on the threat. Marvin was a bright person; impressionable and full of fleeting fancies. He dabbled in hobbies of all kinds, and yet somehow he remained convinced the weight of the world should be a millstone about his neck, an unfortunate combination of a wealthy upbringing and a compassionate soul.

So, every quarter of a year for the past ten years he climbed the ledge. It was bordering on ridiculous, the amount of money the fire department and the police had to spend just to convince Marvin one more time that life was worth living and he would benefit from walking away from the jump he didn’t want to make in the first place. Unfortunately, Marvin was ridiculously rich; he would be apologetic and sign over a generous donation to both departments, then call his uncle, the mayor, who in turn would call Moira, who would sigh and release Marvin from the cell and the compulsory talk with the psychiatrist. The money alone more than made up for the alarm – it covered the expense of the exercise and then some. Everyone got used to Marvin’s escapades, especially since he was a good enough sport to come by the next morning laden with Starbucks coffee.

“I would love to chat, you know I would, but the thing is, I was promised a dead body,” Charles said. “Can we reschedule?”

“I’m going to jump! For real this time!”

“The body, Marvin. Where is it?”

“Oh, over there. Poor chap. Anything I can do to help?”

“No, thank you Marvin. I’ve got this.”

Charles followed the direction Marvin was indicating and soon enough he was standing over the body of a young man – twenty-six, perhaps, well bred; unpleasant fellow, very little by way of sense of humor. Unfaithful, divorced, for which he likely blamed his ex-wife, despite the chronic infidelity. Socialite, though recently impoverished, going by the cut and wear of his expensive, though last season, suit.

“This looks like a suicide,” he said over his shoulder, hoping to get a thoughtful hum from Mr. Lehnsherr. Instead he got silence. “Mr. Lehnsherr?”

 

*****

Xavier seemed to know his way around the body, which wasn’t really a surprise. By the clothes he wore he was a born lab technician, or if Erik was to be perfectly honest, a college professor. What he was doing out in the streets was the greater mystery. Still, the corpse was in good hands. Erik turned his attention to the man on the ledge, instead. He seemed like a flighty sort, eager to please, easily distressed. He was standing over a hundred feet drop, so clearly something wasn’t quite right in his head.

“You smoke?” Erik asked casually, resting his elbows on the parapet a few feet away from this Marvin. In the street below the fire brigade was setting up an inflatable landing spot.

“Yes, why?”

“Sensible choice, diving off the roof, then. Much quicker than cancer.”

“What? No, it’s not- I don’t have cancer.”

“Didn’t think you did.”

“Why not?”

“Any reasonable person would hoard the pain medication and overdose. Much less splatter than jumping off the roof. Far less to clean up, afterwards.” The bricks were coarse underneath his fingertips. The texture hurt his skin, in lieu of a cigarette, which would hurt his lungs. Major life decisions, Erik snorted.

“I’m sorry, are you a police officer?” Marvin was squinting at his belt, obviously looking for a badge.

“I’m on probation.”

“It’s just, Detective Xavier talks to me usually. He’s very polite.”

“That he is.” Erik considered the state of the inflatable pillow. On its corner one of the firemen was testing it. “So what brings you here, Melvin?”

“Marvin.”

Erik rolled his eyes. Names hardly mattered.

“It’s just pointless, you know?”

“Life? Oh yes. Very much so.” Erik threw his legs over the parapet and slid to stand on the ledge below. “Your life doesn’t seem that pointless. Detective Xavier was ready to drop everything to come and rescue you.”

“He does that every time. It seems silly of him, but he does.”

“A little, yeah.”

Marvin was in his late thirties, but his face had a very boyish look to it. His cheeks were smooth and his eyes bright. Erik was willing to bet the worst thought he ever had in his life was sneaking three lollipops out of a grocery store for the price of two and yet here he was, staring down a hundred feet drop.

The crowd of onlookers was surprisingly small, considering the two men on the ledge. Erik saw one of the police officers pick up the megaphone and look up. “Hey Marvin, you wanna go out for drinks later? Sean’s buying!”

Next to him the redheaded paramedic took offense.

“I’m going to jump!” Marvin yelled, leaning no more than three inches forward. No way in hell he would upset his balance enough to fall that way. His grip on the ledge was so tight that there was no way even a hurricane would upset his balance enough. Why the hell was he even up here, Erik wondered, when every fiber of his being screamed “I don’t want to die!”

“Why don’t you?” Erik asked casually, gesturing ahead, where the ledge ended and the fall began.

Marvin started. That almost upset his balance. “What?”

“Seems like you’re done with this living bullshit, why not jump? If you’re lucky maybe the Hindus are right and you’ll get another shot.”

Marvin stared at him, open-mouthed. “Are you sure you are with the police?” he asked.

Erik grinned. Marvin shuddered and immediately clung to the parapet. “It’s a beautiful day. Excellent weather for skydiving.”

“Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump!”

“Perfect,” Erik said, took a step sideways, snapped the fingers of his right hand in front of Marvin’s eyes, gripped Marvin’s thin wrist with his left and then took another step, forward.

Marvin screeched the whole way down, but somewhere high above Erik could swear someone else was screaming, too, and they were screaming his name.

It was a short flight, all in all. The fire department had done its job and the inflatable mat folded around the two of them. Marvin kept screeching and, when he ran out of breath, wheezing. He kicked and flailed, but Erik held his wrist until finally the folds of the fabric revealed the sky and the shocked faces of the blond officer and the redheaded paramedic.

“Good morning,” Erik said pleasantly.

“Stay away from me!” Marvin tried to leap away, but his legs got tangled and he fell into a fireman’s arms. “For god’s sake, keep him away from me! He’s insane!”

“Dude,” the paramedic said, grinning broader than his face was wide. “That was awesome!”

“Yeah, but Charles is not going to be happy,” the fireman said. He was grinning too, like this was the best thing under the sun, but unlike the paramedic he looked a little worried. He was wearing reflexive sunglasses, so the fact that the worry was evident made it all the more profound. Clearly, the tiny detective had a reputation.

Right about then Erik heard the distinct footfall of a man running at top speed and then Xavier’s flushed face hovered into view, set in a smile so polite, it seemed carved out of stone. He could see, maybe, where had the reputation come from – Xavier was furious, and by the looks of it he wasn’t going to accept nothing short of an epileptic fit as an excuse.

“Do you mind?” he said to the fireman who handed Marvin over to the paramedic. “I need to have a word with my partner.”

“I love your new approach,” the fireman with the glasses said, holding up both thumbs. “It rocks. I’m gonna call you every time now.”

Xavier grimaced. “You already call us every time.”

“Yeah, but now I’m gonna mean it!”

“Good bye, Scott. Try to accidentally put out any cell phone which might have recorded this, alright? The last thing we need is detectives pushing people off buildings all over Youtube.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Erik stayed mostly silent throughout the exchange, deigning only to raise an eyebrow when Xavier’s hand twisted around the lapel of his jacket and pulled. “Can I borrow the back of your truck?”

“Yeah, but hurry. We’ll be packing up soon.”

“We will only be a minute.”

Erik was shoved into the back of the fire truck by a man who looked like a college professor. It might have been the weirdest thing that happened to him all year, and he had a pretty interesting year.

“What was that?” Xavier asked coolly, like he hadn’t just run down ten stories at top speed. Erik had an excellent internal clock – the time it took Xavier to get from the roof to street level was impressive.

“What was what?”

“You jumped off the roof. You pushed Marvin off the roof!”

“It really was more of a pull.”

“That’s not the point! You’ve recklessly endangered human lives, you can’t do that!”

Erik probably shouldn’t be surprised that Xavier included him. Still, it was a shockingly pleasant thought, all the more moving for its novelty. “The fire brigade was waiting at the bottom, weren’t they? No harm done.”

Xavier frowned. “Mr. Lehnsherr, it is our job to make people feel safe. In the eye of the public throwing a man off a roof which wasn’t on fire at the time achieves the exact opposite effect.”

“It might be good for him. I doubt he’ll get up there again.”

“Why do you want to die, Erik?” Xavier said quietly, as if Marvin’s life wasn’t the issue here. The voice went straight into Erik’s mind, bypassing ears completely, and echoed. This was a serious question, no anger in it, no reproach; just honest curiosity and compassion.

Xavier knew. Xavier knew.

“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“We are going to be spending plenty of time getting into dangerous situations together,” Xavier said in a tepid voice, which was probably the closest it ever got to frosty. “Have dinner with me tonight.”

“What?”

“You don’t have anyone waiting for you at home. We need to have a talk, if this is going to work in any capacity. I am not opposed to alcohol, but I would rather stay sober for this conversation. A restaurant should be a neutral enough ground.”

Erik took it in. “Dinner then.”

Xavier relaxed back into his professorly persona. “Excellent.” He opened the door of the truck with practiced ease and hopped out onto the street.

“What about the corpse?” Erik asked, when they both snuck around the truck, avoiding the ambulance, where Marvin had his shock tended to by the redheaded paramedic, back into the Polo building.

“We will go to speak with his colleagues, but I think it was suicide. Autopsy will confirm.”

“You seem awfully confident. How long were you on that roof, exactly?”

“There was a single gunshot wound to the temple, at an angle consistent with the average range of a shoulder. His finger was still on the trigger. That man had very recently lost a substantial amount of money, a wife, and much of his social life. Compound that with the fact that he was a trust fund baby and he valued himself on the basis of other’s approval, it didn’t seem like an enormous leap to make.”

Erik raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Not an enormous leap to make indeed. “Did you know him?”

Xavier looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “No.”

“Are you a ghost whisperer, then?”

That elicited a laugh. “No.”

“Then?”

“I’m gifted, shall we say. I notice things.”

“You notice things.”

Xavier hunched in his seat. “Can we do this over dinner? It generally merits a discussion, and I’d rather not have it in front of possible witnesses. It rarely aids the investigation.”

They passed the body bag along the way, but Xavier had the foresight to snap a photo on his phone. They started with the reception, where it turned out the man in question evoked no warm and fuzzy feelings in neither of the two receptionists. The following three people they talked to were the same – no obvious motive and a distinct lack of surprise.

“He was just an asshole, you know,” said the only woman who showed a little positive emotion. Her eyes watered when she saw the photo. “It’s horrible, don’t get me wrong, but… He was a big kid at heart, you know what I mean? Scared to let go of his precious lifestyle, and of course it was an idiotic investment. He hated losing.”

No one was shocked he killed himself. In fact, as it soon turned out, his ex indicated she had insisted on him visiting a psychiatrist. His drinking buddies agreed. Something must be wrong with a man if his drinking buddies think he needs therapy, Erik thought.

Case solved, then. Autopsy report came in soon afterwards, because one thing they were not lacking were capable coroners, and an open-shut case was worth opening and closing quickly, proclaiming that every mark on the body suggested suicide, and that was largely it. Case closed, stamped and filed.

Erik felt cheated.

“That’s it?” he asked when Xavier flipped the file closed and sighed.

“Oh no. Now comes the fun part.”

“Paperwork,” Erik guessed, hoping he’d be wrong. All signs indicated he was right – a form appeared before him as if by magic and right by it a pen.

“Oh yes.” Xavier had the gall to look pleased. “Since you’re the rookie, you shall do the honors.”

“I was busy jumping off the roof in the course of the investigation.”

“Which is another reason you are in charge of filling out the forms, as I’m not willing to forgive you yet. I’ll go get us coffee.” Xavier grinned at him and disappeared, making his way through the bullpen as though he was a ghost. He weaved around the people as though their paths were sketched out on the floor for his benefit, whether they were rising from their chairs or getting into them; dropping files or picking them up. Xavier circumnavigated the randomized labyrinth like it was a beaten tract.

Interesting.

Erik helped himself to his desk in retaliation and a handful of half-baked reports already there and if he jotted down a few German swearwords on the margin, well, it couldn’t be helped. The infernal questions kept him busy until Xavier returned, thirty-seven minutes later, two coffees in one hand, a stack of printouts in the other.

“What’s this?” Erik asked, indicating the papers.

“My file. I took the liberty of printing it out. You’re more than welcome to verify online that I got everything, but here it is: everything the police department has access to.”

“You’re giving me your personal file.”

Xavier blinked as though it was obvious. Then he stared at Erik, in what Erik was beginning to associate with his professional mode. It was a long, impassioned, unblinking stare, which, he was willing to bet, few people could stand directed at them. “I have every intention of reading yours. Full disclosure seems only fair.”

“Sensible and shockingly honest.” Erik held his gaze. Let Xavier stare – Erik was world champion at the not-blinking game.

“I’m very honest, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Xavier said, loosing miserably, and clearly surprised by it. “Unfortunately. Let’s get this done, shall we, and head out. Reports are a pain.”

“No fucking kidding.”

They finished in what Xavier told him was record time.

*****

Mr. Lehnsherr did very little, on the first day of their acquaintance, to convince Charles he wasn’t a serial killer. Reckless disdain for Marvin’s life was one thing (even if the shock would likely be good for the boy – coddling certainly didn’t cut it), but the frankly disturbing emptiness that followed, that was something quite different. Mr. Lehnsherr walked away from the hundred foot drop without the slightest tremor to his limbs, as though he found the experience pedestrian. Which, for a soldier, it probably was, but Charles had met soldiers, and even the best of them would experience a surge of adrenaline after such a jump.

Not Mr. Lehnsherr.

His file was, if possible, even less reassuring. It catalogued an exemplary military record of shooting unsuspecting people in the head and planting explosives in their cars. The man was proficient in three forms of martial arts. He had an affinity with projective weaponry bordering on supernatural. While the text didn’t say, “can disembowel a man with a kitchen knife in under a minute,” Charles could read between the lines as easily as he could read body language, and he was certain the file was skirting the edges of Mr. Lehnsherr’s skillset.

Then, following a classified mission in Afghanistan, Mr Lehnsherr requested a discharge. He disappeared from official grids and, after a year of no contact with the outside world, he enlisted in Westchester police force.

Charles tucked the file into his backpack, for later perusing, and ordered coffee from the smiling university dropout, who couldn’t stop thinking about how to break the news to her parents. She loved the city – she had no intention of going back to Iowa.

“Thank you, luv,” he said when she handed him two steaming cups. “Don’t bother with the change.”

“Thanks,” said the girl. Charles nodded and took the coffee across the street, to the station, where his enigmatic serial killer of a partner was meticulously filling out the requisite fields in the run of the mill report.

Along the way he stopped by the printer.

“You’re not going to be a fan of reports, are you?” he asked Mr. Lehnsherr playfully, when the work was done and Moira’s in tray was fed with the appropriate pages.

The man shrugged as he opened the door for Charles. “Is anyone?”

The lights in the staircase were dim, better suited to an unnamed gin joint in north Africa, rather than a big city police building. People skulked through it, a natural form of walking through such ambience. “I don’t mind, to tell you the truth.”

“So why was I doing it?” Mr. Lehnsherr walked just as freely as he did in the street, his back straight, his head high. Charles smiled at him for that reason alone.

“I said I don’t mind, not I look forward to it. We’ll share next time, promise.”

“I will hold you to it.” Once again Charles found the door held open for him. Curious. There was nothing in the file about bodyguard missions, but for persons of high enough standing they would be classified. Charles acknowledged the courtesy with a nod and led the way to the garage.

“Indubitably.”

They were quiet when they got into the car and they were quiet most of the way. Mr. Lehnsherr raised a brow at the opulence of the neighborhood through which they passed immediately before Charles turned into a small parking lot, next to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, invisible to all but those who knew where it was. Charles would forever be grateful that the owners chose to keep it that way.

“Good evening,” he told the barkeep.

“Hello, Mr. Xavier,” he said. “Table for two?”

“Please.”

It was only when they were seated and half-hidden behind the menus that Mr. Lehnsherr started talking.

“You notice things,” he said simply, as though that conversation never got interrupted.

“Yes.”

“By things you mean?”

“Everything.” Charles considered the carbonara. It would be a crime to have penne without white wine, but of course he was driving tonight. Bolognese, then. His finger twitched on the flayed edge of the menu. They’d been meaning to replace them, curious that it would take so long. They had taken the time to replace the wilting petunias with a fresh batch. No more fresh flowers on the table, though. Charles rubbed a finger against the cloth. The change is new, as new as this morning. Hm. A client had an allergic reaction, perhaps?

Mr. Lehnsherr’s eyes were fixed on him, he knew. Charles waited for the inevitable. “Hyperawareness?”

Well, that was… not unexpected, no, but new. “To a degree, yes, but I have the unfortunate tendency to collect details and draw conclusions from them. Which is quite a serious problem on its own, unfortunately I also tend to mention my conclusions. To most people it comes across as invasive.”

Mr. Lehnsherr watched him over the edge of his menu. “You are rarely if ever wrong,” he said after a moment, without the slightest hint of reproach. “People don’t really talk to you as a result. At least not in any personal capacity.”

Charles allowed himself a small smile, an unexpectedly honest expression of amusement and perhaps a touch of hope. “True.”

“I should ask what conclusions you have drawn about me, but I think it’s fairly obvious.” Mr. Lehnsherr’s eyes narrowed and his features hardened into a mask. Charles didn’t doubt for a second that this was the face he showed to anyone he chose to kill. “Even the parts of my file which aren’t classified are telling.”

“True, again.”

Mr. Lehnsherr dropped the mask and returned to his menu. “Do you have a recommendation?”

“I’m a fan of penne carbonara, but they use a very particular type of cheese here, so it is an acquired taste. Anything with pasta is good. I can’t recommend their pizza. It’s awfully heavy.”

Mr. Lehnsherr hummed thoughtfully as they went through the list of the restaurant’s offering. “The thing is, Mr. Xavier, that most people capable of doing what you claim you can do would rather request an immediate transfer than invite me to dinner,” he said in between the fettuccine and the salmon sedani.

“A shame, I think. You strike me as an interesting fellow.”

Charles was rewarded with a smirk and an overt glance of approval, delivered over the fraying menu.

“We live in interesting times, detective.”

“It has been said that one of my greatest faults is that I consider that to be a blessing rather than a curse.”

“Your second greatest, I take it, is telling people the truth about them.”

Charles propped his elbow on the table and met Mr. Lehnsherr’s gaze. “I have been told I have very few boundaries and far less social grace. This is true. I often say things I have no business knowing. Often these are things people don’t even know about themselves.”

“I suppose there is all number of such things you now know about me.” Mr. Lehnsherr’s mouth twisted into a secretive smile.

“No.” Charles folded the menu. “You, my friend, keep no secrets from yourself.” He wished he didn’t sound like a smitten teenager just then, but the unfortunate truth was, this man was fascination itself, given earthly form. The facets of his mind gleamed in the candlelight, each burning with the flames within, every last one sharper then the edge of broken glass and yet this man was whole, a construction of steel and glass, beautiful in the simplicity of its design, marvelous in the complexity of the planes. Mr. Lehnsherr’s mind was transparent right down to its core; if there were any secrets there, they were wired into the construction itself, not hidden.

“Are we friends now?” Mr. Lehnsherr said. Mirth colored his voice.

“I would certainly like to be.”

“How many friends do you imagine I have, Charles?” The soldier in him asked the question, sharp and demanding. Not unlike the discharge of a gun. It was a challenge; that would be obvious to anyone.

Charles was happy to rise to that challenge. “Not many. I imagine you could use some.”

“Perhaps,” Erik said, just as the waitress arrived. Charles could hear her smile all the way from across the room.

“Charles! Oh my god, and you brought someone! Did you lose a bet?” she asked Erik, leaning into his personal space.

“Good evening, Raven.” Charles inclined his head in Erik’s direction. “This is my new partner, Erik Lehnsherr.”

“No kidding!” Raven paused to catch her breath. “Wow. Sorry. It’s just really rare.”

“I’ve gathered.” Erik looked between the two of them with an open question in his gaze.

“I’m Raven Xavier,” she said, holding out her recently manicured hand. Blue lacquer, again, and zirconias. She was in a great mood today. “Charles’ sister. Nice to meet you, Erik.”

“Likewise.”

“So what can I get you two?” Raven asked, tearing off a page from her pad and posing the pencil over it. “Food? Drink? Sacrificial goat?”

“The goat,” Erik said firmly. “And a black altar to go with it.”

“We’re fresh out of those, sorry.” Raven scribbled the order all the same, then tapped her lower lip with the pen and added, “I could probably manage the goat, though.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t something that happened every morning. It wasn’t even something that happened on most mornings.

Every now and then, however, Erik would dream that he was falling. The wind howled in his ears and he was falling from an unimaginable height, with the clear blue sky and white clouds mocking him from on high. He would wake as he hit the ground; it was sand or concrete, water, or ice. It made no difference. He didn’t scream or sit up suddenly in bed, gasping for breath and searching wildly for something to remind him he was real, this was real; that he was no longer dreaming. The dream just ended, leaving him wide-awake and empty.

This happened now. He woke abruptly and stared at the empty ceiling. It was four in the morning. He didn’t need a clock to tell him that, just as he didn’t need a psychiatrist to tell him that the space between his ears didn’t fit the narrow strokes of normal, or that he wouldn’t sleep again tonight. He threw the comforter off and got up.

In the moonlight the apartment seemed desolate and empty, as opposed to the daylight hours, when it was just empty. It was a studio flat, painted a uniform white, with dark wooden flooring and nothing at all to show that a person was living there on a permanent basis. Erik’s clothes hung in the walk-in closet, invisible from sight, and the few books he owned and a handful he borrowed from the library were piled on the floor by the bed. Erik’s sole concession to bodily needs was a luxurious mattress in the middle of the floor and a cheap lamp. The kitchen, separated from the rest of the room by a low partition wall, was also white and gleaming.

Military habits died hard. Erik ate quickly; he cooked only the simplest of foods, and scrubbed the dishes clean as soon as he finished eating. As a result his kitchen looked like the moon of the 1950s: full of promise, but free of human touch.

He had a cold shower. Hot water would make him sleepy and long experience with nightmares taught him that going to sleep again would only result in picking up where he left off. It was best to hang on to whatever rest he had and let the day tire the dreams out of him for the following night.

He didn’t bother dressing again afterward. It was still too early to eat, still too early to even think, so when he walked out of the bathroom naked, dripping water, and paused in front of the window, he wasn’t surprised when it took him half an hour to move again.

A full moon was hovering low over the city, staring into Erik’s window with open curiosity, and he returned her questioning gaze, though he held no answers.

His gun was on the floor beside the bed. He remembered leaving it there; he didn’t sleep with it under his pillow (largely because he didn’t sleep on a pillow), but it was always beside his bed. It was eerie how well it fit his hand. It was a generic semi-automatic pistol, thousands of them were available for anyone with a half-clean record across the country, and this one fit his palm like it was molded to it.

Like he was born clutching it in his hand.

Erik closed his eyes and felt his fingers dissemble the gun piece by piece, then put it together again. He slid the clip home and weighed the whole thing, held it up so that the moon could see.

An object becomes a weapon when wielded and no sooner.

He stared the moon down as he put the muzzle to his temple. He didn’t move for a long while.

*****

“Lehnsherr!” Moira advanced through the bullpen much like an eighteen-wheeler advanced through the freeway – the same basic rules applied, but when push came to shove the lesser cars would end up on the bottom of the heap, and they knew it. Seasoned policemen dove out of her way, just in case she chose to turn Wagner-themed fury upon them. Charles watched her progress with much interest. It was so… inevitable. “What in the name of god were you thinking?”

Erik straightened in his chair standing to attention while sitting down. He affected the most unconvincing innocent expression Charles had seen since he arrested a street vendor of sausages of unfortunately unquestionable origin, and said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“My office, now! You too, Xavier.” This spelled trouble. Moira never referred to Charles by his last name, not unless she was livid, and that happened very rarely, as her nature was far too melancholic to allow for rage. He and Erik rose and followed her to the office, chased by the slamming of doors which rattled the whole building.

Safely hidden away from the bullpen and its prying eyes, Moira took to her throne of police chief and glowered. That she could do perfectly.

“Let me refresh your memory,” she said, and swiveled the monitor so that it was facing them. On the screen, proudly displayed on YouTube, was a grainy video of Marvin’s police-assisted swan dive.

Erik barely blinked. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes, there is a problem. You have jumped off a roof with a civilian. You have pushed a civilian off a roof.” Moira exhaled. “Mr. Lehnsherr, I will be blunt. If you can’t see the problem, then your employment is terminated, effective immediately.”

Erik took a moment to compose his reply. “He was in no danger.”

“He was in any number of dangers, up to and including a heart attack.”

Charles very nearly reminded her that Marvin was in perfect health and that the chances of a heart attack, considering his dietary habits, were negligible.

“He walked away. He walked away better off than he walked in.” Erik crossed his legs, but the rest of him remained unmoving.

Moira, by virtue of being a lady, escaped the much favored slapping of palm across her face. Instead she rested her wrists on the armrests of her chair and exhaled, until she was very nearly calm. When she spoke, well. Charles remembered she worked as a nanny in high school. She knew how to talk to obstinate toddlers. “That’s not the point and the press is not going to care. They will take the adrenaline high and blow it up until they have a story, and the story will be ‘unhinged officer attempts murder of prominent citizen, more inside!’”

“It’s a good thing I’m not an officer, then.” Erik didn’t smirk – he had an excellent poker face – but the tone of his voice indicated the smirk was a possibility, and would remain so for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, he saw Moira’s expression, and drew appropriate conclusions. “I thought I would help Marvin. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

Moira sighed. “You have no idea how much I wish it was that simple.”

Charles froze as Moira – studiously ignoring him – continued to talk to Erik.

“I can’t exactly do anything to you, Lehnsherr. You’re not an officer. Your arrangement is an unofficial one, so nothing I do to you will stick to any file. This means that most of the disciplinary actions at my disposal are pointless. What I can do, however, is suspend Charles on your behalf.”

Charles didn’t think he imagined the spike of anger which coursed through Erik at that moment. “Why?” Erik asked, furrowing his brows.

“Because you will fall in line if you want to work here.” Moira stared them both down without a twitch of unease, if one could overlook the rigid set of her thumbs. She always locked her thumbs when something upset her. “I’m sorry, Charles, but he was under your supervision and yours was the only badge on the roof. You’re suspended until the end of the week and you will take Erik to see the psychiatrist. For emotional support.”

“What has Wesley ever done to you, that you would punish him so?” Charles asked, fluttering his eyelashes.

Moira grimaced, but it was more from the effort of holding in the laughter, then annoyance. “Don’t make me laugh, please. I’m trying to be stern.” She bit her lip and her features settled. “Charles, I need you to make a statement that there was something there which looked like it might explode. However, if Marvin decides to take action…”

“He won’t,” Charles said. He was more than a little surprised his voice had an echo. He turned and found Erik was staring at him with a challenge written plainly across his features. The surprise melted into a warm gush of kinship, and that in turn morphed right back into surprise, because genuine kinship of the sort was new.

Evidently, it was new to Moira as well. She looked between the two of them, nonplussed. “Well, I know Charles dabbles in telepathy, but this is new.”

“If he was going to do anything he would have started by storming in here and demanding that you arrest me,” Erik said with a shrug.

“I’m not so sure his uncle will be this forgiving.”

“Tell him I was trying to save his life, while Charles defused the bomb.” This time Erik fluttered his eyelashes and cocked his head, drawling the syllables through his teeth like a naughty, unrepentant schoolboy faced with the principal he knew he had under his spell.

This time Moira didn’t manage to hold the laughter in. “I will. I’m afraid the suspension stands. Be here on Monday morning,” she told Charles.

Well, that wasn’t much of a punishment. “It’s Thursday.”

“Thank god it is,” Moira said. “Lehnsherr, since you are without a badge and without training, you are going to be processing the detained. Do not leave the station. Do not touch your gun. The officer on duty will instruct you, but the job is self-explanatory. The forms are on the desk and pens are freely available.”

Charles’ poker face was mediocre at the best of times. It stood to reason that it would fail him now. He couldn’t hold in the giggles at the sight of Erik’s – admittedly impressive – stone face.

“Dismissed.” Moira turned her computer back towards her and Charles barely managed to hold in the laughter until he got back into the bullpen. He let it out in the narrow gap between the silence of the office and before the noise of the police station at work swallowed him back up. Erik laughed along with him, presumably for the same reasons.

“I’m sorry,” Erik said after they’d both calmed down. “I didn’t think you’d get in trouble for it.”

“Don’t worry about it. I can live with a brief suspension. It’s no trouble.”

“It’ll go on your permanent record.”

Charles wished he could say he cared about the advancement of his career. He wished the job was important enough to him that the slap on the wrist would sting. He almost wished he could be angry at Erik for being the cause of it, alas, he had enough articles to keep him occupied for the duration and sitting at home, in relative silence, will never be a burden. If he could hole himself up in his bedroom, if he could pour over the papers and experiments for the rest of his life, then he would die a happy man.

“I’m– Don’t let it trouble you, my friend. I won’t.” The smile he shot Erik was sincere. He trusted Erik would realize as much. “Enjoy your week and I will see you first thing on Monday.”

Erik grimaced. “If the station is still standing by then.” He flexed his fingers, curling them around an imaginary gun, and now Charles was worried, too.

“One can only hope!” he said, with a small shrug.

He was just finishing shoving his files into the backpack when he saw Marvin, standing by Angel’s desk with an armful of Starbucks coffee and a sheepish grin. He looked great, for a lack of a better word.

“Marvin,” Charles said. “Pleasure to see you. Everything alright?”

“Yes, thank you. I, uh. Coffee? I have mochas, cappuccinos and ten black, five white.”

“Mocha, please.”

Marvin began shuffling the trays until he came to the one which held four cups with an M on the side and held one out. Charles took it and raised it in thanks. Marvin was buzzing with energy, glowing with it, and he had Erik to thank for the jolt. Amazing.

“Officer Lehnsherr?” Marvin asked meanwhile, turning to Erik.

“I wasn’t aware I deserve a coffee.”

Marvin rolled his shoulders inside his expensive suit and sighed, then smiled immediately after. “Ah, you know what the bible says: forgive and forget.”

“Torah says eye for an eye.” Erik helped himself to a cup of black coffee and nodded. “Good to see you are doing well.”

“Well,” Marvin said, beaming. “I’m off to work. Have a good day!”

They watched him go with a new bounce to his step.

“He would have bounced off the pavement even without the landing pad,” Erik observed once they stepped away from the heap of coffee onto which the policemen were descending like hungry vultures.

Charles felt the atmosphere warranted smacking his shoulder. “Stop that, you’re horrible.”

“Just truthful. How was that a bad thing?”

“Marvin needed it, true.”

“Why didn’t you ever push him?” Erik set the cup aside, popped the lid open and emptied seven sugar packets into the coffee. There was nothing long enough to stir the grande cup with, so he put the cap back on and swirled the drink around and around. “You can’t seriously tell me you’ve never considered the possibility.”

“I have.” Many times. Every time. Marvin never wanted to die, though he often wanted to jump. All he wanted was to feel alive. Somehow the two got twisted in his head and he no longer knew which desire meant what. By the time Charles became a regular visitor, Marvin could only feel alive balancing on the narrow ledge, foolish, when he took great pleasure in his everyday life. He was strange creature, Marvin, prone to depression and influence of others. He needed to take the leap and see for himself that falling was not all it’s cracked up to be, but for the idea to take hold he would have needed to take the final step, a grand feat for someone who had trouble getting up on a chair.

“Charles?”

“Sorry. I… I don’t know. I am a detective. It’s not my job to solve people’s psychological problems.”

“Shame,” Erik merely said. He looked at the corridor, where a stationary desk saw the beginning of a queue. There were only five people so far, but it was still early. Three of the perps wore school uniforms. Interesting beginning to a school day, Charles thought. “I wonder how many I could get to jump out the window just by taking down their details,” Erik was grinning at the line, and already the kids looked uncomfortable. One of them was clutching his cell-phone, no doubt to alert the authorities that a stranger was staring at him with a most predatory grin.

“Don’t!” Charles told him, laughing, as he shouldered his backpack. “I’ll see you Monday.”

*****

If there was one constant in Erik’s life, it was trouble. He could go on a walk to the park, have a hot-dog from the vendor at the corner, get attacked by three different bullies and end up completely soaked by freezing rain in the middle of August. “It is a gift,” his mother had often said, cleaning up his cuts with a soft smile on her face. “It will make you strong.”

It had. Erik became mean and, when he was old enough, he became deadly as well. Moral superiority was nice and well, he reasoned, but supporting the argument with a right hook got him immediate results.

So, when he returned from his first coffee break on a cold Tuesday morning to find the precinct in an uproar and a half-mad thug holding Charles by the neck with one hand, while the other held a gun to his unblinking eye, Erik had, quite casually, pulled out his own gun and put a bullet through the man’s temple.

Unfortunately, the shot was lined up that the man standing behind the thug got a bullet through the shoulder, but since he looked like a very nervous accomplice, Erik really didn’t bother thinking this through.

“Really, Erik,” Charles said with just a hint of reproach, when the unfortunate assailant slid to the floor and his companion did likewise, only with far greater volume. “Was this necessary?”

“Was it not loaded? Do excuse me. It looked very serious.” Erik thumbed the safety of his gun back on and looked around, to find everyone studiously avoiding his gaze. This might have been Westchester, but they were policemen, not soldiers. He had no business expecting them to handle a shooting casually.

… which, consequently, might have meant this was a mistake.

“It was loaded. I do believe it was very serious,” Charles said. The right half of his face was speckled bright red.

Erik tucked his gun back into his pants. “Did you have a plan?”

“I did plan on getting out of it, if that’s what you mean.”

“May I ask how?”

Charles shrugged. “Improvisation.”

Erik makes no comment, though he very carefully took note on how they were standing in the middle of a quite crowded bullpen, not one officer had a gun out. They were not soldiers, he reminded himself.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Charles said. He knelt by the injured man, who would have crawled away on his shoulder blades, if he could, were it not for the bullet right beneath his collarbone. As it were he whimpered when Charles leaned over him and pressed two fingers to his neck. “Would someone please call an ambulance?”

The man whimpered pathetically when Charles was handed a first aid kit and balled a roll of bandage against the wound. “Now, stop struggling,” he said lightly. “You don’t want to make it worse.”

Someone did call the ambulance, the Angel girl, if Erik was not mistaken, and the response was remarkably prompt. Within five minutes the paramedic – Sean Cassidy, Erik learned – was loading the unfortunate accomplice onto a gurney.

Charles stood, meanwhile, and began tidying up the papers which the fatality disturbed on the way to the floor. “Darwin, if you would, please accompany Mr. Vossa to the hospital. We will need a statement from him. Possibly a confession.”

One of the younger officers nodded, and followed the procession downstairs, while the rest of the station returned to their usual tasks, only now and then sending wary looks in their direction. Soldiers they might not have been, Erik thought wryly, but it was far from the first shooting any of them has seen. Not in this town. The only exception seemed to be the kid who followed Darwin like an errant puppy stood rooted to the spot, gaping at Charles.

“Um. Detective?”

Charles turned to him with a file in his hand. He was kneeling by the corpse, inspecting his jacket and the stains on it. “Yes?”

“You have blood on your face. All over your face,” the kid said.

“Oh,” Charles said. “Excuse me.”

Erik followed him into the bathroom. No one batted an eye, and if they did, fuck them, really.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that, in the future.” Charles had hung his jacket on the hook and was bent low over the sink, scrubbing at his face with no sense of urgency whatsoever. This was hardly the way a man reacts to having someone else’s head splattered over their face.

This was why he felt no guilt whatsoever when the worse part of his being made his body cross its arms, quirk his brows and quip, “Save your life, you mean?”

“You shot the man in the middle of a precinct. That doesn’t make us look good.”

“The man was holding a gun to your head.”

“Thank you,” Charles said. Water was dripping down his face in a parody of a crying fit, which any reasonable person would be having right about now. Charles, instead, reached for a paper towel.

Erik carefully didn’t say that the rest of the force didn’t lift a finger in his defense. Not the he doubted Charles’ ability to get out of it, but… “An old friend, I presume?”

“I sent him to jail multiple times. I believe much of his social and family life deteriorated as a result.”

“And I suppose that killing you is a surefire way to resurrect it.”

“In his head, certainly.” Charles nodded and threw the soggy towels into the bin. “He wasn’t very stable emotionally at the best of times and his career as a criminal mastermind was borne out of enthusiasm rather than genuine forethought.”

“The obvious is just another fact to you, isn’t it?”

Charles turned his head. “I’m sorry?” There was a red spatter on his neck, which would stain his neck the moment he straightened his head, or the drop succumbed to gravity and followed the line of his spine. Erik didn’t lick his lips solely because he remembered it was human blood.

“Just an observation,” he said instead and reached to wipe the red spatter off his neck with his fingertips. “You had some blood on your neck,” he answered the unspoken question.

“Oh, thank you.” Charles looked at him with something… something in his gaze. Something not suited for the police station restroom.

“I’ve some emails to go through,” Erik said and left.

Charles joined him in the bullpen a few minutes later, when Erik was reading an email from Marvin, who had taken to informing the police – informing Erik – of what he was up to that particular week. It mystified Erik, to a degree, but he seemed to have made a friend who wasn’t a psychic detective.

“Detective Xavier,” Angel called all of sudden. For once she wasn’t wearing her usual flirtatious smile. “There’s been a murder.”

Erik watched Charles’ face shift. It was fascinating to watch – first to appear was sorrow, all the more curious for Charles’ long practice in the business, then the calm acceptance of the death. Then he processed the tone in which the information was delivered and his interest was piqued, the excitement flared into a flame bright enough to provide light to cities.

“Where?” Charles merely said, getting off his chair and pulling his jacket off the backrest in one fluid motion.

“Hundred and eight Sunnyside Avenue. Apartment four.”

“On my way.” Charles dove for the car and took off with a squeal of tires. It took three intersections, traversed with blatant disregard for traffic lights, usually reserved for ambulances and the fire department, before he remembered about the blinking light affixed to the car’s roof. Erik breathed a little easier when the siren cleared the way for them.

They drove to Sunnyside Avenue, which was the quintessential High Westchester. Even the sidewalks were posh, as if the district tried to forget which city it resided in, or, more likely, tried to make up for the pit the rest of it was. The trees never dared to venture a branch out of place, the doorknobs gleamed and the homeless drove Rolls Royce. Erik had killed a man in a similar neighborhood somewhere in Mexico.

Hundred and eight was halfway down the avenue, and when they got there Erik discovered another thing about his partner: Charles drove like a madman, but he parked like an old lady. Erik got out of the car midway and waited on the curb, while Charles performed the fourth backing up and edged into the available space, perfectly parallel to the curb. Only then did he get out of the car (not that Erik didn’t provide slow, sarcastic applause, just because he could) and went for the door. He flashed his badge at the doorman, then cast a quick look around the garden, while the forensic team and the grunts arrived. Charles didn’t even turn in their direction before he started issuing orders.

“Alex, I want the who area taped over. No one gets in. No press,” he told Darwin’s lapdog, before turning to the doorman. “Mr. Moseby, I will also require your notes on who’s been coming and going for the past week, and all the security video data you have.” All of this arrived in a measured, clipped voice, threaded through with very British curls around the words. No wonder the man required a moment to figure it out.

“Sir, our tenants…” he began, but Charles was already talking, “Will appreciate my keeping the press out of their hair, yes?”

The doorman flushed, but nodded. “We don’t have much data, mind, only a few of the cameras record. Most transmit live feed to the monitors.”

“I also want a list of people who have access to both the files and the monitors.”

The doorman was a professional, but evidently not so well paid that he would choose to obstruct a police investigation. He gave in without much internal struggle. “Right away, detective.”

“Excellent,” Charles said. “Who found the body?”

“Mrs. Liehdermann, the housekeeper.”

“Why did you wait before calling us?”

The doorman started. Charles had been studying the list by doorbell, not sparing him a glance. “I– I had to make sure there was a body in the first place. I went upstairs. The kids who live here play pranks, and Halloween is around the corner. I wasn’t sure if he was really dead, at first, see…”

“That’s alright. Officer Summers will take your statement now, unless you’d like a moment to compose yourself?”

“I’m fine,” the doorman said.

Charles nodded. “In that case, Alex, statement. We are going to look at the victim.”

They took the elevator, whose plainness was cleverly disguised between the opulent pillars in the lobby.

“I see they spared some expense.” Erik considered the ceiling of the elevator. It was made of cheap plaster and it hadn’t been touched in years.

“It’s likely no one uses it – it’s not a very tall building.” Charles told him, or rather the corner of the elevator, into which he had chosen to stick his nose.

“Did you find anything interesting?”

“Dirt.”

“Interesting dirt?”

“Boring dirt, I’m afraid.”

“Color me shocked.”

Charles smiled as got back to his feet. “My friend, you are headed for a profound disappointment in the job, if you don’t learn to appreciate dirt.”

Up on the fourth floor (two apartments per floor, but each had two stories) the elevator masqueraded as a wall. A fairly decent impression it was, too – Erik was willing to bet casual, lazy guests would take the stairs and curse the architects more often than not.

Charles made a beeline for the door number four, where a purple flower waited, tacked to the door; a single stalk, five blooms. It was still fresh.

Charles examined the flower in complete silence, barely daring to breathe, presumably for fear of disturbing the fragile petals. He pulled a rubber glove from his pocket and removed the pin with the reverence a man would apply to a holy relic. Erik could swear he saw giddiness in his blue eyes, though his face remained impassive.

A plastic bag appeared from the backpack, as if by magic, and Charles dropped both the flower and the tack inside.

“It’s foxglove,” he said as he turned the knob. “Do you have gloves?”

Erik did. He had, after all, read the manual.

The apartment was sparsely furnished, decorated with even less. A lone, sprawling pistachio-green couch dominated the otherwise beige space; a solitary green king among its swamp. It looked, altogether, like Erik’s kind of place, if he put any effort at all into interior design.

Slightly less up his alley was the tacky trail of flower petals on the floor, leading down the stairs and into the bedroom. The body was artfully arranged on the bed, as if sleeping in a fetal position, completely naked, surrounded by the same flower petals.

“Well,” Erik said dryly. “I’ve watched enough CSI to know this is the work of a serial killer.”

Charles threw him an amused look. “It is far too early to tell.”

“You think it’s a serial killer.”

“True.”

“Then why am I not allowed?”

“Because we are on duty and every word can and will be used against us.”

“I thought those only applied to suspects.”

“Conjecture is a dangerous game and saying the words aloud influences the mind.” But Charles already stopped seeing him. Erik would feel bitter about losing the competition for attention to a dead guy, but it took him all of ten seconds to realize that watching Charles while he worked was no less fascinating than conversing with him.

Charles danced around the victim. He circled the bed first, measuring his steps so that they were perfectly even and didn’t fall on any of the petals. His palm extended over the sheets, searching for stray bits of warmth. Erik was sure he didn’t imagine Charles’ wetting his lips, because though he was an intelligent man, his imagination was limited to a blueprint with silhouettes standing in for people; he wasn’t capable of imaging a pink tongue wetting red lips in anticipation of a Totentanz in the bed of roses.

Erik had heard the term “soul of a poet” and he was certain he didn’t have it. If he had, he might have thought then that he was watching Death himself, circling his bounty, as he watched Charles bow before the corpse and trail a finger along his arm.

“Do you know what his name was?” Charles asked in a hushed tone, like he feared to wake up the sleeper, like he feared he would be roused by a careless word putting an end to this macabre dance.

There was very little chance of that happening; Erik could smell the blood from where he stood, even if he couldn’t see it. The body was unnaturally pale, as though carved from alabaster, the skin nearly snow-white against the rosy petals.

“Sebastian Tojo.” Erik flipped through the wallet, carelessly abandoned on a dresser, next to a handful of photos, which depicted their corpse with a small circle of friends. “What killed him?”

“Blood loss.” Charles kneeled beside the bed, so that he was level with the victim’s eyes. “His sister will be devastated to hear of his death.”

“Unless she did it, to get his money.”

“Doubtful.”

There were footsteps in the hall right outside the bedroom. Charles didn’t look up, but Erik watched the newcomers’ reflection in the windowpane. Summers stopped by the door. He was followed by McCoy, who was pushing a gurney, and finally Emma Frost, the voluptuous coroner in an impeccable white pants suit. Erik would be the first to admit he didn’t keep abreast of the current fashions in lab wear, but a cut low enough to proudly display the make and model of the bra seemed to be pushing it.

“Mr. Xavier,” Frost said, giving Erik a look no warmer than her name. “Are you determined to do my job for me every single time?”

“I wouldn’t dare, Miss Frost.”

“How much more time do you need? I have patients waiting.”

“I need Hank to take pictures. Then he’s all yours.”

“Yessir,” McCoy said, wielding the camera like it was a shield. It became one, when he turned to Erik, and tiptoed around him.

With the career change it might be wise to rethink his demeanor, Erik reflected. Then, because fuck demeanor, he grinned and snapped his teeth. Hank skidded to the bed and hid behind Charles and his camera.

“From up above too, if you can,” Charles said, paying little to no attention to the problems of the living.

“Okay. Alex, can you fetch me a chair? Something high?” Hank started snapping pictures at a cinematic rate, pausing for nothing whatsoever including breathing.

“What, being freakishly tall not doing it for you any longer?” Summers said, already out the door and fetching.

“It’s a tall bed,” McCoy mumbled to the camera when he got his chair.

“Whatever.” Summers took stock of the bed, now that he was in the vicinity to properly appreciate it, and whistled. “Wow, this looks like something from CSI. All the colors.”

Charles threw him an amused look. “It does, doesn’t it?” He turned away from the bed and its, admittedly, pretty color scheme, to study the floor and the scattering of petals which led to the windowsill.

“How do you suppose the killer got in?” Summers asked meanwhile. “The window?”

“Main door,” Erik said automatically. He wasn’t surprised that Charles had spoken in unison with him, Summers, on the other hand, jumped. He alternated between staring at them both with a growing look of “oh god, there’s two of them!” until finally curiosity has won and he had to ask the obvious question.

“How do you know?”

“This amount of effort indicates preparation within the flat. The killer was here for quite some time, which in turn indicates he had plenty of time to familiarize himself with the interior, doing which would be far more practical if he had a spare key. People pay far less attention to who walks through the front door than who walks in through the fire escape,” Charles told him, disturbing the fine line of dust on the window frame with a gloved finger. Erik had to wonder if and where he allocated time for breathing when he planned an explanation: the words arrived in a daisy-chain with no space in-between. It was likely Charles simply paused bodily functions to say things, then breathed out. The glass turned opaque with warm mist where it was closest to his red lips.

Any moment now he should stop staring and start being a professional sort-of detective, Erik thought ruefully, and now would be the perfect time, because Alex turned to him next, waiting with an expectant expression. Luckily, the answer was obvious.

“That’s what I would do,” Erik said with a shrug.

Charles nodded and smiled. “Sensible choice. This makes our job very difficult, ladies and gentleman, as we have a sensible, meticulous killer on our hands.”

“And to think, Christmas isn’t for another three months. Someone must have been a very good boy.” Frost nudged a flower petal with the tip of her milky white stiletto heel and considered her nails. “Have you been sneaking out to help old ladies across the street?”

“Around here?” Charles straightened and fixed Frost with an incredulous look. “Goodness, no. I would get mugged and end up with my throat slit in a back alley. The old ladies are vicious.”

Hank took a step back from his perch on the chair, but instead of falling to the carpeted floor and cracking his skull open he landed on lightly bended knees, with grace ballet dancers starved themselves for. The kid – and he was a kid, around ten years younger than Erik – hid his fitness behind glasses he didn’t need and a labcoat, probably to avoid Charles’ fate of being sent out onto the streets of Westchester with nothing but a gun and a badge for protection.

Given what the kid did to Summers every time they were in the gym together, he was more than suited to keep himself on top of any given fight, but only a moron took to the streets unless he had to, and McCoy had an IQ which, in the lab, was measured in Kelvins as opposed to everyone else’s Fahrenheits. Unfortunately, the outdoors required different kind of smarts and even Hank knew he wasn’t cut out for it. Hence his devotion to Charles and Charles’ campaign to keep MacTaggart sidetracked long enough to hire other people, before she had to resort to offering another grad student a bowl of soup per week to run labs, and put McCoy in harm’s way. It was hard to dislike McCoy, Erik allowed. He was too fluffy and reminiscent of an overgrown teddy bear for that. Even Erik got roped into the “Save Our Hank” campaign as a result, though that had less to do with Hank himself and more with Charles’ hopeful blue eyes, raised in supplication.

“I’m done here,” Hank told Frost, who snapped a pair of latex gloves onto her manicured hands and bent over the cold body. Out of the designer bag she took a thermometer and with practiced ease stabbed the victim’s liver.

“Off-hand, he bled to death,” she said. “There we go.” She turned over the victim’s wrists, revealing two gouges on each. Erik had been staring at the bed at the time, so if his gaze slid from the pale skin of the corpse to Frost’s equally pale cleavage, framed by creamy satin, he could feign innocence. Had he met Frost under different circumstances, Erik would have assumed she had little to no interest in anything except fashion and the many shades of the color white. She wore expensive clothes and her hair was woven into a precarious bun on the back of her head, with every last hair controlled by an appropriate substance. If they had met under different circumstances, Erik would have trouble imagining her tugging apart the edges of a wound with her elegant fingernails. “Oh, marvelous job, a plastic surgeon couldn’t have done a cleaner cut.”

“He was drugged first,” Charles said absently. He was on his knees and elbows again, half-hidden underneath the bed, though not so well hidden that, when he looked over his shoulder, Erik couldn’t see his eyes. “He slept through his own murder. Hank, there’s blood seeping through the mattress, see if you can get anything out of here.”

Frost released the victim’s wrists and made quick examination of his skin around the elbows and inner thighs. “There are no obvious needle marks, no sign of strangulation, no suspicious bruising. Given the blood loss and the temperature of the liver, I’d estimate he’s been dead seven to ten hours.”

“How many bodies do you have waiting?”

“Today?” Frost arched an eyebrow at Charles, pursing her lips in a cool smirk. “My dear, you know perfectly well I am up to my blonde coif in corpses.”

“Any chance we could push this one ahead of the queue?” Charles fluttered his eyelashes and smiled, sitting back on his haunches. “This will get out, sooner or later, and Moira will be pushing to close it quickly.”

“Who am I to spoil your early Christmas gift?” Frost smiled in a way that, Erik was sure, invited the little boy into getting into her sled. There was a cruel edge to it, a coldness which belied the sexual elegance of the rest of her, but even so, it was friendly. Emma Frost, the Snow Queen extraordinaire, would go the extra mile to spoil her favorite courtier. “Gentlemen, my body, please. Post-haste, if you will, Charles is waiting.”

With a little effort Summers and McCoy transferred the body of Sebastian Tojo to the gurney and zipped the bag closed. Both of them avoided standing too close to Frost, Erik noted, despite the fact that neither could resist using the height advantage to peek into her bra. The two of them then wheeled the gurney out the door and, presumably, down into the van.

“Thoughts?” Erik asked when Frost’s clicking heels stepped onto the tiles in the hallway and the two of them were alone, considering the indentation of the body on the bed, preserved in dried blood.

Charles wasn’t looking at him, but the corner of his mouth was curving towards his eye, as if he had a particularly amusing thought. “Well, Erik, I must say that if you are asking me if I have any suspects, you are the first on the list,” he said, carelessly showing his unprotected back.

Erik folded his arms across his chest. “Care to elaborate on that?”

“Mr. Tojo was murdered by a man he barely knew, if at all. The killer was, however, meticulously prepared for the murder. He walked in when Mr. Tojo was sleeping, possibly after he had been drugged. The incisions were made with a sharp implement, but I would wager it was more a knife than it was a scalpel. Emma will confirm the nature of the cut. The force and intent behind it indicates a seasoned soldier, not a surgeon.

“This is far from a first kill, I’m sure of that, but it is the first of its kind. It might be that I have simply been unaware of such killings, I grant you, but either way, they haven’t happened in Westchester. This is all for show, obviously, so he wouldn’t have bothered hiding it. Thus, I suspect the killer is new in town. So, who do we know of that has extensive military background and no history in this city?”

“Should I expect an arrest?”

“Of course not. There’s not a shred of evidence tying you to the scene, not a shred of evidence, in fact, that even hints at you.” Charles was smiling at him, open and flirtatious.

With the exception of everything he just said, Erik thought and shook his head. “I could step down from the investigation,” he said with as much seriousness as he could muster.

“Don’t be absurd.” Charles stepped away from the bed as it personally insulted him. “I meant it in a purely hypothetical fashion.”

“You are levying a serious implication against me; aren’t you concerned my judgment might be impaired?” Erik grinned, as he rarely got the chance to, and took the few steps separating him from Charles, until they were standing close enough to touch. They were flirting, he wondered, with a dead body between them.

“Please. The technicalities are one thing; the style is something quite different. This,” Charles waved his arm to encompass the bed, the room and the petals throughout, “is not like you, my friend.”

“Oh, so now I lack style. I could learn, you know. There is an art to it, when you think about it – a body must be a curious medium to sculpt. Not quite my type, this particular man, but I could make the effort.”

Charles’ red mouth stretched in a languid smile. “I love a challenge.”

“Working with a serial killer to solve a murder is merely a challenge now?”

“I was born in Westchester, Erik. Working with a serial killer to solve a murder is merely Tuesday. Or, as my month has been going, every working day and the occasional beer.” All of which included Charles at some point laying his throat bare for Erik’s perusal. If Erik was the least bit interested in hurting him, he had more opportunity than he’d had home-made meals in the last ten years.

Erik wasn’t yet sure what to make of that. People had pegged him as a killer the moment they knew about the Green Berets; his attitude earned him plenty of respect, but very little trust. “I have no alibi for last night,” he said, just in case.

“You were home, reading, not having dinner.” Charles looked at him and bit his lip. On anyone else it would be gesture of nervousness. On Charles, it was a mark of an endearing smile. “Which isn’t much of an alibi, I’ll grant you. However, you also have no motive, as I don’t believe you’ve ever met Mr. Tojo before.”

“I’ve never met many men I have killed, Charles.”

“How many of them have you laid out on a bed of roses, however?”

“I have staged a suicide or two, but your point is well made.”

Charles laughed, turned his back on Erik, relaxed and unconcerned, and moved out the bedroom to inspect the kitchen, leaving Erik to contemplate the bloodied bed. The victim has been positioned so that his head rested on one wrist, the other extended, a mockery of the recovery position. The bloodstains corresponded directly with the placement of the wrists – whatever drugs the victim had running through his veins were potent enough to induce a deep sleep. The man didn’t know he was going to die; the killer didn’t want him to suffer.

He was a killer, then, who didn’t delight in killing.

Charles was right to suspect him, Erik thought. Unbidden, his mouth curved into a wide grin, framing a silent laugh that seemed to echo throughout the empty room, reddened with blood and roses. Charles was right to suspect him and still he’d shown him his back, aware of the gun Erik carried, aware of the hundred ways he could kill him with his bare hands and the furniture.

Idiot, Erik thought fondly.

*****

Charles took a glance at all the photos, tapping his finger on the arrow key every few seconds, once the room’s edges aligned with those which were already burned in his mind. He flipped through the photos until the room became a blueprint on which a crime has been committed. The bed, the petals, the blood, the body; the pictures were snapshots of a frozen moment, but in each one there was a hint.

The fundamental law of physics: in this universe, the motion of each particle carried in it the information of where it had been previously. Every body had a history hardwired into its very being. If one could tap into the universal reserve, then the explosion of infinity could be wound up back to the singularity which begot it.

In Charles’ head, this was the world: snapshots in time, meticulously catalogued, with bright vines of intent connecting the past to the present, to the future. It made him a brilliant CSI, when he first started work in law enforcement. It made him a better detective.

When he closed his eyes the crime scene was before him, stripped bare of the milling police personnel, stripped bare of his own presence, of Erik, of anything which wasn’t there when the important events happened. The confined space stretched across miles, to make space for each detail, so that it was displayed as the single most important object, until it faded into obscurity at his command.

“I think,” Charles started, even though he didn’t think, in a manner of speaking, so much as he saw, as clearly as he saw the lines crisscrossing his palms, “Our killer is a tall man. Not necessarily large, but strong. There is a sense of effortlessness in the scene. He takes pride in it, makes an effort to display his success, taunts us even, but there is no passion there. It is all planned. It is all dry. There is a definite sense of accomplishment, yet it is not in the act of killing, but the accomplishment itself.” He opened his eyes to find Erik studying him over their shared desk space. “This display is a show. He has killed before. This is not an experiment. This is a show staged specifically for us.”

Erik raised his gaze from the few key photos they had printed. “We are talking about a man who kills with such amount of forethought that he brings in heaps of flower petals. It is more or less obvious he’s doing it for show.”

Charles blinked. Suddenly Erik’s gaze was hard to withstand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it’s not apparent. Sometimes I just… like to hear what I see. I’ll be quiet.”

Erik was already shaking his head by the time Charles was halfway done. “Talk. I don’t need silence to concentrate. I’ll let you know if anything catches my attention.” He went back to staring at the photos, leaving Charles to stare at him, in something which was indescribable. There was surprise there, and gratitude, and fear, because he would wreck this, he was certain, he would keep talking and this would collapse before his very eyes.

“I’m not saying there isn’t a chance of error,” he said eventually. “I make mistakes, now and then.”

“Interesting. I’ll be sure to make a note when you do.” Erik closed the file and stretched. The slim-fitting turtleneck didn’t ride up high enough to reveal skin, but it was close. It didn’t reveal anything Charles’ hadn’t already known about, like the taut abdominal muscles and a lean body, coiled like a serpent ready to strike. “The crime scene is getting us nowhere; anything left will be small enough for even you to overlook. What do we do next, look through the personal file?”

“Yes. Then we should interview the family and friends. We’ll see if he had any enemies, anyone with a motive.”

“He was a rich man. They typically have enemies.” Erik was already typing, no doubt searching for the file and formal associations of Mr. Tojo. The laptop taken from the scene gave him access to the victim’s Facebook account, which in turn should yield a list of a hundred names: a hundred possible suspects.

“Mr. Tojo was generous.” Charles flipped through his mental catalogue of the crime scene and the apartment and found it dotted with small gifts, things made by hand or bought with the intent to brighten someone’s day. The few photos on display were of parties, of people enjoying each other’s company. “I doubt he was in anyone’s bad books.”

“He has been murdered,” Erik noted with a small smirk and no teeth whatsoever. “I figure he was generous enough to lend money, but not enough not to incautiously hint he might like it returned. Maybe his jealous girlfriend found him lending money to his ex.”

“Ah, but then we would have twelve haphazard stab wounds, not four surgical cuts on his wrists. Passion tends to be obvious in a murder.”

“Enthusiasm is not passion, Charles.” Erik watched him. He did that often. He would pause whatever he was doing and just watch, until Charles was certain the room could fall away in a quantum explosion, leaving behind nothing, and Erik would still only have eyes for him. It was a heady feeling. It wormed underneath his collar, caressing his skin every time he moved. Erik watched him with the same rapt attention he bestowed on the results of crimes and their perpetrators, and Charles felt naked under his gaze. It was funny, really. He could shed his sweaters and slacks; he could leave his underwear pooled on the clothes and walk down the busiest street, yet he would never feel as naked as he did when Erik was giving him his full attention.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” he stammered.

“The so-called crimes of passion are enthusiasm gone wrong. True passion is not fiery; it’s more like ice. It’s like a vacuum into which everything else in the world pours.”

He blinked and suddenly the room had fallen away, because Erik was elsewhere. His gaze was focused on the distance, unhindered by walls and the chaos of the bullpen, reviewing a story only he was aware of.

“Passion is fire by definition,” Charles said cautiously, feeling like he was on foreign soil. Dictionaries were a familiar ground; a thesaurus was more of a Canada. The same in theory, slipping his grasp in practice. No wonder it made sense to Erik, who had traversed continents and slid into a new profession like it was a new outfit.

“Is it?” Erik went back to looking at him, though his eyes remained distant. “Have you ever felt it, then?”

Charles blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“What’s the police protocol for wanting things?”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.” Charles picked up a file from the desk and thumbed through the pages. “I have plenty of things I feel strongly about.”

“Like broccoli.”

“I have no particular feeling regarding broccoli.” He didn’t avoid dishes containing the plant, if there were other things in it that he enjoyed, but there was something about the texture that made him swallow the pieces without chewing and quickly douse the aftertaste with wine.

“You eat it funny,” Erik said, then indicated the photos Charles was flipping through. “Any progress?”

“The scene? Relatively little. I doubt I’ll be able to get much further without more data. I did get a preliminary tox report, which tells us no more than the killer had access to morphine. That’s all. How about you?”

“He wasn’t exactly friendless. Not a whole lot of family though.” Erik hit print and the machine spit out a dozen pages, each with a brief dossier. He gathered them into a single stack and flipped through it, until one caught his eye. “I’d start with the cousin. He should be able to point us further.”

Charles nodded. The photo was of an attractive Asian man in his late thirties, with hair dyed a lighter brown. “Cousin it is. Do you want to drive?”

Erik was already shimming into his soft leather jacket. “I don’t really care.”

An unusual answer from a person who had been at the mercy of his driving skills previously. Charles grinned. “Flip you for it?”

Chapter Text

The station was understaffed, the staff underpaid and the whole thing just teetered on the edge of financial disaster. Like a clown, really. You had to have clowns, obviously; you didn’t want them there, the kids didn’t want them there, but a clown was the thing to have, so you hired the poor bastard anyway. The police force in Westchester was that sad clown on your birthday party, the one who persisted even though everyone was praying that he went away and took the misery with him. Yet, despite the overall mess, below the main building there was a complex underground system worthy of a note, or eight. It held, among others, two gyms, a shooting range, a mortuary (Emma’s indivisible kingdom, the weird snow queen) and a burned down laboratory.

Hank was doing the forensic work in his broom closet, which didn’t close properly when he stretched his legs, even though the laboratory was usable and free, most of the time. Whatever happened there destroyed most of the equipment, and to rebuild it would have taken more money than the station could spend in a decade, but there were enough electric outlets to make do. That wasn’t why Hank avoided it, though. Everyone claimed the place made their skin itch, but Raven was fond of the blackened tables and singed walls. She would come there sometimes to think, while she was waiting for Charles to finish browsing through the files and come take her out to dinner.

Raven liked basements in general. She liked this one in particular, despite, or perhaps because of, the small, brown stain near the door. The rooms have been cleaned, but that stain remained, largely hidden by the shadow.

“Creepy,” Raven said to herself, and shuddered. Then shuddered again when she heard a gunshot. Someone evidently shared her disposition on this fine afternoon. Curious, she poked her head out of the lab and followed the corridor to the shooting range.

“Charles!” she said before she could stop herself, but the mufflers were on his ears, so he probably hadn’t heard.

She slipped into the room and watched Charles pick up a gun and hold it out. He shot with an unwavering certainty and he shot well, but his back was stiff in a way that would be imperceptible to anyone but her. She was glad she hasn’t been noticed yet. She liked watching Charles handle guns, especially when he wasn’t aware he was being watched. He was different then. He was focused and physical, none of the “invading your mind as we speak” bullshit. In the shooting range he was almost normal. Raven appreciated that and hated herself a little bit for liking to watch him shoot.

Charles hated guns.

“Not bad,” someone said.

Raven started. She didn’t notice his new partner, Erik, was also there. Unlike Charles, he must have noticed her – his eyes darted her way briefly, acknowledging her presence, then returned to her brother.

“Thanks,” Charles said. He pulled the mufflers off his ears, leaving them circling his neck, and turned to face Erik, which brought Raven into his field of vision. “Raven! What are you doing here?”

She beamed and detached from the doorway, flicking her hair over her shoulders. “You promised me dinner.”

“I did?” Charles raised a brow. He didn’t move much. He never did, when he had a gun in his hands. It was like it anchored him in place. Anchored him to reality, even. In her less charitable moments Raven thought about making him carry it around the house, just because. Luckily, this was not one of them.

“Well, no, but I had a fight with Joe today and I really need a drink and fancy food.” And then some, she thought, scowling inwardly. “Or fancy drink, with greasy food to follow.”

“As you wish. Will you wait?” A soft, earnest look fluttered her way; an apology for the delay, no doubt, and the indulgence he was participating in.

“Sure,” she said, resisting the urge to hug him.

Charles beamed and turned to his scary partner, who increased his scariness, oh, a millionfold, by holding anything obviously designed to hurt people with. As if his face wasn’t enough, Raven thought with a subtle roll of her eyes. Not that he looked bad, or anything.

“Come on, Erik, bragging is good for the soul,” Charles said. “How good are you with that gun?”

“How good do you want me to be?” Erik asked in return, slamming a clip home. He pulled the mufflers off Charles’ neck and shoved them one-handed onto his own head, before taking a place in the booth.

“Supernaturally good,” Charles said with a cheeky grin. “Live up to your file, at least.”

The cardboard target was clipped to a slide some fifty away. Raven watched, barely daring to breathe, as Erik walked to the console, pushed the target another fifty yards back, until it kissed the back wall, and fired six shots in rapid succession.

The target returned with a perfect circle around the head’s center point.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s fantastic!”

“It is,” Charles agreed, nearly bowling Raven over. Charles, admiring someone’s skill with a pistol! Whatever was coming next, a nuclear apocalypse? Raven cast a nervous glance over her shoulder, because if he really was enthusiastic about a gunshot, then the zombies must be close. Hopefully not, but anyway.

Charles’ phone rang in that moment, distracting them all with the cheery tune, most unfitting the grim surroundings. Normally a ringtone wouldn’t clash with the décor, but the basement of the police station was so ugly, that anything nicer than a fresh corpse, belonging to a person who died of natural causes, clashed with it horribly. Raven often wondered if she shouldn’t volunteer to paint the range some other color. Puke green complimented no one and nothing – everyone looked dead here. Except for the corpses, curiously enough. Emma let her into the mortuary once or twice, and the patients who didn’t have their insides hanging out for the world to see looked like they were a kiss away from walking off the slabs. It was very nearly magical.

“So soon? Oh. Well, thank you. No, I’ll come. Two minutes, yes.” Charles flipped the phone shut. “Raven, will you wait a little longer? Hank has finished with the samples and he needs me to sign for them and put them into storage. I won’t be long, quarter of an hour maybe.”

“Sure. Can I shoot?”

She knew what he was going to say even before he winced, but she was so used to it she wasn’t even angry. “Raven…”

“Oh, come on! You know I can handle a gun, besides, Erik can watch out so that I don’t shoot anything vital.”

“You assume Erik will agree?”

Raven turned to Erik, who was standing to the side with a cool expression and fluttered her eyelashes. “Please, Mr. Erik, sir, I promise I know what I’m doing,” she said to him, bringing her clasped hands in the vicinity of her bosom, for added effect.

She achieved a definition of a partial success so perfect she should frame it and hang it on her wall. He said, “I don’t mind,” but didn’t so much as blink otherwise.

Charles put the phone back in his pocket and devoted his full attention to dismantling the gun. He put it away and handed Raven the keys to the gun rack with visible reluctance. “All right. I’ll sign for you, too. Try not to shoot anything vital, either of you.”

“No promises!” Raven called over her shoulder, already snatching the mufflers from their rack and striding to the collections of firearms hoping her glee didn’t manifest as skipping. “Awesome.”

“You know how to shoot?” Erik asked, once Charles was gone.

Raven snorted, tied her hair off in a messy ponytail and fixed the mufflers on her head. She picked a nine-millimeter Berretta, assumed the stance and fired three shots. All three went through the target, which was only twenty yards away, but they were all within the black silhouette, and one got it around the middle. Raven considered the cardboard suspect sufficiently stopped. “Not bad, eh?”

“Not bad for a schoolgirl. Did Charles teach you to shoot?”

“As if.” Raven scoffed. “Charles despises gun. He needed to be talked into carrying one into work and he’s a policeman in Westchester. I mean, that’s just a little crazy.”

“I fear the day when I get to see Charles go insane,” Erik said, quite possibly winning Raven over forever. Unlike his other partners, Erik didn’t raise to the bait. He was staring at the gun in her hands, as though the clear invitation to complain about Charles and his utter crazy went unheard. Raven, exercising caution and restraint, awarded him seventy-eight points on the Arbitrary Judgment Of Men I Know scale of a hundred and three, for smirking fondly at the mention of her brother’s idiosyncrasies. Everybody else got at the very least condescending at this point, or even, memorably, panicky (final score: seven. That guy had a really cute nose). “How did you learn, if not from Charles?” Erik asked.

“My father was a detective. He taught me to shoot when I was little.”

She nearly missed the sharp look Erik shot her. She wasn’t Charles, but she could wager a guess what caught his attention. “Charles is my half-brother.”

“You said your name is Raven Xavier.”

“Sounds better than Raven Marko. I really wanted to be called Raven Darkholme, when I got around to changing my name. Too much E.A. Poe, Charles said and he might have had a point. I didn’t think so at the time. I still think it would sound cool, but I don’t think anyone would take me seriously. Teenage girls are so weird, right?”

“I wouldn’t know. I never was one.” Erik picked up another firearm, a heavy revolver that looked like it remembered the shooting of buffalos, swung it as though it weighed nothing and fired. He turned on his heel and fired again, turned and fired, then again, and again, until Raven’s head was spinning, the clip was empty and the target full of holes.

“How old are you?” he asked casually, as though he hadn’t just done five complete circles.

“Twenty-three.”

“Shoot again,” he said. “Stand sideways this time. Both elbows bent. Gun in front of your face.”

Raven thought about commenting, but decided against it. The first shot went a little off, leaving a hole five inches from where she hoped it would get. She adjusted her stance and the second was better. The third felt perfect, even if she was still an inch or so off perfect accuracy.

She felt giddy. Getting inside a shooting range without Charles was an unexpected treat, and being inside one without Charles was a whole another ballgame. She always liked guns. She always liked shooting. She always hated letting Charles in on the fact formally, lest he look at her with wounded blue eyes of doom. It wasn’t like he didn’t know for god’s sake, he knew everything else, but still, shooting in front of him was awkward.

“Bend your knees.” Erik slid into the booth to stand before her, not bothered by the pistol, which was now pointed at his chest. Raven couldn’t get the gun out of the way fast enough, but he, as if he didn’t even notice the danger, nudged her foot until she stumbled.

“Hey! I am holding a gun here!”

Erik deigned to look at her. “So?”

“I could have shot you by accident!”

“Your gun, your problem. You are responsible for what it does,” he said and went right back to nudging her feet until she was tap-dancing in place to avoid getting stepped on, all the while waiving a loaded fucking gun in the air. Good thing she managed to thumb the safety on, at least.

“Jesus, you can’t do that!” she yelled when he kicked her ankle, even if that particular kick was more or less an accident. “There are rules! Who let you in here, anyway?”

“Do you want to learn to shoot paper targets, or do you want to wield a weapon?” Erik asked. He was standing far closer than it was necessary, certainly closer than regulation should allow.

Part of her wanted to twist it into an innuendo, because it was perfect, wasn’t it? She was blonde, slim, wearing a pleated skirt, and he was tall, acceptably dark, for a certain value of blond, and handsome, and so fucking hot, especially when he held a gun. A little innuendo and they could be making out – god, she would so love to wield his weapon, she thought with the appropriate virtual giggling sound – or screwing, because at this point it was less a romantic comedy and more cheap porn.

The other part of her, the part that took growing up with Charles to heart and therefore learned that details matter, saw in him a soldier who knew the difference between a gun and a weapon.

“Yes,” she said, breathless in a way that had nothing to do with Erik’s aftershave.

“Lower on your knees. This is not a toy. This is you, now. Whatever it does, is on you. Do you understand that?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Yes, Master Shakespeare. I’m not a moron.”

“Good. Nothing worse than a moron with a gun.”

“Oh, fuck you,” she said lightly. She bent her knees. She relaxed, took a deep breath, squared her shoulders. Erik didn’t move, so she sidestepped him, brought the gun up, thumbed the safety off and fired.

“Better.” He didn’t even look at the target. She told him as much. “I don’t need to, I see you.”

The shot had gone through the heart of the cardboard, more or less, which was pretty neat. “Cool,” Raven said. “Do they teach you that spiel in the army?”

“If you’re smart, you learn.”

“Very poetic.”

“Very poetic,” Erik agreed. “Especially shooting a man at close range in the gut. Then you can feel his blood and shit spilling all over your shoes. As far as poetry goes, that one is worthy of a Pulitzer.”

Raven was rather grateful they left that out of the movies. “Gross!”

“You wanted to learn.” A shadow of a smile crossed his face. “When I say whatever it does, I mean whatever. The person you shoot, their blood is on you. The person you shoot at and miss, their life is on you. The moment you aim that gun at anything living, you are responsible for whatever it does next.”

“I’m not stupid, you know. I heard you the first time.”

“You’re not.” Erik shook his head. “Sorry. I’m not much of a teacher, unless I’m allowed to run them into the ground. Probably not even then.”

Raven begged to disagree. “So, did you shoot a lot of people?” She made sure to look extra innocent when she asked, just to see the look on his face. Sadly, Erik disappointed. Or fortunately, he didn’t disappoint; she wasn’t yet sure how she felt about his weird reactions.

“More people than you know,” he said without much of an emotional output.

“Do Facebook friends count?”

Erik stared at her blankly, like she slipped into another language without a warning.

“You can’t tell me you don’t know what Facebook is.” Raven let the gun drop a few inches and stared, until he shook his head and dispelled the weirdness of such magnitude Charles looked normal in comparison.

“I know what it is, I’ve seen The Social Network. I was unaware Facebook friends were something separate from people you know.”

“Theory, practice.” Raven fired again, and this time she hit the target an inch closer to the bulls-eye. “Awesome. I wish Charles would let me come here more often.”

“I thought you were an adult.”

“This is the police range. I need supervision, and I get that you’re all super-busy most of the time, this being Westchester and all. He doesn’t like it when I handle guns, anyway, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of other people I can ask to let me in here. There’re only a few shooting ranges around, and this one is the best.”

“Few shooting ranges in Westchester?” Erik parodied Raven’s accent and the two of them grinned. “Is Charles waiting to inherit your trust fund?”

“I have a black belt in ju-jitsu, I’ll have you know. Kurt picked it out for me when I was a kid, and it’s pretty vicious. It’s not like Charles wants me to be completely helpless.” Raven sighed and stroked the smooth, dark metal surface of the gun with her fingertip. “He just doesn’t like guns.”

“He does have a number of curious idiosyncrasies,” Erik said, with an expression best described as fond. Raven stared at him in disbelief.

“Dude. You’re sure you were in the army?” At Erik’s blank stare she stuck her tongue in her cheek, briefly, then added, “That was a multi-syllable word. Next you’ll be telling me they taught you to read, too?”

Erik looked at her, his face serious, but his eyes twinkled. “You are an insolent brat,” he said matter-of-factly. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall of the cubicle.

“I know!” Raven beamed. She always thought this was one of her better qualities: the ability to look anyone, anyone at all in the eye and say something she knew they wouldn’t approve of. It was, simultaneously, one of her worst traits. She had many bruises, even scars (though that was an honest to god accident, and the perpetrator was sorry as hell. Then he met her brother, and oh boy), which indicated this was not always the right course of action. Sometimes she learned better, sometimes she didn’t; the point was that she tried and sometimes, like now, she scored.

Erik closed his eyes and smiled. “Again,” he said. “Gun steady. Don’t let it do the thinking.”

“What am I, a guy?”

“You don’t want to know what a gun is thinking.” His voice was coming from a faraway place, but since he wasn’t a small, green goblin-thingie, Raven felt justified in snorting.

“Guns are things. They don’t think.”

“I’m always looking for a handy source of truisms, thank you Raven. What I mean is you can’t shoot with the gun alone. Shoot with your head.”

Raven rolled her eyes, because how was she the one spouting truisms? She had Charles for that. “Boom, headshot!” she crooned when her bullet pierced the already mangled paper silhouette.

Erik’s lips quivered around the Cupid’s bow. “Not bad at all.”

“Not bad? That was awesome!”

“That was okay for a shot in a shooting range. Try drawing and shooting.”

“What?”

Erik dropped his own gun on the board before them. He stood with one hand hanging loosely at his side, with his head cocked in Raven’s direction, while his other hand played with the joystick, adjusting the target’s position. “Draw,” he said as his palm wrapped around the handle of the gun, “and shoot.”

It was a single move – his fingers closed around the gun, just as he was taking a step back, pulling it off the desk, and then the hand flew up, he turned his head away from her for half of a second, the gun aligned with the target and barked three times. Raven closed her mouth, but it stubbornly fell open again. Must get those loose hinges looked at, she thought. The three bullet holes were in the very center of the head, like a very unlucky three-leafed clover.

“You barely looked at it!” she said, stabbing Erik around the solar plexus with her index finger for emphasis, but all she got for her trouble was a winning smirk.

“I cheated. I put it in place.”

“Yeah, but you weren’t looking!”

“The joystick translates easily. I knew it went back about five yards. Hardly a trouble to adjust. That’s not the point.”

“It still moved, and you just got it dead center, perfect headshot, without looking!”

“I’m a career military man, Raven.”

She tried to make sense of this, if this was guy-code for “I shoot people for a living, fuck yeah I’m good at it,” which it probably was. It was a good headshot. Triple headshot. She scrambled for words, but most took the day off, so in the end she settled for, “Fucking hell. Can I learn to shoot like that?”

“You can try.”

“What do I do?” Other than the obvious, but Raven wasn’t stupid, thankyouverymuch for asking. She attended enough gun safety lectures from the world’s leading expert on hating firearms to know that unless a gun’s safety was on, the gun must be firmly held and pointed where it would do the least possible damage when discharged. Charles was very peculiar about that.

Erik, as it turned out, wasn’t. “For starters, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. The safety must be off for this, so don’t touch the trigger. Finger on the guard, until you’re ready, and not even there, until the gun is pointing away from body parts. Try it with the safety on, first.”

Raven placed the pistol where Erik’s had been and tried to mimic his move. A dance; pick up, step back, up and fire. Again. It was a waltz, one, two, three, four, almost like ju-jitsu only with a little less hitting the mattress. Pick up and fire. Boom.

“Now fire,” he said, and Raven did. Not terribly well, but she didn’t shoot herself in the foot. “At least you hit the target.”

There was a clipped edge to the paper. Raven bit her lip and narrowed her eyes. “Let me try again.”

The next shot missed it entirely. So did the following three. The fourth fared a little better than the first, narrowly clipping the silhouette of a man. The fifth missed the fourth by a hair’s breadth. Raven was on the verge of demonstrating how poorly bred she was, by letting out a stream of curses, when Erik said, “Okay, stop.”

Raven turned to him with a question, but he had vaulted over the pulpit and walked to the target with a fresh sheet of paper in hand.

“You know, there’s machines to do that for you!” she yelled, because speaking just wasn’t an option.

“They are slow.” He returned crumpling the paper in his hands and threw it in the wastebasket. “Close your eyes.”

Raven stared. “You’re joking, right?”

“Do you see the target?”

The three-by-four sheet of cardboard, hovering in a tantalizing manner twenty-five yards away? “Duh?”

“Good. Now close your eyes and fire at it.”

That was far and beyond subverting a little of Charles Xavier’s Gun-wielding Protocol For Dummies, And Also His Beloved Sister, Who Isn’t a Dummy, Asshole. This was taking the whole thing and setting in on fire while dancing naked around its ashes. “What is that supposed to accomplish?”

“Always be aware of where the gun is pointing, whether you see it or not. Shooting blind helps you understand that.” Erik stared at her and in his eyes Raven saw the jungle gleam with the poisonous green and fluorescent predators. This was a bad, bad idea, her brain told her. This was awesome, said everything else.

“You are a little crazy, did you know?” she said, just to make sure he knew that she thought he was a few barrels short of a wagon and everything.

“I know. I also know you are still here.”

“Yeah, well, I like a little crazy.” She grinned.

He grinned back. “Charles will want to have words with you about that.”

“Charles wants to have words with me about everything, my skirts included. I like my skirts. I think they are really awesome.” To demonstrate she lifted her leg back in a graceful attitude derrière, which would have been very indecent if there was a small child behind her, and made her skirt slide up her thighs anyway.

“I don’t have an opinion,” Erik said, staring unabashedly at, if Raven was not mistaken, the curve of her ass.

“Good, ‘cause I wasn’t asking for one,” Raven said haughtily. It was only partly a lie. She did care for his opinion, she discovered with some surprise. More specifically, she wanted Erik to look at the skirt and tell her he liked how it covered her to mid-thigh, less when she moved really quickly.

Erik pointed to his right. “The target is getting old.”

Raven stuck out her tongue. The target was twenty-five yards away and untouched, directly in front of her. She closed her eyes and tried to visualize. Twenty-five yards. Cardboard representing a man a little taller than her and a lot broader. A lot like Kurt, in fact. She raised the gun, easily, effortlessly. The weight was familiar, weighing her hands down, weighing her mind down, too, because Charles had a way of lecturing that stuck, no matter what. She let the weigh ground her, like Charles did, let it center her. The index finger of her right hand slid smoothly from the guard and onto the trigger applying only the barest hint of pressure, until the gravity of the gun pulled it back towards Raven.

The shot was almost a surprise. She let out a yelp when the gun jerked in her hands, her eyes flew open and–

Erik was standing directly before her.

Raven screamed.

*****

“Jesus Christ, Erik!” Charles was across the room in a flash, wrapping his arms around Raven, pulling her head down so that he could tuck her face into his neck. She shuddered against him, gasping for breath, and he felt the shock in the lines of her body; bone-deep regret and panic. “What the hell was that?”

“A lesson,” Erik said nonchalantly, considering his lack of manicure.

Raven shuddered against Charles. “Raven? Raven, sweetheart, are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” she lifted her face from his shoulder. Her blue mascara was smudged and leaking down her face. “Is– I shot him!”

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t. It’s okay, I promise, it’s fine. I’ve been here, remember? You didn’t shoot anyone, I promise you, darling, no one was shot.” He tried to sound soothing, he did, but he was finding it suspiciously hard to think in straight lines. His perception of the universe curved around that point in time-space, until every thought and fact pointed back towards the three of them, huddled in a shooting booth in the basement of the station.

Raven huffed and her moist lips brushed his neck. There were tears on her face and the gun was still in her hand, the gun that just seconds ago she had pointed at Erik’s chest, a gun that, had it fired, would have winked a human life, Erik’s life, out of existence, and it would have been Raven, his little sister, who’d have had the blood one her hands. A cold wave of anger flared up throughout Charles, burning all in its wake, reason and manners included. He reached out and gripped the shirt at Erik’s throat, never letting Raven go. When he spoke, his voice was even, finely tuned, modulated to the last sound wave. “So help me, if you ever pull such a stunt again, I will hurt you. I will rip you open and feed you to the wild dogs, do you understand? I don’t care how tough you are; you will die screaming. Do you understand me?”

Charles was himself surprised that he could sound so cold. This wasn’t even glacial; if vacuum had a voice, this was what it would sound like. Raven started trembling, and he held her tighter in response. Erik, on the other hand, was grinning. Charles saw his excitement; he heard the rush of adrenaline and dopamine as keenly as he felt it in his own body. Perhaps it was just an echo, brought up by Raven’s terror, but there was no mistaking the shaking of his hands.

“This, my friend, is passion,” Erik said, with a mocking British lilt at the word friend, staring into his eyes not in the least bothered by the very sincere threats.

Raven hiccupped into Charles’ neck and clung tighter for a second. “Can we go? Please?”

“Of course.” He pressed a kiss to her head and glared at Erik. “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

“Didn’t think so.” Erik took the gun from Raven’s hand and saluted them. “I’ll lock up.”

Charles managed one final glare in his direction, promising in no uncertain terms swift and verbal retribution for harms rendered. “Come on, Raven.”

“I’m good,” she said, but her arm remained wrapped around his waist, gripping at the fabric of his jacket like it was her lifeline. “I’m fine.”

“I know. I know you are.” But he held her closer still until their hearts were beating in unison and he knew, he felt, she was fine, that she was calm. “What do you want to eat?”

“Vodka.”

“Raven…”

“Vodka,” she repeated firmly. “Like, a bottle of. Then greasy, doughy food, with bits of bacon.”

Charles could take a gentle hint. “Polish, then? Zapiecek is nearby.”

“Whatever.” She straightened and fished out a small mirror and a wet wipe out of her bag. “You partner is insane,” she said, fixing her ruined make-up by smearing it around to her satisfaction. “I don’t want you working with him. I don’t want you near him!”

“He’s not that bad, really. I’ll be fine.”

Raven stopped and started shaking him by the lapels of his jacket, pushing them both into the burned down laboratory, before the spectacle drew any onlookers. “Charles. He is batshit fucking insane. He stepped in front of a loaded gun and I had my finger on the trigger the whole damn time!” Charles closed his eyes and tried to avoid the questions that swirled through his brain and fought for a place on his tongue. Erik was quick, but not that quick – how could he have stepped in front of the gun without Raven knowing, when she only started screaming a second or two after she fired, half a second after Erik swung in front of her. How could she not have seen him? he wanted to ask, but didn’t, because it didn’t matter.

“He didn’t. Raven.” He cupped her shoulders and very gently pushed her back. “Look at me. You couldn’t have shot him. How many shots did you fire?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She tried to count, he saw her eyes flicker, as she tried to make sense of the bullets and the clip and the gun. “I’m not sure.”

“He knew your gun was empty. You fired fifteen times.”

“You don’t know that.”

Charles’ fingers tightened on her shoulders. “Erik is insane. I know. I’m not arguing against it. But he is a good person and a better soldier. He would never let you shoot him like this.”

Slightly more sobering was the thought that he might have let Charles do it, though. Raven was still a child, still too innocent, but Charles… He had no doubt that Erik wouldn’t risk harming Raven, in whatever way, but the fact remained the man had a death wish and, given enough time, he would get himself shot, by Charles’ hand, if he had no other option.

God knew: this skill he had sometimes felt like precognition, like magic, like mind reading. It wasn’t. Every fact he spouted he could trace to the source he gained it from, whether it was an amalgamation of details, forming a picture, or a straight up piece of knowledge. He knew people’s thoughts by the stance of their bodies, by the minute adjustments of their facial muscles, by the scraps of paper, of trifles and food they left behind, by the lies they told and lies told to them. He could pick out a culprit from a line up by the cuffs of his shirt; he could tell a murderer from a thief by the way they printed their names. He could guess the future, because the future was always set to be another now. If he assumed nothing new would surface, it was no hardship to predict where the current patterns would carry the world. It was a little different with the future events that fell outside the scope of normal – given enough data of course he could tell that a woman would poison her unfaithful lover within the year, if he had time and opportunity to observe her for long enough to see her patterns. Of course he knew Erik would eventually break, it wasn’t a precognition, it was fact. Just because it hadn’t happened yet, it didn’t mean it wasn’t true.

Because he was acutely aware that he had no foresight whatsoever, it was a shock when the thought arrived into his mind, the thoroughly poetic, completely unbidden, illogical idea, which nevertheless bordered on certainty: that when Erik broke, he would be with him.

“Yeah, I’m not so sure.” Raven dabbed the last of the mascara off her cheeks, smeared the little that remained on the eyelids, until her honey-brown eyes were framed by incandescent blue and black kohl and grinned. “How do I look?”

“Lovely, my darling, as always. Shall we?”

“I meant it about the vodka.”

“And you will get it,” he said and kissed her temple.

He made good on his word. Within five minutes of setting foot in Zapiecek Raven had a line up of three shots in front of her. “Na zdrowie,” she said, lifting the first to her lips, a sentiment Charles echoed heartily, filching one of her shots.

“How did it go?” Charles asked as the vodka burned its way down his throat, indicating the barkeep with a nod of his head, meaning the other barkeep, the one Raven worked for.

“The fight? Ah, the usual. Joe just needs to work out that I’m right.”

“It’s not going to come easy.” Joe was a little set in his ways.

Raven relaxed as the alcohol hit her system and a little color returned to her face. A few minutes later she was shaking her head and making faces as only she knew how, and they were both giggling helplessly, in relief and as means of easing themselves gently down the slope of the adrenaline high.

“You have to admit, it was pretty funny,” Raven said eventually, dipping her pinky in the shot glass and licking it clean. “Yeah, I lost track of the bullets. It makes sense he wouldn’t. Serves me right for not paying enough attention.”

Charles disagreed. If he was any less certain of his own health, he would have been sure his heart had stopped in his chest when he saw Raven point the gun at Erik. Then he heard her scream and, well, if a heart attack could get any worse, there it was, a textbook case of a self-detonation within a body cavity. “I still hate that he did this,” he said, summing the vestiges of the cold rage that shook him in the puke-green shooting range. It was a fairly ineffective exercise in the warm, wooden interior of a restaurant which smelled of bacon, onion fried in butter and parsley.

“He did have a point.” Raven’s pinkie dipped into the glass again. She did away with the fancy nail polish yesterday, leaving her nails a healthy pink, lightly scraped on the middle and ring fingers of each hand.

“No point is good enough to justify what he did.”

Raven laughed. “Now you’re exaggerating. Some points would be.”

“Name one.”

“Pay attention when you point your gun?” She leaned back in her chair, no doubt remembering all the times he lectured her about the importance of doing just that. Charles winced.

“There are better ways.”

Raven smirked. “Name one.”

“Raven.”

“Come on, it was effective. I’m never going to try not looking when I hold a gun. It freaked me out like you wouldn’t believe. Then again, what am I saying. You totally know, don’t you?” She grabbed a shot glass and licked the last drops of vodka from it, then she waved her hand high, to get the barman’s attention. “Three more!”

Charles hummed something, which might have been an agreement, or might not have been. Raven was genuinely disturbed by the experience, but nowhere near as much as he thought she would be. It was a sharp shock to the system, but no worse than a sudden douse of cold water. Raven was already up and running, like she hadn’t pointed a loaded gun at an acquaintance, a friend even. Perhaps not a friend, they’d only known each other for – well, they hardly even knew each other. Raven liked Erik, of this Charles was certain. Was attracted to him, it was evident in the flush of her face and the excitement in her voice when they spoke right before she shot that last time.

“Stop it,” she said sharply.

“Stop what?”

“You’re doing the mind reading thing. Stop. You know I hate it.”

“I’m sorry.” Charles closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Look, but don’t look, he told himself for the hundredth, thousandth time, don’t get angry. She doesn’t know what she’s asking of me. Don’t make connections. Don’t think. Don’t… Just don’t. “I’ll try.”

Raven deflated, smiled, huffed, sighed and patted his hand. “Well, just don’t say it. It’s creepy.”

Drop me in the middle of the forest with no map nor compass to guide my way, why don’t you, Charles thought. He wasn’t angry, or even peeved, just lost. He missed Erik, all of sudden. “I don’t mean to.”

Raven said nothing to that and Charles perused the menu. It was brand new; gleaming with fresh laminate and strings which held it together, though the last customer to touch it left greasy smudges on the pages containing the pierogi selection.

“Did you figure what you want to eat?” Raven said, tugging the menu out of his hands. Charles looked at her, then at the thin watch on her wrist. He’d spaced out for several minutes.

“Hm? Oh, anything.”

Raven had already forgotten the brief episode from earlier in the day. She waved the waiter over and proceeded to order at least three dishes that would feed Charles for a full day, if not two – from experience he knew she would gobble them up without a second thought. She never worried about her weight once she outgrew the pudgy stage of puberty, and while her metabolism kept up with her demands and her training paid off, the stored calories contributed to a healthy glow of her skin and glossy hair, and a bright grin to make his career worth the gloom.

Sometimes it scared Charles how much he loved her.

It scared him more that today, when he saw her point the gun at Erik, he wasn’t sure whose plight made his heart convulse more.

*****

Erik was at the station bright an early in the morning. Charles had been silent throughout the night, which was unusual. Erik had been getting used to the frequent texts over the progress of the case, Raven’s humorous commentary on the lives of people frequenting the restaurant she worked at (most of them were conjectures, wildly off the mark, so wildly in fact that she must have been doing it on purpose, Charles assured him, but she had a gift for spotting clues). The silence didn’t really bother Erik: he slept fitfully, but in the morning he took the time to stop at a teashop and get Charles a Darjeeling black tea blend. It wasn’t an apology – he didn’t feel guilty. He had, technically, done nothing wrong. If the girl was stupid enough to listen when someone she barely knew told her to fire a gun with her eyes shut, well, Erik couldn’t be held responsible for her mental state.

Charles though… Charles had been furious with him. He’d wrapped Raven in his arms and shielded her from harm, which was an obvious enough gesture. He shielded her from Erik, however, and that didn’t sit well, which was a revelation Erik had to mull over in private.

Fortunately, Charles arrived chipper, for a lack of a better word. He sat in his usual chair, across from Erik, raised a polite brow at the proffered cup of tea, but when he inhaled, the expression melted into bliss.

“Oh, thank you, Erik. This is wonderful.”

“Glad you think so.” Charles hummed his appreciation into the cup, casting furtive glances over the rim every now and then, a though he was trying to figure out the thought behind the gesture. Because he was Charles, he was likely getting to the appropriate conclusion regardless of Erik’s involvement in the thought process. Nonetheless Erik felt the need to say, “I’m not particularly sorry. I knew what I was doing. She had no more bullets.”

“I figured.”

Now it was Erik’s turn to raise a brow.

“No, truly. Disregarding everything else, you are not the kind of man who causes an unsuspecting girl to commit murder.” Charles looked into the cup, smiled and licked his lips nervously. “It’s not what made me angry. Not after Raven was okay, mind, and she is.”

“Good.”

“She’s strong. She bounces back easily.”

Either it was a figment of Erik’s imagination, but Charles didn’t look too pleased with that. Almost as though he hoped it was more of a shock. “Nothing happened to her,” Erik said. “She needed the shock.”

Charles’ smile was wan and see-through, but it was a smile and it was lovely. “Sometime in the future I might even thank you for doing what you did. She was getting cavalier with… everything. It might do her good.”

“What made you angry, then?” Erik asked, after it became apparent Charles found his tea more engrossing than the conversation. He wasn’t prepared for the skittish look thrown his way, nor the faint glimpse of a wide-eyed person beneath the all-knowing persona. Charles might have seen through everyone, but no one ever got to see Charles, Erik thought and wondered how it could possibly be the revelation it was.

“I don’t want you to die,” Charles admitted under his breath, as though he was hoping only the tea would hear.

Erik very nearly laughed. “That’s it?”

“Isn’t that enough?” Charles looked at him like he looked at the corpses and the flower petals: like he was aligning his universe around him, for the express purpose of figuring out his whole being. “You’ve been chasing death ever since you’ve arrived here. Sooner or later you will catch it and then what?”

“Then I will be out of your hair, for good.” Erik reached for the semi-decent coffee he coaxed out of the vending machine and sipped.

“Yes,” Charles said in the tone of voice every other person would say, “hell no.” “Which may well prove to be a blessing, but I can’t help but wonder what is it you hope to gain.”

“Peace,” Erik said, surprising himself with the honesty of his answer.

“You won’t find your peace that way.”

“Is there no limit to your arrogance?” Erik set the paper cup down, far enough that he wouldn’t disturb it when he inevitably began gesticulating. “You’re trying to tell me you have looked at death and know what is on the other side? Men have died since the world began to answer that question and he’s you, with all the answers, locked in your whirling little mind.”

“There is nothing on the other side,” Charles said evenly, matching his glare with the blank gaze a concrete block would found unnecessary hollow. “Death is no thing; it is an absence of something, not a thing of itself.”

“I’d drink to that.” Erik raised his cup in a salute and thought of the menorah he still lit every Hanukkah, because there was something left from his childhood years, something he didn’t dare forget, even though his logical mind raved at the ridiculousness of the notion. Still it clung, unshakeable, the idea that someone up above was watching him, waiting for him, and that was why he lit the candles, even if they would burn for a few moments only, safely cupped in his palm. The overall religiosity of his daily life was lacking, given his career choices, but he made the effort to observe most holidays, in spirit if not in letter.

Erik’s computer pinged, startling him out of the metaphysical reverie. An icon flashed on the screen, signaling a new email, at the same time Angel got up from her chair and called for detective Xavier. Charles shook his head and went to take the phone from her hand. Erik noted with some amount of pleasure that the cup of tea went with him, and while he wasn’t drinking while he listened, he held it close to his face.

Dear Detective Lensher, the email began. Erik shook his head. Goddamned Marvin; despite numerous hints and highlighted signatures he never learned to spell Erik’s name right. Marvin never seemed to get the blunt message that Erik didn’t yet get to be called detective. I took your advice and took to rifling through my papers. I found my job description! No one could have been more surprised than me when it turned out I’m supposed to oversee a handful of shell companies, though oversee is such a strange word to use in context.

How did he end up as a personal agony aunt to a man he (somewhat) attempted to kill? Erik fired off a short reply to Marvin, just in time to see Charles stride back to the desk with an expression which fought to be grim, but failed.

“We’ve got another murder. Same m.o. Corner of Sunset and Grimme Boulevard.” He tapped his finger on the edge of the desk and continued the tapping on the glass of the window all along the way, drumming equally on the surfaces of the car as he was on Erik’s nerves. A hundred things these hands could be doing and he picked tapping. “It seems too soon,” Charles said eventually, staring at nothing in particular while Erik drove.

“How do you figure?”

“It’s been only a week, hasn’t it?”

“Are you complaining the killer is too fast?”

“Well, I would have liked more time, perhaps we could have avoided this.” Charles seemed confused by the turn of events, and thus angry. It was evident in the crease of his brow, the twist of his lips, the twitch of his fingers.

Erik rolled his eyes. “Even you can’t solve a murder based on no facts whatsoever, unless MacTaggart prioritizes closed cases over solved cases.”

Charles laughed into his curled hand. “I’m not that arrogant. I was just saying, this is too soon.”

“Oh? Did the killer perhaps leave a calendar and an itinerary? Was there a clue in the petals? Did he send his blackberry to the station and you forgot to tell me?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Charles huffed and pointed at a street packed with all the cars in the city. “There. Take a left here.”

Ten minutes, seventeen raised middle fingers and a brief exchange with a hot-headed taxi driver later Erik was parking at the foot of a skyscraper, next to the more conventional police car.

“Hey Charles,” Summers said with a cheery wave, shoving his cap to the back of his head. He offered Erik a thoroughly inappropriate salute and a nervous grin, which Erik returned without even thinking about it. “Everything cool with you two?”

“Yes, thank you,” Charles said. “How is Scott?”

“Annoying. How is Raven?”

“Radiant. What have you got for me?”

Summers lost the grin and straightened. “Same deal. Housekeeper ran out of the apartment screaming; doorman called the stiff in.”

“That’s awfully convenient,” Erik said, crossing his arms.

“Ain’t it? I thought the same thing. He’s in the bedroom, apartment three-oh-seven.”

“Thank you.”

They took the elevator.

The body was cooling on top of cotton sheets, curled just like Sebastian Tojo had been, and just as peaceful. The petals were scattered much like they were on the other crime scene; the little flower pinned to the door was a daisy, but other than that hardly anything changed. It looks copy-pasted, Erik thought. Fascinating.

“It is fascinating, isn’t it?” Charles’ eyes flickered between the bed, the corpse, the trail of petals leading from the door to their victim and Erik.

“Are you reading minds now?” Erik asked, tapping Charles’ temple.

“Oh, sorry. You just– I’m really sorry, you were being obvious. It shows up on your face. I didn’t mean to.”

Erik shrugged. “I don’t mind.” Actual mind-reading might have been a problem, true. Then again, he thought, considering Charles’ profile and the unfocused blue of his eyes, maybe not even that. “You’re really lucky you weren’t born a hundred years ago, it would have been shock therapy and asylums.”

“Or half a millennium ago, then it would have been the stake. I know.”

Did it really make a difference, Erik wondered, when here you are, well into the new millennium, and you must stay your tongue for fear of offending people by knowing what Cosmopolitan tries to teach them anyway? There was, after all, no great secret to the ability. Erik possessed it, though his skills were meager compared to Charles’, and largely limited to combat situations, but how was that different from singing, or dancing, or painting, really? True talent in those fields was no less rare. Erik looked at Charles, at the slope of his nose, the vivid blue of his eyes. Yes, the corpse was fascinating; laid out like a sacrifice and concealing everything at the same time, but Charles? Charles was the Voynich manuscript, a mystery written down in a nonexistent language, for the world to wonder at and never understand.

A shrill ring of the phone from his pocket cut through his mind.

“Lehnsherr.”

“This is Moira MacTaggart,” he heard. “You ran out of the building so fast, I didn’t get to tell you that you have the psychiatric evaluation this afternoon. You can squeeze it in before the interviews.”

“Someone did just get murdered.”

“Many someones, Mr. Lehnsherr, every day. I did my best to stall, but then you started shooting inside the precinct, and at this point the mayor is threatening me with a typing pool if you don’t supply a psych evaluation. You are so lucky the IA liaison took my word for it so far.”

Erik couldn’t help the incredulity from seeping into his voice. “Typing pool? Really?”

“He’s not very modern,” MacTaggart said. “He doesn’t mean it, in any case.”

“Is there anything in particular I should be looking forward to?” Erik asked, as he watched Charles study the carpet by the bed by lying flat on it with his chin propped on his wrists.

“Wesley is terrified of Charles.”

“Shocking,” he murmured into the phone as Charles rolled back to his feet.

On the other end of the line MacTaggart sighed. “Unfortunately. He has weaseled out of many sessions because of that, but unfortunately I can’t waive them all. With any luck Wesley will be so motivated he will make the evaluation up after just one session.”

“Somehow I don’t think sending either of us to a psychiatrist is in anyone’s best interest.”

“Certainly not Wesley’s.” MacTaggart laughed. “I know that and you know that, but the regulations are, shall we say, uncompromising.”

“I have seen my share of psychiatrists,” Erik said. “Not many wanted to work with me again. If this Wesley is scared of Charles, he won’t like me much, either.”

“Two of the most insane men in the country, and I managed to get them both in my precinct. Whatever was my crime in the past life,” Moira said with a mournful sigh. “Be there. Please. Wesley will be waiting. Be kind to him.”

“Will do,” Erik said and disconnected.

She was dead wrong about Charles, he thought, swallowing back the curse he almost let spill; they all were. Charles was sane. His entire being was defined by things that were real and true, and if that wasn’t sanity, Erik didn’t want to know what was.

Chapter Text

Charles splayed his fingers, letting them sink into the thick carpet, while Miss Frost did the official preliminary on the body. He was still down on the floor when she deemed it safe to take the victim to the station and Hank took to working through the room inch by carpeted inch, taking photos and snatching pieces of hair from the floor for closer examination. Erik was going through Mr. Zhang’s wallet, laptop and phone, making notes on a piece of paper he swiped from the printer. He shouldn’t have done that, Charles thought, making a mental note to admonish him later. He had been smart enough to take a page from the bottom of the pile, but it still belonged to a crime scene, and thus should have remained undisturbed.

Alex was standing in the corner, wearing an expression of fierce bravery and false cheer. He’d been like this ever since Darwin was shot last Thursday. The paramedics got to him in time, and the prospects were hopeful – full return of motor function to his left arm – given that he already showed an exceptional aptitude for recovery, but Alex took the bullet as hard as though it had hit him. He fought the glum and depression with the aid of masks which slipped his face the moment no one was looking.

Charles put Alex out of his mind. Time for comforting had come and went, and even if it hadn’t, it wasn’t now. He sat there, on the floor by the bed, and breathed, letting the action clear his mental landscape of everything but what was physically in front of him. The inside of his head was no different than the laboratory. The smell and touch and sight combined couldn’t lie, because lie was the invention of a human mind. A crime scene was like a magician’s show: sleight of hand and apparition was nothing but setting up the facts, so that, when put together, magic happened. Just like in a murder, the clever use of a prop disguised and revealed. The trick, in both cases, was to recognize the fact for what it was.

The scent of roses wafted through his nostrils, another fact to add to his mental collage, but there was also something else there, something elusive that he couldn’t quite identify. He bowed low over the carped, breathing in. Familiar. Intensely familiar. Why couldn’t he pin it down?

“Time of death is about six, give or take an hour.” Miss Frost turned to him. “Cause of death seems to be blood loss. Same marks on the wrists, I’d say just as deep as they were on Mr. Tojo. Off-hand, the same murder weapon. No outward sign of struggle.”

“Thank you,” Charles said, barely listening. The show, oh yes, the spectacle of the crime scene was important. The law was powerless until the dance was completed, every arabesque and pirouette, and so Charles danced, even though the spinning made him nauseous.

What was this smell?

“The majority of the calls are to and from Lili.” Erik’s voice hulked through the hazy mist of frustration which started to build up in Charles’ mind. In his hand there was a picture of two nearly identical faces. “I presume this is his sister.”

“We should speak to her now.” Charles unfolded from the floor, abandoning the chasing of memory for a later time. “Hank, I will want all the pictures and the preliminary findings on my desk when I get back.”

Hank started and scrambled for his equipment, when it threatened to escape his hands. “Yes sir.”

“Good luck,” Charles told him, before turning to Erik. “Do you have her address?”

Erik returned to the laptop and scrolled through the emails displayed on the screen. “Most of her emails are from her work account. The company address is one-three-seven Broadway.” He switched between windows and typed something into the Facebook page. “She’s a lawyer, but she owns and manages an advertising company.”

“It’s only a few blocks away. Do you want to walk?” Charles asked, brushing off the rose petal which stuck to his knee. Erik winced at the question.

“Moira called. She wants us to see the psychiatrist before we go anywhere else.”

Charles echoed the wince. How could he not, when… “Poor Wesley. Why?”

“Apparently shooting criminals is a sign of instability now. The mayor wants to make sure I won’t try anything extreme, like arresting them.” Erik’s crooked smile made short work of any doubts still hovering around Charles’ mind. He smiled back, no less impishly, and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Well, he is right to worry,” he told Erik quietly, so that no rumors made it out of the crime scene. “He has a penchant for young girls and the man you shot was arrested and sentenced for harassing a girl who turned out to be underage.”

Erik gave him a long look, which Charles quickly waved away. “He is not a pedophile. He likes his lovers young, but he means twenties rather than teens. It still makes some people uncomfortable, but they are always willing, and in many cases handsomely paid.” The very last part Charles all but breathed into Erik’s ear, first making sure neither Hank nor Alex were close enough to hear.

Erik’s reply was to shake his head in dismay. “How is that no one had you assassinated yet?” he asked, effectively conveying his fondness for death-defying stunts, such as knowing far more than was healthy for any one man. Charles found himself returning the affection easily.

“Most people think I have a contingency plan for such an eventuality,” he said, ducking his head.

“Do you?”

Charles smiled. “No.”

*****

Doctor Wesley Gibson resided two blocks down, in a tastefully arranged office on the first floor of a building which screamed “expensive! Modest! Important! Be jealous!”. Even the plaque on the door was expensive and superiorly modest about it. Given the introduction Erik expected a middle-aged man, clad in expensive suits and with greying hair falling into smugly superior eyes. As it turned out, Erik’s first impression of the man was that he resembled Charles to an unfortunate degree, if Charles ever showed the fright of a small, cornered animal. He had the same brown hair, although his was tousled rather than neatly combed, bright blue eyes and a red mouth.

Erik’s second impression was of Wesley Gibson, M.D., PhD, was of an empty leather chair, which was a big clue that his resemblance to Charles began and ended with physical.

“Oh, Wesley,” Charles said when Wesley’s secretary, a beautiful, wild-looking woman with more tattoos than most marines, closed the doors behind them both. “Come out.”

“The commissioner said I’m to expect a Mr. Lehnsherr,” came the voice from underneath the desk. “Unless you changed your name and land of origins lately, I’m busy. In fact, if you did, I’m still busy!”

“There’s a Mr. Lehnsherr present,” Erik said, raising his hand in a fairly redundant gesture, since the man it was meant for was still under his massive desk.

“She didn’t mention you!” the desk exclaimed and shuddered, as only expensive oak can.

“Erik is my new partner, Wesley.” Charles spoke softly, as though he was soothing a scared rat. Erik listened and pretended that hearing the warm tone in which Charles called him “partner” wasn’t shamefully thrilling. “He’s serving in an unofficial capacity, as he has no experience with police work, so Moira sent us both. We thought the joint session would be beneficial for everyone.”

Wesley appeared over the edge of his desk, a little flushed and a whole lot embarrassed, very much resembling a scared rodent. He was staring at Charles accusingly. “I thought I said I don’t want to see you ever again. I screamed and flailed. I thought you got the message.”

“I have orders, unfortunately.” Charles took a seat. “Shall we begin?”

Erik followed his example and smiled politely at the harrowed psychiatrist, taking care not to show any teeth. Most psychiatrists found that unnerving.

“This is highly unorthodox, you understand,” Wesley said, running a hand through his hair. He was about Charles’ age, maybe a few years older, though there were fewer lines on his face and less grey in his hair. “I don’t do couple’s therapy. I specialize in PTSD.”

Erik watched Charles at his least threatening, which was not much different from his usual ambience, offering Wesley his bared wrists and splayed palms. “I’m sure you can manage. Where would you like to begin?”

Wesley sighed. “Alright. Why are you here? Did you make Don Francesco cry? Because as far as I recall you were warned not to do that again. Not that I’m not grateful, mind, the man pays for the office and expenses and I still have enough left over to dine at the Savoy every night.”

“It’s my pleasure, as always.”

“Right.” Wesley mussed up his hair one more time, to no effect whatsoever, and picked up a leather-bound notebook. “So what have you done this time?”

Charles turned to Erik with a merry twinkle in his very blue eyes. Erik took it as a cue to speak up. “I pushed a civilian off the roof. Well, jumped off the roof with a civilian, but the intention was for him to jump, not me. I plead prop on this one. Then last week I shot a man dead in the middle of the police station. I shot him in the head.” He allowed for a moment of silence, to allow the mental pictures to form properly, before adding, “In my defense he was holding a gun to Charles’ eye socket at the time.”

Wesley stared with his mouth open. His face was steadily turning into a tomato. “Oh god, now there’s two of you. I quit. No, seriously. Tell MacTaggart she can go to hell. I quit!” He got up from behind his desk and started pacing around the office, muttering curses under his breath. He was swiftly progressing into incoherence, unless Erik’s understanding of the local phenomena was severely lacking and devil-headed chickens were likely to make an appearance.

“Should we leave him alone?” Erik asked Charles, when the mumbling became ranting.

“Yes, I think so.”

They picked up their jackets and made for the door. “Wesley, Moira will expect the evaluation in a few days,” Charles said from the door. His only reply was a string of intelligible noises. “He’ll be fine, really,” he added in Erik’s direction. “He’s used to me.”

“What did you do to the kid?” Erik wondered in amusement and perhaps a little pity, too.

“He has quite a successful practice, I’ll have you know. He wasn’t kidding with the dining at the Savoy. He is very good. It’s just… he started off as a police psychiatrist, and unfortunately I was one of his first patients.” A deep flush stained his cheeks, causing no end to conflicting feelings. On one hand, Erik couldn’t wait to hear that story. On the other, Charles was red and miserable and that was an upsetting sight. “I was a little angry at the time, at the world in general and at the police. I hated the fact I had to work at the station. Then they told me I was unbalanced and if I wanted to keep working in law enforcement, I needed to see a psychiatrist on a regular basis.” Charles stuttered to a stop and stared at the wall opposite. “I went to the library and started reading. You can imagine that when I walked into the first session I, well. I took all of my frustration out on poor Wesley.”

Why would you keep working at the station, if you didn’t want to? Erik thought, and didn’t ask. For the time being he could imagine all too well what it must have been like: an angry, hyper-intelligent, over-educated boy, made to suffer through the cure to the common mind. “Were you fifteen?” he asked, with just enough irony infusing his voice to keep the conversation light. Charles smiled at him and shook his head.

“Twenty-four, which may as well have been fifteen, in terms of my emotional development. Sadly, long years of being ahead of my peers in terms of intellect left me lacking in other crucial areas.”

“You seem to have gotten over it.”

“I’m very smart,” Charles said. “I’m capable of learning.”

*****

Quarter of an hour after they learned Wesley’s office Charles was showing his badge to a blond receptionist (European origins – Slavic parents, second generation immigrants, studied on the West Coast, fan of football and curling, recently married, potential pregnancy on the horizon caused the nervous habit of biting nails to return), who, after a short phone call, directed them to the top floor, where, among the sculptures and posters, they found the sister of their most recent victim.

“Miss Zhang?” Charles asked.

The woman rose from behind her desk and came to greet them mid-office. “Good morning, detective. May I help you?”

“I’m afraid we have bad news, ma’am. Your brother was found dead in his apartment this morning.”

She paled. Charles still held her hand as she swallowed nervously and brought her other hand to her face. Her pulse raced; her chest heaved with every caught breath. She opened her eyes wide and stepped into Charles’ personal space, as though it would make him more truthful. “What happened? He was healthy, he didn’t… He had a checkup the other month, he was fine! What happened?”

“He was murdered. We are sorry for your loss, Miss Zhang.” Charles kept holding her wrist, letting the beats drum in the back of his head: blood and clock, clock and blood.

She nodded dumbly, fighting the gasps and the thrumming heart.

“Are you well enough to answer a few questions?” Erik asked. Charles cast a quick look at him, solemn and imposing at his shoulder, his arms folded behind his back, yet still sympathetic. He would make a fine detective, he thought.

“I’ll be happy to help you, but if you want to invite me to the station I will take my lawyer with me,” she said firmly, taking her hand back. She was still very pale and the green make-up adorning her eyes stood out all the more strongly in comparison. She didn’t cry, but it was only a matter of time. Her throat was convulsing with the need to let out the pain and anger that a sudden death of a loved one inevitably begets, but she was in control now.

“Here is fine.” Charles touched her elbow and gently led her back to her chair, while Erik fetched extra seats for them.

“May I see Chen first?” Miss Zhang folded her hands atop her desk, unfolded them, to swipe a handful of papers to the side, then immediately clutched her palms together again.

“I’ll be happy to drive you to the station, but if we could talk first, it would hurry things up.”

“How did he die?”

“Peacefully.” Charles shook his head. “He didn’t suffer at all. I’m certain he didn’t even know he was dying.”

She nodded and though her shoulders still shook. This was one of the better news of murder Charles ever had to break to anyone, as it was one of the few he could honestly say the victim wasn’t subject to terror or pain. This was, admittedly, a small comfort in the face of lives lost, but it was something.

“Now, Miss Zhang,” he said. “When was the last time you saw your brother?”

“Sunday evening. We had dinner. I spoke to him last night on the phone.”

“How did he sound? Did you notice anything unusual?”

“Fine. Normal. Nothing seemed wrong.” Her gaze kept returning to her clasped hands and the bracelet on her wrist – a gift from her brother, no doubt – and she spoke with conviction only a lawyer questioned about the details of a conversation can. “Nothing he mentioned seemed out of place. He’d met up with his ex-boyfriend – they broke up a few weeks back, but things have been going bad there for a while and the breakup was civilized, so he wasn’t too down about it. I didn’t think it was important.”

“Can we have the boyfriend’s name and address?” Charles asked.

“Of course.” Miss Zhang pulled out her phone and jotted down both on a piece of paper.

“Can you think of anyone else your brother might have had issues with? Anyone who might gain anything from his death?”

“I’m his only family. I don’t think Chen has a will.”

Charles leaned forward. “I’m sorry, ma’am, truly, but I have to ask – where were you last night around one a.m.?”

Miss Zhang straightened her back, looked Charles in the eye and said, “At home with my boyfriend. We stayed up late watching House reruns.”

“I’m going to need his contact details, too.”

“Naturally.” Another small piece of paper joined the first. “Is there anything else I can do to help?”

Though he had the names and numbers memorized, Charles pocketed the notes anyway. “Thank you. I will give you a call when you can see your brother, if that’s alright. You should go home now, have a cup of tea.”

“Thank you, detective.”

They left her with her head bowed down in grief over the desk.

“Anything?” Erik asked as soon as they were back on the street.

“Well, either she is the greatest actress who ever lived, or she is sincere, though I lean towards the latter. She would have to be quite extraordinary to fool me, and she gave up a law career because of her lack of poker face.”

Erik watched him. “You are quite the conceited bastard, did you know?”

“I try.” Charles tilted his head, until all he could see was the sky. “Which of the boyfriends do you want to talk to first?”

Both turned out to be a bust. Miss Zhang’s boyfriend corroborated her story; he couldn’t recall anything which could aid the investigation. Charles couldn’t even sic Erik on him, because the man was genuinely upset by the news. Mr. Zhang’s ex was just as shocked by his murder, and despite the back breakup had burst into tears. He had no verifiable alibi, but given the bad break of the tibia he sustained in the recent year and weak joints, there was no way he would have been able to manage the physical work the murder necessitated.

“Thank you for your time, Mr. Levi.” Charles said, leaving the man to his grief.

“No leads?” Erik asked when they were walking down the stairs.

“Nothing whatsoever.”

How could it be, he wondered, that two murders were committed and he had no leads, not even a hint of a direction in which to follow? Something must have been left at the scene, he thought frantically, running through the snapshots in his mind frantically. Neither of the victims had fought their attacker. Neither of them had showed any signs of violence. Both had died peacefully. Their apartments had not been broken in. The video feeds were tampered with – the murderer had disabled the cameras on the relevant floor and deleted the footage of the lobby around the time of the murder. No one saw anything suspicious. It was like they were dealing with a ghost.

Or, admittedly, a highly-trained soldier of the special forces with extra skills in espionage.

Charles considered the closest specimen possessing all the traits he could lay his eyes on. Erik was watching the sky with his head tilted back, silent, until he wasn’t. “Is there a synagogue somewhere in the city?”

“Yes: seven. The nearest is about a mile from here, south-east. Corner of Thirty-Ninth, you can’t miss it. There should be a service starting in thirty-five minutes, if memory serves.”

Erik ceased pigeon watching at looked at Charles. “Do you want to go with me?”

The calendar whirled across Charles’ mind. It was nearly a year ago today that Erik requested an urgent leave of absence from the army, for personal reasons. A month ago he was already here, in good enough mental condition, so, factoring in the cavalier attitude to life, it added up to… “Oh,” Charles said. “I’m so sorry. This would be the Yahrzeit, yes? Your wife?”

Schneim asar chodesh,” Erik corrected patiently. “My mother and my daughter. Today is the first anniversary.”

Charles hadn’t known. That was his first thought, he realized in dismay. He hadn’t known Erik had had a child and lost her. Asking about a wife was a reflex, but he’d been nearly certain that whatever partners Erik had, none have lasted for long, or made a particular impression. A family, though, a child… “I’d love to go.”

Erik didn’t quite smile, but there was something in his expression that made Charles leave all thought of the investigation behind and follow at a sedate pace. He didn’t want to share details, perhaps he never would, but Charles was, surprisingly, not the prying type. He knew enough, he reasoned: why should he scramble for more knowledge?

He reconsidered when they got to the temple and he took a place in the pews in the back. There were only about seventy people there – the temple could seat half a thousand – and they stood out in the crowd, by virtue of being under forty and over fifteen years old. The children, especially, were staring at him, when he didn’t pick up the songs. Three of the particularly avid starers grew up in orthodox families, and were only now spreading their wings in less strict environments. The girls were glowing with giddiness, running their hands over the pews’ back, as though they still couldn’t believe they were there. They were sisters, a year or two apart in age. Grew up in Israel. Their friend was local, though he, too, had escaped the tradition and the escape his weighed heavily on his shoulders.

Charles shook his head when the rabbi raised his open palms and announced the Kaddish. Erik had stirred for the first time since the service began, and stood, along with a handful of others, resting his slender fingers on the backrest of the pew before him.

Erik’s mother had been a lovely woman, Charles thought, as he sat in the synagogue, listening to the heartfelt prayer. It showed in every syllable Erik uttered how much he missed her. His little girl, though… Her death had broken his heart so thoroughly there was no hope of it ever being whole again.

Oseh shalom bimromav hu berakhamav yaʻase shalom ʻalenu,” Erik was reciting in stilted Arameic, genuine in his yearlong grief, and Charles couldn’t help but worry, because around the grief there was anger, clinging to its edges like oil clings to the wings of a bird. It was not new and it wasn’t fading – even twelve months later it burned as though it’d been set aflame yesterday.

*****

The gun was a comfort, pressed against his thigh. Erik wiped a hand across his face and peered through the visor.

“Charles,” he said, opening the door. “This is a surprise.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I know it’s late, but I had this thought, I need to bounce ideas off someone.”

He needed to bounce his head off the wall, more likely, but that was neither here nor there, Erik thought, even as he stepped away and let Charles inside. He should throw him out, but he was gazing up and Erik with such hope, Erik couldn’t even think of rejecting him. “We work together every day. Couldn’t this have waited?”

Charles hesitated. “It is quite unorthodox. I was hoping to… Well.” The muscles in his neck shifted and Charles stood up straighter. “I need to ask you some questions. About your past in the army. About your skills. I know what I know, but I have relatively little experience there. I thought I needed some outside input.”

This was the kind of situation in which anyone sane would have demanded a lawyer. “Am I under arrest?”

Charles projected astonishment like a seasoned Broadway star. “Of course not.”

“But you suspect me.”

“Of course.” Charles’ eyes were bright and guileless, and fuck it all, how was he not surprised? The idiot walked into the apartment of a man he kind of suspected of cold-blooded murder and asked to have his suspicions confirmed. It boggled the mind. “It’s nothing personal, you understand. It has little to do with you.”

“You are suspecting I might have murdered two people in their own bedrooms. I dare say that is pretty personal and has everything to do with me,” he said with little fire in his voice.

“No. Erik, no! The city is big; there could be dozens, hundreds of people better fitting the profile, people who make more sense. Messrs. Tojo and Zhang were both relatively sociable; they might have met each other once or twice on neutral ground. There’s no ruling out the fact that there may be a connection and you, you make no sense as the culprit in that light.”

“Thank you, I suppose.”

“It doesn’t mean, that you are innocent, you understand. I can’t simply rule you out.” Charles flailed. His hands hid in his pockets, then crept out to hang loosely at his sides, then hid again. “Still, I’m positive you could have been the murderer, which is why I need to speak with you.”

Translation: Charles didn’t want to suspect him, but he did, which was why he was here, asking those questions outside of work hours and outside his official capacity. Erik sniggered at the utter idiocy of it all, but gestured for the detective to continue.

“I’ve been turning it over and over in my head and something feels wrong.” No kidding, Erik thought. Charles barely spoke in the days since they found the second victim, too. No wonder he needed to finally let it out. “The thing is, these murders make no sense. The victims share a superficial similarity only, there’s nothing that binds them together.”

“They are both rich, Asian, working in jobs beneath their social status. Little family, unattached, in both cases less than five immediate family members,” Erik said. “That’s enough of a type.” If he was browsing through Facebook profiles, that was.

“Exactly! It’s obvious. It’s so obvious you couldn’t have missed it if you tried. Three thousand other men in the city could have been on Emma’s table because of it, why these two?” Charles shook his head and his hands did a complicated dance, culminating in his fingertips touching and then curling downward into fists. With his hands clutched to his chest, Charles continued, “But that’s not even it. The part that doesn’t make sense to me is this: they were wealthy and they were kind, but they had no power. They hold minor positions in companies they could own, or have owned, or just don’t feel like owning. They were generous and small, for a lack of a better word. How could they have made any enemies?”

“Every man has enemies.” In Erik’s case, many. In Charles case… Erik allowed himself a second of complete lack of charity, and the words that flew into his mind said, “everyone he’s ever spoken to.”

“Yes, but not the kind of enemies who go murdering with such efficacy. They are barely even pencil pushers! Compared to who they could be, I mean. It’s like their whole lives revolved around making themselves as small as possible.”

Erik shrugged. “Maybe that’s the problem.”

“To whom? What company doesn’t relish having the owner sit back and let others look after it? What company owned through inheritance and names doesn’t dream of having an owner who wasn’t born into business, but entered it willingly to sustain and build it up?” Charles was rolling his eyes as he spoke and his gesturing gained ebullience with alarming speed. “They were far enough removed from the source of their finances that their deaths changed hardly anything. Mr. Zhang was living primarily off a trust fund, which will now be halved between his sister and a handful of charities. Mr. Tojo had little say in the company’s business by his own choice. In both cases the person standing to inherit is genuinely upset and, more importantly, doesn’t need any more money. Miss Zhang has her own trust fund and a successful career; if anything she is richer than Mr. Zhang. She cares for money enough to pay close attention to it, but not so much she would dedicate herself to the pursuit of it, even though the options are available to her. No one else stands to get enough to justify the murders.”

“People kill for as little as a bowl of soup. Or less.” People kill for no reason whatsoever, in Erik’s extensive experience.

“Don’t be obtuse,” Charles scoffed. “Of course that’s enough. One doesn’t need a real reason to kill another human being. It’s not the case here. There is a purpose to the murders, you can’t tell me you don’t see it. The killer is after something specific. He has a plan, one he is willing to put effort in.”

Then, Charles stopped talking. He was standing in the middle of the room and looked around for the first time, taking in as much as the reading lamp allowed. All the air left his lungs. “Erik…” he said softly, seeking out Erik’s gaze with his.

“Stop it.”

“It’s… Erik.”

Erik escaped to the kitchen and the little protection if offered. He had a bottle of scotch in the cupboards, which he hadn’t had the time to break into yet. “Whiskey?”

“Please.” Charles remained where he stood, turning sixty degrees every ten seconds, taking in every inch of the pristine walls, the mattress and the covers lined on it with military precision, despite the indentation in the middle; the gun on its side and a stack of books on the naked floorboards. There was nothing else in the apartment to look at. Erik was well aware of how empty his place was and now Charles was too.

Well, Erik though, it’s not like he doesn’t already suspect me, even if he’s too much of a Charles to mention it in quite those terms.

“Sorry, no ice,” he said, holding out a glass with two fingers of scotch.

“I prefer it straight up.”

Erik clinked his glass against Charles’ and took a sip.

“Good choice,” Charles said. Then, because he really didn’t know better, he added “It was a gift, wasn’t it?”

Erik didn’t bother playing along with the surprise game. “Going away gift from my commanding officer.”

“You were close?”

“I hated him, personally. I thought he was a sadistic fuck. He was an excellent commander though. He had more medals than I had kills for his successes.”

“It’s good whiskey,” Charles said, staring into the glass as though all of Erik’s secrets were hiding on the bottom.

“I know. He has excellent taste.” It was one of the many things Erik found unsettling about the man. He rarely voiced his misgivings. Sebastian had excellent press and better connections. A nobody like Erik was not entitled to an opinion.

Charles sipped, slurping only a little, as he stared at the window and the darkening grey of the sky outside. Most people had the lights on by now, but Erik preferred his apartment in the shadows. The white of the walls hurt his eyes; it was too much like a hospital. He allowed himself the reading lamp, to ease up the strain, and that was it, unless he was doing something which demanded particular attention to visuals. Charles didn’t seem to mind the half-light, considering the way his posture relaxed the longer he was standing there, in front of Erik’s window, gazing out and whatever it is he saw when he looked at the city at night. There was a pale patch of skin visible beneath his ear and above the collar of his shirt, nearly translucent in the moonlight. Erik imagined seeing the pulse that beat there. He imagined a great many things.

“We should paint your apartment.” Charles tried to put down the tumbler, but of course there was nothing to drop it on. He held on to the glass by a sheer miracle, and cradled it in his hands to prevent a disaster.

“Now?” Erik asked, taken aback for once, because Charles seemed ready to walk out of the door this very minute, as though he had paint and brushes waiting for him in the car. Of all the things he expected to hear this wasn’t it.

“Well, why not? You weren’t going to sleep, anyway.” Of course, Charles operated on a whole another set of directives. It probably made sense in the world of the super-sane.

Erik let his hands fall. He downed the glass and set it on the bar. “True.”

“So?”

“I don’t have any paint.”

Charles beamed. “I have a car downstairs. There’s a DIY store not far from here.”

Erik would have made a show of tapping his watch, if he was wearing a watch and thought it would do much good. “It’s seven.”

“The store will be open for another hour, then.” Charles was staring at him expectantly and Erik thought, whatever. It wasn’t like he had alternative plans.

“Sure, why not.”

Charles got them to the door of the store in under seven minutes, heedless of traffic and pedestrians. Given that two old ladies were waving something gun-shaped in their direction, Erik had to admit this was a sound strategy.

Charles parked neatly within the narrow borders of the white lines, taking his time to align the front bumper with the curb, and immediately wandered inside, making a beeline for the shelves of paint, leaving Erik to collect a stroller, solvent and tarp. Charles blinked at the contents of the basket when Erik found him contemplating the yellows. Erik immediately knew he had never painted anything in his life. At least, he amended quickly, never anything bigger than Raven’s fingernails, given how comfortable they seemed to be with each other’s touch. “I like the floor,” he offered as explanation, enjoying the pink flush which blossomed across Charles’ cheeks.

“Oh! Of course, sorry.”

“You don’t dabble in interior decoration, do you?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Raven handles our apartment, and she usually hires contractors. I don’t get involved.”

“What were you thinking?” Erik asked, indicating the cans, even if his mind wandered to the short, pleated skirt, the thigh-high stockings and what it implied for the apartment’s decor.

Charles was aghast. “It is your place.”

“I don’t really care.”

“But you hate the white.”

“It’s an eyesore, but I’m barely there, anyway.” Except he was spending the nights there, and the motivation to go out in the evenings had yet to appear. Erik read plenty, but most of the time he just stared, at whatever happened to be in his field of vision. Sometimes it was a half-full bottle. Sometimes the walls.

“A comfortable apartment is important,” Charles said stubbornly, setting his jaw and turning a can of beige paint over, as though this beige was any different from the seven other beiges with vastly different labels next to it.

Erik found it adorable, that they were pretending it was about the apartment. “How about purple?”

Charles put the beige back onto the shelf and moved down the alley, where the colors had names that meant things to Erik. “Do you like purple?” he asked, tapping a can of camellia pink.

“It’s a color. I don’t have feelings on the subject.”

Charles took this as consent, because they ended up picking up two gallons of royal purple paint, two brushes, two rollers, a tray and a roll of masking tape. On the way home Erik also picked up a crate of beer.

It took them an hour to arrange the tarp to Charles’ satisfaction, using the tape and Erik’s service knife in lieu of scissors. They moved the mattress to the kitchen and covered it with a leftover piece of tarp, which Charles insisted was just a precaution, but Erik, though he never painted anything after he finished fifth grade, had an inkling he would be grateful for it once the battle for the walls commenced.

The instructions printed on the side of the can were deceptively simple. Some kind soul included pictures of rollers and trays, which implied the process violated laws of thermodynamics by happening spontaneously. Naturally, five minutes later they were both splattered up to the elbows. Charles had wisely discarded his jacket, which, Erik discovered with some surprise when he hanged it in the closet, had a discreet designer label sewn into its collar.

He never paid particular attention to what Charles was wearing, but he had an inkling that most of Charles’ clothes that he’d seen had fit him too well to have come from a department store. Not to mention his shoes, which gave the impression that the pig they were made of, while it was alive, wouldn’t deign to oink, but would be more likely to glare at the offender snidely until he or she supplied gloop. It was one thing, however, to admire the fine tailoring of Charles’ pants, it was something quite different to find that he recognized the brand as something he knew he couldn’t afford.

Interesting.

“This is harder than I was led to believe,” Charles said, wiping his hands on his pants, leaving indelible purple smudges across his thighs, and rolling up the sleeves of his shirt.

“It was your idea,” Erik pointed out, holding his roller over the tray while it dripped.

“I’m never going to forget that.” Charles glided the roller across the tray and put it to the wall. A few cautious swipes later he paused and cursed. “I’m afraid we underestimated our own height.” No matter how he tried, the furthest he could reach was still two feet short of the ceiling, and Erik wasn’t that much taller. There would be a white stripe between the purple and the ceiling, no matter what they did, and given their collected skills it wouldn’t be level.

Erik laughed.

“I fail to see the humor. We should get a ladder.” Charles was pouting as he stubbornly pressed his roller against the white, leaving purple stripes in its wake. The downcast curve of his mouth was so miserable Erik couldn’t help but pet his hair.

“Forget it,” he said with his fingers lightly pressed against Charles’ skull. “It’ll work just fine.”

They got the hang of it, eventually; two hours later they were down six beers, but the three walls, barring the one that contained the kitchen, were covered in sticky purple paint.

“It looks awful,” Erik said honestly, popping another can of beer and taking a hearty swig.

“It does not!”

“Do you keep your eyes open when your head is turned towards the wall?”

Charles grimaced. “It does, doesn’t it? I’m so sorry. I’ll get Raven to come in, she does amazing things with interior decoration, she really does. She’ll pick something better for you, and I promise I will have it painted.”

Erik shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’ll do.”

“It could look better.”

“It’s purple, Charles. It couldn’t look worse.”

“It could look better,” Charles repeated stubbornly, dropping the roller onto the tray. “Don’t you think so?”

Erik took a moment to consider. He stared at the purple walls, with an uneven stripe connecting them to the white ceiling, at the tarp, and then Charles in the middle of it all. He took in the vivid purple freckles all over his hands and even his earnest face, and arrived at the conclusion that the apartment had never looked better. “I like it as it is,” he drawled and grinned, which might have accounted for the incredulity Charles regarded him with.

“It looks hideous!”

“Perhaps.”

“You’re a horrible person.”

“You’re the one who insisted on painting the walls.”

All pretense of banter drained out of Charles, almost like there was a plug in the great big bath of humor somewhere in his brain. “Because it was far too bleak, my friend,” he said.

Erik shrugged, which inexplicably resulted in his shirt coming off, so threw it into the kitchen. The alcohol gave him a pleasant, warm buzz, one that loathed to be contained by clothes. The wife-beater was enough to maintain a standard of decency, not that he needed any, at this point. “Let’s finish this up.”

Charles didn’t move. Erik grabbed the empty can out of his hand and shook it pointedly. Charles was staring at his shoulder, as if hypnotized. It was only when Erik cleared his throat that he blinked and averted his gaze. “Sorry. Sorry. It’s just…”

Erik brought up a hand to follow Charles’ gaze, to feel the puckered tissue there. “My very first mission. I was shot.” He understood Charles’ expression – the scar was nasty, far longer than it should have been, when it was only from a bullet, strewn with darker lines. “Then, admittedly, had gravel ground into the wound. I didn’t get a chance to get it cleaned properly until after it started healing.”

“Didn’t you want to have it removed?”

Erik snorted. City boys were precious. “Scars are nothing to be afraid of.”

Charles chuckled, dismissing the unsaid insult with a casual wave of his hand. “Oh, I know. I have a few myself. This just looks like it might go deep enough to limit your movement, it’s all.”

“Not at all.” Erik healed well. Who cared what was left on the surface? Then, “You have scars?”

“Hm? Yes, I do.” Charles smeared the remainder of paint in the tray with his roller. “I’m not quite so inexperienced.”

“Never said you were.”

“You were thinking it. Cities aren’t that friendly.” Charles rolled up his sleeve a little higher, past the elbow, revealing a poorly administered knife wound. “A murderer. My very first case. Doubly funny, since I was a CSI then, not an officer.”

“It doesn’t look that funny.” It looked like a defensive wound, sustained while trying to keep a crazed knife-wielder away from vital organs.

“It was hilarious,” Charles insisted, “in hindsight. You see, I wasn’t quite so well-adjusted then.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Charles had the gall to look sheepish. “I was collecting evidence. I happened to take a look around the room, at the detectives and the officers at the scene, and I asked why they didn’t arrest the murderer.” He paused, rueful. “You have to understand, I was young, angry, straight up from school – they were suffering for staff much as they were now, so I did my summer internship running labs for the police department. I wasn’t – well. My understanding of social conventions was poorer than it is now.

“It was the mortician – it turned out later that he had quite the secondary career. He started laughing. Everyone started laughing, until I pointed out that the man was clearly familiar with the scene, that he had scratches on his shoulders and a missing tooth, when the victim had skin under her nails and a faint impression of teeth on her knuckles. The evidence was obvious, once the connection was made, but to most the leap had been preposterous.” Charles bent his head to stir the paint some more, and Erik folded his arms, staring at his exposed neck, at the lack of marks there. His teeth were itching to change the status quo.

“It didn’t go through so well, did it?”

“I was laughed out of the room, but I’d said enough. He tried to kill me the next morning, when I was coming in to work. Fortunately for me, he was so unsettled he tried to pull me into an alley from a busy street. There were witnesses. I’m not much of a fighter.”

“Was that how you became a detective?”

“It wasn’t that instance, but yes.” Erik interpreted the confirmation as “not before ruining a few more careers, thank you very much.” “I was put into formal academy training as soon as I got my degree.”

“That’s an unpleasant start to a job.”

“It wasn’t even the worst.” Charles pulls his shirt out of his pants and shows Erik a gleaming burn scar, the length of a man’s palm, spanning from the edge of his rib to his waist. “Lab explosion. A silly accident, to be honest – an overheated metal shelf landed on my side.”

“The lab at the station?”

“Yes.”

“I did wonder what happened there.”

“A bomb was brought in, hidden in a package. Nothing sophisticated, just oil, gasoline and a detonator with a timer. It wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular, I was there when it went off. Detective Marko carried me out. He died from his wounds soon after.” Charles rolled the paint around with more force. “I never got the chance to thank him.”

Erik was silent for a long while, long enough for Charles to murmur a soft “oh” and look at the overwhelming purple rather than him. “Raven told you.”

“She mentioned her father was called Marko, but she preferred to use your name.”

“Our relationship – my relationship, really – with the Markos was very strained. Kurt married my mother when I was eight and he never made a secret of the fact that the monetary gains were his primary motivation. He wasn’t a family man by any stretch of the imagination, so the days he ignored me or his own son – Cain – were the good days. When Raven was born it was even worse.

“You see, Kurt took tradition very seriously, and he was from a long line of detectives. Cain, well. He held little promise, unlike Raven and I.” Charles pressed the pad of his thumb against his mouth, as though he had to drag each word out with force. “I’m very good at cerebral work. I’ve always been, obviously. Cain’s talents ran more towards brute strength. Kurt had very little affection to spare, I’m afraid, and between the two of us, his admiration for my mind and his paternal pride in Cain’s sports trophies, he was strung out, and Raven ended up being ignored more often than not. She appreciates it now.”

Erik listened to that with only half an ear, only partly because the speech was, at best, haphazard. His gaze was drawn to another mark on Charles’ torso: a narrow, even stripe of tissue that could have only be left by a wide kitchen knife. This was a stab wound and it wasn’t singular.

Charles noticed his gaze and immediately tucked the shirt back in, hiding his skin from view. “I say, the purple is not that bad, once you get used to it,” he said with cheer so fake it had silicone stripes peeling off every syllable. “I’ll come in some time, to see what it looks in the daylight, how about it?” He whirled in place, went to grab his jacket and palm the keys of his car.

“Charles.”

“Yes?”

“You can’t drive.”

“Oh. Right. Well, no harm, I’ll call for a cab.” Charles took two steps towards the door and stopped. “Not true. We should clean up. It doesn’t seem fair to leave you like this.”

“It is mostly your own fault. It’s only fair you help.”

Charles dropped his jacket on the kitchen counter and helped Erik roll up the tarp and store it securely in the corner, along with the remaining paint and brushes. They’ve done an amateur job, at best – the coat was thinner in places, resulting in a gradient ranging from lilac to deep purple throughout, and that was only what the lamp light revealed; who knew what it would look like during the day.

“Oh! Are you allowed to paint here? Won’t your landlord complain?” Charles fretted over the pile of supplies, as though they were a box of frightened kittens, and thus not to be left in the desolate corner.

“What is he going to do, eat my deposit?” Erik shrugged. “He can keep it, for all I care.” His fingers itched, and the sensation was scrambling up and down his arms, biting into the elbow, driving its teeth into the shoulder, left more than the right, into the scar there, hanging off the raised flesh and giggling like a loon. He needed to get Charles’ hands out of the way, to pull the shirt up and see the knife marks, to know where they came from, to trace them down until he knew their shape and could tell for sure what weapon left those marks behind.

He quelled the impulse. Instead, he lifted the hem of his wife-beater to show his ribs, where a bayonet had once grazed his side. “That was a fun day, let me tell you,” he offered, a tantalizing hook for the shiny little fish, and Charles swallowed it without a blink, because he was coming closer, bending to inspect the scar.

“The stitching looks horrible.”

“I had to stitch it myself in the middle of a jungle. I was on my own for three hours.”

Charles smiled and bent further, to lift the leg of his pants, revealing a jagged line across his shin. “I jumped out a closed window, I’m afraid.”

“You jumped out a window.”

“It was either jumping or getting shot with a machine gun.”

“Did you shoot back?”

“I’d mislaid my gun,” Charles said nonchalantly, and Erik immediately knew this was a regular occurrence.

“Raven said you don’t like guns.”

“I don’t mind guns. It’s the shooting at people I can’t abide.”

Erik folded his arms and, with his face perfectly straight, asked, “Aren’t there rules about that?”

“Pardon?”

It was entirely possible that Charles perceived sarcasm. It was nonetheless possible that he would miss it, given enough emotional upheaval. “Don’t you have to have at least two kills to your name to get your shiny badge?”

“You’re thinking of double-oh seven agents. It’s perfectly possible to have a long, illustrious career in the department without shooting once.”

That would be a no on the sarcasm question. Still, something in Charles’ voice made Erik curl his lips and say, purely on instinct, with only the slightest hint of facetiousness, “I never said anything about shooting.”

Charles’ smile was so thin Erik could see the coiled panic as clear as though he was running around the room with his hair on fire. It lasted only a second, but what a glorious second it was, before Charles – and god, Erik could see him file away the slip up and rebuild his mental software, incorporating the new data into the loops – smiled up at him and said, “All too true. I never shot at another human being. I killed seven.”

Erik wasn’t thinking when he crossed the room and gripped Charles’ head. He carefully didn’t think how well it fit in his hands, how his middle fingers nested perfectly in the grooves behind Charles’ ears, how his thumbs brushed the corners of his mouth. He fixed the look of Charles’ blue eyes in his memory – bright, wide, but unsurprised, pupils dilated with want – before he closed his own and brought their mouths together.

He might as well have been kissing a marble statue. Charles’ lips were still cold with beer and unresponsive, until Erik tilted his head sideways and slipped his tongue deep into Charles’ mouth. He came alive then, wrapped his arms around Erik, digging his fingers into his back. He arched into the kiss, thrusting his hips forward, and moaned for the lack of leverage. Erik took a step forward, intending to press them both against the wall, but the purple haze was more than just naked want, but a very real threat of becoming stuck, so pulled them both down onto the floor instead.

Charles wasted no time pulling Erik’s undershirt up and over his head and away, to another dimension. His thighs slid open beneath Erik’s weight, coming up to wrap around his hips, urging him on.

“Fuck,” Erik hissed, worming a hand between their bodies, into the mess of fabric and skin, applying pressure wherever he could reach and bucking into it, feeling Charles respond in kind, until his dick was threatening legal action unless the proceedings escalated right now. “I want—“ Everything. All of it. Charles on his hands and knees, himself on his knees, sucking Charles off – the images flowed into one other with no regard for the common logic or the limitations of the human anatomy, but that’s what happened when the rational centers of the brain reached for the popcorn and admired the fireworks. “Do you have condoms?”

“Yes, please. No, I don’t.” Charles blinked and then raised his head off the floor, to chase Erik’s lips, before letting it fall back with an audible thump. “I’m so sorry, I don’t carry any around.”

Erik, on behalf of his dick, let out a very colorful description of a sexual intercourse with a number of farmyard animals. For propriety’s sake, he made sure to only use Arabic. “You were never a boy scout.”

“Neither were you,” Charles told him with enough conviction to shift a mountain.

Erik ground against him and any further comment died in the unison groan they let out. They were both hard, and no one shed a relevant article of clothing yet. Erik had survived fifteen years of communal showers without so much as an inappropriate erection, and now he was excited like a teenager on his first date, humping through the clothes in the backseat. “You’re telling me you came here tonight and you didn’t know sex would happen? A blind octopus could have predicted that!”

“I don’t know the future,” Charles muttered, a little peeved. His palm was maddeningly warm against Erik’s lower back, a counterpoint to the unbearable heat elsewhere, with the fingertips applying gentle pressure just below the waistband of his jeans, right on the whip-mark, which crossed Erik’s spine.

“The fact that I’ve wanted to fuck you for weeks now escaped your attention?”

Charles avoided his eyes, though the flush on his face was nothing if not telling. “I thought bringing condoms would have been presumptuous.”

“Fuck you, Xavier. Just… fuck you.” Erik kissed him again, deep and bruising, as he brought his knees underneath them both, until Charles ass was on his lap and his shoulders on the floor. He straightened his back and, though his hands shook, unbuttoned Charles’ shirt one button at a time. Then, when he got his hands to cooperate, the belt on his pants.

Altogether it was short and messy, unbecoming of their ages and life stories. The zipper of Erik’s jeans cut into his hand, presumably Charles’ too, when their fingers tangled around their cocks, fighting even then. It was a miracle no one was hurt, Erik thought when Charles’ back arched and he was all but sitting in his lap, even though his shoulders were still on the hardwood floor. Given the angle it was no shock that, when his vision started to white out and the need for an orgasm spilled over every other thought process, Erik’s open mouth pressed against ribs even as his hips shot forward, trapping both their hands in a Gordian knot of fingernails, zippers, skin, cloth, hair and the fine leather of Charles’ belt.

There was a scar beneath his lips, Erik realized, when the whiteness ebbed away. It was one of the scars left by a kitchen knife; thinner than the one Charles had lower down, obviously shallower.

“Thank you, Erik. This was lovely,” Charles said meanwhile, dazed and not a little spent.

Erik snorted into his intercostal space. “Not exactly, but it will do for now.”

“Are you disappointed?” Charles asked carefully, to which Erik immediately shook his head. He wasn’t disappointed, by any stretch of the imagination.

“Not disappointed. Just unsatisfied.”

Charles laughed. “Your body would disagree,” he said, running a hand down Erik’s wonderfully loose back muscles. It was true, in a way – he was boneless and spent and physically satiated. Still, the sight of Charles wouldn’t leave his eyes, not as he was now, happy and physically weary, but as he had been moments ago, when the pressure was still mounting beyond its limits, when his eyes were wild and scared, open wide and seeing nothing.

“I’m not done.” Erik raised his hips off the floor, letting Charles slide down, gripped Charles’ wrists and brought them together over the man’s head. He stretched over him, pinning him in place, until the arch of his back brought them into contact, pelvis to chest. “It’s not enough.”

“What do you want then? I’m sure we can arrange it.”

A lazy smile spread on Erik’s face. Very few people, bedfellows in particular, could stand to see that smile from up close. He’d been informed he looked like a particularly vicious Batman villain when he grinned that way; that they feared for his sanity and their lives when he bared all his teeth. The information usually made him grin wider.

“I want,” he whispered, bending so that Charles’ face was less than an inch beneath his. He brushed a soft kiss against his mouth and whispered, “To get you out of all your clothes. I want to wreathe ropes around your body, until you can’t move unless I want you to move. I want to spread you open and see what you look like when you’ve been fucked for hours, when even your precious brain can’t handle the stimuli and shuts down.” Erik moved so that his lips were brushing Charles’ ear. “I want to look at you when you aren’t capable of thought, when you can’t run, can’t reason, when you can only feel me, and what I’m doing to you. I want to see you ripped open and raw, completely at my mercy.” Erik rose on his elbows, just enough so he could look into Charles’ eyes. “Tell me, can we arrange that?”

*****

The floor was digging into his shoulder blades. Charles had given up on their comfort, as they had borne most of his weight during their …tryst. There would be consequences, he realized: already his spine would twinge in protest at the uncomfortable angle, even though he was relaxed now. Muscle memory worked faster than he’d anticipated, and when he flexed his thighs and brushed against Erik’s his spine would wail. Still, he was loath to lose the warmth, the closeness; the delightful pressure against his groin.

He very was still when Erik whispered into his ear. He swallowed the moan the voice, the promise in it, was engendering in his throat. He clawed at the floor, whether in panic or lust he wasn’t sure, and then, very softly, he let his lips shape acquiescence.

Then he pushed at Erik’s shoulders, hard, rolled to his feet and fled to the bathroom.

The mirror on the wall was barely big enough to shave with. Erik didn’t bother with much – he got it in the convenience store, and duct-taped it to the tiles. The rest of the bathroom was as empty as the apartment: a single towel, generic store-brand shaving cream, a disposable razor, two-in-one shower gel and shampoo, a surprisingly pricey after-shave, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. Charles’ fingers skimmed the caps, following the patterns of Erik’s habits, no doubt.

Charles closed his eyes and breathed. He didn’t look until he was sure he would only see his face in the mirror, and not the reconstruction of Erik’s ablutions, evident in the smudges on the cans and bottles, in the position of the razor. When he finally looked, he found, unsurprisingly, a pink flush on his face and neck. There was a mark on his chest, reddened spots on the underside of his jaw where Erik dug his fingers a little too deep. Nothing damning, nothing permanent. Good. Fraternization was frowned upon – they were not likely to get in any trouble, but it was discouraged, with good reason. An attachment like that changed things. Entering a relationship with a work colleague was risky, at best. Emotions carried over into the work area; stress from one spilled over into the other, until eventually work became play and play became work. People had destroyed themselves over such arrangements.

Charles wondered if it would happen to him, too.

He had said yes to Erik. Perhaps out of curiosity. Perhaps he, too, wanted to know what he was like when he was broken open, when he could no longer think, only feel. Perhaps he wondered if there would be anything of him left.

Or perhaps it was because he knew Erik wouldn’t stay to drive the knife deeper and that, too, was fine – it was safer that way. The pieces would crawl together eventually, and in the long run he would be richer for the experience.

Charles shook his head, washed the come off his stomach and straightened his clothes. When he exited the bathroom he looked very nearly presentable, save for the purple smudges on his pants and the matching specks on his shirt.

Erik was sitting on the floor and looking up at him with the obvious question in his gaze. Charles smiled brightly. “We didn’t manage to discuss the case, in the end.”

“How were you planning on getting home?”

“I’ll call a cab. The response at this hour should be prompt, there’s no need to worry.” A second of thought had him dropping his car keys on the counter, when he picked up his jacket. “Take my car to work tomorrow. I’ll see you there?”

“Charles…”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” he said. After a short moment of hesitation he crossed the room and knelt to press his mouth to Erik’s. It was marvelous, how such a small action could loosen the tension in a man’s shoulders. “Goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Charles greeted the morning lightheaded and oddly happy. His back still hurt and his mouth felt tender (thankfully it didn’t show too much on his naturally red lips), but the small discomforts couldn’t compete with the elation he felt whenever his thoughts strayed onto Erik. The feeling stayed with him throughout his morning routine and well into his work day, buoying his spirits. True, the station greeted him with a little less enthusiasm than he did it, but Erik was already there, waiting for him with a cup of tea and a grin one could only describe as lascivious, which made the morning infinitely better. Charles felt the blush spread across his face, in a way the he knew highlighted every last one of his freckles and that in turn only made Erik grin broader.

“Thank you,” Charles said, taking the cup and running for the hills.

His luck was holding. No new corpse had been reported so he had ample time to catch up with the materials generated for the cases he had open – a mugging gone wrong, the culprit will turn up in a matter of days, wrecked by nightmares; a hit and run, which would have been tricky but for the flecks of paint embedded in the victim’s skin; a domestic, reported by overzealous neighbors, even though the injuries had all the marks of an accident. These were the days Charles enjoyed most: he could tuck himself into a quiet corner and read to his heart’s content. Granted, he would generally prefer a different content to his reading material, but even the lab reports had a charm to them; it was the closest he got to legitimate science these days. Closest to truth, really.

Hank was a meticulous young man and the police were lucky to have him. Unfortunately, even he couldn’t do much with no evidence to speak of. The few grains of gravel were also found on the victim’s own shoes, the single cohesive DNA sample that did not belong to the victim was not only useless without anything to compare it to, it was also completely useless as a piece of evidence, as it was found on the carpet. Even if Mr. Zhang was the only one to visit his bedroom in a while, there was no end to places where a man could get a foreign hair stuck to his person and had it carried into his home.

In other words, there was nothing. Two bodies, not yet cold, and there was not even a ghost to chase after.

“Charles?”

Charles blinked. Erik was standing in the door, one hand on the light switch. “Don’t bother, the overhead light doesn’t work,” Charles said, when Erik frowned at the singed plastic square when the click failed to produce an onslaught of photons. Disappointing, perhaps, but Charles was long used to the questionable reading conditions – he was reading under the desk lamp he’d bought for this express purpose a while back. No one ever came to the laboratory – it was far too bleak a place, with the fire damage and still charred equipment no one had the heart to throw out.

Erik’s face betrayed distaste and suspicion. Charles looked around, letting a reality filter slip over his eyes so that he could perceive the space as Erik was seeing it – a ruined workspace, cluttered with debris and charred edges, fit for housing nothing but rats, and Charles himself in the middle, bent over the tiled work table with a spread of papers before him, reading by the light of a cheap, plastic lamp, whose cord extended far enough from the table to create yet another hazard.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Erik asked, picking up a shard of glass which might have been a beaker before the fire. He toyed with the edge for a few moments, before dropping it into the sink, where it shattered against its brethren.

Charles flexed his shoulders, drawing them back as far as he could without assistance, letting the motion stretch the burning sensation, whose causes no doubt could be traced to a wooden floor on the sixth floor of an unassuming city building. As it were, the burning flared and the flare set fire to the narrow line which curled around his spine and dug into his hips, stirring heat in its wake. Charles was shaking his head before he even had the chance to fully form the thought. “It’s quieter in here. It helps me concentrate.”

“It’s that bad?”

Charles smiled. There was a promise in Erik’s voice to quiet the bullpen for good, should he ask for it. It made his heart pulse with excitement, even as he spoke, “Not really. I can tune the noise out, but I have trouble knowing what to tune out, so it ends up being all or nothing. People don’t react well to finding I’ve gone catatonic over reports. I’ve had an ambulance called on me once.” Wasn’t that a fun day, he recalled grimly: he began to study the autopsy report for a hit and run, followed by the forensics of the car, and seventy-eight minutes later he looked up to Sean’s freckled face, to an equally speckled hand on his shoulder, shaking him hard enough to send the back of his head careening into the flimsy cubicle wall.

He’d solved the case, naturally.

Erik likely would have raised a brow even if he had been privy to the memory. “Evidently it’s a boring report, if you noticed me in the door.”

Charles rewound the past two minutes in his head pushing aside the past and running down the vivid lines of now. “Dear lord,” he said, numb with the thrill of discovery. “I did hear you.”

“Congratulations, you have working ears.”

“No, I mean – I heard you, when I was reading. That’s… that’s good.” His hands shook, all of sudden, as he tried to gather the papers into a coherent pile, with little luck. An effort doomed to failure, when Erik was looking at him like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or frown. Charles found he wasn’t so sure himself. Erik was important now. The only other person his brain didn’t automatically tune out was Raven. This could either be very good, or very bad. It was too early to tell.

“I don’t follow,” Erik said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Does that mean I should stay away while you read? For fear of interrupting?”

“Never mind.” Charles aligned the photos in the folder with the middle line and closed it. “Did you want something?”

“Marvin brought coffee. I’m here to check if you want any.”

“Yes, please.” Charles left the papers on the worktable. He had been reading for a while – he could afford a short break. He looked up at Erik’s flickering eyes and frowned. “How many coffees have you had today already?”

“Can’t you tell?” The fingers of Erik’s right hand brushed Charles’ wrist, turning it outward, so that he could press his thumb to the pulse point, just below the cuff of his shirt.

“Three,” Charles answered promptly, turning his hand into the caress. “You shouldn’t drink so much, excess of caffeine it’s not good for the system.” His argument suffered for the fact that he was already achieving the elevated heart-rate, just by feeling the pressure against his radial artery. Of course, this presented a conundrum: he would eventually need his hand back, but he was certain he would rather part with his arm than voluntarily take it back.

“We’re going to need it,” Erik said, as though oblivious to Charles’ crisis. “We have mountains of papers to search through.”

“It will be of no use if either of us drops of a heart attack,” Charles pointed out reasonably, oh so reasonably, while his heart thundered on, sending waves and waves of blood through the narrow artery. He could feel his fingertips thrumming.

“How likely do you think I am to have a heart attack, Charles?” Erik shook his head, no doubt recalling the many, many physicals which proclaimed his health to be a hairsbreadth away from Superman. “Over coffee, no less. It’s far more probable I will be run over by a reindeer.”

“Ridiculous. These don’t start happening until mid-December.” The stairs which would take them out of the basement loomed into view and, with one final caress, Erik let go of his hand. Charles saw his fingers curl around his thumb, even as he shoved the hand into his slacks, in a transparent attempt at preserving the feel of skin. Somehow, that did not do wonders for his newly discovered heart problems.

Marvin was waiting for them upstairs, a huge grin on his round face and a giant tray of paper coffee cups in his hands. “Good afternoon, detective!” he chirped, swaying to compensate for the momentum caused by his sudden turn.

“Hello Marvin,” Charles said, grateful for a distraction on which he could focus and settle around. “You seem energetic.”

“I know, it is something of an experience for me.” He put down the tray on a handy desk, rubbed his hands and looked at Charles hopefully. “Coffee?”

“Mocha?” Charles asked, because he could only rarely resist the pull of chain-store mocha. Somehow, Raven’s concoction wasn’t the same, for all the creamy goodness and real chocolate she melted to perfection and blended with hot milk. He was an ungrateful sod, Charles thought mournfully as the steam trembled over the forest of white caps.

Marvin, on the other hand, beamed as though this was the best news he’d had all day. “Caramel of straight?”

“You really didn’t have to,” Charles told him when two cups were lifted into the air and proffered in his direction. “Straight, thank you.”

Marvin straightened and beamed again when Charles took the beverage. “It’s no trouble.”

“How is your work coming along?” Erik asked, helping himself to a double-shot cinnamon cappuccino, if Charles was interpreting the exuberant letters on the side correctly.

“I’m extremely busy,” Marvin said. He raised a hand for emphasis than caught himself before he could do more than flicker his fingers. Charles smiled into the coffee. Marvin was on a date last night. She was a little shy, but they were going out again, soon, and he couldn’t wait. He’d gone shopping, because the suit was new and so was the cologne. Erik’s stunt managed to break him out of his seasonal cycle. Charles refrained from commenting the relationship had no future, as Marvin was currently too excited about the whole notion of dating to remember her name properly, but it was certainly heartening to see him so energetic. There was enough good spirit there to see him through the break-up, and likely well into the next relationship.

“How’s the investigation going?” Marvin asked meanwhile, turning to Charles, who started. Some of the coffee spilled onto the plastic cover, immediately filling the lettering there.

“You heard?” he asked, slurping the mess off, not even trying to pretend the slurping wasn’t for Erik’s benefit. Of all the complaints leveled his way in the course of courtship or intercourse, his enthusiasm for oral sex of any variety received nothing but high praise, and Charles was not above advertising the fact.

Marvin shrugged and crossed his arms, then uncrossed them again and started fiddling with his watch. “I knew Chen. I mean, not that well, but we’ve met a couple of times. It’s horrible, what happened to him.”

“It could have been worse,” Erik said with a shrug which communicated his disdain for empathy and feelings. He couldn’t quite conceal the tense line of his shoulders as he did so. “How is your job going?”

“Ah, found some really weird columns in the quarterly, a while back. Took me a while to sort those out, they were for a daughter company that does – I’m not sure. I don’t know why I ever went into business in the first place. It makes little sense to me.” Marvin toyed with a cup before brightening up and handing it to a passing officer, who took it in lieu of his early morning shot of cola, which he failed to drink on account of being hideously late.

“You’ve been doing okay so far,” Charles said, patting his shoulder. “Daughter companies are rarely straightforward, that’s the whole point. Did you review their tax returns?”

“No, would that help?”

Poor Marvin, Charles thought. But accounting was not a job for the weak-minded. “That’s the most obvious place to start looking for irregularities. As soon as something starts going wrong, every company will start by submitting the most straightforward tax returns possible, the kind that no company employing human beings can manage to plausibly create by any means other than lying about it. On the bright side, that makes them easy to spot. I have an excellent accountant who might be able to help you with those. I can give you the number.”

“Oh, would you? Thanks so much!” Marvin handed over his phone (brand new model, only came out a few days ago, already scuffed with a film of grime across the keys – it saw some serious use over the past couple of days and not merely for the sake of games) and Charles keyed in the number.

“Her name is Kitty Pryde. Tell her I gave you the number and make sure you have an estimate of the size of files you want reviewed, she is very busy.”

“Thank you.” Marvin took a phone, clicked the heels of his expensive shoes and bowed. “Thanks, Detective Lehnsherr.”

“Thanks for the coffee,” Erik said, raising his cup.

Marvin left the station with a spring in his step and a huge grin on his face. Charles wondered how soon he would get a call from the man’s coworkers, claiming Marvin was on drugs. It was certain to happen – no one in this city could possibly be this happy all the time, save for those enjoying the chemical stimulation of the nervous system.

“Is there a reason he’s not on top of our list of suspects?” Erik asked meanwhile, sipping his coffee and staring at the door with a very thoughtful look on his face.

“You don’t like competition?” Charles said absently, before the statement could revisit his skull with an urgent tapping noise. “Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

“You meant it, and you were correct.” Erik offered him a crooked smile and an eyebrow curved over his supraorbital ridge, indicating in no uncertain terms that no harm was done and in fact he was amused by the quip. Charles thought the relief might floor him. He had a sense of humor, despite all claims to the contrary, unfortunately, it often manifested as an unpredictable streak of acerbic, inflammatory comments. Considering the rest of his disposition, it was no wonder he had no friends to speak of. “What I meant was, beside me.”

“He’s incapable of hurting another human being.” Charles twisted the cap on his coffee with a fond little smile.

“No human being is incapable of that,” Erik said with the certainty of a man who had been on the business-end of the self-preservation instinct. He wasn’t wrong, either. If cornered, Marvin would absolutely try and fight back, but it wouldn’t come easily, and more importantly it wouldn’t come unannounced. Certainly if Marvin decided to resolve his ennui problems with murder he wouldn’t waltz into the station with an armful of coffee to gloat about it.

Charles capitulated in the face of overwhelming evidence. “He does have a solid alibi for the first night. None of his accounts was credited with more than a thousand dollars at time, amounting to a total of nine thousand seven hundred thirty-two dollars over the past three months, which is consistent with his finances for the past seven years and puts him on the upper-middle end of the spending spectrum, not inconsistent with his paygrade and corresponding status.”

The officer standing behind him took a step back, and continued on his way. Charles preferred to think it was an involuntary action. Erik remained unmoved, but there was a faint smile on his face.

“I’m actually surprised, for a change. Do you monitor the finances of everyone you know?”

“It did cross my mind. Marvin is not wholly stable,” as evidenced by his quarterly suicide attempts, but then again Charles himself was quoted as the dictionary definition of unstable. Charles found it a bit odd, as every last one of his actions was predictable to a fault. “He might not be capable of murder – I honestly don’t believe he is – but the killer might have been paid.”

“There was no evidence a second person was present.”

“There was no evidence a first person was present, unfortunately. Anyone could have been there during the murder.”

“So you suspected Marvin, enough to look into his finances.” Erik paused and dragged his tongue across his lips slow enough to make sure it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a sexual invitation. “I wonder what mine revealed.”

“Nothing incriminating,” Charles admitted dutifully, awaiting the inevitable disapproval, but none was evident.

“Should I look into yours, or were you considerate enough to do that, too?” Erik was smiling wider. The smile was a curiously powerful thing – it scoped the station like the lantern of a lighthouse, leaving trembling hearts and panicked souls wherever Erik turned his shining white teeth. This time, when a fellow officer gave them a wide berth it wasn’t because of Charles.

“I review the state of my finances regularly, but you are more than welcome to double check. I could call my bank and schedule a meeting with the assistant, if you’d like. I’d give you full access to my statements.” It was an argument which often came up in fights, particularly when Raven was younger: how would you feel if someone investigated your personal life? It was one of many Charles couldn’t quite understand. His life was perfectly transparent – should anyone care to, he would gladly supply all the relevant documentation to whomever asked.

“I was joking. The last time I’ve seen the inside of a bank, I was blowing it up.” Then Erik lowered his voice. “I didn’t think it was fully legal, though.”

Charles took a sip of his mocha letting the corporate America assassinate his trouble with factory-manufactured cocoa and coffee. Of course Charles did a cursory sweep of the accounts of his work colleagues. Corruption within the force was best prevented before it saw the light of day and catching a murderer was more important than abiding by court orders. Evidence was only a matter of looking, and the murderer was almost certainly aware of police procedures, which didn’t necessarily imply it was one of their own, but it didn’t disqualify them either. The problem with working this angle, however, was that obtaining some information was not permitted without solid evidence such information might pertain to the investigation, and such a permission required for a detective to be in possession of said information. Such a conundrum, when one had to choose between justice and the justice system, he thought with a weary sigh. “I’ll be in the lab,” he told Erik.

He felt eyes on his back until he reached the staircase.

*****

Raven whistled as she got out of work around ten in the evening. She enjoyed waiting tables. She let her mind drift then; she would solve problems, fill out coursework she’d later type out, no direct input from the brain required. Mind the food arriving at various times, on various plates, to various physical locations required concentration, but left a substantial part of her mind free to get on with other work. It allowed her to breeze through college with pocket money she didn’t have to ask Charles for (not that Charles would ever refuse her money she asked for, but there was something utterly humiliating about having even the most beloved brother legally manage her finances). Once she was done with college she became terribly bored with it, but persevered, mostly because Joe swore up and down he couldn’t find a good enough replacement, the cheap lying bastard.

“Hi Raven,” Charles called when she walked through the door to their shared apartment, some odd seconds before the warmth and smell of food started bouncing up and down in her skull. “Did you have a good day?”

“Joe still swears he can’t find anyone, but I’m calling bullshit. He doesn’t want to let me go, ‘cause I don’t go round asking for raises,” she yelled back, uncoiling the scarf from her neck and dumping it, along with her coat, on the shelf she had reserved for this specific purpose.

“Which is a mistake on your part, I say.” Charles’ voice drifted from the kitchen on the heavenly wings of garlic smell. “You’ve been doing stellar work. I wouldn’t be surprised if your presence didn’t get him customers.”

No shit, she liked her short skirts and flaunted her enjoyment. Even so, Raven scowled. “Tough for him, I don’t want to be a waitress all my life.” She adjusted the hemline of her panties, where they rode up to peek over her belt, and toed off her socks. She moved into the kitchen, dropping more of the personal knick-knacks and random pieces of clothing as she went, until she was down to her skirt and T-shirt – Charles liked to keep their place warm – tapping on the screen of her phone.

“I’m surprised you’ve held out as long as you have,” he said, reaching for a jar of thyme.

“I did find it fun.”

“It looked like fun,” Charles said absently. He was stirring the contents of a wok. Raven peeked over his shoulder – they were having prawn paella tonight. Good. Then she looked up from the food and to his face, only to find it so completely out of focus she was surprised she could even make out his features. The fuck?

“How was your day?” she asked cautiously, trying not to look like she was about to panic. The last time he’d been that unfocussed he had been in the hospital, drugged to the gills, with a butcher’s knife sticking out of his chest. Raven felt justified in checking his pulse.

Fortunately, he looked up when she touched his neck and smiled, in the here and now, haziness forgotten. “Oh, I wish I could report progress, I do. I talked to the doormen again. They both lived on the same street, but that’s as far as the connection went.” He hesitated and sought inspiration in the garlicky depths of the paella. “We’re on square one.”

Raven gaped, recomputed, then gaped again. It wasn’t often that one and one added together to flowerpot, instead of the requisite one-oh. “Square one? What the hell, Charles? You’re usually done with solving a crime five minutes after setting foot on the crime scene!” Which wasn’t wholly true, but there was enough truth in it to justify the dramatic delivery. Shut up, brain, Raven thought viciously, I like dramatic delivery.

Charles, meanwhile, adopted his gentle scolding face and tapped her nose with the spatula, no doubt leaving a trail of oil and a flake of onion in its wake. “That’s not wholly true, luv. Most crimes are indeed obvious, but this one is unusual. We’ve been able to ascertain no motive, no one who stood to gain from the deaths, and, more importantly, no hard evidence.”

“Holy shit,” Raven said. Then, because she watched three seasons of Dexter over the past month, she asked, “Are you sure you’re not the murderer? Because you could totally pull it off. It would be so weird, if it was you. I could write a book and everyone would die to read it. My Brother the Serial Killer: a Personal Account – All That and Paella!”

Charles’ face took on a strange look. “I know,” he said slowly, as though he was drawing and quartering the comment into a string of bits. One-oh, one-oh, one, one, oh, one. “Isn’t it shocking?” Round and round went the spatula, overturning the prawns and shoveling rice onto them. Charles stared into its depths like his whole future was written there.

“You must be overjoyed.” Raven hopped onto the counter, kicking the cupboard with her bare heels.

This stirred Charles out of his divination. “Excuse me?”

“It’s a riddle, isn’t it? You love riddles.”

“That’s just the thing,” he said, with a touch more emotion than the statement justly deserved, dropping the spatula into the wok. “It’s not a riddle. It lacks a mystery. It lacks sense. It’s just things happening for no reason!” He was glaring at the wall over the stove and Raven, after checking that there was nothing there, allowed the vague pang of unease to knock her on the shoulder.

“I don’t follow,” she said slowly. “You have no suspects, right? A murder in a locked room, no entry or exit and no evidence. How’s that for a mystery?”

“Yes, yes, but that’s not important.” Charles picked the spatula back up and scraped the bits of onions and pepper which stuck to the pan over the rice level. “The murder is dry, there’s no emotion in it. It has all the marks of being a serial killer’s work, but they make no sense as the work of a serial killer. I don’t understand these murders.”

“It would be a cold day in hell before you understood a murderer, Charlie,” Raven said, pressing a kiss to his cheek, gratified to draw a slow smile. “When are we eating? I’m starved!”

“A few more minutes.” Then, “Raven?”

“Yes?”

“I heard Erik today.” He hesitated. “I was reading the work files and he came in the lab and I heard him when he called.”

Sometimes Raven couldn’t help but understand motherhood. Charles had a way of admitting things in a way that hunched his shoulder, curled his toes and wrung his hands, so that, with a touch of miniaturization and a little blurring, he looked all of five, reporting a tentative success on a matter which had previously been a resounding failure. When he did that, looking up at her (which in itself never failed to make her feel like gathering him up to his chest and squeezing), she invariably felt a smothering of pride and tearful loss, because this growing up business took people places other people couldn’t go. Or something.

“That’s… That’s wonderful!” She wrapped her arms around his middle and laid her head on his shoulder. Erik, of all people. Well, Charles wasn’t wholly sane, so why the hell not? “He’s a cool guy, isn’t he? Slight crazy non-withstanding, he is pretty awesome.”

“True.” Charles was smiling; she could feel that in her hair. She gave him one last squeeze and skipped to her room, grabbing her bag along the way, to return it to its nesting place on her sprawling bed. She checked her email, then her Blackberry, then the email again. Two messages were waiting: one from Joe, begging her to reconsider her resignation, the other from Angel, confirming they were having drinks on Friday.

Excellent.

“Food on the table!” Charles called from the kitchen.

Raven whirled on the balls of her feet and went to eat.

After dinner they settled in front of the TV with tea and cookies Raven wheedled out of Joe on her way out. She waited until Charles finished his first cup, as that usually put him in a slightly better mood, before sitting up.

“Charles,” she started, trying to phrase her next words – which were going to be extremely flammable – in the least incendiary way. Huh. Hey, Charles, you know the Crazy Focused Personality With No Reality Filters Disorder that you have? Yeah, dude, work on that, it’s not fetching. No, that wouldn’t do. Better to just be upfront and business-like. Charles is going to appreciate business-like. “I’ve applied to the PD. I had my medical yesterday. Next week I’m going in for character investigation.”

That went well, except she didn’t think Charles could get quite so pale. Move over Robert Pattison.

“What?” he asked, making next to no sound.

Raven scoffed. “I know you heard me. You always hear.” She didn’t mean to sound quite so accusing, but the tone took on a life of its own, nonetheless.

Charles’ features pinched together, painting him into a very neat Snow White – red-lipped and pale as death. “No. I don’t allow it. You will withdraw the application,” he said with the authoritarian cadence of the Evil Queen.

For a change Raven would not be cowed. Not on this. “No. I am applying. I will get in. You know I can handle it.”

“You can’t handle it,” Charles said, still quiet, still calm, on the verge of breaking. “You have no idea what a police job entails in this city. You will not go through with this.”

Luckily, this was one thing Raven was ready for so when she replied she was calm and self-assured. She had rehearsed this, after all. “You can’t tell me what I will and won’t do. You don’t have the right.”

“You’re a child, Raven! You have no concept of what goes on in the department, you have no concept of what we have to deal with!” Charles’ hands shook and the cookie he was eating drops to the plate in his lap. “It’s not all clean murder and parking tickets.”

“I’m twenty three and I can handle myself! I attended autopsies, I know what corpses look like, at all stages of decomp! It was your idea to put me into combat training. It’s your fault I react to being surprised by throwing people over my shoulder. Why the hell shouldn’t I use it to do something?”

“You trained for your own security! Self-defense gives you an edge over this city. There’s no reason to go looking for more trouble, when you get into enough just walking out the door.”

For someone whose brain operated in the binary system, Charles sometimes managed to see reason as this foreign, exotic creature, which needed to be studied and poked until it folded and conformed to his mental picture of a common cow. Raven scowled at him, finding the scowl matched by his glare. “I can fight. I can shoot. I’m clever. You taught me to be clever and you can’t tell me you failed there. I know I’m good. You can’t keep me locked up in this place forever. Why the hell do you even try?”

“Because it’s dangerous! People die on the job, every day. We chase after murderers, after rapists and psychopaths. We stick our noses into places no one sane goes. That’s not sane, that’s not normal, that is not a job for you.” He picked up the cookie again, biting into it like it was supposed to symbolize Raven’s resolve.

Fuck you, Charles, she thought. “It’s my life. I will do whatever I want.”

“No, you won’t.”

“They will hire me, Charles. I am in excellent shape. I have more than enough uni credits. I kick ass for fun and I’ve a psyche so stable you could level walls with it. I have letters from the resident pathologist at the Sacred Heart. There’s no way they’re gonna blow me off.”

Charles reached for his phone. “They won’t hire you,” he said to the device. “I will see to it that they don’t. You will find yourself another job, something you can excel at, something safe.” Bless the modern cells, with their enormous screens and easy to read fonts, Raven thought, though when the blue highlight stopped at a name she recognized she stopped blessing and began cursing. For a second Raven thought her whole world had turned red. Before she could even think what she was doing, she scrambled up to her knees and closed her palms around his.

“If you make that phone call,” she hissed, “I will never forgive you. I swear to god, for as long as I live. I want this, Charles, I want to become a police officer. Why the hell is that so difficult for you to get?”

“I can’t see you hurt,” he told his phone rather than her. She rolled her eyes.

“Grow up. People get hurt all the time.” Raven dug her chin into the top of his head and brought her other arm up around his shoulders. “You can’t save everyone.”

Charles looked at the phone, at their joined hands. Then he looked at her. “I’m sorry. I’d rather you hated me.”

The next moment the phone flew from his hands and Raven had him pinned to the floor, with his right arm twisted behind his back and his face in the thick carpet.

“I don’t need your protection anymore,” she hissed into his ear, digging a knee into his thigh to make a point. “I’m not a child. I can handle myself. It’s not like it was before, okay? Besides, I am an adult. You can’t stop me. You think I didn’t expect you to do this? Of course I have. I told the commissioner you’re my brother. I told her everything, about Kurt and about Cain. I said you might call. She promised she wouldn’t listen to you.”

Charles shook underneath her hands. “Raven, don’t. Please. You can’t do this.”

“Name one reason why I shouldn’t.”

“Kurt would have wanted you to. He is dead, you don’t need his approval anymore.”

As if she ever wanted his approval. Fat chance. “Kurt can go to hell, if he’s not already there. I want this.” Raven let go and stood up, straightening up her skirt with the ease of a women half of whose wardrobe could be mistaken for really wide belts. “I’m thinking you should quit, though. It’s not doing you any favors.”

“What makes you think you can handle it, exactly?” Charles lifted himself off the floor slowly, as if each move caused him pain, but his head was turned towards her and the anger – bona fide anger – was directed at her, too. “Do you honestly think being able to not breathe through the nose for a few hours teaches you everything you need to know about death? You know nothing. Corpses in the mortuary are at peace. Those you would find on the job are a thousand times worse, because they still move, they talk and breathe and beg for their lives!” Charles took a breath and pushed himself to his feet. “Can you handle looking a man in the eye, pointing a gun at him and firing? Can you handle looking down the barrel of a gun at people on a regular basis? I saw you in the shooting range, when Erik stepped in front of you, and you were panicking. You burst into tears. You can’t handle hurting another human being, any more than you can hurt me.”

“Say one more word and I will conclusively prove I can hurt you.” In that moment she was certain she could, too.

“You won’t. Because you can’t hurt me, you are not capable of hurting me, even when I stand in your way. What makes you think it will be any different with other people?”

“Erik surprised me! We were in the shooting range, I didn’t expect anyone to be stupid enough to try. It won’t happen again, because next time I will be ready. The next time I point a gun at someone I will have pointed it there.” She folded her arms and shrugged. “And it’s not like he doesn’t think it’s a good idea, for me to join, anyway.”

“You’ve spoken with him about it?” Charles’ mouth fell open. “When?”

Raven shrugged again. “In the shooting range.”

She expected Charles to call her bluff immediately. He could always tell when she was lying, or skirting the truth, or even skewing the facts in her favor. This time he lowered his head and stared at the floor, while his hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically.

“Erik’s advice is not something you should follow,” he said in the end.

“At least his is not hypocritical. Christ, Charles, you don’t even want to be a detective and you stick by the goddamned job like it’s your fucking salvation! Why? Kurt is dead; he’s not there to make you do anything. You don’t owe him shit, if you ever did.”

Charles hunched in on himself. “I don’t have a choice.”

“Fuck you. You have every choice in the book. You can go back to school, you could be a teacher in a year of two, for god’s sake, but you get up every morning and wallow in the misery that’s the police department. How stupid do you think I am? Be honest for once, and apply a human scale, the one not including you. You’re only happy there when Hank lets you play with his chemistry set, and at no other time.”

His hands tighten and stay taut, to the point of trembling. “I enjoy solving the cases,” he whispers.

“But you hate the people there. You stay because every time you try to leave Moira looks at you with those doe eyes and for a few seconds you don’t feel like a complete freak. You feel like she really likes you as a person, like she doesn’t think you’re the creepiest fuck she’s ever met, murderers included, and you know this! Everybody in the station thinks so! There’s a betting pool on when you’ll finally snap and murder everybody and okay, Moira isn’t in it, but that’s because she has a giant fucking stick up her ass. You know all this because you know everything about everybody and you still get up and show up every morning, like a masochistic moron.” God, that hurt to say, but was it awesome to finally get out, or what?

Except now that it was out Raven had no choice but to square her shoulders and soldier on. “I’m not asking for your permission, Charles. I’m asking you to look at me. Look at me properly and tell me I’m weak, that I can’t handle police work. Look at me and tell me I’m a child.”

She kept her gaze locked on him, until he looked up and looked back. Her heart constricted at the expression on his face, but she held his gaze. She was not weak. She was not.

“I’d rather have you hate me then join,” he said. There was defeat in his voice and that was how Raven knew that he saw, perhaps for the first time, that she was no longer the little girl who needed protecting from the world.

“I will never hate you,” she said. “I love you. But I will do this.”

Charles smiled and only then did Raven notice the phone in his hand. “Mrs. Hightower, this is Charles Xavier. My apologies, I know it’s late, but this is important. My sister has filed an application for the department. I need you to reject it.”

Raven heard a female voice on the other end of the line, but couldn’t make out the words. It may have been due to the roar of furious elephants thundering down the middle of her soul.

“I understand. Thank you. I appreciate it. Good evening to you.” Charles disconnected and let the phone fall to the couch.

Raven burned. She, the elephants, the roar and the savannah they needed to gallop, along, very possibly, with sense.

“How dare you?” she asked in a voice which would have been a scream but for the volume. “You’re my brother! You’re supposed to want me to be happy!”

“I’m supposed to protect you.”

“You’re just like Kurt.”

Charles’ face went whiter.

“You’re gonna deny, but you’re just like him. You want me to be your little puppet, always doing what you say. You think you’re doing it for me, but it’s bullshit! Like you know what’s best for me, you know jack shit. I’m a person and you don’t get a say in how I live my life.” She took a deep breath. “Fuck you, Charles.”

In under a minute she was in her room, dragging yesterday’s leggings up her legs, shrugging on a sweater and grabbing her bag. Before another minute passed, she was out the door and running into the night. Charles didn’t even call her name.

*****

Erik had fallen into a light sleep halfway through The Master and Margarita. He woke a few minutes past twelve. It was dark outside, and the few stars bright enough to fight their way through the light pollution were flickering weakly in the bruise-colored sky. Erik switched the lamp on and smiled. It was a private smile, one he never let anyone see. The sight of his unevenly purple walls, made all the more wriggly with the uneven lighting, never failed to bring it out.

He grabbed his phone off the floor to confirm what he already knew about the hour and found a text waiting for him.

Just let me know shes safe, he read. What the hell, Charles? A missing apostrophe in a text message? What is this strange alternative universe?

Then someone knocked on the door.

Erik was certain he knew who it was; he would have known even if he couldn’t hear the clicking of heels which should be high, but weren’t confusing the feet they were adorning. He opened the door with the gun at his side even so.

“Hi. Can I come in?” Raven Xavier said. There were tears in her eyes and an angry, locked, expression on her face, somewhat at odds with the rapid breathing, a result of a long run, no doubt.

Erik moved out of the way without a word. Already he was punching in a reply to Charles. Just walked in fine.

“Thank you.” Raven strode in, took the bag off her shoulder, toed off her sneakers – why the hell was she wearing sneakers in the first place, wasn’t that a social suicide these days? – and looked around. “This is it? This is where you live?”

“So the evidence would suggest.”

The locks must have loosened because half her muscles twitched. “The purple is an eyesore.”

“Blame your brother.”

“Charles painted your apartment?”

“It used to be white, then he invited himself in.”

“Okay, maybe it’s an improvement over white, but purple? What the hell? You should have picked green, or blue – oh, turquoise. Pale turquoise with uneven electric blue accents. I bet it would be awesome.”

Raven was Charles’ sister, absolutely, Erik thought as he put the gun away, into the closet. She was already calculating the area of the walls and spacing the accents, all with a glance. “What are you doing here, Raven?”

She didn’t answer for a long time, choosing instead to scuff a bare toe against the floor. “I fought with Charles.”

No fucking shit, girl. “Is this all you’re going to do today, state the obvious?”

“Fuck you. You’re just like him, with the mind-reading.” Her bag landed on the floor and Raven kicked it into the corner. “I’ve had just about enough of the mind-reading.”

“It doesn’t take Charles to notice you’ve been crying and you haven’t fled to him for comfort. What I want to know is why you came here. I barely know you.” Not that it was going to be a night of making sense, he could tell.

“I applied for a position in the WPD. Charles just called the chief commissioner to get them to reject my application, and don’t you dare tell me I don’t have the first clue what I’m getting into.” Raven stalked to him, stabbing him in the chest with a surprisingly sharp fingernail. “I know. I know perfectly well what I’m doing. I know it’s horrible and bad and muggers on every corner and I know about the mortality rate among officers. I’m not stupid.” She continued the stabby assault, punctuating every other word with a sharp jab, until Erik held up his hands and stepped back.

“Did I say anything?”

It was like she didn’t even notice he was in the room. “Charles thinks it’s all nice and well for him to go out and risk his life and leave me locked home, like I’m safer there. He’s an idiot.”

And back to stating the obvious it was. “He can be.”

“I just– He was looking after me all my life. I get he doesn’t want all the hard work to go to waste, but honestly, what was he expecting? He taught me to fight dirty, he taught me how to tell a mugger from a drunk, he taught me how to walk across a room full of people and not be noticed – granted, I’m better at it now than he will ever be, but he taught me the basics. He taught me how to look at a room and pick out the bits that matter. It’s like he spent most of my life teaching me to be a police officer. Why doesn’t he get that I need to do this, then?”

She was staring at him, begging for understanding. She looked nothing like Charles, yet Erik felt smothered by the affection and concern all the same. “Why did he join up?”

If the question was a ball, Raven would have swatted it out of the air. It took a moment before she started talking. “Kurt, mostly. He was, well, a controlling dickhead doesn’t even begin to describe it. His whole family was police officers, right back to the settler era, or so he claimed. Cain – his son, my half-brother – was a lowlife, though he hid it well. He got into WPD, right, but I don’t think he would have been any good, even if he didn’t go totally nuts, so Kurt got it into his head to groom me into it.

“You can imagine Charles wasn’t happy with that, so made a deal, beats me how, he sucks at talking to people. But the bottom line was that Kurt would let me do what I wanted, and Charles would join the CSI. He was studying genetics and biophysics anyway, so a few extra classes and he had all the necessary qualifications for processing crime scenes. Except, you know Charles. He showed up on his first day, one-upped every detective on the scene making himself seventeen enemies in the process, and they wouldn’t let him go. Not that it’s a shock, he is that good.” She smiled and pressed a thumb to her mouth in an effort to hide the smile. Erik waited.

“The supreme irony being, of course, that I actually do want to be a detective.” Her hair fell over her face. “I’m– I don’t want to hurt him. I really don’t. But this is something I want to do, and he always said I should do what I wanted with my life. Isn’t that a great joke?”

“It’s not very funny,” Erik said wryly.

Raven dithered, moving from one leg to the other and back, wringing her hands until finally she spoke, “Don’t you have chairs in this place? What kind of a person doesn’t even have chairs?”

“I rarely entertain visitors. Sit on the counter in the kitchen, or the floor.” On second thought, not the floor. The skirt she was wearing was very short and Erik didn’t particularly need to see whether she remembered underwear in her haste to get out the door, leggings or no.

“You’re a terrible host. You could offer me a drink.”

“I’ve got whiskey or beer.”

“No vodka?”

“Sorry.”

“Beer, then.”

Erik opened the fridge, population: beer, picked one from the back, popped the cap with the faucet and passed it to her. Raven took a professional swig, swallowed and cocked her head.

“Won’t you tell me what a horrible idea it is? How young I am, how much danger I’m gonna be in? How Darwin got shot last week, through little fault of his own?”

“No.”

Raven let the bottle drop, surprised. “Why not?”

“Safety is relative. You can get shot walking down the streets.”

“It’s more likely if I was a cop.”

“True.”

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you going to agree with Charles?”

“No.”

“Why the hell not? You’re best buds now, I hear.”

“Because he is not responsible for you,” Erik said firmly. “He has to accept that. If you want to do risk your life to do what you want to do, it’s on your head, not his.”

Raven snorted into her beer. “Good luck trying to convince Charles he’s not responsible for everything that goes wrong in this state.”

“I’ve decided to start off with easier endeavors, like turning water into wine.” Erik opened another bottle and toasted the third party of this conversation. Funny, how even when Charles was absent he was still fucking there.

“It’s been done before,” Raven said.

“I’m Jewish. I have no conclusive proof.” Erik gave Raven a wry smile and she responded in kind. “You have a right to your own decisions. For what it’s worth, I think you’ll be a better officer than he is. A better team player, certainly.”

Raven sighed and looked out the window, suddenly pensive. She was toying with the bottle, smearing the condensation all over the label. “He hates it, really. He knows he scares most people more than the murderers do and it’s killing him. He’d be way happier if he was locked up in his library solving Sudoku all day.”

Erik shrugged. He couldn’t see Charles devoting more than three minutes to Sudoku as a past-time, them being so obvious a riddle thus hardly a riddle at all. “He catches killers. Saves the world one murderer at a time. I figure that’s why he stays.”

“He’s an idiot,” she said hotly and bit her lip. She was going to cry again, Erik thought, but instead she emptied half the bottle and burped like a champion.

“Everyone is allowed to be an idiot, it’s a free country.” He raised his own bottle in a mocking salute. “To idiocy.”

“Shit. I better call him,” Raven said. “He must be going nuts, if he hasn’t launched search parties already.”

“He texted me just before you got here. He knows you’re okay.”

Raven went from lip-biting wide-eyed woolen ball of empathy to a scowling grump, who rolled her eyes a lot. “I hate his mind-reading.”

“It comes in handy. Are you staying the night?” Not that Erik would throw her out in the cold at this hour, given the astronomical odds she beat just to arrive in one piece, but a request would be nice.

“Can I?” Raven gave him a look he just knew Charles taught her – a look of a devious tomcat attempting and succeeding at puppy-eyes, solely because it was a devious fuck. “I think we both need a little space.”

“And for that reason you invaded my single room. Inspired.”

Raven winced. “In my defense I thought you were living like a normal person. With chairs.”

“Chairs are overrated. You can stay, but don’t make this a regular occurrence, I’m not a hotel.”

“I’d say, with this decor.” Raven propped her hands on her hips and made a show of looking around. “Are you both blind?”

Asked the woman wearing a seatbelt for a skirt. At least Erik could dress himself and not die of exposure in the process. “I don’t mind the purple.”

“You’re a guy,” she said, torn between incredulity and condescension.

“I’m entitled to an opinion about colors.”

“Not when it’s so blatantly wrong.”

“Don’t you have things to do in the morning?” he asked.

“My shift doesn’t start until twelve.”

“I get up at six. You need to be ready to leave by eight.”

Raven huffed. “You’re no fun.”

“Ongoing murder investigation. That’s not fun.”

“Right.” Raven looked around the apartment one more time and her face indicated she was registering the implications of its emptiness. “Oh crap. Where can I sleep?”

Too bad it only occurred to Erik now, too. He sighed. “Take the mattress.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“How many nights have you slept on hardwood floor? I’m guessing not many.” He slept a few on naked rocks, which was considerably more fun, because rocks had hollows into which a spine could be poured. Vastly preferable.

“It’s not like we can’t share. It’s a double.” Raven nudged the mattress with her toe, throwing a coy look over her shoulder.

“Charles will gut me.”

Raven reacted to the off-hand comment like he set her kitten on fire and set it on her mother. “He’s not unhinged!”

“Have you seen him mad?” Erik said with a quirk of his lip, which seemed to be enough to settle the ruffled feathers. “Bathroom’s through there.”

“Thanks.”

She disappeared to wash up, and Erik contemplated the unhelpfulness of his closet. There was a fleece blanket, old as time itself, which would still be better than the floor. Not even a parka to make it bearable. Fuck his life. He spread the blanket opposite the mattress, and hopped in place for three minutes, to relax his muscles, or at least confuse them into not noticing the hardwood until after he’s fallen asleep.

He was flat on his back with his eyes closed, when Raven walked out of the bathroom.

He didn’t bother looking when she knelt by him. “I meant it about the bed,” she said.

“I meant it about Charles,” he tried to respond, but before he got halfway through with the personal pronoun her petal-soft lips were against his, moving gently with the words.

She hit the floor a fraction of a second later. To her credit, and her future career as a sexual predator, she landed on her side and was already twisting into a crouch by the time he kicked the blanket away. She wasn’t joking about the black belt – for all the stupidity required of an aspiring officer, Raven had a firm grasp on her own abilities.

“Raven, go to bed,” Erik said firmly.

“Why?” She straightened from the half-crouch, still coiled and ready for an attack. Erik couldn’t help but approve.

“Because I have no intention of sleeping with you. Thank you,” he added as an afterthought, “But no.”

She flushed a deep red, an effect thoroughly ruined by the night. Erik averted his gaze when she stood, clad only in the T-shirt she was wearing when she got in, minus a bra, and the underwear she hadn’t forgotten after all, and wrapped the duvet around herself. He wasn’t blind, for fuck’s sake.

“You don’t have to sleep on the floor,” she said. “I promise I won’t try anything.”

It was tempting. Erik eyed the unforgiving floor, which already tried to claw through his ribs, but there were so many reasons this would have been a dumb idea, not just because “I shared a bed with your extremely attractive sister. I had her tits right there, next to me, and I did nothing. You believe me, don’t you?” wasn’t a conversation he was willing to ever have with anyone, not unless he got laid for his trouble. Not that Charles wouldn’t believe him and he probably would get laid for his trouble.

Huh.

Even so. “I don’t react well to being startled. I could hurt you before I was awake.”

Raven cocked her head. “What, really? I thought that only happened in the movies.”

“Trust me. I have PTSD coming out of my ears. You don’t want to startle me.”

“Huh. Sorry.” Then, in a smaller voice, she added, “You really gonna be okay over there?”

“I’ll live, but try not to fight with Charles again. It’s not going to be comfortable.”

Raven curled on the mattress, becoming a miserable mound of unhappiness instead of a sexy woman. A cold shower by any other name, Erik thought wryly and made himself less uncomfortable on the floor.

“Charles is going to be very upset tomorrow,” Raven whispered into the sheets.

“We will sort it out.”

“Thanks,” she said, tucked in and curled on her side, when he was on the verge of sleep. What little light there was in the room reflected in her eyes and Erik would be annoyed, because it was vital the he fall asleep as soon as possible, but the warm regard obvious in her gaze made it hard to snap at her. “For liking Charles. He likes you so much, he’s so much happier since you came here – I’m really glad. He’s very lonely.”

Erik couldn’t help staring at her. She was a nice girl, and nice girls didn’t try to seduce their brother’s lovers (or whatever they could be called – there was far too little sex for that label to apply and Erik refused to be called anybody’s boyfriend), which could only mean she had no idea they were whatever the hell they were. She didn’t think Charles could be interested at all, unless this was a bizarre revenge attempt on her part.

No, Erik thought when her glowing eyes finally closed and her breathing evened. She didn’t do this to hurt Charles. He hasn’t told her and she hasn’t made the connection on her own, and while the sex itself was new, everything leading to it wasn’t. Erik wondered what that implied for their future. He had very little by way of definite plans, and Charles, being Charles, was well aware of it.

He wondered if he started including Charles in his uncertain future yet. He wondered if Charles included him in his.

Chapter Text

Raven was woken by a curse so inventively filthy she was shocked to feel no heavenly rain of soapy water. She opened her eyes to an unfamiliar white ceiling, sans soapy clouds of retribution, one that was both far too high above her head and reached far too far along the walls, to melt into a vivid, fluctuating purple. What the hell was the decorator thinking, she thought, before the story behind it downloaded.

“Didn’t mean to wake you.” Erik was rising from his blanket muttering curses under his breath. Seeing that at least on in five was aimed in Raven’s general direction, yeah, she wasn’t buying the denials. “I’m buying a couch tonight.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said honestly. “I really didn’t mean to kick you out of your own bed.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He stood up straight and stretched upwards into a beanpole of a man with way too many angles to comprehend. Raven didn’t bother to look away. Even in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, with his hair mussed from sleep and blanket lines etched into the ginger stubble on his cheek, he was a sight to behold when he went through a routine of warm-up exercises, some of which included delightful bending.

“So… You really don’t want to have sex with me?” she asked, just in case.

“Yes.”

Raven fluttered her eyelashes. “Is that a yes or a no to sex?”

“It’s a no, Raven,” he said, frowning as though his family line has been gravelly offended.

Sheesh, dude, get laid, she thought. I know a good gay bar. Out loud, however, she said, “I know, I know. I had to double check.” Maybe when she got to know him better, she’d suggest it. Boys got so touchy when you implied that maybe dicks were an option, too.

“Do you normally run from Charles and proposition strange men when you get in a tiff?” Erik bent his elbow and pulled at it with his other hand, trying to tuck it in behind his head. “As kinks go, it’s an interesting one. Does he get horribly upset and spank you when he finds out?”

“He’s my brother, you sick freak,” Raven shrieked, because even if the words were tame, the lascivious smirk he directed her way was about as domesticated as a pack of Twilight fans on their way to see the unveiling of Robert Pattison’s new glitter collection. Not that Raven knew anything about the franchise. She gleaned some information, here and there, while at college. Complete accident. She would have chucked a pillow, or something heavier, at Erik’s important bits if she had one at hand.

Erik merely threw his head back and laughed.

Raven huffed. “And no, I don’t, not that’s any of your business.”

“I’m sure you can sell the concept to Charles.” Again with the grin: one part grizzly, one part shark, one part Jack the Ripper – Erik Lehnsherr, everybody. “Either way you might want to curb the impulse when you become an officer. It doubles the risks.”

“You’re not exactly a stranger.” Raven wondered whether it really would be that easy to talk Charles into incest. If she made it sound all logical and important. “You sick fuck,” she added appreciatively.

“We’ve met once before and I’m fairly sure I gave you a heart attack. Plus, you are aware that I am a sick fuck.” He bundled up the fleece blanket, cursed it, and shoved it into the back of the closet, far enough to imply he never wanted to see it again.

“Ah, details.” Raven shook out her hair and threw it back. She would miss the luxurious bundle of curls any Disney princess would die for, but if she was going to be running after perps on a regular basis, it had to go. Maybe she’d dye it red, for good measure. Ginger power and all that. “Charles trusts you. That makes you okay.”

“Charles also suspects me of being our serial killer,” Erik said, like it was a ringing endorsement.

“Yeah, but you are our serial killer now, which means you’re okay.” She couldn’t resist fluttering her eyelashes again, which garnered the dubious result of Erik raising a brow and escaping into the bathroom, the coward. Charles wouldn’t gut him, not really – for all his crazy Raven was twenty-three, thus way past the age of consent and legal majority. She had long since discovered that the secret to getting laid lay in not bringing guys home, where Charles could nitpick them until they weren’t quite so hot anymore.

Yeah, fuck smart-ass older brothers, she thought, fiddling with her phone. She took a deep breath and his speed-dial.

“Charles?” she said when he picked up (second ring, damn it. He must have been sleeping with the damn thing). “Hey.”

“Hi,” he said.

“You sound horrible.” He probably looked horrible, too, all floppy, unwashed hair and dark circles on his face.

“I was worried about you,” he said softly, in the gentle scolding tone.

Raven bit her lip to squash the anger. She might say something she only partially meant, then, and that wouldn’t end well for either of them. “Erik said he let you know I was fine.”

“He did.”

“Then you shouldn’t have worried.” The cotton sheets were warm and soft under her fingertips, retaining the creases after she pinched them into shape. If she knew Charles, he was pinching something papery too, right at this very minute. She was proven right when, after another moment silence, she heard the rustle of paper. “Charles, get some sleep. I’m sure the station will survive without you for another day.”

“I’ll catch a nap. I’ll see you tonight, okay?”

Raven closed her eyes. She hated it when he asked. Hated it even more than when he stated. It was a never ending circle of hate that came back to hate its own butt. Not her butt, naturally – her butt was amazing and Charles’ wasn’t bad either, insofar as a blood-relation can have an opinion about these things – but a butt nonetheless. “Yes. I’ll cook.”

“Until then.” Charles tried to say something more, but didn’t. Raven disconnected and propped her forehead on her wrist.

When she looked up Erik was watching her from the bathroom door, looking even more fuckable wet and half-clothed. “Something you wanted to say, Dr. Phil?”

Erik, sans the ginger stubble, rubbed his chin with something clearly meant to be the towel, if only because he was using it to wipe moisture off his skin. “I hope you brought your own towels,” was all he had to contribute.

“I didn’t exactly plan this.” She didn’t have a change of clothes, either. Or her makeup kit. Or shoes, because sneakers weren’t shoes. The leggings didn’t match the skirt, now that she was rational and got a proper look. She might as well have come around naked!

“Your problem, then.”

This was why Raven returned home that morning, in late fall, with wet hair wrapped in a black T-shirt. “What kind of a moron only has one towel,” she groused to herself as she opened the door to her and Charles’ apartment and made a beeline for the bathroom for an actual towel, because they were people who owned more than one towel. Towels were like contingency plans: it made sense to have more than one. Unless you were Charles and Plan A was the only plan you devised, needed or implemented. Goddamned Charles. Goddamned Erik, too, for causing himself backache for the rest of the day. It made sense to own a goddamned couch! Raven fixed herself a bowl of ice cream and collapsed onto theirs with a huff. Asshole.

It wasn’t like he didn’t earn enough, she thought, even if couches weren’t dirt-cheap. The mattress he slept on was expensive, if she was any judge, and the beer he stuffed his fridge with wasn’t exactly cheap, either. One could argue that he spared expenses to make way for the odd luxury item, but he didn’t seem like the type.

No, Erik was all or nothing and that was intense, that was intoxicating.

No wonder Charles liked him so much.

Hello, Satan, granddaddy of all evil ideas, she thought, grinning at the TV like it was her job to frighten the neighbors through the brick walls while making no sound. Now here’s a power to be utilized for evil… by which she meant good, of course, if good meant breaking Charles’ heart and doing the one thing he didn’t want her to do. Except maybe becoming a crack whore, he wouldn’t be all that happy about that, either. The facts were that Charles liked Erik, the first person to not act like he was the devil, and thus would likely be malleable to suggestions made by said batshit crazy supersoldier.

If there was one thing Charles taught her, it was that facts combined, correlated and beget new facts, and all of them formed a landscape, and the landscape could be navigated. With that in mind Raven picked up her phone and thumbed through the contact list until she found Erik.

*****

It was a boring day, filled with more paperwork that Erik had hoped to see in his lifetime, but was nonetheless assured this was a typical Thursday. The only irregularity was Charles’ haggard appearance, which fortunately managed to blur out at the edges throughout the day and disappear altogether before the following morning, likely as a result of a night’s sleep. Charles managed to keep a firm hand on himself, nonetheless, and a combination of his willpower and other officer’s unwillingness to be in close proximity assured that Erik was the only one who knew everything was not well. He would have known even if he wasn’t sitting directly across from Charles all day, because he kept getting increasingly aggressive texts from Raven, who’d taken to begging, cajoling and pleading for him to change Charles’ mind.

“Don’t let her bully you into bullying me,” Charles told him around ten in the morning, when his phone buzzed for the third time that day.

“Why do you assume it’s Raven?” Erik asked picking up the phone and finding that for once it wasn’t Raven, but the cellphone company, promising a better deal and coverage for the low cost of $12.99 a month.

The news of having to tell Charles he was wrong was somewhat lost when the phone buzzed again, this time delivering a promise of cake and pie and muffins and a bottle of Jack Daniels, if Charles’ mind was changed.

Charles was smiling over the edge of his report, with his gaze fixed on the cell. “The expression on your face told me as much.”

“What about it?”

“You’re fond of her. Your eyes go soft.” Charles spoke quietly and with enough distance and neutrality to grant himself a temporary citizenship of Switzerland. Erik’s eyes narrowed automatically and he leaned across the desk.

“I’ve no interest in Raven,” he said slowly, taking care to add an extra helping of “you dolt” into the tone.

“I know.” It was faint, but Charles’ finger twitched against the paper. He looked up at Erik’s face and added, “She’s interested in you, though.”

“Did you lose your supreme mind-reading ability overnight?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then why are we having this conversation?”

Charles shrugged, and for such a limited movement, mostly concealed by the thick fabric of a tailored jacket, the shrug was very eloquent. It implied, among others, that this wouldn’t have been the first time the dubious charms of being involved with Westchester’s freakshow detective had turned out to be less of an incentive than his sister’s allures of relative normalcy, at least as far as the mental faculties were concerned. Raven had plenty of quirks to scare away men all on her own, insane brother notwithstanding, if the stunts of the night they fought was any indication. More importantly, Erik found himself wondering about the last time Charles had been in an actual relationship and how it ended. Going by Raven’s delighted reaction to the news of Charles liking him, liking anyone and being liked back, even if she thought it was platonic, it had to be both a long time ago and unpleasant.

“How come you can call the chief and get her application blocked, anyway?” he asked. “You aren’t that important to the force. You can’t tell me a flawless solve rate is the way to ruling the goddamned city.”

Charles flushed an attractive shade of pink and made a valiant effort to scratch the freckles off his nose. “You didn’t look at my file,” he said. “Why?”

“I like surprises.”

“I’m… There’s more than one reason to keep me on the force. I don’t think they would have bothered with my skills if it wasn’t for the fact I’m the heir to the Xavier estate. That way they have little compulsion about asking for donations whenever necessary and I’m shall we say under control. My family has owned half of Westchester at one point. It’s not quite so bad now, of course, but the influence the name still has is unfortunate.”

Erik hadn’t known, which was, in retrospect, idiotic. He should have suspected. Suddenly, a lot of the weirdness around Charles made sense: the designer jacket, the expensive shoes, the fact that he got a desk all to himself in the crowded bullpen, the fact the commissioner was treating him, and Erik by extension, with kid gloves (honestly, a week’s suspension for knowingly endangering a civilian’s life for no reason at all?). When you don’t know what the problem is, always assume money.

“Well, you can pick up the next crate of beer, then,” Erik said. “I have it on good authority the purple is an eyesore and light turquoise would be a lot better. She also said something about electric blue, but how is that even a color I have no idea.”

Charles smiled at him, no doubt equally confused about the fact that electromagnetic properties could now be assigned to colors. “It might be the kind of blue that makes your eyes hurt,” he said. “Raven loves blue. You should have seen her childhood room. If you weren’t careful, you got bowled over by vertigo and altophobia – it was like walking through the sky.”

Erik had no personal experience with vertigo or altophobia, as his long career of jumping out of high places with the flimsiest of securities could attest. Still, there was something disturbing about the notion of a room so blue it made people reel. “She grew out of it, I trust?”

“Her room is still blue. So are the bathrooms. The kitchen and the living room aren’t, but both have plenty of accessories in every shade between green and blue. She exchanges them frequently. I think there might be a whole closet dedicated to cushions.”

“You have closets dedicated to cushions,” Erik said. “In Westchester, which is the most crowded city in the – well, in five hundred mile radius. Where the hell do you live?”

Charles fidgeted, before throwing him an apologetic glance and muttering, “We share an apartment close to the center.” Another frantic glance, a transparent plea to change the subject, followed by even more fidgeting, and all of sudden Erik really wanted to get out of the station and find them a horizontal surface that wasn’t a floor, rid the of clothes altogether and see how the situation develops.

Still, an apartment in the city center… Erik feared to imagine the rent and he always thought his financial situation was more than comfortable. “I will Google you later.” If it came out low and suggestive, well, he couldn’t be held responsible. In fact, he would happily accept the blame, because Charles smiled at him in genuine amusement, and it was the brightest thing he’d seen in a long time. He hated to ruin it, but there was the plea for a subject change.

“I think you’re being unfair to Raven,” Erik said.

“I’m sorry?”

“I don’t plan to bully you.” Erik held his hands up and cursed the phone for signaling yet another text. “My opinion on the subject is that she is a grown woman and she should be allowed to make her own choices. She told me you specifically went to work for the WPD so that she wouldn’t have to, and I’m sure she appreciates the gesture. Don’t ruin that by forcing her to pick a future that would make you happy.”

“I don’t want that!” Charles dropped the files onto the desk, half-angry, half-furious, a whole lot of fuckable. Erik might have found his mouth dry, all of sudden. “I want her to be happy. I just want her to be safe more.”

“If you wanted her to be safe you’d have her move out of Westchester a long time ago.”

“People are the same everywhere.” Charles glared down at the offensive paperwork, gripping the fragile edges a lot tighter than necessary.

“But the crime rates aren’t.” Erik pulled the files away from Charles’ hand. “You need to take a step back and let her figure out what she wants, even if it isn’t something you planned, or wanted, for her. Kids don’t always grow up to be what you bring them up to do.” Don’t I know it, he thought, thinking of his mother and her views on the military.

“I’m her brother, not her father.”

“You’re significantly older than her and I’m not sure either of you is aware of the distinction between the two.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry. She’s–”

“She’s a grown woman, Charles. Let her try. If she doesn’t like it, then you can save her by calling whoever it is you call, Noah, Moses, whatever. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to wait until she asks for help before supplying it.”

Charles didn’t look convinced.

“Look at it this way,” Erik said, leaning forward far enough to dig the edge of the desk into his ribs. He was thinking of his mother’s face when he told her he was joining the army, how she wore the same resigned, even defeated, expression then as Charles was wearing now. In a way she had a point – she’d lost her husband to war effort and now her only child was following in his footsteps, taking care to join the unit with the most ridiculously hazardous mission statement. The irony, not wholly lost on Erik, was that her life ended violently before he was even seriously injured. He would find it hilarious, if her death wasn’t a raw would in his chest even now. He stamped down on the memory, her face when he’d seen her last, across the airport terminal. Anya had been standing on a plastic chair, with her Hello Kitty carry-on clutched close to her chest, as they both waved him goodbye.

Erik gritted his teeth and continued talking, forcing the ghosts back into the dark fringes of his mind. “You’ve single-handedly managed to turn around her outlook on a profession she despised by association.”

Charles was, if anything, less amenable to this particular revelation. “You’re saying I managed to fail utterly at something that was my life’s goal.”

“You need to sort out your priorities, if that’s the case.”

“My priorities are in perfect working order.”

“Clearly,” Erik drawled, giving the statement all the respect it deserved.

Charles glared at him, but since his glare at the best of times carried the very same threat than that of a wet, hungry kitten, Erik would sooner gather him to his chest and coo than be intimidated. Admittedly, this might at some point get him killed, because one needed only to see Charles infuriated to know antagonizing him was not a sane course of action. So few people ever got to see Charles angry; it was probably for the best. Erik managed it once and couldn’t get the sight out of his mind ever since.

Strange, how everyone in the station got the right idea for the wrong reasons. Everyone feared Charles, because he knew much more than he should, understood more than all other people did, and didn’t seem to grasp that it was not acceptable in society, when they should have feared him because he would destroy them with the same ease he told them their preference for hand-knitted mittens, when pushed far enough. Erik wasn’t an idiot. He made a career out of hanging around dangerous people and Charles could easily run laps around most of the monsters Erik put down, should he get in a mood.

“Thank you, Erik,” Charles said, meanwhile, letting out a long breath and camouflaging the roaring Cthulu with the air of an absent-minded professor. “However you will note that I, too, am a grown man and I am capable of making my own choices.”

“None so blind as those who won’t see,” Erik said with a fake cheer, because if they kept it up a little longer insults would be hurled.

“Your proverb for the day?”

“You could say that. Did you find anything?” Erik indicated the files, slightly creased in places, and fired off an explicit text to Raven, suggesting sexual congress with an American president and cessation of text messages.

“No, everything is coming up clean. It’s really frustrating.”

A return message indicated Raven would happily fuck said president, if Erik hopped to it and changed Charles’ mind.

“Detective Xavier?”

Both Charles and Erik looked up. Angel was standing over the desk, her lower lip trembling. “I’m sorry, I just got a call. Marvin is dead.”

Charles dropped the papers he was holding and stared at her in shock. “He was murdered by our serial killer.”

Angel started. Her hand flew up to cover her mouth and for a split second Erik could swear she was panicking as she looked at Charles and though something along the lines of “you know, you knew, you did it.” The moment passed, however, and when she spoke again she was almost calm. “Yes, I mean, I don’t know – the doorman just called. Housekeeping found him in his bed. They are calling you to the scene.”

Erik couldn’t quite get his throat to work properly. Marvin. Marvin couldn’t be dead. Could he?

“We’re on our way,” Charles said.

*****

Marvin was, unquestionably, murdered by the serial killer they were after. The complete lack of evidence was more than enough proof of that. Charles had Hank take samples of everything that looked like it might have been touched in the past two weeks, then he stood at the center of the bedroom and stared, letting the interior soak into his mind and assemble into a coherent picture. Crime scenes were like handwritten letters and this one was written by a meticulous man with clear ideas of what he wanted in life and how he wanted it.

It was also, unfortunately, written on a typewriter.

“Detective?” There was a hand on Charles’ shoulder, barely touching, wary of coming in contact, wary of what could be revealed through the contact.

“I’m sorry. Yes?”

“We may have a witness,” Alex Summers said. “I asked the lady next door if she’d seen something, and it turns out she might have. I dunno if it’s going to be worth a damn, she is a cat lady. I figure you best speak with her.”

Charles smiled. “Cat ladies can be quite observant. Good thinking, Alex.”

“Did we finally get a lead?” Erik asked, underlining something on a piece of paper he pilfered from the bottom of the printing paper pile. Charles made a mental note to buy him a proper notebook later, if only so that his crime scenes would stop being tampered with. Thankfully Erik had the forethought to come armed with latex gloves, blue for some reason, and Charles spent a long minute watching the slender, blue fingers dance across the serrated marks on the wooden desk. “These look old, months or years even. No help there. Looks like someone didn’t know how to use a screwdriver.”

Charles caught himself staring and shook his head. No time. Not now. This was a crime scene, his crime scene. “The lady in the apartment next door might have seen something. I’ll go talk to her now,” he said and walked out of the apartment.

There was an officer occupying the staircase and an elderly lady with a calico kitten in her arms, reddish indentations on the sides of her nose, a touch of rosy powder on her cheeks and in her curled white hair. A cat lady indeed. Charles smiled. “Ma’am? Officer Summers tells me you might have seen something.”

The lady was wringing her hands, displacing the kitten with each move. Eventually the critter climbed her dress to perch on her shoulder and hiss at the world in general. “I’m not sure if it’s important.”

“Anything you might have seen might be. Would you tell me what happened?”

“I was up at four, to get a glass of water, then I thought I might as well change the water in the bowls, cat’s love fresh water, you see, and as I was rinsing them I heard the door opposite open. My kitchen is really close to the door, and I thought to myself, that’s odd, Marvin never has guests that late. He sleeps from ten to six, every day, bless the poor boy, he is very accurate.” A tearful smile took over her wrinkled face. “He brings me chocolates every year on my birthday, like clockwork, every single year, seven fifty he’s there. So I went to look and there was a man walking out. He had something black, like a bag, but it was mostly empty, hanging from his shoulder.”

A witness! An actual witness, however unreliable, to have seen the murderer walk out of the apartment of the victim! “Can you describe him?” Charles asked, and behind him Alex ceased breathing, for fear of missing a crucial word.

The lady pursed her lips, feigning remembrance, when everything she’d seen throughout the day, up to and including the schedules of her neighbors, was written down in her diary. “He was tall, from what I could see. Darkish hair. Not a big man, though, no. Slender. I couldn’t see his face very well, but it seemed sharp. He wore a leather jacket, though, that stuck in my mind, and black shirt underneath. A sweater, I think. His hands were blue. I mean, he wore gloves, of course. They were blue.”

They should find a sketch artist, Charles thought, already reaching for his phone. 962 108 120, Rogers, Steven. Best portrait artist in the city, unfortunately on holiday this week.

“Charles,” Erik said coming out of Marvin’s apartment. “Miss Frost wants to take him away. Are you done?”

“Oh, he looked just like him.” The lady beamed as she pointed at Erik, overjoyed at being able to help, a little apprehensive at the resemblance, but too proud of having made the connection to withdraw. She didn’t notice half the corridor had frozen in shock and continued to babble on, unconcerned. “Not you, of course, detective, but you know what it looks like, through the peep hole, everyone is the same if they dress alike. That man wore a very similar jacket.”

Alex was watching Erik with his eyes as wide as saucers. “Dude,” he said quietly.

“What?”

“She just pointed at you and said you’re the suspect!”

“Thank you, Mrs. Wickham. We will contact you if we have any further questions.” Charles offered her a tight smile and made sure her door was locked. “Inside,” he told the rest of them and indicated Marvin’s apartment. “Thank your lucky stars she is too old to properly appreciate the blogosphere, otherwise this would have been all over the internet in ten minutes. Alex, what on Earth were you thinking?”

“She said it, didn’t she?” The man pointed straight at Erik and glared at Charles, as though some great sweeping up was being committed here. “She looked at Lehnsherr and said hey, here you go, here is your suspect!”

“Mrs. Wickham did no such thing,” Charles told him with patience he didn’t have at the moment. There will be hell to pay for this later, when he was alone, but for now he would remain in control. “She said the man exiting Marvin’s apartment matched Erik’s general appearance.”

“Well, what more do you need? I read his file, he was in Special Forces, and they get trained for that kind of shit.” Alex clenched his fists and for a second Charles was intensely proud – the boy would make a fine detective one day, when he already knew to read the files of coworkers and connect facts on the fly. “He’s working with the police now and it’s not like the procedures are that complicated, right? If you remember to clean up after yourself and not leave obvious clues in stupid places, we can do jack shit, especially if you’re around to clean up stuff you’ve forgotten later.”

Leaping to conclusions would need to be eradicated, but they could work with what they had and then they would be up one more detective with great prospects.

“No offense, Officer Summers,” Erik drawled, unexpectedly tense, “but she didn’t point at me and didn’t say ‘here’s your killer.’ She said he was tall and vaguely dressed like me, which in this case means like me and half the city this time of the year. I don’t exactly stand out.”

Charles begged to differ. Erik stood out in a crowd the way a tiger stood out in a field of wheat. He might have worn stripes and he might have crouched among the grass, but he was still vehemently a tiger and not a space of unevenly growing straws and shiny pebbles. Everything about him attracted attention. The fact was that Erik moved like a man accustomed to danger; he moved through the city like the tiger moved through the grass, confident that the illusion will keep him safe, but aware that every move set him apart as a predator nonetheless. As far as the visuals went, however, Charles had to agree with Erik. The clothing he wore was generic. The jacket was of good quality, but not beyond the scope of the average citizen. He could have bought the gloves in every pharmacy and that was what most likely happened.

The question was, to what degree was the first obvious to everyone other than Charles? Would an old lady pick up on the aura of danger and find likeness there? Or was she merely reacting to the generic ensemble and similar body type, an association all the more dubious for her habit of wandering around the apartment without her heavy glasses?

“You did jump Marvin off a roof,” Alex said slowly. Charles was somewhat gratified to realize that there was no overt accusation in his voice anymore. Alex was controlled now, and aware that he was speculating. “That gives you a motive.”

“Onto a perfectly safe landing spot,” Erik shot back. “Besides, I jumped with him. How the fuck does it give me a motive? I never wanted the guy dead, why would I? He brings me expensive coffee.”

“You almost killed him once, isn’t that enough?”

“Alex, enough,” Charles said sharply.

“But detective–”

“I said enough. We don’t have nearly enough to even suggest Erik was involved.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Erik relax, if only a fraction. “Unfortunately, we do have something. Erik… where were you last night?”

Erik rolled his eyes. “Home. No, no one saw me. I live alone.”

“Then, Mr. Lehnsherr, I’m going to ask you to leave the scene.”

Erik froze and turned to Charles with a cold snarl, not at all unlike the tiger Charles just likened him to. “What the hell, Charles?” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Officer Summers has a point. You have the skills and the capability to perpetrate such a crime. In the case of Marvin we can connect you to the victim, and Marvin said he knew at least one of the others. Mrs. Wickham tells us that what almost certainly is our killer matches your general appearance. It is in the best interest of this investigation that you are removed from the scene for the time being.”

Erik stared at him like he couldn’t quite believe his ears. To be fair, Alex sported the exact same look. “Are you insane?”

“You have no alibi for any of the murders,” Charles pointed out reasonably.

“And you have nothing whatsoever tying me to this place.” Erik’s fists clenched. “I was never here, not once.”

“The video would have been edited or destroyed. It has been in all the other cases.”

“You can’t do this.”

Charles swallowed. “I must remain impartial.”

“Look at me,” Erik said stepping so close Charles felt his breath on his face. “I was never here. I didn’t kill Marvin, or the others. Look at me and tell me I’m lying.”

Charles was aware that everyone in the room was staring at him. He knew that, perhaps for the first time, Alex was thinking that Detective Xavier wasn’t that short either, especially to a short-sighted old lady who used cats for comparison, and that he, too, wore a brown jacket which could pass for leather in bad light, or through a peephole, that his hair could have been slicked back, and was in fact darker than Erik’s; he was thinking that of all the people he knew, of all the people he met through his work, Detective Xavier was the one who scared him the most.

“People always lie,” Charles said quietly, gazing into Erik’s narrowed eyes. “Their mouths always lie.”

“You can look me in the eye and accuse me of lying?”

“I’m not. I’m saying I don’t have enough facts to conclude that you are outside the pool of suspects. Since Officer Summers,” Alex jumped at being referred to, “noted you are likely to be considered a suspect…”

But Erik only had eyes for Charles. “Not enough facts? Charles, you know me.”

“I know that you are a soldier and this is the work of a highly organized man, whose business is killing, but who doesn’t derive much pleasure from it. I know that you fill these requirements better than any other soldier I have met. I know you are physically capable of doing what needed to be done here. I know you are capable of planning it in such a way as to not leave any traces. I know that there is not a shred of evidence that it was you. You say that this is the first time you’ve set foot in this room, but Erik, you’ve been to so many places, you are never surprised by your surroundings. It shows in the way you move. I’ve seen you walk into the station for the first time and you didn’t look like you were there for the first time, either. I can’t say for sure that you have never been here.” Charles hesitated. “I’m sorry. I never wanted it to be you.”

“It’s not me. You know it’s not me!”

“I don’t. I think it’s not you, but I don’t know, and it’s not enough.” Charles met Erik’s gaze. “I’m so sorry.”

“We’re not done,” Erik said, before he turned on his heel and walked away from the scene.

“Well, that was cold.” Miss Frost slipped the rubber gloves from her manicured fingers. “I never figured you capable of such coldness, Mr. Xavier. I am very impressed.”

“He is capable of killing. He knew Marvin; they exchanged friendly emails. The Polo building business is a strong indication he likes taking things too far. He has no alibi. I am, technically, his superior, since he is still on probation. I have the right to remove him from the investigation if I decide his presence is detrimental.”

Charles took a deep breath and looked around, at the carefully blank visage of Miss Frost and the twin apprehensive expression on Alex’s and Hank’s. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings,” he said firmly. “Erik Lehnsherr is not a suspect in this investigation. I am removing him from the scene because I cannot rule out the possibility, and I worry for my objectivity. Furthermore, he and the victim had a casually friendly relationship, which could in turn compromise his objectivity. Lastly, I don’t want this to get out of this room. Is this clear for you all?”

Emma shrugged. “Honey, you’re in charge here. You want to remove tall, ginger and mysterious, it’s your call. I’m here to carve the bodies.”

Alex nodded, though there was a hint of doubt in his gaze, one broad enough to sweep across everyone present, but focusing mainly on Charles. “Sure. From what I hear he’s a newbie, anyway, he doesn’t do enough parking tickets.”

Hank’s only response was a tight nod.

“Thank you.” With that, Charles turned on his heel and hurried downstairs and out of the building.

True to his word, Erik was circling on the pavement, acutely aware of the bars of the cage that were the busy street and brick walls. Any more imagination and Charles would have been able to see the striped tail following his angry turns a fraction of a second too late, casting a flare on each turn. “What the fuck was that supposed to be?” Erik asked by way of greeting, this close to grabbing Charles by the lapels of his shirt and shaking.

“I had every right to remove you from the investigation.”

“On the basis that I have the skill?” Erik snarled. “There’s ten million people in this city, at least a thousand has the very same skill set. Last I checked you also need motive and opportunity to make accusation.”

“You knew Marvin.” Charles said, aware that his idea of soothing wasn’t everybody’s and furthermore that Erik wasn’t everybody. “You exchanged personal information with him on a regular basis. That alone is grounds enough to send you away.”

“I replied to his emails from time to time. They weren’t exactly full of confidential information. Marvin treated me like a diary.”

“You were fond of him. It’s never a good idea to investigate a death to which you have emotional connections.” A fire-engine thundered past, yowling at the top of its voice, temporarily drowning all other sounds. The flickering light colored the edges of Erik’s set jaw, dragging them out of the background and onto the flimsy patina which coated the reality. Charles wished he could reach through it and touch the angry curve of Erik’s mouth, take the edges away, but this was a busy street and Erik was angry at him.

“Oh, like most of you didn’t like Marvin,” Erik growled, “with the amount of coffee he bought for you all. I can remain objective even in the face of Starbucks.”

“Liking a person doesn’t imply emotional attachment,” Charles said a shade above toneless.

“You honestly suspect me,” Erik said. His voice was equally as flat.

Charles avoided his gaze. “Suspect is too strong a word.”

“You didn’t remove me from the investigation because I might have liked Marvin. You removed me because you consider the possibility I might have killed him.”

“Of course. You make sense as his murderer. You don’t make sense as the murderer of the other two, but Marvin, certainly.”

“Why would I kill Marvin? To what end? What would I have to gain?” That was true – even if the suspicion was stronger, it still fell apart in the face of motive, or lack thereof. It couldn’t have been Erik, but at the same time, it might have been. Charles couldn’t afford taking chances.

“You’ve killed before,” he said, garnering a scoff in reply.

“Of course I killed, I was a soldier.”

“No. Not as a soldier.”

Erik’s eyes narrowed. “You draw some far-reaching conclusions.”

Charles found in him enough courage to stare the man in the eye and say, “You are a killer, Erik. You have reasons for what you do, but you are a killer and you can’t get around that.”

“I’ve killed people the government has told me to kill. End of story. Some of them might not have deserved death, and I still killed them, because they were in the way of my orders getting fulfilled.” A deep breathed passed through his nose, and the act had a calming effect. Charles watched him do it two more times, until finally he was calm enough to speak. “Yes, Charles, I am a killer. What I’m not, however, is a murderer.”

“There’s no difference between the two.”

Erik visibly disagreed, with every twitching muscle, but let it slide for the time being. “I did not kill Marvin,” Erik said again, forcing the syllables through clenched teeth, but Charles was shaking his head before he even finished speaking.

“It’s not good enough.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the human lie detector?”

“Lie detectors are fallible. I have taken the polygraph at least five times and lied every time. None has shown the slightest hitch.” All of those times were wasted on Charles, whose physiological responses were outside the polygraph’s spectrum of competence. It was very hard to tell if he was lying, when the machine had no way of knowing what his brain reacted like when he lied.

Erik, naturally, would have realized that. “You are better than polygraphs, though. Tell me, am I lying to you?”

“I have been wrong before.”

“Like fuck you were.”

He was, but that wasn’t the issue at hand. “I can’t know. I can’t tell. Not with you.”

“Why the hell not?” Erik yelled, causing a few of the passers-by to shoot him disapproving looks, which he dismissed with a raised middle finger.

“Because you are different. To me.” Charles found that his hands were shaking. It was unexpected, but he hadn’t fully realized the truth of it until he had to put it into words. “Because I don’t want it to be you. I’m emotional. Biased. I look for details that might not be there, I don’t pay attention to what is before me, just because you’re here.” He forced himself to breathe in and quell the trembling. “Because I think I know it’s not you and I can’t trace the factual support.”

“It’s called trust. How is that news to you?” Erik was thinking of the sex they had and the sex they were going to have, and how it should have bearings on trust, whereas in Charles’ opinion very little skewed trust as sex did.

“It’s impairing my judgment,” he said firmly, clenching his hands and shoving them into his pockets.

“I’m impairing your judgment, you mean. You look at me and you suddenly lose the ability to tell what’s real and what’s not?” Erik gave him a nasty grin. “I should be touched, if the idea didn’t terrify me. Do let me know if you lose your grip on sanity, I would so love to see you out of control.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Then what are you saying? That you don’t believe me?”

“I’m saying I want to believe you. But I can’t.”

Erik didn’t speak for a long while. “That’s how it is with you, isn’t it. You don’t trust me, that’s fair enough – I’m not trustworthy. You don’t know me all that well, for all your tricks, but it’s not just me, is it? You don’t trust anybody, even Raven. She’s just a puppet to you, isn’t she, a doll you need to shape and point the right way, or else she might hurt herself.

“How is it that you would let me take you to bed and do anything to you, anything at all,” Erik spoke softly, caressing the words as he would throwing knives, “But you won’t believe me when I look you in the eye and I say I did not kill Marvin?”

“I need to go,” Charles said to that, taking a step back, away from Erik’s pervasive heat back into the cold city fall, when Hank walked out the front door of the apartment building. “Do you need a ride?”

“I’ll walk, thank you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll take you back to the station, there’s more than enough work, you won’t be bored until I’m done with this case.” Hope was another thing that did not come naturally to him, but Charles still found himself hoping that Erik would stay after this, even though he knew he wouldn’t, not long term, not ever. That way maybe he would get the chance to fix it.

Erik stopped, turned and stared at him. His face reflected the surprise, then something very much like shock, a flash of anger directed primarily at Charles, then something which might have been grief. “You are a fucking idiot,” he said and started walking.

“The station is that way,” Charles called.

“I can find my own way,” was all Erik verbalized, but the haunch of his shoulders told a more elaborate story and none of it was flattering where Charles was concerned.

Charles didn’t see him for more than a minute at a time for the rest of the week.

*****

Raven started the Friday evening with a very relaxing lavender bath, which was a good thing, because then Charles got back home with shaking hands, which clearly indicated Erik hadn’t forgive him yet for being called a potential serial killer by the mindreader in front of his peers. The nerve of the bastard, Raven thought with an expressive roll of her eyes as she went to give Charles a hug. “You have to give it time,” she said. “You were kind of a dick to the guy, no wonder he’s pissed.”

Charles scoffed, but otherwise remained safely ensconced in her embrace. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Seriously? You publicly stated you think he might be a murderer, that’s right up there with ‘don’t fuck his girlfriend’ in bro code.” Raven marched them both to the couch, so that she only needed a small push to land Charles on it while she went to make them tea.

“I said no such thing,” he protested from the couch.

“Do refresh my memory, what was it that you said?” The cup of tea steamed pleasantly on the table before them and Raven tucked her feet underneath her butt.

Charles looked at her askance. “Raven.”

“I mean it. What did you say?” That part never got old, in a good horror movie kind of way – good in that it brought honest to god chills to Raven’s spine, crawling up and down like she was having a ghostly massage done. She offered him a guileless smile and waited until the tell-tale sigh of defeat.

“I said I can’t rule the possibility out, unlikely as it may seem,” Charles said, playing with the cup.

“There you go, then. Who wouldn’t walk out on you?”

“But it’s true.” Charles looked up at her and stared, and fuck him, he looked genuinely puzzled that this was even called into question. “Raven, he could have done it. We have found nothing that might be the motive, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. His file holds virtually no information on what he did the previous year, only that he was traveling, and all three men traveled for pleasure. I’m not saying he did, I’m not even saying it’s likely, but it is a possibility.”

“You’re a terrible human being, Charles.”

She wasn’t prepared for the vulnerable look that crossed his face.

“I know,” he breathed into the collar of his shirt, transfixed by the steam raising from the teacup. “I know.”

God damn him, she thought, when she was already reaching out to hold him. God damn his puppy-dog face and earnest eyes. He is a terrible person, really. He’s a tough, competent, know-it-all maniac, who can handle a little adversity. She held him tighter and stroked her fingers through his hair. “One day you will finally grasp that truth isn’t absolute,” she whispered. “People aren’t more complicated than truth and lies. Honesty is not enough.”

“What else is there? Am I supposed to lie? How will that improve matters?”

“No one’s telling you to lie, but would it kill you to take something at face value once in a while?” Raven hesitated, but hell, strike the iron while it’s hot and all. “I want the police job, Charles, I can do it, you know I can, because you taught me how to do it well. Besides, you need me there. You need me at that station with you, because you can’t look after yourself well enough.”

She should have expected him to stiffed and break free out of her hold. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“Not that again.” She threw her hands in the air. “I swear to god, if you keep blocking me, I will turn to stripping. I will. And maybe I’ll become a call girl, too.”

“Yes, that again. It’s not even the danger,” he forced out through clenched teeth. “I know—I know it can be bad, but it’s not the worst thing.” He frowned. He licked his lips, gathering up the courage. She was weirdly reminded how he went about telling her Mother had died. “It does things to your head, the things you see.” Another pause, another bout of trembles. “Raven, I killed people.”

That made sense, except not. “What? That’s nonsense, you never fired once. I would know.”

“I never fired at people, but still I killed them. I got people killed, on purpose.” Charles closed his eyes and turned away. “I killed Cain.”

“Cain committed suicide,” Raven said, trying to reason as much as she tried to fill the emptiness opening in her gut.

“He put his own gun to his own head, yes.” Charles suddenly looked like gravity decided to flattened him to the Earth’s surface, starting with the top of his head, which bowed so low she could no longer see his eyes. “Raven… I’m—I’m a murderer. I’ve never fired a gun, I’ve never directly taken a life, but the fact is that seven people are dead because I decided they can – they should – die, and the feeling it horrible.

“You want to be an officer to look after me, I know that. Don’t you think I know that? But Raven – I’m not worth protecting. I’m not… I’m a killer. I’d like to blame the job – it wouldn’t be wholly true, but something happens to your head when you are handed a gun and a badge and sent into the city to judge people. The things you learn change you and I can’t bear to have that happen to you.”

Raven sat stock-still staring ahead, away from their cozy living room, away from Charles. But he hated guns, she told herself. He hated shooting. He hated the thought of being able to cause so much damage with such a little thing. Finally, a single word slipped her lips. “Why?”

Charles looked up and though his eyes were dry, they were also framed in red. “I’m sorry?”

“You said you killed people. I want to know why.”

“Like it matters?”

“Of course it matters! Jesus, Charles!” She slid to the carpet to kneel in front of him, gripped his hands and leaned forward, until they were nose-to-nose. “I want to know. Why did you kill those people?” Who was it, she wanted to ask, too, but what could it matter? It didn’t sound like a recent thing, Cain especially, so the likelihood of anyone being able to connect the deaths to Charles was dubious.

“Because they were a threat. Cain… you know about Cain.” Charles closed his eyes and breathed. Finally he spoke, barreling through anger and pain it caused. “He wouldn’t listen to reason; he wasn’t capable of reason beyond ensuring I’m not even sure what. He was a menace with a butcher’s knife and he was allowed a gun. So I went to him and I told him I had a file on him. I had evidence about his drug abuse, about him selling drugs, about the psychological problems, about the obvious violent streak and uncontrollable temper, about the tampering with his personal file. I lied.”

Raven closed her eyes and considered. The evidence was real, it must have been. Just because Charles didn’t keep it in a file, somewhere, it didn’t mean it wasn’t there. That the accusations were true she didn’t doubt – Cain was enough of a bastard. She’d known about the drugs, at least in the recreational sense and she was absolutely willing to believe that selling was also on the agenda. She’d grown up with the man, unfortunately, so she could attest to his bipolar moods and violent streaks, no matter how Charles tried to protect her from the latter.

She remembered Charles in the hospital bed, with half a dozen stab wounds to the torso and how Cain got away with it scot-free.

“Cain wasn’t your fault,” she said in the end. “He tried to murder you, Charles.”

“I got his father killed.”

“It was an accident and you won’t convince me otherwise. You weren’t to blame.”

This time when he met her eyes they were wet. “Kurt could have gotten out if it wasn’t for me.”

“He chose to save your life,” Raven said firmly, gripping his hands tighter. That and only that was the reason she went to see him in his final moments. It was the only reason she’d forgiven him, in the end. “I love him for it, regardless how much I hated him otherwise. His death was not your fault. Cain was unhinged. The city is better off with him dead.”

“He was your brother.”

“You’re my brother. Cain was a monster.”

“He loved his father and he loved his life. I went to him and I told him exactly what he needed to hear to end it. How does that not make me a murderer? How am I not every inch the monster her was?”

“You didn’t know,” she said, fully aware that where Charles was concerned she might have been trying to convince him gravity was caused by fairies and he knew it, if his bitter laugh was any indication.

“What didn’t I know? That he valued his freedom, his independence, his ability to flaunt the law more than he valued his own life? That he would rather be dead than go to jail, to go down in infamy? That he’s had suicidal thoughts previously? That he was high, drunk and suggestible when I spoke to him, or that he was prone to depression?”

Charles was pale and frightening; ugly pink splotches decorated his face, his eyes shone with a feverish blue, and his fingers gripped hers so tightly she feared they might break bones. “Five years ago there was the case with the body in the fridge, do you remember? The murderer looked innocuous, barely even a man, he was so frightened of what he’d done, and so desperately high on it, he was ready to walk out and do the same thing to the first girl he came across. The adrenaline, you see, got him off. We had very little evidence connecting him to the scene, almost none. The fridge had been in the water before we recovered it. I had backup. I goaded him into attacking me. It didn’t take much. The other officers saw and shot him dead on the spot.” That wasn’t the end of it, either. There were five others, over the years, three men and two women, driven to the end of their lives in a Charles-shaped taxi, murderers and worse, the lot of them.

She could have chosen disbelief and denial, but Charles held himself too straight for lies and half-truths and try as she might she couldn’t blame him for a single thing. She didn’t. She wouldn’t. If it were her, she was certain it would have been a lot worse, with a lot more gunshots, because some people do not deserve the light of day, or the quiet endlessness of the night, either.

“How much worse would it be,” he added after a long while of silence, “if I had someone to protect? Tell me, Raven,” he begged tiredly, staring at his forearms and the ugly scars there. “Look at me and tell me I’m not a murderer.”

It was no hardship, kneeling as she was, to reach up, hold his face in her hands until he was looking into her eyes (there might have been tears, she wasn’t ashamed to admit, but her voice was steady and strong), and say, “You are not a murderer, Charles.”

He smiled, a bright and empty smile, barely a curve of the lips below glassy eyes. “You’re lying.” Then, so softly she barely even felt the air move, he added, “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

The week rolled by with not a word from Charles other than a polite greeting and Erik was a little upset.

The upset was little enough that he settled for bruising the purple walls with well-aimed empty beer cans. When that method of therapy proved ineffective, he grabbed a pair of sweats and stormed out the door. There was a gym halfway between his place and the police station, and so he went there, in hopes of finding a kind soul whose lights he could punch out for speaking to him. If he’d been better prepared when he was packing for Westchester he would have included a dress and some heels, because fuck if there was anything more satisfying than going out in drag and bashing in heads of people who took umbrage to the blue sequins. Hypo-fucking-thetically and no personal experience speaking there.

The receptionist was twinky and air-headed, and too kind for his own good, so, as much as Erik would have loved to punch out the lights of everyone who crossed his path, he had an image of a law enforcement officer to uphold, so he settled for a guttural “fuck you” which may have confused the initial consonant on the way out, becoming an unpleasant, guttural “thank you”. There was only one skinny guy in the back of the changing room, so Erik kicked off his jeans and forced himself into sweats while gritting his teeth so that he wouldn’t go looking for trouble. He proceeded, instead, to the nearest punching bag and set about warming up. If, in the process, the bag hit a passing idiot, that was none of his concern. The pendulum effect was not a fucking rocket science and he wasn’t pulling his kicks, just because a steroid-addled brain couldn’t calculate simple curved pathways.

Charles would have done the tango with the swinging bag, never touching it once.

Just for having that thought, Erik delivered a high kick that sent the bag into a spiraling swing, nearly breaking some moron’s nose. Goddamned Charles, for not believing him, Erik thought, leaning his sweaty forehead against the worn leather and giving it a few more enthusiastic punches. Goddamned Charles for not standing up for him when he could have easily talked Summers into a corner.

Goddamned Charles, for not putting out properly before. If Erik knew that was how the whole thing would come apart, he would have fucked him that first night, condoms be damned.

“Hey,” someone said.

Erik opened his eyes to find Summers standing over him in a sweat-soaked T-shirt. The clock visible over his shoulder indicated Erik was punching out his Charles substitute for a solid hour. “What do you want?” he asked curtly.

“You okay?” Summers asked. “It’s just you’ve been punching that thing for a while now and it’s doing things it’s not really supposed to do. Any minute now it’s gonna fly off the chain and hit someone in the face.”

“No great loss in the majority of cases. I’m gearing up for another murder spree. Go away.”

Summers looked to the side, over the head of the balding whale with more tattoos than brain cells, who sadly hadn’t processed the insult as it was meant to be processed. Erik shot a glance that way and reluctantly raised a hand when he spied Darwin waving. He was sitting astride a bench, ashen with effort. His arm was no longer in a sling, but the bandages around his torso were stark against his dark skin. He was holding on to the cables like they were the only thing keeping him upright, which they probably were. Erik hoped the kid was smart to drop it and get the fuck home, before he hurt himself.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Summers said, stepping from one foot to the other. “I wasn’t thinking. I don’t really think you did it, you know.”

Erik offered a generous view of his dentition in lieu of an actual smile. “Despite the fact that, as Charles rightfully noted, I have the skills, the aptitude and ascertaining motivation is a very inexact science, so I might possible have that too?”

Summers shrugged, as though he didn’t give a fuck, but he looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening, and when he spoke he spoke quietly. “I listen to detective Xavier, alright? He’s awesome at the job. He’s downright psychic about it – the shit he can pull out of thin air is unbelievable, and he is always right. We are saving a fortune on polygraphs with him around, hell, his solve rate alone keeps us ahead of the polls. If he says you did it, you bet your ass I’m gonna arrest you. Or try to arrest you, anyway.” Summers threw a wary glance at the battered punching bag, justly so.

It didn’t take Charles to sense the “But?”

“He’s fucking creepy.” Summers offered a small smile, one that was both sheepish and knowing. “The way he knows things, it makes sense afterwards, when he explains, if he bothers to explain at all. I mean – I don’t question what he does. I kinda get how he does it, and I can sometimes follow the process, baby steps-like, right? It’s not that hard when you stop and think for ten minutes and makes loads of notes. He explains if you ask and he’s taught me a lot, too, and if that isn’t an achievement, I don’t know what is.” A shadow passed over his face, paradoxically turning him into a kid, haunted and hurting. “I owe him a lot and I’ll always be grateful for it.

“It’s just…” Summers waved his arms searching for inspiration. “He just doesn’t make sense. As a human being, I mean. Hank says he doesn’t have to wonder about all the shit he does, that he sees it like I see ball flying my way and know when to swing the bat, and that makes sense, too, my brain gets the notion, I’m not stupid, right? I know some things just make sense when they happen.” He paused, staring at Erik like he was urging him to understand. “It’s just, I have no idea how a dude can live with that kind of info flowing about his head on a regular basis and not be a total psycho.”

Erik froze the smile on his face. “Your point being?”

Summers shrugged. “I’m just saying that there’s a reason no one hangs out with the guy. He’s nice enough, but he thinks like a machine, like it’s all numbers in his head. You look at him when he looks at you and you know you’re just a number in his brain. So yeah.” Summers scratched the back of his head, like he was trying to let out the overflowing thoughts, which, given the blonde head of hair, might well have been the case. “Between the two of you, my money is on him, actually. Not that I think he did it, either,” he hastened to add. “He’s a little too scared of guns to go out and kill people like that.”

If Erik wasn’t mistaken, and he rarely was, there was a note of affection in Summers’ voice just then, possibly the result of the mistaken assumption that dislike of guns was the same as fear of guns and that either of those implied anything about the readiness to be the cause of death of another human being. Even if he hadn’t had verbal confirmation that Charles had killed, Erik had seen him react to violent death in close proximity and it was not the reaction of a man who shied away from it, though he could also see how the reaction could be taken for discomfort and masked fright. “Thank you for the vote of confidence,” he said instead of commenting on Charles and his monumental issues, however hard the comment tried to come out in the form of “you stupid, ignorant, fucker, the hell do you know about being special?”. Instead he asked, “How is Darwin?”

“He’ll live. It was scary for a while, but apparently he heals scary fast.” Summers brightened visibly. “Shit, I swear I nearly punched out the therapist by accident when she said he’d be fine in the end.”

“Give him my best.”

“Yeah. Thanks, man. You wanna spar or something?”

“Too tired.” This was not precisely true, but if Erik was put in a ring with the kid he would have bashed his pretty face in and stomped on the wet chunks of bone. He said his goodbyes and waved at Darwin, abandoning the punching bag in favor of the weight-lifting section. The smug little fucker, Erik thought gritting his teeth and starting a long series of pull-ups on the iron bar. His arms strained and he would pay for the exercise tomorrow, but if he didn’t put his whole attention on the rhythmic lifts he would lose his mind. He might still lose his mind, if the irritating harpy of a pseudo-singer didn’t shut her face, but tuning out superfluous sounds was a particular talent of his. It allowed him to sleep under fire, after all.

Who the fuck does Summers think he is, anyway? Erik thought some minutes later, pulling his feet up and hooking his knees on the bar. Hanging crunches were a particular favorite of his – there was something about thinking while upside down that made the free-association process easier.

Halfway through the series of twenty crunches came the thought that while Charles might have been a creepy fuck, he was no less human for it. That was the other reason for the upset, the bigger, or at least the more poisonous one. Charles didn’t need his help, Erik thought, with only the smallest touch of malice. He certainly didn’t need his honor defended, assuming he had any sense of honor to defend. Summers wasn’t wrong; he did think like a computer and those weren’t exactly renowned for their sense of honor. Dignity mattered to Charles only where his professional integrity was concerned, and if some dumb-ass punk didn’t feel like grabbing beers out of a crime scene, Charles likely didn’t hold it against him.

Erik let himself hang for a moment. That wasn’t true, was it? Charles was excited like a little boy in a cracker factory whenever they went out for a beer together. He didn’t hold the lack of socializing against anybody, but he leapt on an invitation with eagerness which betrayed just how starved for some human contact he was. How the fuck did no one see it?

And here was the thing: Erik wanted to leap to defend Charles’ honor, even if he didn’t just now, like it was his job. He wanted to go out for beer and maybe dinners and he definitely wanted sex, even if right not he mostly wanted to strangle the motherfucker and never see him again. Fuck. Why couldn’t he have fucked Raven when she offered? At least it would have been easy. The Internet was full of dating advice, and Erik was confident he could master the art of keeping a woman sufficiently pleased outside of the bedroom as well as within – Anya’s mother never complained about the sex, after all, it was everything else she had issues with. It would have been easy with Raven, who looked like she would handle the romance on her own, with suitable clues as to what was expected of him in return. It would have been easy, warm and comfortable, but no, he had to go and fuck the brother, who had the romantic inclination of a Dell laptop.

Fuck, Erik thought, unhooking his knees and falling to the floor into an easy handstand. He moved on to the treadmill, where he jogged for what later turned out to be another hour; and even then he only got off when the trainers started crowding him and gently hinting it might be the time to go home, because it was closing time and all the patrons have all ran, scared like rats, and maybe he could stop frequenting and depressing the other patrons with scary, inhuman fitness?

Erik returned to his apartment that night boneless. Every muscle of his body was sending him polite notes, requesting protein, sugars, water (plenty of the latter), sleep and a long hot bath. Erik had indulged in the first three by grabbing a Thai take-out on the way home and drinking half a gallon straight out of the tap. Bathtubs were something that happened to other people, so he’d had a long, hot shower instead, before falling into bed, dead to the world.

*****

The streetlights changed from red to red and yellow and then again. Two cars started simultaneously at the first hint of green, racing across the crossroads as though they had something to prove.

The room was technically dark, or at least that was what it should have been. It wasn’t. Not in Westchester, where the light pollution was so strong even in the dead of the night one could be reading a book in their own room without turning on the light and not feel the strain. The quality of light was, however, irrelevant. He knew the room; he didn’t need light to navigate it. The carpet was worn in some places, thicker in others – it was as good as a map, the sounds it made when stepped on.

The faint noise of the traffic outside bothered him to some degree. To any city dweller it must eventually become a constant companion, ubiquitous and therefore ignored, but to him it was an omnipresent entity that walked alongside him, that lived and breathed its own disconcerting rhythm. It was nigh impossible to shut it out; all he could do was let it become a part of him, let his heart beat in synch with the traffic lights, let his blood flow through his arteries like the cars flew through the streets. Anything less and he would drown in the city, never able to come up for air. It was one of the reasons he had trouble leaving for extended periods of time.

The bed sheets were soft underneath his hands; the slide of cloth against his skin gave him pause, there was so much sensation to catalogue and file away. Cotton caught on the fine hair all over his body in a familiar and yet all new caress. His mouth brushed the fold of the pillow and he smiled, though whether it showed was up for debate. It smelled of washing powder and the new floral softener. He liked the new brand for the smell alone.

Red light. Squeal of tires. Teenagers racing down the avenue without a care in the world.

He was breathing roses. His mouth was full of the smell and so his mind filled with images of the flowers, pale and dark in the moonlight. He wasn’t sure where had the moonlight come from, robbing them of most of their color, until they were only shadows overlaid with scent. It was, in itself, fantastic to behold, this featureless world in which there was nothing but the mist of atoms that made up the olfactory aura of objects. The roses were everywhere. Their petals trailed through his fingers, silken and perfect, still alive, but cool to the touch, whispering promises of love, of forgiveness. There were hundreds.

Then, in the cacophony of the street, breaths and heartbeats, there was another sound, so low that for a moment he thought he was imagining it – a buzzing cell phone, vibrating inside a pocket.

The touch went away and the buzzing stopped. Instead there was a click, then another, then the rhythm of the breathing change minutely, though the heartbeat remained the same, and then the world disappeared in rose petals and feather-light touches.

*****

The phone screeched like a goddamned bullhorn. Erik contemplated throwing it out the window, but, unfortunately, until he got himself a laptop, which he wasn’t in a hurry to do, the phone was his only means of communication with the outside world. He glared at the caller ID instead, hoping against hope he would incinerate the man on the other side with the sheer power of his hate.

“What?” he barked into the receiver.

“Erik,” he heard which only served as fuel to his anger.

“Someone had better be dead, Xavier, or I will have your head. It’s not even five in the fucking morning!”

“Erik,” Charles said. “Please come.”

The voice was soft, pleading and the anger went away at once, leaving Erik empty and dry. He sat up on the mattress, propping himself on one hand. “Charles?”

“Please. Fourteen Graymalkin Lane. Apartment seven.”

“Give me half an hour,” Erik said. It took eight minutes to dress, get out of his flat, fly down the stairs, punch out a mugger incautious enough to cross his path, and find himself on the nearest corner, where he hailed a cab. Seventeen minutes after that he was glaring down a doorman, who, as the evidence suggested, merely got tired of living and decided to shorten his already unimpressive lifespan. Fortunately for Erik’s and his immediate future, the man’s phone rang just as Erik was about to put him out of his misery.

“Mister Xavier,” the doorman said, standing to attention even though there was no one to stand to attention to. “Yes, of course. My sincere apologies.” He hung up, looking not at all apologetic. “Mister Xavier asks that you come in.” By the look on his face Erik’s casual attire didn’t meet his high standards. Not a big surprise, considering these were Erik’s favorite jeans and have been for two years now, worn knees and threadbare folds in the hip area.

“The fuck I’ve been saying to you for the past three minutes?” Erik muttered, but pushed through the door and ran, not bothering with the elevator. Apartment seven was on the fifth floor (ground floor seemed to contain a grand reception and a small café, and by the looks of it apartments one and two took two floors on their respective sides), but if Erik was forced to stand still he might put his fist through a wall, and that might not be advisable in a moving box.

It was fortunate that the door of number seven opened just as he raised his fist to knock.

“Erik,” Charles said, looking high over Erik’s shoulder, completely ignoring his scowl. “Thank you.”

“Someone had better be dead, Charles, or I swear…”

“Can you put these on?” Charles was handing him a pair of blue latex gloves. Only then did Erik notice that he too, wore a pair. He was clad in an old t-shirt and rumpled pajama pants, and he was wearing latex gloves.

“What the hell?”

“You can leave the jacket on the coat hanger, it’s fairly warm here. Take off your shoes, please, there are slippers in the drawer over there. They should be clean enough. I burned my last labcoat and didn’t have the chance to replace it yet, so this would have to do. Please be cautious, I can’t have evidence compromised.” Charles turned on his heel, keeping his hands well away from his hips. Erik couldn’t help noticing that his eyes were unfocused, like he was seeing everything but what was actually there.

“I know, I finally remembered – disinfectant,” Charles went on to say, still in the same dazed voice, paying Erik no attention whatsoever. His chest heaved with breath, as though the air was thicker than it should have been, as though he needed to fight it for the oxygen he required. “Alcohol. Cotton pads soaked in ethanol, pure ethanol, or as close to it as can be, which is a ninety-six percent solution. Very volatile. It was a miracle I even smelled it, though then again it was never more than a hint of smell, given the time of death and the open window, but I’m certain now. Eradicates any and all traces of touch, and it was a precaution rather than a need, the gloves take care of just about everything, attention takes care of everything else.”

“Charles!” Erik gripped his arm, turned him around and shook. The latter wasn’t entirely planned. “Stop blabbering. What the fuck happened?”

Charles looked in his direction but through rather than at him, still no more present than he was when he opened the door. “He was here.”

Erik froze.

“He was here,” Charles repeated softly, and then his shoulders hunched and he bit his lip. “Or was he really? I don’t know. I might have dreamed it. I have such vivid dreams. I’m certain I smelled pure alcohol, however, and I know there’s none in the house. It will be gone by morning, naturally, no trace. Should be cone even now, all the remains is in the creases and folds. Hard to judge by smell, in any case, so many potential sources. Too much potential for error. I don’t make mistakes though. I know I smelled it. I know it must be so.”

Erik shook him again, achieving little but the sight of blue, bleary gaze. “Charles. Stop. Wake up and start making sense. The killer? Our serial killer was here?”

Charles nodded, shook his head and nodded again. The hair fell into his eyes, escaping the neatly combed look Charles cultivated usually. “I’m not sure. I thought yes, he must have been. I remember roses and breathing, someone was in my room, breathing, I heard, but then I woke up and there was nothing, not a trace, I was dressed, and sleeping in my bed, alone, not a trace. He couldn’t have been here, could he? But then I remember he was, and if I remember he was, then he must have been.”

Erik stared, uncertain whether he should laugh it off or very slowly sit Charles down, offer tea and call for somber men in white coats. He was still gripping Charles’ arm, and given that he got very little sleep up until this point he felt no one could blame him if he shook the man hard enough to make his teeth rattle, silently begging him to start making sense.

“Christ, you called me at five in the morning because you had a nightmare?” he growled, hoping to at least startle Charles out of the sudden bout of departure from reality, but despite the shaking there was little anger in his words. He would have been angry, should even, were it not for the fact that Charles looked as far from okay as physically possible. His face was pale, his pupils wide and he spun in circles like he was starring in the goddamned Swan Lake, breathing like he’d just had a particularly rough fuck.

Charles turned to face Erik at the accusation and, for once, looked him dead in the eye, noticing his presence, noticing him. It was something of a progress, Erik noted, and calmed down a little, but as soon as it was made Charles’ eyes became wet and lost focus again, for a wholly different reason. “No! Yes. I don’t know. I don’t know!” Then, much more softly, “Erik. You came.” The words came out so small ants would have tripped, but he heard them. Charles sagged in his arms, leaving him no time to think, and so Erik pulled him closer, pressed a kiss to his lips. Charles turned his head, so that Erik’s mouth brushed his cheek instead. “No, don’t. There could be evidence,” he was saying, but Erik stopped listening.

“Did you drink?” he asked, gripping Charles by the shoulders, not moving his face away from where his nose was touching the lobe of Charles’ ear.

“No, of course not. I don’t drink much. Not alone. I promised. It’s too easy, the world is sharp when I drink. I have work today, in four hours, remember?”

Erik shook his head. “You smell of alcohol.” Charles did. His face, his hair, the curve of his jaw – if Erik looked hard enough there was a patch of red where the skin had been irritated previously – which could have been the source, but the smell was strongest behind Charles’ ear, where it would have been pointless to swab, when the irritation was elsewhere.

Charles stiffened against him and then he became so pliant his full weight was dependent on the stability of Erik’s legs. “Not a dream. I was right. Makes sense now. Oh god, Raven. Raven was home, she is home, he was here, he was in my house, and Raven was home. I looked, of course I looked when I woke, she is fine, she is healthy, asleep, but she was home, Raven, my Raven.”

Erik maneuvered them both onto the couch, until he had Charles squirming in his lap muttering her name over and over, having utterly abandoned the English language. “Sh, don’t speak,” Erik said, and kissed him properly. “Fuck the evidence,” he added when protests arose. He was already dialing Raven’s number on his cell, praying that she’d pick up, or that her phone was even in her room, because there was no way in hell he was moving.

“Do you know what time it is?” he heard in the receiver five rings later and felt Charles start, tremble and melt.

“Living room, now,” he told Raven and dropped the phone as Charles shivered violently, despite the comfortable temperature of the room. His teeth chattered and no sensible word passed his mouth, which was now stark red against his pale skin. His forehead was clammy and wet, his eyes, once again, free of all focus.

“Erik? The hell you’re doing here?” Raven asked sleepily, from the other side of the room. “Is this revenge for that time on the floor?” Then, “Charles?”

“Is he epileptic?” Erik asked, gripping Charles tighter as the shivering increased and his breathing grew erratic.

Raven yawned. “Is what?”

“Does Charles have epilepsy? Seizures? He’s convulsing, do we need an ambulance?”

“Am– Charles!” She was across the room in a flash of peach, cream and gold. “Charles, you stupid bastard, what is wrong with you? No, no he doesn’t, he’s mildly allergic to morphine, that’s it.”

Morphine. Fuck it all to hell. Morphine and alcohol swabs – on the bright side, Charles was not insane. Everything else Erik could deal with. “How mildly?”

Raven knelt by them on the floor, gripping Charles’ knee, blinking the sleep out of her eyes. “I don’t know, it’s never really came up!” she told Erik angrily. “He had tests done as a child, that’s all I know. They always give him alternatives when he needs treatment.”

“I’m calling the ambulance.” Erik groped for his phone, but Charles’ hand shot out, closing around his.

“No,” he rasped. “No 911.”

“You’re convulsing. The hell I’m not calling.”

“I can handle it,” Charles said, biting his lip. Somehow, between the shivers and the irregular breathing he was coherent and enunciating clearly enough to be understood. Erik chose to give him the benefit of doubt and relaxed his hold on the phone. “It’s mostly shock.”

“Raven, blanket.”

Twelve seconds later she was helping him wrap something turquoise and fleecy around Charles, no a task for the weak when the man would traverse half the room on shivering alone, if Erik loosened his hold for one moment. “Charles?” Raven perched on the back of the couch, burrowing her fingers in the thick wool to rub his back. “Come on, what’s happened? You’re scaring me.”

Ah, open sesame. Erik could see Charles push the shock into a tiny box, lock it in a bigger box and mail it to the southern hemisphere. Within seconds he was breathing easier and the paleness of his face gave way to a more healthy shade. Erik was nonetheless pleased to note that Charles’ hand, remained fisted in Erik’s T-shirt, between both their bodies. For that reason he was willing to ignore that it was also digging painfully into his abdomen.

“Nothing,” he said eventually, in a passing semblance of his normal voice. “I just had a scare, that’s all.”

Raven raised a brow. “Yeah, bullshit. Wait, what’s he doing here, anyway?”

Erik grinned. “Social call.”

“Shut up, you. Charles, what’s going on?”

Charles let his head hang for a few moments, and when he spoke he spoke into the blanket. “Our killer was here,” he admitted.

“Well duh, I can see that,” Raven said.

Both Erik and Charles turned to look at her.

“What? He’s here, isn’t he?” When they wouldn’t stop staring, she waved her hand and yawned again, covering her mouth with her hand. “Ah, never mind, it was a stupid pet name anyway.” Then as though the conversation had only just occurred to her, she shot up from her perch and shrieked. “What do you mean the killer was here?”

“But why would he leave,” Charles murmured, already miles from the couch, miles from Erik’s touch and Raven’s panic. “Makes no sense that he would leave me alive. Why? There was a call. Or a text. Hard to say, through the haze. Of course, most often an aborted murder is caused by a physical interruption, or unexpected emotion. There was no interruption. The phone was his, not mine. He checked it, and still had time to clean up, when it must have taken more time than finishing me off would. The emotion doesn’t make sense, either. The killer doesn’t view the killings as emotional. Neither fits.”

“Unless it was you in particular he was emotional about,” Erik said, to which Charles immediately shook his head.

“Doubtful. I remember – he was cold. Clinical even. No emotion whatsoever.”

“Unless it really was him,” Raven said boldly, pointing at Erik.

“You have some balls,” he said, looking pointedly at her very short nightgown under which there were no underwear lines (which Raven took with all the grace a well-bred lady should, which was to indicate with a raised middle finger what she thought), “implying I tried to murder your brother when I have an arm around his neck.” A small exaggeration, but a fair one. He moved his arm to the general vicinity of Charles’ neck and achieved only that Charles pushed it back down, absentmindedly.

“It wasn’t Erik,” he said, causing Erik to roll his eyes.

“Now I get a vote of confidence.”

Raven was ignoring him now, which was probably for the best. “Well, how do you know?” she asked, sitting on the couch and folding her hands on her lap.

Charles smiled and poked the stubble on Erik’s cheek with a finger. “Gillette series conditioning shave foam.”

Raven moved to pull her knees up, then remembered she was wearing no underwear and crossed them instead. “So he hasn’t shaved this morning, big deal. That’s not gonna hold up in a court of law.”

“I don’t habitually shave in the middle of the night,” Erik pointed out, not that anyone seemed to care about his shaving habits. He would be more upset about it, as evidently it was what passed for an alibi in this household, if it wasn’t for the fact that Charles was relaxing, and that was worth the extremely awkward discussion of his hygiene.

The shock, even packed up as it was, was dissipating through the cracks. Erik was glad to see it go. Charles relaxed against his chest and Erik breathed all the easier for it. “My allergy manifests as mild breathing difficulties,” Charles said when he was nearing the usual levels of concentrated thrumming. “Nothing to worry about. I said I’ll be fine.”

“You were convulsing,” Erik deadpanned. Raven nodded vehemently, and he was glad to have witnesses, especially since Charles dismissed the concerns with a wave of his hand.

“Shock and allergy compounded. I’m fine, no need to call anyone.”

“Cretin.”

“Thank you,” Charles said with such warmth Erik knew it was not the fond insult he was being thanked for. He tightened the embrace briefly.

“Are you ready to sit on your own?”

“Yes, sitting.” Charles contemplated the sliver of couch between Raven and Erik. “I should be fine.”

He let go of Erik’s shirt and they straightened, until they looked less like a blanket-covered pile of frightened sleepy kittens, though neither of them moved far enough to avoid physical contact.

Raven was watching them through eyes so bleary, she was likely having trouble telling them apart. “So, I’ll go make coffee, yes?”

“You can go to sleep,” Charles said. “I mean, I want to check your room first, but you can sleep here. We will be quiet, I promise.”

“Fuck you,” she said hotly. “If that guy was in my house, I am gonna help hunt him down.”

“Raven…”

“Shut it,” she sang, disappearing into what Erik assumed must have been the kitchen.

“I’m so sorry, Erik,” Charles said after a few moments of silence. The blanket remained around his shoulders and neck, for all that they untangled themselves, and his face was slack, bereft of worry lines, giving him the apparent age of twelve. His arms hung between his knees weakly, but at least he was no longer shivering. Erik moved an inch or so closer, intent on sharing body heat and perhaps reassurance. It was going to hit him, sooner or later, he thought, that if he believed Charles about the killer he would need to realize that Charles had been a target, that he almost lost Charles, and when he did the fallout wouldn’t be pretty. For now, he settled for butting his forehead against Charles’ shoulder.

“For waking me? I am beginning to suspect this family of yours doesn’t want me to get decent rest on a regular basis. Raven kicks me out of my own bed, then you call in the middle of a night, right when I desperately need the sleep. You two are a menace.”

“I’m sorry for not believing you when you said. I know it wasn’t you. I know it isn’t you.” Charles fixed his blue eyes on him. “Raven says it was mean of me,” he added in a tone of voice that implied he didn’t fully understand why, but he was willing to trust someone else’s judgment, until he found a theory that better explained the data, which suggested he might have been wrong. “I’m—I’m really sorry if I offended. I really meant what I said later, though. I can’t think straight.” He was toying with a stray thread, coming out of a cushion, and frowning at it. “I don’t like it when I can’t think straight. Factual support for trust is important, too.”

Erik wasn’t quite sure when he became the kind of person who’d slide off a couch to kneel before anyone without intending oral sex. The fact remained that before he could think about what he was doing he was kneeling before Charles and kissing him, partly in an effort to shut him up and partly because he needed to kiss him right then like he needed to breathe. He stroked Charles’ cheekbones with his thumbs as he tilted his head to a better angle, so that he could coax his mouth open and slip his tongue inside. He could taste the alcohol. It boiled in his blood, along with the knowledge that something had happened tonight, something he wasn’t sure he could handle properly.

“You weren’t wrong about me,” he whispered into the kiss. “I’ve killed more than enough men, and I don’t regret it – I did my duty, I took no pleasure in it – but only most of them I was ordered to kill.” He didn’t add that he’d had reasons, good ones. He didn’t say he’d killed murderers, hired guns and gangsters. He’d killed for no reason other than to see them dead, when there was nothing left to protect, nothing left to love, not even a country to serve, no mission to accomplish. He didn’t say this, because for all the things Charles professed he muddled up, he knew this he would understand, because this was what he himself did.

Charles’ response was the brush of wet lips, curiosity, understanding and benediction all in one. They really were quite the pair, weren’t they, Erik thought. Two heaps of broken pieces, held together by spit and handful of good intentions.

*****

The thing to know about Raven was that she was a little bit insane and somewhat prone to codependence and altogether better off with someone she needed to look after and be looked after in return. It angered her a whole lot that the person was her brother, but what can a girl do? She didn’t resent him for it. She could never resent him other than on a purely superficial level her inner feminist compelled her to resent all men for being oppressive pigs. Charles infuriated her to the point of homicidal rage, he frightened her, he made her feel open and vulnerable in her own mind, but he was her brother, and she could never feel anything less than love for him. She could barely bring herself to feel fear when he confessed to murder, because it was Charles. That was how wrong things were inside her pretty little head: she fully believed he had been in the right. Truth be told, she knew only the bare bones of the other cases, but she had known Cain, and though he’d never killed, to her knowledge, he frightened her in a way Charles never did. Charles could be trusted to do the right thing, to weigh his options and choose the lesser evil, the one way that would benefit everyone, regardless of pointless laws. Cain would snap eventually and when he did body parts would littler the streets, while Charles’ brand of crazy was stable like a rock. The fact was that some people deserved to be locked up before they got the chance to do something they would inevitably do, and who better to judge that than Charles? Sure, most people found him scarier than any of the thugs and killers, perhaps for that very reason, but most people didn’t get to see him curl up on the couch in the middle of the night and cry.

Raven had done a course in psychology, but more importantly she’d spent her childhood listening to Charles talk, and god, he’d never shut up. He’d talked how Mother drank because that was the only way she knew how to deal with life, because that was how her mother had dealt before her. He’d talked how Cain acted out because Kurt had been strict and disciplinary with a boy who couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes at a time. He’d talked of cruelty, which beget cruelty, and how it reflected on the faces of people, in the lines and words and lies they told. Charles had been a little too smart for his own good, so by the time anyone had figured something might not be quite right inside his head (which had been an achievement in itself, as their mother was about as observant as a banana), he’d grown distrustful of adults, of people who claimed to have all the answers, and why shouldn’t he, when he could see the contradictory thoughts flitting across their faces.

He spoke of people hid so deep they forgot they had them and he could touch them as though they were on display. For the longest time she found herself lacking in that respect until she understood that it was her who was the normal one and Charles the freak. It took her longer still to understand that for him the secrets really were in the open, that this wasn’t something he chose, that this wasn’t a skill he cultivated in the hopes of gliding smoothly through life. This was simply how he saw, how he heard, how he felt. His honesty was frightening and raw; people couldn’t deal with it for long. Raven had learned to appreciate it. She admired him – when he went into law enforcement she didn’t hesitate to believe he would save the world from the bad people, all on his own, that he was the only one who could do so. When that hadn’t happened, she began to question everything, and most of all how was it possible that he didn’t become a vigilante who took apart the people who deserved it, when he obviously could.

Then, perhaps most shocking of all, came the understanding that Charles desperately wanted not to be what he was. That what he wanted was to be able to look at a girl and see only someone he could speak with, someone he could laugh and perhaps sleep with, instead of a creature of habit, who spent half an hour each morning grooming, who picked her clothes to suit the weather, whose parents were kind, but distant, who had a dog and cared more about it than she did about anything else in her comfortable city life.

Her first major disappointment came early in life. After growing up with Kurt and Cain, protected from their casual, human evil by Charles, all the while believing that karma will kick in eventually and Cain’s casual abuse of position and Kurt’s outright abuse would be punished, Charles had disappointed. She had worshipped him, as a child, but when she realized he had no intention of doing the right thing and ridding the world of the scumbags and dirt, his arc of approaching godhood in her eyes curved back towards the unforgiving ground, revealing him to be human and broken. There had been a moment, then, that she thought leaving would be best, making her own life free of the name and obligations. The discovery that Charles was human and fragile after all had some unexpected consequences, though: like hell she could leave him to fend for himself, when the alternative was to get furious once in a while. She followed Charles into the city and she never looked back. She took his confession without judgment, without so much as a blink, because yes, she loved him and she trusted him, but more importantly the arc was finally back on the upswing; he was Batman.

In a word, she concluded the early morning rambles, as she poured the fresh coffee into cups while simultaneously scratching the back of her knee with a toe, she appreciated that Charles operated on cold, hard logic and thus rarely surprised, up until the Batman thing.

Or like just now, when she walked out of the kitchen with three cups of coffee and a bottle of milk under her arm and found Charles and Erik sucking face. Raven was smart, but she would have been the first to admit her gaydar was lacking. This was only half-true; it worked just fine, normally, it was just that compared to Charles’ “everything underneath the sun about you and your family”-dar her ability to tell apart the men she could flirt with and those she could take home (which, to be fair, Erik did ping as – he had looked at her ass and boobs, so clearly heterosexuality was an option) was a sad subset of a skill.

“No, seriously, how old are you?” she asked, even though inside a part of her was jumping up and down and yelling “OMG, he’s gaygaygaygaygaygay!” “Are you making up for your lost teenage years?”

Okay, it wasn’t a total shock. Charles wasn’t discriminating when he went out to find someone to fuck, not to her knowledge, but he never brought people home. He never dated, which stood to reason. Honest to god real honesty spelled disaster for a relationship, and though Moira did her best, even she couldn’t handle Charles for more than a few months.

It stood to reason that the guy who could handle the sheer insanity would be an equally fucked up ex-super soldier with suicidal urges. Which, come to think of it, explained a lot, actually, Raven thought.

“Why would he come here, anyway?” Raven asked, putting the coffees on the table. “Sugar, anyone?” sugar would mean another trip to the kitchen, but she was willing to make the sacrifice, even if it meant not seeing Charles flustered like a tween girl macking on a Robert Pattison photo.

“I fit the victim profile to a T,” he said, when the flush subsided enough to allow him the dignity of a grown man.

“You’re not Asian,” Erik pointed out unnecessarily, but Charles was already shaking his head.

“Marvin’s family is from Hawaii. Chen emigrated from China with his parents twenty years ago. Sebastian’s grandparents had moved from Japan in the early nineteen fifties; he didn’t even have a passport. It could have been a coincidence.”

Raven waved that aside. “What I want to know is why aren’t we calling Hank yet. You know he’d get out of bed for you just as readily as tall dark and homicidal here, we need to search the room, see if anything is missing, see if anything is surplus–”

Charles was shaking his head again, and doing it so hard his hair was flying all over the place. “We can’t get the PD involved here.”

“Why not?” Erik asked. “It’s their job. Someone else can take over the investigation, we can move on. It’s not like there’s a dearth of murders to solve around here.”

Raven threw him a disbelieving look. Seriously? Someone tried to kill Charles and you’re just going to hand the case over? What planet are you from, asshole?

“Suppose we called,” Charles said while Raven glared and circled through the names of planets known to her on which such a thing would make sense, eventually arriving at Namek, because they were crazy enough. “What do I tell them? We have found no proof the murderer was anywhere, when there were bodied to examine, what do we say when there is none? That I woke up this morning from a vivid dream that I was in a room with the killer, that there is no shred of evidence in the house suggesting anyone but you has been here? Ethanol will have evaporated, the morphine… the morphine would still be detected, but given the lack of evidence otherwise there’s just my word that it wasn’t taken recreationally. This will put me on the forefront of the suspect list, rather than contribute to the investigation.”

“Trumping even me?” Erik raised a brow but the stormy expression which flitted through his face indicated he wasn’t quite as disbelieving as Raven.

“You know I have no one to tout my innocence at the station,” Charles told the blanket. Raven put an arm around him and squeezed.

“They are idiots if they’d suspect you after you called in with information incriminating you. They should know you are too smart for this,” she said decisively, earning herself a small smile.

“Not everyone thinks in such straight lines, my darling. Some would merely be eager to see me finally go down. I upset people.” Charles toyed with the fleece, curling it around his and Erik’s fingers. They were still touching hands, not quite holding, but keeping them loosely curled around one another, and Raven found that unbelievably cute. Or would, if Charles’ indifferent statement didn’t make her want to kill something small and fluffy and belonging to someone who thought Charles was upsetting.

Raven had long ago decided that she would join the PD, even if her only reason, at first, had been to make sure Charles had someone there who didn’t think he was a freak of nature and whale on the idiots that did. Then she wanted to save the world, but that was beside the point.

“Furthermore, calling this in also significantly ups your position on the suspect list, Erik,” Charles said, stronger this time. “We fought a few days before, giving you potential motive. It’s not a very good motive, but you are a passionate man, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

“I prefer to conclude my business, thank you, and you are not dead,” Erik said dryly. Charles smiled at him.

“I’m not dead, granted. The thorough clean-up suggests that there has been no interruption, so that leaves emotional discord as the cause, which is not unlikely, considering we had an easy rapport.”

“Well, if you’ve been sucking face around the station, that’s an obvious conclusion.” Raven smiled her prettiest smile and Charles winced.

“We haven’t been sucking face at the station.”

“Your loss. Okay, no police. What do we do, then?”

“Our killer is an assassin,” Charles said, tugging the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “His methods notwithstanding. He doesn’t kill for pleasure, doesn’t kill out of need, he kills because he’s been paid to kill, or ordered to kill. He had a phone on him when he was here, and it wasn’t a mistake, he doesn’t make mistakes like that. He kept it on because he must be ready to receive updates at all times, orders, perhaps. Meticulous, organized mind, one that takes orders rather than taking the initiative. I am reasonably sure someone called to stop him from killing me.”

“Why would an assassin kill people and make it look like the work of a serial killer?” Raven sidled closer to Charles and pulled the blanket open, so that she could snuggle inside. She did that while staring at Erik in a mock challenge, because he was an asshole for not telling her he fancied Charles, not her. Let him fetch a chair for himself, now, because Raven will snuggle to her brother when she felt like it, fuck you, Erik.

Erik rolled his eyes. Raven stuck out her tongue.

“The obvious answer would be to hide the fact of the assassination,” Charles said, from another plane of existence.

“Why not stage a suicide?” Raven sipped a coffee and considered. “No, that’s not good either, is it? Anyone knowing anything about Westchester would know you can tell a murder from a suicide by the shape of the doorknob. It’s far easier, far safer, to have you chasing down a serial killer who isn’t a serial killer than to have you discover a suicide is not a suicide.”

Charles perhaps was still in shock, because the look directed her way was insultingly disbelieving.

“I said I want to go into homicide, didn’t I?” Raven said.

“The shape of a doorknob,” Charles started to say, no doubt to share his insights on wood types and their relation to states of depression, but she interrupted.

“Joke, Charles.”

Erik grinned. Thank god, Raven thought, someone got her sense of humor. “Unless it was a particularly hideous doorknob,” he said.

Charles kept frowning. “I don’t think a doorknob alone is capable of causing suicide.”

“Depends how you define causing. Plenty of people hang themselves on doorknobs,” Erik said with the air of a man who had seen it work, and couldn’t get the image out of his mind.

“Why? Aren’t there windows to leap from?” she asked, genuinely curious. Prison, maybe, justified the doorknobs, but otherwise?

“Not everyone thinks the step through, I fear.” Charles smiled a strained little smile that invariably meant Cain was on his mind. Raven brushed the back of his hand with her knuckles, saying “stop that” without actually saying it.

“No fucking kidding,” she said merrily.

“Adorable,” Erik drawled. “About the murderer, if you two could spare the time. You’re saying what we’re dealing with is an assassin, operating within a larger group, who stages serial killings to conceal something.”

“Yes.”

Raven tapped the side of her mouth. “I know people tend to be dumb, but it seems to me that the only thing to conceal with a murder is another murder. I mean that kind of murder. It doesn’t seem like a sane plan to cover up a budget crisis with serial killing.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Erik crossed his legs and leaned back. “Granted, I did skip school when economy was discussed, so I might be wrong.”

Charles nodded his blessing to the theory. “The first thing that would be investigated in the wake of a murder would be the financial situation of the victim and his place of business.”

“So it was a murder they wanted to cover up.” Erik grabbed a coffee and drained half of it in one go, then topped it off with milk, then repeated the process until Raven’s mild intolerance of lactose had her stomach curling in disgust.

Charles went utterly still, likely at the thought of so much milk. “I wonder,” he said. “But it cannot possibly be me. On one hand, the irregularity of what happened tonight, the sheer impossibility and pointlessness of it, would suggest that my person is important to the scheme. How? Taking the fall would be the obvious option. If nothing else, evidence could have been collected to plant on the next victim. That, however, makes little sense, as it is too far-fetched, far too prone to mistakes. Far more obvious, far more neat, would be to murder Raven in the same fashion, then stage my suicide. A murderer and his final victim, the investigation would close, everyone would assume I merely snapped, at long last, lashed out at whoever was closest and, perhaps in a moment of clarity killed myself. Given the profile of the victims thus far, this would be both simple and elegant.”

Charles, Raven thought, spent way too much time thinking about it. If Erik’s comically wide eyes were any indication, he wasn’t unaffected either.

“Forgive me a moment,” Charles told Raven and carded his fingers through her hair. Raven felt his breath on her naked shoulder, controlled at long last – the morphine had worn off. “Ah, there it is: a puncture mark. A tiny needle to the side of the neck; a small enough dosage that you would sleep soundly through the night and find me in the morning.” Charles’ hand closed into a fist in her hair, not pulling, but unmistakably there, and for a moment Raven saw true anger on his face; real, encompassing fury. She was grateful for his control. This look was terrifying, as little else was.

Then there was the other thing. “He was in my room!”

“It’s me, isn’t it,” Erik said flatly, staring at Charles. “I’m the only one who makes sense, in this situation. I might have planned to kill you from the beginning, but refrained after we’ve grown closer together. I had mandatory psychiatric supervision, so I have papers proving I have human feelings and restraint, but I also have a history of violence against trust fund babies and a solid career of violence, period.”

Raven blinked and freed her hair from Charles’ grip. “You do? What did you do?”

“When I was on leave five years ago I stopped a college fratboy party from getting into their cars drunk. It got vicious.” Erik shrugged. “I have poor impulse control when something pisses me off, and those kids were fucking morons. One of them tried to sue. It was hilarious in a way, since only about half could identify me, and one of those swore up and down they were never even there.”

“Awesome,” Raven said.

“It is.” Charles was staring off into the distance, his mouth propped on his knuckles, a sure sign he was already halfway across the city, visualizing the scenes, the bodies, recreating their lives from the artifacts strewn about their rooms. “No, I make no sense as the culprit. All of the victims fit the profile of rich, lazy kid, no ambition and a trust fund, and I daresay there are a lot of profiles I find more distasteful. Not to mention roses. I would have never chosen roses.”

“How the hell do you fit that profile?” Erik wanted to know.

“I am a public servant when I could be running a multimillion dollar corporation.”

Erik’s eyebrows arched in a polite and sparse show of disbelief. Raven quickly jumped in with an explanation, “Charles is the majority shareholder in the Westchester Inc. through his father. They’ve got some seriously outdated ideas about inheritance, all to the firstborn son, apparently, so all I’ve got is my ginormous trust fund and kick-ass figure.” Raven was as far from bitter as possible: her figure was fantastic and the hair was even prettier.

“I weep for you.” Erik finished his milk, like a good little boy, and propped his foot on the table.

“I didn’t ask for it,” Charles said. Raven started. For the first time in years she heard Charles on the defensive, and that he would feel compelled to make Erik understand something this basic about himself… Well, fuck me, Raven thought. Her stupid asshole of a super-genius brother was actually infatuated like a common schoolgirl!

“I really didn’t,” Charles continued, with a note of pleading. “It comes in useful, that’s all, so I kept it, but I hardly ever use it.”

“Money is useful,” Erik agreed. “You’d be an idiot to dispose of it. If you want to be Batman in your spare time, what do I care?”

“I’m not–”

“Shut up, Bruce.” Raven nudged Charles playfully and giggled when he started. He’d forgotten she was even in the room, which was insulting, on one hand, but on the other, d’aww. Raven was this close to whipping up her long-abandoned pink hearts and sequins, and sprinkling them liberally around the room while playing romantic music and lighting candles. Not that she was that into Charles’ sex life, but the scenario required some slo-mo lovemaking in a bathtub to complete the picture. Some of it must have shown in the salacious smirk on her face, because Charles reacted with a scandalized exclamation and a vivid blush that made both her and Erik snigger. The scarlet tinge of his face made her forget that he’d promised to cease mind-reading in her presence, and so she laughed, because this was her brother, who saw through people like they were made of cellophane, with his heart aflutter.

“I feel left out,” Erik noted.

“Get used to it,” Raven said, sticking out her tongue.

Chapter Text

Coffee had texture that yielded itself particularly well to filling the miniscule ridges on the pad of the finger. Charles ran the tip of his finger over the rim of the cup, smearing a stray droplet of the stuff, mindlessly following gravity’s feeble pull on the molecules. He brought the finger up to stare at the whorls there. Worlds were hiding on his fingertip, yet to be explored, invisible as of yet but building up towards the present with an unwavering sense of up and down.

Charles shook his head. Fog filled him from the toes up, culminating in a lazy swirl between his ears, which made everything uncertain. The feeling that he’d dreamt the encounter persisted – it wouldn’t have been the first time that his brain had conjured a fully functional vision from the ideas already inside and presented it to him as fact. After all, what had surprised him? Not the firm, yet gentle touch: that the killer was kind, for a lack of a better term, was evident from the way the other victims had been treated. Not the smell of roses; that, too, had been present at the crime scene. The petals on the beds were always fresh. The scent of shaving cream was dubious evidence, at best; he used the same brand, if not the same product. Morphine was only the most prominent of his allergies, but it wasn’t unheard of that he would wake up gasping for breath for no apparent reason, even if those incidents tended to occur in the spring.

It wasn’t outside the possible, or even probable, that he was going mad at last. The mind was a wonderful, dangerous thing, and people were right to fear it. What was there that could not be conjured by virtue of closing one’s eyes? Charles didn’t have much of an imagination, but he envied people who did. He had no refuge in worlds imagined or places unseen: how could he when the reality was too wondrous to comprehend over the course of a hundred lifetimes? And yet he wished for the ability to dream up a den of dwarves and stay there for a while. He imagined, as far as he understood the word, that the ability to daydream a world of dragons would soothe.

Maybe, just maybe, this was the first step. Maybe dreaming up a serial killer would lead him places he always hoped he could go.

No, the needle mark on Raven’s skin was very real and Erik had smelled the alcohol on him. No dream, then.

But if the visit was real, how could he still be here? The scheme was certainly designed to culminate with his murder and what an elegant culmination it would have been. The investigation (a thorough effort, no doubt, as Moira treated all violence against her people seriously) would discover how well he fit the profile and from there the obvious conclusion could only be that the entire effort was aimed at one Charles Xavier. Who, after all, would doubt that he was singular enough to catch a killer’s eye?

The living room had edges that blurred, an aftereffect of the fog, but superposing them were other edges, which swiftly hid away Raven’s sense of interior design. The newly forming room around him was a memory of a library: a familiar haven to which he often found himself escaping as a child. Even after all these years this was the place his mind conjured to grant him clarity and peace, and, should he need it, the myriads of untold possibilities the events generated. All he needed was to hold out his hand and an invisible force would place the desired book in his palm, already open, and the solution would be there; it had to be. All he had to do was draw the lines which connected the facts and the picture would form.

Charles let himself relax into the couch and the woolly comfort of the blanket. “This is all too much to justify killing just one person. Unless the one person was in possession of sensitive information, which is in this case unlikely,” he said. Raven and Erik both looked at him, abandoning their sniping. “On the other hand, what if the killings are not the point?” The book in his hands was heavy and hand-written. Charles recognized the small, uneven letters characteristic of his thesis supervisor. He also recognized the name they were spelling out. “If I didn’t die, though I was supposed to, then my part is to find the killer, or as close to it as can be done. If that is true, then it must be about Erik, mustn’t it? He’s the only one to fit into the puzzle, the only one to make sense.” Charles shook off the blanket off his shoulder and stood. “If that’s the case, there will be evidence. Far too much work, far too much effort to leave it to chance now.”

He was at the door of his bedroom before he’d even finished speaking. Spare latex gloves were in the drawer of his desk – Erik had pried the previous pair off his hands earlier – so Charles closed his eyes as he tugged them on and stepped into the middle of the room, feeling his way by the depressions in the carpet. He knew this room. He’d slept in it for close to three and a half thousand nights; he woke up every morning taking it in anew, in every light, in every weather, in every season. He wasn’t compulsive about cleaning, which often took people by surprise, but he did keep his things in order, so that that the housekeeper needed only to dust and vacuum, no more.

He could always tell, after her visits.

The room took shape underneath his eyelids. First the bare bones: Raven’s sense of design was concerned mostly with color and so the lines were simplistic, barely a framework to anchor the shades on. Then, one by one, the colors filled the picture, from the uniform cream of the walls to the haphazard covers of the books on the dark shelves.

There was the king-sized bed by the western wall. The desk opposite, by the window. The bookcases; piles of paper on the desk, their titles, their fonts. The patterns on the curtains, the bumps and ridges of the painted walls. Orwell, Stieg, Box, Tolkien, Brown, Steele, Patterson, Clarke, Price, Lovecraft, Dick. Seven binders, filled with his notes he accumulated in the process of earning his degree. The ancient periodicals containing the articles of Watson and Crick, arranged on the third shelf, where he could pick them up and thumb through them for the millionth time, lose himself in the story of the finest data carrier.

There were no pictures in his room. The only thing he ever wanted to remember was Raven and she was in every splash of color and every shape that made up his home.

When he opened his eyes, his vision aligned with the mental representation of what his bedroom should look like, matching it edge for edge. There was not a speck of dust out of place on the desk; no one had touched it in five days, the last time the housekeeper was here. The books, the papers – no, the topmost page was askew, compared to what it should be, but Charles remembered throwing his jacket that way and picking it up again, to the tune of rustling paper.

The mussed bed was cold, rumpled beyond recognition by his abrupt awakening earlier. There was still a hint of warmth to be found among the sheets, but even that was fading quickly. A traitorous voice rattled his trance, reminding him that the warmth was not lost forever, that it could be recaptured, that Erik was right there, and the promises he’d made sounded so good, so tempting in the dim light of pre-dawn hours.

Not now. He was almost there, there was a discrepancy, a ripple on the edge of his consciousness, no more, something for miniscule he would have missed it, anyone would, just a detail–

Oil. A tiny smear glistening on the nightstand, no more than half an inch long, less than a third of an inch in width. The kind of mark that could be left by brushing one’s thumb while balancing over the bed to adjust the head of the sleeper, a translucent sheen that could have been mayonnaise or vegetable oil, or even lotion. It wasn’t. Charles never ate in his room, rarely exited the bathroom without drying his hands and preferred to masturbate in the shower.

There was so little of it, barely enough to give off a scent, but it was gun oil, Charles was certain. He closed his eyes, carefully not touching the nightstand, or the bed in any way, feeling uneasy enough about kneeling on the carpet. Was it possible that Raven had a gun in the house, without him knowing? Unlikely. Could he have left it? Again, unlikely. Years of lab work had left him with the habit of washing his hands before leaving the workplace and again, immediately after coming home, before touching anything. He never touched a gun when he could avoid it. He cleaned his service revolver at the station and left it in his locker, always, furthermore he did it three days ago and the smear was fresher than that.

“Charles?” Raven said from the door, still disheveled and sleepy, but her gaze was alert and full of concern. Erik was peering in curiously over her shoulder, smiling.

“Raven, do you own a gun?” Charles asked.

She started, fidgeted, considered lying. “Yeah,” she said in the end. “But I don’t keep it in the house. I have a safe deposit box.”

At the bank, Charles thought and immediately pushed that thought away. “Was it ever here? Did you ever clean it here?”

“Yeah, like I’d bring a gun here, so you can see it, or sniff it out and give me the puppy eyes. I only take it to the shooting range and clean it there, I’m not stupid.”

“There’s gun oil here,” Charles said getting to his feet. “A very faint mark, the kind someone would leave by brushing a thumb – a gloved thumb, I think – against a recently cleaned gun and then leaning over the bed.”

“Gun oil isn’t that distinctive. It’d lousy evidence.” Erik moved into the room to lean over the nightstand, as though his frown could force the sample to disclose its origin. One of his hands was burning hot against Charles’ hip.

“Combined with remnants of gunpowder and DNA fragments it might be,” Charles said without much conviction. There’d have to be bits of skin, a hair follicle, something. A name card. “If we had a sample to compare it too…”

“Do your talents extend to CSIing a sample on sight? Because that’s the point where I might call the paramedics and ask for a straitjacket.” Erik’s palm travelled higher and back, until he could steer Charles away from their first piece of real evidence and towards the door.

“I would have to ask Hank to confirm this, but it might be possible to identify a gun by the combination of gun oil and powder. I doubt it, but it wouldn’t hurt to try. The very least it could do is cast suspicion. Do you have your gun with you?”

“It’s only a tiny sample,” Erik said, withdrawing his hand and pulling out a pistol from the back of his jeans. He displayed it in a theatrical gesture, taking care to show that yes, it had been recently cleaned, then hid it again. “There’s nothing else?”

“A little goes a long way. He’d been so careful with the other scenes, so meticulous, that any irrevocable piece of evidence here would be offensive. Mind you, it still is, given that I was meant to find it. Why else would I still be alive, if not to find it?” It smelled faintly of desperation. Charles felt his mouth quirk. “And yet it is offensive. The killer didn’t carry a gun; there would be no point to it, other than pointlessly drawing attention to himself, if it was noticed. That he would have gun oil on his gloves is unthinkable, unless he meant for it to be there.”

“Wouldn’t it defeat the purpose, in any case? The murders are so nonviolent they are practically asking politely for the victim to die, if you please. A gun would ruin that, totally.” Raven had braided her hair loosely and was holding the tip of it in one hand. There were slippers on her feet, even though she preferred walking barefoot around the house – in short she was doing everything to maintain the crime scene, certainly more than Charles, who gleefully marched around barefoot. Did he really manage to turn her into a police officer, without meaning to?

“Even if he did have a gun, I doubt he’d keep it in easy reach. This kind of job, I’d take the ankle piece, certainly not a shoulder holster, if there was lifting to be done.” Erik studied his fingers and found a tiny bit of oil there, which he wiped on his jeans. “My own gun, my own oil, very fresh, you will note.”

Charles scoffed, but it was a scoff of panic. “I know that! I didn’t mean to—“

“Relax, Sherlock. Any conclusions?”

“We may be looking for someone you know. Someone with a grudge, if they are so keen to implicate you in murder. Who knew you were moving to Westchester?”

“I didn’t exactly plan this move for months. I picked this city maybe two days before I actually came and it was very nearly a toss of a coin. As for the grudge, I did kill a lot of people, so off the top of my head, there’re the Afghan, the British, the Chinese – and the alphabet is plenty long after that,” Erik said casually, considering his long fingers.

“You pissed off the English? How?” Raven asked, grinning wider than her round face allowed. “I mean, I tried with Charles, ‘cause he’s so British the Queen looks Yankee in comparison and the most I ever got is a frown.”

“I’m not British!”

Erik grinned. “Explain the accent, then.”

“Orthodox English grandmother,” Charles was forced to admit. “She was a force of nature.”

“How can you be orthodox English?” asked Erik, the German-American Jew with an Irish cherry on top and an accent that was more international than the UN.

“She found a way, believe me. She died before Raven was born, or she would know.” Charles remembered being fond of Grandmother Gladys, even if mother thought she was an insane old bat. Grandmother Gladys, he felt, was a kindred spirit – she had found a niche in which she fit and owned it.

“Huh,” Erik said, clearly lost in visualizing.

Charles meanwhile had a minor epiphany. “The plan is far older than your moving here. The victims were picked apart and studied long before the need to kill them surfaced. There must have been a list of suitable victims longer than four, because this happened quickly, so it must have been prepared beforehand, taking accidents into account, and that requires detailed research.” Someone had been studying his life for months without him knowing. Someone had been to his home without alerting him to the fact. Someone had put Raven’s life at risk. Someone had drugged Raven, when she was sleeping in her own bed.

“Charles.”

There was a hand on his shoulder, heavy, warm and steadying. Charles recited pi in the privacy of his head, turning into the warmth and safety. He got to the forty-second digit by the time his breathing was under control. “I’m fine,” he said then. Judging by their expressions, neither Erik nor Raven believed him.

His mind was taking him places. What happened here tonight wasn’t, couldn’t have been, a spur of the moment decision. Far too much effort went into the whole endeavor. Aborting the murder would be far more costly than going through with it, especially if they had done their research on Charles. They must have known he rarely needed more than a shred of evidence to close a case, so letting him live after he witnessed the attempted murder was a tremendous risk. He was only half-conscious for the call, and Raven sometimes indicated he never seemed half-conscious – he was either asleep or awake, never between the two. Therefore it was unlikely that the killer phone call was a part of the plan, thus the phone call was to save Charles’ life, thus the plan had changed recently. If it was more than a few months in the making (which the level of research required would suggest), then it wasn’t illogical to consider Erik’s arrival as the game-changer? Not the only game-changer, perhaps, but a starting point nonetheless.

That Erik was to be implicated was fairly obvious at this point. The point of implicating as much remained unclear, however. No one sane would have arranged such a spiel just to lose Erik his job. Cost and benefit didn’t match up – months of research, days of careful observation, followed by artful arrangement of a body. That and the killing, naturally, that was awful. The why, however, remained less than clear.

The implication of Erik didn’t seem to be the effect of coincidence, which left two possibilities: either Erik was the intended target from the beginning and his arrival was the trigger that set the events in motion, or his presence was merely incorporated into an existing plan just now, with Charles. Erik said he didn’t know he would be choosing Westchester as his destination until long after the plan has been put into motion, which meant the first option was far less likely. This would also explain why Marvin was selected, though he must have already been on the list of potentials, so the fact that he became involved with Erik was pure chance.

The skills required to perform the murders was not remote, but the feeling of effortless comfort with death and causing it was extremely unusual, and Erik, unfortunately, couldn’t deny he would have had little trouble with committing such an act. Charles hesitated at this point, because however ruthless Erik was, he wouldn’t… He would, of course. He would need a reason, however, and mere games wouldn’t have been enough. Altogether, that Erik was to be implicated in Charles’ eyes suggested very strongly that the killer was extremely confident that his skills were an exact match to Erik’s.

Ergo, the person they were looking for was a fellow Special Forces soldier. Perhaps even one from the same unit.

Charles sat on the bed, mindless of the voices over his head, mindless of the streets and the bombination of the waking day. He was entering conjecture territory, a land both unwelcome and unfamiliar. If he was right, he would need to suggest to Erik his friends from the army were not to be trusted. There was no love between him and his commanding officer, but the rest?

What was the alternative? Suppose for a moment Erik’s presence was vital. Suppose that it was, in fact, the point. What would this accomplish? A distinguished member of the Special Forces being accused of triple homicide and an assault on a police officer. If proven, this would mean the end of his career and loss of believability, not to mention a lengthy sentence, but it would have far reaching repercussions for the unit as well.

What could Erik and his men know that would make him a target of such a plan?

Any number of things, of course. Special Forces made no secret of keeping secrets. There were, however, millions of ways a soldier could be silenced and Erik’s secrets, of this Charles was sure, were neither state related nor professional. It couldn’t have been anything he consciously knew.

“What do you know?” Charles asked out loud, folding his hands in his lap and staring at the wall.

Erik was shaken out a particularly snarky exchange with Raven, which related to, if Charles wasn’t mistaken, the contents of her purse, towels and the importance of said. “I’m sorry?”

“What do you know that’s worth murdering three people for?” Even as he spoke those words, Charles knew that this was the wrong train of thought and the expression on Erik’s face proved it. Three civilian deaths were far too much to get rid of one soldier, when a single misfire on a training field would settle the job just as easily and with fair less uncertainty. “Never mind. You couldn’t have.”

Erik was, as usual, quick to catch up. “You think one of them knew something?”

Charles nodded slowly, weighing the options. Money would be obvious – they were each connected, if indirectly, with enough millions to justify the cash spent on the killer. “Something worth killing for, yes. One, or more, though I think it was one. It couldn’t have been me, obviously.”

“Something money related?” Erik leaned against the wall with his hands tucked underneath his armpits and stared at Charles, hardly ever blinking. “They were far too goody-two-shoes to dabble into anything illegal, unless they were criminal masterminds and superb actors, to boot. The fact that it took so much time to deal with them suggests there was no sudden discovery to be made, or if there was, they didn’t know what they discovered.”

“They all would have had access to some company files, with enough wiggle room to ask for more,” Charles said and fell silent. Then immediately felt like a complete idiot.

“Marvin,” he and Erik said at the same time.

“He started looking into the files around the time I arrived in town. Out of all of them, he is the obvious target, if we’re talking financial irregularities. He worked as an accountant.” Erik let his hands fall to his sides, where they remained, fingers splayed, ready to reach for a gun. He had cared for Marvin and Erik didn’t suffer for hurt to happen to people he cared for.

“He died third, which I don’t think could have been a coincidence. We would have likely dismissed the third murder’s specifics for the sake of a pattern.” Any other day Charles would have admired the thinking, admired the forethought and planning. Perhaps he would have even been excited at the prospect of a worthy adversary – he wasn’t capable of boredom, when he could easily amuse himself for hours with a kaleidoscope, but to compete against someone with wits to match his was a thrill. But that was before, before Erik, before Raven’s life was on the line. “I’m going to find him,” he said quietly. “Will you help me?”

“Like you even need to ask.” Erik skirted a hand down Charles’ arm, pressing briefly against his palm. Charles smiled up at him and let his hand curl into the caress, hoping to preserve the contact as long as he was able. Thank you, he wanted to say.

“I’m still pissed I’m only now finding out,” Raven said, from another planet. “Seriously. Charles, what the hell. You get a boyfriend and don’t tell me?” There was genuine hurt in her voice, thorough and burning. Charles averted his gaze. He’d always shared. When he’d asked Moira out Raven knew seven minutes after she had accepted, and that was because she had been in class and couldn’t read the text immediately.

“I hardly think this is the issue here,” he protested in a feeble whisper, as his relationships were a muddle, to be sure, but hardly a worthy comparison for a murder investigation.

“You are sleeping in the guest room,” Raven said, not placated in the slightest, growing even more haughty when Erik raised a polite, incredulous eyebrow at her. “You need to rest for a little while. You can pretend you were out chasing a lead, or maybe not lie and say you overslept when you roll in late, but you are napping. Both of you. You are sleeping in the guest room, too, because I say so.” She stomped a foot on the carpet, for full effect and Charles had to smile.

Erik, likewise, had a smile on his face when he said, “Does it have a bed?”

“Of course it has a bed, don’t be an idiot. We are not savages.” There was a subtle “like you” hanging by a thin thread to her words.

“Given the evidence I have been forced to conclude you two are dedicated to not letting me get any sleep.” Erik hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans and offered Raven a winsome grin, to which she merely scoffed.

“Yeah, yeah. Chill the fuck out and get. Bathroom is through there. There should be spare towels, plural, in the cupboard. Help yourself to anything of Charles’, he won’t mind, but if you absolutely need a fresh razor or whatever, I think I recently shoved some behind the mirror.”

Charles nodded along, a little too eagerly, as his head began a vocal protest. “It’s a good idea. I need a nap. I don’t feel too well.”

“You should see a doctor.” Raven let go of her hair and came forward to check his temperature. If she found it elevated, she didn’t say, but Charles felt he needed to reassure her all the same.

“I’m fine, darling, I promise.”

“You just said you don’t feel well. You need to go to a doctor and make sure the morphine shot didn’t hurt you any.”

“If it’d done anything, I would have known already. I’m fine.”

Except naturally he would stumble in the bathroom. The reflection of his face was blurry for a second or two and he gripped the edge of the counter, as he once again had to fight his breathing into submission. Allergies were such a bother.

An unpredictable relief was waiting for him just outside the door, in the form of Erik, with his arms crossed around his chest. Charles gave him a wan smile. “Goodnight.”

“Good morning, Charles,” Erik said as he pushed past him into the bathroom, even though the bare seconds it would take for Charles to step aside would surely make no difference in the early morning schedule and this way they almost got stuck in the door, chest to chest.

Charles went and made himself comfortable on the couch, curling into the abandoned turquoise fleece. Warm and comforting though it was, the days were beginning to get cold and if he were to sleep like this he would feel it; fortunately, this was only a nap and he could manage. He’d managed to sort himself out enough to doze, when the sound of his name startled him awake. “The hell do you think you’re doing?” Erik asked, standing over him with the stormiest expression on his face.

Charles looked up, craning his neck back as far as it would go. “I’m really tired. I might have missed something. It would be safer not to destroy potential evidence in my room.”

“You should win awards for idiocy,” Erik said, hauling him up from the couch with one hand. “We could call those Charleses, in your honor.”

No one could have been more surprised than Charles, when he ended up tucked into the bed of their guest room, with Erik pressed to him shoulder to toe underneath the fluffy covers.

“They were the men who killed your mother, weren’t they,” Charles said into the pillow. He didn’t elaborate. His head was hurting too much to bother with clarifications.

His only answer was a brush of lips against his neck. He read confirmation in them.

“I wish I could bring myself to act in revenge,” Charles continued in a whisper. “The only way I can kill is when I know more misery will be caused, more death, if I don’t stop them. What kind of a person makes such judgment so coolly?” Then, even more quietly. “How is that even human?”

“No less human than hunting down three twenty-year-old boys in Mexico City with more bullets than aiming skills and far less common sense than both,” came the breathy reply.

“There are very few motivations more human that the desire to avenge a loved one.”

“Humanity is overrated.” Erik’s his hand warm and calming on Charles’ stomach, underneath his T-shirt. Charles felt it curl around his every inhalation, pressing lightly when he exhaled, and so Charles succumbed to safe, dreamless sleep.

*****

Raven shouldn’t have been surprised that she found the two crazy bastards curled up in each other in the guest room when she looked in on Charles and found him missing from his bed. Shouldn’t have, but god, did her heart skid to a stop or what. She combated the surprise by taking a photo on her phone and making it her wallpaper. There. The value of private photos was vast, and Raven was the daughter (well, sister; the Markos were plebeians and she was a chum more than a lady) of high society – she knew all about incriminating personal habits. Truth be told the photo was sweet more than anything else, as Charles was curled into a fetal position and Erik was plastered to his back, breathing into his neck, spewing rainbows and little pink hearts all over Charles’ hair.

One other thing she shouldn’t have been surprised by was that Erik stirred when she cooed.

“Two things, asshole,” she said, when Erik opened one bleary eye in her direction. “Yeah, you. One, I still think you are a dick for not telling me you were into him. Throw a girl a bone next time, right? Tell her you’re queer. You wouldn’t believe the issues that sort of thing can give us.”

He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “none of your goddamned business,” but his voice was muffled by Charles’ neck, therefore couldn’t be admitted as evidence and Raven considered her point well-made and fuck you, queer soldiers of America, get a banner and rainbow camo, so that people can tell and not get their hopes up – or know to get their hopes up, the socially conscious part of her admitted.

“Secondly, wow, way to be a lying dick.” She crossed her arms, quite consciously doing it so that the curve of her boobs was clear over the edge of her nightie. “So you hurt people in your sleep, eh? You deserved every aching bone for that.”

Erik finally woke enough to process sentences and come up with coherent responses. “What do you want, Raven?”

Charles remained blissfully unconscious, breathing softly in the circle of Erik’s arms. Erik’s hand was under his t-shirt moving rhythmically in a G-rated manner and Raven wanted to vomit a rainbow, or three, even if Charles looked twelve when his face went slack and Erik was seriously pinging her creep radar because of that. Not seriously, of course, because Charles at twelve was about as innocent as a career twelve-dollar hooker – at least that was her understanding. She spent a third of that happy year curled in a tight, pink balloon and the rest wailing at the slightest breeze, unless she had pooped her pants, in which case she’d gone quiet until an unsuspecting soul had come to pick her up.

“I want to help,” she said.

“How?”

“How can I help?”

“What could you possibly contribute?” Erik asked, smirking. “ You have no experience in the field, no tactical skills, and frankly, with Charles around, we hardly need to bother with an extra pair of hands for research.”

Raven burned. She was sure it showed on her face, beside the angry flush. “He came into my house,” she said in a throaty growl. “He threatened my brother. I will get involved; you can trust me on this. If you don’t let me help you, I will look for him myself, if I have to paint myself blue and parade down Broadway with a cardboard sign around my neck saying ‘come on out, motherfucker’.”

Erik, mercifully, seemed to understand and canned the sarcasm. “I’ll talk to him, but don’t expect miracles,” he said. “I’ll drop you a text when we find something you can help with, how’s that?”

Raven beamed. “Thank you.”

She let them have another half an hour of peace, because she loved Charles and something in him finally opened up with Erik there, and she would nurture the hell of that hopeful, reaching out part it if it killed her. She did, however, hover preemptively around the door, listening for the first sounds of X-rated activities. She might have been happy for Charles and she might have been approving of Erik, but she was a little sister and she would walk in on any future make-out session, because cockblocking was the province of little sisters, no matter how mature and adult they were.

*****

It turned out, sooner rather than later, that getting through everything Marvin had touched in the weeks surrounding the first murder would either require more paper than becoming an apostate of the Roman Catholic Church, or buying a computer with its ever-convenient ctrl+f function. Erik opted for the latter, selecting a blue Dell and calling it Charlie, to Charles’ confusion. Along with the files they managed to acquire the printouts and everything that came with them – it turned out that Marvin was a compulsive note-taker. Charles had leapt on the paper trail, devouring the pages of slanted handwriting with eagerness most people reserved for ice-cream, leaving Erik to slowly meandering his way through gigabytes of columns.

Barely a week later, just when Erik was in serious danger of developing exotropia, Charles put down the pilfered files with a soft “oh.”

Erik withheld his enthusiasm while Charles did that thing where his eyes become unfocused and the universe arranged itself according to the laws of logic. “Did you have an epic epiphany where the killer turns out to be the commissioner?”

Charles smiled. “Nothing quite so groundbreaking. I merely found a few notes indicating Marvin was visiting a company whose records he found strange. This is a company that belongs to the conglomerate he was working for – it deals with the shipping of goods worldwide. It has impeccable records, scrupulous tax returns and not a shipment out of place.”

“False records,” Erik concluded with a smile.

”Well, I’m not an expert,” Charles said, with the same air he proclaimed the world contained strangers, “but I do know there are a few memos that have been copy pasted from the previous years. Down to the last typo. Until a year ago the whole paperwork was managed by just one person. The last year’s are just as impeccable, just as vague, but spelled correctly and with more variation.”

“Why don’t criminal masterminds spring for spell-check?” Erik said with a weary sigh. He never understood why the army thought proof-reading was beneath them – or maybe that was just his commanding officer. He’d given up the fifth time his name had been spelled with a C.

“It’s a minor thing – really a difference in opinion rather than a mistake – but it shows up over and over.” Charles frowned at the notes, not doubt cataloguing the additional atrocities.

“Wonderful. I always thought that the crimes against the English language should be punishable by prison time,” Erik said, though the mildly scandalized expression on Charles’ face suggested the difference in opinion might have been an extra U in a variety of common words, to which he took offence on behalf of his fellow Americans.

Charles’ British was most definitely showing when he said, “I don’t think spending time in prison would help in that regard.”

“It gives a man plenty of time for reading.” Erik scanned another document, discovered absolutely nothing he could understand, and closed the file.

“If I thought I could get some quiet time in jail I would have robbed a bank a long time ago.”

“Knowing your luck you’d have fucked it up and gotten away with the money,” Erik said, then, when Charles turned an appropriate shade of pink, he added, “Where is that company based?”

“Right here in Westchester, as it happens. They have an office by the docks.” Charles flipped through the file and handed Erik a cheerful note of “sure, that’s nice of you to investigate, here are our records,” which had the address in the header. “I’ll call Kitty, get her to take a look for anything prosecutable. Business isn’t my forte.”

“Then what caught your eye?”

“The typos, mainly.”

“That’s a thin reason to investigate a legitimate company.”

“This is the least significant of companies which Marvin had under his supervision,” Charles said, proving that he had just enough business savvy to recognize business significance. “Shipping is easy to confuse, the smaller the company the more flawed the records, and we know he was killed a few short weeks after he took an interest in the business deals. He made a note that he visited their office three days before the first murder – the other company he investigated at the time he visited after Mr. Tojo died.”

“On the other hand, I would have gone to investigate a hot-dog stand, if it meant getting out of here.” Erik stretched his arms over his head. “Let’s go,” he said, closing the laptop.

*****

It happened like this: one moment Charles was considering the fresh coat of paint on the Caspartina office door (the new coat of paint had been an arbitrary decision – there was no indication anything violent had befallen the door, thus forcing the owner’s hand), while Erik went round back to see if they had to expect anyone to come flying in or out the windows, the next there was a jiggling of keys and then a screech, confined entirely to his mind, ripping through his consciousness. The smells of fresh paint, combined with shaving cream and matching aftershave, with the faintest hint of roses and gunpowder crowded in his nose, momentarily blinding his eyes.

“Excuse me,” said a man behind him.

Charles took a step to the side, turned, and there he was, face to face with the murderer.

“Good morning,” he said. “It’s good to finally see you properly.”

The man blinked. He was roughly of Erik’s height and built – a touch heavier, perhaps, but Erik was remarkably svelte – and he carried himself in the same self-assured fashion, borne of training and years of survival in the hostile conditions. If viewed through a peephole by someone whose eyesight had dimmed with age, he might have been mistaken for Erik, with his dark hair and pale blue eyes. In broad daylight even people not cursed with Charles’ attention to detail would see the differences. The man’s steps were lighter; he’d had ballet training in his childhood and there was something of a dance in him even now, a lightness that Erik couldn’t hope to approximate. He moved like he was hopping from place to place, landing gracefully after every jump, whereas Erik prowled, always ready to leap and dig his proverbial claws into a threat.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” he said. His poker face was remarkable – only the most minute flickering of his eyes told Charles he was fully aware of who he was facing. Still, there was no reason not to play along.

“Last night,” Charles clarified. “Around midnight. Or was it one in the morning? I had an early night, I can’t be sure of the precise time.”

The man made a show of looking at Charles’ belt, where the golden shield glistened in the sun. “You must mistake me for someone else, detective.”

There was a faint hardening of vowels, the accent slipping deliberately between the syllables, which otherwise carried the same melodic lilt that distinguished Erik’s speech, the one that was the result of a hundred different pronunciations distilled into one. This was a native speaker of English, but with foreign parentage. Russian, maybe?

“No, I don’t think I am. Your shaving cream is quite distinctive.” And the cologne. And the far more subtle scent of soap and washing powder and a million other chemicals combined into a unique mixture, that every human being carries on oneself every moment of every day.

Raven used to joke that Charles had a nose of a bloodhound. She was wrong, of course – he was unable to distinguish people by their natural body odors, he could hardly be expected to track a person through the city on scent alone, but, like with sights and sounds, he rarely forgot combinations and this man smelled exactly like his late night visitor.

“I understand Gillette would like to tell us so, but I’m fairly certain that’s just a marketing ploy,” he said. The rest of his body remained still, poised on the step with one hand on the railing. Charles had to smile. He looked like he was one musical note away from a graceful arabesque.

“Can I ask for your identification, please?” Charles asked.

“On what grounds, detective?”

“I presume you are a worker here, given that the door is closed and you have a set of keys in your hand. I regret to inform you that your company is under investigation, presently.”

The man smiled, but handed over his ID without a further comment. “Is it because of the horrible paint work on the door? I keep telling the boss it was a stupid idea. He doesn’t listen. He has good taste normally.”

“It’s tax related,” Charles said lightly. Erik was coming over, two more steps and he would turn the corner. He walked like he did everything else – with full attention to his surroundings and the knowledge that, at any moment, being the one doing the surprising would be to his advantage.

“Ah, then I wouldn’t know a thing. I work security,” said the serial killer who wasn’t a serial killer at all, even as the tilt of his head revealed he was fully aware Erik was approaching.

The scene Erik walked into gave him the barest pause. “Charles,” he said, not looking at him at all, staring instead at Mr. Zachary Asimov, resident of Kansas. “Azazel. What brings you to Westchester?”

“Work,” Mr. Asimov replied, with a casual shrug.

“Shaw didn’t mention you, god only knows why. He mentioned everything else.” Erik spoke casually, with his hands in his pockets and a veneer of casual gladness to be seeing a comrade, but his posture screamed at Charles to take a step back, to get away, to run.

Charles chose to ignore the warning.

“Shaw sent you here?” Mr. Asimov asked with genuine surprise, which Erik dismissed with a wave of his hand.

“Gave me a list of places to avoid, same difference.”

“You always were a contrary bastard.” Mr. Asimov showed nothing but genuine regard for the fact. If Charles strained his eyes, he could see jealousy in the lines of his face. This made sense – this was a man who ran where his master pointed him, and no place else. “I haven’t spoken with Sebastian for a long while. His schedule is busy these days.”

“You work here?” Erik indicated the little shed with the newly painted door. “Seems like a step down for you.”

Mr. Asimov took a step back, hopping off the stairs and onto the concrete below. “Says the man moonlighting for the least effective police force in the world,” he told Erik.

“Not fair – WPD is effective,” Charles protested, given that he was paid to uphold the good name of the force. “The solve ratio only suffers for the amount of crimes committed here.”

“Do you have a warrant?” Mr. Asimov asked, shoving his hands into his pockets. Quite the innocuous gesture, when his gun was in the small of his back, much like Erik’s, and his knife strapped to his calf. There was confidence there that went beyond a soldier ready to resist potential arrest and a man who knew he had nothing to fear. There was a plan written in the studious nonchalance of his attitude, unfortunately – and, for Charles, shockingly – the plan was written in a foreign alphabet.

“I’m afraid not,” Charles said, then, in the very same second Erik uttered a sharp, “Yes.” Erik glared at Charles, as though lying could possibly change anything at this point. The trap was written then plainly and Charles had every intention of springing it.

Mr. Asimov followed the exchange with a fair amount of amusement. “I see.” He procured the keys from his pocket, stepped up to the door, opened it and held it open, against the pull of the spring. “Well, if you want to have a look-see, go right ahead. I’ll go have a coffee and come back in an hour. Far as I know the airhead in charge of tax returns was fired last year, but everything should be in perfect order now.”

“That’s very generous of you. Thank you for your cooperation,” Charles said.

“I don’t have anything to hide. Call me if you need anything, detective.” Mr. Asimov whipped up a business card and handed it over.

Charles took it, noting that he official title of his job was “senior security officer”. “Thank you.”

Mr. Asimov turned on his heel and disappeared among the containers in his peculiar ballet-like gait, as Charles considered the card. There were two numbers listed: a cell phone and a landline to this very office, as the number matched that offered on the company’s website.

“Are you okay?” Erik asked, rushing up the three steps with fright better spent on a worthier cause.

“Am I okay?” Charles tilted his head, amused. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”

“It was him,” Erik stated, not a note of doubt in his voice or his face. There was only the cold certainty that this, here, was the man they were looking for, the man who – Charles’ breath caught – was ordered to kill Charles and would have done so. There was so much going through Erik’s mind just then, but that one thought took precedence: it showed in the way he was crowding Charles against the wall, shielding him from the open space, in the hand which twitched, waiting for the first hint of trouble to whip out the gun and go apeshit on the town, as the colloquialism demanded.

Charles rested his palm on the sun-warmed leather covering Erik’s shoulder. “Did you serve together?” he asked, drawing the soldier out of the battlefield and back to the empty docks.

Erik bowed his head and kept it down, where a hairsbreadth separated his cheek from Charles’ hand. “Ten years. He tried to talk me out of leaving.”

“You liked him.”

“He’s a decent person, as they go. Borderline psychopath when it comes to following orders, but he is at least a human being.” They were close enough that his presence and, by inference, his guilt to be a shock, but distant enough that the shock was only mild and impersonal. Charles wanted – he wanted, that in itself was worthy of note – to meet Erik’s actual friends, because he must have had some.

“Are you okay?” he asked gently, confirming with a glance that Mr. Asimov was somewhat true to his word and stayed out of sight.

“He’s assassinating people, Charles. At least I had a reason.”

So does he, Charles wanted to say. So did I. We all do what we must to judge ourselves worthy. He follows orders, you protect your family long after you have no one to protect, and I stand between the chaos in my head and the chaos in the world by chiseling at the latter with a nail file.

“This is a trap,” Erik said.

“Yes.”

“We better hurry.” Erik pushed Charles into the office, following closely.

“Yes.”

“We need to be out of here in fifteen minutes, or less.”

“Alright. I don’t need much time,” Charles said, already committing the layout of the small room to memory.

“Do you have gloves?”

Charles pulled a couple of pairs from his pocket. “Always.”

Erik took his pair with the look of profound, even religious, offence. “You don’t carry any condoms, when I’m willing to bet there are people who’d swan-dive into your bed, but you always have enough latex gloves to perform surgery. How in the world does that make sense?”

“It’s been quite a while since I got to touch a living human being. It’s a matter of probability, I’m afraid.” Charles hesitated. “The amount of people willing to take that particular swan-dive is surprisingly small, once I stop talking.”

“If you’re so smart, why do you need more than one lesson to learn?”

Charles blushed. He couldn’t help it. Erik had, when he cared to, the most filthy bedroom voice. “I was hoping we’d get to an actual bed next time.”

“Do you have condoms in your room, now?”

Charles didn’t answer. He rather hoped the duck of his head would give it away and, judging by Erik’s boisterous laughter, it did.

There were irrelevant files in the cabinets. Charles barely even looked their way. He bent to the floor, instead, where a smudge on the drawer revealed that something inside was of far more interest than anywhere else. He opened the lowest drawer, the one that looked like it might not be a drawer at all, but rather a base of the cabinet, and found a laptop. The cord was missing – presumably it was hidden in one of the other cabinets – but the battery was at fifty percent. Charles gave the password a dubious look. There was too little in the office to make an educated guess, but by the time he got through with calculating the probability of finding it written down anywhere, Erik was already reaching over, restarting the computer and booting it up again in the Safe Mode.

“We’re in,” he said simply, after another reboot. “They will know we got in, though.”

“We were invited, they can hardly expect us to look at the photos on the wall and leave. I’ll see if there’s anything we can copy and take along with us.”

“Be quick.”

Charles started with the emails. The mailbox consisted of emails sent to azazel@gmail.com, and there were several on the company server, all addressed to the user “zasimov.” The vast majority was sent from a Sebastian Shaw, Erik’s ex commanding officer. Their tone was curt, businesslike, discussing the progress of the company and the status of current shipments, none of which merited neither more nor less than a “satisfactory”.

Charles’ couldn’t pinpoint the moment when he thought he should scroll down further than a couple of months, unless the myriad of red-tinged lamps simultaneously lit up in his head counted as a moment. There weren’t that many, in either case – the reports were sent bimonthly, all succinct, and he read very fast, so in no time at all he reached last years’, and earlier, emails, to find similar status reports. Mr. Asimov had been involved in this company while he was on active duty. Strange, but acceptable, for a soldier to have a secondary career, even despite the fact that he was, officially, a senior security officer. The other side, however, this Sebastian Shaw, that was the puzzle. The emails sent from either Azazel or zasimov were not the emails of a subordinate turned friend who sends his ex-commander updates on his daily life. These were the notes from an employee, reporting on progress.

Charles paused on an exchange which took place over a year ago. “How is Mexico City?” Azazel wrote in conclusion.

“Full of familiar faces,” Shaw had replied. “Regretfully, none I wanted to see.”

Erik had killed Mexican boys for the murder of his family shortly before coming to Westchester. His mother and daughter had died a year before that. The email was dated to a few days prior to the date of their deaths. Even allowing for the difference in Hebrew and Gregorian calendars – assuming Erik even cared about those – that would put Mr. Shaw, Mrs. Lehnsherr’s and her granddaughter’s death in the same town in the same frame of time.

Charles wasn’t good with believing in coincidences, when they concerned people. Something about the unimaginable complexity of the human mind made even the events significant in the greater whole.

He scrolled back up, to the latest messages. “Marvin Kano requires an audit,” said the email sent from Mr. Shaw to Mr. Asimov three days before the murder of Sebastian Tojo. Three days would have been enough time to confirm previous observations and acquire a pound of rose petals without drawing too much attention. Enough to make use of a plan already hatched, enough to set it in motion.

“It’s not enough,” he said out loud. “It will not be enough.”

“Charles?” Erik was staring at him over the edge of the file he was browsing.

“It’s good enough for me,” Charles said quickly. “It won’t be for the court.” He was going to take this to court, he decided then. He would do his utmost to make sure this ended up before a jury and not before the gun of a cop in a back alley.

I won’t kill when the crime is personal, he told himself firmly. I will not. I can’t.

“We have confirmation, at least,” Erik said, not remotely concerned with the practicalities. “The evidence will sort itself out.”

There was always evidence, but they were searching an office, which was a public enough place. They shouldn’t have expected to find anything here, at all. Even the concealed laptop held nothing incriminating, nothing that could be used against anyone, the company least of all. Well, maybe the company, but Charles had little doubt their records of the official business were spotless and serial killing didn’t figure into it at all. They had nothing, but Charles’ certainty that this was the place, that those were the people. Worse: they had searched the premises without a warrant; any evidence would have been inadmissible, and the company, other than the squeaky clean tax returns would raise no eyebrows, certainly not enough for a judge to hand out a warrant. Being scrupulously exact was not a crime, not even close, though it was fairly suspicious.

“We have to go,” Charles said, closing the laptop. They needed a warrant. They needed a reason, any reason, to investigate this particular office, these particular people. Any reason other than Charles’ hunch, based on what must seem to be a nightmare. Could he go to Moira and claim he knew this to be true for sure and fail to produce anything to support his claims? Anything but a smell long since evaporated?

Yes, he could go to Moira. She would believe him, but she wouldn’t support him.

“Did you find anything?” Erik asked, reluctantly closing the file.

“We have to go now.”

“Why?”

“Because we have no warrant. We have no legal authority. We have nothing.”

The look Erik shot him was incredulous, and Charles used up his yearly supply of charity to deem it so, as it would have been better described by the words “are you fucking shitting me?” “You know he is responsible,” Erik hissed. “If nothing else, we have this. I know he is, and if whatever is done here is secret enough to kill for, then whoever Azazel is working for is responsible. How is that nothing?”

“It’s not enough. It won’t be enough for the jury – how hard do you think it is to question my rationale, when nine out of ten people would vote yes on proposition: denounce Xavier as a witch!”

“We can find the evidence,” Erik told him firmly, opening the file again and turning a few pages. “Damn, I lost my place.”

“Erik,” Charles started saying, just as his phone rang. Raven’s silly photo, the Halloween one, in which her face was painted blue and her hair was a fiery orange, popped up on the screen. “Raven?”

“No, detective,” said a male voice. “It is not.” In the background someone let out a strangled breath, along with a few muffled syllables, and Charles recognized the voice as Raven’s and the gasp as the sound made by one whose mouth is covered with an impatient hand. He tried not to put the two together, because there was a part of him that knew he couldn’t handle the picture they formed, but it was too late and when he knew what had happened – when he knew what it meant – his entire being froze up.

“No,” he whispered.

“It might interest you to know that young Miss Xavier has found her way to the docks all by herself,” said the very amicable voice. “It very much interests me to know that she has, in her phone, a message from an Erik L., which reads ‘dock 2A. Ship and captain names’. Now there is a curious coincidence, a partner of yours divulging the details of an investigation to your little sister.”

“Don’t hurt her,” he said, but he knew – curse his mind, curse him – it was futile.

“Now, detective, why would you assume I would hurt the lovely Miss Xavier?”

Because that’s what you do, Charles thought, and the thought was calm, even if the rest of him wasn’t. It flowed through his head like a clear printout message a laser printer had just spit out into a violent storm. That was the truth of it, wasn’t it, you hurt people, that’s all you do. That’s all I ever do. Raven. Raven. Raven.

Please, no.

The connection broke and he was left standing in the cramped office, still holding the phone to his ear and hitting himself in the head with it entirely involuntarily, while Erik stared at him in alarm.

“Raven’s in trouble?” Erik asked, but before Charles could be shaken into offering a coherent answer the door opened and Mr. Asimov was there, with a gun pointed in their general direction.

“Your gun, Erik. And yours, detective,” he said, gesturing with the pistol. He took one look at Charles and dismissed him as a threat, very accurately, Charles had to admit, in that moment. Mr. Asimov’s attention remained fixed on Erik, who made no indication he intended to comply. “Please put them, and your cell phones, on the floor and come with me, if you want your sister to live.”

Charles didn’t have a gun on him. He took it to a field when he was given no other option, but today was all about research, and the gun was securely locked up in his locker at the station, behind the locker door, behind the changing room door, behind the station door, three and two-tenths of a mile away from the docks. He let the cell phone fall from his hand instead, barely registering the crack which meant he would need to replace it.

“Tell Mr. Shaw not to hurt Raven,” Charles pleaded, even as Erik glared at his erstwhile comrade and dropped his gun to the floor in shock.

“Shaw? He’s here?”

“He’s always there,” Charles said. The word was so much brighter now. Everything gleamed, how could everything gleam in this poor light? It was October, the sun wasn’t even that high in the sky, why was everything so bright and vivid? Why was the light reflected by the metal of the gun hurting his eyes, when it was away from the sunbeam and the light bulb offered the poorest substitute of the sun. “He was in Mexico City when your mother died.”

Mr. Asimov’s eyes darted his way, then to the computer on the desk, then back to Charles. His mouth twitched in a wry semblance of a rueful smile. “I am sorry about your family,” he said in Erik’s direction, he said honestly, he said with genuine remorse and pain. He and Erik were not particular friends, but there was a bond between them that would stop even him, a creature of no personal direction, from following an order of that nature. “I found out about the same time as you did.”

Erik was fair skinned, but the pallor of his face was so unnaturally white just then, even in the glaring, unnatural brightness, that Charles skimmed the room for a first aid kit and wondered if they had smelling salts. Quite the unnecessary worry, obviously, as Erik set his jaw and hissed, “Shaw killed my family?”

“Out,” Mr. Asimov said, motioning the two of them towards the door. “Erik first.”

Chapter Text

Handling emotions is a skill. It allows to contain the five stages of grief, channel them, move past the shock and denial, utilize the intensity that follows and funnel it into something that grows and builds the life that remains out of the ashes. At the very least it builds a wall that keeps out despair, so that when the recovery comes it will be full and sweet rather than bitter. Erik didn’t have that skill. Grief numbed him and the anger that followed never left, stripping him down to the bone, leaving behind only the drive to destroy whatever caused the grief, at whatever cost.

He didn’t remember sitting shiva after he got the phone call. He remembered the line of bottles on the floor, many of them knocked over, the stench of alcohol and his own unwashed body, but that memory was a week older than the call, and followed a very unpleasant awakening. He must have gone out, at some point, because his apartment had rarely been without alcohol, but vodka had never been his drink of choice and there had been more bottles there than a single man could conceivably drink in one sitting, which implied forethought, which had been in stark contrast to Erik’s frame of mind at the time. The following days had been harder still – he must have given the Mexican authorities permission to cremate the bodies, as he had received only urns, instead of coffins, when he’d finally managed to crawl into a suit and mumble his way through the Kaddish, all the while concentrating on not standing too close to the candles, for fear of the alcohol fumes bursting into flame.

The stupor had faded as soon as the funeral had ended, and with its disappearance returned the exact memory of that first phone call. They hadn’t just died, they’d been murdered. Erik had requested a discharge and went hunting. He had been out of the country as soon as shloshim had been over, not of any overt religious need (he wasn’t a particularly good Jew at the best of times, only his mother ever managed to get him to make an effort), but because it wouldn’t do to rush in with guns blazing, without a plan, without fallback, even if fallback consisted of a spare bullet, tucked safely into the pocket of his jeans.

He’d found the killers in Acapulco; three boys, barely even adults, with more bullets than aiming skills and less common sense than either of those. They had been drunk and in the middle of party, and he’d taken them out, one by one.

Erik was not a cruel man. They’d died quickly and of a single, clearly defined cause, once they had been enlightened as to the reason of their demise.

It occurred to him now that had he asked, had he been a little more cruel, he might have found out that the shooting hadn’t been an accident right away, that his life had been destroyed not by a cruel accident of fate, much like it had been created, that there had been deliberate intent to ruin him. How much had they known, he wondered now. Had they known about the American who’d paid for the murder, or had they been hired by a middleman? Probably the latter. Shaw was a careful man. He valued his assets.

Erik had never trusted Shaw. Oh, he had followed the man’s orders to the letter – Shaw had been an excellent commander. He’d looked after his unit, in his own way, even though in Erik’s mind the man was a sadist and probably best kept away from impressionable minds, lest he mould them into vicious killers, like he did Erik.

He dragged himself into the here and now with herculean effort. “Why?” he made himself say, hoping to hell his voice didn’t sound as desperately broken out loud as it sounded in his head.

“I don’t know,” Azazel said. Erik could hear no emotion in his words, if there was any to find.

“Did your mother know Mr. Shaw?” Charles’ voice came through the bloody fog. Erik had almost forgotten he was ever there, so thick was the haze of memory.

“They’ve met a couple of times,” he managed, visualizing Charles instead of the violent imagery his mother’s name conjured. He dared not think of Anya other than as name only, a shadow, if he was feeling particularly brave. She would come to him now, a memory so poisonous he wouldn’t be able to halt the moon and the gun would fire, this one time, the last time, and then he will have peace.

Not just yet. Shaw would pay, first, and Erik would move heaven and earth to make sure it was so. Charles kept speaking, as though sensing the inevitable, as though he knew that his voice, the memory of his face was the only thing stopping Erik from taking on Azazel right there, guns be damned, and he would have won and took the gun to Shaw, and there would be no stopping him, because he would crawl, if he couldn’t walk.

“A familiar face in a foreign land is an unlikely coincidence,” Charles was saying softly, as though a dream. “It becomes unlucky, when one wants to maintain one’s presence a secret.”

Erik translated in his mind, from Charles at his most disjointed to English. “Because she was there? He had her killed because she was there? She was on holiday!” And Anya – Anya had been six.

“Was he supposed to be in Mexico?”

Erik thought back to September of the previous year; what had been going on? They had been training and studying in preparation for the upcoming Iraq mission. Shaw had been on site the whole time, supervising the squad. The whole time, except for the few days when he’d gone to Houston to see the general about something or other. He’d been gone for five days, during which Mama and Anya had been in Mexico City, enjoying their vacation, less than two hours of flight away. Erik knew this, because they had called, Anya had called him, the day before they— She had chirped into the phone about the angel she had seen, how pretty it’d looked in the sunshine.

Well, Erik thought distantly, as the familiar fire kindled under his skin.

“That’s what happened, wasn’t it?” Charles said meanwhile, turning to Azazel. Erik wanted to shake him – shake them both, one harder than the other, perhaps terminally, but no. The fire centered him. The flames blazed in his veins, but he was no longer losing himself in the smoke. Shaw had the upper hand, but he made mistakes. Erik could take Azazel now; Azazel might have kept Charles between himself and Erik at all times, but Erik was confident he could win the fight. The orders must have been to bring them in alive, else they would have been dead by now, whereas Erik suffered no such handicap and as soon as he got his hands on somebody’s throat blood would flow.

The reason he abstained from pointless bloodshed, at this point, was why bother? Azazel was taking them to Shaw and nowhere else, why should he fight when everything he wanted was being delivered to him with sleigh bells and reindeer’s hooves attached?

They were walking for a few minutes only, when Azazel indicated pier thirty-nine and a rusted cargo ship docked there. A door in the side slid open, raining ruddy specks of rust into the water below. There was a narrow plank connecting the cement pier and the entrails of the ship, which Erik crossed in two steps, hardly even noticing that a single miscalculation would see him crushed between the concrete and the steel hull. He was barely aware of Charles clutching the frame of the door for balance.

In another life he would have turned and helped. Now, there was a narrow platform in front of him and a staircase, leading into a poorly-lit, empty cargo hold, in the middle of which stood a man Erik hadn’t seen in over a year, a man he’d hoped he’d never see again, save for the past five minutes, when it became his life’s goal.

“Gentlemen,” said Commander Sebastian Shaw, with a grand, sweeping gesture of his hand. “Welcome. Azazel, do close the door. We wouldn’t want to attract flies.”

There was a hand, Charles’ hand, was on Erik’s shoulder, gripping the bone tight enough to bruise. Erik let himself be slowed, certain that however it would end, it would end now, it would end here.

“You son of a bitch,” he ground out, straining against Charles’ hold. “You murdered my mother!”

“That’s not true.” Shaw tilted his head to the side, regarding them both with surprise. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Don’t lie to me!”

“Her death was unfortunate, I’ll grant you. I am truly sorry it happened.” For a moment there, the briefest of moments, which fled as soon as it arrived, Erik believed the condolences. For a moment, and then the man spoke again. “But Erik, this need not be such a bad thing.” Shaw smiled at him, showing just a hint of teeth.

He said nothing.

“Don’t you see? It made you stronger. You have always been great, Erik. Magnificent. When you put your mind to it, you are unbeatable, as long as there is nothing to distract you.” Shaw’s gaze flickered away from Erik for a brief moment and onto Charles. “I regret your mother’s passing – I do – but there is an opportunity here.”

If there had ever been the slightest chance Erik was going to take a step back, not destroy Shaw, this, now, obliterated it. Erik wondered if it showed on his face yet. If it did, the letters must have been small, as Shaw kept talking, sweeping the air away from his face every now and then.

“She was a sweet woman; don’t get me wrong, I was fond of her. Any man would be lucky to have her. Except you.” Shaw shook his head and made a cooing sound. “Erik, my dear. Don’t you see? You need horror and pain in your life. You are at your best when you are high on fury. My god, you have no idea of what you could achieve at the height of rage! Now, I admit – I was spying on you, a little. Can you fault me? You showed promise. I know what you did to those silly boys.”

“Your point, Shaw,” Erik said, floating on a cloud of pure rage, serene as one can only be when anger had been boiled down at such temperatures that only fumes remained; intangible, transparent fumes, buoying him up on an extremely stormy sea.

Shaw cut the rest of his Shakespearean monologue short and composed himself. “Ah, of course. I have a job offer for you.”

“A job offer.” In the spirit of the previous metaphor this statement was an albatross, dragging a thick viscous cloud raining oil behind it.

“I have plenty to offer for a young man like yourself. Join me now and together…”

“If the words ‘we can rule the galaxy’ cross your mind I will Force-choke you. Fair warning,” Erik said. He was appalled that he had just kowtowed to the George Lucas empire, but on the other hand, if he had a light-saber right now, it would really help. He put the insanity down to Charles warming presence, the sound of his breath, the warmth of his fingers palpable even through the leather jacket.

Shaw laughed and shook his head, but Charles spoke up first. “I’m sorry, this is a terribly touching moment, I’m sure, but I must interrupt. Where exactly is my sister?”

“Don’t worry about her, detective,” Shaw said easily. “She won’t be a concern.”

“She is always my concern.” The vice-like grip on Erik’s shoulder became tighter, grinding against bone – an achievement, considering Erik wore a leather jacket marketed as the only non-Kevlar garment to have stopped a bullet. The bullet, to the best of Erik’s knowledge, had been thrown at it rather than shot, but as a marketing ploy it’d worked wonders.

Shaw, not being privy to the intimate working of Erik’s skeleton, regarded them with mere amusement. “Interesting. You are not in the slightest bit worried that I might have tied her to an anchor and thrown her overboard?”

“I am now,” Charles said, speaking with a level of focus reserved for UFO photography. “But you didn’t. I have no doubt she is bruised, but otherwise unharmed, and conscious as we speak. I doubt you’ve taken her far, so she is somewhere close, on this very ship – no, not this one – but within a hundred yards.”

“All true,” Shaw said with a sense of wonder. “Remarkable skill, detective. I have heard rumors, naturally, but they don’t have the same effect as witnessing the show. You must get it all the time, but don’t you think you are wasted on the ineffectual little force?”

“I wouldn’t call it little.” Charles took a step forward, letting his hand drop to his side, so that he and Erik were standing side by side, mirroring the positions of Shaw and Azazel. Erik cursed the fact he hadn’t bothered to find out if Charles was any use in a fight. His preferred modus operandi was suicide by cop, so it was a fair bet he was only competent against punching bags, and only when they didn’t fight back. Fuck this shit, Erik thought. He could take Azazel, and he could take Shaw with one hand tied behind his back – he was crafty enough to compensate for a decade’s worth of experience – but both at the same time would hand him his ass with Charles-shaped garnish on the side.

“Detective – there is a reason I have invited you, too.” Shaw polished his fingernails against the lapel of his jacket and considered the results. “Wouldn’t you like to see your talents employed somewhere you will actually make a difference?”

Charles stiffened. If Erik had been looking, he probably would have seen his eyes widen. Charles strengths in a poker game lay in reading others. Remaining inscrutable came to him about as easy as social grace came to raging bulls in heat.

Shaw continued, rather carelessly. “Frankly, my dear boy, if I didn’t have a degree in psychology I would have been disappointed. Such an exquisite mind in a city ripe with murderers and psychopaths, and only seven kills to your name, but I understand it takes a whole lot of pretending to appear normal. A failed effort based on a flawed premise.”

What degree in psychology, Erik wanted to ask, as this was news to him, and possibly to Azazel, judging by his expression.

“Come now, detective,” Shaw said, on the verge of amusement. “You can’t tell me you regret your brief stint as the hand of justice. And your own brother! That takes dedication, even if there is no blood between you.”

Erik was making notes, in case he ever needed to make Charles speechless in the future.

“Now, I don’t particularly believe in blackmail – distasteful practice, far beneath the dignity of a gentleman. I assure you, I have every intention of keeping the findings to myself. You can trust Azazel’s discretion.” Shaw took a careful step forward, and if there was no threat of Erik in his immediate future, then certainly he would have been talking to Charles from a distance of ten inches. “I want you to know that I know, and that you will be accepted exactly as you are at my side. There is so much good you can do, so many lives you can save.”

“I’m flattered,” Charles said softly, drawing his – usually discreet – British Royal Family, Out To Show You Your Place accent out from its cupboard and curling it around his shoulders. “I appreciate your offer of keeping the information to yourself, but I’m confident that even if you chose to leak it, my reputation would survive.” Charles’ smile reached as far as the corners of his lips. “I don’t cultivate a strong public relations front and while I blame myself for the deaths you mentioned, I can’t be held responsible for them, as my involvement was negligible.”

“Hardly,” Shaw said dryly, though there was a twitch of his eyebrow that betrayed his displeasure. This was not the reply he expected and more importantly, not the reply he would settle for.

“Oh, no.” Charles smiled, and simultaneously half the fight went straight out of Erik and into thin air. Charles was hardly even there, though he stood before them with a vapid red smile and glassy blue gaze, he was miles away, likely counting dust motes on the ceiling of a crime scene from fifty years ago. “What have you find? Don’t speak, I know: there was a recorder in one of the pillows. I know there was a recorder, because the only way to claim I had anything to do with those seven deaths is to hear me confess and there was only one place I confessed and only one witness who wouldn’t speak ill of me. You were spying on me, I suspect, up until the point where I did confess, when it turned out my sense of morality is fraudulent and I can be used for your crusade. But you are wrong – I murdered no one. I stood there and watched them kill themselves, out of their own volition. Perhaps I could have stopped them, sent them to prison, instead, but what is prison to one who can’t escape their own mind and suffers in its confines? I know, believe me, that the reason they chose what they did was because they are already locked up, already the world is a confine from which they want to be freed.” Charles swallowed between words, holding his spellbound audience in the kind of daze a particularly persuasive suicidal cobra would.

“Do you really think what I believe matters that much? Even if I know exactly what would make the world better, I can’t make the world better by killing people off.” Charles shook his head and looked down. “Incidentally, I believe you should lay off the saturated fats. I appreciate butter myself, but it isn’t good for you.”

Given Shaw’s weakness for butter icing… Erik suppressed a snicker when he, too, noticed a glistening smear on the sleeve of Shaw’s dress jacket. Some things never change.

“I take it you are refusing my offer.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I sometimes forget. Yes, absolutely, I refuse,” Charles said with a soft smile.

There was a long moment of silence then, of tectonic plates sliding into position while the world turned, during which even Shaw stood speechless and unsure of what to do, which was not an uncommon reaction to Charles. Erik would worry if Shaw had reacted favorably. That would be the time to emigrate somewhere safe, like the Moon.

Shaw turned to Erik, having wisely given up on Charles as a lost cause, pulled a phone out of his pocket, as means of breaking the silence. Erik heard Charles draw a breath a touch sharper than the previous, but he hardly needed that to know that was Raven’s phone – he remembered the scattering of blue stars across the back rather vividly. “Finding the young Miss Xavier snooping around my ship was something of a surprise, I must say. She’s a lovely girl. Many men would go crazy for her. But you didn’t, which, I have to say, was not a shock at all. Not half as big a surprise as this, however.” He turned the phone in their direction to show them the photo on the desktop.

Erik’s mouth went dry. There was himself and Charles, spooning in the wide bed. Raven must have taken the photo when she came into the room that morning, the little minx. She put it on her desktop! This family had a special breed of stupidity, no doubt carefully cultivated to ensure it would cross another generation.

“It is a wonderful photo. Loving. Sweet,” Shaw said meanwhile, staring at the phone. “I admit, I never expected to see you quite so tender, Erik.” When he looked up again, his gaze was hard. “It doesn’t suit you at all.”

Erik didn’t fear death when he was staring it in the face, so when Shaw pulled out a gun and pointed it in his direction he didn’t even blink. He saw Shaw’s trigger finger jerk and the gun barked sharply. The sound barely registered. It was only when he realized he was still upright, that there was no blinding pain to make standing difficult, that he knew something was very, very wrong.

*****

Raven awarded herself an Oscar for stupidity. Possibly even a Darwin Award, if she stayed there for much longer. There being a little bruised and trussed up, lying on the floor of a comfortable, but empty little room, like a turkey ready for the Thanksgiving oven. Well, either she was going to die here, or she was going vegetarian. Like this day could have gone any worse, seriously.

When she got the text from Erik it had seemed like a good prospect to drop everything and rush to the harbor. She wanted to help, goddamn it, she would not let anyone, ever hurt Charles, and if they did, they sure as hell would not get away with it. Not even if they haven’t done anything yet, technically, only suggested that hurting Charles was an option. No, hurting Charles was not an option, and everyone was going to know that once Raven was through with those bastards. She might have been a little overenthusiastic about her general savvy and didn’t bother checking if the boat she was investigating was currently occupied. This proved to be a big mistake.

The point being, Raven was in deep shit. Or, as she preferred to think of it, a wee bit of a situation. The man had almost certainly called Charles, he didn’t look like he was bluffing, which meant Charles would walk into the trap head first, the stupid, stupid brother of hers, with no impulse control and far more brains than common sense.

This meant getting out of the pickle was priority one.

She couldn’t feel the knots, not that she should be surprised. The guy who’d tied her up looked like a professional serial killer, which, duh, he probably was. If he was good enough to get the jump on Charles, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to tie the ropes where she could untie them easily.

There was more than one way for getting out of bounds, however. Raven maneuvered herself onto her back, to get a little leverage. The guy had searched her pretty thoroughly, which was not an experience she would care to repeat, but unless he had serious magic fingers, he missed the penknife she’d hidden in the back of her jeans.

She’d loved spy movies when she was a child – James Bond was a particular hero of hers, and she had been devastated when it turned out his gadgets were all make-believe – so she carried cheap, tiny pocketknives hidden in her clothing. Her favorite one was gone, along with her jacket, but rough denim was awesome for hiding those, so she had a spare. They were so much easier to explain than the regular kind of knives (but officer, a girl needs to keep her nails groomed!), or a gun, which she got to carry only occasionally.

All it took was arching her back until she could slide her fingers beneath the waistband of her pants – quick, she must be quick, the circulation in her hands was so poor – and slide out the knife. Opening it with her hands behind her back should be an Olympic sport, considering the level of contortionism and magic fingers it required, but Raven wasn’t voted the most tenacious bitch of her year for nothing.

She counted in her head, as he sawed away at the ropes. “Always be aware of time,” Charles had said more than once. “One day, it might save your life. Today, it will save our toasts from burning.”

They actually had burned those toasts, because she had noticed a spider, shrieked and ran, forcing Charles to follow her up the stairs and into her bedroom, where she collapsed into giggles and they had a pillow fight. She counted now. It was seven minutes and twenty-three seconds of continuous sawing before she could wriggle out of the rope and rub some feeling into her wrists.

Alright, stage one complete. What next? The door was locked. Raven rattled the handle a couple of times to be sure, then sat down on the floor and considered. She was on a boat. Those only rarely had sophisticated locks, did they? She tried jimmy this one open with the penknife, to no avail. She was theoretically aware how to pick a lock, but this one had a knob on the inside, so all the insights were, to put it plainly, worth a bag of dicks. What was more, though the door looked to be made of cardboard, it proved to be quite sturdy and resilient to kicking, though she only tried that once, in case someone was listening for activity.

She needed to get out. She needed to get out and let Charles know she was safe, before he landed himself in some Mexican stand-off in defense of her honor. She needed to get the police down here, because Charles was an idiot and he didn’t believe in backup, the stupid bugger with no support system. If Charles was a building he’d be a roof covering a first storey, with three straining poles in place of the ground floor and base, balancing precariously like a three-legged chicken carrying a wheel stuffed with hamsters. She had to call someone and have them paint that, so she could frame it and gift it to Charles—

Frame. Her gaze turned to the doorframe. Of course.

It was pathetic how easy it was to unscrew the board from the side of the door and rip into the wall for the lock. Raven worked feverishly, not caring that her nails were splitting and she was leaving bloody smears on the wall. The door opened inwards, if she could just cut out the bit of plywood around the lock, she’d be free.

When at last the lock gave in, she had to pause to catch her breath, leaning against the door to keep it closed. Just a moment, just ten seconds to catch her breath and then she would go.

“Hey, can I have any water?” she called, banging on the door, just in case someone was standing guard, and stilled with her ear to the door.

Not a peep.

Raven slipped into the corridor, and, hardly believing her luck, ran like hell, ready to stab anyone she met in the eye with her new best friend, the pocketknife, but this was not a stabbing day, this was an escape with your life day. The ship was small enough that she could vault from the deck directly onto the concrete pier, rather than waste time looking for a gangway, and the ship was separated from the containers only by thirty feet of space. She landed on her feet, a perfect landing if there ever was one, but her knees buckled so she threw a hand up and rolled, came up on her quivering feet and sprinted for cover.

Stage two, complete. Raven brushed her hair out of her face, and retied it into a tight bun. She allowed herself half a minute to catch her breath, before she plunged in, trotting down the widest passage. She was in luck. At its end there was a little office with a freshly painted sign on the door.

“Hello?” Raven touched the doorknob and started when the door gave under her weight.

Inside it was dark, but she could just make out a dark shape right by the door. When she opened it wider, she realized it was a discarded gun. Who on earth would be stupid enough to abandon a gun – a loaded gun! – on the floor. She knew that gun, she thought weighing it in her hands. It was Erik’s. Well, probably Erik’s, she wasn’t Charles, she couldn’t be sure, but his was of this exact mark and model, and she knew Erik had been around the docks, probably. If it was his gun, where was Erik and why was it on the floor? There was no blood, so he hadn’t been violently murdered here, kidnapped and made a male concubine in Tajikistan. He would make a good concubine, Raven thought and then slapped herself, mentally. This was not the time to mock Erik and his Charles-hogging ways.

Caspartina,” she said out loud and slapped her forehead. The boat she was investigating and, infamously, apprehended on, was called exactly that. She dove for the landline.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

“This is Raven Xavier, I’m at the docks, whereabouts of space 2A,” she said, jittering as she’d never jittered before. “My brother – that’s detective Charles Xavier – needs immediate backup. I’ve been kidnapped and held on a boat, the Caspartina. Please hurry.”

“Are you alright, ma’am?” asked the mechanical voice with a touch of equally mechanical concern.

Raven looked at her bleeding fingers. “Yes. I’m perfectly fine. I’ve escaped. Please hurry. Charles was here, he knows I was kidnapped, he doesn’t yet know I’m safe.”

“Stay near the phone, ma’am. The police will arrive shortly.”

“I will.”

Curse cell phones, she thought, when she tried to recall Charles’ number without her phone. Curse her dumb memory. She closed her eyes and searched for something else, anything else she could use. Then it arrived, in the form of ten digits shining across her memory like a beacon of salvation. It was Erik’s phone number. She’d pilfered it from the file Charles had printed out and left alone on the kitchen table for ten minutes, and memorized, just in case, bless her pencil-losing ways and his cute, melodic set of digits.

She punched the sequence in and begged, prayed, for Erik to pick up. Instead, a generic Nokia tune piped up by the cabinet, illuminating its side with the generic Nokia light. It was Erik’s cell. She dove for it and scrolled through the contacts list for Charles’. The only difference was that she now held two cell phones in her hand.

Fuck!

“My phone,” she said a moment later. “My phone!” The guy who found her had her phone. He took it from her, he called Charles with it! Come to think of it, he stared at the photo for a fucking creepy amount of time. God knew it was a lovely photo, lovelier still if one knew Charles or Erik, but the expression on his face had been anything but lovely. Raven felt slimy just remembering it.

She took Charles’ phone, thumbed the speed dial and paused. Caller ID will give it away immediately. If Charles was there he would need warning, and that guy might not react significantly to a phone he knows means bad news. On the other hand, an unknown number might not get picked up. Or, he might know the number on sight, given the ship/office name combo.

No matter, it was still a safer bet than calling from Charles’ or Erik’s phone.

She picked up the office phone one more time and called her own cell, praying that it would be warning enough.

*****

“Fuck.” Erik’s hands were shaking on Charles’ thigh. The entry wound was neat and tiny – he could keep it plugged with just his thumb. The exit was a little more tricky, but he had two hands, and the blood flow was not overwhelming yet. “Don’t move, idiot, you’ll bleed out.”

“I don’t think the artery was hit,” Charles said, staring at the ceiling. His voice echoed. “I’m not losing blood fast enough and there is no spray. We have time.”

“My sincere apologies, I flunked the entrance exams to medical school.” Shaw was watching them with an air of amused curiosity, going by the cadence of his voice. Azazel still hadn’t made a sound, the fucker, waiting for orders to move, no doubt.

“Shut the hell up!” Erik pulled his belt off and looped it around Charles’ thigh. Charles was, more or less, correct: there was not enough blood to indicate an artery had been hit and it was the wrong color, anyway, if one could presume to judge color in this poor lighting, against iron and male-typical colorblindness.

“Tie it off tighter, will you?” Shaw was smiling down at him like a benevolent saint from a stained-glass window, with a glowing halo of fractured light around his head. “He will be of tremendous use, even incapacitated, but if he bleeds out all the effort will have been for nothing.”

Erik growled deep in his throat, but he tightened the belt another notch and wedged the tail-end underneath the buckle. Charles was in no danger of bleeding out, but the sooner he got medical attention, the less homicidal Erik would become, not that it would make a difference at this point.

“I will offer you a deal, Erik,” Shaw said, holding up a pair of handcuffs. “Cuff your hands behind your back, kneel, let me give you a shot of morphine, and I will get Charles to a very competent doctor in no time at all. Don’t, and I will shoot his kneecaps off. He is useful to me up until the point when I have to shoot him in the head, but the rest is window dressing. What do you say?”

Azazel had taken an incautious step forward. Erik exhaled. The blood on his hands was brighter than anything in the room, brighter than Charles’ feverish eyes, brighter than it should be, given its origin and oxygen content. Shaw wouldn’t have been that stupid. He must have known Erik would kill him as soon as his hands were free, as soon as he had enough space to swing his arm and crush his trachea. Fuck, he’d bite through his neck arteries if he had to. He was, in fact, gearing up to do just that, when a jittery pop song boomed from Shaw’s jacket.

“Do excuse me, important call,” Shaw said mockingly, and pulled out Raven’s phone.

“Surprise!” Erik heard – felt – the tinny voice reverberate across the room. He caught the surprise on Shaw’s face, but he was already moving, his mind empty of thought, wholly focused on the fight in front of him. He grasped Azazel by the gun arm, twisted, and pulled him between Charles and Shaw. A sharp jab of the thumb deep into the wrist Erik knew Azazel had broken before produced a hiss and resulted in unhooking of his fingers from the gun’s handle. Erik used the excess momentum to send him hurling, minus the gun, into Shaw.

He didn’t bother shouting a warning. Azazel was smart enough to dive out of the way and Erik would deal with him later. He knew where the fucker lived. For now all that mattered was that Shaw went down with four bullets through his chest. The cell tumbled from his hand, spilling Raven’s curses along its way. Unfortunately, four bullets were all Erik had to spare. The gun wasn’t fully loaded, and he wasn’t going to take the risk of having none left, not while Azazel was breathing. Erik would have gladly unloaded the whole clip, and would, because like hell he was giving up the corpse before he cut off its head and buried it with a garlic filling. A well-aimed shoot sent Shaw’s gun spinning down the hold, the bullet after it. Even that was necessity – leaving it too close to Azazel was courting suicide, but shooting inside the steel bowels of a cargo hold more than absolutely necessary was asking to get hit by a ricochet, a lesson he’d learned a long time ago, in considerable pain.

“Azazel, move the hell away from him,” he said. “You are in my sight.”

“You’re going to shoot me, Erik?”

“If I must.”

“You’re not that kind of man. You might shoot Sebastian, but you wouldn’t shoot me. Semper fi, friend.”

“We weren’t marines. I would shoot anyone to get to Shaw. Don’t test me. Not today.”

That was all he managed to get out. His hands didn’t shake, never; his vision was blurry, but that was fine, he could shoot straight through wind and snow and tears, should he ever cry. He had Shaw’s fucking head in sight and he would take the goddamned shot no matter who was standing in his way.

Behind Erik, Charles let out a pained groan. Erik didn’t quite look his way – he was standing between Charles and Azazel – but his gaze darted to the side, abandoning Shaw’s body for a fraction of a second. An unforgiveable mistake.

Shaw moved and something flashed in his hands, bright enough to blind Erik. A flare! The fucking bastard had a flare! Erik clenched his eyes shut and fired a shot where he had been aiming, hoping for a head shot, but all he got was a low hiss and the sound of two pairs of feet running up a metal staircase.

Erik fell onto his knees and searched for the phone, groping the floor where he was certain Shaw had fallen. “Raven!”

“Erik? Oh my god, Erik!” The voice sounded somewhere to the right—there!

He had the phone in his hand before his vision returned. “Raven, are you alright?”

“I’m fine. I’m safe,” she twittered from her end. “He held me on a boat, the Caspartina. It’s his boat, I looked it up – I thought it looked weird here, it’s so posh and this is a cargo port, so I went to have a look-see—”

“Not a cargo ship?” His eyes were tearing up. Erik blinked and immediately looked up, to the door, but there was no one there, no one watching them. Those were not the stairs they took. There was another staircase, further back, that must have been the way out.

“A boat! A yacht, cruiser? I don’t know! Mostly white, really posh. The name is in small, golden letters on the side, hard to notice.” Raven took a deep breath.

“Get out of there. Call for help,” Erik said, getting to his feet and wiping the tears off. Aside from a couple of light spots, he could see normally, and those spots could go fuck themselves.

“Christ, of course I called for help,” Raven was saying, “moron, first thing I did! Police are on their way. Where are you?”

“The Caspartina.” Erik disconnected.

“Raven?” Charles was biting his lip, turning them a vivid pink. With the bright blue of his eyes, a little yellow and his face would look like a test print-out.

“Safe. Smart. Help is on the way, stay put.” He would kill Shaw. He pulled out the clip. Five more shots. More than enough. No more games this time. He would blow his fucking head apart.

“Erik.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Erik, I have a favor to ask of you.” Charles’ eyes were wide open, bluer than the sky above the desert sands, wet and hurting. Erik sunk to his knees without a second thought to check up on the wound, but it looked fine – help was on the way. Charles would be fine, he didn’t need to stay, there were bigger things to worry about.

“If you’re going to ask me to leave Shaw be…”

Charles swallowed. “Please, Erik, whatever you do, don’t let me die. I don’t want to die. Don’t leave me here.”

For a moment, and it was just a moment, Erik considered wasting a bullet and putting it between Charles’ pretty eyes. How dare he ask this, he seethed, how dare he make me promise, when this is all I wanted this past year, everything I worked for. “I promise,” Erik said and gritted his teeth. “Do you think you can you walk?”

*****

It didn’t matter what they said. Charles knew, he always knew, that he couldn’t trust what they said. Their mouths always lied. They could promise the world in one breath and crush your heart the next, that was what men’s promises were worth. However, when Erik bent to help him to his feet, wrapped an arm around his waist to take the weight off his injured leg, he allowed himself to hope.

The walk, or awkward hobble, as the case may have been, was nothing short of excruciating. Charles felt every bone in his body turn and point to his thigh, screaming for attention.

Even so, they moved quick, running most likely on fumes of Erik’s fury. They made it to the deck in time to see the Caspartina drift away from the pier. Charles saw a figure at the helm, mostly likely Shaw – the hair was too fair for it to be Mr. Asimov.

Erik propped him against the railing.

“Stay here and try to scream. Help will be along any minute now,” he said. Or thought and pantomimed, Charles wasn’t sure. His head was spinning. Blood was seeping into his pants and dripping onto the board, coagulating on Erik’s hands into fractals, where the handle of the gun left an imprint.

“Where are you going?” he wanted to ask, but it was a redundant question. Erik was already running. He leapt over the board of the cargo ship and hit Caspartina’s side, narrowly grasping the railing. Shaw didn’t turn, but it was likely he didn’t hear the thump over the wind.

Charles saw Erik’s fingers close around the rope there, saw, clear as the sun was bright, the fire that drove him forward and knew, without a doubt, that Erik was going to die in the murky waters of the Westchester harbor. He was going to let himself be killed for this chance to get Shaw and he was going to fail and he would be alone again.

“I’m so sorry, Raven,” he said to no one in particular.

He would always wonder, after that, where did he find the strength to hobble a few more steps and climb over the railing he was propped on. The dive into the cold water was easy in comparison – blessed gravity – and he hit the water just as Erik’s hold gave out and he, too, fell into the bay, holding on to a rope belayed somewhere onboard. He would wonder what miracle had allowed him to find Erik underwater, wrap his arms around him and hold on even through the struggling. The water was cold and he had very little body warmth to spare. Blood loss was making him woozy and his leg was pulsing underneath the belt, drawing whatever attention he had to spare, and plenty he didn’t.

His lungs would start burning long before he breathed the last of the oxygen in his blood. The cold would speed up the process, but the mammalian diving instinct might keep him alive long enough to enjoy the full benefits of drowning. Already the black spots were whirling across his vision, insistent, burning, lined with silver, forming conga lines, in the effort of drawing his attention to the fact that one of them was going to die here, and it probably wasn’t going to be Erik.

*****

Erik wasn’t thinking straight when he dove for the Caspartina. The railings were slippery, he could only hold on for so long, but he would get on the goddamned boat if it killed him. His fingers closed around a rope and it was fine, it was grand – much better purchase. Caspartina hit a wave and his hold slipped. He gasped for breath a fraction of a second before he hit the water, but he managed to hold on to the rope. The yacht pressed on and he would climb it, he had a gun, hell, he would strangle Shaw if it came to that.

Then something dropped on him from behind and arms wrapped around his chest.

If he had breath to spare, he would have screamed. Charles, you fucking moron, you idiot, you useless piece of shit, what are you doing, let go! Well, fuck you, you can go down for all I care, I am not letting this go.

Underwater there was no warmth to be found, nothing but the feeling of a body against his back, a stream of bubbles against his cheek, the press of masses of water against his face and the rough rope in his hand.

Then nothing.

The hold loosened and Erik looked back – dumb instinct, stupid, never look back, never! The mission was always in front of you, never back, focus on the mission – and through the murky waters of the Westchester port he saw Charles’ pale face, disappearing in the waters stirred by the yacht.

His fingers went slack and the rope slipped from his grasp.

Erik broke the surface with a resounding “fuck!” and plenty of other profanity to follow. Unfortunately, the spectacle was entirely lost on Charles, who thought wavy waters were a splendid place to let himself fall unconscious, the dumb fucker. Erik curled an elbow around his throat and started swimming to the tires, which lined the concrete pier, just above the water level.

Dragging a lax body up a vertical surface, even if it was barely two meters and offered plenty of things to hold on to, was never easy, but Erik had done the impossible once or twice; the merely difficult was a walk in the park in comparison. Charles was blinking up at him, much too slow to signal full awareness, but enough to be a target of cursing.

“You bastard. You fucking bastard. You know what this means to me! You know what he did! How dare you take that away!” The effect was ruined by the fact that Charles’ head was pillowed on his lap, that his hand was clutching Erik’s, but the anger fed on it, fed on the paleness of his face, at the heaving breaths.

Charles coughed. A mouthful of water spilled over his cheek. “He didn’t lie,” he said with effort.

Erik froze. “He what?”

“He said—He said he didn’t—kill,” your mother, Erik assumed, and Charles must have understood the prompt because he went on to say, “and he wasn’t lying.”

“You said he was there. You said he was in Mexico, Charles…”

“He was. He was there. But he didn’t lie. I’m so sorry.” Charles was shivering and his breath was coming in slow, uneven puffs. “I was wrong. I thought – I don’t know what I thought.” Shock, blood loss, and now hyperventilation closely followed by hypothermia. The idiot. The utter idiot. He was pale, but for the spots of pink high in his cheeks, the redness of his mouth. His eyes were an electric blue Erik could swear he had never seen on a human being, half glazed, balancing on the edge of lucidity. Lying here like this, dripping water, only partially aware of his surroundings, he was staring up at Erik as though he was the sole fixed spot of his universe.

He’d never looked more beautiful.

Erik shrugged out of his jacket, shuddering when the cold wind hit his soaked turtleneck. Leather would preserve at least a little more warmth than tweed and with that in mind he spread the jacket over Charles. “I swear, I will kill you for this. Don’t you dare die right now, you hear? You are mine to kill, mine. Do you understand that? You are mine!”

How odd, that as long as Charles’ glazed eyes were fixed on him he couldn’t bring himself to look away, couldn’t bear thinking that there was world outside them both. Later he would swear he hadn’t even heard the gunshot.

*****

Raven very pointedly did not drop the phone and run out of the office when Erik severed the connection. She put it down gently, picked up the gun, both cells, and walked out of the door, heading towards where the Caspartina was docked. She stuck to the shadowed alleys between the containers, listening for trouble, moving, as a result, far too slow. James Bond would have been running.

She stopped and slid between two containers when she spied a man waiting at the mouth of the alley. His back was to her and he held in his hands a gun. Raven snuck as close to him as she dared, flat against the steel, ready to leap for cover if he twitched in her direction. She was moving until she saw the edge of the pier, where Erik was pulling something out of the water and hauling it – hauling Charles! – onto the concrete.

Raven suffered five simultaneous heart attacks, a coronary bypass and that cow thing when your brain liquefies and pours right out your ears. She didn’t make a sound, even so. The man – he kinda looked like Erik from behind, slim and sharp and wearing leather – strode forward when Erik covered Charles with his jacket, rising his gun as he walked, and Raven, well.

Raven stopped thinking altogether.

“Drop it,” she said, holding up Erik’s pistol with both hands, aiming for his chest.

He didn’t. He started turning towards her, gun level with his eyes.

Raven fired once. The guy threw himself back but she had been faster and his gun went skidding on the concrete, while he dropped like a stone. “Do not move.” she told him in steady, detached voice. “Breathe too hard, and I will shoot you again, do you understand?”

“Raven.” Erik was speaking, but she didn’t dare look away from this man, not when he was staring at her like she was Santa, or something, something unbelievable and outrageous. Exactly like Santa. “I’m throwing you handcuffs.” Something cluttered on the concrete, less than a yard away from her boot.

“Are you going to kill me, little girl?” the man asked, wincing when an attempted shrug caused a small waterfall of blood to hit the cement.

“She will kill you if you move,” Erik informed him from a safe distance. “You tried to murder her brother. Raven, this is Azazel, our serial killer. Azazel, Raven Xavier.”

Raven handled it like a mature, prospective cop and pointedly didn’t shoot the fucker in the head. Instead she let out a breath and nudged the handcuffs forward with her toe. “Turn over and cuff your hands behind your back.”

“I have been shot,” the Azazel guy said, and holy fuck, was he Erik with a dye job, or what?

“Do it or I will change my mind and shoot you again,” she said, or growled.

He did, sadly, as Raven would love an excuse to shoot him in the head. Fuck. Now what? The pool of blood steadily seeping from his shoulder was spreading, so Raven, despite herself, while still keeping the gun trained on his back, took off her sweater. “I’m going to try and stop the bleeding now. Do not move, or it’s another bullet for you,” she said. Christ, she was a moron, but at least she would sleep tonight, she thought as she bundled up the sweater and shoved it underneath his shoulder.

“Thank you, Miss Xavier.”

“Don’t speak to me.”

“As you wish.”

That was the moment when the docks filled with sirens and bright, rotating lights. Raven nearly sobbed in relief when Alex Summers clapped a hand on her shoulder and nudged her towards Erik and Charles. “Sean is on his way. ETA one minute. We’ve got this.”

“Thank you,” she whispered and took off, counting down the seconds in her head. There was a belt wrapped around Charles’ thigh and even though his pants were nearly black with wetness, the water around him was stained pink. “Charles,” she said, groping for his pulse. Her fingers were so stiff it took her a moment, but the relief when she finally found it and found it steady was damn near a religious experience.

The ambulance arrived, preceded by wailing, and Sean, to his credit, was running sooner than the van slowed to a complete stop. “Hey Charles, fancy to be to scraping you of the concrete for once,” he said, keeping his mouth open and thus leaving Raven a perfect shot at his teeth.

“It is,” Charles agreed. “Hello, Sean. Nice to see you. How is your new girl?”

“Oh man, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Sean said, checking his pulse and poking at the belt which was holding Charles’ leg together.

“I could guess.” Charles’ face was pale as death and his breath was short, and he had been shot, but of course fuck Raven’s nerves, right Sean, she thought viciously, gripping the gun tighter, because the paramedic was still chattering.

“Christ almighty, two gunshot wounds?” he said suddenly, and Raven panicked, but then she realized Sean was looking behind her, to where Azazel was surrounded by the police. She hoped someone would boot him in the head.

“Fix Charles,” she said firmly.

“We only have one ambulance anyway, and unless the other guy is the president, Charles gets it. He’s not president, is he?” Sean asked, throwing her a look she used to beat up boys in school for.

“Don’t be a moron.”

“This doesn’t look too bad.” Sean said cut Charles pants’ leg open and continued to prod around the blood-encrusted belt, doing nothing to remove it. “Nice job with the belt, let’s keep that on for the doctors to remove, no sense wasting a good tourniquet. Doesn’t look bad at all. Bone seems whole. We’ll have you up and running in no time.”

“He’s allergic to morphine,” Raven said. “Only mildly, so if you’ve got nothing else, give him morphine, but he will have trouble breathing.”

“Cool,” Sean waved his partner over. “No trouble. I have alternatives. Boy scouts, we paramedics are. Savvy?”

“Just go,” she said, as Sean and his friend lifted Charles out of Erik’s lap and onto a gurney.

“You coming?” the other guy asked, throwing Sean an edge of a blanket and tucking his own end expertly around Charles’ shoulder.

Raven looked at Erik, who was staring at the watered down stain on the concrete and the bundled up jacket in his hands. “Hey, you gonna be fine?” she asked, punching his shoulder.

It took another punch before he looked up. “Yeah. Go. I’ll handle Azazel.”

“Get changed. You’re dripping. And then get the jacket to a drycleaner. It’s a really hot jacket, especially on you.” Raven grinned. “I would hate for all that hot to go to waste, just cause you can’t find drycleaners.”

He was still dripping water that must have been less than sanitary, but he stood and put the jacket on, as though it was actually warm. “Go!”

Raven went. Sean was tying off an actual tourniquet around Charles’ arm and sinking a needle into the vein when she climbed into the ambulance. “Nice and easy. Any more bullet wounds I should know about?”

“One is quite enough, thank you. Some other time, perhaps?”

“Try not to,” Sean said. “Gunshot wounds are not fun.” Raven shoved him aside, so she could wrap her fingers around Charles’ hand and hold tight.

“You scared me, you stupid bastard,” she whispered. He looked ill. He looked awful. But Sean said he was going to be fine, that the bullet missed the bone, and he would be fine.

“Did I? You scared me first.” Charles hiccoughed. “Did they hurt you?” His eyes drifted down. “Your hands!”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

Charles would have leapt to his feet, if he weren’t strapped to the gurney. “Don’t worry! Luv, you’re bleeding!”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Sean, give me a disinfectant.”

“Oh?”

She showed him her splintered nails. “Had a run in with the door. I won, but it had put up a fight.”

“Dude,” he slurred, opening his eyes wide. “You are hardcore, beating down a door with your bare hands.”

Raven preened at the honest admiration in Sean’s voice. It was a fine thing to be appreciated, but she would make a scene another time. Charles’ hand was warming slowly in hers and as she looked his eyes started drooping closed. “I’m proud of you,” he said sleepily. “I was so scared.”

“Sleep,” she said, leaning forward to kill his forehead. “I’ll be there when you wake up. I promise.”

He managed a “My darling,” then he was gone. Raven leaned back and set about salvaging her fingernails using only one hand, while somewhere over her head the siren wailed.

*****

Charles woke up in moderate comfort in a single hospital room. Even before he opened his eyes he knew there was an officer stationed at the door and there was no one inside, but – and this was the strange part – that was all that he could tell. Raven had been there when he woke up right after surgery and he was grateful for that. He sent her home soon after, with a police escort in the form of Officer Summers, just to be sure.

She texted him every hour. Claimed she couldn’t sleep. Then Alex texted, claiming she wouldn’t sleep when he told her to.

He couldn’t feel much below his waist, but that caused only a moderate amount of panic. His toes wiggled, both sets, when he made an effort, and that was enough to convince him he would be fine. He looked up from the contemplating of the bumps in the duvet, which signified his toes, when the officer outside stopped a nurse and got cursed out for his trouble.

“How are you doing, Xavier?” asked the nurse, shouldering the door open.

“Quite well, thank you Logan. It’s kind of you to ask.”

The nurse grinned. It wasn’t a particularly nice grin. “It is a shock, I gotta tell you, but I get paid to ask these question. Over and over. Every day. To everyone.” He was a short, muscle-bound man, with a very strange hairdo, which gave the impression that some furry creature had crawled atop his head, was holding the man by the jaw, and wouldn’t be budged for the world. Strangely enough it was a natural hairdo, as Logan would only enter a hair-styling salon at gunpoint and probably not even then. He’d taken a shine to Charles, the moment he opened his eyes after his first surgery all those years ago, and took it upon himself to throw out everyone who’d so much as hinted they wanted to ask him questions, and no one wanted to cross the pink-clad nurse with a thick cigar in his breast pocket. Charles had liked Logan, that first time, even if he had been terrified the shine was caused by Charles being high on painkillers and thus at his most normal. It’d turned out later that Logan was, at the very least, as strange as he, in his own way, and they’d been friends ever since.

“I understand, I do,” Charles said. “I have the same problem with ‘where were you last night?’ It gets a little repetitive, but my contract says I must.”

“You get repetitive yourself, Chuck. Let’s see, you got stabbed in the line of duty, three times, burned in the line of duty, choked in the line of duty, feel out a window, and now you got shot in the line of duty. The hell I need to do to make you rethink your career? Pole dance?”

The corners of Charles’ mouth went up, aided by the painkillers only in the least possible amount. “In the line of a deranged psychopath, but your version sounds better.”

Logan looked contemplative as he fiddled with the IV. “Looks good, you keep pressing that button, you fucker, if it hurts. That’s what the damn thing is for.” He poked Charles’ temple with a stubby finger. “Say, that psychopath – was he a tall fellow? Brown hair, green eyes? Face like a knife, only nastier? Ruined leather jacket?”

Charles sat up. “That wouldn’t be Erik Lehnsherr you’re talking about?”

“He tried to tell me he’s an officer. Didn’t believe him, bub’s got military butcher written all over his ugly mug in block capitals,” Logan said, immensely proud of himself.

Charles stifled a laugh. “He is an officer. He’s a friend. Please let him in, if he comes to visit.” When Logan scoffed, he added, “I also happen to think he is quite handsome.”

“There’s no accounting for taste, I’m told.” Logan’s expression indicated he found Charles adorably drugged at this point in time and free of his mental faculties. “I’ll relay if I ever meet him, and I pray every night I don’t.”

“He’s standing right behind you,” Charles supplied helpfully, trying not to smile too wide. His heart was thumping a wild samba in his chest, loudly enough to send Logan’s eyebrows into battle with the furry thing on his head.

“Yeah? Well, tell him his manners need adjusting.”

“Go turn some old ladies over,” Erik said, glaring.

“Go fuck yourself,” said the nurse, closing the door behind him, leaving Charles and Erik to a very awkward reunion.

Charles, predictably, broke first. “I’m so sorry, I thought they would let you right in.”

“The officer on duty would, but the nurse kept claiming you need your rest.” Erik scowled as though it was unheard of hospital patients to require rest. “Crazy asshole.”

Charles considered the vast landscape of sheet over his lap. “I was worried you wouldn’t come.”

“Shaw got away,” Erik said, sliding from normal talk into a hiss with every syllable. “He is alive, unhurt, and he got away. And then you tell me he wasn’t lying.”

Charles didn’t raise his gaze. “Are you leaving?” he asked, barely loud enough to hear his own voice.

Erik collapsed into a chair by the bed. “I’d love to. You have no idea how much I want to pack up and leave right this minute.” He stared out the window. “He just said he didn’t murder her,” he said eventually. “It doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved.”

Charles shook his head. “No, it doesn’t.” Then, a little stronger, “I’m happy you haven’t yet. I wanted to thank you.”

Erik’s head tilted in genuine bafflement. “For what?”

“For saving my life.”

What followed was the longest moment of silence in Charles’ entire life. “I was lying when I promised I wouldn’t leave you,” Erik said in the end, folding his hands over his knees.

“I know.”

“I was planning to leave you on the ship. Then I wanted to let you drown.”

“I know.”

“Then why the fuck did you jump in the water, you goddamned moron?” Erik leaned across the bed until they were nose to nose. “I would have let you drown, if I hadn’t lost my grip.”

Given the proximity it would be hard to conceal the frantic beat of his heart, a staccato of panic and excitement that overflowed in his chest and threatened to burst him open. It would be hard even without the heart monitor by the bed. Charles tried, nonetheless, to act nonchalant; he smiled his most polite smile, the one that was almost a mask, and said, “I was hoping you wouldn’t.”

Erik threw himself back in the chair. “Fuck you, Xavier.”

“I understand I owe you now,” Charles said, a few minutes later. “Ask me.”

“Hm?”

“I know you want to ask me. The answer is yes.”

Erik smiled without an ounce of humor. “Good.” He picked up Charles’ phone from the bedside table and held it out. “Make the call then.”

“Call? What call?” Charles took the phone and turned it over in his hand. “I need to pack, we need to plan, he can be anywhere in the world – well, not right now, unless he abandoned the boat, then he would be, let me think, Florida? No, too far. Virginia is more likely.”

Erik fixed him with an amused smile. “Call that high-ranking police contact of yours and tell them to disregard your previous call about Raven.”

Charles was fairly certain his mouth shouldn’t hang open like this. “What– Erik, she’s– No!”

“You said you owed me. You said the answer was yes. I’m not asking you to get her hired. I’m asking for you to give her a chance.”

“She’s a child, she’s–”

“She escaped Shaw, arranged backup and shot a man, then held the scene while I was busy looking after your freezing ass. You tell me what state she is in now. She can handle it. Do it now.” Erik stole the glass of water from the bedside table and took a sip, still staring Charles dead in the eye.

Charles made the call. His hands were shaking when he put the phone down. Commissioner Hightower was only moderately amused by his changing attitude, and he could hear the sound of a hundred IA officers being set on his case right about now, recommending psychiatric evaluation and interviewing his colleagues for additional information. His career in the department was far from over because of it, but with every such event there was a pebble thrown onto the scale which, when it tipped, would see him fired.

He might as well add a boulder, while he was at it. “Well, aren’t you going to ask?” Charles spoke quietly, but when the silence was stretched too thin, even a whisper resonated.

Erik rose from the chair and sat on the bed. He pulled the sheet down and the hospital gown up to Charles left hip, until he could touch the skin of his upper thigh, the parts of it that weren’t covered by bandage. His mouth brushed the edge of the dressing on its way up.

“What else do I get to demand with a ‘yes’ in blanco?” Erik asked Charles’ hip.

The true answer was “anything,” but Charles had no intention of letting that slip. “Plenty, I guess. You did save my life.”

“I won’t ask.” When Erik looked up, however, the question was evident in his face. “You should know that he will not let this slide. Even if he hadn’t killed my family just because they ran into him in Mexico City, he killed Marvin – he killed innocent people to kill Marvin – for daring to walk into the office while he was there, and we ruined him. Azazel won’t talk, he’s not the type, but Shaw knows he is done and he will not forget you, or Raven, or me. This isn’t over.”

“Will you stay?”

Erik turned his head, so that his cheekbone rested on the jutting iliac crest. “I’ll stay.”

Charles brushed his fingers through Erik’s hair. “You haven’t slept.” How had he not noticed this until now? Erik was pale and grey, and the shadows under his eyes were worthy of a Tim Burton movie.

Erik shrugged, bumping Charles’ thigh with his shoulder. “I’ll deal.”

“You should sleep.”

“I’ll consider it when they let you out.”

“I will be here for a few more days. I got shot, you know.”

“I was there.” Erik smiled. “This hospital is a disgrace.”

“They did a good job with my leg. I’m expected to make a full recovery.”

“I would have burned the whole place down if they botched it.”

Erik didn’t open his eyes as he spoke. His breath evened out and, when Charles checked a few minutes later, he was asleep, lying across Charles’ legs.

In a few moments Charles would call Logan, to move him, because if Erik stayed that way for long both their legs would lose all feeling for at least half an hour. Knowing Erik he would wake immediately, and try to intimidate Logan into letting him stay, which Logan would never allow, citing hospital regulations and next of kin rules, and he wouldn’t bother to hide the malicious twinkle in his eyes, the one that said he would have his way and then he would smoke a celebratory cigar, and Erik would be forced to leave, grumpy and displeased. The visiting hours were not over yet, however, not for another fifty minutes, and with any luck, Raven would arrive in thirty, and she would take Erik home with her, to make sure he ate and slept and had a hot bath, then she would come back to sit by his side.

Erik shifted in his sleep, but Charles didn’t stop carding a hand through his hair. “Sleep well,” he whispered, feeling warm, safe and blissful.

THE END