Monday wraps up with a bullet and a bloody carpet that will need to be either dry cleaned about eight times or thrown out entirely. Erik eyes the destruction around his office dispassionately, noting the overturned chairs, the splintered desk, the smashed tumblers dripping liquor on the floor. His hand is bleeding, glass embedded in his palm. He’s gotten blood on his favorite tie. What a fucking mess.
Azazel pops back into the office with a swirl of smoke. “Sir.”
“Loud and clear.”
“Good.” He hopes Azazel left the body impaled on the spikes of Guerrero’s front gates. That’s a warning that could hardly be mistaken and clearly the idiot needs it. Sending an assassin—the man’s getting impertinent.
“How did he get a weapon in here?” Azazel asks, his brows drawing together. His tail lashes restlessly back and forth in agitation. If there’s one thing the Russian hates, it’s feeling that he’s failed his job, and that’s what Erik likes about him. That’s what Erik needs from him.
“He didn’t,” Erik tells him, pointing to what used to be a full glass tumbler by the foot of the desk. “Pretended to drop his drink and picked up a glass shard when he was cleaning it up. It was a good ruse, too; I didn’t even see him palm the shiv until he was coming at me.”
Azazel mutters an oath under his breath and glances at Erik’s hand. “Let me look at that.”
Erik holds out his bleeding palm, making and discarding plans as Azazel picks at the glass lodged under his skin. He can’t let this challenge go unanswered. Guerrero has been a tolerable neighbor for years, but he’s been growing bolder lately, bold enough to be irritating. His territory hasn’t grown—Erik’s made sure of that—but word is his forces are considerably stronger now than they were when Erik first rose to power, when they’d agreed on a strict “you leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone” policy. There have been suspicious encroachments on Erik’s borders, not enough to provoke any sort of retaliation but enough to draw Erik’s attention. He’s testing the Brotherhood, testing Erik’s resolve.
Erik hates being tested.
“I need to call Charles,” he says, casting his eyes around the ruined office in search of his phone. “I want to see him.”
“Is that a good idea?” Could be dangerous, is what his tone says. Someone just tried to kill you.
Erik wonders if telepathy can rub off on you if you’ve been around a telepath long enough. Sometimes it seems like he can almost hear thoughts, clear as Charles’ voice in his head.
“Guerrero wouldn’t send someone so soon after this one,” Erik replies. He wants to add that no one would dare strike at him so deep in his own territory but—well. Clearly that’s not the case.
The audacity of this attack. It’d be infuriating if Erik allowed himself to be anything but detached about events like these. Emotions get in the way.
“I’ll take extra security,” he continues, mostly to appease Azazel. “And we’ll stay close.”
Azazel nods after a moment. “Then let me put a bandage on this first. Don’t want you bleeding on your little myshka, do we.”
Erik barks a laugh. “I’ll tell Charles you called him that.”
“Please,” Azazel says dryly, “I would rather not die.”
Charles arrives, as usual, with little fanfare. Erik feels him coming from three blocks away, the thin circlet around his wrist burning like a beacon in the rest of the comparatively dull world. Erik gave him the circlet a while ago, even before they had been lovers. He’d told Charles it was so Erik could pick him out of a crowd, and that had been partially true. The other part had been that Erik had liked the look of his metal on Charles, liked that Charles had something Erik had made on his person at all times. He knows every smooth inch of that silver band. He knows how it feels against the heat of Charles’ skin.
The door to the café swings open, and Charles steps through, looking windswept and harried. He’s not wearing his cardigans today; instead he’s in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that says “Mitosis – I hope I have your divided attention.” Erik raises an eyebrow at it as Charles slides into the other side of the booth, pulling his satchel over his head and laying it aside as he does.
“Dressing down for class today?”
“No, you caught me on my day off,” Charles says with a cheery smile. Oh good. He’s chirpy today. “What did you need? You were awfully cryptic on the phone.”
“I wanted a little bit of time with you,” Erik answers, raising his hand to push the cup of tea he’d ordered across the table. As soon as he does, Charles’ eyes zero in on the white bandage around his hand, and he reaches out immediately to touch it. “What happened?”
“Would you believe me if I said I slipped in the shower?”
“Would you like to try a better lie?”
Erik grins sharply and strokes his thumb along the back of Charles’ knuckles. “A man tried to kill me today.”
There was a time Charles would have reacted in horror to that, but now, he only turns Erik’s palm over to examine the bandage and says, “They don’t usually get this close.”
“He caught me off-guard. It was my fault.”
“Is it deep?”
“Not too deep.”
Charles is quiet for a long moment, the usual teasing light in his eyes vanishing. He always gets serious at every sobering reminder of the realities of Erik’s activities. He’s told Erik a dozen times over that he understands the risks associated with what Erik does and over the last few years he’s become remarkably calm about attempted murders and the occasional blood spill, but Erik still has to remind himself that this isn’t what Charles is used to. Charles belongs in a university library surrounded by books too old to touch with bare hands, lecturing to dozens of bright-eyed students or giving brilliant papers at academic conferences.
Of course, that’s still his everyday life, but now he’s on a mob boss’ speed dial and that means dipping toes into a world that’s very different from microscopes and pipettes and test papers. When Erik had asked him three years ago, Charles had agreed to work with him of his own will, no extravagant bribes or coercion necessary. Sometimes he wonders if Charles regrets it.
“I don’t,” Charles says, withdrawing his hand to cup the sides of the warm mug of tea. He leans down to inhale the steam rising from the drink’s surface, so Erik can’t see his face when he adds, “I just worry about you, that’s all.”
He says it lightly, but there’s real sentiment underneath. Erik smiles.
“Was there anything I could have done?” Charles continues, raising the mug to his lips for a sip. “If so, you should have called me.”
“A telepath is a trump card. I don’t want to use you when I don’t need to.”
“You say that as if I’m a tool to pull out of a drawer when you need me. Is that the way this works, Erik?” Charles arches a questioning eyebrow.
Erik shakes his head. “Wrong choice of words.”
“You’d think that after three years, you’d think of me as more than a means to an end.”
“You’d think that after three years, you’d know exactly what I thought of you.”
Charles smiles, conciliatory. “Good point.” He reaches down and traces his fingers over the wrist on Erik’s injured hand. “Well, use me next time.”
“I had no reason to think today’s visitor was dangerous.” He grimaces. “Well. Any more dangerous than usual.”
“Clearly.” Charles doesn’t say anything more, but the feeling that he presses to Erik’s mind translates to a firm be careful.
“I called you,” Erik says eventually, when he’s almost out of coffee and most of Charles’ tea is settled in his stomach, “because I will need you, and probably soon.”
“Adrian Guerrero. He’s the one who sent the hitman. I sent him a message back, and I expect him to reply at some point with an offer to meet. Things have been getting out of hand between us lately. It’s time for a face-to-face.”
“Ah. You’ll want me there to monitor the situation then.”
“Guerrero is…” Erik shakes his head dismissively. “He shouldn’t pose much of a threat. But it never hurts to be careful.”
Charles’ eyes flick down to the white bandage again. “No, it doesn’t.”
They spend another hour in the café with Charles chattering to Erik about his current work in the lab, the biggest troublemaker in his class, the excellent paper he’s graded recently from a student he’s going to ask to go to a conference with him next month. It’s always nice to hear about a professor’s life, about a different kind of existence from his violent, manipulative, cynical one. Maybe he would have had that kind of mundane peace himself, if his mother hadn’t been killed when he was thirteen by a bunch of unruly Hellfire initiates who’d been trying to impress their higher-ups. Maybe if he’d listened to the detective who’d spoken to him afterwards, who’d warned him against seeking revenge, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
He’s content where he is. He isn’t unhappy. But he does imagine sometimes meeting Charles under different circumstances, maybe in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning, or at Charles’ favorite bookstore in the Upper West Side, or at any other place that isn’t the park bench they really met at, Charles standing with his hands in his pockets, shivering slightly in the wintery air while Erik had lounged on the bench sizing him up.
Funny, the sort of thoughts that get into his head when Charles is around. He’s never imagined another life for himself before. The mob is all he’s known and will ever know, and he likes it that way.
Charles, apparently, likes him that way, too, and that’s good enough for him.
“Do you want to come home with me tonight?” Erik asks after a while. A quiet night in with Charles sounds excellent right now, after the day he’s had.
“I wish I could,” Charles says with a sigh. “I’ve got to prep for an early class tomorrow though. Probably shouldn’t stay up too late.”
“That’s fine.” Erik pushes his right leg forward to curl his foot around Charles’ ankle. “Another time then.”
Charles leans his ankle back against Erik’s touch. “Yeah.”
He drops Charles off at his apartment afterwards, ignoring Charles’ halfhearted offer to just take the metro. Before Charles climbs out, he steals a kiss and says, “Call me when you need me.”
Erik waves. “Don’t I always?”
It’s four days later when Angel knocks on the door and presents him with an envelope addressed to him. “Someone paid a kid to drop it off,” she says. “Didn’t get a description.”
“That’s alright.” Erik pulls the envelope flap open and glances at the signature at the bottom of the note within. “I know who it’s from.”
Adrian Guerrero “cordially invites Mr. Erik Lehnsherr to the Flatiron District at 5 pm this afternoon, to settle any differences peaceably.” There’s a specific address underneath, which needs checking out before any reply is sent. Erik snorts at the note and tosses it to the side. Cordially. Peaceably. Adrian Guerrero is certainly a character.
“Thank you, Angel,” he says, and she gives him a lazy salute before fluttering out. He glances at the printed schedule tacked to the wall by his monitor, determines that Charles is out of class right now, and reaches for his phone.
“Mm,” Charles says when he picks up. “Listen to this for a moment: ‘If nothing else, the Mutant Registration Act would have helped put the American human populace at ease in a time of great turmoil, assuaging their fears by increasing mutant visibility.’”
“What,” Erik says. “Give that asshole an F. Are you too busy reading bigoted papers or do you have time for your side job?”
“No, not too busy. What’s up?”
“Guerrero sent a note.”
“He wants to meet?”
“5 pm today. Are you free?”
“I’m…” There’s a bit of rustling, which Erik takes to mean Charles is checking his day planner. “Yeah, I’ve got nothing. Where’s the meeting? Do you want to pick me up? I’ll be home at three.”
“Yes. I’ll pick you up at 3:30.”
After hanging up, Erik summons Azazel and Alex to discuss meeting details. They look up the address, which turns out to be a recently-abandoned warehouse that’s likely been chosen because it’s a neutral location. It’s isolated but that suits Erik just fine; he’d rather not be conducting business out in the open, with witnesses within earshot. Especially if he’s going to have to take care of Guerrero once and for all, which he hopes won’t be necessary.
“I will go,” Azazel says, “and Summers, Hawthorne, Salvadore, Tress, Chen. Janos will drive.”
Azazel always handles logistics, so Erik nods in agreement and pulls up the warehouse in question on Google Maps to ascertain its exits. They burn the rest of the time until 3:15 examining possible choke points in the streets, weak points in the building, and coming up with a couple of contingencies. Then at 3:15 they load up into two SUVs and head out.
“Intimidating,” Charles remarks as he climbs into the backseat next to Erik. “It’s the Serious Business cars today, is it?”
The capital letters are audible. “Guerrero needs to be reminded who he’s dealing with,” Erik says simply. “Are you ready?”
“Yes. How long do you think this will take? I actually want to eat dinner before eight o’clock tonight.”
“Probably no more than an hour or two. We’ll pick something up for you on the way back.”
“Ooh, excellent. I want Chipotle.”
The ride to the Flatiron District isn’t long, even with the traffic. They’re fifteen minutes early because Erik wants to scope out the area beforehand and get settled in before Guerrero arrives. The SUVs pull into an abandoned street in front of the warehouse and when they get out, they find the padlock on the door already unlocked.
“Stay close,” Erik tells Charles, who’s craning his head back to stare up at the windows on the building’s façade that are rusted shut.
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Charles says affably. He’s wearing a black suit as he always does when he goes out with Erik on business; that way, he blends in with Erik’s other men, making it harder for any enemy to target him. He even has his gun holstered at his hip, completing the disguise. He hadn’t wanted a gun at the beginning, had protested against it vehemently. But Erik had gotten his way in the end, and Charles hasn’t ever used the weapon in all the times he’s carried it, so they’re both content with the arrangement. It might be time to take him back to the firing range though, Erik muses as he glances at the shape of the gun under Charles’ suit jacket. They haven’t practiced in a while.
“I don’t feel anyone inside,” Charles says as Alex removes the padlock and pulls at the rolling grille. It slides up rapidly until it hits the top frame with a clang, and they’re greeted by a gaping darkness.
“Should have brought flashlights,” Angel remarks.
“I could go back and get some,” Azazel offers, but Erik shakes his head and just closes his eyes for a moment, searching out the building’s generator. When he finds it, he switches it on with a nudge of his powers. A hum fills the silence of the street and lights flicker on, illuminating the vast, empty space within.
“Let’s go,” Erik says, gesturing for them to follow.
A few crates and wooden pallets are pushed against the left wall, but other than that, there’s nothing in the warehouse but an expanse of gray concrete floor beneath a high-vaulted ceiling. There’s a solitary door on the opposite wall, which appears to be the only other exit aside from the way they just came through. With the lack of cover in here and only two exits, a firefight would end badly for both sides. Or it would, if Erik were worried about guns at all.
“What’s the plan then?” Charles asks by his side as they walk the perimeter of the building. “Are we making peace or taking a less…conciliatory tack?”
“We’re not compromising, if that’s what you mean,” Erik replies. “He’s been in my territory. He sent a man to kill me. If you think I’m going to welcome him with open arms, I think I need a new telepath.”
Charles bats absently at his arm. “Oh, hush. You’ll never get rid of me.”
They finish examining all corners of the rectangular warehouse and eventually gather by the empty crates. At least if there’s any trouble, they’ll have some sort of shelter behind the stacks of wooden pallets. As usual, Azazel takes Erik’s side while Charles slides to the back, hands in his pockets as he observes the scene mostly hidden from view. Sometimes, when Erik wants it clearly known that he has a telepath at his disposal, he’ll have Charles lounge near him or at his shoulder. But sometimes, like now, he prefers an element of surprise.
Erik feels Guerrero’s approaching cars before he hears them. Three vehicles, each as large as an SUV, which means Guerrero likely has him outnumbered. Not particularly worrying but something to keep in mind.
“Ready?” he asks as the sounds of the engines cut just outside.
The scars on Azazel’s face stretch with his grin. The others say nothing but Erik feels them tense behind him.
Charles’ mind brushes across his with the barest tinge of concern. Erik.
Something’s off. Their minds feel...odd.
Odd? Erik’s hand drifts toward the gun at his hip. Like what?
Mm, hard to explain. Muffled might be the word.
Can you read them?
I don’t know. Give me a moment.
They don’t have a moment; in the next instant, the door on the opposite wall swings open, and six tall, powerfully-muscled men step through, their attention narrowing in on Erik’s group immediately. Erik runs his power over them and feels out several guns and the occasional knife. Standard bodyguards. Guerrero himself follows behind them, sauntering in like a sun-warmed cat, his hands tucked casually into the pockets of his coat, a pair of aviators perched on his hooked nose. The door slams shut behind him.
Six men, Erik muses. Not likely enough to fill three cars. The rest must be waiting outside, to provide for a quick getaway should one prove necessary.
“Lehnsherr,” Guerrero greets, sliding off his sunglasses and tucking them into his pocket. “Long time no see.”
“Years,” Erik agrees coolly. Charles?
I’m having a hard time reading them, but I can do it. Bits and pieces here and there, which is better than nothing.
If Guerrero’s found a way to block telepathy, that means he knows about Charles. Which means he’s done his research, because the Brotherhood’s telepath isn’t common knowledge. Erik’s inclined to be the least bit impressed—and the least bit anxious because the only thing he knows that can block a telepath is another telepath.
It’s not that, Charles comments. It doesn’t feel like that.
Well that’s more worrisome. Erik hates unknowns.
“Sending a man to kill me,” he says aloud. “Not your brightest idea.”
“Not my worst one either,” Guerrero says genially. He’s relaxed, or making a good show of it, which is strange because the last time they had met, Guerrero had been pissing himself with fear. For him to regard Erik with such calm, he must think he has the upper hand now, or something close to it.
Guerrero’s dark eyes rove over Erik’s retinue. “Where’s this telepath of yours then? I’ve heard so much about him.”
“Have you? From who?”
“Oh, I promised not to tell.” Guerrero makes a zipping motion across his lips. “He’s the same one who gave me a few gifts. Said I’d need them if I wanted to meet you on equal footing.” When he holds up his arm, his sleeve slides back to reveal a band around his wrist, black and bulky as an ankle monitor. “How does it look?”
“A little fancy for you, to be honest,” Erik replies. Charles, is that…?
Some sort of psionic blocker, I think, Charles answers. He sounds grim, which raises Erik’s hackles. I’ve only heard rumors of them, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.
Erik’s heard the rumors, too. The people he’s got plugged into the black market have heard whispers of devices in development that would offer protection against telepaths, but there’s been nothing concrete. Nothing that would suggest such devices would already be in circulation.
Guerrero laughs. “Charming as usual, Lehnsherr. Shall we talk business then?”
“Let’s. I trust you received my message?”
“Like I said, charming. It took my men a while to get the body off the gate, and the blood on the driveway might not wash out completely. Really a shame.”
“Sorry,” Erik says dryly. “Maybe if you hadn’t sent him to kill me, you could have kept your driveway clean.”
Guerrero shakes his head dismissively. “Let’s put that misunderstanding behind us. I’m sure we can come to an understanding if we start with a clean slate.”
Guerrero certainly has a gift for understatement that Erik doesn’t remember. “I’m not sure how a hitman could be understood any other way,” he says, arching an eyebrow. “But alright, a clean slate. Here’s the deal, Guerrero. You stay off my territory. You keep your men away from mine and away from me. You don’t interfere with my business. Is that too difficult to understand?”
“Not at all. But I was thinking. You’ve really got more turf than you know what to do with. It wouldn’t hurt you to hand over some parts to the south. Say, three or four blocks.”
He’s asking Erik to willingly cede territory. Has he absolutely forgotten the nature of their business? “No,” Erik says, keeping the incredulity out of his voice, “I can’t see that happening.”
“You can’t?” Guerrero smiles. His silver tooth glints in the light. “Here’s what I see happening, Lehnsherr. You either sign over at least four blocks of your territory to me right now, or I figure out which one of your boys here is your telepath and put a bullet in his head. It’s up to you.”
Only years of experience in maintaining his composure under the most trying of circumstances keeps Erik from lunging for Guerrero’s throat. Steady, Erik, Charles whispers.
Very carefully, he says, “Do you really think it’s a good idea to be threatening my people?”
“I don’t think it matters much to you if it’s a good idea or not,” Guerrero replies, unperturbed by Erik’s glower. “What matters is your telepath. Let me guess. Is it him?” He points to Alex and watches Erik’s face. Whatever he finds there makes him shake his head. “No, I don’t think so. Him?”
“If you think I’d ever give you even a square inch of my territory out of the kindness of my heart,” Erik growls, “you need your head checked. I’ve never taken you for an idiot, Guerrero.”
Guerrero’s smile doesn’t waver. If anything, it widens. “You’re the idiot, Lehnsherr, if you think this is a negotiation. Pity. I told you I wanted to come to a peaceful resolution. But you aren’t being very cooperative, now are you?”
I don’t like this, Erik, Charles says. I can’t get a good read off their minds.
I don’t like it either, Erik answers, uneasy despite himself. Guerrero’s newfound confidence raises the hairs on the back of his neck, filling him with a visceral, instinctive apprehension. Something’s wrong here, and he doesn’t want to stick around to find out what. They need to withdraw, reassess, and return to the matter when they’re better informed.
At the same time, he’s loath to give Guerrero any ground. Even asking for time to think will be a sign of capitulation.
“Mr. Lehnsherr,” Azazel interjects quietly, “the other matter…”
Take the out, Erik, Charles says.
“Oh,” Erik says, glancing down at his watch. “We’ll have to pick this up at another time. I’ve a prior engagement at six that I can’t miss.”
Guerrero’s smile turns cold. “I’m sure you can miss it. You aren’t leaving until we come to an agreement.”
“Another time,” Erik repeats icily. “Unless you’d like to come to an agreement on my terms now.”
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
“Then we’re leaving.”
“I’m afraid,” Guerrero drawls, “that’s not going to happen either.” Before Erik can react, Guerrero’s eyes flit over Erik’s shoulder. “It’s him, isn’t it. Cute.”
He hadn’t noticed Charles inching his way past the others toward the front, but the next thing he knows, Charles lets out a sharp exhalation just behind him and shoves him down, hard. A gunshot rings out as he loses his balance and stumbles to a knee, followed by a second crack. Erik twists, grabbing blindly for the bullets, for metal—but there is no metal, there’s nothing to grab at, and Erik wonders for a bewildered split second if Guerrero’s men are shooting blanks, of all things.
Then he hears it. He won’t forget the sound Charles makes for the rest of his life.
“Charles!” he shouts. CHARLES!
He turns, reaching for the silver circlet around Charles’ wrist, reaching and—
The world lurches dizzyingly. When his vision has stopped spinning, he’s kneeling in his office, on the bare hardwood floor by his desk.
“Are you hurt?” Azazel demands, releasing his hold on Erik’s arm.
Erik grabs him in a fury. “Where’s Charles? Take me back!”
Azazel breaks his hold and steps back, tail whipping. “No, stay here. I will get Charles.”
He’s gone before Erik can open his mouth again. In the sudden silence of the office, Erik sags against his desk, breathless with adrenaline, the unfamiliar taste of fear bitter on his tongue.
Oh, fuck. Charles had been hit. Charles had been hit, and Erik is crouching here dozens of miles away in safety, absolutely fucking helpless. His mind seems frozen. All he can think of is Charles’ strangled cry, caught between a gasp and a yell; it echoes in his ears, deafening as his pulse, drowning out every rational thought in his head, and he knows, he knows this has happened before, his people have been shot before and hurt before but not like this, not like this—
A whump. It’s Azazel, supporting Tress by the arm. The man’s bleeding from his shoulder, but he’s conscious and alert. Erik barely notices him, barely even cares. “Where’s Charles?”
Azazel hesitates, only for a second but even that is enough to send terror spearing through Erik's heart. "He was bleeding. Bad. I did not think it wise to move him."
"So you—you left him there." Erik stares at him, almost speechless with rage. "You left him there?"
"Alex has him. They secured him. Erik, you must—" He seizes Erik's arm, pulls him close, and drops his voice, low and commanding. "Erik, you must calm yourself."
Calm. He's going to laugh. He can feel it bubbling in his chest, in his throat, a clawing thing that might actually be a scream. He wants to tear Azazel’s head from his shoulders. He wants to rip Guerrero’s still-beating heart from his chest.
Somehow, he says, “Go back.”
“Go back and help them bring Charles back or don’t come back at all.”
The Russian looks him in the eye for a long moment. Then he nods and disappears without another word.
Erik leans against his desk, fists clenched on its surface. There must be something he can do. No time to send reinforcements, no time to phone for favors from friends in the area. He can’t think. He feels like a hurricane is shaking him apart from the inside. He can’t focus.
“Sir,” Tress says from behind him. His voice is ragged with pain but lucid. “A doctor…”
Of course. Stupid, stupid.
“Sit down,” he orders as he digs his phone out of his jacket. “Put pressure on that shoulder.” Hitting speed dial 5, he jams the phone to his ear and holds it there with his powers as he jerks off his tie and balls it up. As the line rings, he pushes Tress down into the nearest armchair and peels off the man’s jacket. Underneath, blood blooms across his shoulder in a sticky red spread. Erik presses and holds the tie to it, watching as the silk darkens with blood.
The line picks up with a gruff, “Lehnsherr.”
“Logan. The favor—I’m calling it in. I need you ready to go in five minutes. Bring…” Surgery. If it’s bad, Charles will need surgery, and from what Azazel said, it’s bad. He wipes sweat from his eyes with his sleeve and tries to steady his voice. “Bring everything. I’ve got two men who’ve been shot and one is serious.”
“I don’t know, just—be ready. I’m sending Azazel your way as soon as he gets back.”
He hangs up without waiting for a reply and checks Tress’ pulse. It’s fast but doesn’t feel out of control. He’ll be okay.
“Did you see Charles?” Erik asks him, lifting the tie to examine the bleeding. “How badly was he hurt?”
“I saw him go down but not much more than that. Got nailed in the shoulder right after.”
It takes an effort to shove down the frustration that swells tight in his chest. Emotions get in the way, he reminds himself. Stop forgetting that.
By the time they eventually get the bleeding slowed to a trickle, a few of his people have arrived at the office, no doubt summoned by Azazel or one of the others. Erik wants to be angry that attention is being diverted from Charles, but he’s glad to leave Tress to their care so he can direct all his focus on finding Charles and getting Logan to them. A glance at his watch tells him it’s been at least fifteen minutes since Azazel left him. It can’t be taking this long to secure the warehouse. Alex alone can take out every man Guerrero brought with one concentrated blast. Something must be wrong.
Before he can really work himself up into a terror, Azazel reappears. His white dress shirt is soaked through with blood all down his front, and Erik’s heart lurches.
“We think he should only be moved once if we can help it,” Azazel says. “Where?”
“Take me to him,” Erik orders, and this time, Azazel takes his hand without protest.
They’re back at the warehouse before Erik can take another breath. Alex is on his knees, missing his suit jacket and his belt. It’s clear in a moment where they’ve gone: Charles is on the cold concrete floor next to him, belt tightened around his left thigh and jacket pressed against his stomach.
Stomach. Erik knows stomach wounds. Scheiße.
“How is he?” he demands, pushing Angel to the side to get a better look. His heart nearly stops when he realizes Charles’ eyes are open and staring straight at him while the telepath breathes raggedly, chest rising and falling with jagged, unsteady gasps. “Hey,” he says, reaching for Charles’ hand, which is sickeningly slick with blood. “Hang in there, okay? Keep your eyes open for me, Charles.”
Charles grips his hand, surprisingly tight, which Erik takes as a good sign. The telepath’s eyes are starting to go foggy, though, and his telepathy itself is blurring in and out of focus like a bad radio station interrupted by static, unintentionally leaking some of his pain. Erik would gladly shoulder all of it, if only to take it away from Charles.
“He’s lost a lot of blood,” Alex says, his eyes wide and frightened. “He needs a hospital.”
“He’ll get Logan,” Erik replies. To Azazel, he says, “Find Logan. Bring him here. He needs to assess Charles before we move him.”
He doesn’t wait for the telltale pop of Azazel’s disappearance before turning back to Charles, who’s swallowing with difficulty. “Don’t talk,” Erik says before Charles can even try to open his mouth. “Don’t.” Without looking away from Charles, he asks, “Is the building secure?”
“Yes,” Angel replies. “Hawthorne and Chen are sweeping the area again, just in case.”
“Verdammt! You couldn’t get him?”
“No, he was—”
Before she can finish, Azazel returns with Logan in tow. The surgeon takes a knee immediately by Charles’ shoulder and bends to study the wound in Charles’ leg, then moves to his stomach. When Alex pulls his jacket away, Charles hisses in pain, his fingers clenching painfully around Erik’s. “Careful!” Erik barks.
“How long since he’s been shot?” Logan asks.
“Fifteen, twenty minutes?” Alex guesses.
“He’s in bad shape. He’s going to need surgery for sure.”
Erik nods decisively. “Okay then. Where do you want to do it? Azazel can get us there.”
“It’s not that simple, bub,” Logan mutters. “This kind of surgery’s going to be complicated. I need more supplies than I have.”
“I can get any supplies,” Azazel says.
“And I’ll need extra hands. Nurses, trained nurses.”
There’s fear in Charles’ eyes. It shakes Erik to his core, and Erik is never shaken by anything. You’ll be alright, he pushes at Charles. You’ll be okay, I promise. I promise you. He hopes Charles can’t feel the way his hand is trembling.
Aloud, he says, “Tell us what to do. I’ll get you everything you need.”
Logan digs into the small kit he’s brought, pulling out a small vial and a long needle, snapping off the sterile cover. “He got any allergies?”
“No,” Erik says. He’s had Charles’ medical charts memorized for years now.
“Good,” Logan says frankly, “because we’re gonna have to risk traveling with El Diablo over there—” he nods to Azazel, “—if you want to get me to an open OR fast enough.”
“Then what’s that for?” Alex dares to ask, looking at the large needle with trepidation as Logan fills it up with the clear liquid in the vial.
“To knock him out before we try moving him,” Logan says grimly, reaching down to find Charles’ other arm, “because I don’t think any of you are gonna want to hear him scream.”
It’s a long seven hours before Logan eventually emerges from the OR, swiping his surgeon’s cap off his head as he approaches Erik, who’s sitting with his head in his hands in a plastic hospital chair by the wall. The look on Logan’s face tells him nothing, and for a moment, Erik thinks furiously to himself, Stay calm, whatever happens stay calm.
He stands up when Logan reaches him. “Well?” At least his voice comes out steady.
“I can’t say he’s out of danger entirely,” Logan says, “but he’s over the worst of it. The bullet in his leg made a bit of a mess, but it could have been worse. With some time and PT, he should walk fine again. The bullet in his stomach tore him up pretty bad, but we managed to stop the bleeding and patch him up. If he fights through the first two days of recovery, I’d say he has a good chance.”
Erik releases a sharp breath. Okay. Charles is going to be okay. Charles is a fighter. “Thank you.”
Logan’s brows climb. “Never thought I’d hear those words from you.”
“First and last time for everything.”
The surgeon smiles humorlessly. “Consider my debt to you paid now.”
“I’ll consider it.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Erik gives him a cool look. “I know what you said.”
Logan mutters something that might be “bastard” under his breath, which, oddly enough, makes the knot in Erik’s chest relax. Charles is going to be okay.
“Can we see him?” Alex asks. He, Angel, and Azazel are here, ostensibly for protection. Erik knows, though, that they’re just as concerned for Charles as he is. Charles’ friends in the Brotherhood are many and loyal. If Erik weren’t absolutely certain that Charles had no interest in ever entering a life of crime, he might be worried about a coup.
“He’s still out,” Logan replies. “Maybe in a few hours when the anesthesia wears off.”
Reassured now that Charles is out of danger, Erik’s mind begins to work properly again. Slowly, other responsibilities start to filter in, as well as other concerns. “And Tress? My other man?”
“I took a look at him. Not nearly as bad as Charles in there but still a little torn up. The bullets used, they were plastic of some sort. They shattered on impact, which left a lot of fragments to dig out. I pulled out all the pieces and slapped a bandage on him. He should be fine as long as he gives that shoulder a good rest.”
Plastic bullets. That explains why he hadn’t been able to grab a hold of them, why he hadn’t been able to stop Charles from getting hurt. Guerrero had come prepared.
And now he knows Charles’ face. Erik feels his hand clench into a fist.
“Start talking logistics with Azazel about moving him,” he says shortly, pushing past Logan and taking long strides down the hall.
“Move him? Again?” Logan asks. Erik doesn’t have to look to know that the doctor’s bushy eyebrows are raised high. “Bub, he’s not going anywhere till he’s in a more stable condition.”
“He can’t stay here,” Erik snaps over his shoulder, “and I’d rather move him again while he’s still under, before he wakes up. Figure it out.” That said, he pushes through the OR doors and steps into the room, gaze seeking Charles immediately.
Charles is small and pale where he’s laid out on the table still, and the heart monitor that he’s still hooked up to beeps slowly but steadily as he sleeps. Erik feels the absence of his telepathy acutely, as if there’s a sliver of his mind that’s been carved out and left empty, an aching hole where Charles should be. It’s the anesthesia, because when Charles sleeps normally Erik can feel him even then, and Erik finds himself wishing for the medicine to wear off quickly even though Charles needs the rest.
He looks so fragile. If Charles were awake he’d be protesting the label, because he’s certainly anything but, except here and now after Logan has dug a bullet out of his stomach and Erik can’t shake the image of Charles’ wide, frightened eyes out of his mind, Charles seems nothing short of porcelain and Erik is almost afraid to touch him as he approaches the table. He gives in, more out of the visceral need to prove to himself that Charles is still real and alive, and gently cups the telepath’s cold, pale cheek.
Too close. Today had been too close, and it’s utterly inexcusable. Some of the medical tools in the drawers of the room begin to rattle as some of Erik’s control slips, frustration and nerves pouring out in the form of his powers. He forces himself to take a deep breath, slowly breathing in and out in time with Charles’ monitor, until the shaking stops and he’s in control again.
“Erik.” Azazel pokes his head in through the doors. “Logan refuses to allow transport via my way, but says if you can lift a stretcher we can work something out and take one of the cars.”
Erik grips the edges of the operation table that Charles lies on, careful but testing. He can lift the whole thing if need be. Anything, at this point, for Charles. “Let’s do it.”
“Very good,” Azazel acknowledges with a nod. “Where are we headed?”
Erik considers, several options flickering through his mind. In the end he settles on the one place that will be absolutely, unquestionably safest. “My place.”
Erik isn’t there when Charles wakes. He’s halfway across town, of all things, following up personally on a lead brought to him by one of his more reliable informants. The last three days have been consumed by the hunt for Guerrero and his men. Erik’s mobilized every resource he has, scouring the city with the intent of flushing Guerrero out from the streets like a rat from a sewer. But for all his considerable reach, he hasn’t come up with much and it’s as frustrating as it is a blow to his pride. He would rip up the foundation of every building in the city if he thought it would help and if he weren’t worried about jeopardizing Charles’ safety. No doubt if he goes crashing through high-rises, the police will find his house, which means they’ll find Charles, which is completely unacceptable. Only that fact keeps Erik from resorting to more extreme measures in the pursuit for Guerrero.
He’s in Harlem meeting with a streetwalker who claims she saw Guerrero skulking through the alleys when Azazel appears at his elbow. The girl shrieks at his arrival, but Erik barely pays her any attention. “Did you find something?” he demands, more than ready for action, for violence.
“No,” the teleporter says, “but Charles is awake.”
It’s amazing, really, how rapidly his mind switches gears, from murderous intent to deep concern. Before Charles, he hadn’t even believed himself capable of caring so much about the fate of another person. Now he can barely remember a time before Charles.
“Take me to him,” he orders, “and then come back and talk to Miss Katherine here. Get what you can from her and follow it up.”
“O—our deal,” Miss Katherine manages, her eyes fixed on Azazel’s flicking tail, which wanders near her until she flinches away with a shudder.
“We agreed on 50 bucks if she comes up with something useful,” Erik explains to Azazel. “Come on.”
The Russian takes his arm and the world dissolves around him. An instant later, it solidifies again into solid ground under his feet, and he has to blink twice before the blurry shapes around him resolve into the familiar view of his bedroom. Shaking off Azazel’s grip, he makes a beeline for the bed, where a cluster of people are already gathered. Logan is the most prominent among them, shouldering the others aside as he assesses Charles’ condition. They’re all murmuring softly and Logan’s gruffly asking Charles if he can remember his name and what’s the last date he recalls and if he’s in pain, but the only voice Erik truly hears is Charles’, weak but audible as he answers, “Charles Francis Xavier. April 17, 2013. Only a little bit, though my head’s a bit fuzzy.”
Logan checks a box off on the folder in his hand. “That would be the drugs.”
Erik wedges himself in between Alex and Logan. “How is he?”
“Stable,” Logan replies, just as Charles smiles and says, “I’m feeling pretty marvelous, actually.”
“That would also be the drugs,” Logan informs him dryly. Turning to Erik, he says, “He’s in good shape for having been shot twice three days ago, but he needs plenty of bed rest. That means alone.”
He glares pointedly around the bed at the company, who immediately scurry for the door without Erik having to say a word. As the door snicks closed behind them, Logan raises an eyebrow. “You’ve got them whipped.”
“You have no idea,” Charles rasps. “Could I—can I get something to drink?”
When Logan nods his assent, Erik darts to the bedside table, where he’s been leaving glasses of fresh water just in case for days. Picking it up, he sits down on the edge of the bed and slides his arm under Charles’ neck to lift his head enough to set the glass to his lips. “Careful,” Logan says as Charles swallows, some water dribbling out along his cheek. Erik carefully wipes the trickle away with his sleeve and then lays Charles back down into the pillow. “Better?”
“Yeah,” Charles murmurs. “How long have I…?”
“Three days.” Three horrible, long days that Erik never wants to repeat. “It was touch-and-go.”
“Three days?” Charles echoes. A spike of alarm lashes across Erik’s mind like a whip. Erik doesn’t even mind, so relieved to have Charles’ presence back in his head again. It’s been an awful, hollow emptiness these past few days. “My classes!”
“Easy, easy,” Logan reprimands, restraining him by the shoulder before he can even attempt to sit up. “You’re in no condition to be sitting up, let alone getting to any classes.”
“I can’t just miss class! I’ve got to call in, give them notice and ask for leave—”
“I already called,” Erik interrupts. At Charles’ confused glance, he repeats, “I already called. Well, I had Alex call. He can do a passable imitation of your accent.”
“What...what did you tell them?”
“Not what really happened, of course. I had Alex tell them you’d come down with the flu.”
“People will believe anything with a doctor’s note. Won’t they, Logan?”
Logan heaves a sigh. “I’ll write you one. Just come to me when you’re ready to get back. We can even make a case for pneumonia so you can stay home longer.”
“Pneumonia it is,” Erik agrees, just as Charles says, “No, I need to get back to school as soon as possible.” Erik fixes him with a glare and growls, “You’re not going anywhere until Logan says you can, and he’s not going to say you can until you can run the New York Marathon in three hours.”
“Isn’t that a little extreme?” Charles asks faintly.
“You’re lucky I trust you enough not to chain you to the bed.”
That draws out a smirk. “Kinky.”
Logan groans. “I’m done here. Call me if anything else comes up and you—” he levels Charles with a look that even leaves Erik slightly impressed, “—be careful with your stitches.”
“Thank you for everything,” Charles tells him, and now Erik smirks at Logan’s clear discomfort at being subjected to Charles’ sincere and earnest blue eyes. He’s half certain that Charles could bring down an empire with his eyes alone, never mind his telepathy. “You saved my life.”
“Just doing my job,” Logan says gruffly, and gives Erik one last nod. “Lehnsherr.” He shoulders his way out the door, leaving them finally alone together.
“How do you really feel?” Erik asks as soon as the door is shut.
“Honestly, fine for now,” Charles answers, his voice scratchy and tired, “whatever painkillers Logan has me on are working. They’ll wear off eventually, though.” He pauses, blinking wearily as if staying awake is a huge drain of energy. “I’m glad you’re alright. When I just barely caught Guerrero’s thoughts about plastic bullets…” He lets out a small, shaky breath.
Erik reaches over and gently wraps his fingers around one of Charles’ hands. “When I heard you go down…” He shakes his head, still unable to fully approach the wild tangle of emotions still running just beneath his skin from three days ago. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
Charles makes a noise that might be a laugh. “Believe me, I have no intention of ever getting shot again if I can help it. That’s not my idea of a fun weeknight.” He simply looks at Erik for a moment, his chest rising and falling at a reassuringly steady pace. Then his brow furrows. “I didn’t even ask—is anyone else hurt? And what happened with Guerrero?”
“Tress got hit in the shoulder. No one else was seriously injured. And we’ve been looking for Guerrero for three days but…” The way Erik grinds his teeth is enough of an answer to that.
“Did you see him?” Charles murmurs after a while. “Guerrero. I didn’t know he was a mutant. Usually I can tell, but with the psionic blockers…”
“He’s not.” Erik exhales sharply and stands up, rubbing a hand over the stubble of his jaw. “I don’t understand it. The others told me what they saw but it doesn’t make sense. He’s human. I’ve dealt with him before, and he had no reason then or now to hide his mutation, if he had one.”
“Whatever he is, he isn’t human. He threw those crates at Alex by raising his hand, Erik. He nearly brought the roof down on us. It’s some kind of telekinesis if I had to guess but it must have just manifested because he had poor control over it.”
“Just manifested?” Erik frowns. “That’s rare, isn’t it?”
“It’s something like only 2% of mutants manifest after age 30. At Guerrero’s age, it’s…well, it’s unheard of, as far as I know. I’d have to check though. I could do a little research—”
“Oh no.” Pausing in his pacing, Erik fixes Charles with a stern look, the kind that normally has people leaping to do his bidding. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Exasperation rolls off Charles in a wave powerful enough to startle Erik. Charles usually keeps his telepathy more restrained. “I don’t actually have to move to do research, Erik. Just give me a laptop. Better yet, give me my laptop so I can get some schoolwork done while I’m bedridden and…”
He’s interrupted by a massive yawn that nearly looks painful. Erik’s mind, which had been settling firmly onto the business track, derails in an instant. “That’s it,” he says, striding back to the bed. “You need to rest. You’ve talked too much already.”
“Just because I was shot—”
Erik, who’d been pulling the comforter back up to Charles’ neck, stills. Something in his expression must be telling because Charles cuts himself off, protest dying on his lips.
“Yes,” Erik says quietly, “you were shot.” He reaches up and runs his thumb over the curve of Charles’ cheekbone. His chest tightens when Charles turns into his face into his touch. “Rest. For me, if not for yourself.”
Charles smiles sleepily. “You say the sweetest things.”
Erik rolls his eyes. “Just sleep.”
Charles’ cheeky grin, smug as it is, is heartening. “Yes, sir.”
Erik won’t let him leave.
It’s endearing the first couple of days and somewhat amusing the next couple, but by the end of the week, Charles is chafing to walk around, despite the fact that Erik won’t even let him set foot out of bed without supervision. This, of course, only serves to make Charles more determined to get up and shuffle painfully around the room every time Erik leaves on business, even though Erik has told him in no uncertain terms that if he catches Charles so much as sitting up too quickly, he’ll rope Charles down to the bed.
Erik never makes idle threats, but Charles figures he’s earned a little leniency. Getting shot has got to be good for something.
At least, that’s what he thinks until Erik actually discovers him hobbling from his bed to the window one sunny morning. The dark anger that sears like lightning through Erik’s mind is startling and confusing in its intensity. Charles turns with a smile that fades when he sees the thunderous expression on Erik’s face.
“What,” Erik nearly spits, “do you think you’re doing.”
“I’m…I wanted to look outside.” The furious look in Erik’s eye throws him off-guard. “Erik?”
Erik says nothing. He strides across the room to Charles and takes his arm, almost hard enough to bruise. Though he manhandles Charles roughly back to the bed, he’s still mindful of Charles’ wounded leg, shouldering most of his weight as he herds Charles back onto the mattress like a ferocious sheepdog.
“Erik, hey,” he tries, surprised at the dark anger brooding in Erik’s mind. “What’s wrong?”
“I told you not to get out of bed,” Erik growls, glaring as he pushes Charles into the pillows.
“I’ve been lying here for days,” Charles protests. “I can get up and walk around if I want to.”
“No, you can’t.”
Now Charles frowns. “That’s not something you get to decide. I asked Logan yesterday and he agreed that it’d be okay for me to move around as long as I take it easy.”
Erik’s eyes flash. “Logan is getting fired.”
“Logan isn’t even technically your employee. And besides, I’m not going to recover if I just lie around all day. If I get up—”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Erik snaps, “and I hate—” A roiling storm of emotion overcomes coherent speech for a moment. When Charles reaches out to touch his arm in a silent effort to soothe him, Erik jerks away. His back to Charles, he says agitatedly, “I hate seeing you hurt.”
Charles stares at the rigid line of his back, surprised at the crack in his voice. “Erik…” After a moment, he slides across the bed as best he can and grasps Erik’s wrist, pulling him down onto the bed next to him. “Erik,” he says gently, “I’m okay.”
Erik won’t look at him. The muscles in his jaw clench tightly. He seems at once terribly large and terribly small.
This is a side of Erik Charles has never faced before. He’s seen Erik angry, he’s seen Erik smug, he’s seen Erik happy and lustful and calculating, but he’s never seen Erik like this. It scares him a little to realize that even the man who could tear down the Empire State Building floor by floor at his leisure can be frightened.
With some difficulty, he manages to maneuver himself close enough to wrap his arms around Erik from behind. Erik stiffens at his touch but doesn’t draw away when Charles presses his cheek against Erik’s shoulder and breathes deep, one slow inhalation at a time.
“I’m alright,” he says. “Really, I am.”
Gradually, the tension unwinds from Erik’s body, starting with his neck and moving down along his shoulders and back, muscles going lax one by one until he’s no longer rigid and angry. He reaches up to squeeze Charles’ hand against his chest and says gruffly, “I’ll go get you some tea.”
Charles lets him go, watching the surface of Erik’s mind ripple uneasily. He’s half-tempted to reach out and smooth away the wrinkles of worry that have been keeping Erik awake these past few nights, snapping at anyone in reach for leads on Guerrero, on plastic bullets, on anything. But before he can even offer, Erik adds, “When I get back, we can try walking to the window together, okay?”
Charles brightens. “Really?”
“A bedridden telepath isn’t much good to me, is it?” Erik reasons coolly.
Charles grins. The things Erik will say to pretend he’s not a mess of emotions and concern underneath that mask of aloof rationality he’s perfected. “If that’s what you need to tell yourself.”
Erik has a way of raising his eyebrows that says “I’d be rolling my eyes if I didn’t consider it beneath me.” Aloud, he orders sternly, “Don’t move.”
Charles raises a solemn hand. “On my honor.”
In a couple of days, he’s staggering around on a crutch relatively well, and Erik’s even conceded to letting him sit in the living room to watch some TV as Erik works at the desk beside the fireplace. The unexpected vacation time is rather nice: Charles can’t remember the last time he watched all six Star Wars movies in one go or finished an entire Sudoku book in a sitting. But at the same time he’s chafing to get outdoors or at least be allowed to shower by himself without Erik sitting on the toilet outside waiting anxiously for him to fall and break a bone or something. The amount of care Erik’s showing with him is as amusing as it is frustrating.
“A laptop,” he says as the credits of Return of the Jedi begin to roll.
“Hmm?” Erik says distractedly from where he’s sitting on the opposite end of the couch scrolling through the tablet in his hands. Charles isn’t sure what sort of reports Erik’s reading but he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to know.
“A laptop,” he repeats. “I’d like a laptop so I can at least check my email. Better yet, if I could drop by my office to get some papers—”
“No,” Erik says without looking up.
“I said, no.”
Charles kicks him in the thigh with his uninjured leg. “This isn’t a prison, Erik. You’re not my guard and I’m not in solitary here, so if I ask you for something to do, then please just give it to me, or else I’m going to have to ask Azazel to do it and you know he will.”
Erik scowls at him from over the top of the tablet. “He wouldn’t if I ordered him not to.”
“You and I both know that’s not true,” Charles replies archly.
Erik continues to gaze at him for a moment. Then he lowers the tablet and presses his lips together contemplatively. “You know, some people would find it worrisome if their trusted right-hand men answered to someone else.”
“Please give me advance notice if you’re going to have me killed,” Charles tells him. “I’d like a few days to get my affairs in order.”
Erik does the eyebrow-eye-roll thing again and remarks, “And then where would I find another telepath to do my laundry and give me filthy blowjobs in the shower?”
“I see where your priorities are,” Charles mutters with a real eye-roll. Placing his hand on Erik’s bare ankle, he rubs slowly upward toward Erik’s calf, loosening up some tightness there with enough firmness to draw Erik’s full attention. When he’s sure Erik’s listening, he says, “So…laptop?”
“Fine,” Erik sighs. “You can use mine.”
“I also have exam papers in my office that need grading.”
“Don’t push it.”
“I don’t even have to go,” Charles reasons. “We can get someone to bring the exams to me. I won’t even leave the bedroom when I’m grading them.”
Another sigh. “Fine. Azazel can go.”
Charles shakes his head vehemently. “Absolutely not. None of your people set foot on campus or anywhere near my real life. That was our agreement, remember?”
“So what are you suggesting?”
“My TA, Hank,” Charles answers promptly. “He’s a good lad. He’ll keep mum about this if I ask him to.”
Erik’s shaking his head before Charles finishes. “No. No civilians come near this place.”
“But Hank’s trustworthy.”
“The reason this apartment can function as a safe house is because only a few people know about it. It’s not going to be very secure anymore if some college kid comes by to drop off some things, maybe sees something suspicious, and then runs his mouth about it to his friends, will it?”
“Hank won’t run his mouth, believe me. Besides, what is he going to see here that’ll make him suspicious?” Erik’s apartment looks, for all intents and purposes, perfectly normal. There aren’t even any guns lying around.
“I don’t want him here,” Erik maintains stubbornly. “I’m not running the risk.”
“Well, fine,” Charles huffs. “I’ll go out and stand on the street corner and he can hand the papers to me.”
“Or he can leave the papers in a bag on a bench in Central Park and Azazel can go get it after he leaves.”
Charles stares at him. “Really, Erik?”
“What? It’s a drop I’ve used before.”
“Really. Because nothing screams ‘unsuspicious’ like ‘go to Central Park and leave the bag by the bench with a red X on it and walk away.’”
“It’d be a white X, first of all—”
“No. Honestly, Erik, if you really don’t want to compromise your safe house, you could always drop me off at home. That way, Hank could come over and everything would be perfectly fine.”
Erik’s expression shutters. “No.”
“No, you’re not going home. Not until you’re fully-healed at least.”
Charles crosses his arms. “Alright then. But Hank comes and delivers my exam papers, and you don’t fuss about it.”
“I don’t fuss,” Erik mutters. Charles can hear in his voice that the capitulation is coming, but Erik continues to argue, as he always does. He never likes to admit when he’s beaten. “What’s he going to make of Alex and Angel hanging around outside then?”
“You can call them off for ten minutes. Send them to get coffee or something.”
“What’s he going to make of me then?”
“You’re my boyfriend. That’s all he needs to know.”
A hint of uncertainty lurks in Erik’s mind. It takes Charles a few seconds to puzzle out the cause for it, and when he does, he nearly laughs aloud.
“Erik.” Charles scoots forward between Erik’s legs and pulls him down for a kiss. It’s their first since the shooting, and it feels odd, like they’ve somehow forgotten how to fit together. It worries Charles for a moment, but then Erik raises his hand to cup Charles’ jaw and opens his mouth and the touch turns familiar and warm.
When they pull apart, Charles says, “It’s not like meeting my parents, Erik. You don’t have to be nervous about it.”
Erik is, of course, instantly indignant. “I’m not nervous.”
“No, of course not. You’re just worried my nineteen-year-old TA won’t approve of us.”
“I don’t need the approval of some kid with pimples and braces,” Erik growls. Pushing Charles back so he can stand, he says, “Fine, he can come over. But if he asks too many questions, I’m snapping his neck.”
Charles laughs. “Be nice.”
Ten minutes before this Hank kid is supposed to show, Erik instructs Alex and Angel to go down the street and get themselves some dinner. They must be hungry or at least desperately bored because they’re gone almost before he finishes speaking, and then it’s just him and Charles and the house.
He hovers by the window, glaring out through the slats of the blinds at every car that passes. He can almost hear Charles thinking ridiculous at his back, but he ignores it pointedly. Charles can be all relaxed and trusting if he wants; Erik is going to be tense and wary enough for the both of them.
Paranoid, Charles says, flipping aimlessly through TV channels.
“If you want to get shot in the face when you open the door, be my guest,” Erik grumbles. He glowers at the red Toyota that cruises past until it turns the corner. “What if your TA brings his friends? What if his friends have been bought? What if they’re using him to get to me or to you?”
“That’s not what’s going to happen,” Charles says with obvious exasperation. “Hank is going to come over, he’s going to say hello, you’re going to terrify him a little by just standing silently in the corner, he’s going to leave my papers, and then he’s going to go home peacefully. Everyone survives unscathed.”
“Like I said earlier, he can just put the papers in the mailbox.”
“All two hundred exam papers? They’d never fit. Erik. Erik.”
Reluctantly, he turns away from the window. “What?”
Charles pats the space beside him on the couch. “Come sit down.”
Erik wants nothing more than to continue his vigil by the door, but Charles’ tone suggests that if Erik doesn’t come sit down in the next five seconds, Charles is going to get sulky, or worse, he’ll get that disappointed look on his face that Erik hates being the cause of. So he tears himself away from the window and settles rigidly on the open end of the couch, trying not to grimace at Charles’ choice of entertainment (National Geographic again). Only when Charles shifts over to lay his head on Erik’s shoulder does Erik finally allow himself to relax a bit, if only because he doesn’t want Charles to be uncomfortable.
They watch Life Below Zero until Charles is nodding off on his arm. Erik slouches so that Charles can fit his head in the crook of his neck and turns down the volume of the TV with a flick of his fingers. The painkillers make Charles sleepy, so it’s not a surprise when he begins to snore, warm and solid against Erik’s side. He prefers Charles conscious of course, but at least when he’s asleep, he’s getting some much-needed rest and he’s not prone to arguing with everything Erik says. A little peace and quiet is occasionally nice.
It’s a bit strange how easily Charles has slotted into Erik’s apartment like he’s been living here for years. Erik doesn’t spend much time here himself—he’s always out on business in his waking hours and when he has some time to himself, he prefers to be outdoors on a run or perhaps at a coffee shop—so it’s never felt particularly like a home. But these last few days with Charles have been oddly domestic. And oddly enjoyable.
Erik’s not quite sure what to think about it.
The gentle calm is broken by the approach of a mass of metal down the street. It isn’t nearly large enough to be a car, but it’s coming straight to the door and, as Erik feels for it warily, it stops there. A quick examination with his powers reveals it to be a bicycle. Not what Erik had expected, but he supposes for a broke college student, a bike would be the most economical choice.
Unwilling to wake Charles up, he carefully slides out from their tangle of limbs and leaves Charles tucked in to the couch’s throw blanket. He reaches the door a second before the knock comes and yanks it open just as Hank’s knuckles strike the wood once.
The boy outside is exactly what Erik expects. He’s scrawny, tall, bespectacled, and stands a bit hunched in on himself, like he’s afraid of being noticed. He looks as if he might have been born behind a lab bench with a pipette in hand. Everything about him screams scientist.
“Um, hi,” he says, nervously. “I’m…I think I might have the wrong address…?”
“Hank,” Erik says. “Right?”
“Do you have the papers?”
The kid’s hand tightens around the strap of the satchel on his shoulder. “Yeah, I have them here. Is Professor Xavier here?”
“He’s asleep,” Erik tells him. “You can give the bag to me.” He holds out his hand expectantly.
Hank’s hold on the satchel doesn’t loosen. “Um…no offense, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving the professor’s things to a stranger. Who…who are you?”
“His boyfriend,” Erik says flatly, in a way that discourages further questions.
“Oh! I didn’t know—I didn’t think the professor had any…one. Anyone. I, um…”
Erik gives him a glare. It’s a gentle glare, nowhere near the level of intensity he’s capable of, but the kid still flinches. To his credit though, he doesn’t just thrust the bag at Erik and run; if anything, he seems ready to fight Erik off if he tries to grab for it. Erik’s esteem of the boy rises minutely.
Before either of them can make a move, Charles appears directly behind Erik. He squeezes past under Erik’s arm and exclaims, “Hank! You made it.”
Hank’s entire demeanor relaxes at once. “Professor! I was just…I have your…” He holds up the satchel.
“Oh yes, thank you. Could you hand that to Erik here? I’m having some trouble keeping my balance already without carrying anything.”
Hank’s eyes find the cane and widen. “Professor, what happened? I heard you had pneumonia, but that’s…”
Erik stiffens—they haven’t rehearsed any story for this—but Charles says smoothly, “Stupid accident. Tripped and fell down the stairs. It’s nothing to worry about. Have you met Erik?”
“Hank, this is my boyfriend Erik. Erik, this is my TA Hank.” To Hank, he adds, “Don’t be put off by all the scowling, he’s actually a big softy once you get to know him.”
Softy? Erik echoes indignantly. That’s an adjective he’s never, ever been labeled by before.
He can feel Charles’ amusement against his skin. It’s the teasing, fond sort of warm that appears whenever Charles has a laugh at his expense. Erik is always inclined to be annoyed, but whenever Charles smiles like he’s smiling now, true irritation always hovers somewhere out of reach.
Softy, Charles crows, affectionate. Aloud, he says, “Would you like to come in for a moment, Hank?”
“No, it’s okay,” Hank says quickly. “I should get going anyway. I’ve got homework.”
He holds the bag out by its strap until Erik takes it, rolling his eyes when Charles says, My deepest gratitude, darling. Figuring that Charles will be safe for the ten seconds it’ll take to go put the bag down on the couch, Erik turns and stalks back through the house.
“Has everything been manageable?” he hears Charles ask, worried as always about the state of his classes and students while he’s been out and unable to manage things himself.
“Everything’s been fine,” Hank says quickly, and then lowers his voice, but evidently he thinks Erik has disappeared further back into the house because just around the corner, Erik can still hear every word. “Listen, are you really okay?”
“Yes,” Charles answers after a small pause, clearly confused. “Of course I am. I mean, I was, er, sick and took a dive down those stairs, but I’m feeling much better now.”
“He didn’t hit you, did he?” Hank asks seriously, and the only reason Erik doesn’t act on his sudden flare of indignation is the one he feels from Charles.
“What?” Charles asks, shocked, and Erik can imagine him shaking his head. “No, absolutely not, Hank. Erik would never—no.”
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Hank says, and at least he has the decency to sound remorseful. “I just—he looks scary. And falling down the stairs sounds like a typical excuse for—”
“Really, Hank,” Charles says, stern but not outright rude which frankly, Erik thinks he should be, “you should know better by now than to judge a book by its cover. And do you really believe that I of all people, as a telepath no less, would stand for anyone knocking me around?”
“I’m sorry,” Hank repeats, sounding chastened, “and no, of course I don’t.”
Erik decides that this is as good of time as any to make his reappearance, gliding around the corner again and down the short hall to slot himself in next to Charles once more. Hank glances at him nervously, so while he still has the hapless TA’s attention Erik smiles at him slowly, revealing all of his teeth one by one, and since the metal band is wrapped around the wrist of Charles’ free hand and not the hand Charles is using to lean on his cane with, he deliberately pulls Charles’ hand up and over to himself, tangling their fingers together.
“All set here?”
Charles gives Erik a mental sigh, but gives Erik’s fingers a small squeeze. “I believe so, yes, unless you had any other news, Hank?”
“No, all’s quiet, and yeah, I’d better get back,” Hank says quickly and hops down the porch’s stairs to his bike.
Charles frowns. “Did you bike all the way here from campus?”
The frown deepens. “That’s a long way. I shouldn’t have made you come.”
“It’s not that far,” Hank protests. “I’ve gone further. It’s really no problem, Professor.”
Erik can tell without even glancing at Charles that he’s on the verge of offering the boy a ride back to campus. You’re not driving, he thinks hard at him, glaring at the cane.
Even I know that, Charles huffs. “Will you be alright going back or would you like Erik to give you a lift?”
Hank darts one look over at Erik and shakes his head. “No, I’ll be fine.”
“If you’re sure…”
Erik smiles at him again over Charles’ shoulder. “Positive,” Hank yelps, throwing a leg over his bike.
Charles pointedly steps on Erik’s foot. “Alright, be careful. Thank you for the papers. I’ll see you when I get back.”
Hank mutters a goodbye and takes off down the street. As they watch him go, Erik remarks dryly, “Nice kid.”
“It was nice of him to be concerned,” Charles offers, “even though it was very, very misplaced.”
“Just as long as he doesn’t go blabbing about it to someone else or the police,” Erik answers flatly, but even as he speaks his irritation is already evaporating. He’s made a point his entire life to be intimidating, shaping an unfriendly aura and a sharp, honed demeanor. He can hardly complain now if a snot-nosed TA takes one look at him and sees the ever-present suppressed violence brimming beneath his surface and then takes a look at his currently suspiciously-injured boyfriend and draws unpleasant conclusions.
As long as Charles knows he’d never actually hurt him, Erik doesn’t give a fuck about what anybody else thinks.
“Hank won’t,” Charles says confidently, “he was far too mortified and embarrassed after I set him straight. He still has his suspicions, but he’s accepted that I can take care of myself.” I know you would never hit me. Manhandle me back to the couch, certainly, but never hit me.
“Come on,” Erik says gruffly, gently pulling Charles around to do just that, “let’s go back inside.”
“He’s going to need physical therapy,” Logan announces when he comes over to see how Charles is doing. “It’s the only way he’ll regain full flexibility in that leg.”
“You do it,” Erik says, watching as Charles paces the room without his cane so Logan can assess his gait. “I don’t want to bring in other people.”
“I’m a surgeon,” Logan growls, “not a physical therapist. Unless you want Chuck here limping for the rest of the foreseeable future, I suggest you find a professional. I can recommend a few good ones if you want.”
“I’d rather not be limping for the rest of the foreseeable future,” Charles interjects, reading the refusal on Erik’s face before it forms. At his words, Erik hesitates and actually considers PT as a viable option for a moment. His eyes land on the cane leaning against the wall, and Charles feels his resistance crumble.
“Alright,” he says, “I want the best guy you know.”
Logan grunts. “I know a guy. He’ll put Chuck here through the wringer but it’ll be good for him. Just warning you beforehand though: he’s batshit crazy.”
“What sort of crazy?” Erik asks guardedly.
“Well, for one thing, his name is Deadpool, legally.”
Charles stops. “Deadpool?”
Logan barks a laugh. “You’re gonna have fun with that. And with his swords.”
“I’ll give you his card.”
Erik is scowling that scowl that says he’s considering reaching for his gun. “If you’re not going to take Charles’ recovery seriously—”
“Oh, believe me,” Logan says, “I’m taking it very seriously. I wouldn’t have recommended Deadpool otherwise. I hate the guy’s guts but if you’re looking for a physical therapist who’ll have Chuck running laps in a couple of weeks, he’s your guy.”
Listen to him, Charles tells Erik as he begins to walk again, shuffling stiffly from the bed to the door and back. Though the pain in his leg has been steadily improving, the mobility has not. His knee doesn’t quite bend right, and his muscles are sore and tight. That, plus his fear of falling and possibly tearing the healing wound in his belly, keeps him from walking too much, which is only hindering the recovery of his leg.
Swords? Erik sends back, skeptical.
He means figuratively, Charles replies. Then he pauses. I think.
Erik sighs. “Alright, give me his number. Can your man keep a secret?”
“If he likes you, he’ll do anything,” Logan answers with a shrug. “But there’s no telling.”
“I’ll have Azazel check him out,” Erik says decisively. “If he can help Charles, then he will.” His tone makes it clear that this Deadpool will be assisting if Erik has to hold a gun to his head. Charles doesn’t know whether to tell Erik off or just shake his head fondly.
“If you think you can get him to work for you like you got me, then you might want to think again,” Logan remarks, arms folded as he gestures for Charles to sit and rest his leg.
“I think I can convince him,” Erik replies coolly.
Logan’s answering smile is sardonic. “We’ll see.”
It takes Erik another day to work out the logistics of how the entire operation is going to go down, from having Azazel vet out this Deadpool character as well as decide on where he’ll be working with Charles. The gym Deadpool usually works out of is completely out of the question, all the way on the other side of the city and far out of the realm of Erik’s established territory, but Azazel comes back from his first meeting with Deadpool and reports that he’s willing to come to them, which makes Erik like him just that little bit more.
“He’ll be good,” Azazel says, looking at Erik with the particular glint in his eyes that means he’s also laughing at Erik’s expense, “no one could buy him out if they tried.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” Erik asks flatly.
Azazel chuckles. “Nothing, nothing. I cannot describe—you’ll have to meet him in person to judge yourself.”
“Are you ever going to stop acting like this is operation Desert Storm?” Charles asks him dryly the following day while they wait together in the backseat of one of the SUVs while Azazel leads a team through the small gym that’s only a couple blocks down from Erik’s main offices.
“Maybe if I’d been on the planning team for Desert Storm, it would’ve gone smoother,” Erik says calmly, allowing only a hint of his constant underlying tension to leak through into his voice. He’d checked the gym out himself yesterday afternoon, and it’s not the most secure building in the world but it’s their best option. Charles will receive the best care available, facilities included.
Charles snorts and takes a sip from his water bottle. Unlike Erik, who’s dressed in one of his usual sharp and tailored suits, he’s dressed in loose workout clothes. Instead of sitting by the window on the other side of the car, he’s slid over to sit in the middle next to Erik, a warm and solid length pressed all along his side. “Don’t tell me you’re all going to stay in the room and stare at me while I struggle through whatever torture Deadpool’s come up with.”
“We’ll all be posted around the gym but outside the main room,” Erik says. He hadn’t liked the idea at first, but he knows that it isn’t going to be easy for Charles. He doesn’t need them all watching while he struggles through exercises. “And I’ll be up here the entire time if you need me.” He brushes his fingers against Charles’ temple. “You’ll tell me the moment anything feels off.”
“I’ll tell you what feels off,” Charles answers, taking Erik’s other hand and sliding it slowly up his own thigh, “I haven’t gotten off since before all of this. I feel like I’m celibate.”
Erik stops his hand before it can go any higher, but keeps it resting on Charles’ leg. “I’m not doing anything with you until you have full mobility again,” he says firmly, even though it’s kind of been killing him too. He hasn’t shared this much space with Charles for such an extended amount of time before and yet he hasn’t been able to touch, or at least not in the ways he knows that they’d both prefer.
“Exactly,” Charles says, “and don’t give me nonsense about not wanting to hurt me. A handjob will hardly put a strain on my leg.”
“Nonsense,” Erik repeats with an exasperated huff. “So we’re ignoring your stitches, then? The ones that are holding your stomach together from where Logan had to dig pieces of shattered bullet out of you? Those stitches?”
“You’re no fun at all,” Charles mutters, and Erik has to smile despite himself.
He wraps an arm around Charles, tugging him even closer so that he’s squished up against Erik’s chest and side. Erik turns his head, ducking down a little to murmur right into Charles’ ear. “As soon as you complete PT and get the green light, I’m going to splay you out across the closest flat surface and hold you down and fuck you until you can’t walk straight.”
Charles shivers in Erik’s grip. “Then I’ll need more PT.”
“Better hope that Deadpool is as good as Logan says,” Erik drawls, and Charles laughs.
Azazel appears abruptly outside of the car, rapping his knuckles once against the darkly tinted glass of the window. “All is clear,” he says when Erik rolls down the window, “I have everyone posted where you wanted, and Deadpool is here and ready.”
“Good.” Erik rolls the window back up while Azazel disappears in another poof of red and black smoke. He opens the door, unfolding his long legs out onto the pavement and turning to offer Charles a hand. “I’ll walk you in.” He wants to meet Deadpool himself first too, before he hands Charles over to him.
Charles slides down out of the car carefully, steadying himself with both his cane and Erik’s hand. “Alright.”
A cold blast of air conditioning hits them along with the usual mix of sweat-and-cleaner that always infuses these kind of places when they walk in. The place is deserted, just as Erik had been assured it would be after he’d made a couple calls and given very thinly-veiled threats—and sent over an envelop thick with money when Charles had found out.
“Azazel said Deadpool was here,” Erik says when they come to a stop near the long row of treadmills. He can’t feel another person in the facility—he can only feel the metal of all the exercise machines, no zippers or rivets or even a watch beyond all of those that belong to his own people. “Where—”
“Y’ALL READY FOR THIS?” Music starts blasting from the gym’s speakers without warning, making Charles jump about a foot in the air beside Erik while Erik himself is only saved from reacting violently by years of long practice. A man wearing nothing but a skintight, red spandex bodysuit drops down from the ceiling, executing several midair somersaults in the process before sticking a perfect landing in front of them.
No, wait! Charles puts a hand on Erik’s arm, no doubt feeling him preparing to throw one of the treadmills. That’s Deadpool.
Are you kidding me, Erik thinks back because the music is too loud to permit actual speech. At the same time, he suddenly recalls Logan’s description—batshit crazy.
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Deadpool breaks into an admittedly impressive dance routine, and Erik is pretty sure the human body isn’t normally supposed to bend like that.
Imagine if he gets you that flexible, Erik thinks offhandedly to Charles while they stand and watch. He’s still ready to seize the nearest treadmill if Deadpool makes one wrong move.
I just want to be able to walk, Charles answers as Deadpool does the worm, undulating across the floor towards them, not all of...that.
Deadpool jumps back up to his feet and strikes a pose right as the music abruptly cuts, leaving behind a ringing silence. “Yo dudes! What’s crack-a-lackin!”
“Nice to meet you,” Charles ventures, “thank you for agreeing to meet us here.”
“It is destiny foretold by the stars!” Deadpool says, dropping down to his knees and clutching at his chest. “The red man came unto me and foretold our crossing paths! OUR JOURNEY HAS ONLY BEGUN! WE ARE ONE!”
“Um,” says Charles.
Erik folds his arms. “I frankly don’t care whether you think it’s destiny or not,” he says flatly, making it very clear what he thinks of that, “can you or can you not help him get back to walking normally?”
Deadpool falls forward to the ground, rolling with laughter. “He—he said,” he gasps out, before another fit of laughter overtakes him for another few moments, “he said normally.”
“We’re leaving,” Erik says, putting one hand on Charles’ shoulder to steer him around. Azazel had better laugh it up while he still can, because once Erik gets ahold of him—
“No, wait,” Charles says, shrugging out of Erik’s grip as best as he can. He wobbles a little but corrects himself with the cane. “He can help.”
“Charles,” Erik growls, shooting a glance at Deadpool. He’s picked himself up off the floor and is galloping in place and making horse noises.
“Erik,” Charles says firmly. “He’s crazy, I’ll give you that—no one can see that better than me, if you’ll recall—but I can also see that he’s very good at what he does. I don’t want to have to rely on the cane any longer than I have to.”
“I can also offer super rad pancakes,” Deadpool chimes in. “Like, super rad.”
“Super rad pancakes, Erik,” Charles says with a mostly straight face, “what a deal.”
You aren’t funny. “Fine,” Erik says aloud, but he makes sure Charles catches every single last one of his misgivings about this entire situation, “I’ll be right outside. And if I have to come in here for any reason at all,” he adds, addressing Deadpool directly, “you’re going to end up with a super rad dumbbell wrapped around your throat.”
I can’t believe you just said the words ‘super rad’ out loud, Charles says, sounding amazed.
Deadpool steps forward, and the only thing that prevents Erik from lashing out at him is that Charles is still right beside him and would probably get knocked over in the process. He’s forced to stand still, bristling, while Deadpool puts an arm around his shoulders.
“Don’t worry, my bro,” he says in what is probably meant to be consoling but rather just makes Erik’s hackles rise more, “we’re gonna miss you when you’re gone.” He starts bouncing up and down. “We’re going to miss you by your hair, we’re going to miss you everywhere, we’re gonna miss you when you’re—”
“Enough,” Erik bites out, shoving Deadpool off of him, though he’s careful to push him in the opposite direction of Charles. “Do the session.” He stalks away, back towards the door where he intends to plant himself directly outside to stand guard until the hour is up. Call immediately if anything goes wrong.
I already miss you, Charles says sweetly, his amusement enveloping Erik like tangible warmth. When Erik slams the door open with his power and stomps out, Charles presses a feather-light phantom kiss against the corner of his mouth and then Erik feels his attention slide away, withdrawing from Erik’s mind to focus wholly on the rigorous PT session he’s about to undergo.
Erik would be lying to himself if the kiss didn’t make him feel slightly better. He shuts the door with considerable less force, and then extends his power out over the entire building, searching for the buttons of Azazel’s suit. He believes Charles if Charles says he knows Deadpool can help, but he’s still going to have a little chat with his right hand man for not warning him specifically about Deadpool’s...whatever that just was.
Putting Azazel through the wringer will make him feel even better, at the very least.
So begins the most intense weeks of Charles’ life. After the first session, he’s laid up in bed all night, every muscle in his body aching, too exhausted to even argue as Erik paces the room and swears he’s going to saw Deadpool’s head off his shoulders with a dull pocketknife for incapacitating Charles like this. And the days only get harder after that. But there’s no denying that Charles is making progress, and that’s probably the only reason Erik hasn’t flattened Deadpool with an elliptical machine yet. Every day, his leg hurts less and less, and after a while, he doesn’t need to cane to hobble around anymore. Logan comes by and makes approving noises when he examines the wounds, now healed into red scars against Charles’ pale skin. Everything, it seems, is looking up.
One night, after Erik finishes brushing his teeth in the bedroom’s adjoining bathroom and begins to change into his pajamas, Charles says, “I think it’ll be time for me to go home soon.”
Erik stiffens immediately. Though his back is to Charles as he digs clothes out of the closet, it isn’t hard to guess at his expression: surprised, tense, confused, upset. Those emotions swirl through his mind in a wave, quick and dizzying. “No,” he says, without quite thinking about it.
Charles frowns. “No? Erik, I’ve been here almost a month. I can recover just as well at home.”
“Guerrero’s still out there,” Erik says tersely, jerking a gray t-shirt on.
“There’s always going to be some danger out there,” Charles points out. “You can’t keep me cooped up in your apartment forever.”
“So you feel cooped up in my apartment.”
“Well—no.” He sighs. “Maybe a little. I haven’t stepped outside in weeks, Erik. You can understand why I’m going a little stir-crazy in here.”
“If you wanted to go outside, you could’ve told me. I would have taken you for a walk.”
“It’s not just that. It’s…” He stares at the rigid line of Erik’s shoulders and huffs. “Well, you didn’t expect me to stay here forever, did you?”
He expects a dismissive “Of course not.” But Erik says nothing. Instead of a quick denial, there’s a long, heavy silence that lengthens until Charles repeats, a bit incredulously, “Did you?”
“Would it be so bad?” Erik bites out, agitatedly shifting hangers from one side of the closet to the other in a clear bid to avoid turning around.
Charles, who had been lounging in bed getting ready to turn out the light, sits up. “Erik. Are you saying…?”
There’s a pause before Erik shakes his head and shuts the closet with more force than necessary. “No. I’m not saying anything. Forget it.”
But his tone says otherwise, and Charles finds himself actually entertaining the idea for a minute. It wouldn’t be so bad, no. He’s already comfortable here. He’s slept over every once in a while in the last three years of their relationship, and though he’s never stayed over for extended periods of time before, he can’t say that this past month has been unpleasant, save for the whole getting shot thing. Erik is an extremely conscientious housemate, always making sure Charles is comfortable, waking up early to make Charles tea, refusing to let Charles help around the house even when there’s work to be done. He doesn’t care how long Charles takes in the shower, and he’ll let Charles choose what they watch on the TV every time. He stocks his refrigerator according to Charles’ tastes (it was empty when Charles first came here, but Erik has over time filled it with chocolate milk and fresh apples and anything Charles has ever mentioned liking, even if only in passing), he picks up after himself, and he’ll read Charles to sleep if asked. There’s even a chess set stuffed in the back of Erik’s closet that Charles keeps meaning to dust off but forgets to.
His apartment is comfortable. Over these last few weeks, it’s become stifling but not because of Erik. If Charles could get outside, if he could live his own life from here, commuting to work every morning, coming home to Erik at night—it wouldn’t be bad at all.
“Erik,” he says into the silence, “come here.”
After a moment, Erik flicks the light off with his powers, plunging them into darkness. He doesn’t hear Erik move, but a moment later, the bed dips and the covers rustle as a warm body slips in beside him. When Charles rolls over and lays his head on Erik’s shoulder, the muscles there are tense underneath his touch.
“If you’re saying I should move in,” he whispers after a while, “I wouldn’t…be opposed.”
Erik goes very still beneath him. “Charles?”
He’s glad it’s dark so that neither of their faces is readable. Moving closer so that his body is pressed up against Erik’s back, he continues, “I mean, we’ve been living together this last month. It seems to work. You haven’t got any habits that drive me crazy, and I hopefully don’t have any that drive you mad either. You can cook, and I’d be an excellent dishwasher, if only you’d let me prove it. Plus, your place is actually closer to campus anyway, so it only makes sense…”
He forces himself not to peek into Erik’s mind. In times like these, he tries to let Erik sort out his own thoughts in peace, without Charles’ presence hovering there to pressure him into answering one way or another. They lie together in silence for one minute, then two. Then Erik turns and pulls Charles into his chest, burying his nose into Charles’ hair.
“Yeah,” he says, as if it was Charles’ idea all along, “you can stay.”
Charles laughs into his shoulder. “Why thank you.”
“No, I’m serious.” Erik pulls back and bends his head to kiss him. He misses in the dark, lips skimming Charles’ nose. Smiling, Charles tilts his head up and their mouths meet, the taste between them hot and familiar. Erik tugs him closer still, his arm curved around Charles’ waist, one leg thrown heavily over the entirety of Charles’ lower body.
Stay, he says, nipping on Charles’ bottom lip. I want you to.
Charles sighs into the kiss, surprised at the genuine, mirroring desire that surges up in him in response. I want to, too.
Three months later, he’s slouching in bed catching up on The Walking Dead when his phone buzzes. “Hello?” he says without even checking the ID. He’s already ninety percent certain who it is.
“Hey,” Erik says, “are you home?”
A little thrill shoots down through him all the way to his toes at the word home. The giddiness hasn’t quite gone away yet and hopefully never will. “Yes,” he replies, “I’m here.”
“Good. I’ll be there in half an hour. Have you eaten?”
“No, I was waiting for you.”
“Good, I’ll be there in half an hour with…”
“Chinese,” Charles supplies.
Once they hang up, Charles gets up for a glass of water and then sits in the office for a while idly grading papers. At eight o’clock, he calls Erik and receives no answer. He knows how busy Erik gets, so he’s not particularly worried. At nine, he paces between the front door and the office a few times, trying not to work himself up. Erik probably got caught up in something. He’s always getting caught up in last-minute business deals or informant meetings or any of the thousands of other duties that come with running a large swath of New York City.
Normally that wouldn’t bother Charles very much, but now that they’ve been sharing a home, he’s beginning to realize how often Erik is out on business and how much of that business Erik excludes him from on a daily basis. Of course, he had known Erik didn’t call on him for every excursion, but only now, as he sits in an empty apartment waiting for Erik to come home, is he becoming aware of how few occasions Erik actually brings him along as telepathic insurance. And he’s certain that in recent weeks, Erik has been cutting down on even those few occasions.
The reason is obvious: Erik’s worried about him. Ever since the shooting, Erik’s been high-strung about his safety, never taking him near the office, always keeping him within arm’s reach when they walk on streets together. He’d even toyed with the idea of assigning Charles a bodyguard for a while, which Charles had vehemently opposed. The only meeting Erik has invited Charles to since he’d been shot was one with a drug-dealing informant they’d met on a street corner. Erik and Angel had gotten out to speak with the man while Azazel and Charles had stayed buckled up in the car on Erik’s orders. The meeting had passed uneventfully and Charles had been utterly useless, and it was only when Erik had dropped him off afterwards with promises to come home later after some other meetings that Charles suspected that Erik had invited him along to this petty informant deal to keep him occupied.
Erik’s been concerned about his wellbeing before but not like this. Charles finds it surprisingly irritating.
He’s sitting in the den sipping a glass of wine when the front door finally opens. A glance at clock tells him it’s half past midnight, which isn’t as late as it could be. Wanting to finish the page, he doesn’t look up from his book until Erik clears his throat in the doorway and says, “You didn’t have to stay up.”
“Mm. I didn’t mean to. Just lost track of time.” Marking the page he’s stopped on, he closes the book and leans forward to set it on the coffee table. “I’m kind of glad I did. I want to talk to you about something.”
Something in his tone must sound unintentionally ominous because Erik’s brows draw together warily. “What?”
Charles pats the empty space on the sofa next to him. “Come here, sit down.”
Erik doesn’t budge from the doorway. His eyes rake across Charles’ face, no doubt trying to glean clues from his expression, so Charles offers him a reassuring smile. At that, the tension in Erik’s jaw eases and he slings his jacket over the back of the sofa before dropping down in the proffered seat. “Talk about what?”
“Our arrangement. Our business arrangement. Specifically, the fact that you haven’t been taking me out on business.”
“Anyone with eyes could have seen that that kid wasn’t a threat to anyone except perhaps himself. You didn’t need me on that job.” Charles scoots a little closer so he can duck down and force Erik to meet his eyes. “Erik, tell me the truth. You’re keeping me out of business because you’re worried about me, aren’t you?”
For a moment, Erik hesitates. Charles can see the denial taking shape on the edge of his mind, practiced and smooth—and then he watches as it deflates before it fully forms.
“I want to keep you safe,” Erik says, looking away. “Is that a crime?”
“No. But if it comes at the cost of your safety, then I object.”
“Yes,” Charles huffs, “your safety. Let’s not pretend you’re going to be able to deflect every single threat against you or your people, Erik. That’s why you brought me on in the first place. If you get hurt one day and it’s because I wasn’t there…well, I want to keep you safe, too. You’re not the only one who gets to play protector, alright?”
Silently, Erik takes Charles’ hand and runs his thumb over his knuckles. Then he leans forward and presses their mouths together, slowly and fiercely. Charles warns him, This isn’t going to distract me, but he doesn’t push him away. Instead, he grabs Erik’s collar and pulls them closer together, unable to hide how much he’s missed this. They’ve only kissed chastely since the shooting, and the one time Charles had tried to reach for Erik’s belt, Erik had grabbed his wandering hand and sternly said, “No.” But Charles’ bandages are gone now and his limp is almost imperceptible. Erik doesn’t stop him when he pushes his hand up Erik’s shirt, sliding his fingers against the solid planes of Erik’s belly and chest.
Arousal begins to spike through Erik’s mind, hotter and more intense than usual—over three months without touching hasn’t been any easier for Erik than it has been for Charles, and now it’s spilling over, smothering Erik’s misgivings. He pushes Charles back until he’s lying down and straddles him, tugging at the hem of his shirt without breaking their kiss. Breathing heavily through his nose, Charles arches his back to help ruck his shirt up to his shoulders. Erik lets him up briefly to tug the shirt over his head and waits until Charles throws it somewhere behind the couch to kiss him again. His fingers splay across Charles’ chest, trailing teasingly over a nipple before ghosting further down. Charles grinds his groin up against Erik’s leg, trying to convey a hint of impatience.
But then Erik’s questing fingers meet the raised flesh to the left of Charles’ bellybutton and chilly recollection washes over him like a bucket of cold rainwater.
“Don’t stop,” Charles whispers against Erik’s lips, keeping his eyes closed. “Please.”
Erik’s thoughts flit restlessly back and forth, straddling the line of decision. He’s afraid of aggravating Charles’ injuries, that much has been obvious from the start, but another part of him thinks hesitantly, He’s almost completely healed, it can’t hurt, not if we go slow.
Charles pushes wordless encouragement at him and runs his thumb down Erik’s cheek to his jaw. After a moment, Erik sits up, but before Charles can protest, Erik runs his hand along the scar left on Charles’ stomach, reddened edges faded to pink. Charles shivers and tries to hold still as Erik gently explores the boundaries of the wound, his brow creasing as he does. When Erik’s touch wanders a little too close to his side, Charles twists away with half a laugh.
“Still ticklish,” Erik says with a small smile.
“People don’t just stop being ticklish,” Charles grumbles. Raising an eyebrow, he adds, “Satisfied?”
The smile fades. Erik’s fingers stop at the bottom of Charles’ ribs, pressing there lightly. “I don’t want this happening to you again.”
“In your line of work, there are always risks. You told me that the day you recruited me, remember?”
“I know.” Erik runs his fingers over the scar again and lets out a breath just loud enough for Charles to hear it shudder. “I just…”
As hard as he tries to hide the idea that flashes through his mind, Charles catches it anyway: if he could make Charles quit—if he could convince Charles to stop caring, if he kicked Charles out and pretended to be over him, if he pushed him away, then Charles would be gone but he would be safe—
Charles hits him in the chest, hard. “I’m going to drive myself to your office every single day you if you so much as consider considering that idea again.”
“Sorry,” Erik says, though his mind says he’s not. Every possibility has to be considered, that’s the way Erik thinks. Charles can’t fault him for it, as much as it irritates him.
After a moment, he shifts back onto Charles’ thighs so he can lean down to press his lips to the scar. His breath caught in his chest, Charles holds perfectly still as Erik kisses the edges of the wound and then trails touches across his stomach and down to his waistband. He hooks his fingers into Charles’ belt and tugs until Charles arches against his hand, willing and pliant.
They strip slowly, dropping articles of clothing into heaps by the foot of the couch. Despite the fact that they’ve barely touched in so long, there’s little urgency in their movements. Erik seems intent on going slow, on just touching every inch of skin before doing anything more. Charles lies obligingly still beneath him, watching his face as he explores his way across scatterings of freckles and smooth, pale skin.
“Satisfied?” he asks when Erik finally comes back to the scar, laying his palm warmly against it.
“Slowly,” Erik warns him. “And if anything hurts, you’ll tell me to stop immediately.”
Charles grins. “You don’t have to tell me twice to lie back and let you do all the work.”
It’s possibly the slowest sex he’s ever had in his life but there’s something about that that makes it painfully glorious. Erik is more careful than Charles can ever remember him being, which is both sweet and frustrating. He never leans his weight fully on Charles and never moves quickly, but the slow thrust of his hips is enough to gradually, gradually push them both into quiet, trembling climaxes that leave them hot and breathless and sweating.
Afterwards, Charles lies sprawled on the couch cooling down as Erik goes to fetch a cloth to wipe them down. When they’re relatively clean, Erik sits down by Charles’ feet and says, “Come with me tomorrow. I’ve got a meeting I want you at.”
Charles rolls his eyes. Even after a thoroughly pleasing orgasm, he can find it in himself to be peeved. “Do you really need me or is this some form of appeasement?”
Erik leans over to pick up his shirt, so his face isn’t quite visible as he replies, “I always need you.”
There’s something rough in his voice that makes Charles’ annoyance fade. “Erik…”
“So you’re going to wear a bulletproof vest from now on when we’re on business,” Erik continues, pulling the shirt over his head. “And before tomorrow’s meeting, I want to take you to the firing range for some practice, so clear your schedule.” He tilts a questioning look Charles’ way. “Is that acceptable?”
Charles sits up to press a kiss to Erik’s shoulder. When he reaches over to push his fingers in between Erik’s, Erik squeezes, once, which makes Charles smile against his shirt. “More than.”