Part I: Hank
i. you’re a stranger i know well, and not at all.
Emma comes over after practice, dropping onto Hank’s carefully-made bed and kicking off her heeled sneakers. He sighs but doesn’t turn around until he’s finished his calculations, pencilling in the final answer of his algebra homework. She’s sprawled back against his pillows in her pristine white cheerleader’s uniform and Hank is aware that it’s a sight most of the boys in the school would give their right arm for; it’s kind of a pity it’s wasted on him.
“Good practice?” he asks.
Emma shrugs. “I guess.”
They’re not much given to conversation; Hank because he’s all kinds of socially awkward, Emma because she’s made the life choice to be practically monosyllabic at all times. Half the school think it’s because she’s stupid and the other half think it’s because she’s a bitch; Emma is neither, actually, just chronically disinterested in everything. Emma’s been his best friend since her family moved in next door when they were both four years old, and Hank isn’t even sure that she actually likes him.
Hank gets up from his desk; Emma obediently shifts over, the splits in her white cheerleading skirt slipping open against her thighs, and he lies down next to her. Other kids had glow-in-the-dark stars put above their beds when they were little, but even when he was a kid Hank was annoyed by the inaccuracy, so instead he has precise galaxies and constellations still painted on his ceiling, white against dark blue.
“Good practice?” he repeats, softer, and Emma sighs.
“No,” she says, and it’s all she says. Hank shifts a little closer and after a minute Emma turns her head and presses her face into his shoulder.
Hank has no idea what it’s like to be popular, what it’s like to be head cheerleader and the subject of everyone’s gossip and to have to look pristine perfect at all times, but he’s learned from what Emma doesn’t say that it isn’t easy and it isn’t fun and it isn’t something to be desired.
Hank is just anonymous. That’s not exactly great either.
The cheerleading squad are known as the Angels because of their immaculate white uniforms. It’s also kind of a joke, since the school’s teams are the Hellions. To the students, though, they’re unofficially called the Hellfire Club, since the main recruiting question seems to be are you a grade A bitch?
Hank’s never asked Emma about how she actually recruits the girls, because that would be a whole thing that would require real sentences and would also possibly be vaguely insulting, but in any case he’s glad the uniform stands out so brightly because it makes it pretty easy to avoid the squad.
Madelyne Prior and Selene Gallio are casually sending a freshman girl down the path to bulimia with mean snickers as Hank passes, and he keeps his head down, shoulders tucked in, trying to be as invisible as possible.
“McCoy, my man!” Sean Cassidy is grinning his usual lopsided grin, pupils wide and shiny like nickels.
Sean’s not exactly a friend of Hank’s because a) Hank doesn’t really have friends who aren’t Emma, and b) Hank’s parents would never let Sean in the house. He just has the locker next to Hank’s, which is kind of annoying, actually, because it means everything Hank keeps in there eventually smells like pot.
“Hi, Sean,” Hank says, ducking his head, and lets Sean launch into an incomprehensible story about his band’s show last night, full of cheerful slurred words and happy vague hand gestures. Sean’s band is apparently pretty good; not that Hank’s ever heard them, but people who actually go to parties say they’re not as terrible as Sean’s hazy mumbling personality implies. All Hank’s ever really gathered about them was Sean’s gleeful we named ourselves after a typo! announcement a few months ago.
The bell goes and Hank leaves Sean to lurch off to homeroom, ducking into his own classroom before Angel Salvadore can knock into him and send his papers everywhere again this week. He scuttles to his seat, unobtrusive, letting the noise of the other students wash over him, and it’s not until he realises half the class are glancing towards the back of the classroom with something like nerves and something like schadenfreude that he finds out Alex Summers is back.
Hank is so much of a nobody that no one even calls him a pervert when they see him waiting outside the girls’ locker room, trying and failing to look casual. Emma comes out eventually, arches an eyebrow, and gives a minute jerk of her head for Hank to follow.
He keeps at least a foot away from her while they walk, and everyone else just erases him from the picture; there’s no way Emma Frost can be talking to him, after all, he’s too much of a zero.
“Did you know Alex Summers was back?” he asks, keeping his gaze on his shoes.
“There was a rumour,” Emma offers, quiet, barely moving her mouth.
Hank thinks about asking why she didn’t tell him, and then remembers that Emma knows everything that goes on at their school and Hank’s never complained that she doesn’t furnish him with information before.
“Okay,” he says. “Um. Right.”
They turn a corner, heading for the cafeteria, and Emma arches an eyebrow. “Bothered?” she asks.
Hank is all kinds of bothered, but he’s never talked to Emma about Alex before and he doesn’t know how much she’s figured out for herself. It’s not like there’s a lot to figure out, but still.
“No,” he lies.
A group of cheerleaders are standing near the cafeteria doors, all looking thin and toned and mean and prompting all kinds of girls to order plain salad when they’d prefer actual sustenance, and Emma offers a: “he’s not going to try to knife you,” before drifting over to join them.
“Right,” Hank says to the air. “Thanks.”
“You’re Hank, right?”
Hank looks up to find that incredibly pretty girl who transferred into half his classes this semester smiling nervously at him.
“I am,” he replies, slow, careful, and adds: “and you’re... Raven?”
She nods, looking grateful – like Hank wasn’t going to remember her name instantly, no one is called Raven outside of the Disney Channel – and drops into the seat opposite his.
“So,” she says, fingers twisting together despite her attempts to appear confident, “everyone says you’re the guy to go to for study notes.”
Hank considers this. “No one knows who I am,” he points out.
Raven laughs, caught, and says: “fine. But you always write twice as much as everyone else, and you’re actually in the library after school doing homework, so it’s not a bad assumption on my part.”
“I don’t do people’s schoolwork for money,” Hank says, privately adding any more.
“What?” Raven frowns. “Jeez, no. I just wanted to borrow some of your notes from earlier this year, make it easier to catch up, you know?”
Hank considers this. Her eyes are wide and very earnest, and from the little Hank’s seen of her in class, she actually seems to know things, so he’d probably be being genuinely helpful.
“...okay,” he says. “I’ll bring them for you tomorrow.”
Raven raises an eyebrow. “That’s... it?”
Hank shrugs. “I don’t need anything from you. Um. I mean-”
“Hmmm.” Raven looks thoughtful, her mouth twisting. “Who do you eat lunch with?” she asks. Hank struggles to respond, and she adds, looking triumphant: “great. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Hank gapes after her as she swishes away, skirt just a little too short, and thinks: this is going to end terribly.
Emma’s watching a DVD of a practice from last week; the camerawork is shaky and the sound is terrible but it’s pretty useful for looking out the weak points in the routine, the weak links in the team.
Hank used to find these DVDs bewildering and vaguely intimidating, but repeated exposure has taught him better than that, so he’s only been in Emma’s room about a minute before he says: “Selene’s just a little behind the beat on the turn.”
“She is,” Emma agrees. Her hair is falling around her shoulders in the natural curls she goes to great lengths to tame for school, and she isn’t wearing make-up, and it all makes her look softer, more approachable. There’s the slightest flick of disapproval in her tone.
Hank sits down next to her on the squashy soft couch that’s been in her room for years, though it’s been recently re-upholstered in white to fit in with the rest of her decorating scheme, barely recognisable now. Emma shifts over to make space for him, eyes still on the routine.
“Tessa’s pretty good,” Hank offers after a while, when their legs are entwined and Emma’s hard defensive edges have slid off a little.
Emma nods, head tilted just slightly in that way Hank knows means she’s thinking, and which makes other people think she’s stupid. Emma doesn’t believe in being expressive, and it’s taken almost a lifetime of acquaintance for Hank to learn all her minutiae. He’s not good with people, with their social cues and their myriad of meanings, but he gets Emma, even though no one else does.
“I could switch her with Selene,” she provides at last, voice indicating she’s already steeling herself for Selene’s inevitable screaming fit.
“Madelyne won’t like that,” Hank observes, watching the girls cartwheeling across the mats in perfect unison.
“No,” Emma agrees, the slightest of smiles touching her lips. “No, she won’t.”
They’re watching the routine for the third time through when Emma says: “so.”
Hank debates telling her with not telling her, and finally sighs: “Raven Darkholme asked me to have lunch with her tomorrow in exchange for my study notes.”
Emma taps manicured fingernails against her knee for a moment and then says: “doesn’t that count as pimping herself out for a grade?”
“Possibly?” Hank says. “I mean, she didn’t say it in a sexual-favours-for-information type way. I think.”
“You’re terrible at reading social cues,” Emma reminds him.
“I am,” Hank agrees. “Um. How do I have lunch with her?”
Emma actually turns to him and arches an eyebrow, the expression she uses that can reduce a girl to tears without her having to ever say a word.
“Well, obviously,” Hank says, “but, I mean, how do I talk to her? What do I talk to her about?”
Emma twists her lips in thought, and Hank can hear her dismissing his two math-related summer camps because nothing that happened there without conversations about formulae – not even Hank losing his virginity to a guy with sharp blue eyes and a way with equations that maybe turned Hank on more than his smile did – and the conversations that they have, which are barely conversations and made up more of significant silences than of words.
“Well,” she says at last, “this should be interesting.”
As it turns out, lunch with Raven is actually kind of nice; they start off stumbling over words, speaking over each other with clumsy half-sentences, before Hank asks her why she moved here. Raven waves her hands around a lot and frequently rolls her eyes as she tells him about her older brother – who seems to be her legal guardian, though Hank doesn’t pry – getting a fellowship at the university and dragging her along with him. Raven’s voice when she talks about her brother is fond and frustrated; “he’s a total genius so of course he never eats or sleeps, seriously, living with him is like babysitting most of the time.” When Hank tells her that he thinks her brother’s research into genetics sounds fascinating, Raven grins and says: “you should come over for dinner some time and talk to him about it, let me off the hook.”
After that, they move onto discussing the year’s syllabus and Hank makes the pleasant discovery that Raven is actually pretty intelligent; not hopelessly over intelligent like Hank, who takes math with the seniors and has already had offers from six universities despite the fact he’s got two more years of high school, but smart enough for them to be able to connect. It’s not that Hank judges or anything, but Emma is so disinterested in anything academic that he never really has anyone to talk to about these things.
Emma passes by his locker just before afternoon classes; she looks casual, but Hank knows it’s deliberate, and he’s grateful. She raises a questioning eyebrow.
“It went alright,” he says. “I have no idea why, but...”
Emma rolls her eyes, and uses her favourite you’re a dumbass tone to tell him: “she’s lonely too.”
Hank thinks about that all the way through biology – not that it matters, he read this chapter over the Christmas vacation in preparation anyway – and wonders how it is Emma always manages to know all the things about himself he refuses to talk about.
After all that business last year involving Hank being paid to do people’s schoolwork for them he has to go and see the school’s guidance counsellor/therapist once a week.
It got blown out of all proportion really; Hank’s momentarily mercenary attitude towards other people’s grades wasn’t born out of some low-level desire to start some kind of vaguely criminal financial empire, and wasn’t born out of any kind of latent self-destructive tendencies (yes, alright, so he’d gotten himself caught by setting off the fire alarm and triggering a school-wide sprinkler flood because too many people were asking too many things of him and the rage built up in him until he saw red and did the first thing that came into his head; but he hadn’t done it out of any sort of desire to get himself in trouble), but was, instead, the first and only time Hank ever decided to try and buy friendship.
He didn’t say this aloud because it sounded pathetic, and instead let his parents yell at him and then attempt to ground him before they realised that he never went anywhere or did anything anyway so there wasn’t much point, and sat in the principal’s office and got the word disappointed chucked at him a lot while he nodded blankly, safe in the knowledge that he was way, way too intelligent for them to ever kick him out. The school was cleaned up, everyone re-took exams to get fair grades, and he was completely forgotten about. Wiped from existence. People didn’t talk about Hank in the halls or beat him up or any of the things he’d been half-expecting; they just moved on, leaving him without an identity, lower even than the nerds who could at least be bullied into giving out homework answers from time to time.
All Emma had to say on the subject was that he was an idiot, but she brought over a stack of DVDs and stayed in his room for the week of suspension that he did get, claiming flu to the Hellfire Club, curled up on Hank’s bed with him while he tried to work out just what he’d been thinking.
Anyway, after all that happened, he has to have sessions with Mr Lehnsherr, who is so terrible at his job it’s kind of astonishing; he’s evidently got some kind of blackmail material on their principal, because there’s no other way he could still be hired. He threw Sean out of a window last semester. Hank actually quite likes him because Mr Lehnsherr is perfectly aware that Hank is nerdy and awkward and probably has half a dozen social anxiety disorders, but is also aware that there’s no deep psychological condition going on, and there is actually no point in Hank coming to see him. They’ve never actually discussed this, but their sessions are scheduled to coincide with Hank’s gym classes, which says a lot, really.
“Did you have any kind of psychotic break this week?” Mr Lehnsherr asks, sounding bored. There are thumbtacks lined up on his desk, point upwards, covering about half the surface; it’s clearly been a long day for him.
“Not that I noticed?” Hank replies. Most of their conversations are like this; Hank has no idea what Mr Lehnsherr can possibly have to write in the reports that have to go in his permanent file.
Mr Lehnsherr nods; Hank can’t work out if he’s approving that, yet again, nothing has happened in Hank’s life, or if he’s disapproving of the fact that Hank is, to all intents and purposes, really dull.
To waste some time before Hank has to leave, Mr Lehnsherr gives him a mental health questionnaire to fill out, with numbers on a scale of one to ten and a lot of questions about eating disorders Hank doesn’t actually have. While he does this, Mr Lehnsherr drinks an entire jug of filter coffee and types industriously on his computer; far too fast for him to be doing anything professional.
Hank hands it back and Mr Lehnsherr looks thoughtfully over his responses. “Nothing we didn’t already know,” he says dismissively. “You’re a loser who can’t talk to people.”
Hank is pretty sure guidance counsellors aren’t supposed to say things like that.
“I had lunch with Raven Darkholme this week,” he protests vaguely.
Mr Lehnsherr raises an eyebrow that clearly states he thinks that Raven’s name is stupid. “And how did that go?”
Hank shrugs. “We had a conversation?” he offers.
Mr Lehnsherr nods thoughtfully, then reaches into the top drawer of his desk. Hank flinches instinctively – there are rumours that he pulled a gun on a freshman last year – but Mr Lehnsherr simply pulls out a sticker sheet, peels off a gold star with meticulous care, and reaches across his thumbtack covered desk to hand it to Hank.
“Um?” Hank says helplessly. “Is this... this isn’t... what?”
“You had a conversation with a person you don’t know,” Mr Lehnsherr says, slowly, like he thinks Hank is stupid and like it’s been a very, very long day, “that means you get a gold star.”
Hank wasn’t aware that Mr Lehnsherr gave out gold stars for things. He’s not sure why, but something about this information is faintly disturbing.
“Thank you?” he says, and Mr Lehnsherr nods like he’s done Hank a favour.
“You can tell the next student to come in,” he says, dismissing Hank easily, and returns to his computer screen.
The next student, sitting brooding outside Mr Lehnsherr’s office, is Alex Summers. Hank’s heart jolts in his chest and he loses the ability to say anything. Alex looks up at him, looks through him, and gets up, pushing Hank aside as he walks into the office.
Hank still has the gold star stuck to his finger; he crumples it up and drops it.
ii. your folks told me you should be left alone on a mountain top, knocking the aeroplanes down with stones.
“Anyone home?” Raven calls, dumping her bag down in the hall and disappearing somewhere.
Hank had expected the apartment to be kind of poky, but the hall is larger than Hank’s living room. He carefully puts his backpack down next to Raven’s and follows the sound of her voice.
He finds her in a shockingly large kitchen, sitting on a stool at an honest-to-God breakfast bar and saying: “I can’t even believe you’re my brother.”
The man labelled as Raven’s brother is leaning back against one of the granite-topped counters, hair a mess and shirt a little too unbuttoned. He catches sight of Hank and a startlingly attractive smile tumbles across his mouth; he pushes himself upright and rushes over to him, saying: “oh, so you’re Raven’s new friend, it’s so nice to meet you.”
As Hank shakes Charles’ hand, he learns three things. One: Charles is tiny, shorter even than Raven; two: Charles is English, which is intriguing, and three: Charles is absolutely hammered.
“It’s like four in the afternoon,” Raven says, coming over and making Charles let go of Hank’s hand. “How are you this drunk?”
Charles frowns, features twisting, and says: “I’m not drunk. We maybe all went out for lunch and there was rather a lot of wine, but that’s neither here nor there.”
His words are falling over each other, blurring together.
“Scientists,” Raven mutters, “Jesus.” She takes her brother by the shoulders and half-drags him towards one of the other doors. “I hope your hangover is awful.”
“You know I don’t get hangovers,” Charles informs her, as Raven pushes him out and shuts the door in his face. “And don’t eat my Pop Tarts!” he yells through it.
Raven comes back over to Hank, smiling, though there’s something shy and nervous in it.
“Your brother is awesome,” Hank tells her fervently, and means it. Something clears in Raven’s face.
“Do you want Pop Tarts?” she asks.
Emma’s getting ready for a party at Selene’s house, one of the ones that will be awash with jocks and alcohol and noise and probably later the police. The other Angels wear other colours when not in uniform but Emma’s colour has always, always been white. Hank helped her repaint her room freshman year, the two of them covered in splashes of magnolia; he’s not sure he’s ever seen her laugh since then, but the last couple of years have been complicated for everyone.
Hank lies on her bed, half-watching a Law & Order re-run on her television while Emma switches between outfits. She’s barely frowning, expression closed-off and smooth, but Hank knows that the times she stops responding are the times she feels worse; it’s all a defence mechanism.
“What are you so worried about?” he asks during the commercials. “You’re going to look amazing whatever you wear.”
Emma tips her head to one side, lips thinning as she smoothes the latest in her string of white dresses over her narrow hips.
“I’m not worried,” she offers at last.
Hank sits up because Emma is lying, and not even particularly well.
“Who’s at this party who you haven’t already queen bee-d into submission?” he asks.
Emma huffs and pulls the dress over her head instead of answering.
Hank knows he’s not going to get anything out of her like this, so he surrenders and offers: “dress number three worked best, I think.”
“You don’t know anything about fashion,” Emma says, but her smile is soft and real as she reaches into the pile of discarded clothes.
Emma watches half an episode of Law & Order with him once she’s dressed, her make-up carefully applied, her whole body utterly still but thrumming with nervous energy.
“You should go,” she says over the credits. “Sebastian will be here to pick me up later.”
Hank feels himself tense up. “Sebastian Shaw?” he demands.
Emma blinks at him, cool and quiet, eyelashes tinted blue. “Do any other Sebastians go to our school?” she asks.
Hank sorts through his next words carefully before he finally manages: “...I don’t think this is a good idea.” He knows Emma will hear the but he’s a dick anyway.
Emma closes her eyes, takes in a breath through her nose, and says, even and quiet: “get out.”
Hank swallows, but he’s seen Emma have arguments with other people (never with him) where they shout and shout and shout and she just stands there, calm and quiet and refusing to break. Emma doesn’t laugh, Emma doesn’t cry, Emma doesn’t raise her voice, Emma doesn’t crack on the outside because she’s in so many pieces on the inside that if her exterior isn’t strong she’ll crumble.
“Alright,” he says, equally measured and soft, and leaves.
He stays up half the night, pretending to do other things to distract himself from the fact he’s listening. When he finally gives up and goes to sleep at four a.m., she’s still not back.
Charles gets very enthusiastic when he’s talking about genetics; Hank thought he’d be intimidated about having dinner with Raven and her brother, but he’s actually enjoying himself a lot. Charles doesn’t talk down to him, and while a few references to journals and people go over his head, Hank can keep track of Charles’ research better than he expected to. And anyway, it’s very hard to be intimidated by people who invite you into their giant apartment but then go “we’re ordering in Chinese”.
“Are you boys done yet?” Raven asks when they’ve finally run out of chow mein, removing one of her iPod earbuds.
“Raven,” Charles says, gently but recriminatory, “we’ve only been talking for an hour.”
“Right,” Raven says, rolling her eyes.
“I was just about to invite Hank to my lab so he could actually see some of the DNA I was talking about,” Charles tells Raven. “He’s remarkable.”
Hank feels himself blush.
“You can’t hit on all my friends,” Raven informs him calmly. “It’s creepy. Also Hank isn’t legal in the US yet.”
“I don’t hit on all your friends,” Charles protests mildly. “I hit on one of your friends. Once. While drunk. And it was dark.”
Raven covers her face with her hands. “You are such a giant slut, oh my God.”
Charles opens his mouth and Hank cuts in with: “so, just so I’m clear for my therapist later, am I being hit on or not?”
He’s lying, there is no way he’s going to tell Mr Lehnsherr about any of this, but it makes them stop bickering, which is the important bit.
“I’m not hitting on you,” Charles says, nodding benignly. “Which is not to say that you’re not an extremely intelligent and attractive young man-”
“Stop it,” Raven interrupts, a warning note in her voice.
“I’m trying not to give him any sort of emotional rejection problems,” Charles says, with an expression he clearly thinks is conscientious, and adds: “but I am serious about inviting Hank to the lab.”
“Okay, as long as it doesn’t end in some kind of lawsuit,” Raven says, and puts her earbud back in. “Carry on.”
“She exaggerates,” Charles whispers. “Well. Okay, she doesn’t exaggerate, but. Anyway. Where had we got to?”
As Hank asks questions about Charles’ current genetic research and hopes he doesn’t sound like too much of an idiot, he glances sideways; Raven’s eyes are on the screen of her phone, but she’s smiling.
Sean smells like cigarettes and bars that he’s not legally old enough to get into and his red hair is a wrecked mess.
“Good night?” Hank asks, as Sean frowns at his locker like he’s never seen it before.
“Yeah,” Sean rasps, “like, you don’t even know, man.” He continues to blink at his locker.
“Your combination is 50-28-17,” Hank tells him.
Sean gets his locker open and then lurches alarmingly sideways to hug him; Hank pats his back vaguely until Sean lets him go, tipping his ridiculous John Lennon sunglasses down his nose to blink at him with shiny bloodshot eyes.
“You’re my favourite, man,” he insists, before turning around and wandering off.
Hank watches him bemusedly for a moment, and then locks his locker for him.
“Woah,” Raven says when she runs into him a few minutes later, nose wrinkling, “whose parties aren’t you inviting me to?”
“Contact high from Sean,” Hank replies, and they turn around just in time to see Alex Summers punch a guy in the face.
“Alex!” Armando Munoz yells, fighting through the crowds of people in the hall who’ve all frozen to stare. He’s Alex’s best friend, supposedly, but no one’s ever seen them have a proper conversation; they spend most of their time punching each other, and Alex doesn’t speak in public to anyone. “Alex, don’t.”
Alex is staring down at the guy he just punched – another sophomore, Hank thinks, but he doesn’t know his name – who’s ended up on the floor with his back against the lockers and isn’t saying anything at all. It’s the quietest fight Hank’s ever seen at this school.
“He’s a fucking psycho,” someone behind Hank whispers; Alex half-turns his head in recognition and Hank looks down at his shoes as Raven’s nails dig into his arm.
Alex’s victim seems to have pulled himself together, pushing himself to his feet and grinning through his nosebleed. “They should lock you up,” he snarls, “lock you up like the fucking animal you are.”
“Alex!” Armando yells, still pushing through people, as Alex lunges. Hank flinches and looks away as Raven gasps beside him.
Mr Lehnsherr appears from nowhere, looking entirely unruffled and just a little bored by the proceedings.
“Mr Summers,” he drawls, “you can get in one more good punch and then we’ll go to my office. I’ve just put on some coffee.”
The guy Alex is trying to beat to a pulp gasps out: “you can’t-”
“If you will go around winding up people with well-publicised anger issues,” Mr Lehnsherr says lightly. “Alex, you’ve made your point.”
Alex draws back, cheeks flushed and pure frightening rage emanating off him. Mr Lehnsherr puts a hand on his back and slowly leads Alex away; Hank feels oddly ashamed, ignoring Raven as she mumbles: “who is that?” beside him.
Emma is officially dating Sebastian Shaw now, and unofficially not speaking to Hank.
Sebastian Shaw is the kind of filthy rich you want to turn away from; he drives an ugly expensive sports car and wears immaculate designer clothes and douchey sunglasses and has a mafia of sycophants who are low on personality and high on attractiveness. He seems to have worked his way through most of the Hellfire Club – the last Hank heard he was semi-dating Angel Salvadore – and there are ugly rumours about him. A hit-and-run last year, a girlfriend with a black eye, a handful of bribes put out in the right places to get him out of all kinds of trouble.
He’s good-looking, sure, but Hank isn’t sure what else he brings to the table.
They look good together, gliding through the halls like the most stereotypical of power couples; Sebastian does all the talking and Emma smiles her closed-mouth, serene smile that stings a little to look at, and Hank knows she isn’t happy but he’s the only one who does know.
Raven’s an actual genuine friend by now; they hang out after school, they eat lunch together, they make vague movie plans for the weekend. Hank still isn’t sure why she’d want to hang out with him, since it’s the kind of social suicide that no one should undertake, but he’s happy and grateful enough not to question it.
“What’s the matter?” Raven asks, following Hank’s eyeline to where Emma is walking down the hall with Sebastian draped over her shoulders; she’s in her white cheerleader’s uniform with white heeled high top sneakers, and he’s in a black suit that probably cost about as much as Hank’s dad’s car, and they look perfect and awful together.
Hank looks away as Emma’s gaze cuts through him the way everyone else’s does; rendering him invisible, unimportant, dismissed.
“Nothing,” he murmurs, and adds nothing you’d believe, anyway in the privacy of his own head.
He goes over to Emma’s after school one day, when she should be back from practice; her mom looks a little sad as she tells Hank that Emma’s out with Sebastian, she doesn’t know when she’ll be back.
You can’t ignore me forever, Hank texts her, an exercise in futility. He doesn’t expect a reply, and he doesn’t get one.
“Congratulations,” Mr Lehnsherr says during their next session, “you seem to have finally discovered teenage angst.”
Hank thinks about this, and then says at last: “do I get a gold star for it?”
“No,” Mr Lehnsherr replies firmly. “Tell me the source of your teenage angst so we can nip it in the bud and you can go back to being socially awkward and more attracted to equations than people.”
Hank gets a quick hot flash of thought about Alex, scowling and dangerous-looking at the back of a classroom while he doesn’t look at Hank because he has no reason to, but he keeps it to himself. He’s never told anyone, he never will.
“My best friend isn’t talking to me,” he says, tamping down on the feeling he always gets when he thinks about Alex, his skin prickling all over.
“Miss Darkholme?” Mr Lehnsherr asks. He sounds disinterested, threading paperclips onto the end of a very long chain that snakes across his desk.
“Emma Frost,” Hank corrects him. Mr Lehnsherr looks incredulous. “We’ve grown up next door to each other,” Hank adds. “And I’m gay and socially handicapped, so there’s no reason for me to fantasise about the head cheerleader being my friend.”
“What a thorough and in-depth psychoanalysis,” Mr Lehnsherr murmurs, sharply sarcastic, before adding: “and why isn’t she speaking to you?”
“Because I don’t approve of her dating Sebastian Shaw,” Hank says simply.
Mr Lehnsherr threads on another three paperclips and then says: “do you want to talk about it?”
Hank considers it for a moment. “Not particularly.”
“Excellent.” Mr Lehnsherr waits a few moments and then says: “your file announces I have a duty to check you’re not being molested by your friend’s older brother.”
Hank reflects he probably shouldn’t have told Mr Lehnsherr about his trip to the university to see Charles at work.
“I’m really not,” he says hastily.
Mr Lehnsherr lays down the paperclips. “Are you sure?”
“Reasonably,” Hank tells him.
Mr Lehnsherr nods and then pulls open his drawer and hands him a gold star.
“Seriously?” Hank asks.
Mr Lehnsherr rolls his eyes and then checks his watch. “Well, I think you’ve been uncomfortable at me for an appropriate amount of time. Please go and tell Mr Cassidy that there’s no point in him attending this session until he’s burned out the high from the drugs he stole from the nurse’s office this morning.”
Sean is sitting outside Mr Lehnsherr’s office giggling.
“He doesn’t want to see you,” Hank says.
“Man,” Sean sighs. “That sucks.”
“He pushed you out of a window,” Hank reminds him.
Sean waves his hands around a bit. “It was only the first floor,” he says. “There were bushes and shit. And I wrote a song about it!”
Hank fights not to laugh, because that’s so ridiculously Sean, and manages: “okay then.”
Sean grins at him, all shiny teeth and shiny eyes, and adds: “I called it Defenestration Sensation.”
Hank smiles. “Of course you did.”
Hank’s math teacher asks him to stay after the lesson and Hank waits as the seniors file out, not even sneaking curious glances at him because no one cares about him. He feels immediately panicked, worried that he’s somehow slipped up, that he’s not clever enough to be here.
“I was wondering if you’d be available for tutoring?” Ms Monro asks when they’re alone, and Hank’s knees feel weak with relief.
“Um,” he says, “um, sure, I guess I could do that, if you think I’d be able to help.”
She smiles at him, and says: “you’d be perfect for it, Hank. He’s actually in your year so the work will be a lot easier than what you’ve been doing here; you shouldn’t fall behind.”
Hank nods and manages a smile. The chances are whoever it is won’t want him tutoring them, but that’s their problem, not his; at least he can say that he tried.
“Of course you’ll get extra credit,” Ms Monro adds quickly, like Hank still needs persuading. “I just feel like maybe you’ll be able to get through to him where I haven’t been able to.” Her smile twists a little more. “He’s got something of a problem with authority.”
Hank’s heart lurches in his chest and he forces himself to remember that there are plenty of casually messed-up kids at their school and that he could be being asked to help any number of them.
“Right,” he says. “So, um, who-”
“Oh, right,” Ms Monro laughs, “I should probably have told you first, just to check you’d have no issues. I mean, I don’t see why you would, but... anyway, it’s Alex Summers.”
Of course it is, Hank thinks dully, and wonders how it’ll feel to have his nose and his heart broken by a boy who doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything, least of all a nerdy kid he’s never spoken two words to who’s had the most awkward and gut-wrenching crush on him since freshman year.
“No,” he stammers, “no, um, no, I have no issues at all.”
He makes a mental note not to tell Mr Lehnsherr that he’s apparently hopelessly masochistic.
iii. d’you want my side of the story?
“Do you get a panic button?” Raven asks interestedly, reaching for another slice of pizza.
She and Charles don’t ever cook. Hank can’t work out if it’s a lazy-rich-people thing, if they genuinely don’t know how to, or if Charles is still living like a student.
“Not that I know of,” Hank replies, wishing he hadn’t had to tell Raven about his new tutoring assignment. Emma wouldn’t have asked questions; at least not verbal ones, and he could have pretended to miss her slight changes in facial expression.
“He’d probably break your fingers before you could push it,” Raven muses cheerfully, picking mushrooms off her pizza and putting them on Charles’ plate.
“Who is this boy?” Charles asks, looking up from his book for the first time this meal.
“Alex Summers,” Raven explains. “I don’t know much about him, but he mostly sits around glowering in classrooms or punching people in the face.”
They both look expectantly at Hank.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s mostly rumours, but there was something last summer that involved him and a group of guys he shouldn’t have been around and some of them got stabbed. He’s only just gotten back to school after whatever that was.”
Because Charles and Raven aren’t normal people, they both look interested rather than scared.
“And you’re going to tutor him in maths?” Charles asks.
Hank shrugs uncomfortably, as Raven says: “there’s no actual proof he’s a murderous psychopath.”
Charles shifts in his chair, straightening up a little into what Hank’s learned to recognise as his Responsible Brother Posture; he doesn’t use it very often, and it looks more comical than anything else, like Charles is playing at this.
“You’re not to date him, Raven,” he says firmly.
Raven laughs. “Seriously?” she asks.
Charles casts a pleading look at Hank. “That’s what responsible guardian figures say in this situation, right?”
Hank isn’t really sure; he unnerves his parents, and they don’t really talk that much anymore. “Sure,” he replies, and reaches for more pizza.
“Also, you have to call me if you get stabbed,” Raven says, in a cheerful parody of Charles’ Responsible Brother Posture.
“He gets frisked every morning coming in,” Hank murmurs without thinking, and then curls his toes in his shoes to try not to flush; he’s not sure if he ought to know that or not, if that counts as vague stalking.
“Anything can be a weapon,” Raven says gravely, and Hank ducks his head, feeling uncomfortable and weirdly defensive even though he doesn’t know what Alex did and with what and to whom.
“Stop it,” Charles tells her, and: “no more late night TV for you.”
“It’ll be fine,” Hank says to no one in particular, “he probably won’t even show up.”
He hasn’t decided what he wants to happen yet; he’s trying not to think about it too much, terrified of all the possible outcomes.
Emma catches him in the hall; Hank wants to be angry with her, wants to say you’re the one who stopped talking to me, but he’s missed her and he’s pathetic enough to let it all go.
“What?” he says, making an effort to at least sound cold.
Emma’s face is apologetic, at least as apologetic as it ever gets, and Hank knows that she’s trying.
“Alex Summers uses silence to intimidate people,” she explains quietly. Hank doesn’t bother asking how she knows; Emma knows everything that happens at this school.
“So?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes, sharp and impatient.
“So you’re very good at dealing with intimidating silences,” she points out, and gives him a flicker of a real smile before she walks away.
It takes Hank a moment to realise that she’s got a point.
At least Emma’s decided to be kind of supportive; Sean’s general reaction was to stand by his locker going dude, dude, dude repeatedly and unhelpfully – Hank couldn’t help noticing, for the first time, that the inside of his locker door was covered in little sticky gold stars – and Raven’s idea of help was to text him so, if you don’t die, we can get coffee after y/y? Hank’s not sure what he needs or doesn’t need; no part of his life thus far has prepared him for interaction with Alex Summers, who sports bruises and murderous facial expressions and leather jackets, who got kicked off a handful of sports teams even before whatever happened last summer, who exists in this little bubble of fury and potential violence.
Hank has a spare pair of glasses in his locker, just in case.
Ms Monro suggested they use her classroom – she didn’t specifically say it was to provide a modicum of privacy, but Hank figured it out anyway – and Hank is still half-certain Alex won’t even show up. He arrives early, anyway, to show willing or something, and finds Alex is already sitting there, arms folded across his chest, glowering at nothing in particular.
Hank’s first instinct is to back out apologising and pleading for his life, and his second is to start babbling to fill the heavy silence Alex carries around him like a malevolent cloud. Just as he opens his mouth, though, he remembers Emma’s advice, and forces himself to stay quiet. There’s every chance this could get him hurt, but there’s every chance it won’t, so he forces himself to keep breathing and act like he’s just with Emma when she’s sad and won’t tell him why and is pretending that everything is fine as long as she doesn’t say any of it aloud.
He walks over to sit opposite Alex, aware that Alex is watching his every move, but he doesn’t look at him because he thinks he’ll blush and lose his nerve if he does. Hank has no idea why his brain decided to have a crush on the one student in school likely to murder him with his bare hands, but it’s really kind of inconvenient. He gets out his own books and the textbook Ms Monro has lent him so that he can see what Alex should be working on, and the worksheets he put together with the library photocopier yesterday with Raven sitting beside him swinging her legs and examining her hair for split ends.
He passes the papers across the desk with a newly-sharpened pencil – he has no idea if Alex has his own pencils or not, but better to be prepared than sorry – and although Alex is now staring at desk and not him, he sees the slight shift in expression.
“To find out what you can and can’t do,” Hank says simply, and gets started on his own math homework.
He hardly dares breathe, doesn’t dare look up or move or shift in his chair, and he thinks he might be panicking because his heart is beating so hard he’s sure Alex must hear it, but after a few minutes that crawl by, Alex picks up the pencil.
“He didn’t say one word to you but he also didn’t hospitalise you,” Raven muses, channel-hopping on Hank’s bed, “so that’s probably a win, right?”
Hank’s body still feels drenched in nervous adrenaline; he can’t believe he managed to do that, managed to sit in a classroom with Alex Summers for an hour and not implode from it all. He was careful not to look at Alex too much, didn’t want him to feel pressurised or judged, but he was aware of Alex looking at him from time to time. Not looking through him but at him, and Hank spent a couple of minutes in the bathroom trying to look at himself as Alex would have seen him; the too-formal shirt, the glasses, the hair that has no particular style falling into his eyes, the ink-stained fingers. Hank’s not much to look at, he concluded, and while on one level it’s a little disappointing it’s also a relief.
“Probably,” Hank agrees, trying not to sound distracted. When he’d finished working through the papers Alex had stood up, dropped them in front of Hank and walked out without looking back. Hank doesn’t know if he’ll be there next week or not.
Raven’s finally settled on a rerun of America’s Next Top Model when Hank’s bedroom door opens. Hank catches the fleeting jealousy that runs across Emma’s face even though she hides it quickly enough; he feels Raven freeze in shock beside him.
All of this has the potential to end horribly and he’s been calm enough for one day. “I don’t-” he begins.
“Hi,” Raven begins slowly, “you’re Emma, right?”
She knows already; they all know she knows already, but she’s trying, and Hank is grateful for that. After a moment, something eases in Emma’s shoulders.
“Yes,” she says, and though her voice is cool and guarded it’s not made of ice like Hank knows it can be. “And you’re Raven.”
They’re glaring at each other in that special way girls have that Hank has never been able to fathom, and he can’t work out if this is terrible or maybe kind of hilarious. He gets the feeling Raven’s going to yell at him later for not telling her that he’s friends with the most popular girl in school, but he’s pretty sure he can fix it.
Eventually, Raven suggests: “Top Model?”
Emma tilts her head slightly in that way Hank knows means she’s seriously considering it, and eventually comes to sit next to him on the bed.
It’s not quite easy; Emma doesn’t speak and he knows Raven is on edge, but they’re both trying, which is more than Hank thinks he would’ve expected from this situation.
Eventually, Raven’s phone goes off; she answers it and Hank can hear Charles spilling out: “Raven! Raven. Raven. Raven, you should bring home dinner. Maybe fried chicken. A lot of fried chicken. Maybe even a bucket!”
Raven sighs. “Are you high? You’re high, aren’t you. I’m calling the family lawyers in the morning and getting legally emancipated.”
“Jolly good,” Charles says cheerfully. “But can you bring a bucket of fried chicken home first? Maybe two. Definitely two. Ta.”
“I hate you, oh my god,” Raven sighs before hanging up. She turns to Hank. “I should go before he decides that dismantling kitchen appliances is relevant to his genetic research. Again.”
When she’s gone, Hank waits until Emma relaxes a little, posture softening.
“Sorry,” he says.
Emma’s lips curl; it’s not a smile, but it’s something like a precursor to one. “You’re ridiculous,” she says, “there’s absolutely nothing to apologise for here.”
“Yes,” Hank replies, “but: sorry.”
Emma rolls her eyes. “I take it Summers didn’t stick a ballpoint pen in your jugular.”
“No,” Hank says. “Mercifully.”
“Of course,” Emma agrees, “I hear arterial blood is a real pain to get out of shirts.”
Hank laughs and she smiles one of those real toothy smiles she saves for special occasions.
“I’m never going to like your boyfriend,” Hank tells her finally.
“I know,” Emma says, and Hank knows it’s the closest she’ll get to saying I missed you. He hears it anyway.
Sean informs Hank that he’s got a show this Friday and Hank is coming whether he wants to or not, and Hank’s feeling just reckless and relieved enough from his tutoring session with Alex to say alright instead of really no. Mr Lehnsherr looks amused and annoyed when Hank informs him that he’s going during their next meeting.
“You do realise you don’t get a passing grade for therapy?” he asks. “Pushing yourself into situations you wouldn’t normally be in isn’t going to get you extra credit.”
Hank just shrugs and gets a gold star anyway.
Later, he freaks out at Raven (who decided to find his secret friendship with the head cheerleader and probable future prom queen hilarious and random rather than something to get mad at; Hank is grateful) because he has no idea how to go to gigs.
Raven gets this faintly disturbing smile and she tells him it’s all in hand.
Which is how Hank finds himself in his bathroom on Friday night with Raven yelling through the door: “they’re supposed to be tight, you idiot. I’m pretty sure you have an ass underneath those terrible slacks.”
Hank sucks in a breath and manages to zip up the fly. “I’m sure there’s a difference between tight and obscene,” he calls back. “And my slacks are not terrible.”
He looks at himself in the full-length mirror on the wall; the jeans Raven turned up with – they’re my brother’s ex’s, they’ll probably fit you, yes I washed them first – cling in all sorts of places Hank doesn’t want them to cling to, and the t-shirt she unearthed from the back of his wardrobe is clearly too tight and barely touches the waistline of the jeans; if he moves his arms at all it rides up.
“I look stupid,” he mutters.
Raven bangs on the door. “Let me see,” she demands.
Hank sighs and lets her in, reflecting that his parents must either be really certain he’s gay or be secretly hoping Raven will turn him straight if she spends enough time with him, because they haven’t objected to any part of tonight’s proceedings so far. Raven gives him an appraising look, eyes sweeping up and down him in a way that makes Hank feel vaguely uncomfortable, and says at last: “do you own contacts?”
He wants to lie but doesn’t, instead getting the contacts he never wears because they itch out of the bathroom cabinet and putting them in. Raven nods and then reaches into her purse, digging out an eyeliner pencil.
“No,” Hank says quickly, blinking too much because his eyes are watering like crazy, “just, no.”
“It’s for me, dumbass,” Raven mutters. “Although...”
“No,” Hank says, and steps back so she can refresh her make-up, tugging awkwardly at his t-shirt.
“Stop it,” Raven says. “You look hot, no one will recognise you, you’ll blend in as much as a stupidly giant guy can blend in, which is all you really want.”
Sean’s gigs tend to take place in a bar downtown that doesn’t care about how old you are or how legal you are, which Hank surmises will get them shut down sooner or later, but for now just means they get flocked with students who can’t be bothered to get fake IDs. Even Hank, who doesn’t go out anywhere ever, knows the place is a dive, but Raven seems perfectly at home, curling fingers around Hank’s wrist and dragging him through the crowds of people towards what passes for a stage in here. It’s noisy and crowded and all the things Hank generally hates, but Raven disappears for a moment and returns a little later with two bottles of beer, passing one to Hank and glaring reprovingly at him until he starts drinking, and after that things get a little easier.
The band are not actually terrible, Hank muses when they come on; Sean’s voice is kind of fascinating, shivering and cracking without ever breaking, screaming like a wild thing while fearlessly throwing himself around the stage. It’s crazy and too much and Hank wishes he hadn’t come and then Raven grabs his hands and moves them to her waist and makes him move with her, move with the people around him, and before he knows it Hank’s dancing; not particularly well, but not badly enough to make people look at him or anything, and he feels pleasantly lost in the sound and the crowd and the chants of BANSHEE BANSHEE BANSHEE any time Sean pauses for breath.
Hank ducks out for air halfway through the set because it’s all still a little too much, more than he’s used to. The night is surprisingly cold after the heat of all the dancing bodies; he can still hear the muted roar of people coming from inside, pictures Raven dancing in there with mascara bleeding down her cheeks, and smiles just a little.
There’s another bar across the street, one that even Hank knows has a reputation – it’s not the greatest neighbourhood, but Charles has promised them a ride home when they want it – and as his eyes get used to the dim streetlights, Hank realises there’s someone smoking outside it, lit in stripes of sputtering neon. A few blinks to clear his blurring contacts, and he realises he knows that battered leather jacket.
His whole body goes numb, stomach dropping and fingers tingling, before he reminds himself that there’s no way Alex would recognise him up close tonight, let alone at this distance, and it’s too dark for anyone to see him blushing. He takes a handful of breaths until his stomach stops swooping, and then turns and goes back inside, skin stinging with all the things he’d never even dream of doing.
Hank spends Saturday afternoon watching cheerleading routine DVDs with Emma and pretending he doesn’t have a slight hangover (such a lightweight Raven muttered in the backseat of Charles’ car last night, their ears ringing and hearts still beating too fast from post-gig adrenaline, while Charles smirked to himself in the front). The squad’s formation has changed slightly; Hank can see just how fixed Selene’s grin is, her eyes cold and flashing and trained on the back of Emma’s head like if she stares long enough Emma might collapse.
“It’s almost like you’re a real boy,” Emma remarks, passing him a bowl of fresh popcorn and another bottle of water. Her tone is sardonic but her eyes are sparkling, and she smirks when Hank glares at her.
Hanging out with Emma is different to hanging out with Raven; Raven talks almost constantly, blurting out whatever comes into her head and interrupting herself to begin another train of thought, while Charles appears from time to time looking harassed and distracted and frequently wearing the same shirt for days on end. Emma’s parents almost never interfere with her life; they’re both lawyers, and are hardly ever home, leaving her to her own devices. Sometimes Hank hates them for that, but he has no idea what they’d actually do about Emma even if they were around.
Emma’s got a date with Sebastian later but they’re both carefully not talking about it because Hank doesn’t know the questions to ask to get answers; Emma isn’t happy with him, that much is obvious to him (even if it isn’t to anyone else) and yet nothing about her seems inclined to stop dating Sebastian; Hank would like to ask why, or what it is Sebastian has on her, or simply just what is going on here, but he knows none of those tacks will work on Emma. She’s never been about the direct route.
Instead of saying any of the things he wants to, Hank watches the cheer routine through for the fifth time, the Hellfire Club moving in near-perfect sync to yet another 3OH!3 song – how do I say I’m sorry ‘cause the word is never gonna come out – Selene’s eyes hard and glittering, Tessa’s mouth quivering in concentration, Angel’s lips curling just slightly as she twists her hips a little more than is necessary, Emma calm and serene and confident, leading them all like she doesn’t belong anywhere else.
“You guys are good,” he offers.
Emma’s mouth twists in the shy way she takes a compliment, but all she says aloud is: “I know.”
The next tutoring session is on Tuesday, and Hank takes care to be even earlier than usual. Alex is still there before him, sitting in exactly the same position he was last week, scowling at nothing in particular. Hank almost does a double take, like this is a Groundhog Day situation, like he’ll be destined to repeat this over and over until something breaks, and then notices that this week Alex has actually brought a pencil with him.
Hank is momentarily disconcerted, and then pulls himself together. He manages not to say “hi” or bring up the fact he saw Alex this weekend or ask him how his day’s going, staying silent as he unpacks his books and the equations he photocopied for Alex to work on today, passing the first sheet across the table.
Alex starts work straight away, which feels like something of a miracle, and Hank desperately tries to stop his hands shaking as he starts his own work. He’s unable to stop himself from sneaking a few glances at Alex, who’s frowning down at the questions, hesitating every now and then as he hesitantly scribbles calculations in the margins.
Hank takes care to look back down at his own book as he says: “try multiplying out the brackets first.”
He hears Alex freeze, and then, after a moment, there’s the sound of his pencil scratching on paper again.
Hank has no idea how he’s going to do this every week without snapping or freaking out; it’s like torture, feeling his way along blind and careful so as not to make Alex lose his temper, even before you add in the utterly masochistic and ridiculous crush. He’s got no idea if he can even teach him anything like this.
The next time he glances at Alex, Alex is frowning, the end of his pencil between his teeth, and it makes something in Hank’s stomach turn over.
“You can do this,” he stutters out before he gets a grip on himself. “Just take it step by step, don’t try and do it all at once.”
Alex doesn’t look up and his fingers twitch; there’s a moment when Hank thinks they both think Alex is going to crumple up the paper and throw it away and leave; and then Alex starts writing again, jerky, scrawling.
Hank allows himself to take a breath and thinks that maybe these sessions are going to be the death of him. When he next sneaks a glance at Alex he discovers Alex is already looking at him; their eyes meet and every inch of Hank feels it, sharp and self-conscious. He swallows, and looks away first.
Alex hovers over him as Hank marks his answers, and it’s distinctly unnerving; Hank’s got a good five inches on Alex when they’re both standing, but sitting down he’s at a disadvantage.
“You got all of them right,” he says. “So doing your homework should be pretty easy.” He bites the inside of his mouth before he can add if you do homework, that is, because that just seems to be asking for trouble. He risks a look up at Alex, who’s turned his smile into something sharp and sardonic. “And no,” he adds before he can stop himself, “you won’t get a gold star for this.”
He sees the spark of surprise in Alex’s eyes and manages not to flinch as Alex reaches towards him; all he does is pick up the worksheet and leave, and Hank lets out a sigh of relief as the door closes.
“What have you done this week?” Mr Lehnsherr asks, looking bored. The desk is covered in staples today; Hank doesn’t ask. “Decided to develop a cocaine habit?”
“No, sir,” Hank tells him. “I’ve done nothing this week.”
Mr Lehnsherr nods; Hank can’t work out if this is good or bad, but he suspects that Mr Lehnsherr enjoys keeping his students guessing.
“Well then,” he says, reaching for a box file and looking inside, “I can give you a questionnaire on self-harming, or a quiz to test your drug knowledge while subtly trying to brainwash you into believing that all drugs will lead you to die homeless and celibate under a bridge.”
Hank considers his options and then says: “you’re mentoring Alex Summers.”
Mr Lehnsherr closes the file and leans back, raising an entertained eyebrow. “I can’t give out information on students. My files are, however, poorly-guarded and easy to break into, should a whim strike you.”
Hank decides to be worried about that sometime when someone would actually care about him enough to break into Mr Lehnsherr’s office.
“Does he...” he trails off, swallows, tries again. “Does he talk to you?”
Mr Lehnsherr regards him for a long moment, as though deciding what to make of him, and then says: “sometimes.” When Hank doesn’t say anything, he continues: “I understand you’ve been tutoring him in math.”
“I have,” Hank agrees. “I just wanted to know if, you know, he ever actually spoke to anyone.”
Mr Lehnsherr barks off a short, kind of worrying laugh. Then he leans over his desk a little to look Hank in the eye and say: “he thinks you aren’t scared of him.”
Hank has literally no idea what to do with that information. “I don’t think you can tell me that, sir,” he says. “Doesn’t it count as confidential?”
Mr Lehnsherr’s grin is nothing short of terrifying. “Well,” he says, “that’s interesting, since you’re clearly as disturbed by him as the rest of the student body.”
“I don’t think we should be having this conversation,” Hank announces, over the swooping in his stomach and the sudden roaring in his ears.
Mr Lehnsherr gives him a look that clearly says he thinks he’s boring, and says: “alright then. You can tell the next student to come in.”
The next student is, of course, Alex, who is sitting looking mean and bad-tempered with his legs stretched out across the hall. He looks up when Hank walks out and, before Hank can look away, carefully nods at him, an acknowledgement.
Hank, insides twisting, nods back, and then Alex gets up and disappears into Mr Lehnsherr’s office. Hank stands still in the hall for a few moments, realising with an unpleasant rush that he’s really not sure what to make of any of this.
Part II: Charles
iv. i’m not gonna teach him how to dance with you.
Raven brings him hot chocolate at around three in the morning, which is her not-particularly-subtle way of telling him to go to bed. She’s in pyjamas, baggy ones Charles thinks might’ve belonged to him once upon a time, and her feet are bare, toenails painted blue.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep?” he asks vaguely, looking away from his laptop screen and seeing bright green and purple swatches of colour striking through his vision, sure sign he’s been squinting for too long. “Don’t you have school in the morning?”
“Well observed,” Raven replies, cheerful and sarcastic, handing him one of the mugs and pushing aside a pile of papers to sit on his desk. Charles would reprimand her, but to be frank he has no idea what’s on any of those bits of paper, and the fact they’re right next to him is probably more happenstance than because they’re actually important. “You’re doing really well at the whole parenting thing.”
Charles sticks his tongue out at her, swift and childish, and then takes a sip of the really very good hot chocolate. It’s the only thing Raven can make that doesn’t fit in a toaster; she started exchanging it for the middle-of-the-night lonely bottles of wine Charles thought were a good idea a handful of years ago, and it works a lot better than they ever did.
“Well, if you fall asleep in classes tomorrow...” he says, taking care to make it sound like a heinous and awful crime and not something he did regularly throughout his time in high school.
“Please,” Raven says, rolling her eyes and bringing up her feet to rest them against Charles’ desk chair, “like anyone can fall asleep in class with Hank next to them. He gets all twitchy and scandalised and pokes you with a pen until you wake back up again.”
Charles smiles, picturing Hank doing just that; he has no idea how his casually rebellious little sister has managed to make friends with a guy who is possibly even more nerdy and intelligent than Charles was at his age, but he thinks Hank is probably a good influence on her.
“How terrible for you,” he says, and laughs into his hot chocolate as Raven kicks him.
“Come on,” she says, when they’ve both nearly finished their drinks, “bedtime. Anything you write now is just going to be nonsense. Well. More nonsense than usual.”
She has a point, so Charles acquiesces, stumbling as he stands. Raven puts a hand on his back to guide him out of his study, and as he leaves the stuffy heat he realises just how tired he is.
He doesn’t bother changing out of his crumpled shirt and jeans, just folds himself under the covers. Raven tucks him in properly and smirks slightly as she says: “want me to read you Goodnight Moon?”
“You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are,” Charles mumbles into his pillow, and falls asleep before she even turns off the light.
Charles had actually begged to be allowed to go to boarding school during his mother’s short but tumultuous remarriage; mostly to get away from Cain, his hateful stepbrother. Even now Charles shudders a little when he remembers hiding under the stairs from Cain and his maliciously gleeful bullying, and even time in an austere academy full of desperate overachievers with various kinds of personality disorders seemed better than being at home. He was ready to come home by the time the divorce came through though; lonely and bored and tired of dormitories and the need to wear uniform constantly. The fact he’d snogged at least half his year group might also have counted towards his decision to move back home.
He arrived back to the ludicrously large mansion three weeks before his sixteenth birthday to learn his mother had adopted a five-year-old girl, blonde haired and wide-eyed and with the implausible name of Raven. This possibly made sense; Charles had always suspected his mother wanted a girl, given how little interest she’d shown in her son or stepson, but he couldn’t help wishing his mother had dealt with her divorce by becoming brunette and sleeping with a yoga instructor of some description, like the mothers of several acquaintances, rather than dragging someone else into the complicated mess of what passed for Xavier family life.
As he’d always suspected, Charles’ mother wasn’t cut out for a maternal attitude to children of any gender; Raven had an au pair and an entire wing to herself, and Charles’ mother appeared from time to time to dress her daughter up like a Barbie doll and take her to parties. By the time Charles graduated high school and had made plans to run off to England for university, Raven had made it painfully plain that she wasn’t going to be bossed around by anyone and wouldn’t be biddable no matter the financial value of the bribe laid before her, and Charles’ mother had washed her hands of her as thoroughly as she’d washed her hands of Charles.
Charles came home from his first year at Oxford to find an ugly stalemate in the mansion, Raven silent and sulking and hurting, and called the lawyers. He took her back to England with him.
It wasn’t easy, being nineteen and in his second year of university and trying to be something like a parent to an eight-year-old girl; they lived in a messy little flat in Oxford and yelled at each other a lot and lied to social workers as best they knew how. Luckily, Charles’ friends found Raven endearing and were happy to babysit and help her with her homework from time to time, when they needed a break from each other, and if Raven ever minded sleeping on the floor of dorm rooms while various students pulled all-nighters on essays, she never mentioned it.
Charles is perfectly aware Raven’s upbringing was somewhat unorthodox and was frankly a bit of a bloody mess in places, but he can’t help but be proud of how she’s turned out anyway.
The first thing Moira does, every single time they meet, is to examine Charles through narrowed eyes, looking for vitamin deficiencies. Charles has no idea how she figures it out; he looks alright, he thinks, maybe a bit in need of an iron and a haircut, but not too terrible, but Moira somehow always knows that he and Raven live on Pop Tarts and take-out and occasional bowls of undercooked pasta.
“I don’t know how you haven’t both died of scurvy,” she tells him, looking all maternal and worried.
“Tropicana,” Charles replies simply, and picks up a see-through lace teddy. “What about this?”
Moira takes it out of his hands and hangs it back up again. “No, Charles,” she sighs. “I know you like the idea of me dressing like a cheap hooker, but I still have some standards.”
Charles suspects the only reason Moira ever takes him underwear shopping with her is so that she can buy the opposite of everything he suggests.
“But you’re classy enough to carry off the cheap hooker look!” Charles insists.
Moira sighs, but she’s smirking just a little. “Thank you, I think,” she says. “But I was going to go for out-and-out classy, actually.”
Charles met Moira at Oxford when she was doing a year abroad; he’s pretty sure she found him sleazy until she found out he was raising Raven, at which point she actually started talking to him and not just handing him a series of withering put-downs. Moira’s the best friend he’s ever had and probably marriage material, Charles often thinks, although he’s also perfectly aware that they’d kill each other within a matter of months if they ever actually tried to have a relationship.
“Fine,” Charles says, “how long have you been seeing the gentleman in question?” He grins and adds: “perhaps I’ll start calling him your fancy-man.”
“I will put my stiletto through your foot,” Moira returns cheerfully, and adds: “a month and a half.”
“And you already feel the need to spice things up with a lace catsuit?” Charles asks. “Isn’t that a warning sign?”
“First of all,” Moira begins, “there will be no lace catsuit, your depravity knows no bounds, and secondly: there doesn’t need to be any spicing up, thank you, I just wanted some new underwear.”
Moira owns so much sexy underwear she could probably open some kind of high-class brothel, Charles thinks, provided all the women had a very specific waist and cup size, but he knows better than to say this aloud.
“What about this?” he suggests, holding up a bra. “It has ribbons.”
Moira puts it back and Charles becomes aware that the shop assistants are watching them like they’re some kind of bickering couple. He suspects Moira looks like the one who wears the trousers in the relationship, not least because her terrifying Jimmy Choo heels give her at least three inches on him.
“But you could be like a Christmas present,” he protests mildly, trailing after her, “there could be unwrapping. Unwrapping is sexy!”
“Please stop talking,” Moira says, smacking his hands away from crotchless knickers. “It’s like shopping with a child.”
“I sincerely hope you would never take your child into Victoria’s Secret,” Charles tells her in the tone of voice he saves for forbidding Raven to do things. It’s taken years of practice and he’s very proud of it.
Moira, typically, ignores him, looking at a pink-and-white bra and knickers set speculatively. It’s too cutesy for Moira’s shark-bitch persona, but Charles knows better than to point this out.
“I’ll come over and make dinner for you and Raven sometime,” she tells him when the cashier is ringing up her purchases and looking between Charles and Moira like she can’t quite work out what’s going on here but she’s really quite interested in finding out. “Before Raven’s school start sending home letters using the phrase malnutrition.”
“That was one time,” Charles reminds her, “and it was all a big misunderstanding.”
Moira sighs, soft and fond, and links her arm through his. “Let’s go have a drink,” she says.
“And then a private fashion show?” Charles asks, for the curious cashier’s benefit.
“Not if you’d like to continue slutting your way around your acquaintances,” Moira replies sweetly, and Charles presses a kiss to her cheek, eternally thankful for her existence.
Raven’s humming something Charles doesn’t recognise while she goes through their kitchen cupboards, which currently contain candy corn, three boxes of Pop Tarts, a forgotten jar of Marmite, half a packet of Oreos and some unappetising-looking ramen; Charles knows, because he did the same thing earlier.
“Are you going to talk to me about Sean at any point?” Charles asks, because he hasn’t slept in two days and he has no idea what he’s supposed to be writing about and he already gave himself a French manicure while Raven was at school.
“Get out of my life already,” Raven tells him, standing on tip-toes to see if there’s anything on the top shelves. There isn’t.
“It’s my responsibility as brother and guardian to know about any gentleman callers you might have,” Charles reminds her, taking great pleasure in Raven’s annoyed sigh.
“Stop torturing me and go get laid,” she spits back. “There must be some nerds at your university who are desperate and unpicky.”
“Charming,” Charles says appreciatively, and: “does his band have a myspace?”
Raven gives up on her quest for snacks and turns around, hands on hips. “No one has myspace anymore,” she informs him severely.
“Stop trying to make me feel like a dinosaur,” Charles tells her, “I’m twenty-seven. By anyone else’s standards I’m positively youthful.” As Raven rolls her eyes he adds: “I bet he has a myspace.”
Raven scowls. “Fine,” she says, “for once you’re not hopelessly out of touch with the rest of the world.”
“Marvellous,” Charles tells her, and goes off to google.
“I’m going to start a twitter called Shit My Slutty Nerdy Brother Says,” Raven calls after him.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles calls back, “that’s far too long for a twitter username.”
Sean Cassidy’s band turns up on google easily enough, and Charles takes a moment to look at the pictures of the stoned-looking redhead with Banshee emblazed across his t-shirt. Not bad, he decides, and clicks on the music player.
Raven appears ten minutes later looking put-upon and with a plate of Pop Tarts.
“They’ve got potential,” Charles informs her, “and Sean has a fascinating voice.”
Raven smiles a little, soft, and then says: “you’re so creepy, just so you know.”
Charles ignores her. “One should always sleep with the leading man of a band if the chance arises,” he informs her seriously. “I always have.”
“I’ll give you a Pop Tart if you promise to stop talking,” Raven tells him.
Charles clicks play on Yes We Do again and says: “alright.”
“Sooner or later my parents are going to start grounding me,” Hank is saying, somewhat plaintively, from the direction of Raven’s bedroom. “Once they get over the shock of me leaving my bedroom, I mean.”
Charles thinks Hank is the most fabulous friend Raven has ever brought home; he’s endearingly nervous and awkward, has a great sense of humour underneath all the stammering, and actually wants to talk to Charles about his research. Raven needs to find more people like Hank, he thinks, although he won’t say that aloud in case she deliberately misinterprets it.
“Shut up and put your contacts in,” Raven responds unsympathetically.
Charles swallows down a smile and keeps channel hopping. They emerge eventually, Hank looking completely unlike himself in tight jeans and contact lenses and a t-shirt that was probably bought for him a few years ago. He squints.
“Are those Logan’s jeans?”
“It’s not like you can use them without rolling the hems up, like, a foot,” Raven points out. “We’re going out. Can we get a ride home later?”
“Sure,” Charles says vaguely, and then thinks he ought to say something vaguely responsible and parental. “If any strange men offer you a ride, make sure you provide your own condoms.”
Hank chokes, flushing brilliant scarlet.
“Please ignore my sexual deviant brother,” Raven says loudly, in that way that sounds both annoyed and fond, linking an arm through Hank’s and dragging him towards the door. “You’re our designated driver,” she shouts back, underneath which Charles hears the no drinking like a lonely bastard in front of the Discovery Channel. That’s fair enough; Charles wants to be done with those evenings anyway, though he inevitably slips up from time to time.
Charles should probably be having therapy of some kind; Americans like therapy for every little thing, it’s true, but the fact is he grew up largely unloved and ignored, then had all the interesting emotional problems boarding school gives you, and even though he knows it’s stupid he still tends to look for sex rather than affection; Moira and Raven being the only exceptions, and even then he’s waiting to fuck up badly enough for one or both of them to leave. Really, he’s the kind of damaged that only the rich can be, and self-aware enough to acknowledge this but not self-aware to do anything to fix it. From time to time bottles of wine seem like the only answer though they never do any good, and Charles needs Raven more than he’ll ever admit because without her and her teasing and yelling and simple pure love, he’d probably be dead by now, or at least near enough to it as makes no difference.
Raven wakes him from dozing in front of infomercials at two in the morning, sounding happy and underage drunk and tired; Charles pulls on a cardigan and feels suddenly very old as he goes to get her. Guys of his age are still out there clubbing, still going out and getting drunk every night, probably going to that gig Raven was at tonight. Charles always insisted he wasn’t going to be a proper parent to Raven and he hasn’t been, not really, but even so he seems to have reached middle age far too early.
He’s still brooding about this as Raven and Hank pile into the car, sweaty and rumpled-looking.
“You should’ve got his number,” Raven is insisting, obviously continuing an argument they were having while waiting for him to arrive. “He was hot.”
Hank shrugs, looking awkward and slumping down in his seat.
“I’m not interested,” he mumbles, words tripping over each other, and Charles turns off early; there’s no point taking Hank home in this state, he can sleep on their sofa.
“You were eating his face off,” Raven says gleefully.
Hank waves his hand vaguely; the bits of his face Charles can see in the dim light look somewhat annoyed.
“Leave him be, Raven,” he tells her. “We can interrogate him over brunch tomorrow.”
Raven gives him a sunny smile, and although Hank makes a sound of protest, it’s blurred and sleepy.
Charles turns up the radio a little as he drives them home, feeling far too much like a parent, despite his best intentions.
Charles is enjoying a defiantly liquid lunch with Moira when Raven’s school calls him. He takes one look at the caller ID and then thrusts the phone at Moira.
“This is not my problem,” she tells him, pushing it back at him. “And answer it, for God’s sake.”
He thinks about it and drains the rest of his martini before picking up.
“Charles Xavier speaking,” he says in that bright responsible voice he’s cultivated for just this situation.
It’s the Principal, apparently, which is never good news, and he’s using a lot of words and sounds so sombre that Charles has the horrible urge to giggle. Not laugh; giggle.
He holds the phone away from his mouth and whispers to Moira: “apparently Raven’s high at school.”
Moira covers her face with her hands.
Charles returns his phone to his ear in time to hear the Principal ask him to come and pick Raven up, because they don’t want her at school for the rest of the day.
“...sure,” he says. “Um, I mean, of course, I’ll be right there.”
He hangs up and he and Moira both burst out laughing, collapsing against the table.
“Oh my God,” Charles says, stopping abruptly, “oh my God, Moira, I’m drunk, I’m drunk, Raven’s high and I’m drunk and if I go to pick her up like this they’re going to go to social services.”
Moira’s already signalling for the waiter to bring them the bill and a lot of black coffee.
“You’re coming with me, right?” Charles says desperately. “You have to come, Moira, they’ll already be suspicious of me because I’m English, they think English people can’t raise children-”
“Stop talking,” Moira tells him firmly, pushing an espresso at him, “shut up and drink.”
Three espressos and a cab journey later finds Charles and Moira at the high school; the students are mercifully in class so no one stares at them weaving through the corridors apart from one angry-looking blonde boy loitering outside one room.
“I bet that’s Alex Summers,” Charles whispers to Moira; it’s probably not much of a whisper because the kid turns around. He looks both confused and like he’s capable of inflicting all kinds of damage on people.
“Oh my God stop talking,” Moira hisses back.
Principal Stryker looks unimpressed, which makes an interesting contrast to Raven, who’s clearly trying not to giggle, mouth twitching constantly the way it does when she’s high.
“I’m sorry to meet you under these circumstances,” Charles says, holding out a hand; he’s been practicing this all the way here and he nearly carries it off. Stryker shakes his hand, looking disapproving; Charles resists the urge to straighten a tie he isn’t wearing and maybe do something to his hair. “I’ll take Raven home now. And... give her a stern talking to. Maybe with pamphlets about the perils of drug use. Definitely with pamphlets.”
Moira pokes him in the back, hard, and Charles shuts up. Stryker says something about three days of suspension and future meetings and Charles nods a lot to pretend he understands until Moira pokes him again to get him to stop nodding.
“Well then,” Charles says, trying to sound firm, “I’ll take you home, then, you... young lady.”
Raven arches an incredulous eyebrow and follows him out. Once the door’s closed she smacks him on the arm.
“You fucker,” she whispers, “you stupid fucker, why are you drunk?”
“Why are you high?” Charles shoots back.
“I cannot take you two anywhere,” Moira sighs mournfully.
She gets them home and makes them both coffee and then leaves them to it.
“Are you mad?” Raven asks quietly, eyes very big and pupils very black.
Charles goes and gets the blanket off his bed and drapes it over the sofa, crawling under it to join Raven.
“No,” he says. “Well. I might be later when I have moral legs to stand on and so forth.”
Raven lays her head against his shoulder; she smells like fruity shampoo and weed.
“We’re so bad at this,” she says, sounding almost wondering. “Like, so bad.”
“We are,” Charles agrees on a sigh.
“Someone needs to adopt us,” Raven tells him, sombre and wavery, “we need adopting and looking after.”
Charles presses a kiss to her hair. “Yeah,” he whispers, “yeah, we do.”
It’s a sad but true fact that Raven has never got into any kind of trouble at school that Charles hasn’t been able to flirt her out of. He is, unfortunately, extremely good at flirting in a tailored-for-any-situation way and eventually people tend to be so bowled over by his charm that he can get them to do anything he wants. Raven loves and hates it, he knows, and Charles just treats it as par for the course by now.
Once Raven’s served her days of suspension, Charles receives a letter telling him he has to go and see the school’s guidance counsellor to decide on a treatment plan for Raven.
“This should end interestingly,” Raven says through a mouthful of pad thai.
“Hank sees him regularly, don’t you?” Charles asks, turning to him.
“He pushed Sean out of a window,” Hank responds flatly. “And he gave me a gold star for not being molested by you.”
“I like him already,” Charles says.
Charles puts on his favourite mature cardigan and an ironed shirt and clean shoes for the meeting so that he’ll look appropriately grown-up and like the sort of man who should be raising his sister. Raven wears the shortest skirt she owns and sits in the chairs provided outside Mr Lehnsherr’s office for this sort of thing, presumably; Charles supposes he should be grateful she isn’t wearing clothing held together by safety pins or anything.
“Have fun,” she says, faux-sweet, and Charles goes inside.
The thing Raven and Hank left out when they were talking about Mr Lehnsherr and his track record of casual discrepancies inappropriate for a school environment was that he is bloody gorgeous. Charles makes a mental note to reconsider grounding Raven after all.
“Charles Xavier,” he says, walking over and holding out a hand and smiling the smile that Raven has told him makes him look like he’s about to start selling people into the sex trade.
Mr Lehnsherr arches an eyebrow and Charles thinks suddenly, startlingly, about biting.
“Erik Lehnsherr,” he provides; his handshake is firm, unrelenting. Charles likes that in a person. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Nothing good, I hope,” Charles replies, forgetting himself for a moment.
“That depends on whether you want to arrested for statutory rape or not, I suppose,” Erik muses, and turns to his computer screen. “I’ll be meeting with Raven weekly so that I can tell the school I’m treating her and she won’t do it again, when really all she needs is a reminder that listening to anything Mr Cassidy says is a good idea is going to land her in detention.”
“Is that it?” Charles asks. “I was told your methods were rather more unorthodox, shouldn’t she be getting thrown out of a window?”
Erik rolls his eyes like people have brought up the window thing a lot. “I don’t have methods,” he says, gently withering. “I just don’t believe in trying to change a person; just in teaching them to work with what they already have.”
Charles can see the merit in that, actually. “That sounds like a wonderful methodology,” he says.
Erik’s eyes snap up to meet his. “If you’re going to flirt with me, at least do me the courtesy of being better at it,” he says.
That startles a laugh out of Charles. “Oh,” he says, “I like you.”
“Well,” Erik sighs, “I suppose you’ve grasped the kindergarten format of flirting, at least.”
Charles discards perhaps you could tutor me and says: “everyone has to start somewhere, right? And where did the window come in?”
He thinks he catches the edge of a smile before Erik says: “better Mr Cassidy learn he can’t actually fly from the first floor of his school building than from the roof of a multi-storey carpark.”
Charles considers this. “So you’re actually rather amazing at your job.”
“Not that anyone notices,” Erik responds dryly. “Now, Raven’s a smart girl with a crush on the lead singer of a band, I trust you can convince her to keep any future drug use to somewhere where neither of us will have to deal with it?”
“Excellent.” Erik takes a sip from one of the largest coffee mugs Charles has ever seen, and adds: “I think we’re about done, then.”
“Would you like to have coffee with me?” Charles blurts.
Erik arches his eyebrow again and runs a searching gaze across him, like he’s an x-ray that can pick out all the ridiculous shameful bits of Charles’ life and draw them out into the light.
“No,” he says.
“Are you sure?” Charles asks.
“Still no,” Erik tells him. “But congratulations on being the first parent to hit on me during a meeting about their child’s welfare.”
“I’m hardly a parent,” Charles protests, and: “do I get a certificate of some kind?”
Erik looks thoughtful for a long moment and then reaches into his desk drawer and extracts a sticky gold star.
“Please leave,” he says levelly, and returns to his coffee.
“Well?” Raven says as Charles comes out.
Charles holds up one fingertip with the gold star on it.
“No,” Raven says, “absolutely no. I do not, under any circumstances, give you permission to sleep with my guidance counsellor.”
Charles sighs. Still, he can work on it.
v. i’m the man who murdered love.
“It wouldn’t have to be serious trouble,” Charles says. “Just slight trouble. Vague trouble. Barely even trouble.”
“No, no, and, oh, no,” Raven responds, sounding bored as she pokes fries into ketchup.
“It would be fine,” Charles insists. “If it was slightly serious trouble I could buy you out of it; would your school like a new building? The Charles Xavier Library. That has a nice ring to it.”
“Please shut up,” Raven mutters with her mouth full.
“Is he always like this?” Hank asks, sounding somewhat worried.
“He is until they give in,” Raven responds. “Then he goes all icy and cold and disinterested. He’s like James Bond, except a loser.”
“I object to that,” Charles protests.
“I’m sorry,” Raven says, “should I start asking Mr Lehnsherr if he’s going to be my new daddy?”
Hank chokes on his burger, and manages: “I’d like to see his face.”
“Don’t do that,” Charles says, “although if you’d like to put in a good word-”
Raven covers her face with her hands. “You have no shame,” she says.
Charles sighs and reaches for more fries. “Maybe I could accompany Hank to one of his sessions to convince Erik that I’m doing nothing untoward.”
Hank’s eyes go wide and panicked. “Please don’t do that.”
“You are the worst,” Raven tells him. “Why is there no one at your university that you can stalk?”
“I’m not stalking anyone!” Charles says. “I don’t know where you get these ideas from.”
“If you send him flowers I am shredding all your research,” Raven informs him.
“Is that likely to happen?” Hank asks.
“No,” Charles tells him.
“Do you not remember that Starbucks barista?” Raven demands. “He was on the point of a restraining order.”
“That ended fine,” Charles reminds her.
“It ended in sex,” Raven says, for Hank’s benefit.
“Since when was sex not ‘fine’?” Charles demands.
Raven sighs, rolls her eyes, and tells him: “I’m calling Moira, just so you know.”
Charles considers this, and reflects that Moira will probably not look on this as dignified and appropriate.
“Ah,” he says.
Since his mother’s death, Charles has found himself inundated with invitations to things; as the sole heir to the Xavier family fortune – Raven got written out; Charles has written her back in, but that’s a whole other thing – people are forever wanting him to attend parties and balls and benefits and all the other things he stoutly refused to attend as a teenager because they’re boring and full of people with more money than intelligence.
He and Raven turn up to a couple every year to show willing, because Charles gets the feeling his mother wouldn’t be above haunting him if he didn’t put on a tuxedo from time to time.
“It was so much easier to avoid these when we lived in England,” Raven is musing when Charles goes to check whether she’s ready to leave yet.
Hank is sitting on her bed looking bored, and a blank-faced blonde girl Charles has never seen before is curling Raven’s hair.
“This is Emma,” Raven provides, and Emma nods vaguely in Charles’ direction.
He’s heard about Emma Frost, because Raven came home one day ranting about how Hank was secretly best friends with the most popular girl in school, what the fuck was that all about, and it was up to Charles to calm her down and point out that it didn’t mean Hank liked her any less and in fact it was kind of cool and striking a blow for nerdy lonely guys across the world. In person, Charles can see why the school is terrified of Emma; she’s very tall and her white dress is spotless and her general demeanour is just plain unnerving. He scrapes together a smile, though, because his evening is going to be full of people who are considerably more disconcerting than a quiet queen bee teenager.
“Are you nearly ready?” he asks. “I know we have to be fashionably late, but if we tip into actually late I’m sure mother will rise from the grave and do something horrendous to us.”
Raven smirks, and Hank says, wonderingly: “your lives.”
It’s a gallery exhibition opening for some overpaid artist who does utterly incomprehensible structures and paintings made out of bits of cars and kitchen appliances and things, and Charles miserably finds that all those art terms he looked up on Wikipedia this afternoon will probably not be any help.
“I’m allowed to drink a lot of champagne, right?” Raven says in an undertone after they’ve looked at three pictures/sculptures all of which involved a lot of sickening red paint and some truly unnerving doll parts.
“All the champagne you’d like, my dear,” he responds.
Charles likes none of the people here and is pretty sure he’s slept with at least three of the recently married young women, which is one of those things it’s startling and a little unpleasant to remember when they’re introducing their husbands to you and smiling. Charles has achieved some great things with his life, but there’s also quite a few things he’s rather ashamed of.
Towards the end of the night, Raven’s disappeared off somewhere and Charles has drunk more champagne than is really sensible.
“If it turns out you’re stalking me I shall get Raven suspended,” a voice says, and Charles turns to find Erik, dressed in a devastatingly cut suit.
“Erik!” he says delightedly. “What are you doing here?”
Erik’s smile slants across his mouth and he says: “I know the artist, for my sins.”
“I don’t know,” Charles replies, waving a hand, “it’s all rather...”
“Ugly? Overpriced?” Erik suggests.
“I rather liked the cot made out of dismembered melted dolls,” Charles says. “I thought it would look magnificent in my living room, right next to my Nazi memorabilia.” Erik laughs, looking almost surprised, and Charles is about to offer to get him a drink when a woman in a clingy and expensive dress comes swooping over, exclaiming: “Charles! Darling!”
He manages a few awkward minutes of small talk, aware Erik is silently laughing at him, and when she’s gone to accost someone else Erik says in an undertone: “just how many times did you sleep with that woman whose name you can’t remember?”
Charles screws up his face as he thinks. “Four? Five? It was on a yacht, though, so it probably counts as twice as many as whatever the actual number was.”
Erik raises a somewhat judgemental eyebrow, but gets them both some champagne from the nearest waiter. Charles raises his glass and Erik is about to clink his against it when Raven appears at Charles’ elbow.
“I swear to God, Charles,” she says, “I will let one of the boys here knock me up in the bathrooms and then you’ll have to have Sunday lunch with these people every week.”
“That’s nice,” Charles replies vaguely. “I’ve always wanted grandchildren.”
Raven blinks at him. “Oh my God,” she says. “Oh my God, what is wrong with you?”
Charles looks regretfully at Erik, who is smirking.
“I don’t know,” he sighs, “but I’m sure you’ll tell me all the way home.”
Over breakfast a few days later, Raven announces that she’s thinking of joining Sean’s band.
“Wouldn’t you rather just make out with Sean?” Charles asks through his hangover; he went out with everyone from work last night and is rather regretting it now.
Raven gets that shuttered expression Charles hates because it usually ends in him having to offer to punch someone and Raven telling him that the boy in question is taller than him.
“I’m going to count that towards you still being drunk,” she says. “So: can I?”
Charles blinks blearily at her and takes another mouthful of horribly burned bacon sandwich. “You’re asking my permission? How nice of you.”
Raven tips her head to one side; the sunlight is glaring off her hair and it makes her kind of painful to look at.
“Nominally,” she says. “I like to occasionally let you think you have some say in my life.”
Charles thinks about it for a moment and then says: “I think I need to speak to your guidance counsellor about whether or not that’s a sensible idea for you.”
Raven gets up and turns on the kitchen radio screamingly loud; it’s like someone driving nails through his brain and Charles cowers against the table. After about a minute and a half of what Charles thinks might be a Ke$ha song, Raven turns it off and says: “fuck you,” before she leaves.
Later, over lunch with Moira, Charles recounts all this and Moira gets her favourite frowny disapproving face on, the kind that means she’ll almost definitely prevent Charles from having pudding.
“Charles,” she says sternly, “it is wrong to fake an interest in your little sister’s welfare to get into her guidance counsellor’s pants.”
“I’m always interested in Raven’s welfare,” Charles protests, stung, “you know that.”
Moira sighs and looks like she’s considering adding cocktails into this lunch. “Yes,” she says, “but normally you’d be telling her how great being in a band would be and how she’ll have groupies and access to as many drugs as she wants and as long as she brings you home some of both you give her your blessing.”
Charles considers this. “How have you not called social services on me yet?” he asks.
“Because underneath all that you’re incredibly good for each other,” Moira replies, something soft in her smile. “But you can’t really use Raven as an excuse to hit on her teachers, it’s unfair.”
“I could just wander over to the school this afternoon-” Charles begins.
“Do you ever do any work?” Moira demands. “I have no idea how you’re managing to keep your fellowship.”
“I’m awesome,” Charles informs her primly. “What else?”
Moira rolls her eyes. “Let Raven join the band,” she says. “And find someone new to fixate on.”
Charles sighs, propping his chin on one hand. “What would I do without you?” he asks.
“Die in a gutter somewhere, probably,” Moira says, brisk and unsympathetic.
“True,” Charles says, and makes a mental note to send her flowers or something.
The inclusion of “band practice” into Raven’s schedule is a little disconcerting; Charles is used to her being home before he is, most afternoons, or at least appearing around four with mugs of tea and a casually berating you were sitting in that position when I left this morning, how are you still there, please tell me you at least got up to use the bathroom. Now, she appears late in the evening looking happy but tired, and Charles finds himself wondering what to do with himself in the apartment when his little sister isn’t around.
He knows that, one day, Raven is going to have to move out, but he tries not to think about that too hard because it’s one of those things he’s quite happy leaving in the dark, unconsidered, until it’ll be too late to worry about it anyway.
“I need more friends who aren’t my sister,” he tells the empty apartment, opening the fridge to find an opened bottle of now-flat champagne, some orange juice and a forgotten Chinese takeout that’s almost definitely not edible anymore. He’s just considering how desperate it would be to go out and buy wine and ice cream, and whether he’s becoming Bridget Jones against his better judgement, when the doorbell rings.
“Raven said to keep you company,” Hank says, shoulders hunched over and awkward, holding takeout and wearing a sheepish smile.
It’s probably weird that Charles hangs out with his little sister’s friends, but he’s grateful enough not to question it or point this out. They settle on a terrible movie on Syfy and split the Thai food between them, saving some for Raven for when she gets back.
“You didn’t fancy going to her band rehearsal?” Charles asks, careful, and Hank shrugs.
“I’m used to people having practices that don’t involve me,” he says simply, and Charles thinks about Emma and her cheerleading and wonders if Hank expects people to pick him up and put him back down again; Charles doesn’t know how to ask about that without prying open a box he should really leave closed, so he settles for eating more noodles.
“How’s the tutoring going?” he remembers to ask when they’ve run out of food and are idly channel-hopping.
Hank looks slightly startled, and then says: “oh. Um. It’s going alright.”
“Has Alex spoken to you yet?” Charles asks.
Hank laughs. “No. Not one word. But he has started bringing me coffee.”
“That’s nice of him,” Charles offers.
“It’s from Starbucks and there isn’t one anywhere near school so I think he’s skipping last period to get it,” Hank tells him, “but, you know, he’s trying. Or maybe poisoning me slowly, I’m not really sure.”
“Devil’s in the details,” Charles muses, and thinks about offering Hank the flat champagne in the fridge.
“Are you stalking me now?” Erik asks, looking idly amused and tapping long fingers against a paper coffee cup.
“Little bit,” Charles replies, because saying I got your student tipsy and then interrogated him as to whether you ever got takeout coffee and where you got it from and then went there is sort of undignified.
“Good to know,” Erik says, folding himself into the chair opposite Charles. “Well, you’re persistent, I’ll give you that.”
“I’ve been called far worse,” Charles shrugs.
Erik pops the plastic lid off his coffee; he takes it plain black, and steam pours out. “How does Raven feel about your current field trip?”
“Raven doesn’t know,” Charles replies. “Otherwise she’d expressly forbid me and I tend not to disobey her when she gets specific.”
“Well, that’s the first positive score in parenting you’ve received so far,” Erik tells him, looking vaguely amused.
“You pulled a gun on a student,” Charles can’t help pointing out.
“And he hasn’t thought it was a good idea to bring a knife to school since,” Erik says evenly, taking a sip of his scalding coffee without flinching.
Charles blinks. “You’re actually rather marvellous, aren’t you?”
Erik smiles momentarily, soft and genuine, and then his face hardens. “Are we going to keep doing this?” he asks.
Charles has never been good at direct questions.
“Maybe?” he suggests. “I mean, you know, whatever Raven and Hank have told you about me probably isn’t true.”
“I’m responsible for the welfare of your sister,” Erik says calmly. “And you’re now resorting to stalking me in order to try to get me to sleep with you. Does no part of that strike you as inappropriate?”
Charles thinks that Erik is possibly not one to talk about inappropriate, but he doesn’t say it aloud.
“It’s what I do,” he sighs, eyes on his coffee cup. “It’s complicated.”
“It isn’t,” Erik says lightly. “It’s very, very simple. You’re not as complicated as you like to think you are. You like sex, you like chasing after people for it, but the ideas of intimacy and permanence scare the hell out of you. You’re high maintenance with an ugly side you’re terrified to show people and so you keep as many of them at arms’ length as you can, but you’re just charming enough to be able to get what you want from whoever you want whenever you want it. You want to think you’re more complex than you are, but frankly, Charles, in psychiatric terms, you’re boring.”
Charles swallows, stung, and finally manages: “do I have to pay for this analysis?” in an acidic tone.
Erik’s expression softens a little and he says: “no.” He stands up, digging a couple of bills out of his pocket, and puts them next to Charles’ cup. “You can have the coffee on me, too.”
Charles thinks about this and then twists around in his chair. “Does that make this a sort-of date?” he asks. “Admittedly one during which I got dumped, but.”
Erik’s mouth quirks. “It’s not me, it’s you,” he tells him dryly, and walks out.
“He’s moping,” Raven says in something above a stage whisper as she and Hank come inside.
“I’m not moping!” Charles shouts. He’s not. He’s just lying on the sofa a lot at the moment. He’s getting older. Perhaps he could be developing back problems of some description.
“He is moping,” Raven informs Hank. “We have eight bottles of wine in the fridge.”
“Maybe I’m thinking of throwing a dinner party!” Charles calls.
Raven appears in the living room, smirking down at him. “And who would you invite?” she asks. “Moira? Because she has to do her own cooking when she comes here.”
Charles scowls, folding his arms over his chest.
Hank comes in, face a twisting mixture of amusement and sympathy.
“Mr Lehnsherr shot him down in flames,” Raven explains, cheerful and brutal as she always is. “Flames.”
Hank looks thoughtful. “He told me to shut up and grow up and try to be more socially adjusted today,” he says. “Which seemed harsh even by Mr Lehnsherr’s standards.”
Charles doesn’t care. Charles doesn’t care. Charles doesn’t care.
“Wow,” Raven muses, “do you have to break everything, Charles?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Charles tells her firmly.
“This usually happens after he sleeps with them,” Raven informs Hank quietly, and Charles closes his eyes.
“Could you not?” he asks. “Just for once, could you not?”
Raven sighs and walks over to the sofa, shifting Charles around until she’s sitting down with his head in her lap, stroking his hair soothingly. Hank moves to sit in the nearest armchair.
“We’ll order in pizza and watch a horrible romcom,” Raven says. “Maybe two horrible romcoms. And then we’ll talk about all the ways you’re prettier than Katherine Heigl.”
Charles considers this, glancing at Hank to find he’s smiling slightly but doesn’t look at all perturbed by this suggestion.
“Do I get to drink wine?” he asks.
“One bottle,” Raven says. “And I get a glass.”
“Rich people drink a lot, don’t they?” Hank observes, sounding thoughtful.
“Only way to survive,” Charles tells him simply.
Moira comes over and makes him vaguely nourishing dinner one Friday night when Raven has dragged a reluctant Hank to his first ever house party (“no one will recognise you in contacts. It’ll be fun.” “It will not be fun.” “You will have fun if I tell you to have fun.”); Charles muses idly that one day Hank’s parents are going to ban him from seeing Raven and it’s going to be somewhat stressful when that happens.
It’s two a.m. and they’re debating the merits of scotch and a terrible-looking horror movie when Charles’ phone rings; he doesn’t recognise the number and answers cautiously. “Hello, Charles Xavier speaking.” There’s a hiccupping half-sob that he recognises instantly and sits up straighter, immediately defensive. “Raven, why aren’t you calling from your own phone?”
“I... don’t have it?” Raven responds. She sounds shaken but fine, and Charles slots the pieces together quickly enough.
“I take it I need to roll up with the bail money, yes?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Raven tells him quickly. “It’s all just a crazy misunderstanding, I promise.”
Charles believes her, although he thinks at some point he might need to sit his sister down and have a what the fuck is going on with you at the moment conversation.
“I’ll bail Hank out as well,” he says, “no need to get his parents involved. I’m on my way.”
“Thank you,” Raven says, and then adds: “I love you.”
She hangs up before he can reply and Charles closes his eyes as a wave of hot older brother protective rage pours through him.
Moira offers to come with him but Charles knows this is something he has to do himself; he shrugs into a cardigan and drives like a maniac down to the police station, hands shaking on the steering wheel. He fills out the paperwork and pays the bail for Raven and Hank, then paces while he waits for them to be released.
“Summers is back in, I see,” one officer says, and Charles turns his head to eavesdrop without even thinking about it.
“Grumpy little bastard,” another says, surprisingly venomous, and adds: “still, his family won’t get the bail money, he’ll be here ‘til at least Monday.”
Charles isn’t known for thinking his decisions through and before he really thinks about it he’s stepping up to the desk again and saying: “I’ll pay Alex Summers’ bail too.”
The officer looks suspicious but hands him another form and Charles starts writing before he can change his mind.
Raven looks tired but otherwise unharmed when she walks out, and Charles pulls her into a crushing hug that she returns, clinging to him for a long moment. When he lets her go he grabs Hank before he can object.
“Let’s never do this again,” he tells them fervently, and then thinks and adds: “Sean?”
“He said he had someone coming-” Hank begins, just as the door opens.
Erik looks as startled to see Charles as Charles feels seeing Erik.
“What-” Charles begins.
“I’m here for Cassidy,” Erik explains shortly. “Easier than getting his parents down here.”
The guy behind the desk does not seem surprised to see Erik at all; he hands over the paperwork without asking questions or saying anything, and Erik fills it in with a practiced air.
“Anyone know if Summers is here?” he asks, turning to them.
“Already taken care of,” Charles replies, and everyone turns to stare at him. “What?” he says. “What’s the point of having all this money if you can’t be a good samaritan from time to time?”
No one seems to know what to say to that, so Charles hugs Raven again. “You alright?” he asks, soft and private into her hair.
“Yeah,” she whispers back, and when he lets go, she adds: “Emma was here until Sebastian’s dad came for her, so, you know, I wasn’t alone and stuff.”
Charles is about to respond when Alex Summers comes out, looking vaguely bewildered, hunched inside a leather jacket like a defence mechanism. He looks at Erik, but Erik points at Charles, and Alex frowns. Erik goes over to him, sliding an arm around his shoulders, and starts talking in an undertone Charles can’t hear, despite his best efforts; he can’t tell if Alex is talking back or not, but he’s nodding a lot, and Charles watches Hank pretend not to watch.
Once Sean’s been released and Charles has checked that no one else they know has been left stranded in jail over the weekend, he looks around at the tired, sheepish faces of the teenagers, at Erik looking unattainable and vaguely amused, and then at his watch.
“It’s half three in the morning,” he says slowly, “I think that means pancakes all round, don’t you?”
vi. you’ve gotta keep trying, ‘cause things can’t get much worse.
Charles flirts with the bad-tempered diner waitress until she softens and keeps bringing them all coffee refills and stacks and stacks of pancakes; he catches Erik looking at him and smirking one of those unreadable smirks, and he smirks back.
“Who says being a manwhore doesn’t have its uses?”
“Oh my God,” Raven sighs, sleepy and still a little drunk, “he’s already told you he’s not going to sleep with you, get over it already.”
Her fingers are threaded through his under the table, though, clinging on tight, so Charles doesn’t bother with a sharp comeback.
Sean, sitting between Erik and Hank, keeps looking between them all, eyes shiny and all kinds of high as fuck. “Is anyone going to yell at any point?” he asks in a surprisingly deep voice, words overlapping and smudging together. “Because, like, we should get that out of the way.”
“I’m not going to yell at anyone,” Erik says. “Charles? Do you want to yell at anyone?”
Charles eats half a pancake, smothered in maple syrup, while he decides. “Nah,” he decides at last. “No shouting. I might look a bit disappointed sometime it isn’t four in the morning, but that’s a whole other thing, and you can pretend not to notice.”
Alex hasn’t said anything at all so far; he’s sitting on the edge of the booth, next to Hank; Charles can’t work out if he’s shy or tired or uncertain or making a plan to kill them all with the napkin dispenser and a butter knife. Hank seems to know when to pass the sugar or the syrup without Alex having to do anything, though, so Charles decides to leave it and not try to make conversation.
“We were in the garden,” Raven says later, “I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly the police were there and arresting everyone who couldn’t get over the fence in time.”
Sean’s fallen asleep against Erik’s shoulder and Erik isn’t shrugging him off; Charles fights not to smile at the sight, and instead says: “we clearly need to discuss the outfits you wear to parties in future. Make them more appropriate for quick getaways.”
Raven laughs and cuddles in a little closer, and Charles catches the tail end of Erik’s smile.
When they finally clear out, everyone reasonably sobered up and calmed down, Erik insists on paying half the bill.
“Does this count as another date that isn’t a date at all?” Charles asks, as they watch Alex and Hank have an utterly silent argument over shotgun in Charles’ car, Raven already dozing off in the backseat.
“You are a ridiculous man,” Erik says, and then claps a hand against Charles’ shoulder. “I’ll let you know.”
Erik drives Sean home and Charles drops off Raven and Hank at the apartment because he thinks he might stand a better chance of getting directions back to Alex’s if neither of them are around. Alex moves into shotgun and examines his fingernails for a long moment before providing Charles with his address in a low mumble, not looking at him. The streets are clear of traffic and the world is warm and grey and hazy, the time just before sunrise, and in spite of everything Charles feels weirdly peaceful, driving along with the radio a low hum while Alex looks at everywhere except him.
When they pull up outside Alex’s house Alex hesitates for a moment, before beginning: “I can- I mean, I’ll try and pay you back-”
“Don’t worry about it,” Charles tells him, thinking about the boy who might not talk to Hank but hasn’t punched him in the face yet, who keeps turning up for tutoring in spite of everything, who brings Hank coffee the way he likes it every week as a peace offering, who smiles just a little to himself when he knows Hank isn’t looking, and wonders if Hank has figured out that Alex has a crush on him yet. “Really,” he adds as Alex opens his mouth, “it’s fine. Go get some sleep.”
Alex nods, a hesitant and clearly little-used smile creeping across his mouth. “Thanks,” he says.
Charles watches him into the house, and then drives off into the dawn.
Moira comes over to yell at Raven a few days later; Charles hides in the kitchen and drinks two nervous mugs of well-sugared tea while her voice rises and falls in the living room. She was always much better at reprimanding than Charles ever was; he can only ever yell at Raven if it’s mutual, the kind of heated argument that combines bickering siblings with the proper parent/child row and it all ends up far more bitter and shattering because of it.
When Moira’s finished yelling, Charles goes to take over with the I’m kind of worried and disappointed and other emotions of that ilk until they’re both crying, and then decides that it’s probably all dealt with to the best of their combined abilities.
Later, when they’ve attempted to cook dinner for themselves, failed miserably and called in Chinese – they know them by now, which is possibly some kind of warning sign – Raven says: “so. Like. I probably owe you one or two or five, so you can totally sleep with Mr Lehnsherr if you want to. I’ll go stay at Sean’s or something.”
“Not Hank’s?” Charles asks.
“Persona non grata,” Raven responds briskly. “They’ll get over it eventually. Hank’s thinking of having a tutoring session with Alex at his house one weekend – something to do with an upcoming test – so, you know, his parents will love me once I’ve been compared to a possibly convicted felon.”
“Good plan,” Charles decides; he’s used the same sort of tactic in the past to make himself look more appealing so he can’t condemn Raven for it. “...Hank’s going to invite Alex over to his?”
“I think so,” Raven says. “Not worried, are you? I’m pretty sure Alex isn’t going to stab him in the face or anything.”
Charles decides that his own life is complicated enough with adding in anyone else’s problems, so he just says: “good to know,” and switches on the TV.
Raven reports that Erik is asking her all kinds of unprofessional questions about Charles that are definitely nothing to do with her psychological condition.
“What did you say?” Moira asks, helping herself to more red wine.
“I told him all about that time Charles probably slept with his biology teacher when he was seventeen,” Raven says blithely. “And how it was all hushed up and it took me years to work out what mom was shouting about.”
“You didn’t,” Charles breathes.
Raven shrugs. “He should know what he isn’t getting into,” she tells him, while Moira laughs.
“I’m not nearly as terrible as the things I’ve done in my life imply,” Charles informs them both.
“I also told him about your fellowship and that you’re a bit of a genius and that most of the time you remember to feed me,” Raven adds, reaching for the wine. Charles pulls it away from her; he’s trying out this responsible parent thing for a while, at least until he forgets.
“I’m sure he’ll take it badly that you’re making yourself sound like a pet,” Moira remarks. Since she got a boyfriend she’s usually had better things to do with her Friday nights, but she’s here and Charles isn’t asking.
“Shouldn’t you be spending your sessions talking about someone other than me?” Charles asks.
Raven shrugs. “Apparently he spends Hank’s sessions trying to diagnose Hank with emotional disorders he doesn’t have. If he wants to spend mine trying to work out whether or not to develop a crush on you then, you know, fair enough.”
“‘Whether or not to develop a crush on me’?” Charles echoes, as Moira downs her glass and murmurs: “sometimes I have no idea why I know you two.”
“You’d better still be interested,” Raven says reprovingly.
“The man told me I was boring,” Charles reminds her.
“So?” Raven frowns. “Didn’t one of your ex co-workers tell you you were crap in bed, and you still slept with her again. Twice.”
“Three times,” Moira corrects her absent-mindedly, and then sighs. “I need a life that doesn’t involve an encyclopaedic knowledge of Charles’ conquests.”
“But if you and Raven don’t remember for me then I’m doomed,” Charles points out.
Raven sighs. “I’m telling Mr Lehnsherr that you’re a really, really bad person.”
“He’s already told me that himself,” Charles tells her.
Moira gets up and goes to get another bottle of wine out of the fridge, looking vaguely forlorn. Charles still doesn’t ask; it’s better to wait for Moira, she’ll tell him in the end.
“Wow,” Raven says. “He’s really in trouble, then.”
“You make me sound like such a catch,” Charles mourns, reaching for the corkscrew.
Raven doesn’t expressly forbid Charles from coming to her first show, so he finds all the clothes stashed in his wardrobe from his younger days – still young he reminds himself, examining his reflection in clinging jeans, still fucking young – and messes his hair up in a way that looks attractive rather than like he’s been up for three days straight sticking ballpoint pens behind his ears. It’s been years since he’s been out in eyeliner and he spends a long moment dithering before remembering he’s going to a gig of a band whose frontman is Sean Cassidy, and it doesn’t really matter how he turns up.
He spots Hank quickly enough since the boy is taller than everyone else, but he decides not to go over; while he’s never acted like Raven’s dad, he’s aware that there’s still something parental about him, and he doesn’t want to spoil his night. He buys a beer – it’s cheap, nasty stuff, and Charles would be tempted to send crates of proper beer to all the students here just so they don’t think that this is what being an adult amounts to except that plying underage kids with drinks is going to look really bad – and lurks at the back, which is currently full of couples making out obnoxiously, wallflowers, and emo-looking kids in need of haircuts.
Charles can’t help but feel proud when the band comes on; Raven looks so good up there, dancing in a tight but not too short sparkly black dress, blonde hair shining under the crappy lights, dancing and singing along with Sean and laughing like she’s the happiest person alive right now. Charles whoops for her and resists the urge to punch every adolescent boy in here ogling Raven’s thighs.
“She’s good,” a voice next to him, and Charles turns his head to find Erik.
“Okay, are you stalking me now?” Charles shouts back.
“Cassidy invites me to these,” Erik replies, fingers warm against the small of Charles’ back, leaning down a little to speak right into his ear, close enough to make him shiver a little. “It’s a better look into his psyche than any number of therapy sessions.”
Raven’s blowing kisses at Hank, who’s flushing and trying to cower and being generally ridiculous and adorable and incapable of handling this situation.
“I think Hank gets a gold star for coming tonight,” Charles says, and when Erik frowns and leans in to hear him, he repeats it into his ear, breathing in the scent of cologne and sweat on Erik’s skin.
“I can’t work out if Raven’s been good for him or the worst thing that could have happened,” Erik informs him.
“I feel that way about her myself,” Charles responds, and is caught off-guard by his own honesty. He thinks Erik is too, from a sudden softening in what he can see of his face. Charles takes a deep breath and says: “I’m drunk.”
He feels rather than hears Erik laugh. “Isn’t that always the case?”
Charles could protest innocence but what he actually says is: “I’m drunk; d’you want to dance?”
Erik considers it for a moment while Sean screams into the microphone, the sound haunting and crazy and it makes the dancing crowd scream back at him, chanting Banshee Banshee Banshee loud enough to make Charles’ ears ring.
“I’m surrounded by students who’ll eventually recognise me and this place is a toilet,” Erik shouts back at Charles.
“Is that a ‘no’?” Charles asks.
Erik’s fingers curl around Charles’ elbow and he leans back in to say: “let’s go somewhere else.”
Charles feels a smile break over his face, and he follows him out.
Erik’s idea of a club isn’t like the clubs where Charles spent his underage teen years or his time at uni when Raven was sleeping over at Moira’s; the music is sharp and metallic and the lights flash so brilliant white they almost hurt. Charles matches Erik shot for shot even though he gets the feeling he’s going to want to die in the morning; the way Erik’s lips curl semi-incredulously whenever Charles meets his gaze and asks for another is so worth the hangover tomorrow.
They stumble onto the dancefloor when neither of them are really capable of standing upright without leaning on each other, shifting against each other in a way that’s filthy and barely co-ordinated and kind of really wonderful, and Charles is suddenly glad he didn’t do this in a vicinity that involved Raven because there are some things that should be done a safe distance from your sister.
“I expected more game from you,” Erik hisses into his ear when the beat drops and Charles feels the words the entire length of his body.
“I didn’t think you’d enjoy me telling you you’re a little bit mutated and that makes you sexy,” Charles tells him, and Erik laughs, low and dirty and private.
“You might as well try,” he says, and Charles manages to get out something along the lines of: “you know-” before Erik’s mouth presses against his, fierce and hot, swallowing the words Charles was attempting whole. Charles kisses back, fisting his hands in Erik’s shirt, because he’s tired of being an adult and Raven’s brother and having a fellowship, he just wants the simple slide that comes from kissing until your lips hurt, from being numb with alcohol so that every inch of you tingles in a lazy, detached way, from having the heat of another person that you want so much it’s like an ache pressed against up against you, heart slamming in time. Erik tastes like vodka and cigarettes, his teeth catching Charles’ lower lip for a moment, his fingertips pressed to the bare sweating skin of Charles’ back. He can’t tell if this is a bad idea or a good idea or some kind of weird middle ground, and he doesn’t care either, just as long as Erik doesn’t stop.
When they finally pull apart Erik stares at him in the ragged white lighting before he pulls back, groping for Charles’ hand and pulling him outside.
“I’m not going to sleep with you, Charles,” he says calmly.
“Ever?” Charles asks, and feels like he might be pouting.
“I don’t know,” Erik says, and he at least sounds honest and a little bit confused.
“Is this because of that threesome I had with my university lecturer and his wife?” Charles can’t help asking. “Because that was, you know, before I adopted Raven and things.”
Erik bursts out laughing; real, shaking laughter that has him almost losing his balance. “Oh, Charles,” he chokes when he can get a breath, “you really must never, ever say anything you think aloud.”
Charles is about to say something loud and insulted when Erik kisses him again; he’d complain about the fact Erik seems to want to keep him off-guard but he’s too busy enjoying it, curling his fingers in the back of Erik’s hair and licking into his mouth.
Erik leaves him ten minutes later, folding himself into a cab and winding down the window so he can light a cigarette.
“You’re infuriating,” Charles informs him earnestly.
“Goodnight, Charles,” is all Erik says.
Charles is actually, for once, doing real genuine work that involves him writing serious actual words for a presentation he has to give next week; he is periodically distracted by flashing memories of Erik Lehnsherr’s mouth, Jesus, but he’s doing a tolerably good job of concentrating until music starts blaring from Raven’s room.
He’s probably in need of a study break, actually, given how stiff his muscles are when he goes to find out what’s going on; he sort-of recognises the song from the radio back in England, a bright supposedly empowering pop song that isn’t the sort of thing Raven usually listens to. She doesn’t answer when he knocks so he thinks about it for a moment and then tries the door handle; they’re very good at locking things when they really want privacy, after all.
Inside, Raven is dancing. No; he realises after a moment, not dancing but cheering. Her movements are fluid but regimented, moving steadily to the beat in a clearly fixed routine.
We can do it even better in broken heels the song insists and Raven executes a high kick Charles didn’t know she was capable of. He leans against the door frame and watches, bemused, wondering if this is the sort of thing people are supposed to hold interventions about. When the song ends Raven turns but doesn’t seem surprised to see him there.
“...do I want to ask?”
She shrugs. “Hank and I were helping Emma work out a routine.”
Charles can’t suppress a smile. “I’d pay good money to see Hank cheering.”
Raven laughs even as she tells him: “he’s actually far more co-ordinated than you were at his age.”
Charles decides to be offended later. “So why the repeat performance at home?”
“Emma said she’d let me try out if I wanted,” Raven shrugs. “So I’m thinking about it. You know, becoming a cheerleader.”
Charles feels his eyebrows lift towards his hairline. “As well as being in the band?” he manages.
“Why not?” Raven shrugs.
“Look at you,” Charles laughs, “you’re like a High School Musical movie all on your own.”
Raven rolls her eyes and pushes past him on the way to the kitchen. “I’m removing the Disney Channel from our cable.”
“But Wizards of Waverly Place!” Charles wails, trailing after her.
“Oh my God,” Raven sighs where she’s filling a glass with tap water, “do some fucking work already.”
She might kind of have a point.
Two days later, Raven calls him up and tells him she needs a ride home from school.
“You don’t,” Charles tells her.
“No,” she agrees, “but you should come anyway.”
Charles passes Alex in the halls; Alex is carefully carrying two Starbucks cups of coffee and he gives Charles a hesitant half-smile in response to Charles’ cheerful greeting. Emma nods at him as she sweeps past, expression so completely still and composed it’s a little unnerving. He gets a massive hug from Sean, who seems far too stoned for a school environment, and as he continues to where Raven said she’d be, Charles can’t help wondering how exactly he seems to have got to know all the students with some kind of disorder at his sister’s school.
Raven loops an arm through his when he finds her and starts telling him a story neither of them care about involving her gym class and a volley ball, and Charles is about to demand something out of her when they all but run into Erik.
“Band practice,” Raven says quickly, which is actually a lie, and she disappears. Charles makes a mental note to wring her neck later.
“Hi,” he says carefully.
Erik’s smiling like he’s in on a joke that Charles wouldn’t understand even if it were explained to him. “Hi,” he replies. “I see Raven’s decided that matchmaking would be more fun than complaining.”
“She hasn’t asked you to be her new daddy, has she?” Charles asks worriedly.
Erik laughs, warm and abrupt. “You really need to learn when not to talk,” he says. “Your lack of brain to mouth filter is shocking.”
“I think you like it,” Charles tells him.
“That does seem to be a problem I’m having,” Erik agrees. “It’s strange, really, because nothing about you is particularly endearing.”
“It’s alright,” Charles replies, “I really need to find your rudeness less charming.”
Erik gives him an assessing look and then reaches into his pocket, drawing out a folded yellow Post-It note. He hands it to Charles and says: “I’m going to walk away now.”
Charles unfolds the Post-It to find a telephone number written in thick black marker. “Does this mean we’re dating?” he shouts after Erik.
“No,” Erik shouts back.
“Does this mean we’re not dating?” he shouts.
“No,” Erik calls over his shoulder.
Charles smiles to himself and pockets the number, whistling as he walks back to his car.
Part III: Alex
vii. you don’t say a single word of the last two years; where you were or when you reached the frontier.
Scott’s waiting by the school gate, looking lost in a sweater that’s too big for him, biting on his lip.
Alex immediately feels like the shittiest big brother in the world.
He kind of is, actually; not that Scott’s noticed, young enough to be kept protected from the worst of the things Alex has done and the decisions he should never have made. Alex knows it’s only a matter of time before someone says something to Scott or Alex fucks up badly enough that no amount of piggyback rides and Saturdays at the arcade can fix it, and Scott will look at him with something other than love and hero worship in his eyes; he’s dreading it and kind of looking forward to it in equal amounts, because he doesn’t really deserve to have the moment when Scott’s face lights up on seeing him.
“Sorry, kid,” he says, dropping to his knees to hug him. Scott clings to him, a little too tight, and Alex shuts his eyes for a moment, mired in self-hatred.
You have to go easier on yourself, Erik says, but Erik doesn’t know shit.
“‘s alright,” Scott says, even though it isn’t, not really.
Alex stands up, carefully not letting go of Scott, shifting his weight onto his hip; he’s too big for this, really, but Alex doesn’t care because it’s worth it for the way Scott laughs and buries his face in Alex’s neck. On the other side of the playground Scott’s teacher is watching them; she knows everything, took Alex aside one afternoon and told him that while she didn’t mind him picking Scott up, she didn’t want him to set foot in the school. Scott doesn’t notice that Alex never comes in, but then Scott is six; there’s a lot he doesn’t notice. Thank fuck.
He starts walking home, still carrying Scott, saying: “so, how was your day?”
Scott shrugs. “It was okay.” He’s started getting this way, holding back on things, and Alex can’t work out if Scott’s just trying to copy him or if he’s actually stopped wanting to talk about stuff. It worries Alex, something else on the long, long list of shit he lies awake at night reciting until it’s practically dawn and he wants to break something, he’s so tired. Maybe he’ll ask his mom about it.
Alex jiggles Scott a little and says: “how’s Jean?” instead, because he’s the big brother and that means he doesn’t have to play fair.
Scott blushes a hilarious shade of red and whines: “Alex, you said you wouldn’t ask anymore!”
“I lied,” Alex tells him, sticking out his tongue. “I want to know everything about my little brother’s girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Scott protests, which is a lie, there’s been handholding and clumsily-written I love you notes with shiny pink sticker hearts on them, and it’s all so cute Alex can’t even stand it.
“I think somebody’s lying, kid,” he teases, using his free hand to tickle Scott until he’s shouting and laughing and squirming.
“Okay!” Scott shouts, wriggling until Alex puts him down, “okay, okay, I give up!”
It’s only when he looks up at Alex with bright shining eyes that Alex lets himself breathe out, just a little.
Scott is allowed to go and play at Jean’s house, but she’s not allowed to come and play at theirs. Scott hasn’t realised this yet, but he will, and when he does Alex has no idea what he’s going to say to him. He has no idea how fix any of this.
The school’s smokers gravitate to the area behind the science block, which is windy and unfriendly but at least out of the way of most people. The teachers have to know about it by now, but they’ve never tried to do anything about it.
Angel is leant against the wall, painfully white Hellfire Club uniform covered in a black coat Alex thinks might’ve belonged to Darwin once. Angel is Darwin’s girlfriend on something like alternate months; they spend a lot of time arguing and hurting each other but they’ve never managed to put an official end to whatever it is that’s going between them, and Alex has stopped trying to get involved because he has enough crap of his own to deal with.
“Hey, asshole,” she says, words tumbling out with the smoke.
“Hey, bitch,” he responds, and catches the cheap lighter she throws his way.
Angel’s okay. She upsets Darwin sometimes and she’s a cheerleader which automatically makes her a special brand of evil and Alex is going to find some way of stopping her from casually bullying Hank at some point, but she’s better people than a lot of the kids here and she still kind of talks to him like he’s a person, which is more than he gets most of the time.
Alex lights a cigarette he doesn’t really want to smoke and thinks about what they’re doing in his English class right now and about the essay on Of Mice and Men in his locker. You really need to learn to stop shooting yourself in the foot, Erik told him once, and Alex said that that was easy for him to say and Erik shifted and said it wasn’t and didn’t give him any more details.
“You get slow, Emma’s going to kick you off,” he tells Angel instead, because when he gets tired of needling himself he likes to needle the people who still put up with him.
Angel rolls her eyes; she’s pretty, Alex has always thought she’s pretty, but she’s wearing too much mascara and it makes him picture a future for her involving stripping and loneliness, and Alex might be an asshole but he doesn’t wish that on her. “I’m good,” she informs Alex, a long casual slide of flirtation he doesn’t give a fuck about, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Alex thinks about the empty desk next to Darwin’s in his English classroom and the inevitable detention and Darwin spending lunch telling him he’s an ass with soft concern in his eyes, while Alex glowers at his sandwiches and someone behind them whispers ugly things.
“I heard Emma’s holding try-outs,” he says aloud.
“Not to replace me,” Angel scoffs, tone all bitch, please.
Hank sits in the front row of Alex’s English class, because he’s a nerd and a loser and all those things Alex shouldn’t fucking bother with, and sometimes, about once a week, he turns around and smiles before he realises he shouldn’t do shit like that. Alex never smiles back, but he thinks about doing it sometimes.
“Because you can win Nationals with lung disease and yellowed fingers,” he snaps back, because he can, while Angel inhales until the ash hits the filter. She drops it to the ground, crushing it with a white sneaker.
“And what about you?” she demands, stuffing her hands into her pockets.
Alex shrugs. “Nobody gives a fuck about me.”
Angel smiles, thin and mean, and says: “you just wish that was true,” before she leaves.
She’s aimed to sting and it does; Alex throws his half-smoked cigarette to the ground but even if he leaves right now he’ll still be half an hour late to class. He stays where he is.
Alex can always tell when Hank is thinking about something. He can’t tell what the something is, not like Hank and his weird disturbing way of being able to figure out what Alex is brooding about just from the lift of an eyebrow, but there’s something in the way Hank bites his lower lip and shifts in his chair that means he’s distracted. Sometimes Alex wants to ask, but he never does.
They’ve moved onto trigonometry, to bits of triangles and lines and cosines and all kinds of shit that Alex can state for a fact will never be useful, but Ms Monro has started to look relieved instead of pitying and while Alex knows it’s only a matter of time before he does something unforgivable to Hank, he kind of likes these quiet hours tucked away in the week where no one seems to ever expect anything of him.
Darwin’s tried coaching him at small talk, at something easy and simple he can say to start something like a conversation, but Alex knows that once he opens real communication with Hank he’s a ticking time bomb until he says or does something so hurtful Hank will never come back. It might be stupid, keeping up a constant and impenetrable silence, but at least while he’s got his mouth shut he’s not deliberately sabotaging their- well, whatever the fuck this is.
Hank is nice and smart and quiet and socially invisible and none of the things that Alex is, and Alex doesn’t want to hurt him because Hank’s never done anything to deserve it. He knows he will, though, because Alex is good at fucking up anything that comes near him.
“I was thinking,” Hank begins, startling Alex out of a calculation, “you’ve got that test coming up next week.”
Alex carefully puts his pencil down because Hank’s voice is hesitant and Alex is aware his hands might be shaking.
“So,” Hank pushes on, like this is a conversation and not just him talking at Alex’s blanket silence, “I was thinking you might want to come over to my house and we could do a few hours of specific revision. This weekend. Um. If you wanted.”
Alex blinks. He doesn’t know what he was expecting but it wasn’t that. Hank takes a breath, lips moving for a second like he’s considering nervous babble, the kind Alex knows other people get because Alex watches, okay. He stays quiet in the end, and Alex doesn’t really know what to do with that.
“Okay,” Hank says quietly, already turning his attention back to his homework. “Well. Let me know.”
Alex shouldn’t do this, he shouldn’t, he can’t. He bites his lips, yes pressing against his teeth.
Thursday night, Alex is babysitting Scott while their mom works. She works a lot of nights, fast asleep on the sofa when Alex gets back in the afternoon. She’s worn thin, exhausted from grief and guilt and anger, and Alex has no idea how she handles any of it.
Darwin’s come over tonight; Scott loves him almost as much as he loves Alex, and Alex knows Darwin loves Scott. It’s hard not to love Scott, he’s such a bright kid, sweet and cheerful and clever and kind. He got all the good genes that skipped straight over Alex.
“They had the cheerleading tryouts today,” Darwin says quietly when they’ve all eaten and Scott is dozing off in front of a Batman cartoon.
“Does this mean you and Angel are back on again?” Alex asks neutrally. His arm’s going dead where Scott’s leant against it, but he doesn’t move.
Darwin laughs softly. “Something like that,” he says. He’s silent for a moment before adding: “Hank was there.”
Alex still isn’t sure what this thing with Hank is, this thing that makes him feel sick and scared and desperate every time Hank’s name is mentioned, when they’re in the same vicinity. Darwin calls it a crush because things are simple to him, things make sense in his world and they never do to Alex.
“Raven was trying out,” Darwin explains, voice calm and even and steady, the way he tells Alex everything these days. “She’s good, actually, Angel thinks she’ll get on the squad.”
Alex isn’t sure that any of this information is relevant to him; just because the world seems to want to shove him in the direction of Raven Darkholme and her crazy British brother doesn’t mean he gives a shit about what she does with her life. Or what Hank does with his life. Or about any of them. Alex doesn’t want or need friends; the only reason he’s friends with Darwin is because the stupid fucker refuses to leave. He visited Alex in prison once a week every week, calm and steady and unflappable, chatting away like they were sitting in his mom’s kitchen and not in a concrete room surrounded by guys in jumpsuits with blood on their hands and nothing in their eyes.
“I’m going to Hank’s this weekend,” he says quietly, offering up the information under the Joker’s cackle of laughter; Scott shifts in his light sleep and Alex slides fingers into his hair to soothe him. “Revision for that test.”
Darwin smirks in the dim light from the television set and doesn’t look at him.
“Please,” Alex says. “Hank doesn’t understand subtext. If he had anything else on his mind I’d be able to tell.”
“Because you have such people skills,” Darwin murmurs dryly. “Nothing ever gets past you.”
Alex elbows him and Darwin elbows him back and they jostle Scott awake; he glares at them, gently reproachful, and they all fall silent and go back to watching the cartoon.
“It’ll be fine, you know,” Darwin says eventually, barely above a whisper.
Alex doesn’t believe him and they both know that, but he doesn’t say it aloud and Darwin doesn’t try to correct him.
When he was released from prison Alex saw three different court-approved psychiatrists and therapists before they finally handed him over to the school’s counsellor, stating that he had to attend at least once a week or his probation would get kind of messy.
Alex decided to deal with Mr Lehnsherr the way he’d dealt with six psychiatrists since his father died; with a stony, vicious silence that made them all start out understanding and end up bitter and broken and fed up. Everyone gives up on you in the end, Alex has learned; it might take some people longer than others, but in the end you wind up alone and abandoned. Always.
Mr Lehnsherr had a smile with too many teeth in and a bare office with no inspirational posters about mental health or life in general or anything in it, and the thin, mean look of a guy with bodies under concrete in his basement. He watched Alex’s glare and calculated silence for five minutes without saying anything, and then said: “I’m Erik.”
Alex had had his fair share of call-me-by-my-first-name-and-now-we’re-friends psychiatrists, and while he didn’t say it aloud, he let his scorn curl across his face.
Erik grinned. “Oh,” he said, “I’m not trying to be your friend here. I have no interest in being your friend because I’ve read your file and you’re an asshole. But I think we can let formality slide since we’re basically here to keep you from killing anyone else.”
That pissed Alex off enough to get him to talk, swiftly defensive: “read your fucking file again, I haven’t killed anyone.”
Erik’s expression remained calm. “Not through any sort of intention,” he pointed out. “The only reason you’re not a murderer is blind luck. Next time you stab a guy in the neck you’ll do it an inch to the left and then there won’t be any hand-holding and early releases.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Alex told him.
Erik arched an eyebrow. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Because I’m not.”
Alex wasn’t sure either, to be honest. He’d always thought of himself as a kid who rebelled because he was angry and fucked up and it was the only way to drag back a few inches of control, but then he’d tried to get out of it all, of the petty crime and the vandalism and the casual terrorising and they’d brought up Scott, his fucking five year old brother who worshipped him for some reason, the only thing Alex still loved in the whole fucking world, and he’d been so angry he hadn’t seen red, he’d seen white, so much white.
By the time he was in control of himself again there was a knife in his hands that wasn’t his and blood everywhere and he was screaming: “you don’t fucking touch him, you don’t fucking dare, you piece-of-shit cunts.”
He dropped the knife and someone he hadn’t hurt was on their phone already and he walked outside with his shirt splashed with blood so dark it looked black and sat down on the kerb and waited for the police to come. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do.
Hank’s address is written in his messy, cramped hand on a piece of torn graph paper, already worn from being folded and unfolded too many times in Alex’s pocket.
(Try not to fuck this up, Erik told him firmly on Friday afternoon, fingers tapping a caffeinated tattoo on the edge of his desk. I know burning bridges is your favourite pastime, but sooner or later you’re going to set yourself on fire. Alex thought about telling him he was already burning, but it sounded pretentious and he’s tired of getting himself tangled in Erik’s stupid metaphors and anyway, Erik already knows.)
Hank’s parents aren’t home; Hank was careful to tell him this and Alex could take it one way but knows Hank just means that they won’t be there to disapprove. Parents don’t like Alex, they think he’s going to lead their kids to do bad things or else he’s going to strangle them if he doesn’t get his own way. Alex is tempted to prove them right just because he can. He spent years thinking he wasn’t really a bad kid underneath it all, just his dad was dead and nothing made much sense and he was just angry and tired and a little bit sad, but then everything happened and he’s starting to think he’s probably worse than the rumours they make up about him. Irredeemable. Evil. Whatever the fuck they want to call him this week.
Hank’s house is small but very, very tidy and in a better part of town than Alex’s. His bedroom has stars on the ceiling and a plain blue coverlet on the bed and before Alex can stop himself he thinks about being pushed down into those covers with Hank’s irrationally large hands on his hips and looking up at those stars over the curve of Hank’s shoulder, but he shoves that thought away fast because it’s not something he’s allowed to think about.
Hank gives him a sweet, soft smile and asks if he wants lemonade, and Alex doesn’t, not really, but he’s too busy trying not to be distracted by proximity and want, so he lets Hank leave and sits down on the blue coverlet. It’s soft and worn under his hands and he clenches his fists in it until he can breathe again.
It doesn’t matter, not really. Hank wouldn’t have been an option before and he definitely isn’t, in this tight twilight world of after.
Alex wonders if Hank minds that he never talks, barely smiles, communicates in a series of scowls and frowns that Hank seems to have figured out without Alex having to explain or demonstrate or anything. He doesn’t seem to, passing over sheets of paper and suggestions and smiling softly when he corrects Alex so it doesn’t feel like a rebuke, so careful it almost stings.
“I think you’re going to be fine,” Hank tells him. There’s something uneasy in the line of his shoulders, something that’s not there when he’s laughing with Raven in the halls, but there something trusting there too. Alex doesn’t know what to do with that trust, other than shatter it; he fumbles together something like a smile to buy time, and Hank’s gaze drops away from his face, something awkward in it.
Alex reflects, on the long walk home, that neither of them are really adequate enough to manage a friendship, let alone anything else.
It’s not like Alex goes out of his way to be a dick or anything, but about once a week someone says something that cuts too deep or he’s just got fucking sick of the way the others look at him, like he’s going to lash out in a geography class and start cutting people up (which he can’t, by the way, because he gets a really undignified strip search on entering school every day, the kind of thing that makes him grit his teeth and wonder why he even bothers), and someone gets punched in the face.
Erik seems to have some kind of goddamn sixth sense for Alex and violence, because he’s always there, calm and sarcastic. Today he’s even smirking a little when Alex looks up at him, blood across his knuckles and shaking so badly he doesn’t know if he wants to scream or cry or be sick or some combination of all three.
“Come on,” Erik says, “field trip.”
Alex goes, because it’s better than the alternative.
“Where are we going?” he asks when they’re in Erik’s tiny very silver car. Erik’s field trips range from going to get more coffee to driving Alex to cliffs and threatening to push him off them, so Alex never knows what to expect. He swears Erik is making up half this shit as he goes along, anyway.
“Wait and see,” Erik responds, rolling down the window so he can have a cigarette. Alex thinks about asking for one, but he doesn’t like smoking, it’s just something he does.
It’s not until they’re sitting in a university lecture theatre that Alex realises just what the fuck is going on.
“No,” he says, standing up, “fuck no, I am not getting involved in this.”
Erik puts a hand on his arm, forcing him to sit back down. “You lost the right to choose when you lost your temper.”
“This is stalking,” Alex informs him. “Well-lit public stalking.”
Erik shrugs, raising an eyebrow like he’s saying: so?
“Fucking hell,” Alex mutters, folding his arms across his chest.
Raven’s crazy brother – and he is crazy, Alex knows, because no one looks at Erik and thinks hey, I’d like to tap that because the man is fucking terrifying – is also apparently kind of intelligent, because Alex has no idea what’s coming out of his mouth. Something to do with genetics, and he waves his hands around a lot when he talks and makes a lot of what are apparently jokes because the students around them keep laughing and he is, Alex supposes, kind of good-looking if you like short over-privileged British guys who seem to be drunk all the time.
Erik apparently does, because when Alex glances sideways Erik is eyeraping him. It’s a bit traumatising.
“What part of therapy is this?” he whispers, when Charles gets out a load of slides.
“The punishment part,” Erik whispers back.
Alex hates him.
He thinks he dozes off at some point, because it’s warm and dark in here and Charles’ voice is kind of soft and soothing – probably something to do with the British thing – and it’s kind of nice to not be at school right now. His hand is aching and his body is still fizzing with stale adrenaline and he gets the feeling when he goes back to school he’s going to get shouted at a lot.
“Time to go,” Erik says right next to his ear, startling him awake; the lights are back on and Charles is packing up, a group of giggling students around him. It’s like that bit in the Indiana Jones movie, only Alex is too far away to see whether any of them have things written on their eyelids.
“Why are we leaving?” he asks. “You didn’t drive all the way over here to avoid talking to Xavier, that’s ridiculous.”
Erik glares at him, but he was the one who dragged Alex here. “Come on,” he says, low and hard.
Alex thinks about it as he gets up, and then walks down the lecture hall stairs, ignoring Erik’s annoyed hisses behind him. Charles looks surprised to see him before he catches sight of Erik trailing behind him, and his whole face lights up. Alex is pretty sure no one has ever looked at Erik like that and he sighs, shrugging in answer to Charles’ greeting.
“Erik!” Charles says delightedly. “You came to see one of my lectures! Unexpectedly!”
“If I told you I was coming you’d only have thrown over the lecture to harass me,” Erik says neutrally, but he’s smirking in a way that might be flirtatious on someone else with fewer teeth. Alex perches on the edge of Charles’ desk and pretends not to know either of them. At least the last few students in here aren’t staring at him; either they don’t know or don’t care, and whatever it is it’s a relief.
“I might have slipped in a few hints about how eminently dateable I am,” Charles muses, because Charles apparently has no fucking idea what’s good for him. “But I’m a professional.”
Erik makes a soft amused sound. “That’s not one of the first things I would call you.”
Charles opens his mouth and Alex can’t even stand this anymore. “Just stop,” he says. “This is worse than the eyefucking over pancakes. I am so embarrassed for both of you right now.”
Charles laughs, but Erik looks immediately defensive. “I’m taking you back to school,” he says. “I hope you get a lot of detentions.”
“Always lovely to see you both,” Charles calls after them.
“Please tell me you’re actually sleeping together,” Alex says when they’re back in the car.
“I’m not discussing this with you,” Erik says stiffly.
Alex takes this to mean no. “Jesus,” he mutters, and reaches to turn the radio on.
viii. so tell me what your best friend knows that i don’t know.
Scott was still young enough to be conned into thinking Alex was going to some kind of summer camp; Alex wrote faithfully, strings of lies about friends and activities and sunshine. He lay awake in his cell at night – solitary confinement, after that time he lashed out with knuckles and nails, terrified of what could happen to him, a kid in jail with a pretty mouth – and tried to picture his brother until the tears ran silently down his cheeks to soak into his pillow. Until those months, he’d always thought crying yourself to sleep was a cheap line in literature.
His mom came to visit, looking tired and worn and old suddenly, visits that made Alex feel worse rather than better and he never knew what to say to her. There was never anything to say.
He was broken by the time his appeal came around, strings pulled somewhere in the system, and they let him out because he’d learned his lesson and no one had actually died and maybe they felt sorry for him, folded over in his chair in a faded suit and bruised hollow eyes.
Alex does his homework at Darwin’s kitchen table like he has done since he was a kid and Darwin pushed him over in a sandbox and informed him they were best friends now. Darwin’s mom used to hover around, pulling Alex in for crushing comforting hugs, offering them snacks, telling Alex he was always welcome and that he was a poor kid. She doesn’t do that anymore, but she hasn’t banned him from the house either, so it could be a lot worse. Alex isn’t sure what he’d do without Darwin, without having one person who smiles at him with no fear in it at all, without having someone who believes in him even though he should have given up by now.
Sometimes, Alex finds himself wondering what it will take to get him to leave, and if he can bring himself to do it.
“I think Hank’s been good for you,” Darwin says the third time Alex corrects his math homework without even thinking, citing all the places he screwed up his calculations.
“Don’t even,” Alex says, kicking his calf under the table.
“I’m not actually blind,” Darwin informs him, smirking. “I know you like to think you go around scowling and telling people to fuck off and they never see that you have real human emotions underneath, but then you’re kind of an idiot.”
Alex sticks out his tongue, quick and childish. “Such a fucking charmer. I’m going to trade you in for Hank, at least he’s semi-convinced I’ll hurt him if he insults me.”
“That’s an excellent quality in a friend,” Darwin murmurs, rolling his eyes.
Alex laughs and for a moment it’s like nothing’s changed since they were kids with grazed knees and matching grins.
Sean Cassidy is Alex’s lab partner, mostly because they enjoy tormenting the rest of their class. Between Sean’s irresponsible general stoner personality and the way everyone’s at least semi-convinced Alex is a serial killer the other students edge around them, flinching whenever either of them touch chemicals. Alex is sometimes tempted to ask the room if they really think either of them are actually intelligent enough to create some kind of murder weapon, but he prefers to settle for glowering and watching everyone flinch.
“Summers!” Sean greets him, cheerful and bright, “my man!”
“Still not your man, Sean,” Alex mutters, dropping into the chair next to him. He does let Sean fist-bump him, partly ‘cause he likes the guy, and partly ‘cause it makes everyone around them look worried, like they’re part of some kind of cult with a secret handshake or some shit like that.
“You’re ridiculous, Summers,” Sean says, the guy wearing sunglasses indoors and a lazy smeared grin.
Alex rolls his eyes and doesn’t say anything, because silence and violence are all he really has on his side. Sean doesn’t give a fuck that Alex ended up in prison for trying to kill someone, which is cool, but he also doesn’t give a fuck about most aspects of his life, so Alex can’t really let himself feel special.
The only bad thing about having Sean as a lab partner is the fact Alex actually has to do most of the work to scrape a passing grade, because there is no way in hell Sean is ever going to do any of it. At least not in English; the last time Alex let him take care of the homework Sean turned up with a page of tiny intense pictograms that had apparently made sense at four a.m. while fucked up on whatever it is Sean fucks himself up on, but didn’t make sense to anyone else. Alex ignores Sean humming to himself, fingers twitching against the desk like they’re pressed to the frets of a guitar, and copies the questions down from the blackboard.
“House party Saturday,” Sean tells him eventually.
Alex flicks to the back of the textbook to find the answer to question six. “The last party I got dragged to I ended up in jail,” he reminds Sean.
“That was awesome,” Sean says, because Sean is off his fucking face, and also because Sean is a fucking idiot. Alex is pretty sure they saw a heroin addict die in there before they got bailed out.
“Other one,” he says, running a finger down the index.
“Right,” Sean agrees. “That was crap. We won’t get arrested this time.”
“Still not coming,” he mutters.
“Hank’s coming,” Sean says cheerfully, and seriously, what the fuck is wrong with everyone in Alex’s life right now?
“I can hurt you,” he tells him.
Sean bursts into stoner giggles, rocking in his chair while everyone else looks alarmed, and Alex gives up on getting anything done today.
Erik tells Alex he thinks he needs medication, and Alex throws his stapler at his head. Erik catches it out of the air with seriously cool ninja reflexes but Alex is too angry to care.
“I thought you didn’t want to fucking change me,” he snarls, “you’re just like the others, I knew you were.”
That pisses Erik off, because Alex knows where everyone’s buttons are and just how hard to hit. “You’re a coward,” he shouts back at Alex, eyes hard and mean and cold, “you’re too scared to find out what life would be like if you were functional, so you hide behind your anger and your depression-”
“I’m not depressed!” Alex protests. “I’m just fucked up, okay, don’t go slapping your stupid shitty analytical labels on me because you’re crap at your job.”
“You’re not fucked up,” Erik insists, a vein jumping in his temple, and part of Alex is dispassionately wondering how far he can push before Erik punches him, “that’s a label you’ve stuck on yourself because you’re terrified of what’s actually going on.”
“Don’t pretend you know fucking anything about me,” Alex shouts, and slams the door behind him.
The world is flashing red and white in front of his eyes and his legs are shaking and he can barely walk, stumbling into a wall and screaming between his teeth because no one gets it, okay, there’s nothing to save and nothing to fix in him, nothing at all.
The school’s trophy cabinets are too bright and there’s a photograph in there, Alex as a freshman grinning and part of his team and that was a lie because he was never really that kid and the next thing he knows he’s put his fist through the glass. He doesn’t even feel it, can only see it, and there’s an alarm ringing somewhere and maybe if they put him away somewhere they’ll do a better job this time, throw away the key and keep him away from people.
“Alex,” and it’s Hank, fuck, it’s Hank, and Alex doesn’t know why he’s here and why he’s bothering but he can’t speak and he thinks he’ll explode if Hank touches him, shatter into bits. “Alex, come on.”
Alex gets three steps before he collapses, sinking down the wall and slamming his fist into the bricks and Hank looks very very white but sits down next to him anyway, not quite close enough to touch, and Alex wants him to leave but he can’t talk to him, he can’t fuck Hank up because Hank doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t deserve anything even though Alex wants him so much it scares the hell out of him because he has no idea what to do with it.
He only realises he’s crying when he finds he can’t breathe, sobs splintering between his teeth and dragging all the air out of his chest, and Hank isn’t saying anything and isn’t trying to touch him but he’s still here and Alex needs him to leave and is so grateful he hasn’t he can barely think.
Erik sits down next to him, putting a hand on the back of Alex’s neck and digging his fingers in a little, and Alex wants to tell him to go fuck himself and he can’t.
“It’s okay,” Erik keeps saying, even though it clearly isn’t, even though Alex is falling into pieces in front of the wrong people in the wrong place with half an hour to get to Scott’s school to pick him up. “It’s okay, Alex.”
Hank shuffles sideways a little until their shoulders are pressed together, and the need to shove him away is almost paralysing but Alex stays still, sucking air into his raw, aching lungs. His hand, cradled bleeding in his lap, is starting to hurt.
“It’s okay to let yourself be happy,” Erik says quietly, leant in so close his forehead is pressed to Alex’s, and Alex doesn’t believe him but the words keep him breathing anyway.
The ER doctor tells Alex he’s an idiot and Erik curls his fingers around Alex’s good wrist in warning but Alex is too tired to yell at anyone. His head is thudding and his eyes feel sore and mostly he just feels kind of awkward and ashamed. He sits very still while they pick bits of glass out of his hand, keeping his teeth gritted, and Erik snarks out a “feel better?” because he’s an asshole.
Hank and Raven show up with Scott when Alex is getting his stitches done; he pulls together a smile that must look horrible but Scott doesn’t seem to mind, clambering into Alex’s lap and silently curling into him.
Alex nods at Hank, unable to say thank you, even now, because he’s still apparently ridiculous even when under the influence of painkillers.
Hank shuffles his shoulders and bites his lip and manages: “it was the least we could do.”
Raven’s in a white Hellfire Club uniform and she looks kind of uncomfortable, arms folded across her chest.
“I, um, called Angel,” she tells him. “Darwin says he’ll give you guys a ride home.”
Alex nods and does his best to hug Scott with one hand being sutured and the other still clasped in Erik’s unrelenting grip. Scott looks up at him with big blue worried eyes.
“Does it hurt?” he asks, looking anxious, and what the fuck can Alex even say to him. Scott has that expression he wears when he’s threatening to cry, and Alex is the world’s shittiest brother.
Erik leans in, fingers still tight around Alex’s wrist, and says softly: “it does, but your brother’s a brave guy and you’re here for him, so he’ll be okay.” He smiles; a smile Alex has never seen before, that’s almost gentle, almost normal. “You can be brave for him, can’t you?”
Alex feels Scott straighten himself up a little and he nods firmly. “Yes,” he says, and Alex squeezes him just a little tighter.
Hank clears his throat awkwardly. “I’ll go get us all some coffee,” he says. “Scott, would you like a drink?”
Scott nods and Hank offers them both a fleeting smile before he goes.
“I like him,” Scott confides in a whisper. “I know why you like him, Alex.”
Alex makes an undignified choking sound; Erik and Raven seem to be suddenly fascinated in the ceiling, though they’re both smirking just a little.
“Fuck,” he mutters, as the doctor completes another stitch, and reminds himself to give Scott a talk about bad language and when it’s okay someplace other than an ER. He tags on an: “I’m alright,” when Scott looks up at him with big wet eyes.
“I’m going to talk to someone about getting you a prescription when you’re off the painkillers,” Erik informs him, quiet and not entirely unkind, though Alex thinks it’s kind of unfair to still be running with this when Alex is full of self-inflicted pain and in a fucking hospital with his kid brother, his crush, and the girl his crush may or may not have a crush on.
“Fine,” he mutters, “whatever.”
“You’ll thank me for this one day,” Erik tells him, finally letting go of his wrist.
“Yeah,” Alex says, “I doubt that.”
The hospital are willing to discharge him, but apparently they’re not too keen on him going home alone. Calling their mom off her night shift is out of the question and the way Darwin bites his lip before he carries Scott down to his car is enough to tell Alex that there is no way he can stay at his, his parents will never allow it.
“There isn’t room for both of you at my place,” Erik says, looking regretful, but that’s okay, Alex kind of feels like Erik probably uses human heads in his interior decorating. Erik snaps out a laugh and Alex realises he said that aloud and oh, that rules out staying with Hank, who has disappeared off somewhere but probably not for long.
“Charles and I have a spare room,” Raven announces and no, no, that is a really terrible idea, and the way Alex can’t get his mouth work to say that is really fucking annoying.
“That’s settled, then,” Erik says, and he sounds tired and a little bit gleeful, and Alex thinks the world would be a better place if Erik and Charles just fucked already and left everyone else out of it.
“Amen,” Raven agrees loudly, and Erik tells Alex he’s going to pay for that sometime he isn’t injured.
Alex sits in the backseat between Erik and Raven, with Scott in his lap even though it’s kind of really dangerous because Scott’s reluctant to let go of him, with Hank sitting in shotgun still looking awkward because that’s Hank’s default mode, really. Darwin’s a good driver but his car’s a piece of shit that hasn’t had this many people in it in a long time, and Raven and Erik keep talking over each other when it comes to giving directions as the car lurches along and then glaring, and Alex hugs Scott tight and tries to keep his eyes closed because everything’s too much right now.
Charles and Raven live in a fucking huge apartment that’s about the size of the ground floor of their school, which Alex thinks he might resent sometime he doesn’t have bigger problems going on. Even to Alex’s drug-blurred eyes Charles looks like he hasn’t slept in about three days, hair sticking up and grin just the wrong side of manic.
Darwin takes himself home because his mom’s probably already mad, giving Alex and Scott fierce angry hugs that tell Alex at some point there’s going to be yelling. Charles decides Scott needs feeding and he and Raven take him into the kitchen, bickering over whether there’s any food in the house and whether they need to call someone called Moira to come over and cook, and Erik trails after them with that weird smile he only wears around Charles. Alex collapses into the sofa, which is really awesomely soft, and he only realises Hank is still here when the sofa dips as Hank sits down beside him.
Hank’s smile is really fucking nice, it softens his whole face and makes him look so ridiculously perfect it kind of makes Alex’s chest hurt.
“Look,” Hank begins, and he’s looking Alex in the eye through those glasses that shouldn’t be hot, “I know you’re so far from okay right now that everything looks so out of control you’ll never get back on top of it, but I don’t think this is it.”
Alex doesn’t think he can handle Hank being nice to him or believing in him or whatever it is he’s trying to do right now, and he lurches forward to put his non-bandaged hand over Hank’s mouth to shut him up and stop him talking. He feels Hank inhale and press his lips together under Alex’s palm and Hank’s eyes are so fucking blue, Jesus, and Alex tumbles into kissing him before he really even thinks about it.
Hank makes a startled noise that Alex can feel and Alex thinks about pulling away because what the fuck is he doing, only then Hank has one of his stupidly large hands in Alex’s hair and his tongue is teasing Alex’s lips open and Alex goes with it because he doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t know how to stop, and no matter what happens this is hardly the worst thing he’s done today. Hank tastes like coffee and Alex thinks he’s a good kisser, probably, it’s not like Alex has anyone to compare him to because everyone’s either been too busy thinking he was a loser or a murderer, and the whole experience is kind of weird because Alex is pretty sure he’s not in control of himself right now, everything blurred and crazy and aching.
Someone drops something in the kitchen and it startles them apart; Hank’s eyes are wide, rabbit-in-headlights, and Alex wills himself to say anything, it doesn’t even fucking matter what, just something, but he can’t manage it and Hank seems as lost for words as he is.
“I-I should go,” Hank stammers out, and Alex doesn’t even try and stop him from bolting.
Alex sleeps for fifteen hours in the really, really comfy bed in Charles and Raven’s spare room and wakes up feeling dizzy and disorientated and in pain. His mom has arrived by now and it looks like she’s been crying, but Scott seems cheerful enough.
“Mr Lehnsherr and Professor Xavier taught me to play chess,” he informs Alex proudly, bouncing on the bed a little as Alex takes a couple more painkillers and tries not to look as shit as he feels.
Alex rethinks punching Erik in the face sometime.
“That’s great,” he manages, instead of don’t let them get you involved in their shit.
Later, in their own house, he hugs his mom for a long time while she cries and he tries to tell her that this isn’t her fault, this isn’t his dad’s fault, this isn’t anyone’s fault really, when you get down to it. This is just one of those things, Alex is a fucking mess, but maybe he won’t always be. He doesn’t say aloud that maybe it’s just him, he was born broken and empty and abnormal.
Darwin comes over after school with homework and a tired smile and the details of the latest rumours about Alex, the reason for the broken glass and his time off school, bitter and brittle and cruel.
“Angel tells me Emma’s going to put out some other rumour,” Darwin finishes with, while Alex is contemplating burning a house down somewhere and maybe getting put away for life, “something that makes you sound less like a psychopath.”
Alex has no idea why Emma would do that for him when they haven’t so much as looked each other in the eye, ever, but he doesn’t say that.
“Maybe I am a psychopath,” he mutters.
Darwin leans into him, lacing their fingers together, and Alex doesn’t pull away.
“You’re just sad,” he says simply.
Alex, like has always has, wonders what it is Darwin can see in him that Alex never can. What made him pick him out when they were four, what’s made him stick around all these years, what makes him still think Alex is worth anything now. He shrugs and Darwin squeezes, just a little.
“I mean it,” he says.
Alex shuts his eyes and has no idea what he feels right now, everything battered and far-away and stupid, this can’t even be his life, this shouldn’t be anyone’s life.
“Alright,” he mutters, and Darwin leaves it but he doesn’t let go.
It’s not until Alex is back in school with people side-eying him and a meeting with Principal Stryker to not look forward to that a memory unfolds itself and oh, yeah, he made out with Hank McCoy while high on painkillers.
If Alex was a normal person he’d groan or smack a hand over his eyes or something, but because he’s him, he settles for slamming a guy up against the lockers and telling him that if he whispers about him again with that look on his face, Alex will kill his entire fucking family.
He gets the feeling Erik will be disappointed in him later, but he doesn’t really care.
He cuts English again and ends up behind the science block; Angel isn’t there this time and he fits a cigarette between the fingers of his bad hand as he fumbles with the lighter. He can’t exactly remember when he picked up smoking, it was just something else to make up for the fact he was short and tired and inadequate, another stupid thing to add to the list of stupid things he did because they seemed like the only options left to him.
Erik puts a mug of coffee in front of him during their meeting; they sit in companionable silence for an hour, while Erik types away – Alex wonders idly if he’s flirting with Charles over Facebook Chat and then decides that he really does not want to know – and Alex broods and wonders what he’s going to say to Hank. Then he remembers that he doesn’t talk to Hank, he just sits there while Hank reads things into his expressions, some of which are accurate, some of which probably aren’t, not that Alex will ever correct him. Then he starts worrying about what Hank will say to him.
He’s always made a point of getting to their study sessions early, just because it makes him feel like he might have the upper hand, but when he gets into the classroom Hank is already there, writing something on a notepad. Alex freezes in the doorway, heart jolting in an unpleasant way, and he kind of hates this thing that Hank has woken up in him.
Alex swallows and reminds himself that he was drugged up and he’s had weeks of watching Hank not be scared of him, of his careful smiles and nervous mannerisms and awkward but genuine laughs. He has no idea what will happen now, but he’s getting used to the feeling of being powerless.
Except that Hank doesn’t say anything, or do anything, or act differently at all. Alex is aware he’s waiting for something, but Hank just hands over a load of sheets of paper and carries on doing his own homework.
Alex holds out for twenty minutes and then stands up. Hank raises his head to look at him but doesn’t flinch the way he did the first few weeks. Alex is kind of short anyway and Hank’s a fucking giant, but like this, Alex standing and Hank sitting, he’s got the benefit of height. He walks around the table and leans down to get his face right into Hank’s; Hank’s eyes widen but he still doesn’t speak.
Alex still knows the difference between a good idea and a terrible idea, just about, but he doesn’t care anymore.
He walks out, slamming the door behind him.
ix. the truth hurts worse than anything i could bring myself to do to you.
Alex’s phone rings at half six when he and Scott are bickering over whether Scott needs a bath or not; Alex’s main argument is that “girls like boys with clean hair, and you don’t want Jean deciding she likes someone else” and Scott is yelling and it’s all kind of hilarious.
“Therapy,” Erik says shortly.
Alex is kind of suspicious of Erik’s current forms of therapy since he seems to spend their sessions feeding Alex coffee and looking vaguely irritated, but he figures he should probably go with it.
“I’m looking after my brother,” he tells him.
“So bring him along,” Erik replies, and Alex can hear him shrugging.
“This isn’t going to end in him watching me get beaten up or anything, is it?” he asks. “Only I’m trying to save the trauma for middle school.”
Erik laughs, rattles off an address, and hangs up on him. Alex sighs and goes to tell Scott that he can probably get away with not having a bath for one more day.
It’s not until they’re almost there that he realises the address Erik’s given him is for Charles fucking Xavier’s apartment, and by then Scott’s worked it out too and is bouncing happily because he apparently likes all these weird emotionally unstable adults who’ve decided to invade Alex’s life, so he can’t go back. He does make a mental note to tell someone in authority that Erik touched him inappropriately and get him kicked off his case, though; he’d almost be willing to settle for one of the oh-we’re-friends-and-a-smile-can-solve-everything types at this point.
Raven answers the door with an eyeroll and a mutter of abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Scott runs inside and Alex trudges after him, wishing he could shove his hands in his pockets without it hurting.
There’s a woman sitting on the couch with what appears to be a huge glass of wine. “Oh,” she says as Alex walks in, “tell me you didn’t get anyone else involved in this.”
“Therapy as punishment,” Alex mutters, and sits in one of the squashy armchairs, resolutely not thinking about kissing Hank on that couch because it doesn’t fucking matter.
Raven comes in, picking up another massive glass of wine off the coffee table and collapsing onto the couch too.
“This is Moira,” she tells Alex. “She’s my brother’s best friend. I have no idea why.”
“Neither do I,” Moira mutters as Charles comes in, accompanied by a grinning Scott, saying: “I’m marvellous.”
“No one here thinks that, just so you know,” Raven informs him.
Moira takes a big gulp of her wine.
Erik appears from the kitchen looking almost relaxed, grinning that really disturbing grin of his.
“Why am I here?” Alex asks flatly.
“I’m putting you in an awkward situation,” Erik says cheerfully. “How you handle it is very important.”
“Wow,” Raven says, “even I can tell you’re making that up.”
Charles ignores them all, instead getting a Monopoly box off a shelf above a vase that Alex is willing to bet is really fucking expensive and handing it to Scott. Alex has literally no idea what is going on right now, and turns to look at Moira and Raven.
Moira looks very tired. “They’ve decided to have board game nights instead of, you know, other nights.” Her eyes flicker to Scott, and Alex gets it.
“Jesus,” he mutters.
“I really want to move out,” Raven announces. “I’m going to live in a hotel and eat room service.”
“You’ve been saying that since you were twelve,” Charles says mildly.
Alex realises there is absolutely no way out of playing Monopoly with two guys who are refusing to sleep with each other despite the fact they clearly want to, two frustrated women drinking wine like it’s water, and his little brother. It’s going to be horrible.
“I get to be the top hat,” he says flatly, and reaches for the wine bottle Raven and Moira have left on the coffee table.
“Your life,” Darwin says, blinking, when Alex recounts last night to him.
“Scott likes them,” Alex groans. “He thinks they’re awesome human beings and not creepy guys with emotional problems and an apparent love of cockblocking themselves.”
Alex thinks he gets to say this even if he is a world expert in fucking himself over, because he might be screwed up and damaged beyond repair but at least he isn’t Erik or Charles.
“Man,” Darwin murmurs, and then narrows his eyes. “Are you hungover?”
“They drink a fuckload of wine,” Alex tells him. “Rich people are weird.”
Charles Xavier is his own special brand of weird, and while he and Erik kept their conversation to a level appropriate for a six-year-old, there was no denying that they were looking at each other like they’d like there to be mutual nudity sometime. They might as well have been wearing neon fuck me signs. But no, apparently what they want to do is play Monopoly and flirt badly while everyone else in the room loses the will to live.
“At least you made it through it?” Darwin suggests.
“Scott and I have to go back next week,” Alex tells him. “They’ve got Clue.”
Alex is pretty sure Erik has just decided to replace all helpful forms of therapy with actual torture, but he hasn’t pointed this out to him because he’s pretty sure Erik could do a lot worse to him if he made up his mind to.
They’re watching the cheerleaders practice at the moment, because Darwin is being a proper probable-boyfriend and Alex has no one else to hang out with. Alex kind of likes Emma Frost just because she’s straightforward; there’s no backstabbing and cutesy smiles while she bullies the school, she just doesn’t bother with people she has no time for. She’s a bitch, but she’s upfront about it, and she’s as monosyllabic as Alex is most days, and he can respect her. Angel’s a tiny powerhouse of energy, small and punchy and fast, the pleats in her white skirt bouncing against her thighs. Alex still doesn’t know what to make of Raven being on the squad; she’s good, there’s no denying it, and with her blonde hair pulled back and in the unnervingly white uniform she looks the part, but she’s still in Sean’s band and Alex has no idea how she’s reconciling the two worlds. It’s weird, and it bothers him for reasons he’s not sure of.
The stereo keeps blasting a Katy Perry song – Alex hasn’t figured out which one yet, because he missed out on several months of popular culture while locked away from it all and then was never really interested enough in catching up again – and it’s starting to irritate him, that low-level irritation that eventually turns into breaking things, but he doesn’t get his stitches out ‘til tomorrow and his hand still fucking hurts. It’s all sealed when Hank appears in the bleachers opposite, looking small and lost and awkward.
“Gotta go,” he blurts out, scrambling up.
“You’re going to have to tell me eventually,” Darwin yells after him.
Alex doubts that.
There are far too many cheerleaders at this party and Alex is seriously not letting Darwin drag him anywhere any more, he’s much happier in his house where no one judges him and the most he has to worry about are Scott’s Lego bricks and his bare feet.
“Is it true you killed a man?” a girl asks, falling into him, boobs half-out of her thin vest and eyes bright from not being able to hold her drink. She grinds against him, grinning and breathy.
Alex is pretty sure rubbing up against a guy you think is a murderer should not be a turn on, and bitter shallow anger sweeps through him.
“It was a girl, actually,” he responds. “I broke her fucking neck.”
He shoves her away from him and keeps walking; she shouts something after him but it’s lost under the music, a remix of Heads Will Roll that’s thudding through his brain in a way he’s not enjoying.
Alex is too much of an asshole for parties; he’s never enjoyed them, never enjoyed having to pretend to be something that he’s not, having to feign interest in cheap booze and shitty people and crap music and having to pretend he doesn’t care that people avoid him because there’s something about him that makes them nervous, jumpy. He’s only at this one because Darwin pouted and Sean brought it up in biology (along with “cool injuries, man, you’re so hardcore”; you know you’re in trouble when Sean Cassidy is praising you) and Alex no longer makes good decisions ever.
(Erik periodically tells him that he’s really, really good at shooting himself in the foot. Alex periodically tells him he’s an asshole. Sooner or later it’s all going to degenerate into an ugly fistfight, and the worst part is that Alex already knows Erik is going to win.)
He catches sight of Raven, laughing and dancing with Sean, who’s clearly fucked up on something, and even though they’re kind of almost friends by now it still makes him on edge, because where Raven goes, her friend tends to go, and Alex would really like to not have to see Hank right now. Or ever again, really. He knows it’s really a small insignificant thing, but Alex doesn’t like it when people have shit on him he can’t get back, when he accidentally lays himself bare at his worst possible moments.
Hank’s in the kitchen – of course Hank is in the kitchen – rearranging the fridge magnets by shape, size and colour by the look of things, and nursing one of the cheap shitty beers that everyone drinks either because they don’t know any better or because they don’t care.
Alex turns to leave but Hank sees him anyway, spilling half the beer onto the floor and blurting his name.
Hank is such a loser it’s kind of amazing that Alex still wants him as fiercely and desperately and badly as he does.
“What?” Alex demands, putting all the anger he has into it, the tone that makes people step back and keep their eyes on his hands. Alex takes a deliberate step closer to the knife block just to try and make Hank flinch, but it doesn’t work.
“I can’t believe I’m even saying this,” Hank begins, “but I think we should probably talk.”
Alex tries to figure out if it’s a good idea to reach for one of the smaller knives just so he can get kicked out of this party and have an excuse to go the fuck home, and says: “I’ll just tell you to go fuck yourself again.”
“Alright,” Hank tells him, and gives him a flat, sad sort of smile before he walks out.
Alex stands very still and stares at the very, very tidy fridge magnets.
A few minutes later he walks into the living room holding a bread knife and is rugby-tackled to the ground, punched three times in the face and kicked in the ribs too many times to count, and is made to leave. He tastes blood on his teeth on the walk home and laughs at nothing at all.
“Oh my God,” Alex says when he walks into Erik’s office, “oh my God, could you two just stop?”
“Well, if you’ve got a therapy session then I can certainly postpone my next move until afterwards,” Charles says cheerfully, looking up from the chessboard.
Alex glares at him, the glare he uses when he wants to clear out a corridor because he’s not in the mood for people; Charles just blinks and smiles and wow, the man is clearly immune to intimidation, no wonder he thinks Erik is attractive instead of worrying that the man is going to steal his liver to sell on ebay like all normal people.
Erik sighs and looks put-upon, like he didn’t ask Alex to come here, like this isn’t his job. “Charles, you have to leave,” he says calmly. “Confidentiality.”
“Oh, of course.” Charles grins, one of those wicked grins that would probably be kind of hot if Alex didn’t know Charles Xavier is a crazy person. He reaches across the desk and drains a glass; Alex debates asking if that was actually a martini at one in the afternoon and then decides that things are basically terrible enough already.
Erik waits until Charles has left before arching an eyebrow, gesturing at Alex’s black eye, and saying: “is there even any point in me asking anymore?”
Alex sits down in the chair opposite him, folds his arms, and shrugs.
“I don’t even really want to know about the bread knife,” Erik sighs. “And yes, of course I heard about that. Although I suppose I am curious as to why you picked a bread knife when there was a block of much sharper knives in that kitchen.”
Alex rolls his eyes. “The bread knife was bigger,” he explains. “Looked more dangerous than it was.”
Erik closes his eyes and kneads his temples for a moment like Alex is being difficult. Alex isn’t, by the way; he could be way more difficult than this if he wanted to be.
“I never thought I’d actually say this to a student,” Erik mutters at last, “but you need to get laid, Alex.”
Alex scowls and says nothing.
“Someone. Anyone. Pay a cheerleader. Tell your best friend your feelings towards him aren’t strictly kosher. Just do something to release some of that goddamn tension.”
Alex considers it, knows it’s a stupid thing to say, and still offers up: “yeah, ‘cause making out with Hank went so fucking well.”
Erik, for the first time in their tumultuous working relationship, actually looks surprised. “...Hank McCoy?” he asks eventually. He starts laughing. “Oh, Alex, you really have a knack for making the most terrible decisions possible, don’t you?”
Alex stands up fast enough to knock his chair over backwards. “Fuck this,” he says, “fuck you, I don’t have to be here.”
He gets to the door before Erik says, cheerfully calm: “you really kind of do.” Alex curls his fingers around the door handle. “You can leave,” Erik adds, “and you don’t have to come back, but then I’ll have to inform all the relevant authorities that you’re no longer attending your court-ordered therapy sessions.”
Alex turns. “You wouldn’t,” he says.
Erik grins, that hard, cold one that makes his teeth look like bullets. “Try me,” he says quietly, voice light and littered with razor blades.
Alex thinks about it, then comes back, picks the chair back up and sits down in it. They sit in uneasy silence for a while, Erik tapping an idle tattoo on his desk, Alex simmering.
“You wouldn’t,” he repeats at least.
Erik shrugs. “I would,” he tells Alex. “It just might take me a while.”
Alex feels a smile come startling out of him. “You’re such a bastard,” he says, and Erik just laughs.
Even though it’s a really terrible idea, Alex still spends nights out at the bars he used to frequent before the whole stabbing thing happened; he gets a wide berth, no one’s stupid enough to try and fuck with him now. It’s not that they all think he’s particularly dangerous or anything; but he is unpredictable, and that’s enough to put people on edge.
Alex isn’t really sure what he’s doing to himself anymore, self-destructive doesn’t even really seem to cover it now, but the fact is he’s got one friend who isn’t allowed to hang out with him after dark these days in case Alex gets him into trouble and/or tries to kill him, and he can’t spend every evening sitting around in the house watching his mom being tired and sad, watching the TV flicker in and out of focus, watching Scott grin and laugh like Alex hasn’t fucked him over too; he just doesn’t know it yet.
He’s pretty sure Erik doesn’t approve of him going out and being a solitary drinker and stumbling home barely able to see, but he also gets the feeling that it’s a lifestyle choice that Erik knows all too well, so he can’t get mad at him. He’s still calmly but fervently championing antidepressants, and Alex gets the feeling sooner or later he’s going to do something so terrible that he’ll hit rock bottom hard enough to skin his knees and leave him breathless and he’ll give in. He still doesn’t know what to do with those thoughts.
(I don’t think you’re as bad as you think you are, Charles told him when he drove him home, Scott asleep in the backseat and Alex’s head spinning from expensive wine, I don’t think you’re dangerous. I think you just don’t know how to control yourself. He smiled; a soft, real one that lit his face entirely differently. But you will.)
He ducks out for a cigarette and he’s drunker than he thought he was because his knees give beneath him and he slides down the wall to sit on the sidewalk, scattered with burned-down butts and fuck knows what else, and he shuts his eyes and leans his head back and breathes and eventually his cigarette ash burns his fingers. There’s music thudding through the street from the bar opposite, which doesn’t ID and will let anyone play if they can guarantee the place won’t get trashed afterwards. Alex would go, but he’s too recognisable, people would edge away from him. He can’t put himself through that anymore.
“Alex.” Hank’s come from nowhere; presumably it’s Raven’s band playing tonight, although Alex doesn’t care and doesn’t want to look at him even as he feels Hank settle down next to him.
They don’t speak, and the night air shivers with words neither of them can make out.
“It’s okay,” Alex says at last, speech cracked and splintering, “it’s okay, you know. I wouldn’t like me either.”
Hank sighs, soft, and Alex doesn’t want to look at him so he doesn’t. He feels when Hank moves, though, and he must be drunk too because he leans on Alex in all the wrong places, hands pressing into his shoulders, and then Hank’s kissing him, clumsy and gentle and sweet, and Alex wants to tell him to stop and can’t.
He opens his eyes when Hank pulls back, and the world is very dark and Hank’s eyes are bright, his face striped through from streetlights. His mouth is open and he’s clearly trying to piece together words and Alex doesn’t need them, can’t have them.
“I’m flunking math again,” he says, to fill the silence.
Hank laughs, ducking his head until his hair falls into his eyes.
“I can fix that,” he tells him.
Alex can think of all kinds of stupid things to say in reply to that, but he fumbles to light another cigarette instead and offers up: “good.”
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t angry,” Alex sighs at last.
He and Darwin are on the school roof; not technically sanctioned, but Darwin’s nice and clever enough to get away with any kind of shit, and Alex already has a lifetime’s worth of detentions, so many that it’s not even worth going anymore; a handful more won’t matter.
“I do,” Darwin tells him, flat on his back with a hand up to stop the sun getting in his eyes. “I remember all the bits you can’t remember and won’t remember and don’t remember. It’s my job as best friend.”
Alex has cracked sunglasses he found abandoned behind the science block amongst the empty lighters and old cigarettes; they’re not particularly effective, and he’s still squinting behind them.
“At least someone does,” he says.
He’s never had to talk about his emotions as much as he’s had to since getting out of prison. Even when his dad died and bereavement counsellors kept looking him in the eye and telling him they understood – which was a fucking lie because no one did, no one could – and Alex is smart enough to realise that even if a lot of this can’t be blamed on that, a reasonable chunk can. Alex has no idea what to tell anyone about anything because he’s got so many things churning around in him he feels like exploding or shattering at any moment, fuck anyone caught in the blast radius, and all of that is mixed up with needing to keep it quiet, needing to keep it hidden, still being the kind of big brother that lets Scott crawl into his bed in the night when he wakes up scared.
It’s exhausting, and that’s the thing Alex isn’t sure he can tell anyone. He’s just so fucking tired of it all and being tired makes him angry and being angry scares him and all of it’s such a stupid clusterfuck he doesn’t know what to do with it anymore.
Darwin sighs, pushing himself upright so he can look down at Alex. He looks weird through the broken sunglasses, not quite focused, and Alex is so unbelievably fucking grateful for him he doesn’t know how he’ll ever be able to explain it, vocalise it, show it. He just kind of hopes Darwin is smart enough to know.
“We’re gonna be okay, you know,” Darwin tells him in that calm, careful tone he saves for special occasions. “You hear me?”
Alex smiles and doesn’t fight him, just this once.
It’s kind of weird and not weird all at once and Alex isn’t used to dealing with freaking out in a fashion that isn’t self-destructive. He skips last period and walks to the nearest Starbucks anyway, orders coffee for himself and for Hank the way he figured out Hank liked it through watching his expression when he first drank it and then modifying the milk and sugar and shots accordingly the next time. That was how he finally figured out Hank had gotten underneath his skin and wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon; Alex really isn’t used to giving a shit about anyone who isn’t his family or Darwin.
It’s only been a few weeks since they last did this, weeks in which Alex’s pop quiz scores plummeted – he can’t actually figure out if it was deliberate or not, if he wanted to fail them to prove a point or if he really does just need help – but it seems like much longer as he walks back to Ms Monro’s classroom. No one looks at him because no one ever really looks at him; they either stare or avoid him, like even catching sight of him is going to hurt them.
Alex has no idea why they all think they’re important enough for him to bother with.
Part of him thinks Hank isn’t even going to show up, they were both stupidly drunk and Alex has absolutely no idea what’s going on, but he sits down to wait and curls his fingers into his palms until his hands stop shaking, because it’s stupid to be nervous. He thinks Erik would probably have something sarcastic to say, but Alex didn’t tell him about this, couldn’t form the words.
Hank is early, shirt collar askew, eyes too big behind his glasses, one of his awkward, pretty smiles slanted across his mouth. He is everything Alex knows he shouldn’t want, and it doesn’t even matter anymore.
“Hey,” Hank says quietly.
There’s no point keeping quiet to try not to hurt Hank anymore; things are already complicated enough. “Hey,” he says back.
Hank walks over and instead of sitting opposite him he sits next to him, pulling out two textbooks and a handful of papers, splitting them between them and then reaching for his coffee.
“Right,” he murmurs, taking a sip, “we were on chapter eleven, weren’t we?”
You weird fuck, Alex thinks fondly, biting down a grin. “Yeah,” he replies, “yeah, we were.”
Part IV: Erik
x. but he’s candy-coated misery.
Once every two weeks all the teaching staff are gathered together for a meeting. Erik loathes these meetings with a deep and fiery and probably unreasonable passion, given that there’s free coffee and he gets to sit in the corner and no one asks him questions unless a window’s been broken. Still, they’re desperately dull and generally an excuse for Principal Stryker to act like a megalomaniac, and Erik tends to spend most of his time doodling potential murder weapons on the edge of his eternally blank legal pad.
There’s been a distinct lack of destructive and dangerous behaviour since the last time Alex Summers and Armando Munoz got caught on the roof again – which doesn’t really count anymore because they do it so damn often – so Erik has nothing to say for himself today. Stryker is droning on and on about an assembly of some kind he wants to have; Erik is trying to work out if he has anyone who likes him enough to provide a false alibi.
His phone buzzes, silent, against his thigh. He carefully draws it out of his pocket, using the edge of his notebook as cover; he feels like the teenagers who text in class, desperately obvious but convinced they’re not.
My day is BEREFT without you, Charles has decided to inform him.
Erik refuses to feel the same way.
Meeting, he responds.
Is it more interesting than me? Charles asks, and Erik pictures him pouting.
You must be bored, Charles replies. I suppose if you’re REALLY bored we could try sexting.
Erik blinks at the screen for a moment, clamping down on a laugh because he’s supposed to be paying attention and looking like a responsible adult.
No, he says. Do you even know what sexting IS?
Of course I do, Raven told me, Charles responds. Are you sure?
I’m sure. And I highly doubt Raven told you, Erik says.
Alright, Glee told me, but I’m sure Raven knows of its EXISTENCE.
Stryker clears his throat and Erik starts paying attention for a moment in case he gets questioned later. When he next looks down, Charles has texted him again.
I don’t see why you don’t want to experiment with sexting. Other than that it’s tawdry and a little demeaning. But I’m sure I could use MANY PERSUASIVE ADVERBS.
Erik bites his tongue to keep from laughing. I’m not sure sexting is supposed to contain adverbs, he replies.
Oh, Charles says. Well. I am fairly certain that my sexting would use MANY adverbs.
Erik is in absolutely no doubt of this fact.
I’m still going to pass, he tells him.
Charles doesn’t reply for a few minutes; Erik fills in the time drinking coffee and trying to work out if Stryker is being passive aggressive in his direction or not.
Your loss, Charles informs him. Perhaps I’ll have to find other uses for my adverbs.
Charles Xavier really is the most ridiculous man Erik has ever had the misfortune to encounter.
It’s kind of a pity that that really, really doesn’t matter.
Alex Summers reminds Erik of what he was like at that age; angry and bitter and lost and scared with it, scared that he’s sinking so fast there can never be a way back again. Alex is wrong in the way Erik was wrong at that age too, but it’s almost impossible to tell Alex this. It’s okay; Erik didn’t listen at that age either.
At the moment, Alex is looking mutinous. Erik likes mutinous; it’s easier to talk to than most of Alex’s somewhat limited range of facial expressions.
“I want to talk about Hank McCoy,” he says.
The mix of emotions that flicker over Alex’s face before he can hide them are painful to look at, and Erik has no idea how Hank hasn’t figured out Alex is about ready to give him his letter jacket or whatever it is kids do these days, although it must be said that Alex doesn’t actually have a letter jacket. He’s musing over what kids like Alex do for their crushes – carve their name into bus shelters, maybe – when Alex manages: “I want to talk about Charles Xavier.”
Erik is going to have to deal with the unpleasant sort of shiver that passes through him whenever Charles’ name comes up. It cannot be allowed to continue.
“Nice try, kid,” he says. “But you really, really don’t.”
Alex’s lips quirk. “So you’re still not sleeping together,” he says. “I’m feeling, like, more well-adjusted by the day.”
Erik isn’t sure when he allowed his students to become semi-invested in what is or isn’t happening in his sex life, but this shit really needs to stop. He’ll have to do a lot more intimidation.
“The idea of you calling any part of yourself or your personality ‘well-adjusted’ makes me deeply concerned,” he says, and Alex gets his favourite you’re a bastard expression. “Or do I have to bring up the bread knife incident?”
He doesn’t have to. Erik suspects Alex’s fellow students have all brought up the bread knife incident a few times too many, when all it really was was simple self-destruction with a help me post-it stuck to the top. Kids are cruel and stupid and above all self-absorbed, though, so it’s doubtful any of them have noticed that.
“Whatever,” Alex mutters at last. “He’s tutoring me in math again and they’re not dragging the lakes looking for his body, so I guess that’s a win, yeah?”
Erik really, really wants some more coffee. “We don’t actually live near any lakes,” he says. “But bonus points for imagery.”
For a moment, he earns the haggard edge of Alex’s smile; it makes a lot of things worth it.
Hank is a lot more forthcoming; at least, if you substitute ‘forthcoming’ for ‘twitchy’.
“I don’t really want to talk about Alex,” Hank offers, but he’s cringing in his chair and Erik’s never been above acting like a dick in order to satisfy his curiosity.
He smiles; the thin, mean one that makes most students flinch, and says: “great, okay. And which drug problem would you like me to say you confessed to when I write the letter to Principal Stryker?”
He could never get away with shit like this with students like Alex and Raven, but it works rather perfectly with Hank, who either never got the memo on blackmail or is still just scared of him enough to go with it.
“I’m pretty sure you can’t do that,” Hank says, and then adds the ever-popular: “I’m tutoring him in math.”
Erik knows. Erik has heard this a lot. From Hank and Alex and Raven and even Sean for some reason and from Ororo, who is very excited by both the progress Alex is making and the way he hasn’t beaten Hank to death with a textbook yet. What Erik would actually like are the details, like what Hank and Alex actually do in a classroom for an hour when neither of them are really capable of communicating like people, and whether this is what passes for dating when you’re as awkward as both of them are, and whether he’s going to have to intervene before someone has some kind of noisy inconvenient breakdown that will get Stryker unnecessarily mad at him.
Sometimes, Erik has no idea why he thought working in therapy would be a good idea. People are so complicated and emotional and no one ever seems to want to hear that repression is a perfectly adequate way of dealing with everything. Well, except maybe not in Hank’s case; if the kid tries to repress anything else he’s possibly going to explode.
“Great,” Erik says dryly. “Between your astounding insights and Mr Summers telling me he hasn’t killed you yet-”
Hank flushes an entertaining dull pink, and Erik thinks something along the lines of gotcha. “He said- he said that?” Hank manages.
“Was he lying?” Erik asks. “Because this seems to have taken a rather awkward Twilight turn if it turns out he has actually murdered you with a ballpoint pen.”
Hank scowls at him, still blushing a little too much; his mutinous expression bears a startling resemblance to Alex’s.
“Alright,” Erik says, because he knows he’s not going to get anything out of Hank now. He reaches down beneath his desk and pretends not to notice Hank flinching reflexively – has no idea how the poor guy lives in the world – and passes him a cardboard box. “Take some pamphlets.”
Hank looks doubtful. “What kind of pamphlets?”
“I don’t care,” Erik responds. “Just take some, I think the Principal checks to see how many I’ve handed out and judges me if the box isn’t empty enough.”
Hank looks disbelieving, but the really sad part is that it’s actually true.
Even before he got his degree in psychology, Erik found most people tiresome, frustrating and generally somewhat evil; now, at least, he can back those opinions up with cold, hard fact. He’s solitary by nature, a little resentful and still filled to the brim with repressed anger, and unfortunately self-aware enough to realise a lot of this comes from being brutally orphaned at an early age and then having to grow up quick in an orphanage that had a little too much in common with Lord of the Flies. The main lesson he got from there, apart from an excellent left hook and sharp reflexes, was that people are bastards, and children are doubly so.
He doesn’t want to be pitied, by the way. It was what it was and he doesn’t want anyone else getting their cold sticky fingers into his memories, smearing their opinions and their supposed empathy all over everything.
How Erik went from being a largely unemployed therapist to a school guidance counsellor who does mental health on the side was something like this: he needed money; his criminal record, while detailed and damning, contains nothing involving child molestation; Principal Stryker’s hiring of staff is frequently somewhat irresponsible; and he got the opportunity to point out people’s flaws loudly and get paid for it. Erik’s an excellent psychiatrist, but almost unhireable; clients find him irritating, unnerving and insulting, and few people will pay you to receive the cold, irreversible truth. Erik’s never tried to sugarcoat truths with platitudes; there’s no point, not really. Better the sharp, straightforward tug of the band-aid than the ineffectual lie of leaving it to curl at the edges.
Well, alright, that metaphor might need a little work, but the sentiment is correct at least.
Bitter students, tired of being faced with the truth that they’re psychopaths and monsters and cruel to a fault, have occasionally been asked why he hasn’t been fired yet. The truth is simple, but Erik doesn’t tell them because they don’t deserve it. Really, when you look at it, it’s beautiful, elegant, almost poetic: Erik isn’t an idiot, but neither is Principal Stryker.
Erik gets results, whether the students sent to him want the help or not. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it’s solved quickly, sometimes it’s just a case of giving a student forty minutes out from their day to sit quietly and safely somewhere the other students can’t judge them. It’s laughable, really, to think that Erik is some kind of haven for anyone, except that he is.
Being actually helpful has never been high on Erik’s list of his own personal attributes, but he has to admit that he’s weirdly good at it; at least for a given value of ‘helpful’.
“I’m wonderful,” Charles says, rain slicking his hair down and dripping off his eyelashes.
“You’re drunk,” Erik responds, because it’s easier. He’s also getting rained on, but he can’t carry off sodden as gracefully as Charles can.
“I’m always wonderful,” Charles decides, flopping onto a soaking wet bench; Erik thinks about it before he sits down beside him, since they can hardly get any wetter.
“You’re always drunk,” he corrects. The world is tipping and sliding in his own vision, but somehow he still has the moral high ground. Everyone does, when it comes to Charles.
Charles laughs, loose and relaxed and more easily than Erik has ever laughed. “One would almost think you didn’t like me,” he says, and then rolls his head, resting on the back of the bench, to look at Erik. “You don’t have to like me, you know,” he adds. “Lots of people don’t. Most people don’t.”
It’s impossible to get a grip on Charles, who’s easy to read but then keeps changing the language of the words on you; he slides from charming lies to brutal honesty with no pause for breath in between and it unnerves Erik, who is honest about everything and everyone except himself.
“I will not be emotionally blackmailed,” Erik tells him.
“No,” Charles agrees, and he sounds slightly sad.
Next time they go for a drink together – because Erik knows that there will be a next time, and a time after that, and a time after that, inexorable and unavoidable – someone is going to have to put their foot down before it comes to breaking into a park when it’s raining. Erik can’t remember whose idea this was, but they’re both cold and the miserable side of drunk and there’s no one to rescue them from themselves.
“Lots of people like me,” Charles decides at last. “It’s just difficult to stay liking me. I was told that once. I’ve forgotten who said it though.”
Erik is too tired for all this, eyes full of rain and he’s starting to get cold. “No, you haven’t.”
“I haven’t,” Charles agrees. “But I’m not going to tell you. I’m not paying you to be my therapist.”
“You’re not paying me at all,” Erik reminds him, because he sometimes thinks Charles needs telling that. Rich people’s problems are different to poor people’s, but they’re still there, pathological and stark and complicated to a fault.
Charles’ expression crumples and Erik doesn’t know why and doesn’t ask, but he moves his left hand slightly and it finds the fingertips of Charles’ right, and although sooner or later they’re going to have to move and leave and find warmth and home and towels, for now they just sit there in the rain, fingertip to fingertip.
Somewhere deep down, it terrifies him.
Moira MacTaggert seems to play the thankless role of being Charles’ wife, mother and babysitter while tucking all those things under the label of best friend. Erik thinks that if he’d met her earlier on in his whatever-this-is with Charles he would have wondered both if he had some kind of competition (he’s given up pretending not to be interested; the lie’s gotten embarrassing) and also why Moira so willingly spends most of her time keeping Charles from inadvertently killing himself, or at the very least from spending his entire life inside his apartment. Now, of course, Erik knows that Charles is a lot more than his abuse of his own good looks and an attachment to alcohol that probably needs actual treatment at some point, and he can understand all too well how easy it would be to tumble into Charles’ world and then not be able to get out again.
Of course, Erik really doesn’t like people, so he has no idea why he’s having coffee with Moira on a Saturday afternoon that could be far better spent brooding in his apartment and smoking over a novel. He’s a loner by nature, has never felt the need to change this and isn’t really feeling the need to alter it now, either, except that here he is, watching Moira pretending not to notice he’s pretending to pay attention to her while quietly psychoanalysing her.
Erik is starting to get the nasty suspicion that Charles Xavier has broken something important inside him and he can’t fix it because he’s not sure exactly which bit it is.
“Is this some kind of audition?” he asks at last, because Moira is meeting his shrewd assessing gaze with one of her own, one that’s nearly as sharp and intimidating as his. Fuck it; he likes her, he can’t help it, she’s wonderfully no-nonsense and has a delicious taste in dangerous-looking footwear. “Are you trying to decide whether I’ll be bad for Charles or not?”
“Of course you’ll be bad for him,” Moira says on a simple shrug, finally letting the laser-beams in her expression drop from his face as she picks up her coffee cup. “Charles doesn’t like things that aren’t bad for him.”
She doesn’t sound sad or even resigned; she says it like she’s just stating a simple fact, one that’s so universal it doesn’t require an opinion.
Erik feels weirdly, irrationally annoyed at this assessment of him. “I can at least assume I’m a lot more self-aware than most people Charles brings home,” he says stiffly.
Moira’s smile is unreadable. “Charles is surprisingly self-aware,” she reminds him, “and look how far that’s gotten him.”
Erik catches the edge of a rebuke in that, and reflects that Moira’s a lot sharper and a lot bitchier than that pretty and competent exterior implies. No wonder Charles likes her so much.
“You’re less frustrated than you ought to be,” he tells her instead.
Moira shrugs. “There’s no point in getting frustrated with him,” she says. “He is what he is.” She raises a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “You told Charles that’s how you treat people; as what they are, not what you think they ought to be.”
“I did,” Erik agrees, and if he didn’t already know that Charles tells Moira absolutely everything about all aspects of his life he thinks he definitely would now. He smiles slightly. “It’s not an opinion I expect everyone else to share, though.”
Moira’s manicured fingers are drawing little nervous circles on the tabletop as she sips at her cappuccino. Erik decides she’s had a stressful few days at work and a break-up sometime in the past few weeks that she’s pretending hasn’t knocked her confidence. Oh, he’s good at the minutiae; it was his stock in trade, back in days that were uglier and more complicated than these.
“I don’t want to change him,” she says at last. “I just want him to be happy.” She looks him straight in the eye and doesn’t flinch away; not a lot of people do that, not anymore. “Can you make him happy?”
Erik, for some reason, really wasn’t expecting that question; it catches him offguard. “I don’t... I don’t know,” he says.
Moira smiles again; small and careful and tight. “I’m not surprised,” she tells him. “Neither of you seem to have any idea about any aspect of this. I’m not telling you to rush things, but some clarification might be good before Raven throws the Monopoly set at her brother’s head.”
I’m not very good at making people happy, Erik thinks, but he’ll never give her the satisfaction of saying it aloud.
“There’s always chess,” he offers instead, light and unaffected.
Moira finally laughs. “Yes,” she sighs, “yes, there is.”
His first week in the job, Stryker referred a girl to him who’d gotten in trouble in class by throwing a chair across the room. She’d always been well-behaved; good grades, polite attitude, a little shy, perhaps, but nothing too serious.
She looked at him with tired, weary eyes that made him momentarily afraid of what the hell had happened to her, and didn’t say anything at all.
She did come back, though, week after week, session of silence after session of silence, while her teachers reported her being withdrawn, distracted, not handing in work, and her mother cried down the phone.
Erik knows when to push a student and when not to, and he didn’t try any tricks to shock a response out of her because he knows all too well what someone on a knife edge looks like. He’s not a liability, whatever anyone says.
“You have to give me something,” he told her after a month and a half of nothing. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, it doesn’t even have to be true, but it has to be something to put in your file.”
Kitty just looked at him with those broken eyes some more, looking like all she wanted was to fade out of existence and fall through the floor.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she said at last.
“I won’t,” he replied, and it was the stupidest thing he could ever have said.
Kitty had been invited to a party she was too young to go to, and had gone because she was flattered to be invited and curious to see what actually happened at a real high school party. She’d been disappointed, of course – they’re always disappointed – but her date had provided her with all the alcohol she wanted, and some more she didn’t want, and had undressed her upstairs in the host’s bedroom even when she asked him to stop, or maybe she hadn’t asked him to stop, and either way what she’d wanted and what had actually happened bore no correlation to each other.
Erik was silently shaking by the time she’d finished mumbling it out, taking up two appointments he’d have to reschedule and it didn’t matter, filled with the warm rage that had lead to broken noses and worse when he was younger and faster and less principled.
“Who-” he pulled himself together. “Who was your date?”
Kitty bit her lips together and looked at her knees and eventually offered up a whispered: “Sebastian Shaw.”
Erik had wanted to go to everyone; her family, Stryker, the police. Kitty hadn’t let him, insisting that he’d promised not to tell anyone, and he never saw her again once she left his office. Her mom got a new job several states away, and she transferred so fast it was almost suspicious.
Sebastian Shaw, meanwhile, continued to stride through the corridors like a king.
A handful of years ago, Erik would have known how to deal with someone like Shaw, but he doesn’t do that anymore. One overcrowded night Azazel – an eternally stoic Russian who fitted in being a sort-of friend in between drinking a lot of vodka and getting weird red ink tattoos all over himself – pointed out that Erik wasn’t actually Batman and that this shit kind of really had to stop, and unfortunately he listened.
There’ve been a string of girls who’ve come to him since; not many, but enough, all of whom have transferred and none of whom would testify.
A teacher probably shouldn’t have a vendetta against his student, but then Erik is barely a teacher, and he knows that if he waits long enough he’ll have something, enough to take Shaw down.
xi. what if i’m the nicest place you’d never want to go?
Erik is reasonably sure that he doesn’t have a paternal bone in his body, but he has no intention of letting a teenager do something utterly stupid and dangerous that won’t teach him anything if he can actually stop it. Educational stupid and dangerous is a whole other thing, but Sean Cassidy’s probably beyond being taught anything by now.
In the end, Erik decided it would be quicker and better all round if he just gave Sean his telephone number for emergencies and not-quite emergencies and all the things in between. Sean’s parents don’t know what to do with him. Erik doesn’t know either, but it’s a different kind of don’t know, and in any case there’ll be a lot less crying if he’s the one left to deal with the pieces.
Sean calls him at one in the morning and asks him to come pick him up from his latest gig. He’s slurring and giggling and practically incomprehensible, but by now Erik’s pretty good at deciphering the one-man language that Sean speaks most of the time.
“Have Raven and/or Charles Xavier put you up to this?” he asks, reaching for his car keys.
Sean says something that is in no way a real word, and hangs up.
Well, Erik muses, at least he’s not calling from jail this time.
He finds Sean inside; he looks tired and out of it but happy enough. His t-shirt has Hot Mess written on it, and Erik doesn’t ask because being baffled by Sean’s life choices is par for the course. Raven is sitting on the stage next to him, swinging her legs and looking a lot more collected.
“Do you need a ride?” he asks her, because he thinks that’s the kind of thing you’re supposed to say to the little sister of the guy you’re definitely not dating but also might kind of be. Possibly.
Raven smirks. “No,” she replies. “I’m going to wait for you to leave and then I’m going to call Charles.”
Erik finds Raven considerably more interesting than most of the students he treats, simply because he hasn’t quite figured out her motivations yet. She’s smart enough to take second place to Hank in all her classes, is both a cheerleader and a part of an edgy stoner band, and if she wanted to could probably take on Emma Frost to be queen of the school; but she doesn’t. She seems to be acting within a half dozen personalities and options just because she can, and Erik has seen people trying to live double and even triple lives, but nothing quite like this.
“Get home safe,” he tells her, and adds: “I’ll have coffee for your appointment tomorrow morning.”
Raven laughs. “I have no idea why people think you’re a dick.”
Erik puts a hand on Sean’s shoulder, pushing him towards the door. “Yes, you do.”
“Yeah,” Raven says, already pulling her phone from her bag, “yeah, I do.”
Raven doesn’t even look at Erik when she opens the door; she’s wearing a jacket over her dress and disappears down the stairs, tossing a you deal with him over her shoulder.
Situations that begin with you deal with him never end well, but Erik walks inside the apartment anyway.
There seem to be sheets of paper everywhere, empty takeout cartons and abandoned coffee mugs littering every surface. Of Charles himself, there’s no sign. He steps over a thick book abandoned page-down on the carpet before bending down to close it, the spine split. The kitchen is empty too, the sink full of dishes, the fridge open and empty and humming to no one. There’s what appears to be coffee all over one wall, a mug lying in pieces on the floor underneath it. On the sideboard are six empty wine bottles.
For a long moment Erik considers just walking out too, but instead he shakes his head and keeps looking.
Charles is sitting under the desk in his study, typing away industriously on his laptop, and doesn’t appear to notice him until Erik finds the light switch. Charles cringes into the wall away from the light; Erik looks at the mess of paper all over the floor and the post-its covered in Charles’ messy, cramped handwriting, and wonders exactly when the last time Charles went outside was. After considering his options, Erik toes off his shoes and bends down to fit himself underneath the desk with Charles. He thinks a few uncharitable things about how conveniently short Charles is, but doesn’t say them aloud. What he does say is: “make notes on your thought process and shut it down.”
Charles turns his head; in the shadow his eyes are much too wide and his hair is a ridiculous crazy mess that Erik might find endearing at some point. His mouth opens like he’s thinking of protesting, but Erik holds his gaze, remorseless, and eventually Charles turns his attention back to his computer. He looks sleep-deprived to all hell, but he doesn’t smell like the wine in the kitchen.
He gets out from underneath the desk while Charles begins to make notes, fingers stumbling on the keys – Erik can hear him repeatedly hitting the backspace key – and goes to find some clean mugs. When he brings back coffee for himself and tea for Charles, he finds that the laptop lid is closed and Charles has stretched his legs out, back to the wall.
Erik is going to pay him back for this at some point, but for now he just gets back under the desk, passing Charles the cup. Charles is shivering a little and he wraps his hands around it gratefully.
“You need to get a cleaner,” Erik tells him. “I would’ve thought you already had one, doesn’t that go with the over-privilege?”
Charles shrugs. “We’ve had cleaners, but I’m home a lot, and I disconcert them.” He sounds so tired, adrenaline cracking between the words. He sips his tea. “What are you doing here?”
“You haven’t sexually harassed me for four days,” Erik responds. “I was starting to get worried.”
Charles laughs a little, though it doesn’t sound like his normal laugh. Everything about him screams exhaustion. “Raven called you.”
“Raven called me,” Erik confirms. “She’s worried about you.”
Charles shrugs. “That’s not a new thing,” he mumbles.
“I know,” Erik says. He sighs, pressing a supportive shoulder into Charles’. “Research paper?”
“It might even be a bit ground-breaking,” Charles says, without a trace of boastfulness. “I’m not sure yet. It might just be very, very good.”
Erik feels a fond smile touch his lips. “I suppose being a genius does remove the need to clean up after yourself.”
“I’m not a genius,” Charles tells him. His eyes are on his bare feet. “You know, growing up, I had photos of Einstein on my bedside table.”
Erik knows what he’s trying to tell him, but they shouldn’t have this conversation right now. “That’s quite a niche first crush,” he says, “should I be worried?”
“Always,” Charles fires back. “Haven’t you been telling me all along I’m a slut with no attention span?”
When was the last time you slept? Erik thinks. “Don’t put words into my mouth.”
Charles shrugs; his expression is hidden in shadow, but the sad slanted line of his shoulders speaks volumes. “You’ll think it eventually,” he says. “I’m just saving you some time.”
Erik finally realises just why Raven fled the apartment. Something warm and angry opens inside him, and he says: “don’t ever, ever tell me what to think or feel or do.”
Even through the exhaustion and the bitterness something flares bright and hot in Charles’ eyes, and Erik thinks that given half the opportunity they’ll have the most stunning arguments. He doesn’t let him say anything, though, cutting him off with a kiss.
It’s been a surprisingly long time since they last kissed; Erik doesn’t realise until he feels the way Charles’ entire body tenses, startled. They agreed it was best all round to try and keep their hands off each other, although for a blindingly long minute Erik can’t remember why.
“It’s entirely possible,” Charles breathes at last, fingers in the back of Erik’s hair, “that you’re even more insufferable than I am.”
Erik has a hand spread against Charles’ cheek, their mouths still so close that he can taste it every time Charles exhales. He keeps his eyes closed.
“Go to bed, you ridiculous man,” he sighs, and doesn’t breathe in again until the door closes behind Charles.
Moira looks a little less emotionally damaged this week, although Erik has no idea how this has become a regular thing. He’s not really a going-for-coffee-with-people person. Going for vodka, yes, but that’s something entirely different and requires far fewer pleasantries.
Erik is unashamed of the fact he doesn’t have any friends. Perhaps he ought to feel sadder about it, with the knowledge that if he actually wanted to get a Facebook account he probably wouldn’t be able to add anyone he hasn’t punched in the face at least once, but the fact is he likes his life streamlined and uncluttered. And yes, he’s perfectly aware what another psychiatrist would have to say about all of this, but it doesn’t matter, because the wonderful thing about being a psychiatrist is that you can analyse yourself as much as you like and then you get to sweep it all under a carpet and ignore it, because you don’t have to force yourself to do anything.
“I have no idea what to call you,” Moira muses over her latte with three shots in it. “I don’t think ‘boyfriend’ is really accurate in any sense of the word.”
Erik’s never been anyone’s boyfriend; the word sparks a whole host of interesting emotions in him which he quickly pushes away.
“I’m definitely not his boyfriend,” he says swiftly, and is pleased with how his voice doesn’t crack at any point.
Moira smiles slightly. “Don’t panic,” she says. “Charles hasn’t had a boyfriend or a girlfriend in his life.” She shrugs, and her smile turns sad and just a little complicated. “He just has strings and strings of exes.”
Erik could delve into that, and surprises himself with how little he wants to know. At first, he was curious; now it’s just another pair of hands on Charles that aren’t his. And Erik hates thinking like that, because thinking like that has consequences.
“I don’t see why you have to call me anything,” he tells her. He’s just drinking espresso today, deciding to get his caffeine fix without all the excess fluid. He suspects he’ll be buzzing all afternoon, but some days that’s the only way to get through monosyllabic teenagers with relationship troubles.
Moira shrugs, smirking just a little. “My co-workers are horribly overinvested in Charles’ life,” she tells him.
“Oh.” Erik is pretty sure he’s never been the subject of anything resembling gossip in his life. He’s not sure how to feel about it.
Moira’s expression is almost pitying; he pretends not to notice.
Erik has been expecting this for a number of weeks, so he has no idea why both Hank and Alex look so horribly surprised. Teenagers really are ridiculous.
“Show’s over,” he tells the watching students. “At least, I assume it is. Any curtain calls?” He looks to where Janos Quested is pressing a sleeve to his bleeding nose, narrow-eyed but silent, and then at where Alex Summers is being physically restrained by Armando Munoz, one eye already swelling closed, lip split. “Excellent. Well, don’t hang around for autographs.”
They leave pretty quickly, a low hum of excited conversation breaking out as they head for class. Alex makes another aborted lunge at Janos, but Armando drags him backwards again, muttering something urgent that Erik doesn’t catch. Hank’s knuckles are white where he’s clutching his books, eyes wide and startled. Raven’s still standing beside him, but she doesn’t look nearly as shocked as everyone else; she, at least, seemed to realise this was inevitable.
“You can go to the school nurse,” Erik tells Janos, because sooner or later Alex is going to get free and there’s every chance this could end with a cracked skull, “and I think a week’s worth of detentions should help hammer in the lesson that bullying is a petty, cruel occupation only favoured by the weak and the stupid.”
Janos opens his mouth like he’s thinking of protesting, then looks at where Alex is still struggling with Armando, and slopes off immediately. Armando, because he’s a smart boy, waits until Janos is out of sight before finally letting go of Alex. Erik gives him a look when Alex’s expression suggests he’s still thinking of running after him, one that clearly tells Alex that if he does Erik will not try and talk him out of whatever shit he’s gotten himself into.
“Well,” he says cheerfully, “if you don’t hurry, Mr Munoz, Miss Darkholme, you’ll be late for class.”
They get the message and leave, although they keep looking over their shoulders. Erik stays silent until they’re gone, and then says: “group therapy.”
Hank looks worried but Alex’s expression doesn’t flicker in the slightest. Neither of them say anything on the drive to the nearest Starbucks; Hank looks too scared and too surprised to speak, while Alex looks like he’s decided to take refuge in silence again. Erik has no idea why Alex decided that not talking is in any way useful; all it serves to do is irritate him, and god knows who else.
They manage to get one of the couches and the place is reasonably quiet; Erik provides them both with coffee and then sits and watches Alex pretend he’s not in pain and Hank shrinking into the arm of the couch.
“This is certainly an auspicious start to Wednesday,” he says with false cheerfulness.
Hank chews his lip for a moment and then says: “I’m missing biology,” in a distressed voice.
“Then it serves you right for fucking around with Alex’s emotions with no idea what you were doing and without the decency to actually tell him that’s what you were doing,” Erik hears himself say.
Hank actually gasps, while Alex just looks angrier than ever, something defensive in his body language.
“What. Are. You. Doing.” he hisses.
“Oh,” Erik says, because he’s started so he might as well see this through, “I’m sorry, I assumed it wasn’t possible to make this any more awkward than it already is.”
Hank looks like he’s about to burst into tears, which wasn’t actually Erik’s intention.
“You are such an asshole,” Alex says in a low, hard voice.
Erik considers letting up, but then these were the boys who were apparently too busy being oblivious to realise that sooner or later Alex was going to try and beat someone who tried bullying Hank into a pulp, so they don’t really deserve mercy.
He sighs, leaning back in his chair, and tries to decide if he can duck in time if Alex decides to pitch his coffee at his face.
“The way you two can somehow manage to kiss on what I’m certain is more than one occasion and then utterly fail to notice that you don’t want to date anyone but each other is bordering on the remarkable,” he says.
Both boys look completely floored, open their mouths and then close them again. And then Alex mutters and Hank mumbles and they both manage to say something along the lines of but I’d be terrible at dating someone.
Erik cannot handle this anymore. He stands up, draining the last of his coffee, and says: “you can make your own way back.”
He doesn’t look behind him as he leaves; some part of this should be left private, after all.
“We should have a party!” Charles says brightly.
“We should not have a party,” Raven responds, tone flat. “I’m still not sure that this isn’t just going to collapse under the weight of their combined angst and social ineptitude after like three days anyway.”
“You could invite them over for Monopoly,” Moira suggests into her wineglass.
Raven gives her a look. “They might be emotionally damaged, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be capable of having actual sex,” she says. “Unlike other people I could mention.”
Erik has no idea why he thought coming over for dinner with the Xavier-Darkholme family would be a good idea. Aside from the general craziness this apartment seems to breed, Raven is apparently quietly resentful that a) Erik has fixed up her best friend so she now has no one to hang out with, and b) he got there before her.
“I’ve got lots of people I can have actual sex with,” Charles shrugs dismissively, reaching for more lo mein, “but not a lot of people I can play boardgames with.”
He picks up his chopsticks again, like he has no idea what he’s just said. That’s the thing about Charles; the dangerous bits of his charm are the bits he doesn’t even know he has.
Moira’s eyes have gone very wide, and they get even wider when Erik manages to meet her gaze. Raven is looking quietly incredulous, but Charles doesn’t seem to have noticed.
“You only say that because Erik lets you win,” she says, as Moira discreetly slides the wine bottle over to him.
“You could take a leaf out of his book,” Charles tells her, as Erik says: “I do not let him win.” They both turn to look at him at that, so he sighs and adds: “often.”
His life was a lot easier before the arrival of this ridiculously pretty English professor who has no idea what ‘no’ means or when to say when, and Erik wonders where exactly along the line he stopped minding. None of this is simple or comfortable and a lot of it doesn’t seem to make any logical sense, but it’s unknown territory for both of them, and Erik can’t figure out if that makes it any better or a hell of a lot worse.
“I won’t let you win anymore,” he announces, aware even as he’s saying it that it’s a lie, and Charles laughs.
“Pass the wine, would you?” he says, and that’s when Erik realises that he hasn’t had a single glass all night.
“Oh my God,” Raven whispers, apparently noticing it too, and Erik wonders what the hell they’ve managed to get themselves into.
Emma Frost’s cheerleading uniform is so blindingly white it’s actually a little painful to look at; Erik has no idea how much bleach she must use when washing it, but it’s got to be a lot. She sits in the chair opposite his with her hands folded in her lap and her legs crossed and her head tipped to one side, and she hasn’t blinked in at least two minutes.
Erik is used to intimidating silences from his students, but he kind of wishes Hank was here to interpret. No wonder Hank got so good at reading Alex so quickly; Emma is utterly inscrutable, expression unrelentingly placid and body language relaxed.
Except that she isn’t relaxed, and she’s the one who came to him.
He watches ten minutes tick down on his clock, and then begins: “the Angels won their last competition, and while Miss Pryor continues to watch you and wait for a crack so that she can slip in and take over as captain, she hasn’t received the opportunity yet.”
Emma blinks, and Erik takes that to mean yes.
“Your utterly baffling friendship with Mr McCoy seems to be carrying on in the dysfunctional fashion it always has,” he continues, “and your popularity doesn’t appear to be waning, since I’m treating at least four girls a week who sit here and cry because they’re not you.”
The corner of her mouth twitches; not a smile, but something. Another blink of ascent.
“And whatever emotional problems you’re carrying around don’t appear to have become any worse,” Erik concludes, “and you don’t strike me as the kind of girl to suddenly demand help with no specific trigger, which I’m sure I’d know about if it existed.”
Emma blinks again, tipping her head the other way now, waiting.
“Which means,” Erik decides, “that you’re here to talk to me about your boyfriend.”
Emma’s fingers give an involuntary twitch in her lap.
Erik knows that he has to play this exactly right; too much and Emma will clam up and leave and never make another appointment and he’ll have nothing. He takes a breath, and then another, keeping his temper in check.
“Talk to me about Sebastian Shaw,” he says, just the right side of begging. “Give me something I can use.”
Emma shifts minutely in her chair, one immaculate blonde curl slipping down her shoulder.
“Please,” Erik adds, careful, an afterthought. He’s not sure when he’ll get another chance; Angel Salvadore was the closest he ever got, that black eye she lied away until it faded, but then she got back together with Armando and decided to leave the past exactly where it was.
Emma closes her eyes for a long moment, and when she opens them again there’s something determined in her expression.
“Okay,” she says, quiet and flat, “okay, I’ll tell you everything.”
Erik doesn’t get sick, doesn’t ever get sick. The fact he’s had to take a day off work and his head is pounding and everything appears to be too much right now does not mean that he’s sick.
“I’m not sick,” he insists, where he’s huddled against the door because he can’t stand or even sit upright without support. “Go away.”
“You are sick,” Charles responds through the door. He sounds suspiciously cheerful and much, much too perky. “It’s okay, though, I brought soup.”
“No,” Erik says, when all other words fail him, his head too painful for sentences. He wishes that Charles had a proper job and not a vague handwavy one that allows him to have far too much free time and the ability to stalk people to their homes when they’re incapable of dealing with him.
“Proper soup,” Charles adds. “Made by proper people who know about things like cooking and food groups.”
“You don’t know where I live,” Erik insists, pressing his forehead against the cool wood of his door.
“I do,” Charles tells him, “it’s easy, really.”
“I’m ex-directory.” Erik refuses to be whining, all of this is terrible enough without adding in actual whining.
“I have lots of money and hardly any morals,” Charles responds. “You should let me in. I can probably reheat soup without burning your home down.”
Erik closes his eyes. “You probably can’t.”
“Just let me in,” Charles says.
Finally, whole body shaking and feeling so dizzy he can barely see, Erik opens the door.
“You can leave the soup,” he says, but Charles is already pushing inside. He sighs, and goes to lie on his couch because upright is becoming increasingly difficult.
“I like your apartment,” Charles says brightly.
“No, you don’t,” Erik tells him. “No one likes it. That’s the point. It’s unwelcoming so that people don’t want to stay.”
He realises that he really, really should not have said that when Charles’ entire face lights up. “Oh,” he says. “Oh, I get it. I thought you wouldn’t get involved with me because you had too many principles or something, but you don’t want to because you’re me.”
“You should not look that gleeful,” Erik replies, but Charles isn’t listening to him.
“You are me,” Charles insists. “This is perfect. Now I’m not the only slut here.”
Erik shuts his eyes. “I’ve never actually called you a slut,” he mutters.
“It’s marvellous!” Charles insists.
“It is not marvellous.”
“Yes it is.” When Erik risks a look, Charles is grinning broadly. “When you get better, we are going to have so much sex. The kind of sex that will make your neighbours move to get away from it.”
Erik has no idea why the one person he decided not to have a one night stand with had to be Charles Xavier.
“Okay,” he says, “okay, fine, can I have the soup you promised now?”
He closes his eyes to get away from the blinding smugness of Charles’ smile.
xii. i don’t want to sit across the table from you wishing i could run.
“Oh my God,” Charles says in a low, irritated undertone, “do you ever shut up?”
“Yes,” Erik snaps back, “of course I do. You’re the one who never stops talking.”
Charles’ mouth is wet and bitten red and it’s a good look on him, it’s a gorgeous look on him, and Erik is so mad at him right now that he could quite happily punch him in the balls.
“Really?” Charles demands. “Because since we got here all you have done is bitch and complain and criticise.”
“No,” Erik snaps back, “that’s been you. Which is weird, really, because I thought you were supposed to be good at this.”
It’s cruel, and a cheap low blow, but when he’s thought about being half-naked with Charles Xavier he really didn’t consider the fact that anger would be the main emotion in the room.
Charles narrows his eyes. “I thought you were.”
He kisses him before Erik can reply, all teeth and furious determination, and it’s really good, it is, except that Charles’ knee is digging into his thigh and for some reason it’s all Erik can think about.
When Charles pulls back he looks frustrated. “This isn’t fair,” he whispers. “We’re not allowed to be terrible at sex with each other.”
Erik pushes him until he rolls off him, and they both stare at the bland, white-painted ceiling for a while.
“Have you ever had sex with someone you actually know?” he asks Charles eventually. “I mean, someone you really know, someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, someone you have some kind of emotional connection with?”
He turns to look at him, and Charles has his eyes closed. “No,” he mumbles through gritted teeth.
Charles laughs, brittle and cracked and a little desperate. “Oh,” he says softly. “Oh. Oh. You’re my boyfriend, Erik. You’re my boyfriend and we can’t have sex with each other.”
It’s just as well Erik doesn’t have any friends, he reflects, because he’s pretty sure they would all die of laughter.
He covers his eyes with one hand and forces himself to take a handful of breaths before he snaps out something cruel and unhelpful.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve got a backgammon set in the back of my closet,” he offers at last.
When Charles laughs this time, it’s a little more real. “It’s rather sad how this isn’t actually the worst thing that has ever happened in my sex life.”
Erik is startled to find that he agrees.
“Are you going to be willing to testify to any of this?” Erik asks, looking over the file he’s created for Sebastian Shaw again. He keeps it in his briefcase all the time; he has no doubt that if Shaw had any idea he was doing this he’d find some way to get Erik fired without references, and would probably make sure he never got employed again. And all that just for starters.
Emma’s lips press together just slightly; Erik’s had two sessions with her thus far and he still isn’t finding her any less disconcerting. Her utterly unruffled and just slightly haughty exterior isn’t something that’s easy to get used to; he sometimes catches himself wondering just how Hank manages to maintain any kind of friendship with her.
“I don’t know what that means,” he says eventually, when she doesn’t volunteer an answer.
She shifts in her chair, recrossing her legs, the slits in her white cheerleading skirt sliding open a little. Erik doesn’t care, and keeps his gaze on her face. He used to think she was completely vapid but it’s more than that; Erik has perfected a poker face over the years out of necessity, but this is something else entirely, a careful lack of expression that doesn’t ever shift.
Whoever Emma is underneath, she’s got to be the kind of desperately unhappy that Erik hasn’t been for years.
“I don’t know,” she says at last.
“Are you frightened of him?” Erik asks at last.
Emma looks at her knees for a couple of unbroken minutes. Her ability to sit statue still is particularly unsettling, and Erik can’t help wondering if that’s why she does it.
“I don’t know,” she decides. “Maybe.”
“If you’ll testify I can get him put away,” Erik tells her.
Emma’s eyebrow twitches, which he thinks he’s decided means derision. “He has more money than anyone except perhaps Charles Xavier,” she replies. “Nobody will prosecute him. Nothing will change.”
“I know people,” Erik insists. “I know people who will get him put away.”
Something that might be a smile on someone else tugs the corner of Emma’s mouth. “That sounds appropriately sinister,” she tells him. “Next you’ll be announcing that you have other people who can make sure he doesn’t leave prison in anything other than a body bag.”
It’s the longest sentence Emma has ever said in front of him. Possibly it’s the longest thing she’s said all month.
Erik tips his head to one side. “Maybe I do,” he says. He does, actually, but he doesn’t think it’s the sort of thing he should tell a student; like most things in his past, he needs those people to stay in the shoebox in the back of his head.
Emma doesn’t laugh, probably because Erik hasn’t earned that yet, but she does say: “that’s a terrible plan” in a soft tone she hasn’t used yet.
“It can be Plan B,” Erik shrugs.
Emma doesn’t move or twitch or blink for a couple of breathless minutes, and finally murmurs: “I’ll do it.”
Erik exhales heavily. “Okay,” he says, and just manages to bite back thank you.
It’s been a long wait, but he can get this to pay off, he knows he can.
Erik’s really not sure how he got talked into this, but then things with Charles have become... interesting since the horrible realisation they’re dating in a completely celibate way. It hasn’t removed any of Erik’s actual desire for Charles’ terrible haircut and lopsided smile and horribly earnest eyes, but he’s started breaking a lot of ballpoint pens and terrifying more freshmen than usual. Anyway, the point is that he let Charles talk him into this charity dinner despite the fact that Erik generally despises the rich and certainly despises the kind that Charles is forced to interact with.
Raven, meanwhile, is holding some kind of sleepover back at Charles’ apartment involving Hank, Alex, Emma, Sean and Armando, so Erik assumes they’ll get a call from the emergency services in a couple of hours. And yet he’s somehow still jealous of her.
“Just don’t speak to anyone,” Charles advises in an undertone as they check their coats, his fingers curled in the sleeve of Erik’s suit. “And if they speak to you nod and smile and find another flute of champagne.” When Erik raises an eyebrow, he adds: “it’s what got me through my adolescence.”
Erik chases the bitterness in his tone with a kiss to the corner of Charles’ mouth that’s neither acceptance nor apology, but which makes Charles smile properly again anyway.
“Can I have sex in the bathroom with any of these people?” he asks, as Charles leads him towards the apparent ballroom where he’s going to have to sit for the next few hours; thank God for the open bar.
“As many as you like,” Charles promises in the same tone he used earlier to tell Erik he could drink as much as he wanted. “Just let me know in advance if I have to distract any of their spouses for you.”
“I dread to think what your kind of distraction entails,” Erik remarks softly, and Charles winks at him before assuming that mask he only uses around people at these things; the coldly polite one that no one can penetrate.
Erik’s phone buzzes in his pocket while Charles is talking to an older couple who clearly knew his mother and who have a lot of opinions about Charles’ lifestyle choices; the whole thing is making Erik’s teeth grit so he’s glad of an excuse to step away.
i am going to kill you for telling hank and alex about their mutual hopeless crushes, Raven informs him.
Your evening cannot be worse than mine, Erik responds.
they’ve decided to just be friends, Raven tells him a moment later. it is worse than all of the monopoly evenings combined. at least your evening comes with champagne.
Erik considers it for a moment, and then tells her: Charles is hiding a bottle under his bed next to that box full of shoes he never wears.
A few minutes later, Raven sends him: you’re a gentleman and a scholar and all that. look out for charles, these things mess with his head.
On it, Erik replies, because he already knows.
Just because he doesn’t exercise tact very often doesn’t mean Erik can’t utilise it; he sweeps in to rescue Charles from where he’s still being interrogated, provides him with another glass, and drags them off to an over-padded ottoman thing that probably cost an obscene amount where he can curl his fingers around Charles’ wrist until he stops shaking.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Charles tells him quietly, and Erik believes him.
Thursday morning, Erik makes a jug of coffee, discusses the fact Alex willingly answered three questions in class yesterday with Ororo, talks to Sean about the bits of the week he can remember that didn’t involve pot – they mostly involve Raven, actually, and Erik isn’t sure he should be hearing any of this about his boyfriend’s little sister – and then sits through three sessions with miserable students who are respectively suffering grade anxiety, girlfriend troubles, and anger management issues.
Later, he takes his folder full of evidence and testimonies about Sebastian Shaw to the police department, and waits for the shit to hit the fan.
“You’re going to die,” Hank says with wide eyes, because he’s apparently part of this dinner at Charles’ tonight. He and Raven have some kind of history project they’re going to work on later, and Erik is once again reminding himself why getting involved with the guardian of one of his students was a stupid idea; there’s no escape from the school now. “I mean, seriously, Sebastian Shaw is going to have you killed.”
It’s the most Hank has said in front of Erik for a while; he mostly sits and glowers in his therapy sessions no matter what Erik tries.
“I’ll just pay for a hitman to kill Shaw’s hitman,” Charles shrugs, tone worryingly matter-of-fact. “I mean, I’ve got to be able to match whatever he’s paying.”
“And they say romance is dead,” Raven mutters into her coconut rice.
“We can’t all join bands and then pine after the lead singer,” Charles muses.
Hank chokes on a mouthful of noodles. Raven’s mouth thins. “Seriously, fuck you,” she responds, grabbing one of the white cartons and swishing off to her room, Hank following.
Erik says nothing, and waits for the sheepish tilt of Charles’ mouth.
“She’ll get over it,” he offers finally, and Charles screws his face up. “No,” Erik adds, “I’m not going to tell you any of the things Raven’s told me in confidence.”
Charles’ expression clears a little. “I’m dating a guidance counsellor, there must be some perks,” he protests.
“...your life is even more fucked up than I first thought if that’s the reason you decided to hit on me,” Erik muses, and Charles kicks him under the table.
The car has been following Erik’s for a couple of miles now. He’s actually driven well out of his way, started picking his own meandering route when he first suspected that the black car behind his was tailing him just a little too closely. This isn’t the first time this has happened to him, not by a long shot, and the adrenalin sparking in his veins is delicious, something he’s missed in his recent years of gainful employment.
If Shaw thinks he’s going to scare him into shutting up, he’s going to discover just how wrong he is.
Erik puts his foot down on the gas and speeds up, just enough to make it look like he’s trying to lose the tail without actually losing him at all, feeling a sharp smirk spread across his lips. He hasn’t done this in a long time, but it doesn’t leave you, the way the world is too bright and too slow and everything is lying out glittering in front of you.
The car behind him speeds up too, dropping the pretence, and Erik’s knuckles turn white on the steering wheel. He’s driven them onto the less busy roads, heading towards the freeway; it’s a calculated risk, but one he’s made in the past and survived relatively intact. He speeds up a little more, narrowing his eyes as the car matches his pace, knocking his bumper. Erik doesn’t let it distract him; that’s the warning, sure, but he doesn’t scare that easily, and he’s going to send Shaw a much better warning in response.
He puts on an extra burst of speed and then hits the brakes, swerving sideways and smacking his face too off the steering wheel, his safety belt jerking him painfully back into his seat, stealing the breath out of his lungs. Through dazed eyes he watches as the other car doesn’t brake in time, skidding off the road and, despite the driver’s attempts at steering, slamming straight into a tree.
The bonnet is smoking and once Erik would have turned and left, but he doesn’t live that life any more now. He gets out of his car, staggering for a moment before righting himself and stumbling towards the other car, dragging the door open and pulling the bleeding, shocked driver out before the car actually explodes. The guy attempts to put up a fight; he manages to punch Erik in the face once before Erik floors him with a better punch, dragging the barely-conscious man to a safe distance and leaving him where he’ll be noticed eventually. Probably.
It’s been a long time since someone actually tried to kill him; he can taste his own blood on his teeth and there’s laughter spilling out of his mouth, and it probably says a lot that he’s kind of missed it.
Erik examines himself in the elevator mirror; he’s got a black eye and a gash on his temple that’s still lazily spilling blood down his face, and there are bruises blooming around his bloodied mouth. He looks half-feral, and part of him thinks that he shouldn’t have come here; except that he’s never had anyone who would care if he lived or died before, and the need to see Charles is like an electric wire underneath his skin.
When he pulls open the door, Charles looks at him for a long moment before saying: “you’re an hour and a half late. Do you need a hospital? You stupid bastard.”
“Shaw tried to kill me,” Erik explains, stepping in and kicking the door shut behind him. “Is Raven here?”
“You’ve got to at least have concussion,” Charles replies, fingers tugging the knot of his own tie and pulling it over his head. “And no, she’s staying at Hank’s tonight, apparently his parents like her again.”
“I’m fine,” Erik insists, toeing off his shoes. “You should see the other guy.”
“You’re still bleeding,” Charles protests, fingers on the buttons of his shirt. “Have you even tried to clean any of these wounds?”
“I’m hardly going to get gangrene,” Erik replies, tugging his shirt over his head. “It looks worse than it is.”
“You could have bloody died,” Charles says, “I bet you haven’t called the police.” He shrugs his shoulders and his open shirt falls down his arms to puddle on the floor.
“No police, no hospital,” Erik agrees, dropping his own shirt. “I came straight here.”
“You insufferable man,” Charles snaps, and then kisses him. It stings; the corner of Erik’s mouth split under the knuckles of his assailant, but Charles bites his bottom lip and knots his long fingers in the back of Erik’s messy hair and suddenly it doesn’t matter that it hurts or that everything tastes like blood. His fingers fall to the warm bare skin of Charles’ waist, bracketing his hips as Charles makes a soft frustrated noise into his mouth, pressing closer. Erik trails his hands up and down Charles’ spine, feeling the muscles of his back shift, and it’s already too much and nowhere near enough.
They have to part eventually, saliva stringing between their open mouths, Charles’ pupils blown wide. He takes a breath and his lips move but he doesn’t make a sound.
“If you’re about to tell me how abnormal this is-” Erik begins, but Charles cuts him off with fingers against his bruised lips.
“I’m about to suggest we move this to my bedroom,” he says, “tempting as fucking you in the hall is becoming.”
“I’m going to bleed all over your obnoxiously expensive sheets,” Erik points out, his mouth moving against Charles’ fingers.
“I don’t care,” Charles says simply, and Erik has never wanted him more than he does in this moment. He pushes back into another kiss, Charles dragging him closer, fingers tight in his hair and nails digging into his shoulder.
It’s ridiculous and painful and unplanned and somehow kind of fucking brilliant anyway.
Erik wakes up in a room full of sunlight feeling considerably less invincible and much more like he’s been put in a washing machine on a spin cycle. Everything hurts and his vision is hideously blurred, and when he pushes himself determinedly upright he notes that his blood kind of got everywhere last night, and these sheets are probably going to need to be burned.
He finds a t-shirt of Charles’ that will actually fit him, unearths his own boxer shorts and makes his way out into the apartment. Charles is in the kitchen looking nothing short of gleefully debauched, and it makes Erik smile in response even though it stings.
“I was going to bring you coffee in bed,” Charles tells him, indicating a cafetiere. “And maybe some painkillers.”
“Lots of painkillers,” Erik agrees, sinking onto one of the breakfast bar stools. Charles smiles fondly and walks over, leaning in to press a careful kiss to Erik’s mouth, lips brushing the spilling bruises.
“Raven will be home in a minute,” he whispers, pulling back, and putting a package of ibuprofen in front of Erik.
Erik would complain about being possibly cockblocked by Charles’ little sister, but to be honest he’s in too much pain to do anything more than just sit here, and anyway Raven’s been pretty great about the whole thing and as far as everybody was concerned last night was only supposed to contain wine and chess.
“Do I not get breakfast in bed, then?” he asks, only semi-joking, dry-swallowing two pills.
“I thought you might enjoy it if I didn’t burn the apartment down trying to make pancakes,” Charles responds, eyes bright and amused, and Erik doesn’t care that everything aches, he reaches for Charles’ waist and pulls him back into him again.
The first thing Raven says when she gets through the door is: “I’m telling Moira. What the actual fuck.”
Charles looks from Erik’s damaged face to Raven, and then exclaims: “God, no! I mean, none of that was me.”
“Your brother even took me to the bathroom for antiseptic and bandaids in between rounds two and three,” Erik assures her.
“Three and four,” Charles corrects mildly.
“I can’t hear any of this,” Raven says, but she’s smiling ridiculously widely anyway as she backs away towards her room. “Seriously, I mean, keep your weird shit away from me. Unless one of you wants to make post-coital pancakes, then come get me.”
Erik resigns himself to making pancakes, because Charles seriously will only burn the house down, but he can’t help the fond smile that curls across his lips for this weird little family he’s managed to end up in the middle of.
“You’re my favourite sister,” Charles assures her.
Raven looks back over her shoulder to roll her eyes. “I’m your only sister,” she reminds him as she walks out.
Erik laughs until Charles sends him a slanted smile and a: “neither of us were kidding about the pancakes, you know.”
Part V: Raven
xiii. oh nostalgia, i don’t need you anymore.
“Take five, everyone,” Emma calls, her expression carefully blank so nobody can tell if they’ve done a good job or not. Raven pushes herself to her feet, brushing tendrils of hair out of her face, and heads for her bag and the bottle of Gatorade waiting for her. She screwed up the last flip and the fingers of her left hand are screaming at her for it; she flexes them, and hopes she hasn’t done anything stupid to them.
Madelyne smirks in Raven’s direction. “Struggling to keep up, honey?” she asks, tone faux-sweet.
“She’s already better than you and Selene put together, so I’d watch your backs if I were you, Maddie,” comes a voice from behind Raven, and she turns to find Angel standing there, hips cocked, something cruel in her expression. “Wouldn’t want to find yourself at the back the week before a regional competition again, would we?”
Madelyne scowls and flounces off, ponytail and skirt pleats bouncing. Angel mimes firing at her back with a finger gun.
“Thanks,” Raven says awkwardly.
Angel shrugs. “You’ve got to give them as much shit as they give you or you’re not going to survive,” she tells her. “Like, I’ll help you out ‘cause you’re my boyfriend’s best friend’s whatever’s best friend, but seriously, get those claws out, girl.”
She leaves before Raven can reply, and Raven bites her lip before reaching for her Gatorade. Her knees are numb and her fingers still hurt and she knows that she’s not among friends: the Hellfire Club all hate each other with the kind of hatred they’ve been brewing since middle school, but there’s a special kind of hatred they’ve saved for the new girl. Emma let her on the squad, but she’s never going to intervene for her. Still, Raven knew enough about cheerleading before she voluntarily joined, so she kind of knew what she was letting herself in for. Mostly.
“You wanted this, Darkholme,” she mutters under her breath – barely moving her lips so that no one can see and then accuse her of being actually crazy – before smoothing her messy hair, taking a deep breath, and walking back towards the squad.
Emma’s staring at a clipboard, the slightest of barely-visible frowns between her eyebrows, but when she next looks up she flickers Raven the quickest of winks, and it’s enough to make her grit her teeth and walk past Selene and Madelyne with her head held high.
Raven doesn’t know why her parents didn’t want her. She doesn’t know anything about her birth parents at all, actually, though she knows Charles would help her do the research if she wanted. After all, Darkholme can’t be that common a last name. All she does know is that she grew up in a depressing but never actually cruel group home, until she wound up with the Xavier family, and look how that ended.
The thing is that Raven’s never had parents of any real kind. She’s had an adoptive mother who was never actually maternal, and she’s had Charles, who she loves more than anyone else in the world, but no one specifically parental. Most of the time she doesn’t even remember this, because her childhood was weird but not exactly terrible, and then she’ll find herself brought up short by Darwin bringing in cookies made by his mom, and she’ll recall she used to make pot cookies at the age of nine with one of Charles’ university friends back in England. She was never allowed to eat them, of course, but that’s the closest she’s ever really come to actual home baking.
“These are good,” she says, while Alex gets this weird expression she can’t read and Angel complains about calories and Hank carries on reading the textbook he borrowed from their biology teacher like none of them are even there.
Raven is still deciding whether it’s actually a good thing that their lunch table now seems to have some weird semblance of a social group now.
I’m thinking of baking a cake! Charles excitedly texts her.
Raven rolls her eyes. it’s tacky to be drunk this early she responds.
I’m not drunk, Charles protests. I just think it might be nice to bake a cake.
you burn water, Raven reminds him. i know that you’re happy and i embrace that, but for fuck’s sake just go to a bakery or something.
:( :( :( :( Charles responds, because he knows she has a pet hatred for emoticons.
“Are you the parent figure or is he?” Darwin asks, because he’s been unashamedly reading over her shoulder.
They kind of brought each other up, but it makes Raven’s chest tight whenever she stops and actually thinks about it.
“I don’t even know,” she replies, pushing a smile, and reaches for another cookie.
“This is messed up,” Sean says, but he’s smiling in a lopsided way. “Like, I feel you should be ignoring me and making freshman girls cry.”
Raven rolls her eyes; she didn’t have time to change out of her cheerleader’s uniform before band practice today, and she was aware of everyone’s eyes on the logo across her chest and the split pleats of the skirt all the way through.
“Maybe I should just make you cry,” she responds, digging her elbow into his side, making him laugh his slow cracked laugh. Contrary to popular belief, Sean doesn’t actually spend his entire life high, but he does basically give that impression.
Raven pushes her sneaker into the grass to keep the swingset in the Cassidy’s backyard rocking; Sean’s got his legs tucked up to his chest, the left knee of his jeans split open. She thinks that Sean’s family like her, though it’s hard to tell; everything Sean does seems to vaguely worry them these days, and the introduction of Raven into his life a few weeks ago didn’t cause much more than an eyebrow raise and a sigh.
Sean tips his head to one side, sucking his lower lip into his mouth in the way he does when he’s genuinely actually thinking.
“Why do you do it?” he asks, fingertips skipping against the hem of her skirt. Raven thinks about slapping his hand away, but doesn’t move. “Like, seriously, why?”
Raven thinks about her range of viciously flippant answers, the ones she gets out when Charles looks at her over the dinner table with a frown between his eyebrows, and then discards them all.
“Because until I do it, how will I know if I like it?” she replies.
Sean’s fingers are still absently on her thigh, and she counts the freckles across his nose as he thinks about that.
“Mr Lehnsherr loved that, didn’t he?” he mumbles at last, and Raven laughs, reaching to trace the edges of the rip in Sean’s jeans, worn soft threads against her fingertips.
“He told me I had a point, actually,” she corrects him, and she should go home, and she doesn’t.
Hank’s the best study partner in the world, because he’s actually really invested in getting his work done, and he’s quiet and efficient and doesn’t have any annoying distracting tics while he’s trying to work out an answer. Raven appreciates this, because she’s studied with a range of people – oh, she can make friends; it’s just keeping them that can get a little tricky, and she suspects she’s inherited a lot of that from Charles anyway – and more than half of them have ended in either failed assignments or arguments, and in one case a whole thing with a broken condom that her brother cannot ever, ever know about.
“Are you staying for dinner?” Raven asks when they’ve both finished their respective math work and are debating over whether to get on with English or Civics next.
Hank taps a pen against his lower lip. “Is Mr Lehnsherr going to be here?”
Raven shrugs. “I don’t ask anymore,” she tells him. “It’s not like it’s ever been a big deal.”
Hank makes a face at her, and Raven knows what he means. Erik’s still healing from whatever happened last week – she knows it involves that court case against Sebastian Shaw, who got dragged out of school in cuffs three days ago but made bail pretty quick, of course – and his already pretty terrifying demeanour hasn’t been improved any by the bruising and stitches.
(Raven’s only forgiven him for turning up at the apartment with injuries that actually required fifteen stitches in total when they finally got him to a doctor and jumping her brother because when she confronted him about it, Erik got a weird unreadable expression and told her that the only thing that mattered to him at that moment in time was Charles. It’s kind of hard to stay mad at a guy who thinks your possibly crazy brother is more important than medical attention, and Raven gave up.)
“Does it bother you?” Hank asks, blue eyes wide behind his glasses. “I mean, now that it isn’t a weird game anymore and is actually, you know, whatever this is?”
Raven rolls her eyes and teases Hank for his ineloquence – really, use that in your English essay, I’m sure you’ll get an A – but he just looks at her, and she knows he isn’t going to drop it.
“Of course it doesn’t bother me,” she shrugs. “Seriously, are you staying for dinner? I think my brother was talking about ordering in Indian tonight.”
“That’s not exactly unusual,” Hank points out. “But nice job trying to distract me.” He pauses, shifts awkwardly a little, and Raven fleetingly wonders if she’s kind of ruined his life by forcing him to regularly interact with people who use actual facial expressions. “You know you can talk to me if you need to, right?”
Raven does. Hank’s actually the best friend she’s ever had, which she could find sad if she wanted to since she’s only known him a couple of months, but she tries to be glass-half-full about these things, so instead she’s just grateful for what she has now. And because Hank’s the best friend she’s ever had, she doesn’t bring up Alex at all.
“I do,” she agrees, and kicks his calf with one socked foot. “We should get on with this in case Erik is over tonight; they haven’t given up on the whole board games thing.”
Hank groans and reaches for Raven’s Civics textbook.
Raven is still reasonably sure that Emma Frost isn’t a friend of hers, but then she’s also pretty sure that part of Emma thrives on keeping everyone guessing.
“Aren’t you kind of scared that you’re going to end up murdered before you can testify?” she asks. She knows she shouldn’t, but there are some questions that just spill out anyway.
Emma’s features rearrange themselves just slightly but Raven has no idea what that even means. Sometime she should ask Hank to make flashcards for Emma’s facial expressions.
“My parents are aware of the situation,” Emma says at last, the words steady and without any discernable inflection. “It’ll be fine.”
Raven looks around Emma’s eerily pristine white room, everything carefully arranged and sorted like it’s part of a catalogue photoshoot rather than a place a teenager actually lives. Raven’s room is tidy too – part of the apartment has to be, or she’ll go mad and try and batter Charles to death with abandoned crockery and volumes of science journals – but she’s got posters and souvenirs and photographs and bits and pieces of her life that’s she collected together. Emma has nothing of herself on display anywhere.
“...does this help?” she asks at last, because she’s already pushed her luck once tonight. “With... whatever. Does this help?”
Emma’s mouth twists a little, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a smile or an attempt to suppress something.
“I don’t know anymore,” she admits. Her make-up is still flawless, despite the fact the night is getting on and they’ve had school all day and two hours of cheer practice after that. “You should go,” she says, an abrupt dismissal.
“Yeah.” Raven pushes herself off Emma’s couch and picks up her jacket from where it’s been folded neatly over Emma’s desk chair. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Try to speak to me in the halls and I’ll cut you,” Emma informs her, but there’s something soft in her eyes, and Raven knows to laugh. It feels like a step.
Out on the street and about to call Charles and ask if she can have a ride home or maybe a car of her own already, Raven spots a familiar car parked on the other side of the street and sighs heavily.
“This counts as actual stalking,” she says as she pulls the door open and folds herself into the passenger seat. “Does Darwin know this is what you’re doing when you’re borrowing his wheels?”
Alex shrugs mutinously, sitting hunched in the driver’s seat.
“I’m pretty sure you don’t even have a licence,” Raven adds, putting her purse on the dashboard and getting herself comfortable.
“I don’t,” Alex allows, and it sounds like his teeth are gritted.
Raven examines her nails, frowning as she finds a split cuticle. “I’m considering pulling out words like ‘creepy’,” she warns him.
“It’s not creepy,” Alex mutters.
“You’re parked across the road from Hank’s house and just sitting here,” Raven tells him. “This is the stuff restraining orders are made of. What does Erik have to say about this?”
Alex’s furious/defensive expression cracks a little. “Yeah, ‘cause I’m really going to fucking talk to Erik after that shit he pulled.” He flicks a look at Raven. “Just because he’s fucking your brother-”
“Remember I’m in a position to tell Hank about this,” Raven cuts him off, something angry flaring in her chest. She can’t work out if the anger is directed at Alex or Charles, though, so she ignores it because she seriously can’t deal with those implications.
She can tell Alex is biting the inside of his mouth, and she returns to looking at her nails until he’s calmed down a little.
“You won’t tell him, will you?” he asks, something soft and hesitant in his voice.
Raven isn’t really sure what’s happening in Alex’s head, or in Hank’s for that matter, but trying to get involved in their crazy hasn’t gone well for anyone else so far. “I won’t,” she agrees. “You can even sit here and stare at the light behind his curtains for another fifteen minutes, as long as you drive me home after.”
A lot of the fight seems to fall out of Alex, and if he were a normal person Raven would lean over and hug him. She doesn’t, though, because Alex is mindful of his boundaries and leery about unexpected movements. “Deal.”
Raven squirms in her seat, curling her legs up under her. “If this is a stakeout, shouldn’t we at least have candy or something?” Alex glowers, and she adds: “next time, I’m bringing popcorn.”
“...next time?” Alex asks, eyes going wide.
“Well,” Raven shrugs, “it’s not like I can stop you, but if I leave you doing this alone then it’s creepy as fuck. So. I’m in.”
Alex’s head drops into his hands. “Jesus. Invite Sean and your entire freaking band, why don’t you.”
Raven smiles where he can’t see. “Don’t tempt me.”
“I feel like I haven’t interfered with your life enough lately,” Charles remarks, slotting Pop Tarts into the toaster.
Raven sticks the kettle on and pulls herself up onto the kitchen sideboard.
“You don’t have to interfere with my life,” she tells him, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, I do,” Charles replies earnestly. “In all those parenting books I bought-”
“Moira bought,” Raven corrects, reaching sideways for mugs.
“-that I read,” Charles continues, slightly huffy, “it says that the most important part of being a parent is being involved in your child’s life.”
Raven waits for a bit, but apparently that’s all she’s getting. “...no, really,” she says, “you’re my brother. Your role is to buy the booze until I get a decent fake ID, and sign off on any letters I bring back from school.”
Charles is actually looking hurt, which Raven didn’t intend. “I just...” he trails off, sighing. “I don’t know. My boyfriend knows more about you than I do.”
“That’s because you’re dating my therapist,” Raven points out. The kettle boils and she reaches for the caddy they keep their imported British tea in. “Which, if you want to get technical, was definitely not in any of those parenting manuals.”
Something softens in Charles’ expression. “I’m still meant to be communicating with you,” he protests.
“All you do with your life is eat, sleep, lecture and have sex with Erik,” Raven reminds him. “And I’m totally fine with that.”
She is mostly, anyway, and she’s not going to think about the other bits.
“That doesn’t mean...” Charles sighs, runs a hand through his messy hair that really needs cutting. “I mean, you know I’ll always-”
Raven slides off the sideboard to cross the kitchen and slap her hand across his mouth. “If you’re about to tell me you love me I’m going to move in with Moira,” she warns, and Charles’ eyes smile even if his lips don’t move. “I know.”
“Ungrateful child,” Charles murmurs, pulling back, but he seems more relaxed. “Fine. Pop Tarts and tea and America’s Next Top Model?”
“Sure,” Raven replies, because that’s been their routine for years, and returns to where the teabags are steeping in the mugs.
Charles gets a plate out of a cabinet and then turns around, frowning thoughtfully. “You haven’t let Sean knock you up have you?” The toaster pings and he tries to retrieve the tarts, burning his fingers and yelping.
“You totally deserved that,” Raven informs him, but they’re both already laughing.
“Dude, what’s up with your brother?” Warren asks as Raven walks out onto the balcony. There’s no getting out of the Worthington family’s parties, and she and Charles don’t really try any more. They turn up and smile and grit their teeth and put up with everyone quietly judging them for a few hours, and it’s not worse than a lot of the other parties they wind up attending out of Charles’ misplaced guilt or whatever that shit is.
“It’s probably about...” – Raven tries to remember how long they’ve been here – “...eight glasses of champagne, and whatever your parents dug out of the back of their vintage liquor cabinet?”
Warren rolls his eyes. He’s not quite a friend, but he doesn’t suck and he doesn’t judge her and he might be a little bit overprivileged and ridiculous but Raven likes him anyway.
“I could’ve figured that out for myself,” he says, sprawled out on one of the stone benches on the terrace. There are strings of little white lights wound around the pillars and in the half-light his hair looks even more golden than usual. “I mean, like, he’s practically freaking glowing.”
Raven sighs and sits down on the edge of the bench; Warren shuffles until he can lie his head in her lap.
“He’s dating my guidance counsellor,” Raven explains, wriggling her toes in her pinching shoes. Charles let her have the hem of her – very expensive – dress taken up a few inches, just enough to be skimming inappropriate; rebellion in the most passive-aggressive of ways.
“Wow.” Warren looks genuinely surprised, though he soon rearranges his stupidly handsome features into a smile. “That’s messed up. But also kind of sweet.”
Raven runs an idle hand through his hair; he presses his head into her hand, loose and drunk, and she feels something ease a little in her chest. Sean’s texting her every five minutes tonight, literally every five minutes whether she replies or not, and it’s making her feel jittery enough to fall out of her skin if she isn’t careful.
“He’s happy,” she agrees after a while. “Like, actually happy. Which is a new one on me.”
“It’s adorable,” Warren decides, eyes closing.
Raven makes a vague sound of commitment, and her phone buzzes with another text from Sean; strings of words and thoughts he obviously thinks are important enough to share, whatever they actually mean.
“Is that your boyfriend?” Warren asks.
“No,” Raven replies, and pokes him to make him look at her. “Why don’t we talk about your damn lovelife for once?”
Warren shrugs, suit jacket sliding against her thighs. “I’m experimenting with my sexuality,” he explains airily.
“Of course you are,” Raven mumbles. “What’s his name?”
“Bobby,” Warren tells her, and then rolls sideways to reach under the bench. He makes a soft sound of triumph and surfaces again with a bottle of stolen champagne. “Anyway, text your not-boyfriend back, and let’s get our drink on.”
“I don’t even know why I hang out with you,” Raven mumbles, sliding her phone back into her purse and reaching for the bottle, and Warren offers her his most glowing white of smiles.
“The mutual blackmail material,” he says.
“Ah,” Raven sighs, “right. That.”
They might be missed at some point, but it’s equally likely that they won’t be; Warren’s parents have shown him off to everyone relevant in his crisp suit and tie, and Raven’s smiled prettily at everyone she’s going to see at benefits in the future. They’re forgotten now, and whatever they get up to, as long as no one finds out, no one cares.
“Hey,” Warren says thoughtfully, “remember that time you let me put my hand in your bra?” He pushes himself upright, pulling the champagne from her hands with long shaky fingers.
“I do,” Raven agrees, reading Sean’s next text. “Remember that time I kicked you in the balls?”
Warren laughs even as he crosses his legs in recollection, and Raven hopes he’s got more champagne stashed under the bench; she thinks she’s going to need it.
“Do you remember when we used to hang out and no one ever talked to us and you were secretly best friends with the most popular girl with school and all I ever did was get drunk with my alcoholic brother?” Raven whispers to Hank.
Hank’s smile is wry. “Vaguely,” he whispers back.
Angel’s back with the rest of the Hellfire Club today – yes, Raven’s aware that that’s what the rest of the school call them, and although she could go over there and play at being a queen bitch, she did that already at her last school – but Darwin’s still here, animatedly telling Alex about a movie he saw yesterday. Alex is responding with one-shouldered shrugs and grunts, but in public that’s kind of his equivalent of jazz hands and laughing so Darwin doesn’t seem to mind.
Sean has his own set of vaguely stoned friends but he’s not sitting with them today for some reason, his fingers wrapped loosely around Raven’s wrist under the table. She hasn’t made any move to get him to stop, but sooner or later he’s going to notice that her heart’s beating at twice its normal rate. They’ve never talked about any of this, and Raven has no idea if she’s running on mixed signals or merely kind of oblivious to the neon signs Sean thinks he’s holding up, and it’s frankly all a little exhausting.
“I blame you for all of this,” Hank whispers after a while, but his eyes are soft even if his tone is serious.
All Raven did was decide that this time around she’d say yes to things instead of insulting the person offering and then making sure they skipped Spanish class to have a crisis of confidence – years of bickering with Charles have taught her how to slice someone to ribbons just with words – so she’s not really sure how she’s ended up surrounded by this weird little social circle of people.
“I’m pretty sure you’re the one who got Alex involved in all of this,” Raven responds softly.
Hank doesn’t flinch anymore at the name, but his lower lip twitches like he’s biting the inside of it. Raven is reaching impossible levels of frustration at all of this, but she doesn’t mention it because Hank’s already heard all of it and made sad abused puppy faces about it until Raven gave in and just made coffee to get rid of all the emotions washing around the room.
“You’re responsible for Angel,” Hank whispers back, “and probably Sean.”
“I’ve been hugging you for years, man,” Sean cuts in, also in a whisper, and Raven and Hank grin sheepishly at each other, caught.
“...and then, right, it turns out that he’s a robot,” Darwin is explaining to Alex, and something that isn’t a smile but that curves at the corners skitters across Alex’s mouth, Hank momentarily tensing beside her.
Raven considers all this for a moment, and then just buries her face in Sean’s pot-scented shoulder.
xiv. she’s been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own.
“...and then you put your other finger here...” Sean mumbles, leaning forward to shift Raven’s ring finger up a fret. “And that’s a D chord.”
They’re having guitar lessons because, much as Raven likes playing a tambourine and wearing a minidress, she wants to be able to do more than sing in the band. No one’s said anything – the guys are all as casually easygoing as Sean, and no one so much as raised an eyebrow when he announced she was joining them now – but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to offer more. Raven’s playing one of Sean’s battered old guitars that he’s lent her, and on afternoons when he’s not off his fucking head he tries to teach her collections of chords. It’s nice, sitting in his cluttered room, both of them barefoot and knees pressed together while Raven painstakingly learns chord progressions and Sean’s fingers slide over hers.
She’s not exactly sure how this translates to their mouths touching together, to a kiss that’s barely a kiss so much as an exchange of tattered breathing, and Raven suspects she might have initiated it but she’s not entirely sure.
“...woah,” Sean says softly when he pulls back, expression unreadable and freckles dancing across his screwing up nose and cheeks.
“Hey,” Raven begins, “you have to test everything once to see if you like it. Maybe I’ll try kissing Emma Frost next week.”
“She’ll have you murdered,” Sean informs her, and he’s still looking thoughtful. “You know, like, this can’t happen, right?”
Raven felt a little like this the first time she got drunk – in a carefully controlled environment, of course, with Charles’ college friends providing the alcohol and the hands to hold her hair back when she puked later – so she doesn’t exactly react, everything feeling unreal and too far away.
“No.” Sean waves his hands around in that crazy way he has before saying: “because, like, we’ll date in high school and then we’ll break up and you’ll go out with college guys and I’ll spend college in some guy’s basement and in the end we’ll try and go for coffee and I’ll throw up on your shoes and in the end we’ll never speak again and you’ll marry some guy and eventually you might show up for my funeral and look kind of sad in a dress you bought for all those occasions.”
This is possibly why Sean spends most of his life high; he seems to overthink everything to the point of crazy.
“...what, no high school reunion?” Raven asks.
The guitar is still trapped between them, and Raven’s not entirely sure if Sean’s letting her down gently or suggesting a suicide pact.
Sean grins, all teeth and bright eyes. “You know I’ll have gotten myself banned.”
Raven laughs obediently. “You know how we might stay friends for the rest of our lives and I won’t be telling my future kids about the time my high school boyfriend choked to death in an abandoned warehouse somewhere.”
Sean leans forward, their foreheads pressed together. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “Yeah.”
Raven forms the D chord again, brushing her thumb over the strings, the sound trapped between them. Well, she thinks, okay.
Charles continues to be really fucking happy, and it’s sweet and it’s horrible. Mostly, Raven’s decided, it’s because she isn’t used to it. This is a different older brother, one who reacts differently to things and smiles at odd moments and who has less tension in his shoulders. And Raven’s not stupid and she knows she’s not being replaced or whatever fucked up thing she’s meant to think, but Charles is really all she has, all she’s ever had, and her one and only constant has changed, and sometimes it’s a little bit disconcerting. It’s not a big deal, it isn’t, it’s just... weird. Okay?
Anyway, that’s probably why she’s hiding in her room instead of arguing over takeout with Charles before Moira gets here to tell them off and maybe cook them actual food with whatever they’ve got hanging about in their kitchen. She’s claiming homework, but that’s only going to work for so long, and even though she knows it’s never the answer she kind of wishes that Charles wasn’t so happy that he’s stopped bulk buying bottles of wine. It’s all ridiculous, and she’s kind of hoping that sooner or later all these feelings will just go away.
It’s Moira who comes to get her in the end, still dressed for work in a smart blouse and pencil skirt. She sits on the edge of the bed where Raven’s been curled in a heap basically since she got home from school, expression soft.
“You coming to get dinner?” she asks.
Raven lifts and drops a shoulder.
Moira sighs, and shifts a little closer. “Do you want to talk about it?” she murmurs.
Basically, Moira is the only person in Raven’s life who actually acts like a person, and she taught her all the bits Charles didn’t teach her. It’s not the bits everyone expects; Charles was actually the one who taught her how to apply eyeliner without looking like a crazy person, how to pick out a dress for any occasion, and he even tried to teach her about her menstrual cycle (which ended in Raven taking the leaflet out of his hands and telling him she was pretty sure she could figure it out, and if he ever tried to talk to her about any of this ever again she was telling the social worker and getting herself adopted by someone else). Moira took care of walking in heels, flirting with guys with no actual follow-through, and curling irons.
Right now, though, Raven cannot tell Moira that she’s fed up of her brother being happy, because what the fuck does that even mean.
“No,” she mumbles, and stays where she is.
Moira is quiet for a moment, and then says: “okay, but you know you can talk to me about anything, right?”
And Raven, for no apparent reason, sits up and snaps: “why do I have to talk to you about any of this? You’re not my mom, for fuck’s sake.”
She tears her gaze away from Moira’s hurt face, and throws herself back down onto the covers again. The door slams a moment later.
It takes about half an hour for someone to knock at the door. “Go away,” Raven yells, voice muffled because she might have been crying, not that she’s going to admit this to anyone.
Erik is actually the last person Raven expected to come in, and she scrambles up, back against the headboard.
“...what the fuck,” she says.
Erik rolls his eyes. “I’m pretty sure Charles freaked out and called everyone you know,” he tells her. “Can I sit down?”
Raven considers it. “One wrong move and I’m telling everyone you touched me inappropriately,” she warns.
Erik laughs and comes to sit next to her on her bed, shoving the pillows back a little. Raven thinks about saying so, this is weird but in the end she stays quiet because she’s said enough today.
After a moment, Erik steeples his fingers and begins: “my parents died. Apparently what happened to them was tragic and an accident and no one could have foreseen it, and there I was in Dusseldorf, two years old and with no family to take me in.” He shoots Raven a sideways look. “And I haven’t gotten around to having this conversation with your brother yet, so this is all in confidence, alright?”
Raven nods, if only because she knows Erik hasn’t told Charles all the stuff from her therapy sessions, so she can at least do the same for him.
“Anyway, long story and multiple sundry childhood traumas short, I moved out of the orphanage the moment I could support myself, and left Germany as soon as I’d mastered English,” Erik continues. “I was never adopted. I’ve never had parents. I’ve never had to seriously consider feelings belonging to anyone but me.”
Raven tugs the cuffs of her sweater over her palms. “Aside from making yourself sound like a sociopath who shouldn’t be my therapist or my brother’s boyfriend...” she begins, but soft, so Erik can tell she isn’t belittling any of this.
The corner of Erik’s mouth lifts for one of his not-actually-that-disturbing smiles. “I’m trying to explain, Miss Darkholme, that I’m aware of what you’re feeling at the moment.” His mouth twists. “It’s up to you if you want to tell your brother about any of this, of course.”
Raven tips her head back against the headboard and doesn’t look at Erik. “I’m not going to hug you or thank you,” she warns. “Since at least half of this is your fault.”
“Well, thank God for that,” Erik says dryly, and Raven manages a smile.
“I can’t believe you brought a blanket,” Alex says, when he looks sideways.
Raven huddles herself under the throw she grabbed off the couch on the way past – she and Charles are walking on eggshells around each other at the moment, after the thing with Moira with all the hugging and crying and general hysteria – and smirks at him.
“We’re hanging out in a car,” she points out.
“It’s not like I specifically invited you,” Alex mumbles, and goes back to staring miserably at Hank’s house.
Raven rolls her eyes. “I have to come with or I have to tell Erik you’re doing this. It’s up to you.”
Alex’s whole posture tenses, and Raven belatedly remembers that he’s dangerous. It’s kind of easy to dismiss him as your regular screwed-up high schooler who beats people up instead of talking about shit, but there’s moments like this, nearly midnight and not specifically stalking but also not not stalking, when Raven looks at him and thinks oh.
“You’re not going to end up stabbing Hank in the face or anything are you?” she asks.
Alex’s expression is flat, unreadable, like he’s not sure what to do with it. “...what the fuck, Raven.”
She shrugs. “It’s a valid question. All I know is that you’ve been in prison. So, you know, I have to check.”
Alex smiles, but it looks kind of painful, kind of vulnerable. “Nobody’s going to get stabbed in the face,” he replies. “Or anywhere else, actually, if that was your next question.”
“Might’ve been,” Raven allows.
They sit in silence for a while before her phone goes off; it’s a text from Charles, who’s apparently Skyping with a couple of college friends and has been asked to pass on specific messages. Alex looks at her kind of weirdly when she explains this.
“...wouldn’t you have been, like, nine when you were at college with your brother? In England?”
Raven smirks. “I actually fitted in better at university than Charles did.”
She was better at beer pong than most of the people she played it with too, but then she was playing it entirely sober. For all the inappropriate places they ended up – Raven’s favourite way to do her homework was in the cloakroom at clubs, earplugs in and the attendant sharing late night candy – Charles never let her stay up late on a school night, always fed any friends that came over actual food that contained something resembling vegetables, and played dumb if she went into school with her hair smelling like secondhand smoke. It wasn’t a real childhood like everyone around her was having, but only part of her still resents that.
Alex laughs a little. “Yeah, I can believe that.”
Really, Raven muses as Alex returns to staring morosely at Hank’s house and internally tormenting himself, it’s not really surprising that no aspect of her current life seems weird anymore.
Sebastian Shaw’s first court date has been set; it isn’t public knowledge, but it’s there in the set of Emma’s shoulders, the slight thinning of her mouth. Even if Hank hadn’t whispered it to her in last period Spanish class, Raven thinks she’d have been able to read it in the hint of tension crackling from Emma’s dignified posture, the sharpness of the staccato beat. Hank’s in the bleachers, book in his lap; he’s started showing up to sporadic practices now he has Raven as an excuse, generally hidden behind something academic. He doesn’t need to take the precaution; he’s so completely invisible to the school it’s kind of actually weird, and none of the squad ever mock him for sitting watching like they do with the other guys.
Darwin’s up there too, because he and Angel are still dating – apparently this is one of the longest times they’ve managed to stay together, so Alex is warning for a blazing row in the near future – and when he notices Raven looking he wiggles his fingers in a half-wave. Selene makes an amused noise behind her, and Raven deliberately fumbles the next turn, causing a domino effect and tumbling half the girls onto the floor, Selene half-crushed beneath Tessa.
“You stupid clumsy bitch!” Selene screams up at her, and Raven glances sideways to note that Madelyne has edged closer, red painted nails flexing like she’s thinking about being a cliché and clawing Raven’s eyes out.
Raven shrugs, expression coolly apologetic. “Maybe if you hadn’t been half a beat behind me all along you’d have coped better with my mistake,” she suggests. “But I guess it’s pretty easy to get stuck in a rut and coast, huh?”
Erik’s encouraging her to take out any excess frustration on the other cheerleaders, mostly because Erik is kind of a terrible person and an even more terrible therapist who keeps insisting that it isn’t a conflict of interest for her to keep seeing him, despite the fact they have breakfast together on an alarmingly regular basis. Raven would complain about this more, but Erik’s the first person Charles had had stay over who can actually cook breakfast foods without burning them, so Raven’s willing to let a lot of things slide.
Selene pushes herself to her feet in a fluid movement; she’s a little taller than Raven and her eyes are flashing with murder. Raven glances into the bleachers; Darwin’s watching through his fingers and even Hank’s put his book aside.
“Don’t think you’re one of us,” she tells Raven, spitting the words, and maybe it should hurt. It doesn’t. “You may have some talent but not one person here has your back.”
Raven shrugs. “No,” she agrees, “no one has my back. But guess what: they do actually like me.”
Selene only gets one step forward before Emma blows the whistle she wears around her neck. Her expression is placid, her whole body loose and calm, but Raven isn’t stupid enough to think that this means she isn’t pissed.
“We are a team,” she says evenly, and all the hairs stand up on the back of Raven’s neck. “Anyone and everyone not acting like a team is replaceable. Think about that, and get back into formation.”
When practice finally finishes and Raven returns to the lockerroom, sore and tired, she finds one text in her phone from Sean: that’s my girl, always starting fires.
Raven keeps Hank on the phone for nearly an hour before he finally asks.
“Oh,” she sighs, “I’m currently trapped in my room while a very important milestone in my brother’s latest relationship happens.”
Hank is silent for a moment, and then he stammers uncomfortably: “it’s not sex on the coffee table, is it?”
Raven chokes on a laugh. “He promised not to do that,” she replies. “Like, there are some things that you really don’t need your kid sister walking in on.”
It’s something Charles has always been really careful about, actually; Raven’s hardly ever seen him so much as kiss people, let alone anything else. She knows about his ridiculous and often kind of tawdry sex life, but the actual acts have always taken place a decent distance and several locked doors away. Raven’s grateful; she likes still being able to look Charles in the eye.
“So what’s happening?” Hank asks.
“The first big argument,” Raven replies. “You know, the screaming one that’s going to end with vases being thrown and every piece of shit they have on each other being flung around too.”
“...oh,” Hank says. “Um. How’s that going?”
Raven takes the phone away from her ear and leans into her bedroom door; through the wood she can still here the rise and fall of angry voices, though thankfully not the actual words.
“Loudly,” she says, returning the phone to her ear. “I took refuge when my brother started telling Erik he’s emotionally distant and Erik started calling Charles a stalker.”
“That sounds... kind of traumatising,” Hank remarks. “Can you get out of there?”
“Not without walking through the middle of it,” Raven tells him. “And I’ve learned in the past that wandering through other people’s arguments will get you involved whether you like it or not, and I’m already way too involved in this shit as it is.”
Hank stubbornly won’t talk about Alex while Raven attempts to fish for gossip until things seem to get a little quieter outside; telling Hank to hang on a moment, she stealthily opens her door a crack.
“...now I’m starting to understand why everybody leaves you,” Erik hisses, low and cruel. Raven’s nails curl into her palms.
“At least they stayed in the first place,” Charles spits back.
Raven sighs and quietly closes her door again.
“...wow,” Hank says, which she takes to mean he’s overheard.
“Yeah.” Raven sinks down to sit on her bedroom floor, wondering just how long she’s going to have to stay in here and how many bottles of wine they have in the fridge for after. “By the way, I’m demanding a sleepover at yours for a few days’ time so I can skip out on the make-up sex, okay?”
Hank laughs, soft. “You know, living at home with my parents is suddenly a lot more appealing.”
“I’ll remind you of this next time I get you grounded,” Raven teases, leaning back against the wall, whole body tensed for the eventual slammed front door.
Raven likes Moira’s apartment; it’s small but tidy and elegant and mostly kitted out in light wood furniture from Ikea. She’s still not entirely sure what Moira does for a living; it involves dressing smart and getting to shout at people a lot in expensive shoes, but that’s kind of all Raven’s ever known, and Moira gets kind of cagey about it when questioned directly.
“You’d tell us if you were running some kind of crazed criminal empire, right?” Raven asks, sprawled out on Moira’s awesome squashy couch and full of homecooked risotto. She really should start up a case for Moira to adopt her; life would probably be kind of normal if she just lived here.
Moira smiles fondly at her and shrugs. “Your brother’s got too much of a conscience to be told,” she says. “He’d only end up calling the police at four a.m. after a week of no sleep.”
“This is true,” Raven agrees. “Would you at least tell me?”
Moira pretends to think about it, tapping a fingernail against her chin. “Could I buy your silence with a car?”
Raven grins. “Please tell me you’re running some kind of crazed criminal empire.”
Moira rolls her eyes and reaches to light one of the cigarettes that Charles is not to know about under any circumstances. “Sorry, sweetie,” she says. “Hit up your brother if you want a car.” They sit in silence for a moment before Moira ventures: “how is he?”
“He is drunk,” Raven replies at last. “He is very, very drunk. And mostly on the living room floor, unless he’s raiding the freezer for ice cream.”
It’s nothing new, nothing different; Raven sat on the floor with him and hugged him and watched You’ve Got Mail twice through last night before leaving him to it and going to bed. There’s nothing she can do to fix this, because her brother is utterly ridiculous and on the one hand very tough and on the other hand has breathlessly thin skin, and less of this is about Erik than it maybe should be. It’s lonely and crowded in Charles’ head, however that works, and a lot of it is still an utter mystery to her.
“Oh, Charles,” Moira mumbles, and exhales a mouthful of smoke. “And Erik?”
“I’m not going anywhere near him at school,” Raven replies. “I am not getting involved.”
“Very sensible,” Moira agrees, sounding a little distracted, and Raven has the suspicion that there’s going to be a phonecall at some point, and yelling. Not that this is necessarily Erik’s fault, and God knows what he’s doing to himself; Raven feels like it involves punching people, and maybe kicking puppies or something. “Do you want to stay here tonight?” Moira adds after a moment.
Raven would love to sleep on Moira’s futon, but that’s not really an option. “I should probably get home and make sure he hasn’t choked on his own vomit or made any phone calls,” she sighs.
Moira gets that expression she gets around Charles and Raven; the fond and frustrated one that means she loves them and also wants to shake them and get them adopted by people who know things like what day the garbage gets collected and how to unclog a drain and not to put tin foil in the microwave.
Some of the time, Raven really agrees with her.
Three days later, Charles has run out of alcohol and doesn’t seem to want to buy any more. Raven sits cuddled up to him on the couch and they watch the Food Network with her best attempt at pasta – which is definitely improving – and Charles leans his head on her shoulder and, after a while, falls asleep.
Raven presses a kiss to his temple and picks up his phone from where it’s lying on the arm of the couch, switching it over to silent mode. This is why she catches the text message that arrives an hour later; the simple I’m coming over.
She covers Charles up with a blanket, turns down the Food Network, and goes to put the kettle on.
Erik doesn’t look all that surprised to see Raven sitting on the steps of their building, though his face does quirk a little when she hands him a cup of hot coffee.
“Did he send you down here?” he asks.
Raven’s got tea for herself and she keeps her fingers wrapped around the mug. “He’s asleep,” she replies.
Erik sighs and sits down next to her, putting his mug on the step above and fumbling for his cigarettes.
“You’ve been avoiding your sessions,” he says at last, measured.
“Yes,” Raven agrees. “Because you’re dating my brother.”
Erik takes a drag of his cigarette, considers for a moment, and then offers her the packet. Raven sighs before taking one.
“Worst guidance counsellor ever,” she mutters, accepting a light.
Erik ignores her. “You know that I’m probably the only person who could separate being your older brother’s boyfriend with being your therapist.”
One day Raven would like to be around people with actual healthy attitudes to things, but she suspects she might have to meet some new people at college before that happens.
“My brother’s a certified genius and teetering on the border of alcoholism and is definitely in need of some actual serious therapy because his mom was a bitch, and I’m already pretty sure this whole thing with you is either going to end in some kind of Vegas marriage or in both of you actually dying,” Raven explains flatly, taking refuge in her tea when Erik’s whole posture stiffens. “And I’m not telling you not to fight and I’m not telling you to take care of him and I’m not even telling you that everything’s your fault, because it isn’t, but when Charles is drunk for days on end I kind of don’t really want to see you.” She shrugs. “I’m not as good at separation as you are.”
Erik drinks his coffee and smokes his cigarette and doesn’t say anything for a long while. Eventually, he offers up: “tell one of your vaguely normal friends to hug you tomorrow, okay?”
Raven takes a drag of her cigarette; she doesn’t really like smoking and she doesn’t do it often, and it burns all the way down.
“I’m going to get seriously concerned if you’re thinking about pitying me,” she warns when she can speak without coughing. “Oh, wait, it’s okay; I remember now, you traded your heart in for the ability to make people cry without opening your mouth.”
Erik laughs, sharp and amused, and Raven remembers that he’s better than all the people Charles has ever temporarily brought home combined, which isn’t really saying all that much and casts shocking aspersions on her brother’s taste, but is reassuring nevertheless.
“I do want to talk to him,” Erik says at last.
“He’s finally gotten to sleep on his own without the aid of anything that requires a corkscrew,” Raven replies, “you’re not waking him tonight.”
Erik nods. “So you want me to come back tomorrow?”
Raven stubs out her cigarette and makes a mental note to remember not to do that again; no matter how many times she tries, she has never liked it. Sometimes, even when you’re open to all opportunities, you have to admit defeat.
“You can stay over tonight,” she tells him. “And you can make me breakfast in the morning and take the day off sick and by the time I get home everybody will be dressed and quiet and willing to order takeout and talk to me about the bitches I cheerlead with.”
Erik drains the last of his coffee and flicks his cigarette away. “It sounds not entirely horrible to me,” he tells her, light and careful, and Raven feels something in her chest ease.
xv. these are just ghosts that broke my heart before i met you.
“So, basically, there needs to be an intervention,” Darwin explains, all enthusiastic waving hands and big earnest eyes.
They’re on the roof of the school, which is somewhere Raven hasn’t actually been yet. It’s exactly as concrete and unappealing as she suspected it would be, but she knows this is where Alex and Darwin generally hang out when being antisocial and vaguely badly-behaved, and at least they won’t be interrupted.
Raven likes Darwin for more reasons than just him being Alex’s best friend, but she’s also grateful for having someone who can identify with the ridiculous clusterfuck of but Alex and Hank won’t date each other, WTF.
“Mr Lehnsherr sat them down and told them that there’s mutual attraction and whatever,” Raven explains, “like, I’m not sure what to do now that isn’t that.”
Darwin covers his face with his hands and mutters something that sounds a lot like stubborn ass.
Raven tries to think about this in a way that’s logical and doesn’t involve shaking anybody. “They can sit in the same room as each other and sometimes they talk,” she offers. “I mean, it’s progress.”
Darwin shrugs awkwardly. “Alex is afraid of his own strength and his own brain,” he sighs. “He’d have ditched me years ago if he could’ve gotten me to let go.”
“Hank isn’t scared,” Raven replies. “I mean, not that we ever actually talk about any of this, but sometimes he twitches and it’s kind of telling.”
Darwin smirks, but it’s not entirely mean. Raven’s aware that Hank sometimes comes across as a little bit crazy, mostly because he is, but he’s a good guy and she wishes more people actually knew that.
“I have no plan,” he admits at last. “Just... we should have some kind of intervention.” Before Raven agrees, he adds: “can we talk about you and Sean?”
Raven wishes people would stop asking when she honestly has nothing to tell. “No,” she says flatly.
“You hold hands in the halls,” Darwin continues, grinning.
“No,” Raven says again.
“It’s kind of adorable, even though he can’t form sentences,” Darwin muses, deliberately blithely.
“No,” Raven repeats, kicking at his ankle. Darwin edges away, laughing, and she pokes her tongue out at him. “Some intervention this is turning out to be.”
Sean’s session with Erik isn’t until after Raven’s, and Raven is still waiting for the freshman before her to finish, but that doesn’t stop her from smiling as he sits down on the uncomfortable plastic chair next to hers. She doesn’t bother asking why he isn’t in class; Sean’s attendance is kind of erratic at best.
“Hey,” he says, knocking his knee against hers, and Raven knocks back.
“You haven’t done anything stupid, have you?” she asks.
Sean’s grin is slow and lazy and crinkled at the edges. “When have I ever done anything that wasn’t stupid?” he responds, and Raven could probably put in a little effort and hurt a handful of feelings and wind up dating a jock of some kind, and she doesn’t want to. Not this time.
“Okay,” Raven concedes on a smirk, “you haven’t done anything that’s going to result in Erik getting all pissed and making dinner tonight awkward, is it?”
“I still can’t believe Erik’s, like, your family now,” Sean remarks, and it makes something not entirely unpleasant sting in Raven’s chest. She’s not going to talk about it, possibly not ever.
“He’s shagging my brother,” Raven responds a little too sharply, “that doesn’t make him family.”
Sean’s too busy sniggering. “‘Shagging’,” he repeats, laughter tumbling between his teeth.
“I lived in England for years,” Raven protests, elbowing him. “Shut up.”
Sean stops laughing long enough to kiss her, and Raven melts into it, fingers curling into his hair. She’s done the having-a-boyfriend thing, and the making-out-with-people-while-not-dating-them thing, and everything in between, but she’s never been as confused as she is right now, and she still doesn’t know what to do with that. She doesn’t think Sean does either, which isn’t exactly reassuring.
They pull apart at the sound of someone clearing their throat; Erik has his arms folded and one of his favourite vicious twists of his mouth that isn’t anything like a smile firmly in place.
“You’re in the wrong place for couple’s counselling,” he drawls, slow and smug, and Raven thinks about doing something to sabotage his relationship. She could totally cope with Charles being drunk for a month. Probably.
“Can’t you go threaten some freshmen with murder again for a while?” Raven asks hopelessly.
“Hi, Erik,” Sean announces cheerfully, “this isn’t my girlfriend.”
Raven really needs to like him a lot less than she does.
“Miss Darkholme,” Erik says evenly. “We apparently have quite a lot to discuss.” He looks positively gleeful, and it’s terrible.
“Absolutely not,” Raven replies, but she stands up and straightens her skirt anyway, hoping Erik’s at least made some fresh coffee.
“It’s alright,” Erik assures her, “Mr Cassidy will tell me everything later anyway.”
Raven has the horrible suspicion that he’s right.
It’s getting to the point where Raven is warm and full and a little sleepy and is about to pretend she wants to go to her room to give Charles and Erik the opportunity to do whatever it is they do when they’re alone together – they’re not actually normal people so it probably isn’t making out, but Raven’s not interested or masochistic enough to find out – when Erik’s phone goes off. He sighs, looks at the screen, and Raven watches as his entire posture changes, sharpening.
“Stay on the line,” is the first thing he says, and Charles sits up from his relaxed sprawl on the couch, frowning. “Just stay with me, okay?”
Something clenches uncomfortably in Raven’s stomach.
“Do you need medical attention?” Erik asks, which doesn’t help anything. “No, no, listen to me. Do you need medical attention?”
He gets up as he listens to the response, walking out into the hall. Raven and Charles exchange glances and then follow. Erik’s writing on the back of an envelope though his voice is even.
“We knew this was coming,” he’s saying. “You might be shocked but it’s not a surprise. I’m on my way, okay, but you need to say where you are.”
He passes the envelope to Raven, toeing on his shoes. It reads: Raven, come with me, bring your phone. Charles, go and get Hank, Raven will send you directions. None of that is really enlightening, but Charles grabs his coat and his car keys, so Raven obediently forces her anxious limbs to get moving.
The car journey is nerve-wracking; it’s not until Erik finally snaps dammit, Alex that Raven figures out who he’s even speaking to, and that doesn’t actually help. Everything about Erik is tense, worried, furious.
“Don’t fucking move,” he insists, taking a corner somewhat haphazardly since he’s still driving one-handed. “No, I mean it, do you want to end up back in prison? Because that’s what will happen.”
Raven tries to keep herself sane by texting Charles directions even though she has no idea where they’re actually going. They’re heading toward the parts of town Raven has never ventured into, and she can’t stop her toes from curling in her shoes, her stomach tying itself into knots.
Erik pulls into a mostly dark and deserted parking lot, braking and then getting out of the car, leaving the engine running. Raven texts Charles and then follows him, nails digging into her palms. Huddled into the corner, up against a brick wall and barely lit by a streetlight, is Alex. He’s shaking and his white t-shirt and arms are bloodstained and Raven’s first instinct is to go to him, but Erik throws his arm out to keep her back. A moment later, she realises why; Alex is trembling all over, but not with fear.
Raven didn’t even know anyone could be angry the way Alex is angry right now; it’s coming off him in thick, almost-visible waves, and Raven wants to demand why Erik has gotten her and Charles and Hank involved when Alex looks like he’s about to explode any minute.
“Did you retaliate?” Erik asks, slow and even.
It takes Alex a moment to reply, like assembling words and pushing them through his rage haze is difficult.
“No,” he spits, and Raven can tell that he wants to retaliate for whatever’s happened tonight. She barely recognises him right now, and takes a couple of steps backwards without even realising that’s what she’s doing.
“You know they’re just trying to trick you back into prison,” Erik tells Alex like this is a conversation they’ve had before.
Alex nods, hands clenched into fists. Raven’s never really noticed his arm muscles before; never noticed just how dangerous they look. His forearms are sliced open in at least three places.
Raven hears Charles’ car pull into the parking lot and wonders what the hell’s going to happen now.
“What are you doing, Erik?” Alex demands in a voice that’s practically a growl.
“I’m trying to stop you doing something stupid,” Erik responds placidly. Raven can hear footsteps behind them and she has no idea what’s going on right now but she would really, really like not to be here.
“I should never have listened to you,” Alex snarls, “I should’ve gone after them when I had the fucking chance.” He pushes off from the wall, whole body singing with vicious tension, and Raven backs away a little more. “You don’t know fucking anything.”
“You’ll go back to prison,” Erik warns, and Hank steps out of the darkness, hands curling over Alex’s shoulders to stop him moving. Raven tenses, like one or both of them is going to explode at the contact, but nothing happens.
“Let go of me,” Alex hisses, teeth clenched.
“So you can go back to prison?” Hank demands, and there’s a shake in his voice. Raven wants to turn to Erik and see what he thinks he’s planning, but she can’t look away.
“It doesn’t fucking matter anymore,” Alex snaps, pulling out of Hank’s grasp, looking like he’s going to shove him over if it gets him past, and before Raven can move or say anything Hank punches Alex in the face.
Charles gasps and Raven covers her mouth with her hands and Alex looks like he wants to tear Hank to pieces for a minute and then he kisses him instead. Hank drags him closer with white-knuckled hands and Alex makes a soft broken noise against his lips and Raven finally blinks.
Erik, his movements tentative, comes to stand beside Charles.
“You,” Charles whispers slowly, “are so bloody lucky.”
Raven feels something like relieved laughter bubbling hysterically up her throat.
“Oh,” Erik agrees softly, “I know.”
When everyone’s gotten patched up and got some sleep, Raven finally learns that the guys Alex got involved with who he tried to kill last year are still trying to trick Alex into being sent back to jail, mostly because they’re assholes and because Alex doesn’t really learn. His arms are sliced up pretty bad but he didn’t retaliate to the attack and so everything’s going to be okay. Erik wearing his Creepy Murderer Eyes a lot at the moment, but Raven’s deliberately not asking.
“It’s like a movie,” Sean says, chin propped on his hands, eyes glassy. “Like, you know, Hank’s a science nerd and you’ve killed people-”
“Man, you know I haven’t,” Alex interrupts, screwing up his nose, but Sean’s not listening.
“-and now you can go to prom and there’ll be a montage and everyone’s happy,” Sean finishes triumphantly.
“I can’t dance,” Hank says quickly.
“Principal Stryker says I’m banned from prom,” Alex agrees just as hastily. “So tell your boyfriend-”
“Not boyfriend,” Raven and Sean correct in unison.
“-that he should get his facts straight before he tries to write a musical about us.”
“Dude!” Sean exclaims. “That’s the best idea.”
Hank flushes and pushes his glasses up his nose with the back of his hand.
“I didn’t know you were banned from prom,” Raven says to Alex. “Can Stryker do that?”
“He did go to prison,” Hank points out.
“Shut up and stop trying to get out of buying Alex a corsage,” Raven tells him firmly. Alex chokes.
“Why is he buying me the corsage?” he demands.
Darwin covers his face with his hands as Sean grins and asks: “is that not a conversation you guys have had yet?”
Raven kicks Sean under the table as Hank blushes an even darker shade of red. Things still aren’t settled yet; there’s a brittle uneasiness to the way Hank and Alex speak to each other, something awkward and too-careful in their body language. They’ve both got a long way to go and nobody’s pretending otherwise; Raven catches herself watching them anxiously from time to time, but she’s not alone in that. Sometimes she catches Darwin’s eyes and they both stare at each other, something like laughter and something like panic mutually reflected on their faces.
Erik’s response was to provide Alex with a prescription. It’s still shoved at the bottom of Alex’s bag, unfilled, but nobody’s punched through a window yet Raven’s counting it as a win all round, or something similar enough to get by on.
Raven makes tea with hands that she promises herself aren’t shaking a little, steeling herself for the walk into Charles’ study. He’s been writing for four days now and she’s not sure he’s slept for any of them; his hair is a mess and his clothes are crumpled and the study is covered in screwed-up post-its.
“Tea,” she says, putting a mug down next to the six empty mugs next to her brother’s laptop. “What can I move?”
Charles hums to himself for a moment, biting his lower lip, before shoving aside a stack of journals so Raven can perch on his desk. It’s late on a Friday night and technically she could be having a social life with those real actual friends she’s somehow managed to acquire, but when he’s like this Charles shouldn’t be left alone. Too intelligent for his own good or something like that. Moira’s slept on their couch the last two days, but she’s apparently got a date tonight and Raven told her to go and have a good time.
“How’s everything going?” she asks, kicking her heels against his desk drawers.
Her brother frowns, visibly rearranging sentences in his head. “There are words,” he promises Raven. “Lots of words. Some of which are in the right order.”
“Always good to know,” Raven tells him, and looks expectantly at Charles until he obediently picks up his mug and takes a sip.
“You haven’t put sleeping pills in this, have you?” he asks after a moment.
“One time,” Raven insists. “Let it go already.”
Charles huffs and takes another suspicious sip of his tea. “Wasn’t Moira around?” he suggests. His expression is so ridiculous and innocent and confused Raven can’t even tell him how utterly irritating he can be when he goes off into his own head for days at a time.
“She left this morning,” she tells him. “Remember? She sat in here and talked to you for like an hour.”
Charles frowns. “That was this morning?”
Raven sighs and kicks at his chair. “Erik spent my entire therapy session today talking about you,” she tells him. “Well, he only actually brought you up once, but it was there in his eyes. What if I’d wanted to talk to him about my inner pain, huh?”
Charles’ expression crumples. “You have inner pain?” he enquires, anxious and earnest.
“Not really,” Raven shrugs, “but that’s not the point.”
Her brother blinks at her, waiting, and Raven realises he’s apparently waiting for whatever the point actually is. Charles is exhausting like this, vague and manic-eyed and thinking on such a different intellectual plane to ordinary people like Raven that it’s impossible to hold a conversation with him in anything but half-starts.
“I’ve called Erik,” she tells him, instead of the other things she could share. “I told him to bring takeout.”
Charles’ smile brightens. “Erik’s coming? How marvellous.”
“You haven’t spoken to him since Sunday,” Raven reminds him. “Erik’s too much of an ass to be a clingy boyfriend, but you’re usually plaguing him so I think the radio silence has made him kind of twitchy.” She frowns at Charles, who looks like he’s listening but not really taking anything in. “You want to change your shirt before he gets here?”
He plucks at the button-down he’s been wearing for a couple of days and looks bemused. “I like this shirt. It brings out my eyes.”
Raven sighs and slips off the desk. “He’ll be here in ten minutes with food. Try not to fall asleep on him in the middle of sex or he won’t make us breakfast in the morning.”
“Yes, dear,” Charles says vaguely, because he isn’t listening to her.
Raven presses a kiss to his forehead, tries unsuccessfully to smooth his mad hair, and goes to get some rest herself; it’s kind of nice to have someone to hand her brother over to, and she makes a mental note to discuss all this with Charles when he’s back in something like his right mind.
The crowd are still screaming Sean’s name as they slip offstage. It’s a shitty bar so it’s not like there’s a dressing room or anything; just the storage room full of crates of cheap beer where they can stash their stuff while they’re playing. Sean’s laughing, sweaty and cheerful and alight with energy that crackles off him like a physical force, voice tired and cracking at the edges from screaming so loud.
“Did you have to tell everyone that the Hellfire Club got through sectionals yesterday?” Raven demands breathlessly.
“Dude,” Sean insists, “you’re a cheerleader. This will never not be fucking hilarious.”
Raven’s wrist is taped up and both her knees are bruised from a tumble during their last-minute training, but it was nothing some concealer and a smile couldn’t hide and totally worth it for the sour expression on Madelyne’s face when Emma switched the formation so Raven was nearer the front. Angel high-fived her afterwards and congratulated her on “crawling up Madelyne’s ass”, and Raven thinks that maybe she has someone on the squad who has her back after all.
“Nice to know I’m only here for your entertainment,” Raven teases, tossing her hair. Emma curled it and it seems to have stupid amounts of volume and glitter in it now. Raven has no idea how she’s going to get it looking like normal for tomorrow, but what the hell.
“Are you gonna do the honest thing yet, Banshee?” Tom calls. He’s another of their bandmates and the only one still here; the others have run off to get hold of cheap booze and possibly whatever the equivalent of groupies are when you’re in a high school garage band.
Raven sits down on one of the beer crates, picking at the edge of the bandage around her wrist, and watches Sean.
“You’re not going to die in a warehouse somewhere,” Tom adds, flicks them a salute, and shuts the door behind them.
“It’s not that simple,” Sean points out, his post-show energy dimmed a little but not a lot. It’s still burning around him, and Raven’s pretty sure she’s never wanted anyone like this before.
“It could be,” she says. “It actually could be. I’m kind of already your girlfriend, you know.”
Sean considers her for a moment, and then breaks into a grin.
“We can have teams!” Charles is saying gleefully when Raven walks back into the living room.
Emma says nothing, but the twitch of her eyebrows is blatantly saying why is this a good thing? Their apartment is pretty big but it suddenly looks overcrowded with the sudden influx of people, and Raven finds herself wondering if she and Charles have ever managed to know this many people at any given moment in time. She shakes her head until the thought passes, and flops down onto the carpet between Hank and Darwin. Scott is sitting on Hank’s lap and sorting the Monopoly money into piles, because Erik and Charles have gotten to him with their crazy, while Alex watches looking simultaneously fond and terrified. He has a hickey, and the fingers of his left hand loosely entwined with Hank’s where no one else can see. Baby steps and all that.
“Why do you want to socialise with your students outside of a work environment?” Moira is asking Erik, where they’re both sitting on the couch out of the way.
“I don’t ask questions anymore,” Erik responds, nodding his head towards Charles. There’s something fond hidden in his eyes, in the line of his mouth, and Raven has to look away from it because it makes her simultaneously relieved and scared. That’s something that Charles can deal with in the future, though, and she’ll just provide the hot chocolate and the faux-wise nodding.
“Why are we still having board game nights?” Alex asks after a moment. “I thought you guys had sorted out your... issues.”
Erik groans softly and allows Moira to pour him another glass of wine.
“Because they’re enjoyable and wholesome,” Charles says blithely, like he even knows the meaning of ‘wholesome’; Raven startles out a laugh.
“Okay,” she says, “right, that makes perfect sense.”
“Shut up, sister dearest,” Charles responds brightly. Sean walks in from the kitchen and flops down by Raven, burying a smile in her shoulder. “Now we’re all ready, who’d like to be the top hat?”
Raven braces herself, as everyone in the room yells: “me!”