On Wednesday, Erik spends his lunch break running various errands for the Center, collecting packages from the PO box, stopping at a bodega to buy snacks to restock the staff room, and dropping by a crafts store to pick up some more construction paper and glue for the art room. Normally a volunteer or another staff member would’ve been sent out on these more menial tasks, but Erik’s been cooped up in his office filing paperwork all morning and he’d been starting to go stir-crazy. It feels good to stretch his legs for a while.
When he returns to the Center, Kitty catches him as he comes in. Taking some of the packages from the stack in his arms, she asks, “Hey, are you doing anything in the next hour?”
“Just finishing up some paperwork,” Erik answers, shifting his grip on the remaining packages. “And I should try to fix the projector in the movie room. It’s been acting up for days.”
“If you have ten or fifteen minutes, I want you to meet the doctor I’ve been talking to about the clinic idea. He said he had some time to drop by in the afternoon, and he’s bringing by a couple of funding proposals.”
“Oh yeah.” He’d been so busy the last few days that the whole thing had slipped his mind. For the last few months, Kitty’s been working with some doctor from Mt. Sinai to get a mutant-centric free healthcare clinic up and running at the community center. Erik’s been keeping his eye on the idea, but it’s been Kitty’s pet project so he hasn’t been involved in any of the details. But it sounds like they’re finally about ready to launch, so Erik figures he should take a look at the plans and double-check that everything works out.
He heads into the main office and drops his packages off on the table next to the printer. “When’s he coming in?”
“Okay. Your office?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Okay, great.” Kitty beams at him. “See you then.”
Erik makes a mental note of the meeting and then heads to the staff room to restock the cabinets with the snacks he’d bought. While he’s there, he puts on a fresh pot of coffee and checks the staff whiteboard for anything interesting or pressing. There’s a few flyers pinned to the corkboard next to it advertising various things — guitar lessons, yoga classes, a new apartment complex opening up a few blocks away — but nothing looks particularly interesting. Someone’s written a countdown across the top of the board in red marker: DAYS UNTIL THANKSGIVING – 8.
Only eight? Erik grimaces. He really needs to call his mom and see what her plans are. They do pretty much the same thing every year, but this year, he’s been so busy he hasn’t confirmed anything with her yet. It’s always his job to get the turkey though, so he’ll have to call in an order at some point. Yet another thing to add to his ever-growing to-do list.
Once the coffee’s done, he pours himself a cup, puts a lid on it, and carries it with him as he goes to drop off the last bag in the art room. The Center’s quiet this early in the afternoon. It’s too early for the elementary school kids to start trickling in for their after-school activities, and on Wednesday afternoons, they don’t have official activities on the schedule. No doubt there’s some people who’ve come in to take advantage of the gym — there’s always a few people in there playing basketball or soccer — but for the most part, it’s one of the quieter times in the week.
Flicking on the lights in the art room, Erik stacks the new construction paper in the drawers by the door, puts the new glue bottles on a shelf in the back, and glances around to see if there’s anything that needs fixing or restocking. Everything seems mostly neat and tidy. If the art room needs anything else, Piotr, their resident art teacher, will let Erik know.
Turning the lights back off, he shuts the door behind him and heads back to his office. Once there, he checks his emails, crosses the lunchtime errands off his to-do list, and glances over the paperwork he still has to fill out before the end of the week. Just looking at the stack of it makes his head hurt.
Instead of trying to slog through any of it in the half hour he has left before going to meet Kitty and her doctor, Erik pulls out his phone and calls his mother instead.
She answers on the third ring. “Erik! I was beginning to wonder if you’d lost my number.”
He winces. “Sorry, Mama, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. I kept meaning to call, but things kept coming up.”
“I’ve heard that excuse before.”
“You haven’t called me either,” Erik points out.
“I’ve been busy.”
“Hypocrite,” Erik mutters.
His mother laughs. “I’ve missed your voice, Schatz. What have you been up to lately? Is there anything interesting happening at the Center? It’s been far too long since I’ve come to visit.”
“Nothing’s really changed since the last time you came over. We should be getting ready for our Thanksgiving feast night soon though. It’s a potluck as usual, so if you want to bring anything…”
“What do you mean if? I bring something every year!”
Erik can’t help but grin at her indignation. “I know. You just haven’t said anything about it this year, so I was just wondering.”
“I haven’t said anything about it because we haven’t spoken in almost three weeks.”
“That’s just as much your fault as mine,” Erik points out.
“Anyway,” his mother says, blatantly ignoring him, “I’ll be bringing my usual. You’ll get the turkey?”
“Yeah.” Erik reaches across his desk for the pad of sticky notes, summons a pen to his hand, and scribbles down a reminder to himself. “I’ll get one.”
“And you’ll come over on Wednesday to help me cook?”
“When do I not?”
“You’re a good boy,” his mother says. He can hear the fond grin in her voice. “Except,” she adds after a moment, “good boys call their mothers every week at least.”
Erik rolls his eyes. “I’ll call you again this weekend, happy?”
“Promises, promises. I’ll talk to you later, Schatz.”
Tearing the sticky note off the pad, Erik pins it to his computer monitor so he won’t forget later. Then he glances at his watch. 1:49. Well, it won’t hurt if he shows up a little early. It’s not like he’ll get anything done in the next ten minutes anyway.
His office is down the hall from Kitty’s so it’s not a long walk. As he nears, he senses another person in the room with her, someone wearing a very nice watch, maybe a Cartier by the feel of it. Erik runs his powers over the stranger and detects nothing else that really stands out — the watch is the only thing that hints at what kind of man this doctor is. Erik frowns. Coming into a relatively low-income neighborhood wearing a luxury watch like that — is the man simply thoughtless? Out of touch? Does he think of the Center as his little charity project?
Erik puts a stop to that train of thought before it goes anywhere. Kitty’s been working with him for over three months, he tells himself. She’s vetted him. He’s probably fine.
He knocks lightly on her door and, when she calls for him to come in, pushes it open.
Kitty’s sitting behind her desk, thumbing through a file. When Erik comes in, she waves him closer and says, “Erik, I’d like you to meet Dr. Xavier. Dr. Xavier, this is Erik Lehnsherr, the Center’s administrator.”
The doctor stands up from his seat and turns, extending a hand. “Erik.”
Erik starts to take his hand automatically, then freezes. He recognizes that face. And that name.
Shock is the first emotion to register, then confusion, then disbelief. For a moment, all he can do is stare, stunned and completely bewildered.
“Erik?” Kitty says after a brief, awkward pause.
Charles smiles ruefully. He doesn’t seem surprised to see Erik at all. “I’m sorry, Kitty, I should’ve warned you. Erik and I know each other from college.”
“What?” Kitty gapes at him for a moment, then switches over to stare at Erik. “Really?”
“We were in the same class at Columbia together,” Charles says. “Right, Erik?”
Erik can’t muster up a response. Charles Xavier? Here in his community center, of all places? Wearing a fucking white coat? What the fuck is happening?
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kitty asks.
With an effort, Erik drags his gaze away from Charles to focus on her. “How was I supposed to know he was the doctor you were talking about?”
“Erik, I cc’ed you on all our major correspondence,” she says, clearly exasperated. “You didn’t even bother to skim my emails?”
“It was your project,” Erik protests. He’s been busy as hell these last few months with all the plans to remodel the older classrooms and expand the Danger Room. He hasn’t had time to keep up to date on everything else happening with the Center. “You’ve been wanting more responsibility, so I was taking a hands-off approach.”
Kitty’s stare turns incredulous. “You didn’t even look at my emails closely enough to see his email address?”
“It wasn’t his full name!” Just email@example.com. In retrospect, Erik should’ve known, but at the time, he hadn’t connected the dots. Hadn’t even suspected, because Charles wasn’t a doctor. Charles was probably on a fucking yacht somewhere in the Pacific, surrounded by a posse of other obscenely wealthy blue-bloods doing keg stands and having orgies and doing whatever the fuck trust fund kids did. The idea of Charles Xavier in med school was laughable. No fucking way could that arrogant, self-righteous asshole have cleaned his act up enough to make anything of himself.
And yet here he is, standing right in front of Erik in a rumpled white coat, the badge clipped to his lapel clearly proclaiming: CHARLES XAVIER M.D. He looks completely different, too, broader at the shoulders and no longer quite as skinny and boyish. His hair isn’t the messy, curly mop it used to be; now it’s a little windswept but obviously combed and neat. And he doesn’t radiate the same level of manic energy and arrogance and hedonistic indulgence that Erik remembers. If Erik had passed him on the street, he never would’ve recognized him. He hardly recognizes him now, staring at him from three feet away.
“It has been almost eleven years,” Charles says, his eyes dark and intent on Erik’s.
Erik glowers at him. “Don’t read my mind.”
Charles doesn’t flinch away from his glare. “Sort of difficult not to when you’re shouting your thoughts at me like that.”
It’s been years since Erik’s had to shield his mind so it takes a few seconds for him to remember how to do it. As soon as he throws up his mental barriers, Charles’s expression flickers, his frown deepening. Good. It’s working.
“What are you doing here?” Erik asks icily.
“I’ve been working with Kitty on the free clinic,” Charles replies, unfazed by Erik’s tone. “We’ve gotten almost all the details worked out and — ”
“I mean, what are you doing here?” Erik snaps. “What’s your game?”
“There’s no game,” Charles says calmly. “I’m just trying to fill a need in the community.”
“Bullshit,” Erik spits.
“Erik!” Kitty stares at him as if he’d just strangled a kitten in front of her. “What is wrong with you?”
Erik wheels on her. “I need to talk to you.”
She stares at him for another moment before nodding sharply and coming around her desk. “Excuse us for a minute, Dr. Xavier. I’m so sorry about this.” Then, seizing Erik’s arm, she drags him bodily out of her office.
As soon as the door’s closed behind them, she shoves Erik away and hisses, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I don’t want to work with him,” Erik says stonily.
“Yeah, you made that pretty fucking clear back there. Want to explain yourself, or are you just being a jackass for no reason?”
Erik grits his teeth. Where to even start. “Look, I knew him in college and he was a selfish asshole who didn’t care about anything other than himself. Half the time I saw him, he was either drunk, high, or trying to get into somebody’s pants. Rumor was that he was on a mission to sleep with every single person in our class, and I’m pretty sure he got pretty damn close to doing it, too. So yeah, it’s hard for me to believe that he somehow cleaned up his act and went to med school, and now he’s decided he wants to fill a need in the community out of the good of his fucking heart. Give me a fucking break.”
Kitty stares at him. “No offense, Erik, but this sounds kind of personal.”
Erik glares. “It’s not personal.” Even though it is, kind of, but only in the sense that Erik had been personally affected by Charles’s bullshit. It had been hard to avoid it, living right across the hall from him for two years.
“Well,” Kitty says after a moment, “it’s been over a decade since then. People change.”
“Not that much.”
Kitty rolls her eyes. “Come on, Erik, I’ve been working with him for months now, and he’s been nothing but super nice and helpful. He’s really passionate about this project. You’d know that if you would just sit down and listen to him talk about it for ten minutes.”
“If there’s anything he’s good at,” Erik growls, “it’s talking a good game. It’s the action part he has trouble with.”
Kitty squints at him. “Seriously, Erik, what the hell did he do to you? Kick your dog?”
Scowling, Erik shakes his head. It’s amazing how sharp and fresh his anger at Charles feels even after all this time. He’d honestly thought he’d gotten over this but apparently not. “Did you know that when he was in college, he wouldn’t admit he was a mutant? He only disclosed that he was a telepath because the school required him to. Otherwise he was perfectly happy pretending to be a baseline.”
Kitty grimaces. “Lots of people are in the closet about their mutations. They have their reasons. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people.”
“Maybe not, but I doubt he has any real desire to help the mutant community. He didn’t give a shit about helping back then. He was much more interested in sucking up to people who would buy him booze.”
“Like I said, it’s been ten years. People can change a lot in ten years.”
“So you’re more willing to take his word over mine,” Erik says flatly.
“No, I’m more willing to trust my judgment of him than yours,” Kitty replies, arching an eyebrow coolly. “Let’s be honest, Erik, you can be a judgmental asshole sometimes, and once someone lands on your shit list, they’re never getting off it. He could be a saint, and you’d never forgive him. Look, you don’t have to work with him. You don’t even have to talk to him if you hate him so much. But I really want this free clinic to happen, and so does he. So please, please, just keep your thoughts to yourself.”
No, Erik wants to snap. He has some ulterior motive here, and you’re not going to like it whenever he shows his true colors. But he bites his tongue because as much as he hates to admit it, they need exactly what Charles is proposing. Healthcare is already difficult enough for low-income mutants to access; a free clinic in their area would be a fucking miracle for some of them. And not just a free clinic — a free clinic run by mutants who won’t judge, won’t patronize. Mutants who know exactly what it means to be different.
“You can’t get another doctor to pick up the idea?” Erik asks, resigned.
Kitty shakes her head. “I’ve been working with him since the beginning, Erik. I’m not about to kick him off the project now just because you think he was an asshole ten years ago.”
“I didn’t think he was an asshole,” Erik mutters, “he was an asshole.” After a moment, he heaves a sigh. “Fine. If you really think you can trust him with this, then fine, let’s do it. But just…let the record show that I think this is a bad idea.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Kitty says dryly. She takes a step back toward her office. “I’m going to go back in and see if Dr. Xavier’s even still willing to work with us after you just blew up at him. You should get back to your own work.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that.” Erik doesn’t think he can handle facing Charles again today. Or ever.
“Fuck,” Kitty sighs. “I don’t know why I ever thought running my own project was going to be easy.”
Opening her office door, she slips back in and shuts the door behind her. A moment later, Erik hears her muffled voice through the wood, no doubt trying to smooth things over.
Running his hands through his hair, he walks back to his own office, closes the door, and slumps into his chair behind his desk.
Charles Xavier, back in his life after ten fucking years of blessed silence.
What a fucking afternoon.
Charles, who’d been struggling not to doze off in front of the computer, jolts upright. “What?”
Alex is at the door, leaning halfway into the office. When he sees Charles’s expression, he smirks. “Catching a catnap in here?”
“No.” Charles shakes the mouse to chase away the screensaver. “I was working on my notes.”
“Did you need something?” Charles asks, raising an eyebrow. A glance at his on-call phone shows no missed messages.
“Yeah, your sister’s here.” Alex jerks a thumb at the nurse’s station behind him. “She said you guys are having lunch.”
“Oh yeah.” In the hectic rush of the morning, Charles had completely forgotten they’d agreed to meet up. Sighing, he checks how many notes he has left to complete and decides an early lunch is in order. He’s too tired to work right now anyway.
Logging off the computer, he shrugs on his white coat and slides both his on-call phone and his personal phone into his pocket. “How’s Mrs. Jindal?” he asks as he heads to the door. Alex backs off a couple of steps to let him out, and Charles tugs the door shut behind him. “Doing better?”
“Speech therapy came by earlier,” Alex says, nodding. “She passed her swallow eval.”
“And her wife’s here, and she wants to speak to you sometime today. I think she just went out to lunch though, so maybe in the afternoon.”
Raven’s leaning against the nurse’s station, chatting with Sean. Charles still isn’t used to the physical therapists changing the colors of their scrubs from purple to black; it takes a moment for him to recognize Sean sitting there at the computer, leaning casually back in his seat. They both glance up as Charles and Alex approach, and Raven pushes off the counter with a huff. “You forgot about lunch, didn’t you?”
Charles widens his eyes innocently. “I did not.”
“Then why did I have to send Alex to fetch you?”
“I lost track of time, that’s all.” He leans in for a hug.
“Eidetic memory my ass,” she grumbles, but she hugs him back anyway. “What are you thinking for lunch? Sean was telling me about this new sandwich place down the street that’s really good.”
“Whatever you want.” Between the two of them, Raven’s always been the picky eater. When they were younger, she used to call Charles a vulture and say he’d eat roadkill if it were socially acceptable, which was not true but she got a kick out of accusing him of it anyway.
Raven loops her arm through his. “Okay, sandwich place it is.” Waving at Sean and Alex, she says, “Bye, boys. Try not to get into too much trouble while Charles is gone.”
“We never get in trouble!” Alex calls after them.
Sean nods. “Never!”
“Liars,” Raven mutters fondly.
The sandwich shop is only a couple of blocks away, which is good because Charles is ravenous. As soon as they walk in, he inhales deeply and nearly faints at how good the freshly baked bread smells. “God, I’m starving.”
“When are you not? Come on, let’s sit by the window.”
She drags him over to one of the booths by the window and slides in. He’s barely scooted into his side before she leans forward, elbows on the table. “So? Tell me everything.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Charles! You met that Erik guy last week, didn’t you? And you’ve been radio silent ever since, so what happened?”
“I haven’t told you anything because nothing happened.” Charles opens up the menu on the table and skims through it. “I saw him for five minutes. It was mostly a meeting with Kitty Pryde anyway. She’s the assistant administrator.”
“I don’t care who she is,” Raven says dismissively. “I want to know about you and Erik. What happened? What did you say? What did he say?”
Charles huffs. “What is there to say? He still hates me, and I still hate him. That’s all.”
He realizes with some annoyance that Raven’s not going to let this go; her eyes are gleaming the way they always do whenever she’s determined to wheedle something out of him. “That’s all? You guys hated each other in college and now you finally have the chance to hash things out with him, and that’s all?”
“What was I supposed to say? ‘Hey, Erik, you’re still a mean asshole and I hate you?’”
“You used to text me literally every weekend about how much you hated him and how he was a terrible neighbor and how you wished he’d just move away already,” Raven says. “Every weekend, Charles! And you never hate anyone so that’s a pretty big fucking deal. And now you’re telling me you didn’t have anything to say to him?”
“It’s been ten years,” Charles says, a bit stiffly. “I’m over it.”
“You just said you still hate him and he still hates you,” Raven points out dryly.
He’s rescued by the server, who comes over to ask what they’d like to drink. A shot would be nice, Charles thinks. Or a gin and tonic. Both of those sound amazing at the moment, but he pushes the cravings carefully away. Aloud, he says, “Water please.”
“Water for me too,” Raven says, not even glancing at their server. All her attention is still fixed on Charles. As soon as they’re alone again, she leans forward further and says, “So what did he say to you? Was he surprised to see you?”
“I think surprised is a mild word for it. He was horrified to see me. You should’ve seen him, Raven, he looked like he’d been kicked in the gut.”
“Wow, he hates you that much? I mean, I’m sure he was justified — you were a completely dick in college — ”
“What? It’s true.”
“I was not a complete dick,” Charles grumbles. “And anyway, he wasn’t justified in hating me. Didn’t you ever listen to what I said about him?”
“Yeah, he’s a total killjoy and he tried to have you evicted for throwing too many parties.” Raven shoots him a wry look. “I mean, you can kinda see his point.”
“We were never even that rowdy,” Charles mutters. Honestly, they hadn’t been; Erik had just been extremely sensitive to even the slightest bit of noise, and extremely eager to complain about it, loudly and frequently. “And we turned down the music anytime he asked. He was still an asshole about it though. Like that time he shut off all the power in my apartment and wouldn’t turn it back on for two days.”
“You said it might not have been him.”
“I said I couldn’t prove that it was him.” Charles scowls down at the menu in his hands. “But I knew it was. Who else could it have been? Jerk.”
Raven smirks. “Yeah, you’re totally over him.”
He sighs in annoyance. “You know that’s not even why he really hates me, right?”
Before Raven can answer, the server returned with their waters. They order, Charles a turkey sub with tomato soup, Raven a tuna egg sandwich with chips, and pass over their menus to be collected. As soon as their server’s gone again, Charles says, “He didn’t really hate me because of the parties and the drinking and all that. I mean, yeah, he hated me, but he didn’t hate me.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Raven says, squeezing lemon into her water.
Charles huffs. “You want to know why he really hated me? Because I wasn’t mutant enough for him.”
Raven’s eyebrows tick upwards. “What?”
“Yeah.” Even with his excellent memory, he’s still a little startled by how crystal clear his memories of Erik in college are, like he and Erik might have clashed only yesterday. “You know he once accused me of internalized mutantphobia? Said I was ashamed of who I was. Said I should be embarrassed about trying to pass as baseline and basically told me I was a disgrace to mutantkind.”
“Damn.” Raven’s eyebrows climb higher. “That’s some serious shit.”
Charles sighs. Time and distance haven’t completely taken the sting out of the accusation, even though it had happened nearly eleven years ago. He can even remember Erik’s exact expression as he’d hurled the words into Charles’s face: disdainful, dismissive, and utterly cold. “You should’ve seen him in college. He was practically the face of radical separatism. He had Hellfire Club propaganda in his apartment, I saw it. I seriously used to think he was going to drop out and go join them.”
“So he’s super proud of being a mutant. That’s not awful.”
“Did you not hear me say Hellfire Club?”
Raven shrugs one shoulder. “I had a Hellfire phase, too. I mean, granted, that was before they went totally batshit crazy, but Erik’s not the only one who thought what they were selling sounded good. Lots of people liked them before — well, before San Francisco happened.”
Charles shakes his head. He will never understand people who liked Hellfire Club even before the San Francisco bombing. They’d always been far too radical for his liking, aggressively advocating for mutant supremacy and separatism. When Charles had discovered Erik was a fan, he hadn’t been surprised. Erik with all his high and mighty mutant and proud talk had just seemed like the kind of guy to buy into all of that.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” Raven says, rolling her eyes. “Just because you disagreed with them doesn’t mean they didn’t have some good ideas.”
“Good ideas including killing off people who disagreed with them,” Charles says flatly.
Raven rolls her eyes again. “That was an extreme sect of Hellfire that didn’t represent the group as a whole and you know it.”
“Hellfire leadership didn’t jump to denounce them after the bombing,” Charles points out. “You know they only came out with a statement against the bombers because the optics would’ve been terrible if they didn’t. And even if most of them didn’t take active part in the bombing, they tacitly condoned it in their writings. Or do you forget how many times they called for violence to instate mutant supremacy and subjugate inferior baselines?”
“Not everyone in Hellfire believed in that kind of talk.”
“But enough of them did that it mattered.”
Raven huffs and leans back. “I didn’t meet you for lunch so we could argue about Hellfire. You know we’re never going to agree on that.”
“No, we won’t,” Charles sighs. This is a debate they’ve rehashed a million times before, and it usually ends the same way, with both of them even more firmly set in their opinions than before. He stirs the ice in his water with the straw idly. “Anyway, I wasn’t as out and proud as he was, and he hated me for it. That’s pretty much the gist of it.”
“Did you ever tell him about, you know…”
Even without his telepathy, Charles catches her meaning easily enough. “No,” he snorts. “That probably would’ve just given him more ammo to use against me. No thanks. Though sometimes I do wish I’d just told him about what was going on. Probably would’ve shut him up for at least a little bit.”
Their lunch arrives a moment later, and for a few minutes, they’re too busy wolfing down the food to talk. Charles hadn’t had much of a breakfast this morning, so he’s absolutely starving. The soup burns his tongue a little, he eats it so fast, but it’s startlingly delicious. Sean was right — this place is good.
Once most of Raven’s sandwich is gone, she leans back and says, “So now what? Are you going to work with him?”
Charles finishes chewing and swallowing before nodding. “I don’t see how I can get around it. Kitty’s mostly running the project though, so hopefully I won’t have to see him too much.”
“The assistant administrator,” Charles reminds her dryly. Of course she hadn’t been paying attention earlier; whenever she wants to get to the bottom of something, she has absolutely no time for details she deems irrelevant. “She’s the one I’ve been working with for the last few months to set the clinic up.”
“Right.” Raven pops a chip into her mouth and crunches it thoughtfully. “You really think you’re going to be able to do that? Work there and avoid Erik, I mean?”
Charles shrugs. “I don’t think I have much of a choice. I’m hardly going to back out now just because my old college nemesis happens to be involved. I’ll just do my best to work around him.”
Raven snorts. “Why do I get the feeling those are famous last words?”
“God forbid,” Charles mutters. “Now come on, finish your sandwich, I’ve got to get back to work soon.”
Thanksgiving isn’t one of Erik’s favorite holidays of the year — in fact, it’s pretty low on the list, and he’s not generally fond of holidays anyway — but at least it isn’t as insufferable and inescapable as Christmas. Back when he’d been younger, he and his mother used to celebrate Thanksgiving on their own. Well, celebrate is a loose word for it — since Erik would have school off, they’d just prepare and have a quiet meal together, and then they’d have a movie marathon afterwards until both of them fell asleep. He hadn’t minded that; it had always been just the two of them for as long as Erik could remember, and he’d honestly preferred it that way. Less hassle, less chaos, more food to share between the two of them.
These days though, they celebrate Thanksgiving with about fifty other families in the area. The Center’s been hosting a Thanksgiving feast for almost a decade now, and it’s one of the most popular events of the year. Erik doesn’t really get into the holiday spirit, as Kitty says, but he has to admit, the fall décor is kind of nice. So is the potluck.
His mother arrives early as always. She marches into the Center, locates Erik in his office, and drags him out to the parking lot so he can help her carry everything in.
“Mama,” he says in dismay when he sees the number of containers sitting in the backseat.
“Every year I tell you you only have to make one thing, and every year, you bring twenty!”
“Let’s not exaggerate,” she huffs indignantly. “There’s only seven. Come on, grab the turkey before it goes cold. And careful with the pie!”
Together they manage to transfer everything inside in one trip. Balancing five aluminum trays in his arms, Erik leads the way to the gym where Kitty’s supervising the table setup.
She grins hugely when she spots them. “Edie! Right on time. You can put everything down on the table over there and we’ll organize it later.”
“Kitty, bubelah, how are you doing?” Edie deposits her trays carefully on the long folding table by the wall and then turns to engulf Kitty in a bone-cracking embrace. For such a slight woman, she gives fearsome bear hugs. “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you! Are you still with that nice young man? What was his name…”
“Piotr,” Kitty supplies, “and yes, we’re still together.”
Edie grabs Kitty’s hand, examining it critically. “Still no ring?”
“Mama,” Erik complains.
“What? It’s a valid question.”
“No,” Kitty laughs, “no ring yet. Maybe soon though.” She gives Edie a sly grin. “I’m working on it.”
Edie laughs delightedly. “Good girl. And Erik — ” he winces as she rounds on him “ — what about you? Have you met anyone?” Without even waiting for him to answer, she wheels back to Kitty. “Has he met anyone?”
Kitty smirks. “Not that I know of.”
“I thought not. Well, I ran into Mrs. Blum the other day and she told me she has a very nice nephew who happens to be single, and I said — ”
Erik groans. “Mama, please.”
“What? It’s been almost two years since Magda — oh, and I saw her the other day, by the way, and she told me to tell you hello — ”
“Do we really have to discuss this in front of Kitty?” Erik grumbles.
“Oh I’m all ears for gossip,” Kitty says, grinning evilly. “Especially any gossip involving Erik.”
He heaves a long-suffering sigh. “I wish I’d never introduced you two.” Kitty and his mother get along like a house on fire, and ganging up on Erik is one of their favorite hobbies.
“You know we tease out of love,” his mother says, reaching up to pinch his cheek fondly.
“Actually, Edie,” Kitty says after a moment, “I do have to tell you something about Erik.” She arches an eyebrow at him. “He was extremely rude to a friend of mine last week, and you really should have a talk with him about it.”
“Seriously?” Erik exclaims. She’s really going to drag his mother into this?
His mother shoots him a stern look, instantly ready to launch into a scolding. “Rude? To whom?”
“I forgot I have to help move chairs from the classrooms,” Erik says loudly, backing up. When his mother turns back to Kitty, Erik glares over her shoulder and makes a cutting motion across his throat. Kitty just meets his eyes coolly, eyebrows raised. So she’s still pissed about how he’d treated Charles last week. Fucking great.
He manages to escape the gym before his mother grabs his ear to shake him, or does something else equally humiliating in front of all his coworkers. I’m going to kill Kitty later, he thinks blackly. Figures she’d rat him out — she knows his mother’s the only one he’d ever really listen to about something like this.
He’s not wrong though. He has perfectly good reasons to hate Charles. Could he have handled last week’s meeting better? Sure. But he’d still been right in principle, and that’s what really matters.
Highly annoyed, he takes himself off to the classrooms to join Betsy and Azazel in collecting folding chairs from the rooms and ferrying them over to the gym. Azazel bursts in and out in plumes of red and black smoke, relocating four or five chairs at a time. Betsy’s sitting on one of the desks, waving her hand lazily to fold up chairs and stack them on a dolly.
“About time you got here,” she says when Erik shows up. “Now let’s hurry up and finish so I can go see what kind of food everyone’s bringing.” Then she peers more closely at him and wrinkles her nose. “I hope you’re not planning on being pissed off all night. It’s seriously going to ruin the mood.”
Don’t read my mind then, Erik thinks pointedly.
Betsy rolls her eyes. “You know that’s not how it works. What are you pissed about now? Or would it be faster if I asked what you aren’t pissed about?”
“I’m pissed about telepaths butting in on my business where they’re not wanted,” Erik says coolly.
“Jeez, asshole much?” Then her eyes widen in realization, and she sits up straighter. The momentary lapse in her concentration causes several folding chairs to slide off the dolly in a jarring crash, but she barely blinks at the noise. “Ohh, is this about Charles?”
“Has everyone here heard about that?” Erik demands. He waves a hand to lift the fallen chairs off the ground and back onto the dolly. And is everyone here on a fucking first name basis with him?
“You know how quickly gossip travels around here,” Betsy says, leaning forward eagerly. “So what happened between you two anyway? Kitty told me you two were friends in college, but she didn’t say much else.”
Erik resists the urge to rub his temples. Goddammit, Kitty. Even though he loves her like a younger sister, sometimes she’s an extremely annoying one, especially when it comes to her unique talent of letting slip things he’d much rather keep quiet.
“It’s none of Kitty’s business,” he says stiffly, “and none of yours either.”
“Ah.” Betsy leans back with a satisfied grin. “Now I know there’s some kind of meaty story behind all this.”
Why hadn’t he just read the emails Kitty had cc’ed him on three months ago? Erik despairs. Then he could’ve vetoed their partnership with Charles from the very beginning and prevented this whole travesty. Now he has to deal with Charles in his community center and nosy coworkers trying to pry up his past. What the hell had he done to deserve this?
“I’m not talking about it. And,” he adds when Betsy shoots him a sly look, “don’t fucking read my mind.”
Betsy gasps in mock horror. “There are children around, Erik. Watch your mouth.”
He rolls his eyes. She’s got one of the dirtiest mouths out of all the staff at the Center, and everyone knows it. “Just keep your thoughts to yourself,” he growls, grabbing the dolly and tugging it out the door. “I’m not interested in talking about Xavier, now or ever.”
After they’ve moved all the chairs into the gym, Erik directs the setup of several dozen round, foldable tables. Once those and the chairs are in place, he risks going over to the food table to see if they need any help over there. Thankfully Kitty and his mother have disappeared for the moment, so he doesn’t need to brace for a lecture. God only knows what Kitty told his mother.
Within the hour, the guests start to arrive. As Kitty reappears and parks herself at the gym doors to greet everyone with a glowing smile and cheerful small talk, Erik supervises some last-minute setup, making sure the microphones all work and the sound system is wired in and ready to go. Once they’ve got some gentle jazz floating through the gym, Erik finally allows himself to gaze out over the tables, taking stock of who’s here and who has yet to come.
The Bakers are here with their twin girls, both of whom are practically bouncing in their seats in excitement. Erik spots a few of the regulars in his self-defense class filtering into the gym and makes a mental note to say hello later. There’s also a group of NYU students who volunteer at the Center semi-regularly: Scott and his girlfriend Jean, Jubilee, a newer kid named Bobby. It’s only seven-fifteen and the gym’s already a third full. It looks like they’ll be packed tonight.
He’s just about to head over to Kitty to ask if there’s anything else she needs him to do when he recognizes the man she’s greeting at the door. In an instant, his whole body goes cold, then hot.
What the fuck is he doing here?
Erik hovers just at the edge of the gym, out of Charles’s line of sight. He can see them both perfectly well though, and when Charles says something that makes Kitty laugh, Erik clenches his jaw so tightly it hurts. Who invited him? Why did he come? Is that a bottle of wine tucked into the crook of his arm? Who the fuck brings wine to a goddamned Thanksgiving potluck like this?
After another minute of pleasant chitchat, Kitty pats Charles’s elbow and gestures to the tables. As soon as Charles heads off to find a seat, Erik pounces on Kitty, glowering ferociously. “What’s he doing here?”
Kitty’s smile fades into a scowl. “I invited him because I figured he should start getting to know the people he’s going to be taking care of, and this is the perfect opportunity for it. I swear to God, Erik, if you don’t behave yourself, I’m going to sic your mother on you.”
“I can’t believe you brought my mother into this,” Erik hisses.
“What? You deserved it.”
“You were being a total asshole!”
“With good reason!”
“Just because you hated him in college doesn’t mean everyone else has to hate him, too. I don’t care what he was like ten years ago, I care what he’s like now, and everything I’ve seen tells me he’s a good person. You’d see that, too, if your head wasn’t so far stuck up your a — ” She cuts herself off as a family approaches, her scowl transforming into a warm grin at the speed of light. “Hello, Mrs. Wu! Hi, Clarence, hi, Amelia, hi, Peter.”
“Hi, Miss Kitty,” chorus the kids.
“What do you have there?” Kitty asks Peter brightly. The little boy is carrying a Tupperware container that looks slightly too heavy for him to handle, but he’s managing it with admirable determination.
“Peach cobbler!” he declares proudly. “I made it myself!”
“With Amelia’s help,” Mrs. Wu adds with a smile. “Come on, Peter, let’s go put it down before you drop it.”
“The dessert table’s right over there,” Kitty says, pointing.
As soon as they’ve passed by, Erik returns to glaring at Kitty. “What did you tell my mother anyway?”
“I just told her you were a little mean to one of my friends last week. I didn’t tell her everything. But,” she wags a finger at him in a gesture so reminiscent of his mother that he almost winces, “if you don’t get over this ridiculous grudge, I’m going to tell her everything. So please, just behave yourself, okay? In fact, just stay away from him. That’ll probably make everyone happier.”
“Fine,” Erik bites out. He has no intention of seeking Charles out anyway. Most of their conversations in college had ended with shouting and slammed doors. That’s the last thing he wants to deal with in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner.
Kitty sighs, her expression softening. “I really wish you’d give him a chance, Erik. I think you’d actually like him if you got to know him.”
“I know him well enough,” Erik growls.
He stalks off before she can say anything more. It’s a pointless argument anyway, because nothing she says could possibly change his mind. Charles Xavier is spoiled and selfish and he doesn’t give a shit about other people’s feelings, period. That’s all Erik needs to know about him.
“Why do you look like you just bit into a lemon, Schatz?”
Schooling his expression into something more neutral, Erik turns to find his mother approaching. “No reason,” he sighs. “Just thinking of a work problem.”
She loops her arm through his. “You’re supposed to be having fun, not thinking about work. Now come on, let’s go find a place to sit. I’m starving, and we can’t get started until everyone’s seated.”
Erik resolutely pushes Charles Xavier to the back of his mind. “Yes, Mama.”
Charles had been pretty sure accepting Kitty’s invitation to come to the Center’s Thanksgiving dinner was a mistake, and now he’s wishing he’d gone with his gut instinct to decline politely. There are about three hundred people crammed into the gym, way more than he’d expected, and despite the low hum of the air conditioner running overhead, it’s still a little too warm for comfort. The line for food is hellishly long, and since he’d only had a granola bar for lunch, the wait feels even longer than it actually is. Plus Erik had spotted him as soon as he’d come in and now he’s taken to glaring daggers in Charles’s direction every ten minutes or so, which feels a little like being jabbed in the side with a cattle prod.
All of this contributes to a vicious throbbing headache that starts just behind Charles’s eyes and then starts to radiate across his forehead. And of course he’d left his migraine meds at home. Stupid.
At least everyone he’s met has been welcoming and friendly. They’re even more enthusiastic about the free clinic than he’d expected, and they’re eager to meet the doctor who’s going to be running it. Charles turns on his most charming smile and schmoozes around like he’s a socialite at one of his mother’s galas. Fortunately, meeting people and putting effort into remembering their names and faces distracts him from his headache. Small mercies.
Once he’s finally gotten a plate of food, he finds a table nearby that doesn’t look too crowded and introduces himself. The adults seem at least mildly interested in his work, while the children at the table seem much more intrigued by his scrubs.
“Those look like pajamas,” one girl says accusingly.
Charles laughs. “Yes, I suppose they do, don’t they?”
“How come you aren’t dressed up?” She tugs discontentedly at her lacy dress. “Mom said we all had to dress up.”
The woman next to her, presumably her mother, shushes her, though she can’t entirely hide her smile. “Be polite, Rosaline. Besides, that counts as dressing up for a doctor. That’s what they wear to work.”
“You get to go to work in your pajamas?” Rosaline asks enviously. “I don’t get to go to school in my pajamas.”
“It’s one of the perks of working in a hospital,” Charles replies, smiling.
“Like Grey’s Anatomy!” Rosaline exclaims. Dropping her voice conspiratorially, she adds, “My mom watches that show every week and she cries about it all the time!”
Her mother blushes bright red. “I’m sure Dr. Xavier doesn’t want to hear about that! Eat your potatoes, Ros.” Over her daughter’s head, she shoots Charles an apologetic look. “Sorry, she’s a chatterbox.”
Charles shakes his head. “No, it’s fine. She seems like a charming little girl.”
“I’m not little!” Rosaline protests through a mouthful of potatoes.
“Chew with your mouth closed,” her mother orders. Holding out her hand behind Rosaline, she says, “I’m Gail.”
Charles shakes her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“You know,” Gail says as she saws into her turkey, “I’ve been excited about this clinic ever since the Center started putting up advertisements for it. I’ve fallen behind on getting Rosaline checked up these last few years because of personal issues, and it’s going to be a big help if I can take her here instead of trying to find a new pediatrician somewhere else in the city.” She glances at Charles. “You’re a pediatrician?”
“I’m an ICU doctor actually, but I trained in internal medicine before that. I’ve had a lot of experience working in free clinics before, too, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to get this clinic up and running in no time.”
“You’re planning on setting it up in the old gym on the second floor, right?”
“About time they did something about that space,” says an older man across the table. He has a grandfatherly look about him with his gray hair and thick white beard. “They’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it for almost two years now.”
“They held the self-defense classes in it for a while,” interjects the woman next to him. His wife, Charles guesses, judging from the way she’s casually leaning against his arm. “But then Erik wanted to move to a room with better lighting.”
Charles can’t help the way his body snaps to attention at the sound of Erik’s name. “You know Erik?”
The woman seems slightly surprised by the question. “Everyone does.”
Unfortunate, Charles wants to mutter, but he bites back the word. Instead, he asks, genuinely curious, “What’s he like? I don’t know him all that well, but I know he runs the place.”
“He’s done more than run this place,” she says. “He’s poured his heart and soul into this community center. Before he took over, it was so rundown there was talk about tearing it down and building a hotel over it. But then Erik came and brought in a crew of volunteers and renovated the whole place, got all these programs up and running, and went out into the community to talk everyone into giving this place a second chance. If it weren’t for him, we might be sitting in a Hilton right now.”
She speaks of Erik with such reverence that Charles can’t do anything but stare at her in disbelief. Erik did all that? Cold, antisocial, asshole Erik? A job like that sounds like it would’ve taken more compassion and altruism than Erik’s ever shown in his life. Sure, he’s always been passionate about mutant rights (rabidly so, Charles thinks sourly), but he’s always struck Charles as less of a build community centers and strengthen family bonds type and more of a burn the fucking government down type.
“Sorry,” the woman says, smiling a bit self-consciously, “I didn’t mean to go on a whole monologue. It’s just that I’m very grateful to have the Center here. It helps to know that my grandchildren get to spend their time after school in such a safe environment where they don’t have to be afraid of being different.”
“I agree,” Gail says. “Did you know that before Erik got the Center up and running, the nearest mutant-friendly daycare with a decent reputation was halfway across the city? I wouldn’t trust Rosaline in a regular daycare — they all say they’re non-discriminatory, but I didn’t want Ros to get bullied anyway. But now this place is just a couple of blocks from our home. It’s been a godsend.”
“It sounds like Erik’s done a very good job with this place,” Charles murmurs.
“He’s not the friendliest of fellows,” says the grandfather, “but when you talk to him, you really get the sense that he cares about the community. That’s what really matters.”
How are we thinking about the same person? Charles wonders. His most vivid memory of Erik from college is being thrown out of Erik’s apartment at three in the morning with Erik nearly breaking his nose from slamming the door in his face. That had been one of the worst nights of Charles’s life, and that’s saying something — he’d had a plethora of low points in college.
He carefully pushes that memory to the very back of his mind. No need to add to the headache already pounding against his temples.
“You aren’t working with him for the clinic?” Gail asks.
“No, I’ve been working with Ms. Pryde.”
A round of fond sighs circles around the table. “Now that is a lovely young woman,” says the grandmother. “She’s such a kind young lady, and very good at her job, too.”
“She’s been very helpful in implementing my ideas for the clinic,” Charles agrees.
“Well I can’t wait to see what you two have come up with,” Gail declares. “Ros and I will be your first patients, won’t we, Ros?”
Rosaline squints at Charles suspiciously. “Last time I was at the doctor’s, I got shot!”
He gives her a look of mock-horror. “You got shot?”
“Yep!” She jabs at her upper arm. “Right there. It hurt a lot.”
“I’m sure it did,” he says sympathetically. “I promise that if you come in for a checkup with me, I’ll make sure that you have more fun than you did last time. Do you like stickers?”
Her eyes brighten. “Yes!”
“I like stickers, too!” exclaims a boy across the table. One of the grandkids, Charles surmises, since he’s sitting next to the grandmother. “I have a whole collection of ’em. I got Cars stickers and Avengers stickers and really cool Star Wars stickers — ”
“Not as cool as my stickers,” Rosaline interrupts, sticking out her tongue.
“Rosaline!” Gail says sharply. “Be nice.”
“Are not!” the boy yells.
“Inside voices, Ben,” the grandmother scolds gently.
“Are not!” the boy whispers loudly.
The conversation dissolves into bickering about whose stickers are cooler and who’s not being nice to whom, and despite the fact that Charles really has been enjoying his time with Gail and the others, his headache’s growing relentless. So he excuses himself from the table and makes as quick an exit as he can from the gym without looking like he’s fleeing.
The hall outside is much quieter but still too close to the pulsing thoughts of the crowd within for comfort. Rubbing at his temple, Charles ventures down the hall, turns the corner, keeps walking, and eventually finds a darkened, empty classroom to slip into.
Or — not so empty, he realizes when he walks in. There’s someone sitting behind the teacher’s desk by the chalkboard, his face lit by the bright light of his phone screen. Charles’s gut twists when he recognizes who it is.
“Sorry,” he says, backing up as soon as Erik looks up. “I didn’t know you were in here.”
Erik stares at him, narrow-eyed. “What are you doing, wandering around?” There’s a slight accusatory edge to his voice.
Charles is in far too much pain from his migraine to have any sort of patience with Erik right now. “Oh I don’t know,” he says acerbically. “I thought I’d just pop in and see if I could steal some pencils and glue from the classrooms. Maybe some clipboards, too, if I’m feeling really ambitious.”
Erik bristles. “Everything’s a joke to you, isn’t it, Xavier?”
Charles tosses him the most arrogant, imperious look he can muster. “So what if it is?”
Erik’s fury washes over him, threatening to obliterate his weakened shields and take him to his knees. Only years of practice with shielding keeps his legs from buckling underneath him. Somehow he manages to stay upright, even with his worsening migraine.
“I knew you hadn’t changed,” Erik hisses, pushing to his feet. “You treat everything like it’s a game, and you treat everyone like they’re disposable game pieces.”
“And you’re so much better?” Charles demands. “Don’t act like you’re some kind of saint. You’re pretty good at treating people as disposable yourself.”
Erik blinks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what it means,” Charles says furiously. Erik has to remember, of course he does. Because if he doesn’t remember, then that means that night meant even less to him than Charles had thought it did, and that’s just fucking cruel.
Evidently Erik does remember because his face goes even stonier. “Don’t put that on me, that was your fucking fault.”
“My fault? You must be joking!”
“Well it sure as hell wasn’t my fault!”
“You’re the one who threw me out!”
“Don’t act like you don’t know why I did,” Erik snarls, his expression thunderous. The desk beside him rattles, lurching slightly forward on its metal legs. “Of course, you might have been too drunk to remember. It’s not like you were ever sober anyway. I’m surprised you only brought a bottle of wine tonight. What, did you run out of kegs?”
Charles can’t speak for a moment, he’s so choked with rage. He just barely manages to keep his telepathy reined in, keep it from lashing out at Erik in a fury. When he’s sure he can speak without shouting, he says coldly, “You know as well as I that I was fully sober that night. And I haven’t had a drink in eight years, so fuck you, Erik.”
Wheeling around, he pushes the door open. Of course Erik can’t resist sending along a parting shot: “Well fucking congratulations then, Doctor!”
Charles slams the door behind him, something he almost never does. It’s not polite, his mother would have said, her voice darkly disapproving. But fuck polite, he thinks viciously. That had felt good.
His head’s hurting even worse than before though. Maybe it’s just time to admit defeat and head home to nurse his migraine in peace.
He sends a quick text to Kitty thanking her for the invite and explaining that he has to bow out early, he’s got an early shift tomorrow morning. Then he goes outside, flags a cab, and collapses into the backseat.
Maybe Raven was right, he thinks morosely as the cab pulls away from the curb. Maybe it really is going to be impossible to work with Erik.
For the next couple of weeks, Erik manages to avoid Charles for the most part. Since the clinic’s grand opening on the Monday after Thanksgiving, he’s seen Charles around the Center every now and then, but they both seem to have come to a mutual agreement to ignore each other. The clinic’s being run from the second floor gym, which is almost as far away from Erik’s office as one could possibly get. That makes it easier to avoid Charles entirely.
He can’t avoid Kitty though. Her new mission seems to be to get him to like Charles for some godforsaken reason. Every couple of days, she casually mentions how good Charles is with the children, how everyone loves him, how all the volunteer staff he brought in to help him are perfect angels.
“Yesterday I watched him give Sehrish a shot,” she says one afternoon as they sit in her office working on December’s budget. “You know how Sehrish is, she’s not very good at controlling her explosions yet, so everyone was just kind of holding their breath, waiting for the whole clinic to blow up. I mean, we had emergency suppressants on hand just in case but still, it could’ve been bad. But nope, Charles just told her this hilarious story about a talking frog and she laughed the whole time. I don’t even think she felt the needle go in!”
“Mmm,” Erik grunts. He knows Kitty won’t shut up about Charles even if he tells her to, but usually if he ignores her for long enough, she gets tired of trying to engage with him.
“Speaking of shots, I should ask him if it’s too late to get a flu shot. Hey, have you gotten yours yet?”
“I’ll ask for you, too.” Kitty grins. “Maybe if you’re extra good, he’ll give you a really cool sticker.”
Erik rolls his eyes. “What are you, five?”
Kitty huffs. “God, you’ve been such an asshole lately. Like, even more of an asshole than usual. If I’d known you’d be like this, I would’ve…”
“Not hired him?” Erik fills in, barely holding back an I told you so.
“I would’ve told your mother about you and Charles at the potluck,” Kitty shoots back.
Erik winces. “Don’t you dare,” he mutters.
Kitty heaves a sigh. “You can’t even pretend to tolerate him for two seconds?”
“Why should I? You said I don’t have to work with him.”
“Yeah, but seeing you so pissed off all the time puts everyone in a bad mood. Haven’t you noticed?”
Erik has noticed people steering clear of him a little more often lately, but he hasn’t minded the extra space so he hasn’t thought much about it. Now that Kitty brings it up, he supposes it could be attributed to his less-than-stellar mood these past few weeks.
Yet another reason why having Charles around is a bad idea.
When he doesn’t reply, Kitty rolls her eyes and pushes back from her desk. “You can keep crunching numbers. I’m going to check our volunteer roster to make sure we’ve got enough people for next month.”
Erik pointedly ignores the last glare she shoots him before slipping out of the office.
Two days later, Kitty catches him as he’s coming into work and slaps a sticky note onto the stack of files tucked under his arm. “List of tasks for the day.”
Handing her his coffee, he plucks up the note and scans it over. A couple of supply order forms to sign and fax, a new informational pamphlet to review and approve, flu shot…
He raises an eyebrow. “Flu shot?”
“Charles told me it’s not too late to get one, and it’s important for us to get vaccinated, especially since we work a lot around kids.” Kitty gives him a stern look, obviously anticipating resistance. “I know you’re busy, but take five minutes to go up to the clinic in the afternoon and get a shot. You don’t even have to see him, just get it from one of the nurses. Got it?”
“Fine,” Erik mutters. He can handle going to the clinic for five minutes.
Kitty blinks. “Really?”
“What, you wanted me to say no?”
“No, I was just expecting you to whine about it more.”
“I don’t whine.”
“I don’t whine,” Kitty mocks, letting her voice go nasally and annoying.
“You are such a fucking brat.”
“But you love me anyway,” Kitty says sweetly. “So go get your flu shot and please don’t make a scene if you happen to run into Charles.”
“I make no promises.”
But he really does go to the clinic that afternoon with no intention of starting anything. It’s nearing the end of the workday, he’s a little behind on paperwork, and he still has to read and sign off on the Center’s monthly newsletter. So starting drama with Charles is the last thing he’s looking to do.
In the two weeks the clinic’s been operating, Erik hasn’t been upstairs to pay it a visit, so he’s actually kind of surprised by how the old gym has been completely transformed. The once wide open space of the basketball court has been sectioned off with a series of curtains to form a dozen or so “exam rooms.” A few rows of folding chairs have been set up as a waiting area where the bleachers used to be, and here and there, men and women in scrubs hurry back and forth on some task or another. But it doesn’t seem as sterile and forbidding as a hospital — there are smiley face balloons tethered on the curtain rods of each exam room, a small children’s area boasts of a number of coloring books and toys, and there’s a table full of snacks by the waiting area.
Just inside the doors, Erik’s greeted by a young woman sitting behind a small folding table. “Hello,” she says brightly. “Do you have an appointment?”
Erik glances at her nametag. “You’re a medical student?”
She nods. “I’m a second-year at Columbia.”
Now he remembers Kitty mentioning that they’d roped some local medical students into volunteering at the clinic. Glancing around, he sees that the majority of the volunteer medical staff working in the gym seem fairly young. Most of them are probably students looking to get experience of some kind. Hopefully they know what they’re doing.
“Yeah, I’m just here to get a flu shot,” Erik tells her.
She glances him over for a moment, then blinks in realization. “Oh, are you Mr. Lehnsherr? Ms. Pryde mentioned you’d be coming by later for your vaccination.”
“Great. If you could just take a seat over there — ” she points to the waiting area “ — someone will be with you in just a sec. Feel free to grab a cookie. They’re super fresh — Dr. Xavier picked them up just now.”
“Dr. Xavier’s here?”
“Yeah, he just went in to see a patient. Do you want me to get him when he’s done?”
“No,” Erik says hastily, “it’s fine.”
He wanders over to the snack table, peruses the boxes of sweets, and selects an oatmeal raisin cookie to chew on while he waits. About ten other people sit scattered around the waiting area, most of them adults, a couple of them children. Erik recognizes a few of them from just seeing them around the Center, but given that he doesn’t know any of them personally, he doesn’t feel bad about settling himself in a corner and not saying hello.
For a few minutes, he scrolls through news alerts on his phone. Reading up on current events just pisses him off, predictably, and he sets a reminder on his phone to call his senators later when he’s less busy. Just as he’s gearing up to get into an argument in the comments section of a Politico article on tax reform, he hears Charles’s familiar voice approaching.
“There,” he’s saying, “see? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
A moment later, Charles appears around the corner of the row of curtained exam rooms. He’s accompanied by an older man — Gerardo, whom Erik knows from his self-defense classes — and Gerardo’s niece Elena, who’s cradling her arm with a pout. Given the SpongeBob band-aid near her shoulder, Erik can guess why she’s upset.
“It hurt,” Elena says sulkily.
“You did very well,” Charles says cheerfully. He crouches down to her eye-level and dips his hand into the pocket of his white coat. “Now I promised you stickers, didn’t I? And you said you liked Transformers, didn’t you?”
Her frown morphs into a wide, gap-toothed grin when she sees his offering. “Optimus Prime!” She paws through the stickers in his hand. “Bumblebee! And Starscream! Can I have all of them?”
Gerardo clucks his tongue. “What do we say?”
Elena gives Charles a shy look. “Can I have all of them please?”
Charles chuckles. “Of course. I have plenty of others.” Rising, he shakes Gerardo’s hand. “Thanks for coming in. I’ll have one of the nurses print you an updated list of Elena’s vaccinations so you can have it for future reference.”
“Thank you.” Gerardo pauses for a second, then adds with a hint of embarrassment, “About my asthma…are you sure it’s not too much to ask for you to get me that consult with a lung doctor? I don’t want you to go out of your way…”
“Nonsense,” Charles says, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’s no trouble at all. I’ll have my friend call you sometime this week, all right? And if she doesn’t, just give me a call and I’ll put some pressure on her to make sure she squeezes you in, yeah?”
Gerardo pinks a little above his dark beard. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“Anytime. It was nice to meet you both.” Charles bends down a little. “Bye-bye, Elena.”
“Can I come back for more stickers?” she asks.
Charles laughs. “Well that’s up to your uncle.”
“Please, tío! Please, please, please, please — ”
Her words cut off in a yelp as Gerardo scoops her up into his arms. “You can ask your mom when you get home,” he huffs. “Come on, it’s almost dinnertime. You want ice cream on the way home? Just don’t tell your mama, okay?”
The prospect of more stickers is instantly forgotten. “Yes!” Elena crows.
Charles watches them with a fond smile as they head toward the table by the doors. Erik’s eyes are drawn to him, to the soft curve of his lips. He’d seemed genuinely friendly and kind with Gerardo and his niece. At least it hadn’t seemed like an act, and even if it were, what would Charles be getting out of this? What does he stand to gain from volunteering his time to come over to the Center twice a week to run a clinic where he isn’t expecting any compensation?
Don’t fall for it, Erik growls at himself. He’d seemed genuine that night, too, and you remember what happened.
He shakes off the memory angrily, hating how easily it rises to his mind even after all this time.
Hands in his pockets, Charles turns to survey the waiting area. His smile fades when he spots Erik sitting there, and for a moment, it seems like he’s seriously debating ignoring Erik entirely. But after a few seconds, he comes over, his expression wary. “Something you need, Mr. Lehnsherr?”
Erik tips his chin up coolly. “A flu shot.”
After a brief pause, Charles waves him out of his seat. “Come on, I can take care of that.”
“I thought one of the nurses could do it.”
“The nurses are all tied up at the moment. It’ll take me two minutes. Come on.”
His tone is almost a challenge. Erik pushes himself out of the chair with a shrug that’s more nonchalant than he feels. “Okay.”
Charles leads him to one of the exam rooms and gestures for him to take a seat in the chair. Closing the curtain, he rummages around in the storage cart in the corner of the room. “Are you allergic to any medications?”
“Have you had any adverse reactions to flu shots or other vaccines in the past?”
“Good.” Charles tugs a metal stand over to Erik’s side and lays several supplies on the tray. “I hope you aren’t afraid of needles either.”
“No,” Erik says gruffly, even though his first instinct is to shy away when he sees the needle in Charles’s hands.
Charles must see him stiffen a little because he smiles. “Relax. It’ll only be a couple of seconds.”
It’s not the arrogant, smug smile he used to wear when he got the better of Erik in an argument back in college, and it’s not the charming, slick smile Erik’s seen him use on other people when he’s trying to get something out of them. Erik admits, very grudgingly, that it’s sort of comforting in some strange way. He can see why children like Charles.
He holds still as Charles rolls up his sleeve and swabs his arm with an alcohol pad. “Just a small sting here,” Charles murmurs. Erik stares resolutely ahead at the curtain, ignoring the urge to crumple the needle into an unusable, harmless ball. “Three, two, and one…”
Erik winces as the needle pierces his skin, but the pain’s over within a couple of seconds. Then the needle’s out, and Charles is pressing gauze to the injection site, applying firm pressure. “There,” he says, “that wasn’t so bad, was it? Hold there.”
Erik obediently holds the gauze. Charles disposes of the syringe in a plastic container in the corner and comes back with a box of band-aids. “Sorry, I’ve only got fun band-aids. You’ve got a few choices though. SpongeBob, Avengers, Wonder Woman…”
“I’ll take that one with the flames,” Erik says coolly.
“Reminds me of Hellfire.”
That clearly nettles Charles, breaking his pleasant mask of professionalism. He takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “Are you going to pick a fight with me every time we run into each other?”
“You really never grew out of being an asshole, did you?” Charles growls. He sticks a band-aid onto Erik’s arm and tugs his sleeve down sharply over it. “There.” Turning, he packs up the supplies on the metal stand and throws away the used wrapper of the alcohol swab. When he turns back and sees Erik still sitting there, he scowls. “What? Do you need an invitation to leave?”
Erik takes his time getting up. Surprisingly, it isn’t anger that rises to the forefront at the moment. It’s honest curiosity. Studying the hospital badge pinned to the lapel of Charles’s rumpled white coat, he asks, “What are you really doing here, Charles?”
Charles blinks, taken aback, perhaps, by the genuine bewilderment in Erik’s voice. After a moment, he sighs and rubs his temples. “Is it really so hard to believe that I just want to help people?”
“That’s not who you are,” Erik says bluntly.
Charles clenches his jaw for a second, visibly holding back an angry retort. When he speaks, his voice is measured, steady. “That’s not who you knew in college, maybe, but it’s who I am now. It’s been over ten years, Erik. People change, whether you choose to believe it or not.” He presses the back of his hand to his temple and sighs again. “Look, I didn’t come here to fight you. I don’t want to get in your way. All I want to do is help those people sitting out there to the best of my ability. So can we just…go back to ignoring each other? You leave me to my own devices, and I’ll leave you to yours. Then we’ll both be happy.”
He really does sound genuine. Erik marvels at it, at his sincerity. If this is an act, then Charles should win a fucking Oscar for it.
And if it’s not an act…
Charles’s eyes narrow. “If you’re quite done questioning my motives,” he says coldly, “if you’d make your way out? I have other patients waiting.”
The sudden iciness in his voice catches Erik off-guard for some reason. Feeling oddly wrong-footed, he opens the curtain and steps out. “Thanks. For the, uh, the shot.”
Charles nods impassively at him. “Good day, Mr. Lehnsherr.”
On the way back to his office, Erik turns Charles’s words over and over in his head. He couldn’t have been serious, could he have been? People don’t change, not that much anyway. Charles had shown his true nature eleven years ago, and Erik would be stupid to believe Charles is any different now. He might be better at hiding his flaws, but he’s fundamentally still the same asshole who’d used Erik and tossed him away literally minutes after.
So why is Erik the one who feels slightly guilty after that exchange?
Shaking his head, he marches back to his office, shoving Charles determinedly to the back of his mind.
It’s not until he sits down and pulls up his sleeve to massage the soreness there that he realizes Charles had jammed a Hello Kitty band-aid onto his arm instead of the one he’d asked for.
He has to grit his teeth to bite back a reluctant huff of amusement.
Despite the uneasy relationship he has with Erik, the clinic becomes a place of refuge for Charles when he gets tired of all the bullshit of hospital politics and bureaucracy. At the clinic, he doesn’t have to fight with insurance. He doesn’t have to attend tedious meetings about changes in hospital policy. He doesn’t have to worry about the petty interdepartmental squabbles that are constantly cropping up. All he has to do is show up and do his job, and at the end of the day, he feels like he’s actually accomplished something important.
Raven actually seems a little startled the next time they meet for lunch. It’s them and Alex and Sean this time, the four of them crammed into a small booth in the hospital cafeteria. As Raven picks at her slice of pizza, she studies Charles with a quizzical look in her eye. “You seem different.”
“Right?” Sean exclaims. “That’s what I’ve been saying!”
Charles scoops up a forkful of his stir fry. “How so?”
“You seem…happier, I guess.” Raven squints at him for a moment, then straightens. “Oh my god, did you get laid?”
“No,” Charles huffs.
Alex shoots Raven a look of pure disgust. “Seriously? I’m eating here.”
“And he’s my brother,” Raven says dismissively, barely glancing his way. “You don’t think that’s gross for me to think about either?”
“Then why’d you bring it up?” Alex demands.
“Because he seems weirdly happy and I want to know why!”
Charles laughs. “It’s no big mystery. I’m just really pleased with how the mutant clinic’s turned out so far. It’s given me a greater sense of…of purpose, I suppose.”
Raven leans forward, eyes gleaming. “Any new drama with Erik?”
“Why are you so obsessed with him?”
“I’m obsessed with your feud with him. It’s fascinating, okay!” She kicks him under the table. “Come on, give me all the juicy details.”
“What feud?” Sean asks. “Who’s Erik?”
“Erik is the administrator at the community center,” Charles replies, keeping his voice neutral, “and there is no feud. We didn’t like each other much in college, that’s all. Now we just coexist.”
Perhaps coexist is a strong word for their current relationship. They mostly just pretend to be ignorant of each other’s existence. At least these days, Erik doesn’t glare at him anymore if they pass each other in the hallways. His pale eyes just skim right over Charles as if Charles isn’t even there. It’s a slight improvement, Charles supposes.
“What happened to we hate each other’s guts?” Raven demands. “The last time we talked, you were ranting and raving about him!”
“I was not.”
“You were doing it quietly, but you were definitely ranting.”
“Wait, Dr. Xavier hates someone?” Sean asks, eyes widening. Delight and interest practically pour off of him. “Who is this guy again? Why do we hate him?”
Charles groans. “Not you, too.”
Raven grins triumphantly. “See? I told you it was fascinating. Now spill. What’s going on between you two these days? Who’s closer to committing murder, you or him?”
Charles jabs his fork at his stir fry. “Neither of us because we’re grown adults. It’s been over ten years, and we’ve moved past it, okay?”
He pointedly leaves out the fact that ever since the Thanksgiving potluck, he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about what Erik had said. That was your fucking fault…Don’t act like you don’t know why I did.
Those two sentences tossed out in anger have been driving Charles insane these last few weeks. What the hell do they mean? How had that night been Charles’s fault? What had he done? He keeps racking his brain to figure out what could possibly have launched Erik into that cold, black rage that night and he can’t for the life of him figure out what happened.
One minute they’d been okay — better than okay even, and Charles had started to allow himself to hope that something might actually change between them, that this meant something — and then he’d come out of the bathroom and Erik had been out of the bed shoving his clothes on and radiating such thunderous rage that it had nearly given Charles whiplash. There’d been no explanation. He’d just pushed Charles furiously out of his apartment and slammed the door.
All these years, Charles had convinced himself that Erik had just been an asshole of the highest order, that he’d used Charles for his own gratification. Maybe it had been his plan all along to humiliate Charles utterly. Maybe he’d wanted to revel in the knowledge that he’d managed to reduce the boy he hated into a sobbing, begging wreck. It was anyone’s guess, really — Charles had had far too much pride to speak to Erik ever again after that.
But what Erik had said at the potluck casts doubt on all of Charles’s long-held assumptions about that night. What if Erik had had a reason to throw him out? What the hell did he think Charles had done?
He flinches when Raven snaps her fingers in front of his face. “Hello? Earth to Charles?”
Shaking off his thoughts, he forces a smile. “Sorry, just thinking about work.”
Raven rolls her eyes. “I’m sure that’s what you were thinking about.”
“Oh, and when did your telepathy manifest?” he asks, wide-eyed.
“You know what I mean.”
He leans across the table to steal one of her fries. “Anyway, Sean, did you get that PT order for room 480?”
“I did, yeah. I’ll go see her after lunch.”
Raven shoots him an unimpressed look. Way to change the subject.
I don’t want to talk about Erik.
You don’t want to talk about him in front of Alex and Sean, or you don’t want to talk about him ever?
Can’t you just let it go?
Fine. When he gives her a suspicious look, she adds sweetly, For now.
After his shift ends at four, Charles heads over to the Center. The clinic’s already open for the afternoon — he has a couple of residents helping him run the place so the clinic can have a doctor onsite even when he’s not there — so when he arrives, there are already a few patients being seen.
“Hey, Dr. Xavier,” Clarice says when she spots him. She’s on check-in duty at the moment, parked at the table by the doors to sign people in when they arrive.
“Hey, Clarice, how are you?”
“Not bad. It’s been pretty slow this afternoon.”
“Not really. A sprained ankle, a couple of colds. That’s pretty much it.”
“Well, I can’t say I’m disappointed,” Charles sighs. “It’ll be nice to have a quiet night.”
She gives him a sympathetic look. “Long day at the hospital?”
“It was mostly just tedious. Lots of little things to deal with.” He drops into the other folding chair behind the table. “How’s school?”
“It’s fine,” Clarice says, even as she makes a face. “I have an exam Friday, but after that, it’s winter break so I guess I can’t complain. This module’s been really tough though. I kind of hate nephrology.”
Charles laughs. “It was never one of my favorite subjects either, but the more you study it, the more it clicks. At least it’s almost over, right?”
“You should enjoy med school,” Charles says, smiling. “If you think you’re suffering now, wait until residency.”
Clarice huffs. “That’s what everyone tells me. But really, I’m just — ”
An alarmed shout cuts through the rest of her sentence. Both of them leap to their feet, and Charles grits his teeth as a wave of terror, anger, and shock floods over him. Shoring up his shields, he bolts over to the source of the commotion, the curtained-off exam area toward the back. Almost as soon as he reaches it, someone stumbles out from behind the curtain.
It’s one of the medical students, Davis Cameron. Looking slightly wild, he cradles his right arm to his chest. When he sees Charles running up, he splutters, “She — she shocked me!”
Charles grabs his arm to support him, worried his legs are going to give way. “Are you all right? What happened? Clarice, can you take him?”
When she grabs Davis’s arm, Charles pushes aside the curtain and steps inside warily. The young woman inside looks up sharply from where she’s hunched over on herself in the chair. Her eyes are even wilder than Davis’s, staring at him in open hostility. But the thin veneer of aggression hides a deep, unshakable panic — just feeling the edges of it makes Charles’s own breath quicken.
Charles holds up both hands and takes a slow, careful step forward. Dipping into Davis’s mind, he pulls out the woman’s name. “Alison? My name is Dr. Xavier. Is it all right if I — ”
“Don’t,” she hisses. Sparks flicker out along her arms, snaking from her shoulders down to her fingertips.
He backs up. “All right, I’m sorry.”
Eyeing the sparks, he reaches out his telepathy, ready to forcibly calm her down if it seems like she’s going to hurt someone or herself. But the instant his mind brushes against hers, the panic within her roars up, dizzying and uncontrollable, and before he can react, she lashes out.
The next thing he knows, he’s lying on his back, stunned, his ears ringing. After a few seconds, he becomes aware of someone shouting near him — multiple people shouting — and there’s movement around him — running, it sounds like —
He thrusts out his telepathy and finds Alison’s mind, still engulfed a torrent of fear and rage. Forgive me, he whispers before he plunges past her surface thoughts, brushes aside what natural mental defenses she has, and orders, SLEEP.
Instantly the storm abates. It takes a minute for the rest of the chaos around them to settle though as people realize the danger’s passed.
What the hell happened? Charles wonders. What did she do?
He struggles to sit up, but his limbs are weak, watery. After a few seconds of fighting against gravity, he just lies down again, dizzy. If he’s hit his head, probably best not to move until he’s sure he’s all right. At least there’s no pain, and he doesn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere, not that he can tell anyway. The only thing is…
He blinks at the ceiling. Blinks again. Darkness.
Stay calm, he tells himself sternly. It’s probably temporary, flash blindness or something like that from her sparks.
Suddenly there are a chorus of voices around him. “Dr. Xavier? Are you okay? Can you sit up? Are you hurt anywhere?”
“I’m fine,” he says. “I’m just — a little dizzy.”
“Did you hit your head?”
“I’m not sure.”
“How’s your vision? Is it blurry?”
“Actually — ”
A new voice cuts over the others, low and sharp. “What happened? Is he hurt?”
Erik. Charles pushes himself up onto his elbows and turns toward the direction of his voice. “I’m fine. Just a little scare. Can someone check on Alison?”
“She’s okay.” Clarice’s voice. “Just unconscious. Did you…?”
“I knocked her out.” Charles grimaces and sits up all the way, rubbing at the small headache burgeoning in his temples. It’s been a long while since he’s had to use his powers so forcefully. “Is anyone else hurt?”
“No, it was a pretty contained blast, I think,” Clarice replies. “You got the brunt of it, standing right in front of her.” After a pause, she adds slowly, “Is there something wrong with your eyes?”
“Yeah, I can’t see actually.”
“What?” Erik snaps.
Charles huffs. “It’s fine, I’m sure it’s just flash blindness. It’ll go away in a few minutes probably. In the meantime, can someone help me into a chair?”
He expects Clarice or Davis to take his outstretched hand, but instead it’s Erik who steps forward. He knows it because he smells Erik’s cologne as Erik tugs him to his feet, his hand warm and firm in Charles’s. When Charles wobbles a little, still a bit dizzy, Erik braces him with a hand on his elbow.
They’re standing close enough that Charles is practically leaning against Erik’s chest. For some reason, that seems like an extremely germane detail at the moment.
“Can you walk?” Erik asks. His voice is odd, subdued. Or maybe this is just what he sounds like when he’s not pissed off about Charles’s very existence.
“I think so, yeah. Can someone get Dr. Lao over here to monitor Alison’s status first?”
“I’m right here, Dr. Xavier,” Dr. Lao says from somewhere to his left. “I’ll take over. You take a few minutes.”
With Erik’s guidance, he makes his way away from the exam rooms over to the waiting area. After Erik lowers him into a chair, he lets go of Charles and steps away. For a moment, he hovers a few feet away, his mind whirring indecisively. Then he sits down next to Charles.
“One of the patients had a panic attack. I made the mistake of trying to use my telepathy. She must have been sensitive to psionics because she felt me intruding and obviously didn’t like it.” Charles grimaces. “That was stupid. I should’ve been more careful.”
Erik’s silent for a moment. Then he asks, “Your eyes?”
Charles rubs at them. “Like I said, it’s probably just flash blindness from the sparks she shot. It’ll wear off.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll have one of the residents check me over in a few minutes. But I’m sure it’s nothing serious.” After a slight pause, he says, puzzled, “What are you doing up here?”
“I was passing by and heard shouting, came in to see what was going on and saw you on the ground. You’re…sure you’re okay?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Okay. Well. I’ve got work to do so…”
Erik claps him on the shoulder. Charles isn’t sure if the gesture is awkward or if it’s just him feeling awkward with Erik so close.
Then Erik’s gone.
Bending over to brace his elbows on his knees, Charles sighs and runs his hands over his face. This is definitely not how he’d imagined spending his evening. He’s too tired to handle this properly.
And he’s far too tired to spare a thought for the way Erik’s touch, however brief, had made his stomach flutter.
As always, Erik spends the evenings during Hanukkah over at his mother’s place. Sometimes Kitty and her parents come over, too, so they can all celebrate together, but this night, it’s just the two of them.
After they light the candles and recite the blessings, they usually sit for a while in the living room to chat and eat whatever snacks his mother’s prepared. Tonight, it’s a traditional spread of latkes. Erik takes a good number of latkes, scoops a generous helping of applesauce out onto his plate, and then settles on the couch.
“So,” his mother says as she piles up her own plate, “Kitty tells me the new clinic at the Center is going well.”
Erik nods. “Seems like it.”
“What do you think about it?”
“It’s good. It fills a need in the community.”
For the first time, Erik notices her overly casual tone. Eyes narrowed, he scrutinizes her expression. What is she trying to figure out? “What else is there to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Tell me about it.”
“They’ve seen a lot of people over the last few weeks. They’ve got a lot of volunteers though, so there hasn’t been any staffing issue. So far they’ve been operating off of donations, but they’re probably going to need a longer-term solution for supplies. Kitty’s thinking of holding a fundraising drive around New Year’s and…” At his mother’s inscrutable look, Erik frowns. “What?”
It’s never nothing when she says nothing like that. Clenching his teeth, Erik asks, “Did Kitty say something to you?”
“Not really. She just mentioned that you and the clinic director don’t get along.”
“We get along just fine.”
His mother snorts. “Erik, you’re thirty-three years old, and you still think you can lie to your mama’s face? I know something’s going on because this clinic is exactly the sort of thing you’d normally love, but I hear no passion in your voice when you talk about it. So what’s going on?”
The latkes lose some of their flavor in his mouth. Scowling, Erik sets his plate down. “Did Kitty put you up to this? Did she tell you to talk to me?”
“No.” When Erik shoots a skeptical look at her, she huffs and admits, “Well, she might have implied that a conversation might be in order, but she didn’t tell me to do anything. If something’s going on, I want to know about it.” She raises her eyebrows. “Don’t make me worry about you, Schatz.”
Erik suppresses a groan. Why can’t he go even two days without someone trying to get him to talk about Charles? “It’s nothing, Mama, really. We just…have different ideas about a lot of things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Politics,” Erik says impatiently. “Mutant rights. Movies.” He thinks, unbidden, of that night, of Charles poking through his DVD collection and wrinkling his nose at his Star Wars collection. “Everything. We’re just different people.”
Erik’s frown deepens. “You see what?”
“You’ve never been very good at liking people who disagree with you. Remember Harriet Nelson? She thought your drawing was ugly and you hated her with such a passion the entire year!”
“That was in second grade.”
“Yes, well, you haven’t changed a bit.” She pats his knee fondly. “But I hope you didn’t stick gum in the doctor’s hair like you did to poor Harriet.”
“She deserved it,” Erik mutters.
His mother laughs and pats him again. “Well, keep in mind that just because this doctor has different opinions doesn’t mean you can’t be work acquaintances. Or — ” She arches a slim eyebrow. “ — maybe even friends. I know the concept of friendship is foreign to you, but who knows? Maybe you’d actually like him if you looked past the surface.”
The problem is, Erik doesn’t know if he can trust what’s underneath Charles’s surface. It’s not even the same surface as it had been ten years ago, and Erik can’t tell which is the real Charles anymore, the sleazy, arrogant playboy he’d known in college or this new, serious, compassionate Charles who’s good with children and generous with his time and patient with everyone.
“Do you think people can change?” Erik muses, picking his plate back up.
His mother tilts her head quizzically. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Erik shrugs. “Just asking.”
“Hmm…well, I think it depends.”
“If they want to, and if they have the opportunity to.”
“If you knew someone ten years ago and you met them again today and they turned out to be completely different, would you be surprised?”
His mother’s lips purse in a thoughtful frown. “Perhaps.”
“Wouldn’t you think that something about them was fake? Either the person they were ten years ago or the person they are today?”
Now his mother laughs. “No! What on earth would give you that idea? I wasn’t the same person at twenty-five as I was at fifteen, and neither were you, Erik. People change over time.”
“But they don’t change that much,” Erik insists.
When a knowing light enters his mother’s eyes, he knows he’s said too much. “Erik, what aren’t you telling me?”
She levels a sharp look at him. “You know I’ll just ask Kitty.”
Erik grits his teeth. “It’s nothing. It’s just — something I have to work out for myself.” He can’t explain this to her. He can hardly explain it to himself.
Her expression softens. “All right. But you’ll tell me if it’s something serious? Something I can help with?”
He sighs. “Yes. Of course.”
She pats his cheek. “Good boy. Now come on and help me with the dishes.”
When Charles comes into the Center on Friday, the front desk is buried under a deluge of construction paper, streamers, string lights, paint, and tissue paper.
“Here,” Kitty says cheerfully, popping out from behind the desk to shove a box of art supplies into his arms, “take this up to the clinic. You can have people help while they’re waiting. I think the kids will like it, too.”
“Help with what?”
“Holiday decorations! Most people just cut snowflakes, but if they want to do other things, more power to ’em. We’ll collect everything and put them up around the Center over the next couple of days.”
Charles glances through the art box. “I don’t see any scissors here.”
Kitty frowns. “Ah, damn, I forgot them in the art classroom. Would you mind running back there and getting them on your way up to the clinic? I’d go but I’m manning the front desk until Betsy gets back.”
She beams. “Thanks! You’re the best.”
Buoyed by her obvious good mood, Charles continues down the hall with a bit of a spring in his step.
At first, he’s fairly certain he remembers how to get to the art classroom, but after a couple of minutes, it’s obvious he’s gotten turned around somewhere. He’s in the classroom area all right, but there’s no sign of art anywhere. Spreading his telepathy out, he detects a group of minds down the hall and heads their way, figuring he’ll just ask for directions.
He starts to step in through the open door, then stills.
About ten people are sitting in the classroom, their heads bent diligently over their papers. Erik’s wandering through the rows, looking over their shoulders. A couple of times he pauses to offer what sounds like advice, except Charles doesn’t understand it because he’s speaking another language. German, it sounds like.
“This is correct?” one older man asks, raising his paper.
Erik glances it over, then nods. “Yes, that’s right. Very good, Albert.” He adds something in German that makes the old man grin.
It’s an ESL class, Charles realizes. Erik teaches ESL?
Though he knows he should probably make his presence known, Charles can’t help but just watch Erik for another couple of minutes. He makes sure to stop by every desk on his circuit around the classroom, and when someone asks a question, he answers with a gentleness and patience Charles hadn’t thought him capable of. Something one of the women says makes him laugh softly, and the smile transforms Erik’s face in a way that makes Charles’s breath snag a little in his throat.
He gives himself a mental shake. God, don’t start this again. Look how it turned out last time.
But another part of him says, That was ten years ago. What if he’s changed since then? You certainly have.
Erik looks up and spots him standing there. For a moment, they both just stare at each other, stiff and surprised. Then Erik comes over, frowning. “Do you need something?”
It takes Charles a moment to find his voice. “I was, er — I was just looking for the art classroom. I’m afraid I’m lost.”
“It’s down the hall from the staff lounge.” At Charles’s blank look, Erik sighs. “Come on, I’ll take you.”
“You don’t have to,” Charles says quickly. “You seem busy — ”
“It’s fine.” Raising his voice, Erik says to his class, “I’ll be right back. Keep on working,” and then gestures for Charles to follow him.
A tense silence settles between them as Erik walks him down the hall. Charles chews his lip, trying to decide if it would be better to attempt small talk or to just stay quiet. Before he can choose, Erik asks, “How are your eyes?”
Charles blinks. He hadn’t expected Erik to ask after his well-being, of all things. “They’re fine. Like I said, the blindness was temporary. It faded after about half an hour.”
“That’s good. And your patient?”
“I can’t say too much, but she was very sorry for what happened. Apparently she’s extremely nervous around doctors and medical staff in general. She had a few bad experiences in the past. In hindsight though, we could have handled the situation better. I’ve spoken to my staff about the incident, so hopefully we’ll avoid making the same mistakes in the future.”
Charles is sure that will be the end of the conversation, or else it’ll devolve into insults and sneers as always, but Erik glances at the box in his arms and asks, “What’s this for?”
Are they really doing small talk? Charles can’t decide if he’s amused or quietly hopeful. Probably both. “Kitty gave it to me. She says the Center’s decorating for the holidays. I’m going to put it by the waiting area for the kids.”
“That’s a good idea.”
They turn down a long, dark hallway. After a moment, Charles says, “I didn’t know you spoke German.”
“I grew up speaking it at home. My parents are from Germany.”
“Oh.” Charles realizes suddenly that he really doesn’t know that much about Erik at all, only what glimpses he saw of Erik in college. They hadn’t spoken much about their families or anything else of substance. Mostly they’d argued.
The majority of their disagreements seem so petty now. Maybe they have become different men.
“Have you been teaching English for long?” he asks.
“Only about a year,” Erik replies.
“I hear you teach self-defense, too.”
“Yes, twice a month on Tuesdays.”
“Where did you learn self-defense?”
“Growing up as a poor, Jewish, mutant kid in Queens,” Erik says. His mouth twists into a wry smile. It’s unfairly attractive, in Charles’s opinion. “I picked up some things when I was younger. Then I saved up enough to go to actual classes. I wanted to be able to defend myself properly.”
“Your mutation helps a fair bit, I imagine.”
“Yes, but not everyone has a mutation like mine.” Erik flexes his fingers. “I teach people to use their mutations as a strength but not to rely on them entirely. They need to be able to adapt to a variety of situations, including one in which their mutation might not be useful.”
“That makes sense.” Charles hesitates, then decides there’s no harm in voicing the next thought aloud. “You know, I think my sister would enjoy your class. She’s extremely athletic and she’d love beating the shit out of punching bags.”
Erik’s lips twitch. “Oh? Is she a mutant?”
“Yes, she’s a shapeshifter.”
Interest flickers in Erik’s eyes. “You should tell her to come by sometime.”
“Maybe I will.” Raven will probably jump at the chance to meet Erik. Charles suppresses a sigh at the thought. Aside from her current obsession with Erik though, he’s pretty sure she would like it here at the Center. They really could have used a place like this when they were kids.
Erik leads him to the end of the hall and opens a door on the left. “Here it is.”
“Thank you.” Charles starts to shift the box to free up a hand to turn the light on, but the switch flicks itself. He glances back at Erik. “Thanks.”
Erik nods. “What are you looking for?”
There’s a tin crammed full of them on one of the desks. With a wave of his hand, Erik floats it over to them and sets it gently into the box in Charles’s arms.
“You’re quite handy to have around, aren’t you?” Charles murmurs.
“I have my moments.” Erik flicks the light off again and closes the door behind them once Charles steps out. “Do you need help getting to the clinic?”
“No, I think I can figure it out. You should get back to your class.”
Charles can’t help but smile. “Look at that. I believe we just had our first civil conversation ever.”
To his surprise, Erik smiles back at him. It’s a reserved smile, barely an upturn of his lips, but it’s the most Charles has ever gotten out of him. “I believe we did.”
They split ways down the hall, and for the first time ever, Charles is actually a little reluctant to see Erik go. It feels like something’s shifted between them. Nothing big or dramatic, but something.
Maybe they actually are figuring out how to coexist. Or, Charles thinks ruefully, they’ve finally run out of energy to hate each other with the same intensity as before.
Whatever the case, his brief encounter with Erik puts him in a good mood for the rest of the afternoon, and well on into the evening. It’s a slow day at the clinic, so Charles and the volunteer staff spend most of their time cutting snowflakes and gluing together paper snowmen.
“We should do this more often,” Anna Marie remarks. “It’s actually surprisingly relaxing.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lucas grumbles. He’s been fumbling with a lopsided snowflake for nearly fifteen minutes. “This is why I went to nursing school and not art school.”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Charles says. “I’m sure the effort will be appreciated.” The shapes of his own snowflakes leave something to be desired, but Anna Marie’s right, making decorations is unexpectedly relaxing.
A couple of minutes later, a woman and a young girl appear at the gym doors. Lucas gladly abandons his scissors to go check them in, and once he’s gotten them settled in an exam room, Charles heads over to greet them.
The girl, Sammar, is extremely shy, and it takes some time to get her to open up and tell him what happened. Eventually, he pieces together enough of her soft, hesitant answers to surmise that she’s had a mild allergic reaction to an insect bite. Upon examination, it’s nothing to be seriously concerned about.
“Just keep an eye on it over the next few days, all right?” Charles says, rolling Sammar’s sleeve back down over her arm. To her mother, he adds, “If you notice her getting lethargic or short of breath, or having any other difficulty breathing, you should take her to the hospital immediately. I don’t anticipate that happening because this looks like a very mild case of allergic reaction, but just in case.”
As they all stand, Charles says to Sammar, “If you’ve got a few minutes, do you want to stick around and help us make a few snowflakes? It’ll be fun.”
Sammar glances up at her mother, wide-eyed. “Can we?”
Her mother heaves a sigh and smiles. “I guess. Only for a few minutes though — it’s almost dinnertime.”
Leading them over to the table where Anna Marie is still diligently working, Charles shows Sammar how to fold the paper and cut it. She sets into the task with relish, much more relaxed now than she’d been earlier. Within a few minutes, she’s even chatting in full sentences.
“We have art class at school,” she tells Charles. “It’s kind of like this but sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes we just have to watch videos of other people doing art.”
“That’s no fun. What’s your favorite class?”
“English! Right now we’re reading a book about a pirate! But it’s about a girl pirate, so it’s even cooler.”
Charles chuckles. “That does sound cool. I don’t think we read anything nearly so interesting when I was in school.”
Frowning, she squints at him. “That must have been so long ago.”
Charles is so startled he laughs. “How old do you think I am?”
“Maybe…forty?” At his outraged look, she giggles. “Fifty?”
Sammar’s mother starts to scold her, but Charles shakes his head, grinning. “No, it’s all right. You’re sort of close. What’s fifty minus twenty?”
Sammar wrinkles her nose. “I hate math.” But a moment later, she says, “Thirty.”
“You’re thirty?” She sounds scandalized. “That’s so old.”
Her mother looks like she’s trying to fight a smile. “Sammar!”
“You know, you’re going to be thirty someday,” Charles says.
Now everyone at the table laughs.
The prickling sensation of being watched makes Charles glance over to the door. Surprise ripples through him when he sees Erik standing there, watching them with an odd expression on his face.
“Be right back,” Charles says, pushing back his chair. Making his way over to Erik, he cocks his head. “Need something?”
Erik shakes his head. “I just…my class just finished so I thought I’d come over and see if you needed a hand.” He pauses, then adds, “With the decorations. I wouldn’t be much good with any actual clinic business.”
Erik had come down here on his own? He’s offering to help — to spend time near Charles — of his own free will?
Heart thumping, Charles smiles tentatively. “Sure. The more the merrier.”
Sammar lights up when she spots Erik. Sliding out of her chair, she runs over to him, arms outstretched. “Erik!”
Grinning, Erik scoops her up. “Hello there. What are you doing here?”
“I got a bug bite!” Sammar exclaims. “It hurt a lot. But Dr. Xavier helped me!” She points at Charles and then adds, “Can you believe he’s thirty? Isn’t that so old?”
Erik glances at Charles, who can’t bite back a laugh. “You’re right,” Erik says, eyebrows raised. “He’s practically a grandfather.”
“You’re one to talk,” Charles retorts as Sammar giggles. “Sammar, did you know Erik’s three years older than I am?”
She hooks a skinny arm around his neck. “Yeah, but he’s cool.”
That makes Erik laugh out loud. Charles is so mesmerized by it that he can’t even act offended. He’s never seen Erik laugh like this before, full of unrestrained, pure humor. Heat fills his stomach.
He tears his gaze away, flushing. Fuck. How can he still be attracted to Erik over ten years later? And after what had happened? After Erik had been such an unremitting, selfish, judgmental asshole? Is he really that much of a masochist?
Everyone choruses in hello when Erik joins them at the table. After a moment, Charles takes a seat, too, and focuses on his half-finished snowflake.
“So Erik,” Anna Marie says, “do you guys do any mutation management classes here?”
Erik frowns. “Yes, we do, but we don’t like the label, mutation management. We call them mutation growth and development classes.”
“Most of the mutation management fiasco was probably a little before your time,” Charles tells her. The government had put an end to the mandatory MM classes for newly manifested mutants after several scandals had come out about horrendous abuses in the program. Though the last MM classes had been phased out nearly fifteen years ago, they’re still fresh enough that the term mutation management leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most people over the age of twenty.
Charles himself had been lucky. Though he’d been required by law to undertake MM courses once he manifested, his father had sent him through one of the expensive private programs, which had been much more reputable than the more poorly-funded public ones. He knows most mutants hadn’t been so fortunate.
Had Erik been through one of the worse MM programs? he wonders. Is that part of what shaped him, growing up?
“I was just wondering,” Anna Marie says. “I don’t think mutant kids in the area have a lot of options. I mean, I know there’s subsidized local programs these days, but the quality varies from place to place. The program I went through when I was growing up was…” She shudders. “But then again, that was in Texas.”
“That’s why we started up classes here,” Erik says. “We have classes every week, and all our instructors are thoroughly vetted.”
“Erik taught me to use my powers!” Sammar interjects.
Charles glances at him. “You’re an instructor?”
“I fill in sometimes when we’re short-staffed.”
“Is there anything you don’t do around here?”
Erik gives him that slight, reserved smile again. “Well, I don’t write prescriptions. That’s your job.”
Their eyes snag and hold. Charles’s breath catches somewhere in the base of his throat. Some strange, sharp energy crackles between them. It’s the same hot attraction Charles used to feel back in college, back when they’d get into each other’s faces arguing about how loud the music was at Charles’s parties, or about how obnoxious Erik’s friends were when they’d come over to plan their pro-mutant rallies, or about a hundred other stupid things. It’s the same hot attraction that had propelled him to kiss Erik that night, pushing Erik back into his apartment with his hands fisted in Erik’s shirt.
The damnedest thing is that he can still taste Erik’s mouth. He can still feel Erik’s fingers tangled in his hair, pulling just hard enough to make him whine, riding the edge between pain and pleasure.
Damn his eidetic memory.
“You okay, Dr. Xavier?”
Charles tears his eyes away from Erik’s. “What?”
Anna Marie raises an eyebrow. “You look a little flushed.”
He doesn’t need to touch his cheeks to know they’re burning. “I just — I need some water.”
Pushing his chair back a bit clumsily, he makes for the door at the back of the gym, walking steadily so it doesn’t look so much like he’s fleeing. Excruciatingly, he feels Erik’s eyes on him as he goes, following him until he disappears into the hallway beyond.
The only things back here are the storage closets and the locker rooms. Charles pushes his way into the men’s locker room and goes to brace himself against the nearest sink, feeling shakier than he’d like to admit. When he glances up at the mirror above the sink, he can see that he’s red all the way down his collar.
Annoyed with himself, he splashes cold water on his face until it no longer feels like it’s on fire. What is wrong with him, letting decade-old memories affect him like this? It doesn’t matter that Erik’s back in his life again after all this time. It doesn’t matter that Erik’s even more handsome now than he had been in college. It doesn’t matter that Erik runs a community center for mutants now and he teaches English and self-defense and helps young mutants explore their powers. None of that matters because at the end of the day, he’s still the asshole who had used Charles and thrown him away as soon as he was done. At the end of the day, he still hates Charles’s guts.
You really are pathetic, Charles thinks to himself. He couldn’t have made his feelings for you any clearer and you still want him.
Sighing, he checks his watch. The clinic’s about to close for the night, so at least he can go home, take a hot shower, and pull himself back together. If he and Erik are going to work together in the long-term, he can’t be falling apart anytime Erik’s in close proximity. They’d had a chance ten years ago, and Erik had shut it down. Charles should be able to take a hint.
When he feels relatively normal again, he straightens his rumpled white coat and returns to the gym.
Erik isn’t there when he gets back. “He said he had to go take care of something,” Anna Marie explains.
“Oh.” Charles doesn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
She peers closely at him. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He forces a smile and sits back down next to Sammar, who’s accumulated an impressive stack of snowflakes. “Look at you! Are you sure art isn’t your favorite subject?”
“Yes! It’s my second favorite.”
“Our art teacher is pretty nice,” she continues, “but he’s never let us cut snowflakes like this before. Usually we just paint. Last time I painted a sunset but it turned out funny because I didn’t have any yellow paint so I…”
He loses himself in her cheerful chatter.
Erik spends most of Tuesday afternoon helping Kitty and a group of volunteers put up last-minute decorations around the Center. Their annual winter holiday celebration is on Friday, and Kitty insists that every hallway and every room has to look properly festive for it.
Doling out supplies and orders, Kitty commands the volunteers like she’s conducting an army, or a marching band. “Bobby, you take those snowflakes and tape them up in the back hallway by the classrooms please! Jubilee, can you get those lights up over the gym entrance? And can someone please help Scott sort ornament decorations so not everything’s the same color?”
“Ha ha, very funny,” Scott grumbles.
“She has a point,” Jean says, grinning.
Erik’s in charge of setting up a giant inflatable polar bear in the foyer. It takes a while to wrestle it into position, and then a while longer to figure out how to inflate the damned thing.
“This should not be that complicated,” he mutters, glaring down at the instructions.
“Need a hand?”
Glancing over his shoulder, he sees one of the regular clinic volunteers coming through the front doors. Clarice, if he’s remembering correctly.
“I’m fine,” he says.
“Really? Because it looks like you have the pump on backwards.” When Erik narrows his eyes at her, she grins and says, “My parents have a giant penguin on their lawn. I’ve had to set it up more than once.”
Sighing, he hands the instructions over to her. “Have at it.”
As she sets to work, he casts a glance over to the doors. It’s a clinic day so Charles might show up. He’s been coming in about every other clinic day, trusting the residents to run the clinic on the days when he’s not here. Erik knows Charles is busy with his actual job at the hospital and probably other things as well, but he still finds himself hoping that Charles will show.
He has no idea how he’s gone from hoping he never has to see Charles’s face ever again to actually being disappointed when Charles doesn’t come by the Center. These last few days have been fucking bizarre, to put it lightly. He hasn’t been able to get Charles out of his head. He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about that one fucking night over ten years ago.
He should hate Charles. He should. Charles used him. Fucked him and then tossed him away like he was nothing. Like it meant nothing. And it probably hadn’t meant anything to him. He’d probably fucked half the student population by senior year. Erik had just been another notch on his bedpost. Another conquest.
But it’s almost been a month now, and he hasn’t seen any evidence of that selfish, cocksure, unbearably obnoxious boy he’d known in college. True, he’d glimpsed something of the old Charles that time they’d clashed during the Thanksgiving potluck, but that had been the only time. This new Charles is different. He’s someone Erik might actually, grudgingly, like.
And God, it doesn’t help that Erik’s still painfully attracted to him, and he’s pretty sure Charles is still attracted to him, too, if what had happened in the gym was any indication. The look they’d shared across the table had been so charged with potential that if Charles hadn’t broken first, Erik would have. Charles’s face, flushed hot and wide-eyed, has been seared into Erik’s brain for the last four days. He’s lain awake with the knowledge that Charles still wants him.
Erik can’t decide if he wants Charles in return.
“There!” Clarice pumps her fist triumphantly as the polar bear begins to inflate, slowly and ponderously. “Just let it sit for a minute and it’ll be ready to go.”
“Thanks.” Erik takes the instructions back from her so he can toss them back into the box he’d taken the bear from. “Hey, uh — do you know if Dr. Xavier is coming in today?”
“Umm, I can check the schedule.” Clarice fishes her phone out of her pocket and unlocks it. After flipping through several screens, she nods. “Yeah, he’s scheduled to come in.”
Erik’s stomach twists in…nervousness? Anticipation? “Thanks.”
“No problem. Do you want me to tell him that you want to talk to him when he gets here?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“Okay. I’m going to head up to the clinic then.” When Erik nods, she collects her bag and heads off.
At four, Erik heads over to the self-defense classroom. He doesn’t have anything strenuous planned for today, but he intends for it to be a decent workout anyway. To his satisfaction, the turnout is pretty good for a class so close to Christmas. Once all his regulars have arrived, plus a couple of newcomers, he starts the class.
Maybe it’s because the session isn’t so rigorous so he doesn’t pay as much attention as he normally would. Maybe it’s because he’s distracted with thoughts of Charles. Whatever the case, he’s working with one of the newcomers on escaping a bear hug from behind, and when she throws her head back as instructed, he doesn’t quite move out of the way in time. Her skull slams straight into his face, and he releases her with a hiss of pain.
“Oh my god!” Whirling, she stares at him, horrified. “I’m so, so sorry.”
He waves her apologies away. “No, you did it right. I just wasn’t paying attention.” He can taste blood in his mouth, more blood on his lip. When he probes at it, he can feel it’s split. “Roberto, could you take over the class for a few minutes? I’m going to get some ice for this.”
The tall Brazilian nods. “Sure.”
After taking a few more seconds to assure the woman that no, she hadn’t done anything wrong, Erik takes himself off to the clinic. He could just get ice from the machine in the staff lounge, but some part of him secretly hopes Charles will be in. This is as good an excuse to check as any.
When he walks into the gym, Clarice’s eyes widen. “Whoa, what happened to you?”
“Accident,” Erik replies, glancing around the clinic.
“Looking for Dr. Xavier?”
He suppresses a sigh. Is he really that transparent? “Is he here?”
“Yeah, I’ll get him.”
Clarice heads toward the exam rooms before Erik can tell her that’s not necessary. A moment later, she returns with Charles in tow.
“What happened?” Charles asks instantly, eyes zeroing in on Erik’s bloody mouth.
“Accident during self-defense,” Erik replies, cupping a hand under his chin to keep any blood from dripping. “Do you have any ice?”
“Come on,” Charles says, waving. He leads Erik to the nearest open exam room and pushes him down into the chair before turning away to get gloves. “I’m going to clean your lip. Any other injuries?”
“Hold this.” Charles hands him a small plastic tray, directing him to keep it under his chin. Then he twists open a water bottle and says, “Open your mouth a little please. Good, just like that.”
Erik tries not to flinch as Charles pours water over his split bottom lip. It stings a little, but he keeps still until Charles caps the water bottle again and tells him he can put the tray down.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Charles muses. “I’m going to examine your lip, okay?”
His fingers are gentle and warm against Erik’s mouth. He probes around the cut for a moment and glances at Erik’s teeth. Then, evidently satisfied, he fetches some gauze and presses it against the cut. “Hold this. Once the bleeding’s stopped, I’ll get you some ice.”
“Thanks,” Erik says, the word muffled against the gauze.
Their eyes meet. Erik’s heart thumps hard in his chest. A flush starts high on Charles’s cheekbones, and he turns abruptly away, stripping off his gloves and tossing them in the trash. “I’ll just get that ice now.”
“Wait — ”
Charles disappears through the curtain. Erik bites back a huff of frustration.
What would you have said to him anyway? he thinks to himself. What do you want from him?
He knows what he wants. He just can’t admit it yet, because admitting it means letting go of what Charles had done to him in college, and Erik can’t do that. He can’t let Charles make a fool of him again.
A couple of minutes later, the curtain swishes aside. “Here,” Charles says, handing him an ice pack wrapped in a paper towel. “It’ll keep the swelling down. I can also get you some ice cubes to suck on if that’s easier.”
“The ice pack’s fine. Thanks.” Erik dabs at his lip with the gauze until the bleeding’s mostly stopped, then presses the ice to his mouth with a wince.
Charles stands by the curtain, arms crossed. His expression, for once, is inscrutable; Erik’s so used to Charles wearing his heart on his sleeve that he’s actually a little taken aback by that. Has he sensed Erik’s internal confusion over the last few days? Does he know how Erik feels?
If he does, why hasn’t he said anything about it?
“Well,” Charles says finally. “I should go see if I’ve got other patients.”
Erik nods. “Yeah.”
Still Charles doesn’t move. He stands there with his brows drawn, his mouth pressed into a firm line, unreadable. Erik tries to read the quality of his silence. Is he working his way up to saying something? Is he waiting for Erik to say something? What can Erik say? More importantly, what does Charles want to hear?
After an endless minute, Charles takes an audible breath and says, “Erik…I — ”
“Dr. Xavier?” The curtain tugs open to reveal one of the nurses, his neck gills fluttering as he leans in inquisitively. He glances between Charles and Erik and then, apparently deciding he’s not interrupting anything important, says, “I have a question about the chart for room one?”
Erik resists the urge to grab the kid by the metal of his belt and his watch and hurl him bodily away from the room. “Can it wait?” he grits out.
“No, I should get this,” Charles says quickly, before the boy can answer. He glances furtively at Erik, then pushes aside the curtain. “What about the chart, Darren?”
He and the nurse disappear, leaving Erik to work out his frustration on the metal tray next to him. He crumples it up, squeezes it into as small and compact a ball as he can, focusing his irritation on it until the edges of his temper smooth away.
What had Charles been about to say? Damn that nurse’s timing.
Erik lingers for ten more minutes until it’s obvious that Charles has gotten tied up somewhere else and isn’t coming back. The ice is mostly melted now and starting to drip through the towel, so with a sigh, Erik pushes the curtain aside and steps out of the room.
Clarice catches him as he’s on his way out of the gym. “Everything okay?”
“Just a busted lip,” Erik says.
She winces in sympathy. “Ouch. You want more ice?”
“No, I can get some myself.”
He considers having her ask Charles to come find him later, but what would be the point? He has no idea what he wants. If they’re going to have a serious conversation about…whatever the fuck is going on between them, he should at least figure that out first.
“Do you need anything else?” Clarice asks. “I can get you some Advil if it really hurts.”
“No, I’m fine.” After a beat of hesitation, he adds, “If you see Dr. Xavier, tell him I had to head back to my class.”
Clarice salutes him with two fingers. “Will do.”
The Center’s winter holiday party is on December 22, which is perfect because it’s the one day Charles has off from the hospital this week. He worked a four-day shift from Monday to Thursday, and he has work again Saturday evening. Friday, however, is reserved for festivities.
“Wow, they really went all out,” Raven says, craning her neck as she glances around the Center’s foyer. “It looks like Santa’s fucking workshop in here.” Eyes widening, she slaps a hand over her mouth. “Oops.”
Charles huffs. “Yes, do try to keep your language under control. There’s going to be kids here, you know.”
That’s rich, she says, you lecturing me about language. You’re the one who taught me all the cuss words I know.
Yes, but I try not to use them in polite company.
Except at Mother’s stupid holiday parties.
Charles grins. Do you remember how absolutely scandalized Aunt Elizabeth was that one year?
The shared memory blooms brightly between them. Raven giggles. She got so red I was actually sure she was going to have an aneurysm. Wouldn’t that have ruined the party!
Would’ve made the night more exciting at least. Instead we had to listen to my cousin play piano for a million hours. I have no idea why everyone thought it was a good idea to have him put on an impromptu concert.
He was really terrible.
They share a grin. Aloud, Raven says, “Tonight had better be more fun.”
“I’ve been told there’s spiked punch for the adults,” Charles informs her.
“Ooh, that sounds promising.”
Raven practically bounces. “I knew it was a good idea to come. Plus!” Her eyes gleam wickedly. “I’ll get to meet Erik.”
Charles rolls his eyes. “Yes, and you’ll see that there’s nothing really mysterious about him at all.” He’s hoping that introducing the two of them will dispel some of Raven’s obsession with all Erik-related gossip. Maybe she’ll stop pestering him about Erik once she understands that they clash because they’ve got diametrically opposed personalities, that’s all.
They follow a series of cheerful signs decorated with penguins that point them toward the gym. Charles can hear “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” blasting down the halls before they even get near the party.
“We’re not super late, are we?” Raven asks.
“Only about half an hour.”
“Ugh. I shouldn’t have waited for you to dig through your whole closet for an ugly sweater.” She scowls. “If the punch is gone, I’m leaving.”
Laughing, Charles takes her by the elbow and tows her to the doors. “Come on.”
The gym has been completely transformed for the party. Two huge, jolly, inflatable snowmen greet them just inside the doors, where a thick carpet of fake snow leads them into the winter wonderland beyond. Dozens of paper snowflakes hang suspended from the ceiling with string, tickling their heads as they walk in. The entire gym is bathed in white-blue lighting, which makes it feel like they’re entering an ice rink. An enormous Christmas tree dominates the eastern wall of the gym, practically sagging with ornaments and streamers. On the opposite wall is an inflatable menorah, and on the far wall, a glitter-blasted banner proclaims: HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!
“Wow,” Raven says, eyebrows climbing nearly to her hairline.
“Kitty takes decorating for the holidays very seriously,” Charles says with a laugh.
“Are those kids ice skating?”
Charles follows her gaze over to the corner behind the menorah, where it looks like…yes, a group of kids are ice skating over a patch of thick ice. In the gym.
Before he can do more than cock his head in confusion, Kitty pounces on them out of nowhere. “Charles! There you are! I was wondering if you were ever going to show up!” She slings an arm around his shoulders, then pauses when she spots Raven. “This must be your sister! Hi, I’m Kitty Pryde, I’m the assistant administrator here!”
Raven shakes her hand. “I’m Raven. Nice to meet you.”
“You’re bubbly,” Charles remarks. “More than usual.”
Kitty giggles. “I might’ve had more punch than I meant to. It’s just really, really good.” Her mind is fuzzy and warm at the edges, bursting with pleasant pastel colors.
“Is that a skating rink in the back there?” Charles asks, pointing.
“What? Oh yeah! Isn’t it awesome? Bobby suggested it, and the kids totally love it. He volunteered to keep it up for at least another couple hours, so if you want to try, go for it.” She frowns thoughtfully. “Man, I really gotta figure out some way to thank him.”
Bobby? Raven asks.
He’s one of the volunteers here, Charles replies. I don’t know him that well, but from what I gather, he can create ice.
That’s cool. Pun intended.
Charles sends her the equivalent of a mental pinch for that. Aloud, he says, “I hope we’re not too late for food?”
Kitty shakes her head. “Nope! There’s plenty over in the back. Also you’re just in time for the ugly sweater contest! We’re going to start judging in like, ten minutes.” She gives them both a glance and smirks. “You guys look like strong contenders.”
Raven shoots Charles a smug look. “Told you they’d like my sweater.”
“It looks awesome,” Kitty says. “I really — oh wait, there’s Piotr, I’ve been trying to find him for like, twenty minutes. Piotr, wait! Piotr!”
“Well,” Raven says as Kitty disappears into the crowd, “drinks?”
They make their way over to the back and pile together a couple of plates of croissants, sausages, and peppermint cookies. Charles grabs a water while Raven pours herself some punch, and then they scour the nearby tables for a couple of empty seats.
Charles is just about to direct them to a table to their left when he spots Erik sitting at a table in front of them, space on either side of him. Perfect.
Just be normal, he tells himself. You managed it for weeks, you can do it now.
“Come on,” he says to Raven. “There’s Erik.”
A sly look entering her eyes, she follows him.
Erik is completely startled when they appear. He’d been nursing a cup of punch, which he nearly spills when Charles comes up on his right. “Charles?” He blinks in bewilderment for a moment. “I, uh — I didn’t know you were coming.”
The surprise in his voice is somewhat expected; the odd nervousness lurking around the edges of Erik’s mind is not. Resisting the urge to probe at Erik’s thoughts, Charles says, “I had the day off so I figured I’d come say hello to everyone. Also I wanted to show my sister the Center.” He gestures to her. “Erik, this is my sister Raven. Raven, this is Erik.”
“I’ve heard so much about you,” Raven says, barely containing her eagerness. Her eyes rake across his face as she sinks into the chair beside Erik. “Charles talks about you all the time.”
Raven! Charles snaps, mortified.
Erik raises an eyebrow. “He does?”
Charles blushes. “No, I don’t. I mean, I’ve talked about you before but — I just told her we’re coworkers.”
You didn’t tell me he was hot! Raven says, sounding like he’d personally betrayed her.
I didn’t think that was relevant!
“So,” Raven says, leaning forward, “Charles says you teach self-defense here?”
“Among other things.”
Charles is just about to sit down when Kitty appears by his arm. “Sorry!” she exclaims, grabbing his elbow. “Can I steal you away for a second? I need your help.”
Hesitating, Charles glances at Raven, who waves him off. I’ll be fine. I know how to make friends.
Fair warning, he’s not very sociable.
I’m sure we’ll find something to talk about.
With a sigh, Charles nods at Kitty. “Lead the way.”
It turns out she wants him to talk to a couple of potential donors about the clinic, which spirals into a whole long discussion about the problems with their current national healthcare system and how frustrating it is to try to wrangle insurance companies into submission. Before he knows it, nearly an hour has passed.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mrs. Collins says when she checks the time. “We didn’t mean to keep you for so long!”
Her wife, a tall, hawk-faced woman with brilliant yellow eyes, nods and pats her hand. Lowering her voice conspiratorially, she says, “Sorry. She does ramble on and on sometimes.”
Mrs. Collins snorts indignantly. “Hey!”
Charles laughs. “It’s fine.” He scribbles his number down onto a napkin and hands it to them. “Let me know if you have any other questions, all right? I’d be happy to meet with you again and discuss the details of the clinic.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
After extricating himself, he makes his way back over to the table where he’d left Erik and Raven, only to find it empty. Turning, he searches for them in the crowd, then swivels to look by the food tables. When he finally spots them, his heart lurches.
They’re leaning by the wall together behind the punch table, cups in hand, obviously deep in conversation. There’s hardly any distance between them at all — if Raven took even a step forward, they’d be pressed chest-to-chest. He’s known her her whole life; he knows when she’s flirting. Her body language is unmistakable. And it’s not unreciprocated either — whatever Raven is saying, Erik’s listening attentively, his eyes fixed on her face. He’s smiling, too, his expression relaxed, lips upturned.
Jealousy hits Charles like a fucking two-by-four in the gut. A terrible coldness begins to spread from his core out to his fingers, his toes. What the fuck? How could Raven do this to him? How could she…and Erik…?
You fucking idiot, he snarls at himself. She didn’t know because you didn’t tell her. You didn’t tell her you liked Erik so of course she thinks he’s fair game, of course…
And Erik…oh god, how had he not seen this coming? Of course he’d be interested in Raven. They’re so alike in so many ways. They’re both forcefully mutant and proud, they’re both completely unrepentant about who they are, they’re both fans of Hellfire and the more radical mutant ideologies Charles could never get behind. They have more in common than Charles and Erik ever did. It’s no wonder Raven would snag Erik’s attention. And there was that rumor in college that Erik had a thing for physical mutations…
Charles tears his eyes away from them, trying to swallow the sudden nausea that threatens to send him bolting for a trashcan. Fuck. Fuck.
Suddenly it’s all too much. The gym is too small, filled with too many people, and there’s not enough air to breathe, not enough space to think.
He pushes his way through the crowd, shoves through the doors, and escapes into the hallway beyond.
For a moment, he has to stop and lean against the wall, dizzy. The knot of emotion is impossible to parse. He’s furious. He’s jealous. He’s really fucking hurt, which makes no sense because Erik had never been his. They’d never dated. They’d never even been friends. They’d fucked once ten years ago, and it had been a goddamned disaster so why does Charles feel like he’s just lost something? Why does the thought of Erik with Raven — with anyone else — make him feel sick?
Don’t be a fucking drama queen, he tells himself sternly. But that doesn’t alleviate the tightness in his chest at all.
Not wanting someone to come out and run into him, he makes himself walk further down the hall. Then, at the corner, he keeps going, possessed by the sudden need to put as much distance between himself and the gym as possible. He climbs the stairs, pauses by the second floor landing that would take him to the clinic, then keeps going. He climbs until the stairs run out and then pushes the door at the top open.
Instantly a blast of cold air slaps him in the face. It’s bracing, and he leans into it, stepping out onto the roof and letting the door slip shut behind him. It’s warmer than usual for December but still cold enough that he’s shivering within a few minutes. Still, it’s nice up here. Silent.
He walks to the edge of the roof and leans against it for a few minutes, letting the storm inside him rage and rage until it starts to burn itself out. After a while, the fury fades into resignation, and the fierce hurt in his chest dulls into a blunt ache.
What had he expected anyway? That Erik would still want him after all this time? That Erik was just as hung up on their one-night stand as Charles still is? And even if they had patched things up, who’s to say Erik wouldn’t abruptly turn on him like he had that night they’d slept together? It had been a complete catastrophe then, and it’d probably be a complete catastrophe today.
It’s better this way, Charles tells himself. You’ve needed to move on for ten years, you just haven’t admitted it to yourself until now.
He stands at the edge of the roof for another long few minutes, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering. Then, figuring he probably shouldn’t risk making himself sick over so stupid a thing, he turns to head back downstairs.
The door opens before he’s even taken a step toward it. Erik appears on the roof, his eyes zeroing in on Charles immediately.
“What the hell are you doing up here?” Erik demands. “It’s freezing!”
Charles stares at him, wholly unprepared to deal with his sudden appearance. He’d been planning to go back downstairs, warm up a little, get himself together, and then return to the gym like nothing had happened. But here Erik is, and Charles still feels scraped raw.
“I was j-just — ” Charles shuts his mouth, annoyed that his clattering teeth make him sound so vulnerable. After a moment, he says slowly, deliberately, “I was just thinking.”
Erik’s eyes narrow. “You’re shaking like a leaf.”
He starts to pull off his jacket, which Charles finds unbearable for some reason. Striding past him to the door, Charles yanks it open and practically runs down the stairs.
Erik catches up to him on the second landing. “Charles — ”
Ignoring him, Charles keeps hopping down the stairs, two at a time. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the party?”
“I went looking for you.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“You vanished and no one knew where you’d gone. I was…”
“What?” Charles snorts. “Worried?”
Erik pauses, then says, “Yeah.”
Charles’s heart twists painfully. “Well,” he sneers, “I can take care of myself, thanks.”
He jumps down the last of the stairs and stalks off down the hallway. After a moment, he hears Erik running behind him to catch up.
“Hey,” Erik says, catching his arm, “what’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing.” Charles shakes him off irritably. “Just leave me alone.”
“Charles, wait. Charles — ” Erik grabs his arm again and pulls him to a stop.
Charles glares at him. “What part of leave me alone do you not fucking understand?”
Erik’s brow furrows. He looks so utterly perplexed that for a second, Charles almost feels sorry. “What…what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” Charles asks coolly.
“You’re acting like…” Erik pauses. “You’re acting like an asshole.”
Charles’s lip curls. “I’ve always been an asshole, according to you.”
“You know, I was actually starting to like you,” Erik says, anger creeping into his voice, “but this is reminding me of why I couldn’t stand you in the first place.”
“Good,” Charles says frostily, “you can go back to hating me. I liked that a lot better.”
He yanks his arm out of Erik’s grip and walks away, shoulders stiff. A voice inside him tells him to stop, he’s being an idiot, this isn’t the way mature, reasonable adults act, but he ignores it. He just needs to get away from Erik. Then he can think. Then he can figure out how he feels about this shitty, shitty situation and what the hell he’s going to do about it.
Too late, he realizes that Erik’s following him, and before Charles can react, Erik takes him by the elbow and hauls him through the nearest door to their left. Thrusting Charles into the room, Erik shuts the door behind them and crosses his arms. “You’re mad at me.”
“I’m not — ”
“Don’t fucking lie to me.”
Charles stares at him for a second. Then he crosses his arms, too. “Yeah. I’m mad at you.”
“Because — ” Because everything. At the moment, Charles is infuriated by Erik’s very existence. “Because!”
“How articulate,” Erik says dryly. “I can see you really benefitted from your Ivy League education.”
“Fuck you,” Charles snarls. Uncrossing his arms, he stalks toward the door, pulling up short when Erik moves to intercept him. “Get out of my way.”
“Was it something I said?” Erik asks.
“I said — ”
“Something I did?”
“Yeah!” Charles explodes. “Yeah, it’s something you did! You’re fucking flirting with my sister right in front of my face!”
Erik stares at him, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “Your sister’s a consenting adult. What happens between us doesn’t concern you.”
The jealousy that rips through Charles actually burns. His veins feel like they’re on fire with it, and for a second he’s so fucking furious and hurt he can’t even speak.
“You’re right,” he grits out once he finally finds his voice. “It doesn’t concern me.”
Erik opens his mouth, then closes it again. Then, strangely, understanding seems to seep into his eyes. He looks as if Charles has just given him the answer to a question he hadn’t asked. “That’s all?”
“That’s all you’re going to say?”
“What more do you want from me?” Charles snaps. My dignity on top of everything else?
“I want you to tell me the truth.”
“That is the truth.”
“No, it’s not.” Erik pauses, then adds, “You’re obviously jealous so why don’t you just admit it?”
Charles is so shocked that Erik’s put it so plainly that his rage falters. “Wh…what?”
“I noticed,” Erik says. “Kind of hard not to when you’re projecting all over the place.”
Charles slams his mental shields up, his face reddening. How could he have let his control over his powers slip so much? How much had Erik overheard?
“I’m…” Charles bites back the excuse that rises to his tongue. Denying it would just make him feel even more pathetic at this point. Erik obviously sensed enough of his emotions to draw the right conclusions.
Erik meets his gaze steadily. “Does this mean you’re still interested in me?”
The flush suffusing Charles’s cheeks intensifies. “I don’t think — ”
“Because,” Erik continues, his tone deliberately even, “I’m still interested in you, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Charles’s breath seizes in his throat. Words escape him utterly; all he can do is stare, dumbfounded.
Erik’s mouth flattens into a frown. “I should hate you. You used me. You treated me like I was — like I was nothing to you. But I haven’t been able to get you out of my head, and it’s driving me fucking insane.”
“You’re not — ” Charles’s voice comes out strangled. He has to stop, swallow, start again. “You’re not nothing to me. Where on earth did you get that idea?”
Now it’s Erik’s turn to stare. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
Charles shakes his head helplessly. “I’m not kidding you. I honestly have no idea how you think I used you. If anything,” old anger swells up, sharp and confusing as it mixes in with the longing and hope, “you used me. You’re the one who kicked me out of your apartment as soon as we were done. You barely even let me get my clothes on before you threw me out!”
“Because it meant nothing to you!” Erik snaps, his composure crumbling into hot anger. “I was just another notch on your fucking bedpost!”
“What?” How could Erik think that that night had meant nothing to him? Even before they’d kissed for the first time, Charles had wondered if this was actually going somewhere, if they could actually be something, because Erik was fascinating and Charles had found himself reluctantly intrigued. And now Erik’s accusing him of not caring? “Why on earth would you think that?”
Erik glowers at him. “I saw your phone.”
“Your phone. You left it on the nightstand when you went to the bathroom. I saw that text from your girlfriend.”
“From my girlfriend…? What…?” He racks his brain, trying to figure out what the hell Erik’s talking about.
Realization strikes like a thunderbolt. He goes cold with horror all the way to his fingertips.
“You saw Moira’s text.”
Erik’s glare intensifies. “Yeah.”
“That…it wasn’t what you thought.”
“It wasn’t? Because it looked like a fucking booty call.”
The terrible injustice of it all makes Charles want to scream. Ten years lost, because of this?
“We were friends with benefits,” he says helplessly. “We’d broken up, but we were still — we were just fuck buddies. I’d been planning on meeting her that night, but I…I ran into you and…”
“And you fucked me instead,” Erik says coldly. “Were you planning on going over to her place afterwards or was she coming to yours?”
“That’s not — I was going to cancel!” Charles cries. “I was going to tell her I wasn’t going to come over anymore because I thought — I was going to ask you — ”
“What? You were going to ask me what?”
“I was going to ask you if you wanted to go out with me!” Charles bursts out. “I was going to ask you to coffee or dinner or something because I had…” His face burns. Erik really hadn’t known? Hadn’t even suspected? “I had feelings for you.”
Erik’s icy rage evaporates in an instant. He stares at Charles, stunned. “You…what?”
“I had feelings for you,” Charles says miserably. “I’d been attracted to you for a long time and even though you were an asshole sometimes, you were also the most interesting person I’d ever met and I…I wanted to get to know you.” He swallows, averting his gaze. “And then that night happened and you threw me out and I thought…I thought maybe you’d fucked me because you just wanted to — to humiliate me, because you hated me.”
“I would never have…” Erik takes a deep, shuddering breath. “I did hate you. And I think some of it was because I hated how attracted I was to you even though you were rich and privileged and arrogant and everything I was supposed to hate. But no matter how I felt about you, I would never have tried to use sex as some kind of…some kind of weapon against you. That would’ve been fucked up.”
Charles sighs shakily. “I didn’t know what to think after you threw me out. That was the only explanation that made sense to me.”
“If you’d just — if you’d explained…”
“Like you would’ve let me explain. You spent the rest of the semester pretending I didn’t exist!” That had been an excruciating two months until Charles had finally graduated and fled New York for med school in Seattle. After that disastrous night, they hadn’t spoken another word to each other.
“It’s not like you were any better,” Erik protests. “You acted like we were strangers anytime we ran into each other.”
“Because I thought you hated me! And I was angry at you for using me.” He pauses, then concedes, “That’s what I thought anyway.”
A brief, heavy silence settles between them. Then Erik leans back against the door, shoulders slumping as he sighs. “I feel like an idiot.”
“Me too.” How could they both have misunderstood the situation so completely? All this time, they’d been so wrong. For over ten years, Charles had held onto this, so sure that he’d been in the right and Erik had been an asshole of the highest order, and now…
“Now what?” he asks softly.
Erik hesitates. “Well…you know how I feel.”
“You’re…interested in me.” That’s so unbelievable that Charles is tempted to laugh. He’s spent so long thinking Erik hated him that it’s hard to accept that Erik…likes him? Wants to be with him? Or is Erik just physically attracted to him, like he was back in college?
“What does that mean exactly?” he asks after a moment. “You’re interested in sex or…”
“No,” Erik says quickly. “I mean…yes, if that’s what you want. But I’m also interested in more than that.”
More than that. Charles’s head spins. Half an hour ago, he would never have even thought to consider dating Erik, but now, it seems like an actual possibility. Some part of him — the part that’s still, somehow, infatuated with Erik the same way his younger college self was — wants that.
Erik starts to backtrack. “If you don’t want th — ”
“I do,” Charles blurts out. “I just — this is all happening very fast, that’s all. And I’m still…I’ve changed since college, but there’s still a lot of parts of me that are the same. The things you didn’t like about me back then, you probably still won’t like them now.”
“I didn’t like your drinking or your all-night partying,” Erik says, “but you said you don’t drink anymore and you don’t seem like much of a partier these days. Even if you were, it’s not like you’re keeping me up at four a.m. blasting music down the hall.”
Charles winces. “Sorry about that.”
Erik huffs. “Plus you aren’t hiding your telepathy anymore so I can’t be angry with you about that. Though I still think it’s bullshit that you tried to pass as baseline when your mutation’s one of the best parts of you.”
A frisson of annoyance runs through him. So Erik’s still hung up on that, is he? “About that — I had my reasons.”
Charles crosses his arms again, eyes narrowed. “Do you have any idea how pervasive anti-psionic discrimination is, even in the mutant community? I was sixteen when I started college, Erik. I was younger than everyone else in our class, so I already felt like I didn’t belong. I was scared of being ostracized because of my telepathy, so I kept it quiet. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of myself.”
He pauses for a moment, then decides he might as well lay everything else on the table, too. “I’m sorry about bothering you with the parties. Really, I am. But I wasn’t…I didn’t party just to party. Granted, I like parties and I like people, but mostly I had people over all the time because I had a hard time being alone.”
Erik blinks. “What does that mean?”
“I was still a teenager. Most people don’t have full control over their powers until their late teens, or well into their twenties. I didn’t have a great grasp on my telepathy yet, and that made it hard to…to be in my own head sometimes. It was easier to manage when there were other people around to distract me.”
There’s a long pause. At least Erik hasn’t scoffed and dismissed him out of hand. It’s hard to explain to other people what it was like for him in college, back before he’d understood how to make his telepathy work with him instead of against him. Some days had been perfectly fine. Other days he’d get migraines so bad that all he could do was curl up into a ball and try not to cry. Alcohol had helped. So had having people near him to get him out of his own head. Looking back, it’s no wonder he’d spent most of his college years day drinking and throwing parties. He’d been the definition of unhealthy coping mechanisms.
“I didn’t know,” Erik says finally. “I’m…sorry. Sorry I was a judgmental jackass.”
Charles hadn’t realized how much Erik’s sneering contempt about his mutation and his old vices had still been eating at him after all this time. Erik’s apology loosens a hard knot inside his chest.
“And I’m sorry, too,” he offers after a moment. “For being such a rude neighbor. Even though I was having problems, I shouldn’t have used it as an excuse to be a dick. I’m sure you weren’t the only one in our hall who hated me.”
“No, I wasn’t. Do you remember Ed down the hall from us in 502?”
“He once paid me fifty dollars to shut off your power.”
Charles’s eyes widen. “It was you! I knew it! Wait, he paid you?”
“I would’ve done it for free, but he was offering so…”
Charles shakes his head, though he can’t quite keep his mouth from twitching. It is sort of amusing, in retrospect. “What a jerk.”
“Who, me or him?”
“Both of you.”
Erik laughs. “Guilty as charged.”
Charles laughs, too. “God, I can’t believe…well, I sort of deserved it, I’ll admit that.”
“You totally deserved it,” Erik corrects. “Do you have any idea how light a sleeper I am? I lost so many hours of sleep because of you.”
Charles harrumphs. “I’m sorry. Really, really sorry. Happy?”
“Happy enough.” Erik pauses, then adds, “I’d be happier if you’d have dinner with me tomorrow.”
His delivery is a little awkward, too casual to be completely natural. And yet, Charles’s heart skips a beat anyway. Charmed, he starts to answer yes, then stops, reluctantly. “I meant what I said earlier, you know. There’s probably going to be things about me that you’ll hate. I’m still an integrationist, for example.”
Erik shrugs. “And I still think a lot of Hellfire’s ideology is valid. So what?”
“So what?” Charles stares at him. “That’s not how you felt about our differences in college.” Sometimes he’d thought his integrationist politics had been what Erik hated most about him, bad neighbor habits aside.
“We were young,” Erik says, a hint of apology in his voice. “I thought everything was black and white then. There are still things I won’t ever budge on, but I’ve learned to coexist with people I don’t agree with.” He smiles faintly. “Sometimes I even like them.”
Charles’s stomach flutters. “All right.”
“Dinner it is. I’ve got work tomorrow through Monday but maybe Tuesday night?”
“Yeah, that works.” Erik sounds slightly breathless at the prospect. Charles feels exactly the same way.
“Okay.” Charles fumbles for something else to say, trying not to let the conversation splutter out awkwardly. “I guess we should, um, exchange numbers?”
“Yeah, that’d be — that makes sense.”
They trade phones, enter in their information, and then trade again. Sliding his phone into his pocket, Charles says reluctantly, “I suppose we’d better get back to the party before they send a search party out for us.”
They both hesitate. Then, before he can think better of it, Charles steps in close, takes a handful of Erik’s shirt, and presses a quick, furtive kiss against his mouth.
Erik looks absolutely shell-shocked when Charles pulls away. Flushing, Charles says, “Sorry. I should’ve — ”
Erik yanks him close with a hand around Charles’s arm and kisses him. This one is a proper kiss, deep and long and fervent, and Charles’s head spins with the force of emotion that flows through the contact. Their minds blur together at the edges like watercolors running, and he can feel Erik’s longing, his desire, his confusion over the strength of his feelings, his determination to see this through anyway. Charles shows Erik his feelings in turn: his attraction to Erik, his admiration over what Erik’s built here, his old hurt and anger over the past that’s been smoothed away by the night’s revelations, his willingness to start over.
They both gasp for air when they pull back this time. Erik’s eyes are bright. Charles is sure he’s wearing the same expression.
“That was…I forgot you could do that,” Erik says, panting. “Show me your feelings like that, I mean.”
The last time they’d shared thoughts and feelings had been that one time in bed ten years ago, and even then, Charles had held back. Maybe that had been why Erik had been so convinced their sleeping together had meant nothing. If only Charles had let him see how he felt back then…
“I hope you don’t mind,” Charles says after a moment.
Erik shakes his head vehemently. “Of course not.”
Charles smiles. “Well. Then…” Is this all right?
Erik startles, but he doesn’t recoil, either physically or mentally. Instead, he practically leans into Charles’s mental contact, like a cat might lean into a caress. Charles’s heart soars.
Yeah, Erik says. Then: Am I doing this right?
Perfectly, Charles tells him happily. He sends Erik a touch of what he feels, warmth and brightness and joy all wrapped up in one. When Erik makes a small, startled noise, Charles pulls back slightly. Too much?
No, I was just…surprised.
After a quiet minute, Charles sighs. “We really should get back the party. They’re probably looking for us.”
“Yeah.” Erik opens the door. “After you.”
They slip back into the gym through one of the back doors. Erik’s immediately pulled away to deal with a lighting problem in the back of the gym, so Charles returns to their table alone and finds Raven sitting there, deep in conversation with a man with dark red skin and a tail that flicks thoughtfully as he listens to Raven talk. Charles recognizes him as one of the volunteers here at the Center, but he doesn’t know the man’s name. Raven looks like she’s having a good time though so Charles changes direction and goes to pour himself a cup of punch.
For the rest of the night, he socializes with the other guests, taking care to touch base with the people he’s seen in clinic before. A few of them have suggestions for the clinic, which he promises to bring up with Kitty the next time he sees her. He gets his cheeks pinched by more than one kindly grandmother, and several of the children who recognize him beg him for stickers. He really should start carrying some around all the time, he thinks ruefully as he has to apologize to yet another kid for not having any stickers on him.
Raven finds him at around nine-thirty. “Hey,” she says, catching his arm. “I’m about to head out.”
He excuses himself from the circle of conversation he’d been in and steps away with her. “Okay. You want me to go with you? I’m about ready to go, too.”
“No, it’s fine. You look like you’re enjoying yourself and besides…” She glances over her shoulder, smirking. The red-skinned man is waiting for her a few tables away, coat in hand. “I’ll have company anyway.”
Charles winces. “I didn’t need to know that.”
“I had to listen to you brag about the hot dudes you banged in college,” Raven replies. “Turnabout’s fair play. See you later.”
“Text me tomorrow so I know you haven’t been murdered,” Charles tells her before letting her go. She rolls her eyes and waves.
Charles glances through the gym for Erik and finds him over at a table where kids are making gingerbread houses, supervised by a couple of enthusiastic college kids. When Charles drifts closer, he can see that Erik’s helping a little girl put the roof on her house.
“No, no, no,” she’s saying, waving for him to stop. “It needs to be higher, over the windows.”
“Like this?” Erik asks.
“No, higher! Higher! No, stop! That’s too high!”
Charles watches Erik patiently adjust the roof until the girl is completely satisfied. Finally she claps her hands together and declares, “It’s perfect! Thank you, Erik!”
“You’re very welcome.” Erik glances up and spots Charles standing there. A frisson of heat runs through Charles at the look in Erik’s eyes. He gets up out of his seat, patting the girl on the back gently. “I’ll be right back, Gretel. Keep decorating.”
“Hey,” Charles says when Erik comes over to him.
“Hey.” Erik cocks his head slightly. “You have a weird look on your face.”
“I was just thinking of how good you are with kids,” Charles replies.
“Me?” Erik snorts. “You’re the one who’s got them eating out of your hand. I’ve seen you with kids in the clinic. They adore you.”
“Well everyone at the Center adores you.” And Charles can see why: Erik’s dedication to this place is amazing. He’s built a community here, a safe space for mutants. There aren’t many other places in Manhattan that can boast of being completely tolerant and accepting of all mutants, even self-professed mutant spaces. Erik’s poured his heart and soul into the Center and it shows.
“They tolerate me, that’s all,” Erik says, but there’s an undercurrent of fondness in his voice. After a moment, he nods toward the exit. “Are you about to head out? I thought I saw your sister leaving a few minutes ago.”
“I probably should,” Charles says reluctantly. “I have to get up early for work tomorrow. But this was fun. I’m glad I came tonight.”
Erik’s gaze warms. “I’m glad you came, too. And I’m glad we…talked.”
“Me too.” After a beat of hesitation, Charles reaches his telepathy out. I’ll see you Tuesday then?
Erik grins. It’s a date.
It’s been a long time since Erik’s dated someone. Years probably. The last person he’d gotten serious with was Magda, and though that had ended amiably, it hadn’t exactly made him want to throw himself back into the dating pool. He’s had a few one-night stands and short flings since then, but he hadn’t expected anything real to come out of those. And now, out of nowhere, he has a date with Charles.
It’s almost too surreal to believe. Just a couple of months ago, he’d been cursing Charles’s reentry into his life, and now he’s counting down the minutes until he can see Charles again. The irony isn’t lost on him.
Saturday crawls by, as does Sunday. The Center’s hours are shorter on weekends, and it’s not as busy as usual, what with Christmas just around the corner. Erik goes on a long run on both days, trying to burn off his restless energy. Even after a ten-mile run though, he still feels keyed up. It’s hard to even sleep; he just lies in bed and replays their one night together over and over in his head. The memory of the night is no longer tainted with the shock and hurt of betrayal. For the first time in over ten years, he allows himself to remember it with fondness, and longing.
Now that he knows the truth about what happened that night, he can actually bring himself to admit it: he really does like Charles. Even back in college, though he’d been annoyed by Charles’s excesses, he’d been intrigued by him as well. Charles had been attractive and charming and interesting to talk to, even though most of his opinions had been naïve, privileged, and wrong. They’d clashed often, but Erik had never felt that it was mean-spirited. At least, not until that fateful night.
Everything that happened afterwards inevitably colored all of his memories of Charles from before. Now the good memories, buried so long under his anger and hurt, start to resurface. He remembers not just everything he hated about Charles but the things he liked as well: his obvious intelligence, his wit, the way he could debate so passionately and eloquently even though he was almost always on the wrong side of things. But that had been part of his charm.
Monday creeps in at a snail’s pace. Erik wakes up at six, too restive to stay in bed any longer. He goes for another long run, gets back to his apartment at around eight, and takes a quick, efficient shower. Then he fetches his phone to glance through his notifications.
Christmas greetings are everywhere, of course. It’s all over the news, all over Facebook, all over his email inbox from random advertising emails. Erik suppresses a growl of annoyance — then pauses as the realization strikes him.
Charles is working on Christmas. Though Erik doesn’t celebrate Christmas and normally couldn’t care less about it, the fact that Charles doesn’t have the day off seems terribly unjust all of a sudden. He knows Charles likes Christmas — he remembers Charles decorating his apartment for the season and throwing outrageous parties on Christmas Eve. So why is he working this year?
Curiosity gnaws at him until he can’t stand it anymore — scrolling through his contacts until he finds Charles’s name, he opens up a message. Why are you working on Christmas?
Not even five minutes later, a reply comes in: I didn’t have any plans so I volunteered to take the shift. Why?
Erik searches for an answer and finally lands on: Just seems unfair, that’s all.
He winces as soon as he sends it. Had that been too flippant?
Before he can start to second guess himself, Charles replies. It’s not too bad. I get off at 4, so I’ll still have the night to relax.
After a few minutes of deliberation, Erik sends back, That’s good.
He wants to say more, wants to keep talking, but Charles is probably busy. With a sigh, Erik tosses his phone to the side, wondering what on earth he’s going to do until tomorrow night. Every second is going to feel like an eternity.
But…he really doesn’t have to wait, does he? He could see Charles tonight. If Charles gets off at four and he doesn’t have any plans afterwards…
Erik propels himself off the couch and goes to rummage around in his kitchen. He hasn’t gone grocery shopping in a while so his supplies are a bit sparse, but it’ll be enough to make dinner at least. A simple pasta maybe, or a soup. He’s pretty sure Charles isn’t allergic to anything, and if he is, well, Erik will improvise.
A frisson of excitement runs through him. He desperately hopes Charles doesn’t have any other obligations tonight.
He cleans his apartment from top to bottom, then cleans it again to kill time. Then he tries to work on some paperwork for the Center and mostly fails because he can’t make himself pay attention. His thoughts keep drifting back to Charles, to the way Charles’s mouth had felt on his in that dark classroom.
God, he’s smitten, isn’t he? Is this what infatuation feels like? No one else has completely invaded his thoughts like this before. Not even Magda, whom he’d loved once.
At three, he can’t take sitting around in his apartment anymore. Grabbing his keys, he shrugs on his coat and heads out.
Mt. Sinai isn’t far. He hops off the subway a couple of stops early so he can walk the rest of the way, but he still gets there at 3:30, a full half hour early. After a few minutes of loitering outside, Erik finally decides to go in to escape the cold.
He’s debating going up to the front desk to ask if he’d be allowed to slip over to the ICU to meet a friend when someone behind him says, “Erik?”
Turning, he finds Clarice coming toward him, head cocked curiously. “What are you doing here?”
“I just…” Erik fumbles for an excuse and draws a blank. But why is his first instinct to lie anyway? He’s hardly doing anything shameful or embarrassing. So what if this will inevitably find its way back to the gossip mill at work? He never pays attention to that shit anyway.
“I’m here to see Charles,” he says, straightening slightly. “I’m trying to surprise him.”
Clarice’s expression brightens. “Ooh, sounds interesting. What for?”
Erik steels himself. “For a date.”
For a moment, she just stares dumbly at him, her green eyes wide and shocked. Then a slow, delighted grin spreads across her face. “That is so freaking sweet, oh my god. Does he not know you’re here? Do you need help getting upstairs?”
Looks like it’s his lucky day. “Yeah, can you show me the way?”
She’s nodding before he even finishes speaking. “Follow me.”
“What are you doing here?” Erik asks as they enter a stairwell and start climbing. “Shouldn’t you have the day off or something?”
She shrugs. “I don’t really do Christmas. I’m going over to my parents’ house later for dinner, but that’s pretty much it. I came in earlier to shadow an ER doc.”
“How long are you staying?”
“Oh, I was just about to leave actually. Then I spotted you.” She grins. “I guess it was your lucky day.”
“I guess so.”
She swipes her badge on the fourth floor landing and pulls the door open with a flourish. Once they’re in the hall beyond, she points to their left and says, “If you go around the corner, there’s a nurse’s station there. Ask anyone where Dr. Xavier is, and they’ll help you track him down.” She winks. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he says with genuine warmth.
Clarice grins. “Well, I’ll leave you to it then. Merry Christmas.”
“I’m Jewish,” Erik says wryly, “but thanks.”
“Oh.” Chagrin flashes across her face. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” He waves her back toward the stairwell. “Go home. You should go enjoy dinner with your parents.”
Once she’s gone, he takes a steadying breath, straightens his shoulders, and walks around the corner.
He’d been expecting to see a couple of nurses at the station, maybe some other staff members. His question — do you know where I can find Dr. Xavier? — dies on his lips as soon as he sees Charles standing there, leaning casually against the nurse’s station and chatting with a nurse sitting in front of him as he scribbles on a sticky note pad. He looks so fucking good that it takes Erik’s breath away for a second.
Charles must sense him because he looks up. His eyes widen when they land on Erik, and he straightens, dropping his pen. For a moment, they just stand there, staring at each other. Then Charles walks over to him, radiating confused happiness. “Hey. What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to see you,” Erik says, hoping he sounds more nonchalant than desperate. “And I wanted to ask if you wanted to have dinner with me tonight rather than tomorrow. Unless you have other plans…”
“No other plans,” Charles says quickly. “Honestly I was planning on going home, changing into pajamas, and doing absolutely nothing for the rest of the night.”
Erik’s heart jumps. “So…dinner?”
Charles smiles. “I’d love that. What were you thinking? There’s a pretty good restaurant nearby that I like.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to come over. I could cook.”
Charles blinks, startled. “You’d…? I mean, that sounds like a lot of work. I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
“Come over,” Erik says. “I already have something in mind. Are you allergic to anything?”
“How does pasta sound? With mushroom cream sauce?”
“Sounds amazing, honestly.”
“Is that a yes?”
“You really don’t mind cooking?” Charles asks, frowning. “We could order in if you really don’t want to go out.”
“I really don’t mind cooking,” Erik promises. If he’d minded cooking, he would never have survived growing up with his mother, who practically raised him in the kitchen.
“Then…” Charles beams. “Yes. I’d love to come over.” He checks his watch. “My shift’s over in about ten minutes and then I have to sign out to my colleague, but after that, I’ll be ready to go. So if you don’t mind waiting about twenty minutes, we can leave after?”
Charles reaches out, takes his hand, and squeezes it. “Thanks for coming by,” he says softly. “I’m glad you did.”
Something in his voice puts a lump in Erik’s throat. Swallowing, Erik says, equally softly, “I’m glad I did, too.”
Charles smiles and squeezes his hand again before dropping it. “There’s a waiting area around the corner, back the way you came. You can hang out there until I’m done.”
In the waiting room, he picks through a stack of magazines on the table and selects an issue of M, one of the only consistently mutant-centric and inclusive magazines out there, and one of Erik’s favorites. Settling in one of the surprisingly comfortable armchairs by the door, he thumbs through several articles, barely even reading them. His mind is already flying ahead, calculating how long it’ll take to make dinner, thinking about what he can do to entertain Charles while he waits.
The door opens, and Charles pops his head in. “Hey, all done.” He grins boyishly, and for a second, he’s that college boy Erik remembers all over again, cheeky and cheerful and infuriating. “Want to get out of here?”
Erik tosses the magazine back down on the table in front of him and stands up. “Lead the way.”
Once they’re outside the hospital, Erik takes the lead, guiding them onto the subway. They don’t talk much on the way home; Erik’s not quite sure what to say, and Charles is clearly tired from work. By the time they get to Erik’s apartment though, Charles perks up a bit.
“It’s almost exactly how I imagined it,” he says, glancing around Erik’s place with interest. “Your taste hasn’t changed at all in ten years. Except I see you got rid of that horrible yellow couch you had.”
Shrugging off his coat and hanging it in the hall, Erik scoffs. “You never sat on that couch, did you? If you had, you wouldn’t have judged it by its appearance.”
“I don’t care how comfortable it was. It was still a bloody eyesore.”
“I wish I still had it just so you’d have to look at it.”
Charles frowns at him. No, it’s more of a pout than a frown, and Erik finds it…unexpectedly adorable. “Just for that, I’m going to complain about dinner.”
Erik stifles a laugh as he heads toward the kitchen. “What part of it?”
“Every part of it.” Charles tails Erik to the kitchen, ticking his next words off on his fingers. “I’ll complain about it taking so long, and about it smelling funny, and about it looking terrible, and about — ”
On an impulse, Erik grabs the lapels of Charles’s white coat and pulls him into a kiss to shut him up. Charles makes a muffled noise of surprise against his mouth before clutching Erik’s arms and hauling him closer. Pleasure and excitement and desire race through Erik like fire licking down his spine. He’s not sure if those are his feelings or Charles’s, or both.
Both, Charles says. Definitely both.
Erik grins against his mouth. “Good answer.”
Charles winds his arms around Erik’s neck. Is it bad that I want to say fuck it, let’s skip dinner?
Erik shudders and can’t help but run his hands down Charles’s back, stopping at the waistband of Charles’s slacks. “I mean…if you’re not desperately hungry…”
“Oh, I am,” Charles murmurs. His eyes are smoldering when they turn up to meet Erik’s. “Just not for food.”
Erik bites back a curse. Had Charles always been this seductive? This irresistible?
He starts to agree, starts to pull Charles toward the bedroom — then forces himself to stop with an enormous effort. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Remember the last time we had sex without talking things through beforehand?”
Charles’s sultry look fades somewhat. “You’re right,” he says after a moment. “We should make some things clear before this goes any further.”
Erik reluctantly pulls his hands away from Charles’s waist. To his surprise, Charles stays pressed up against him, his arms still around Erik’s neck. “I thought — ” Erik starts.
“This won’t take long,” Charles says. “Here’s where I stand: I don’t hate you for what happened when we were in college because it wasn’t anyone’s fault. I’m sorry for being a rotten neighbor, even though you deserved it sometimes because you were an asshole. And I think I might be kind of in love with you. Clear enough?”
Erik feels as if he’s been punched in the sternum. For a second, he can’t speak, can’t take a breath, can’t do anything except stare down at Charles and wonder wildly if this is a trick somehow, if this is a vivid hallucination of one of his fantasies.
It’s not a trick, Charles says. Not a hallucination either.
Somehow, Erik finds his voice. “Well in that case,” he says hoarsely, “then this is where I stand: I don’t hate you either. What happened was stupid and unnecessary and mostly my fault, and I’ll admit that. And even though you were a rotten neighbor, I still shouldn’t have been an asshole to you, especially about your choice not to be open about your mutation. That was your choice, and I shouldn’t have judged you for it.”
“Apology accepted,” Charles murmurs.
“I wasn’t finished,” Erik says, eyes narrowed. When Charles gives him a properly chastened look, Erik huffs and continues, “I was going to say that I’m glad you’re kind of in love with me, because I’m pretty sure I’m kind of in love with you, too.”
A wild, shivering joy bursts through them both. Charles laughs, breathless. “Well, I’d say we’re both pretty clear on where we stand. So if you promise not to throw me out afterwards…”
“Only if you promise to stay for breakfast,” Erik says, pulling him close again.
Charles grins, his eyes bright. “Fuck it then. Let’s skip dinner.”
Laughing, Erik nuzzles him. “Gladly.”