There were three useful things that Magda graciously left to Erik in the divorce, and those were:
1. His balls,
2. The ancient sewing machine she had rescued from her great-grandmother's house fifty years ago, before she turned to witchcraft and sucking out souls to prolong her youth,
3. The ability to itemise.
All that and the pair of kids, obviously, but since Erik had yet to find a practical use for humans with twenty-eight months of life experience and no sewing skills, other than when the inevitable nuclear famine strikes, he itemised them on other lists.
Currently they were topping the “things I cannot locate” list. This was a concern. The flat was not so big Erik couldn't see most of it from where he was standing (knee-deep in fabric samples and sketches, with a handful of pins stuck in places which would become extremely uncomfortable, should he sit), so the fact he couldn’t see or hear them, when he factored in the fact that they were tiny as holy fuck and unable to operate machinery more complicated than spoons, such as doorknobs, was extremely worrying. They had no knack whatsoever for being invisible, their evolutionary advantage was creativity rather than adaptation to the surroundings. Sometimes Erik worried he would step on one of his children by mistake, which wouldn't be an accomplishment, as Pietro excelled at moving across the room and into harm's way too quickly to be noticed and Wanda exuded the mystical magnetism that drew heavy objects from above to fall onto her hard little head.
Erik shook his head and went back to looking for the bundles of joy, rueing the day he taught the little bastards to walk.
Hm… they weren't in the living room or the bedroom, or their bedroom… The bathroom offered little cover, so that left the kitchen. Erik approached the kitchen readying himself for the sight of mutilated corpses of his children, with dozens of knives stuck in their little bodies. No, that wasn’t feasible; the last time he'd seen the knives, and that was today, they were still in the box and the box was on the kitchen counter. His kids, for reasons known only to aeons of random trait manifestation, weren't interested in things they could find with no effort whatsoever, choosing instead the things a) high up, b) down a well, c) on the other side of a freeway.
Not that Erik had room to talk, what with balancing a divorce, two kids and a fucking Fashion Week next month with enough time to spare to drink a beer.
He was really getting anxious by now, when the familiar twittering couldn't be heard from any of the rooms he semi-owned. His heart was climbing up his throat as he stepped out into the corridor, confirming his worst fears – the doorknob was sticky from the outside, which meant one, or both, of his kids were outside the flat.
“Wanda! Pietro!” he called, on the verge of panic, offering up a prayer to the vengeful gods of moving in, promising a ritual sacrifice for the safe return of his kids before he had to embarrass himself and call the police to fish their little corpses from the dumpster, where they have fallen after taking a nosedive through the trash-chute. No, unlikely. The chute was more complicated than doorknobs by a factor of seven or so. No way had they managed the chute, unless Wanda got the brilliant idea to stand on Pietro's shoulders, developed an intimate understanding of latches and peeked down, and had Pietro somehow defy gravity and fly after her.
Just then the door opposite his opened and out stepped a vision tailored to Erik's lovely masturbatory fantasies, give or take a few inches of height and take a few clothes. “Hello,” the pleasant fantasy said, infringing on Erik's family time with its pretty eyes and red mouth. “I heard yelling.”
“In a minute. Sorry, I live right here, just moved in – can't talk, looking for my kids,” Erik said peeking into the chute, just in case.
“Erik,” the fantasy said, flavouring the words with faint incredulity.
“Did you happen to look outside just now? They couldn't have been out for long. They are small, barely walking.” Under the carpet might be pushing it, but any minute now Erik would start ripping floorboards, expecting to see little fingernails and locks of hair wedged between the cracks in the wood.
“Erik!” the fantasy said, a little more forcefully than Erik would have liked for a fantasy that didn't involve a police uniform, handcuffs and an interrogation table. “They are fed, changed and sleeping on my couch. Wanda said you haven't done any shopping, so I left some food for you, too.”
Erik gaped. Fortunately, he fancied himself an intelligent, adaptable man, so he shook himself and immediately came forward, holding out his hands to shake. “Ah. Terribly sorry, I didn't catch your name. I'm Erik Lehnsherr. Thanks for looking after the kids.”
He went through the whole spiel as he usually did, suave and winsome, so it was inexplicable that by the time he got to the thankyous and the smoulders the neighbour was giving him a stare equivalent to a drug test. “Right,” he said. “You realise we've been living door to door for over a month now.”
Was it a month already? Fuck. No wonder he was off his game. Before Magda and House of M Erik would have probably fucked this guy by now, bearing in mind that before Magda he didn't have two missing children. Or two present children. “Yes, of course. I'm sorry if I come across as antisocial, I have an unbelievable amount of work to do.”
A merry twinkle in the neighbour's eyes registered as a prelude to a setup. Too bad Erik was too high-strung to register anything other than “pretty blue”. “So I'm noticing.”
“You said my kids are at your place?” Erik asked, looking at the floor to confirm there are no child-sized blood smears leading in or out of the flat. There was nothing. They were probably fine. Unless they were in bags. That would be bad. “I'm so sorry for the trouble. I'll take them home immediately.”
The neighbour bit a smile and took a step back, freeing the doorway and letting Erik inside.
The layout was not different from the one in Erik’s flat, which was the only thing saving Erik from kissing the carpet, as the hallway and the living room were dark, and only a solitary LED lamp, hanging over a typewriter, made the furniture visible. Erik had the shadowy form of the couch in his sight, and as promised, two little mounds were nestled together, with the sloping of the blankets indicating they were sleeping head to head. He stopped three steps away and cried with relief when he perceived motion, the kind that indicated breathing and not, say, completely at random, stacked body parts succumbing to gravity.
He turned to thank the impromptu sitter and a whole day of not eating plus the sudden spinning resulted in him tripping and so, being a proper gentleman, he grabbed onto the nearest stationary object to avoid falling and making a fool of himself. Naturally, the object turned out to be the neighbour, the stationary nature of whom was an illusion, and Erik was enough of a gentleman to flip gravity the bird and fall on top of the guy. This in itself wouldn't be bad – the man had firm abs, smelled of garlic (Erik loved garlic), had absurdly blue eyes, even in this lousy lighting – but the kids were right there, sleeping like the little spawns of, well, Erik, they were, biding their time until they could interrupt.
“Well, I don't know what you have been taught in Sunday school,” Mr Blue-Eyes said, “but we're not all promiscuous. I, for instance, demand at least a dinner that I didn't make before putting out.”
“I'm Jewish,” Erik said, absently pushing himself to his feet and offering a belated hand, two seconds too late, as the neighbour was already up. “Wait, what?”
He earned a very blue eyeroll. “Didn't I put the homosexual disclaimer on the door? Darn meddling kids.”
Oh, this neighbourhood just got interesting. First things first, however – Erik went for the couch and checked the pulse on his babies. Excellent, just right for sleeping. It was nearly seven o'clock, he knew were his children were; they were both breathing and had a pulse. As a bonus his pretty, pretty neighbour was gay, a fresh supply of Erik had just been delivered to the local market, which meant sex! The day could be therefore jotted down in history as a success, or at least a pit stop on the way to success.
The only snag was that the neighbour, whose pants Erik planned to invade as soon as an opportunity arose, heh, pun, was watching him with more amusement than lust.
“I hope they weren't too noisy?” Erik ventured, as they retreated into the kitchen, knowing full well that Wanda, the quieter of the two, could warp reality and burst eardrums with her shrieks.
“No more noisy than you could expect from two two-year-olds. I'm proud to report they ate their carrots and their broccoli. I felt justified in awarding them a scoop of ice-cream, each.”
Erik glared. “Did you drug my children?”
“Pietro hates broccoli. He shoves them under his potatoes.” Hate was not enough of a word there. Abhor, maybe. Disdain? If broccoli was all that was available to eat, Pietro would be found with his face on the plate, having spelt “send me food” with the uneaten greens.
“Yes, you said. I didn't give him potatoes for that reason. He was confused enough to eat the greens.”
“I said that?” When the fuck did they speak? Erik was sure he'd remember talking to this guy, if only because he'd have tucked in the mental picture into his favourite memories folder.
“Well, yes.” The neighbour offered up a smile which, in a text, would be represented with a colon and a pointy bracket. “Erik – I've been babysitting them for three weeks now.”
“What?” No, seriously, what the motherfucking what?
“If you went through your mail, you would have found the grocery bills I have left for you. As per instruction.” The lovely fantasy apparently was now Erik's babysitter. This was slightly less arousing than Erik preferred his masturbatory fantasies to be, bearing in mind that he was parenting two terrors from hell on speed and thus whatever he did in the privacy of a locked room had better be quick, or he might emerge to find them pinned to the ceiling with his scissors and non-adhesive measuring tape, curse their creative hearts. “I'm Charles Xavier,” the fantasy added. “I have absolutely no credentials to be babysitting your lovely spawn, other than geographical convenience.” He began fiddling with an array of dishes on the stove and a plate he magicked out of a cupboard.
“Why, are you a paedophile?” Erik said, with the reflexes and inborn tact that somehow got him laid all this time.
“Goodness, no. Children are so sexually uninspiring.”
“A serial killer then? A pathologist with the tendency to bring his work home? A Kardashian?”
“Now, I won't be insulted in my own house. A Kardashian, honestly,” Charles said. He was smiling, though what was it about mashed potatoes with carrots that amused him so, Erik didn't know. “Broccoli or coleslaw?”
“You're right, preserved body parts are probably cleaner than the stuff they stick into their mouths on a regular basis. You're plenty qualified. Can I have both?” Erik asked hopefully, as #1 his stomach and his brain were in the middle of a nasty breakup, and just now the stomach was in a hospital and needed urgent counselling from his next of kin, thus was leaving messages on the brain's automatic secretary, which the brain had ignored for quite some time, and only now managed to switch the device on, #2 the plate of steaming food that Charles was preparing seemed to be destined for Erik’s consumption, #3 Erik loved food, not that anyone would be able to tell with his size and weight.
“I will not have you badmouthing my cooking,” Charles said, putting the plate on the table and returning to the cabinets in search of utensils.
Erik had, in the meantime, picked up the messages the stomach had left and started picking on the delightfully pink salmon with his fingers.
“Here you go.” Along with a fork there was now a steaming saucer of something yellow, something that smelled of butter and lemon and garlic. Erik had a legitimate foodgasm right here, in his neighbour's kitchen. “Wait, didn't you just say you're Jewish? Does the rule about milk apply to fish as well?”
Erik, having his mouth stuffed full with the potatoes-mashed-with-carrots-and-also-broccoli-as-of-now grabbed at the swiftly departing saucer with one hand and a fork, making embarrassing noises, until the delicious mess was ready to go down his oesophagus. “Give me that!”
“I really think we should have discussed this earlier, if it's going to be an issue—“
“I will curse you as only reverent Jews know how, if you don't give me the buttery goodness!”
“When you put it that way…”
Erik got the saucer and with unholy glee splashed half of its contents on the salmon right away. Charles watched him shovel the food into his mouth with something not unlike disgust on his face.
“I'm going out on a limb here and assuming you enjoy my cooking,” he said when the plate was as spotless as Erik could make it with a fork and his fingers (yeah, in the great battle between food versus manners, food won every single time, not that Erik was hard to please in the kitchen department).
“It's delicious.” Erik let his head fall back and sighed. “I may have skipped breakfast this morning. And possibly supper the night before. I think I had dinner yesterday, which is weird, because I remember meatloaf and I don't think I would ever buy meatloaf.”
“That would have been me, as well. I thought you didn't notice me there.”
Erik blinked at the neighbour, at the spatter of freckles across his nose and the earnest blue of his gaze, marred by an insidious spark of mischief. Missing that should be a capital crime, he thought. But Your Honour, his brain argued in his defence, I really was busy. The bloody dress was not cooperating, and what can a man do, when sequins refuse to cooperate?
“Anyway – the meatloaf had pork in it, which I am sorry about, but I genuinely had no idea, you didn't mention it.”
“I'm surprised I mentioned I have kids when we met,” Erik said and it was true – if they'd met anywhere but his home he would have swept the rugrat thing under the carpet, for a chance of, as it were, a go at the guy's carpet. Fuck if it wasn't Terrible Pun Tuesday, again. Erik thought he'd gotten rid of those a long time ago.
“You didn't. I found them salivating in my living room, which I suppose was my own fault, for leaving the door unlocked. I hasten to add I normally don't lure strange children to my lair with cooking, but I was baking gingerbread and I am exceptionally good at gingerbread.” He oozed pride as he said it and Erik had no difficulty imagining him cackling as he lured unsuspecting neighbours to his boudoir to have his wicked way with them, and holy fuck, sign me up for that.
“Huh,” Erik said instead. He had been out of it, for the past few weeks, but to this degree? “I don't mind pork. Or bacon. I love bacon.” He paused. “Why are you cooking for me, again?”
“To be completely honest, I have no idea.” Charles grabbed the plate Erik had been eating off and dropped it in the sink. “I can tell you are busy and I have an important deadline looming, so having a legitimate reason to procrastinate seemed like a thing to do. You offered to foot my grocery bills, by the way, plus a bottle of decent scotch now and then.”
Erik had a memory in his mind, or rather a series of memories: a vague notion of meatloaf, before that a stew, and a handful of other dishes he inhaled between stitches and whose presence he never questioned and, most of all, blessed silence, accompanied with the peace of mind that suggested his babies were looked after. They were now overshadowed by the delicious zest of lemony-buttery-garlicky-salmon and frankly it didn't seem fair. “It doesn't seem fair,” he said firmly. “Three weeks? Really?”
“Are you on drugs?” Charles asked, suspicious all of sudden.
“You have no idea how much I'm regretting the fact that I am not, but my stitches are dreadfully cubistic when I'm on drugs and we're going for the art nouvaeu look, so Moira would have my head.” Charles seemed less than amused, so Erik quickly amended, “Not that I have been on drugs lately. Or a lot, ever. Look, it was just that one time; I was nineteen and a designer told me I was too fat for his suits. Long story short, I punched him in the face and avoided flour and powdered sugar for three years after that.”
Charles still didn't look impressed, though by the way he reached out and grasped Erik's wrist, turning it over, Erik assumed he was on a fast track to good relations. “Too fat?” Charles asked, cocking his head, rubbing his thumb against a protruding bone.
“I was a model.” He could see the inevitable Zoolander reference heading his way. After seven hundred and fifty-seven times you could just tell: it showed in the crook of the lip, the corner of the mouth, so it was better to dive straight into it. “I like to think I mastered Magnum, and I never saved any official lives, but as I recall I did nearly kill a paparazzo once, with a look. Good times.”
“I take it he deserved it.”
“He was cycling down the pavement with techno music blaring in his headphones. You tell me if he deserved the broken bones.” Good thing he'd come to his senses later – Erik would have killed (kill in this context meaning psychologically damage) a lot more people, if he didn't have Azazel at his side to snip, cut and refasten, and occasionally release the hounds of hell.
“So he did.” Charles stood, giving Erik a very soothing view of his backside as he ambled to the far corner of the kitchen. The jeans he wore could do with a better cut, preferably something that slung low and clung to his hips and thighs (Erik wouldn't mind having a go at clinging there, himself), though he wasn't complaining about the completely non-premeditated tears in the fabric. “Tea?”
“A cup of adrenaline with extra caffeine would be lovely.” Erik covered a yawn with a hand. “Sorry. I meant I would love a coffee, I got allocated four hours of sleep tonight, but they aren't until later.”
“You should take better care of yourself,” Charles said, flicking on something shaped like a promise of espresso. “You look awful.”
“Hey – I was a model, you know.”
“I can see why they fired you.” The blessed machine sputtered and caffeine began drifting throughout the kitchen, tickling Erik's nose with its meandering hands, the fucking tease, and Charles just stood there, watching life drip into the cup one pressured drop at a time. “Ginger beards don't go well with bags under your eyes. You look like a vagrant.”
“Mostly they fired me because I punched them in the face. Which they deserved.” The cup of caffeine landed in front of him, impossibly tiny and impossibly alluring. “And I'll have you know the hobo look is due a major comeback.”
“Anyone adopting it is deserving of being picked up for it. Sugar? Or maybe fresh ginger?”
“Both.” Erik managed to hold off pouncing until he heaped two giant spoonfuls of sugar into the dainty cup and Charles squeezed a fat chunk of ginger with the garlic press. With any luck this would keep him up until midnight, and he'd get the mock-up done. Or, he'd fall asleep on his pincushion within the following hour and wake up when the children had gnawed his fingers to the bone.
“Do you want to take them to bed?” Charles asked, indicating the living room.
“Depends. Do you want them? They come cheap.”
“My fridge is already full, thank you, and I don't foresee any famines.” Charles had poured himself a glass of scotch and brushed its bottom it against the rim of Erik's coffee cup, producing a soft clink. “I'll keep the offer in mind, though.”
Erik grinned and licked out the last of the sugar, directing his gaze to the wall as he did so, to preserve the illusions of civility. “I better go,” he said, getting to his feet. “They won't stay asleep forever.”
Charles followed him into the living room and silently scooped up Wanda in his arms, neatly tucked in a blanket Erik recalled as one he had bought back before he remembered heterosexuality wasn't an option. That lent credibility to the theory that Charles and he had an actual arrangement, as opposed to the former luring the kids to his lair on a whim. Plus, he’d just got fed, so even if Charles did partake in luring, it wasn't like the three of them came out of the deal robbed, he thought as he bent to pick Pietro up. The boy had kicked half the blanket up and the other half he pushed down, so now it covered his waist and something round, fuzzy and stripy, which he was gripping like a crippled octopus. Erik didn't remember paying for the monstrosity, but he had been married to a witch from planet witchcraft, so there was that. Charles raised a brow at him and so Erik ignored his misgivings about the furry thing and picked Pietro up, blanket, monster and all. Tucking them in was the work of a moment, as it swiftly turned out they were swaddled up in pony onesies and had their maws smelling like mint toothpaste.
“You have been drugging my kids,” Erik said, with awe and approval in his voice. “Can I have a tonne of whatever it is you've given them?”
“I resent the accusation. They respond to logic and bribery, like any pair of kids.”
“Logic and bribery.”
“I am good at logic and bribery,” Charles said simply, and grinned, stretching his lovely red mouth all the way across his white teeth.
Erik's To Do list reassembled in the face of new evidence and now read
Pick up milk.
“Oh, is that what you've been working on?” Charles pushed the door to Erik's study open, from where a dim light was shining a path across the carpet, revealing an absolute mess of fabric, needles, pins, tapes and lace. Swathes of lace. Erik was all about lace this season. “Is that a cape?”
“What's wrong with capes?” Erik said, halfway defensive, but then Charles was bending over to examine the – in Erik's professional opinion – perfect cross-stitched hemline, and most of thought sailed away, to graze on greener pastures.
“Nothing at all. Not something I would wear, obviously.”
“I'd think not, it wouldn't fit you.” Not that Erik would discourage cross-dressing attempts, but this was neither the time nor the dress.
“Are you calling me fat?”
“No, wait—“ Erik began, but Charles' eyebrows would have given Azazel a run for his money in the Prince of Hell department, and that was saying something, when your competition was a guy who encouraged people to refer to him as Azazel. “Yes, absolutely. I think you should give me all your food from now on. You may nourish yourself with crackers and broken dreams and with any look you will be down to an acceptable weight this decade or so.”
Charles smothered a snicker and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “If you keep eating like that, I just might.” He gave the neckline of the dress a nudge, so that the generous ruffle fell sideways, obscuring the cleavage – which was an interesting angle to follow there, a counterpoint to the asymmetry in the skirt – and turned back to Erik. “Well, it was nice meeting you, for the fifth time. Let's hope it sticks.”
“I'm sorry about that,” Erik said. Charles laughed. “And I'm foisting my kids on you.”
“Don't worry about it. I wouldn't offer if I didn't want to help.”
“I got it under control. Hopefully I will remember who I meet from now on.”
“I hope so.” Charles offered a coy smile, one that Erik chose to interpret as promising (and a little kinky), and went right out the door, leaving Erik staring at the mannequin and the vivid pink muslin. The Fashion Week was four weeks away. Erik was, while not ahead with his work, then at least up to date, the schedule had been fixed and Moira wasn't breathing down severed appendages yet, so he could afford a moment's distraction now and then.
No sooner had he had that thought the he began spitting and knocking on anything remotely resembling wood, his own ginger-coated cranium included. The Gods of Irony were on his case, bad, because how else would one explain the fact that it took a gay man one foray into heterosexuality to get laden with twins and a wife. All the years of spurning the advances of fellow models, actresses and seamstresses had come back with a vengeance. Karma didn't even bother knocking; karma arrived on a golden calf smacking its rear with a pointy stick, yelling something in a proto-Indo-European language. No, Erik was taking no chances. He would play it cool, he would play it smooth and by the book: the distractions would evolve organically, he would take advantage of the moment and not plan, because plans were to the Gods of Irony what honey-coated tender flesh was to fire ants.
Erik was sick of fire ants.