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The Long Pause

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It’s blustering outside today, the cold wind rattling the trash and fallen leaves that litter the sidewalk, old newspaper rustling across the concrete like it’s scuttling for shelter. In late fall New York City is already hunkering down for the long icy winter, even if the first snow hasn’t fallen yet; Charles’ gloves only barely keep his fingers from freezing, even with his hands tucked into his armpits as he walks, hunched in on himself to try and preserve what little body heat he has.

It helps, too, to keep the packet of food he took from the diner from sliding around under his shirt. The hot grease has soaked through the thin paper already, burning his chest where it presses against his skin, and he’d rather it not scald more of him. It’s better for the food to still be hot, though, and it’s not like Erik is going to see the blisters it leaves. Charles can afford to be a little less than perfect under his layers, if it means bringing a free meal home.

Their building is a tall and narrow tenement in the Lower East Side, riddled with drafts and cracked windows and stuffed to the rafters with other people living as precariously above the bread line as Charles does. He’s very lucky just to have a tiny apartment to himself, given the way everyone is packed in like sardines. Even the stairs are crowded today, kids playing and people smoking and talking in English and Russian and Polish and Yiddish, and Charles nods to most of them as he passes, getting snorts and knowing looks in return. Everyone knows him here, and they all know him well enough to know where he’s going. Even as they nod and say hello he hears them thinking, that Lehnsherr boy still has him dangling on a string.

Charles doesn’t mind. He’s used to it by now.

He reaches Erik’s floor with a spring in his step, already rehearsing what he’s going to say in his head -- but then he registers the pounding in Erik’s head, the chill and unhappiness, and stops. Ah. Perhaps he’s best not to knock, on a day like today. Changing direction, Charles goes back downstairs one floor to his own apartment, which is situated directly under Erik’s; once inside he doesn’t pause to take off his jacket, hat or boots, but instead walks straight across the shabby single room to the window, slides it open, and climbs out onto the fire escape.

It’s freezing to be back outside, made the worse for having been out of the wind. The metal clangs and groans under his steel-toed boots as he climbs to the next floor; he’s climbed it many times before without collapsing, though, and and so Charles pays it no mind, just keeps heading upwards until he reaches the next landing and knocks gently on Erik’s window from the outside, squatting down in the lee of the building and breathing on his freezing fingers to try and warm them up.

He feels the momentary confusion blossom in Erik’s thoughts, but it quickly turns to resignation when he crosses into view of the fire escape and registers Charles’ presence. No surprise, though -- no one else, apparently, is crazy enough to hover on the fire escape outside Erik’s window in weather like this. After a brief hesitation, the metal latch grinds against the sill and Charles pushes the window up, and ducks his head inside, then swings his feet down onto the floorboards, straightening up -- though he tries not to knock any snow in with him some of it does anyway, drifting down around his boots.

“Thanks,” he says. But when he meets Erik’s eye -- perhaps a mistake, maybe Erik takes it as a challenge -- Erik folds his arms over his chest and frowns, moving a half-step back. There’s uncertainty there, fear too, curling between them like a dark cloud. The open window, Charles realizes belatedly; the wind is blowing his scent right into Erik’s face. Reaching back Charles pulls it shut, latching it after himself and drawing the curtains for good measure. That done, he moves away from Erik and toward the kitchen, putting distance between them. It must be the right thing to do, because Erik’s expression softens, the tension unspooling like wire thread.

“Hi,” Charles says after another moment, once Erik’s arms have dropped back down to his sides. “I felt your headache so I figured I’d come in the back way. I can do something about that if you want?” He takes off his hat and holds it politely in his hands in front of him, knowing Erik probably won’t appreciate the gentlemanly gesture but wanting to make it all the same. “I brought leftovers from the diner, too.”

He says nothing about Erik’s fear of knocks at the door, nor of his certainty that on a day like today Erik wouldn’t have answered it, even to Charles. Some things are better unsaid, if he doesn’t want Erik to shut him out.

Erik opens his mouth to reply, but whatever he might have said is drowned out by the sudden rising wail from behind him. It’s piercing enough that even Charles winces, and the pain in Erik’s head reverberates through him and into Charles, throbbing in his own temples as Erik turns, tense with pain as he heads over to the bed to pick up a tiny brown bundle from the pillow. The bundle reaches up with both arms, helplessly screeching louder even as Erik tucks him in against his shoulder, bouncing on his heels.

“We don’t need your charity,” Erik says. His face is turned away from Charles and toward the child, just the nape of his neck and the curve of his ear visible from where Charles stands.

Charles sighs, too used by now to being rebuffed even to flinch anymore, and reaches down to unbutton his jacket, then his shirt, drawing out the food packet and laying it on the table. It’s just chicken and fries, nothing fancy, but it’s still warm and free and good, and he hides the way it’s burned him as he says, “Can’t I just look after you as a friend?” It’s not, after all, as if he hasn’t heard all this from Erik before. As if they don’t have this argument every damn time. And yet, idiot that he is, he keeps coming back. “It’s not charity. I’m sorry if you don’t want my help, but you’re getting it anyway, at least until you tell me to fuck off for good. I don’t expect anything in return, so stop being such a stubborn ass about it all.”

Erik keeps his back to Charles, bouncing the baby gently in his arms; his thoughts are bitter and snappish, warning Charles away, but it’s only to try and hide the shame that’s bubbling away underneath it, a sallow and lingering unhappiness at being unable to take care of David on his own. It’s something Charles longs to soothe -- he wishes Erik would believe him that it’s no imposition, that nobody judges him for taking what little help Charles can offer him, but Erik is too proud for that. He’d tell Charles to go to hell, and throw the food out rather than let Charles comfort him.

Finally, Erik says, “If you truly don’t want anything in return -- well, maybe that’s worse. I’m not your pet project, Charles.”

“Maybe I just care about you,” Charles replies, rather more sharply than he means to; he’s tired from the long afternoon at the diner, preceded by the longer morning on the construction site, and it’s hard to remain calm and understanding when all he wants to do is go to sleep once he knows at least Erik will have something to eat tonight. “If you think that me caring about you ought to be some sort of transaction, then -- no, I won’t say that, that’s unkind.” He takes a breath, in and out, trying to press down his reaction into something softer. “If you don’t want it then just throw it away. By the way, David’s teething. That’s why he’s crying so much. I have some whisky downstairs you can rub on his gums.” Charles buttons his jacket back up over his half-buttoned shirt, his mouth tight.

He can hear Erik rationalizing, it’s not like he paid for it, then the voice Erik imagines to punish himself responding with, of course Charles already thinks you’re cheap; you’re a Jew.

Just when Charles is about to turn to leave, Erik lets out a strange noise somewhere between a sigh and a cough and half-turns, looking at Charles from the corner of his eye, wary and ready to attack at the first sign of aggression. “What are you going to eat, then?” he says.

“I’ll manage,” Charles says stiffly, not wanting to admit that he had been going to take his own share but not willing, either, to ask for it back if Erik doesn’t want him here. He rubs at his sore chest with his knuckles, wrapping his mind up inside itself so that he doesn’t have to feel Erik’s disdain. “It’s yours, I brought it for you and David. Take it or leave it, I suppose it’s none of my business.” He puts his hands in his pockets, and then he remembers, tugging out a little napkin-wrapped lump. “They had some raisin cake left over, too. Here.” He puts it next to the first package; his tone is firm but his hand when he sets it down is gentle.

Erik sniffs, and it takes Charles a second to realize that isn’t contempt. Erik’s cheeks are flushed, his eyes a little bloodshot; there’s been something going around the building, mostly respiratory but some fever, too, traveling like wildfire through the thin walls and the cracks beneath doorways, breathed out in the airtight rooms where the alphas bend over the Talmud and choking the kitchens of omegas crushed two families a room. But Erik’s not thinking about that. He’s thinking about David, about the fact that his milk dried up two weeks ago from lack of food. David’s been surviving fine off porridge so far, but even that’s gruel made from soaking wheat bran in hot water, thin and sticky. They advertise Wheaties and puffed rice on the radio, but no one who lives here can afford either.

“This is the last time,” Erik says finally, his hand cupping the back of David’s brunet head, cradling it. “I mean it, Charles. I can take care of myself.”

Charles puts his hands back in his now-empty pockets, his finger poking through a hole in the bottom of the right one -- damn, he’ll have to fix that. He shrugs, giving Erik a small, wry smile. Disappointment runs through him from head to toe, despite knowing that Erik isn’t interested, probably never will be interested in him. At least this was something he had to offer. Something to show Erik that Charles would be good for him.

“All right,” he says, reaching up to put his hat back on, tugging it down around the tops of his ears. “Well, if you change your mind, I’m just downstairs. I’ll get out of your hair.” He turns to push aside the drapes, and undoes the catch on the window, sliding it up and letting in the cold wind. A little more snow falls inside, and Charles winces, wishes he could clear it up. “Let me know if you want that whisky for David.”

“Wait.”

When Charles looks around, Erik is bouncing David in his arms again, more anxious tic than calming mechanism. He hasn’t drawn any closer, still safely on his own side of the room, but his free hand curls into a fist against David’s back even as the other points to the packages Charles left on the table.

“This is your food,” Erik says. “You have to eat half of it.” Charles catches the unspoken words running through Erik’s mind a beat later: Erik thinking he’ll be damned if Charles goes and starves himself on Erik’s behalf, pathetic alpha mating display.

“Minus a little bit, for David,” Charles says, but he lets the window slide closed again, latching it shut. “But okay. It should still be warm, I think.” He takes his hat back off and folds it so he can put it in his pocket. “I can take mine downstairs with me, if you’d prefer that, but it would be nice to eat with company. I can still take care of that headache, too, if you’d let me.”

Erik wavers briefly, but then, finally, he nods. David sniffles against Erik’s chest, his thoughts all cold and hungry and discomfort, his nose wet and dribbling, seeking comfort from his mother. Charles soothes him with his mind as best he can without being too intrusive; the food should help with the hunger at least, and so Charles moves back into the kitchen, making sure to leave the table between himself and Erik as he reaches to unwrap the paper, thick with grease. The chicken and fries are still warm if not baking hot, and he looks up at Erik. “Shall I grab some plates? I figure we can shred some of this for the baby, or mash the fries.”

Erik just shrugs one shoulder and sits down; David reaches up with one damp hand and grabs at Erik’s scarf, tugging at one end and stuffing a handful of it into his mouth. “Ir kenen nisht esn vos,” Erik chides him, tugging back, only to have David lurch forward, reaching again.

The plates are where they always are, in the cabinet to one side of the sink. They’re worn now, with little chips in places at the edges -- they were lovely, once, but they haven’t been for a long time, their floral pattern faded and the glaze cracked. Charles sets them down on the table, then gets to work dividing up the food, splitting it into three portions, two of equal size and one smaller. He hands two of them to Erik and takes one for himself, knowing Erik wouldn’t respond well to Charles trying to cut up David’s food for him.

“How was your day?” Charles asks as he cuts off a bit of chicken, putting it in his mouth and nearly swooning from just the taste of real, good meat, food in his mouth that makes his belly rumble loudly.

“Fine,” Erik lies, the falsehood palpable in his mind.

He picks up a fry, tearing off a small corner piece and placing it on David’s lower lip, waiting for him to open his mouth before he prods it the rest of the way in. David stares at Erik with big pale eyes as he chews, swallows, opens his mouth again for more, his stomach rumbling loudly now that it has a little in it to wake it after a long starvation. Rather than taking any for himself Erik keeps feeding the baby, David’s hands on either side of Erik’s wrist, not quite grabbing, just close enough that if Erik tried to stop feeding him David feels reassured that he could try and force him to.

Charles wishes Erik wouldn’t lie to him, but he doesn’t call Erik on it, just hums around his mouthful of chicken, making sure to chew it thoroughly before allowing himself to swallow, to get the full flavour of it. If only Erik trusted Charles enough as a friend, even, to want to tell him the truth. Instead, Charles can’t help but feel like he’s imposing on Erik with something Erik can’t refuse, that he’s taking advantage of Erik’s need, of David.

“Well, a piece of advice for you, don’t do construction work in the winter,” Charles says, with an exaggerated shiver and a small smile. “It was pretty hellish out there today. The supervisor won’t listen to reason about the snow, and he still has us up on the i-beams four stories up no matter how slippery it gets. I’m thinking I might try and find something else to fill that time. Diner was okay today, though.” He rubs at his chest again, absently, while he reaches for a fry.

“There’s the factory down on seventh,” Erik says. “They don’t hire mutants, but you could always,” he gestures at his temple with one hand. “You know.”

Charles pulls a face. “You know I hate doing that. It never works out well in the long run, and it makes me feel pretty … well. Mutants get a bad reputation because of those of us who do use our powers that way, and I don’t want to be one of the ones that makes it worse for everyone else. I’ll find something. Even if it means more time in the ring down at the Caspartina for the time being, though of course the problem with that is when I get all banged up it’s hard to show face at the diner and be presentable.”

David makes a bereft noise and Erik feeds him the rest of the french fry. He’s watching Charles rubbing his chest out of the corner of his eye, though, earmarking it in his mind in case it becomes a habit; why he doesn’t want Charles in particular falling sick with whatever’s going around, he doesn’t spare much thought on, turning away from it as if lingering on the idea might draw more attention to it, as if Charles hasn’t already heard. Charles doesn’t pursue it, anyway. He’s not particularly keen to find out whether it’s because Erik would regret the absence of the food Charles brings them.

He can’t help but watch Erik with David and feel wistful, because Erik is so good with the baby, loves him so much, and Charles -- Charles doesn’t even care who the father was. He just wishes he could be the other pillar of David’s little firmament, have the right to get up and go embrace Erik and David together, kiss Erik’s temple, David’s crown. He watches Erik feed David another piece of fry and David lean against Erik’s chest, snuggling closer to the center of warmth, and feels something clench in his belly.

“Mutants are going to have that reputation whether you use your power in that way or not,” Erik says bluntly, interrupting Charles’ musings with his usual bluntness. “It’s people like those factory bosses who keep mutants in the tenements and whoring themselves on the streets. They don’t deserve the right of mental privacy. Besides, if you weren’t meant to use that aspect of your power, you wouldn’t have been given it.”

“Just because people think you might do a bad thing doesn’t mean you should prove them right,” Charles says. He’s thinking of Erik, of course -- when isn’t he thinking of Erik? -- and his perception of Charles’ actions and motivations, the way he thinks surely Charles must want something from him in return, can’t really just be slowly wooing him, hoping that one day Erik’s feelings will change. It’s foolish, he knows that. Things might have been leading there once, before David, but now --?

Erik passes David a bit of chicken and takes another bite himself, chewing slowly, and swallowing; his voice sounds too careful even when he says: “Eventually you’ll find you don’t have the luxury of such scruples. I lost my job today because some human customer saw my tattoo.”

Oh, no.

“Shit,” Charles says, dismayed; he’d caught the fact that Erik was lying earlier, but not why, and never thought it might be as bad as this. “That’s terrible, Erik, I’m really sorry. Did Mr Goldberg give you anything to get by on?”

There’s no way Erik’s going to be able to survive without a job, no way at all -- Charles knows enough to know Erik has barely been scraping by as it is, even with Charles’ food parcels.

Erik looks down, not really able to hold Charles’ gaze, disguised under the pretense of picking another fry into small bits for David. “He gave me a severance,” he says, giving David the last few pieces of David’s food. “Ten dollars. It should last me a while.”

Long enough for Erik to discover exactly how fucked he is, Charles thinks. They both know Erik won’t find better than Mr. Goldberg; no business is willing to hire mutants on the books and risk public outrage, so it’s all done under the table. Mr. Goldberg had been gracious enough to pay Erik five dollars a week, the equivalent of what any unskilled laborer might hope to receive. No one else is going to be so kind, if they even consent to hire Erik in the first place with that M tattooed in stark black ink on the skin between his thumb and forefinger.

“Erik … ” Charles starts, then stops, because he knows that as much as he wants to, has to offer, Erik will just see it as more charity, or as a ploy on Charles’ part to get him to finally give in to Charles’ feelings for him. “Erik … we both know that won’t last you more than three weeks at most, if you scrimp and save. And, well, I hope you know … how I feel about you, and that I would never ever do anything to hurt you or David. So. Look. You need to cover rent, but unless you find something else that won’t happen, and you can’t get kicked out at this time of year, you’d die. The two of you are more than welcome to come and stay with me, for a while, downstairs.”

He stops, biting his lip as his stomach clenches and his pulse races with nervous hope, wishing he had his hat to hold. “It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. And I won’t touch you unless you ask me to, I’ll swear to that. I’ll sleep on the floor, even. But please think about it.”

Erik’s ears go red, and he grips his fork tighter, his chin lowering stubbornly -- his mind is whirling, trying to find another way, another choice, but -- well. They both know there isn’t one, not really.

“It won’t work,” Erik says. “You think you can wear me down, that keeping me in close quarters means I’ll warm up to you. I’m telling you now: it won’t work.”

“For God’s sake, Erik,” Charles says, exasperated, and puts his fork down with a loud clatter of metal on wood. “I’m not going to offer to sleep out on the fire escape in the middle of winter just to make you feel better. I’m just trying to make sure you have a bloody roof over your bloody heads. If I was going to take advantage of you I’d have done it by now.”

Erik looks like he’s thinking about throwing the cast iron skillet at Charles’ head; thankfully, he resists that urge, and maybe Charles swearing at him is what he needed to convince him, because finally he says, “Fine. Six weeks,” his voice tight and begrudging, as if Charles had offered him a grenade and not a place for him and his child to live. “Only if I can’t find a job by then. And only until I do.”

Charles just nods, and looks down at his plate to keep from meeting Erik’s gaze, picking at his fries and tearing them apart. “Okay,” he says. “Rent’s due again Monday, do you want to move everything downstairs before that so you can keep as much of your ten dollars as possible?”

The thought of Erik living with him is … he feels a warmth inside that he can’t suppress even by telling himself it’s temporary, that Erik will move out again as soon as he can and maybe will move away from Charles, out of his reach. That thought cools him off, and he feels his heart shrivel a little at the idea.

“Remember, I said six weeks,” Erik tells him.

“I know,” Charles says to his plate, prodding his fries around before concluding that he’s best to eat them whether or not he still has an appetite. “I’m sorry, Erik. I know you wouldn’t choose this of your own free will, but I honestly want to help. And, well … I have the space, downstairs. I don’t begrudge it to you and David, and even if you … well, even if you never feel anything for me at all that will still be the case.” He shrugs, mouth twisting ruefully.

David sighs where he’s curled against against Erik’s shoulder, his lips smacking together, so Erik picks him up and carries him over to the crib. It’s freezing now; Erik takes another blanket from his own bed, laying it over the baby and tucking it in with hands far gentler than his demeanor would suggest he could be.

When Erik comes back across the room, he sits back down in the chair on the opposite side of the table from Charles, picking up his fork again and stabbing at another piece of chicken. “I believe you,” he says, only to revise, “Well. I believe you believe you, in any case.”

“I wouldn’t take anything from you if you offered it out of -- to pay a debt,” Charles says, looking back up at Erik, voice a little fierce. Erik is so beautiful, strong and strong-willed and handsome, and Charles loves him with the sort of enduring, hard-wearing emotion he could never give to anyone else ever again, but Charles could never stomach having what he craves while knowing all the while that Erik only gave it out of duty. “I want you to want me, not to end up the unrequited lover in a marriage of convenience. Besides, there is no debt. Everything I’ve given you has been a gift, not a loan.”

“But I don’t have any gifts to give you,” Erik points out, setting his fork back down on his plate and lifting an eyebrow. “Sounds like a very one-sided friendship to me.”

“A poor friend I’d be,” Charles says, “if I counted out tit for tat every time I did something for you.”

Erik doesn’t have a good response to that. “How’s school?” he asks at last.

“It’s fine, I assume,” Charles says, and takes a bite out of his remaining chicken to avoid elaborating -- he hasn’t lied, but it’s not really the truth, either, or not the full truth. He hasn’t been to a class in over a month, or picked up a book. No time, not with three or four jobs going at any one time to get enough money and food for all three of them.

“You assume?” Erik doesn’t miss the choice of words.

Charles just keeps eating, trying to look innocent as he works the rest of the meat from the bone.

Erik frowns and reaches across the table, tugging Charles’ plate out of reach. “Haven’t you been going to school?” he demands. “How do you expect to make anything of yourself if you don’t get an education? You have the right to one. You can’t just throw that away.”

“I don’t have the time to study,” Charles says finally, putting down the chicken bone with a sigh, and giving Erik a rueful look. “I’m exhausted by the time I get home from work, and I don’t get any good thinking done then anyway. I’ll pick it back up when times are less lean -- Grandmother didn’t specify when I had to use the money, just what it was for.” He knows Erik isn’t going to be happy with him anyway, but he’s not going to give up the work if it means less food for them, regardless of Erik’s feelings about Charles trying to provide for them.

“No. You’ll pick it back up now,” Erik says. “I won’t have you abandoning your education for my sake. Like I said, I can take care of myself, and of David. Do you have any idea, what I’d give to be allowed to go to college? And then you just give it up, just like that. I won’t allow it.”

“I’ll make you a deal, then,” Charles says, sitting up straighter at the table. “I’ll go back to college if you’ll be practical about staying with me while you need to. If we’re sharing there’ll be more money to go around without the second rent to pay, and I won’t need to work so much. It makes practical sense, Erik, especially if you get another job lined up. We can just be roommates.”

Erik makes a face. “Very well,” he says. “Be aware, however, of the limits of practicality. If I can stay on my own --”

“If you can stay on your own, you will. I know. That’s fine,” Charles says, and reaches over for his plate, setting two fingers on the rim. “Can I finish my dinner now, then? Or am I still on the naughty step?”

“Go on, then.” Erik pushes the plate into Charles’ waiting hand and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

David makes a noise from over in his crib and they both glance over, wondering if he’s about to start crying again, but only silence follows. Charles works his way through the rest of his now-cold supper, unselfconscious of eating in front of Erik by now; he’s shared enough meals with Erik that it’s no longer a big deal, and he indulges himself, ravenous, eats everything in front of him but the bones.

“That was good,” he says finally, and gets up to wash his hands off instead of licking his fingers. He considers then discards the idea of asking again when Erik would like to move his things. “Want me to fetch that whisky up? You can hold onto it until he’s feeling better.”

“All right.” Erik pushes back his own chair with a scrape of the wooden legs against the floor and reaches to pick up Charles’ dishes, stacking them on top of his own, though he still hovers on his own side of the kitchen -- and doesn’t move to the sink to wash them until after Charles has stepped away, toward the door.

“I’ll be right back,” Charles says, attempting what he hopes is a reassuring smile. This time he uses the front door like a regular person, leaving it on the latch so he can get back in when he gets upstairs without having to depend on Erik letting him back inside.

The whisky is right where he left it, under the bed on the far side between the frame and the wall -- no one’s ever searched his apartment for contraband, but never say never -- and he pours just a little into a cup, then reconsiders and pours an extra couple of fingers before putting the cap back on the bottle and the bottle back where it came from.

When he gets back upstairs Erik’s over by the bed, having picked up the baby again and tucked him against his shoulder; David’s making soft sobbing noises against Erik’s shirt, and even from across the room Charles can tell Erik’s bone-weary, the effort of navigating around Charles being in his room nearly as difficult as caring for his child.

“I thought a little of this might help warm you up, too,” Charles says, offering the cup to Erik.

Erik takes the cup carefully, turning his hand so that his fingers don’t brush against Charles’. He sets the cup on the table and dips a finger in, then pries David’s mouth open enough to rub it on his gums -- the teeth won’t break for months yet, but some babies, like David, clearly feel the pain early. “Itst. Beser?”

“I’ll go, then,” Charles says, backing away and giving Erik his space, tipping an imaginary hat. “See you tomorrow?”

Erik nods, and pokes at David’s stomach. “Zogn bey,” he says, and lifts up David’s arm by the wrist; David complies, waving bye at Charles.

“Bye, sweetheart,” Charles says softly, waving back at David, but when Erik isn’t looking it’s Erik Charles is looking at as he says it.


*

Erik might not like what he’s doing, but he’s practical enough to accept that it’s a necessity for now, and so he’s not up for long the next morning before he starts to pack up their meager belongings. He rolls up his shirtsleeves and moves around the familiar old apartment, fetching their things from the shabby dressers and his few treasures from under the floorboard where he’d hidden them, wrapped in one of his mother’s old tichels. After all, he no longer has a job to go to. He may as well use his day efficiently.

He ignores the pangs he feels at leaving this place -- he’s lived here a very long time, but given, too, what else has happened here, he can’t help but feel it’s lost its right to his sentimentality.

Every so often he glances at the bed where David is lying on his back, burbling away to himself; he’s started trying to roll onto his stomach lately, wriggling and squirming, and Erik has a secret fear that he’ll work out how to do it and roll all the way off the bed onto the floor and hurt himself before Erik can stop him. It’s so -- it’s so hard, managing all of this by himself without Mama here to help, to give advice. Some days Erik feels ancient, old long before his time. Other days he feels far younger than his sixteen years, like a child trying to take care of a baby hardly any younger than himself, and those are the days he snaps at Charles the most, warning him away before he can see how much Erik needs help.

Charles. Even thinking his name makes Erik’s heart thump hollowly, the feeling that used to be there when he thought of Charles torn out of him and replaced with this shuddering suspicion, always waiting for Charles to do or say something to prove himself to be just like every other alpha. That all these months he’s just been waiting for the right time to just take what he wants and have done with Erik once and for all.

If he is, of course, he hides it well. No matter, it’s too late to do anything about it now. Erik shakes his head and goes back to piling his clothes together on top of a blanket, his two spare shirts and his spare trousers folded neatly. He’ll pack everything up and be ready for when Charles gets home from work, and then he can make Charles help him lug it downstairs. They may as well get used to the new arrangement.

He’s halfway through when the knock at the door nearly makes him drop the chanukiyah, halfway between the hiding place and the bed with its suitcase. The sick lurch in his stomach is pathetic, after so long -- Erik knows that. But it doesn’t stop his power from grasping all the metal within reach, his hand tightening around the stem of the chanukiyah, brandishing it like a weapon.

The feeling passes after a moment, leaving Erik cold in its wake, palms clammy as they relax out of their fists. He fits the chanukiyah into the suitcase alongside the candlesticks and goes to kick the floorboard back into place. It requires an extra-hard jab with his heel to go in, the wood worn away over the years, but when Erik puts his weight into it it falls flat, and he can answer the door without looking like a crazy person, or like he has something to hide.

At the door, he checks through the peephole first. It’s a strange confluence of emotions to feel when he realizes who’s out there: relief and trepidation all at once, what does he want? followed immediately by, same thing he wants from everybody. Erik had forgotten it’s November 1.

He turns the latch and pulls open the door, bringing himself face to face with the two alphas waiting outside. Neither appears particularly threatening, to the uneducated eye, but they both have that black letter tattooed on the web between their fingers, and what they can do is undoubtedly far more painfull than anything accomplishable with human fists.

“Mr Lehnsherr,” St John says, giving Erik a terse nod. Beside him Mortimer Toynbee, better known to most in the Lower East Side as ‘Toad’, looks past Erik into the apartment, his bulging, glossy eyes flicking from side to side.

“Moving?” he asks, turning his gaze to Erik.

A sick feeling of incipient humiliation settles in the base of Erik’s throat. “Just downstairs,” he says, trying to make it sound as if it’s no big thing. “Rooming with Charles Xavier.”

“Rooming?” Toad lets out a dirty chuckle. “Is that what they call it now?”

Somewhere behind Erik David lets out a testing sort of wail, as if he’s gearing up for a tantrum.

“Let’s get this over with, I have your money,” Erik snaps, and he reaches into his pocket for his wallet, pulling it out and carefully shielding it from the two alphas so they won’t see his ten dollars in there. He pulls out two notes slowly, reluctantly, and hands them to St John. “There. One for me and one for Mr Xavier since he’s out at work.”

“He keeping you in the style to which you wish you could become accustomed?” St John folds the bills away into his collection bag and tips his imaginary hat, giving Erik another nod. “Good for him. Well, okay, Mr Lehnsherr. See you downstairs next month.”

“Goodbye,” Erik says, and closes the door between himself and them with a sharp sense of relief to be done with it for another month; his skin prickles all over, his power threatening to come out and wreak havoc, and only pacing across the room to pick up David and hug him tight to his chest makes Erik settle at all.

Charles returns later that evening, bringing with him a fresh wave of chill into the apartment as he tumbles in through Erik’s window -- the man will never, clearly, learn how to use the door like a regular person, something Erik has resigned himself to -- with the handles of a paper bag looped over one elbow and snow caught on the lip of his hat.

“Hey,” Charles says, then, “sorry,” as Erik slams the window shut behind him and turns the latch.

“What’s this?” Erik asks, nodding down at the bag as Charles dumps it onto the kitchen table.

“Not much,” Charles admits. “I hope you like grilled cheese.”

David is asleep in his crib, thankfully, and the apartment is strangely soft and quiet without his little baby-noises to add texture to the air. Too quiet -- Erik can practically hear Charles looking at him, as if focus had a sound.

“Everything’s packed and ready,” Erik says, stating the obvious; Charles can see quite well for himself that the counters are empty, everything boxed away except for the furniture itself. “I offered Sean ten cents to hold onto the furniture for me for the next six weeks. He’ll be by to get it later tonight.”

They’re filler words. Erik is watching Charles’ face, tracking the shift of Charles’ gaze about the apartment, settling again on Erik once it’s seen what it meant to see. If Charles weren’t a telepath, would his eyes still feel like they can see past the wrapping of Erik’s skin and into the bloody red muscle underneath? Erik looks away.

“Shaw’s people came by, too,” he says.

There’s a pause. “Oh,” Charles says finally, and Erik can see Charles’ hands flex, curling around the back of the chair in front of him. His voice is very careful and steady. “For the protection money?”

“Yes.” Erik makes himself turn away to fill the only two glasses he left out with water, though it makes a tingle of fear run down his spine. “I gave them yours for this month too -- I expect you to put the difference toward my portion of the rent.”

“Of course,” Charles says, with a sound of ripping paper. “Thanks. Did you … tell them, that you’re moving in down here?”

When Erik looks back again Charles is focused on the grilled cheese sandwiches he’s liberated from their paper wrappings, pulling them apart and breaking the strands of gooey, half-congealed cheese between them. Erik still sees, though, the tension in Charles’ shoulders and arms, the way he’s holding himself like he might have to hit something, all alpha territorialness and something Erik doesn’t want at all in relation to himself, wants nothing to do with. This was exactly what he was afraid of, he tells himself, back teeth grinding together.

“Of course I told them,” he says, a little sharply. “They’d find out soon enough when they came knocking next month, wouldn’t they?”

Another long pause. “Mmm. I guess.”

Erik is sick of this game already. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Charles says, and looks up at Erik with that ever-present ruefulness in his eyes and on his mouth, not at all attractive and certainly not disarming the way Charles seems to think it is, never mind the way it makes Erik wish he could just trust Charles again the way he used to. “I just wondered if … well, if that was smart, I guess. Given the circumstances.”

What circumstances?”

Charles’ nerve must give out, because he flinches a little bit at that and says, “I only meant -- never mind. You’re right, they’d have figured it out one way or another, I suppose.”

Erik’s not wholly satisfied with this response, but it’s not worth arguing with Charles over, not when Erik can admit to himself that it would only bring up things he doesn’t want to talk about. Charles pulls out a chair and settles himself down at Erik’s table, and Erik has to follow or take the risk of hovering there awkwardly while Charles eats, reaching to pull one of the sandwiches closer to himself.

“I’ve started keeping a ledger,” Erik says after he’s taken a bite of grilled cheese, chewed it and swallowed. “Once I get a new job, I’ll start paying you back for all this.”

“Erik, that’s not -- “

“With interest, naturally,” Erik continues doggedly on, chasing the sandwich with a sip of lukewarm tap water.

Charles gives him a pointed look. “I don’t need your money.”

“Well you certainly aren’t getting anything else for it,” Erik says archly, which effectively puts an end to the conversation.

After they’ve eaten and the trash has been cleared away, Erik settles in on the bed to try and persuade David to take his bottle while Charles begins carrying the luggage downstairs. It’s something of a show, Erik thinks privately, watching Charles’ well-defined muscles straining against the fabric of his shirt, veins swollen beneath his skin. Erik would never admit it to Charles out loud, but he does appreciate looking at him sometimes. That much hasn’t changed since before.

While Charles is on the stairs -- Erik feels his cheap wristwatch moving down past the other apartments, the copper pipes to either side of him -- Erik looks down at his child, David’s tiny hands pressed against the bottle. He’s too young yet to hold it for himself, and most of the time it still surprises Erik when David successfully figures out where it is, but there’s an uncanniness to the act all the same. Like a reminder that David is an actual person, with wants and forming thoughts, that eventually he’ll grow up and he won’t fit in Erik’s arms anymore. He’ll be a young man, an alpha. He could grow up to be like … like anything. Like his father. Or like Charles.

David blinks up at him, and when their gazes meet Erik closes his eyes and leans down to press a kiss to David’s hot brow instead.

Charles comes back upstairs a minute or two later, hovering in the doorway like he’s unsure if he can come inside. “It’s all moved,” he says quietly, watching the two of them without coming closer. “Do you need a minute?”

In his chest Erik’s heart beats a hard fast rhythm, pounding against his ribs. “No,” he says, and gets to his feet. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

He shuts the apartment door behind himself with a click.

Downstairs Charles’ apartment is just as frigid as Erik’s own, the radiator rattling but seeming to produce no heat; Erik’s things are piled to one side, where they’ll stay until he’s got another job and he’s ready to move out again. Charles has moved over to the stove where the kettle is boiling, its loud whistle piercing the awkward silence. “Do you want a cup of tea?” he asks, glancing over at Erik. “Take a seat, it’ll only be a second.”

Erik draws out one of the chairs at Charles’ rickety table and sits down, adjusting David in his arms so he can see. He’s looking around at everything, fascinated by the change in scenery even though the apartment is all but identical to their own -- Charles has more books than Erik does, that’s one thing, and he has an old globe sitting on top of his dresser as if seeing the world in miniature could ever make up for not seeing it in person. Then again, Charles has been on an airplane, unlike Erik. Maybe he uses it to remember places he went with his family before the telepathy came.

“It’s not much, but it’s warm,” Charles says, bringing the mugs over and setting one in front of Erik. “Help yourself, by the way, to whatever’s in the kitchen. It’ll be cheaper to share.”

The tea’s thin and bitter, like everything these days. Erik drinks it anyway. Across the table, Charles has settled in with a thick book written in English and loses himself to the world. It’s odd, Erik thinks, to be here alone with Charles and not speak. He has before, of course, during Shabbos and when he was sitting shiva for his mother, but not in a long time.

When he’s satisfied Charles won’t be getting up again Erik goes over to the kitchen and assembles a sandwich from the wilting vegetables in Charles’ icebox and the jar of mustard, ingredients piled between thin slices of white bread. He slices it in half and carries each to the table, setting Charles’ down near his mug -- Charles casts a brief smile upward before returning to his book, barely missing a beat.

Evening falls, the shadows swelling in Charles’ apartment until they have to turn on a lamp to see by. Privately hoping Charles hasn’t forgotten his promise, Erik reassembles David’s crib near the bed and settles David down within, tucked under a ratty old blanket. He’ll need to buy David something better eventually, he thinks, or perhaps sew it out of an old shirt. David shifts minutely and then stills, blissfully ignorant of Erik’s trepidation as he goes to sit on the edge of the bed, toeing off his shoes one after the next.

“I’ll need to grab one of the quilts,” Charles says without looking up, but he’s sitting very still, holding himself precisely where he is. “If you’d prefer, you could take yours out to use on the bed, and I could use mine? Since they’ll smell like me already.”

Of course -- Erik hadn’t even thought about that, about lying down in a nest of alpha scent and trying to sleep, surrounded by it and coated in it as if he really were whoring himself out to Charles for a place to stay, no better than he ought to be. He gets to his feet immediately and pulls out his suitcase from where it’s propped between his kitchen things, unzipping it to drag out his own blankets and sheets. He strips the bed with ruthless efficiency, folding Charles’ bedclothes neatly before he sets them aside, though there is a sharp pang in his stomach at so thoroughly colonizing Charles’ space, evicting him from his own bed.

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered,” Charles says, and stands, coming to take his blankets without even a moment’s sign that he resents Erik for it crossing his face, all patience and kindness, and Erik hates him for it a little.

“Thank you,” he says, grudgingly, and goes out into the hall to use the communal bathroom. When he gets back Charles is already rolled up in his sheets and blankets on the floor by the stove, eyes closed, and if Erik can’t tell whether Charles is asleep or not, he doesn’t check to find out, either. He gets into the bed and resolves to find a new job tomorrow, before he can get too used to this.

The pillow still smells like Charles.


*

Chapter Text

The floor is cold, and hard, and Charles is stiff as a board when he wakes up the next morning, muzzy-headed and wondering where the hell he is. He remembers soon enough, however, when he hears the baby mewl in his sleep, and the rustle of blankets as Erik gets up to tend to him. That’s where he is: in his own apartment, in the kitchen lying on the floor by the stove where last night he’d tried to soak up the last of the heat. Erik is -- or was -- sleeping in Charles’ bed, which is why Charles is on the floor. For a moment Charles’ impulses war with each other, good and bad: pleased that Erik and David are here, certainly, but less so now that he’s experienced just how bad sleeping on the floorboards is. Charles stares up at the ceiling for a long moment and tries not to imagine doing this every night, every morning, for months -- waking up like this, even if it is all to make sure Erik is okay, safe and looked after.

And maybe a little bit to make him love Charles back, too, but Charles tries not to dwell on that.

He sits up gingerly, his muscles complaining, and glances at the window to gauge the time -- it’s still dark outside, which means he’s still on time for the workline. Stretching his arms up over his head, Charles sighs, rubs a hand over his face, and then gets up, eating yesterday’s cold porridge and getting dressed as quickly as he can before heading out of the apartment in the dark. The sun doesn’t break the skyscraper-clad horizon until he’s already at the site, queuing up with the other men to see if he can get a job for today.

It’s a cold long wait in the workline, and a colder welcome he gets when he reaches the front and they see the ‘M’ tattoo between his thumb and forefinger. Still, the foreman hands him a tool belt anyway, and Charles goes out onto the site to get to work the same as he always does. It used to be difficult, when he first started at this -- he didn’t know how to do anything, made mistakes all over the place and got himself fired more than once, but by now he’s used to it, and if Mother would be horrified to see him with a hammer and chisel in hand, well. She’s not here, is she? He keeps going until eleven when they break to eat brown bag sandwiches, perched high on the scaffolding like a row of birds. Eddie drops his chips; they all watch the bag float down past the building’s blank windows, a strange sense of loss even when it wasn’t their food. Then four more hours spent forty floors up, where the wind bites like ice and makes Charles’ fingertips go numb.

Not for the first time, he wishes he had Erik’s power -- that he wasn’t so very aware of all the minds milling in the streets so far down below, too conscious of what would happen if he fell.

At the end of his shift Charles makes it down to the ground in one piece, and takes a streetcar straight uptown to the diner where he works his second job in the late afternoons and evenings. He knows the people here, and they know him: the clientele is mostly-mutant and immigrant, which means he’s kept the job even with his telepathy, and he’s even managed to pick up a little bit of Yiddish. Not that it’s done him any good -- once upon a time, back when Edie was alive, he tried to use those meager skills flirting with Erik, only for Erik to then immediately switch to speaking German just to spite him.

The diner’s easy work, and it means leftovers, which is the real perk -- tonight be goes home with a thermos of chicken noodle soup and half of someone’s abandoned pasta, wrapped in wax paper for the journey. Only, Erik’s not there when Charles returns to the apartment. He and David appear to have vanished from the earth, and Charles is worried until he sees the note Erik’s left on the kitchen table, Gone to shul, back later.

Charles had forgotten it’s Friday.

Never mind; he can leave the pasta for when Erik gets home. It’ll be fine cold, and Charles can have the soup since he doesn’t have any issue with using fire on the sabbath. He heats it up a little too quickly, nearly scalding himself on it when he pours it out into a bowl, and eats it just as quickly, then he goes back out again, this time heading uptown towards the East Village, where Shaw has his underground club and speakeasy. In the darkness of the evening the air is even colder, and Charles is deeply grateful for the warmth of the soup in his belly as he shoulders his way through the evening crowds, his hands stuffed deep in his coat pockets.

The day might have started off poorly, but the physical labor warmed his muscles and loosened him up from a night spent on the floor, the diner fed him -- and now, finally, Charles is ready to fight.

The Caspartina Club is the sort of place the cops don’t dare raid, a speakeasy staffed almost entirely by mutants with offensive powers. Sitting in the middle of a row of other little stores and restaurants, you could be forgiven for thinking it a small place, with barely enough room to turn around -- except that Shaw bought out the three stores on the adjacent street behind it, knocked down the internal walls and merged their basements. There’s a huge space underneath the everyday concrete, hidden from daylight and the cops where Shaw can stage illegal fights and gambling, with bars to sell alcohol, too, to people brave enough or jaded enough that this is their night’s entertainment. And that’s where Charles is going, to earn better money for getting punched and punching back than he does from either of his other two jobs

Brutus is on the door tonight, and he waves Charles through as soon as he sees him, blocking some alpha woman from following; the thick tusks protruding from either side of his jowly mouth might be enough to put off those who don’t know him, but Charles is used to it enough that he just nods and continues deeper inside, to where a second of Shaw’s goons guards the secret entrance to the rest of the speakeasy. Another nod, and then the stairs, down into the basement where the fights are held.

It’s already crowded, the minds he could already feel matched by loud voices once he’s passed the mutant-powered sound barrier that keeps them from getting heard when it gets rowdy. The basement is hot and sweaty, sweltering despite the cold outside, and Charles gets as far as shedding his coat and hat before a hand falls on his shoulder.

“Chuck,” Logan says, grinning down at Charles and giving him a little shake, cheap cigar dangling as ever from his lip, never quite falling. “You fighting tonight?”

“As always, I have no money to be a customer,” Charles says good-naturedly, and passes Logan a folded up pair of bills, both a bit wrinkled from being stuffed into his sock drawer. “Put two dollars on me later on, will you?”

“Sure thing, kid.” Logan tucks the money into a leather envelope, which he returns to his inner jacket breast pocket before he makes a mark on his notepad. “All right. Go out back. I’ll see you later with your money if you win.”

“I’ll win,” Charles says, despite knowing it’s a bit cocky, and grins at Logan before turning away into the crowd.

There’s nowhere else to go in this part of town if you want a rowdy night out, which makes the Caspartina busier than most bars of its sort in the rest of the city. Other mob bosses make deals with each other, share business, but Shaw has burned out everyone who’s tried to get into his area in the past twenty years, and the sensible ones have stopped trying. The basement itself is pretty nice, too, for an underground fighting pit: effort has been made to give the place something approaching decor, even if that is directly contradicted by the ring set up at one end of the room, the sand-covered floor still marked in places with old blood. The alcohol and adrenaline makes for a heady rush, and more than one brawl has broken out down here -- hopefully, though, not tonight, or at least not until after Charles has had his fight.

It’s slow going picking his way across the room to the curtained doorway on the other side, and Charles has to wade through the crowd, some of whom want to stop him to chat or buy him a drink; he shrugs all of them off, however, focused on reaching the dressing room and getting the job done. No point imagining what Mother would think of this, Charles thinks, and grins as he pushes the curtain aside and steps in.

Three pairs of eyes immediately turn to stare at him, sizing him up; once they see who it is, though, Freddie and Benicio both huff and go back to their own gear, lacing up their gloves. Keane is still staring at him as Charles comes further inside to take his own spot on the bench, his mind all animal calculation, weighing Charles up and searching him for signs of weakness to exploit later. It’s been a long time since they were last paired up -- looks like Keane and everyone else are betting he’ll be fighting Charles tonight.

The dressing room smells like sour sweat and tobacco, the latter from the cigarette Benicio has propped between two fingers, the acrid smoke curling up toward the boarded ceiling overhead. Charles strips off his shirt and folds it on the bench, then digs his old boxing gloves out of his bag. He bought them used off a man in Brooklyn; they’re worn at the knuckles already, a bit sweat-stained at the wrists, but they’ve served him well so far.

A bell clangs out over the pit, and the announcer calls out Benicio and Freddie. The two large alphas push up to their feet, Benicio putting out his cigarette on the wall, and each exits when his name is called to the loud roaring applause of the crowd. Keane gives Charles a sidelong glance from under bushy brows. “You and me after all then, eh, Charlie?”

“Looks that way,” Charles says, wrapping his wrists, pulling the tape tight.

Keane gives him a hard smirk. “I’ll try to go easy on ya.”

Outside, the bell rings again, and the fight starts. Charles unspools his mind through the crowd, threading through the drunken maze, testing the waters; he realizes only after a minute that he’s searching for Erik. Erik doesn’t like to come to these things, which Charles understands, but sometimes he still shows up, grumpy and resentful and always keenly interested in Charles’ fights nonetheless. Charles lives for the times when Erik comes to watch -- he fights harder those nights, bolder, feels more alive, even when he’s bleeding or bruised, just knowing Erik is seeing him out there, watching him because he wants to see Charles.

It’s clear tonight isn’t one of those nights, though. There’s no one out there in that crowd quite like Erik, no omega so angry and stubborn and beautiful. Charles tries not to feel disappointed.

Thuds and grunts come through from outside despite the noise of cheering and catcalling, the two fighters totally focused on one another and on violence, their minds red and fierce. Charles pulls his gloves on over the wrappings and pounds them together, checking the fit, and ignores Keane after that, though the other alpha doesn’t much seem to want to talk: he’s just staring at Charles, trying to put him off his game. It won’t work. They both know Charles won their last bout, and Keane is trying to remember how exactly it was Charles won, so he can avoid making the same mistake. That would be a good idea, if it weren’t for the fact Charles wins most of his fights by reading his opponents’ thoughts. Though who knows -- he’s certainly brute enough that perhaps Keane is capable of completely avoiding sentient thought.

There’s a loud roar from the main basement, and a sound of a body hitting the ground; then the referee counting down, and then finally shouting, “Winner!” Keane gets up from the bench and goes to peek around the curtain, craning his neck to see over the crowd. “Looks like Benicio won. Freddie’s down for the count.”

The bell rings again, then, and Charles gets to his feet, breathes in deep to puff himself up, and when their names are called he follows Keane out the curtain and into the basement.

The crowd roars, their blood already up. Charles feels their excitement and bloodlust like a hot spray from all directions, pouring over him and helping him get energized for the fight; he grins and holds up his fists, playing to the audience, knowing it’s his best shot at staying alive and fighting here in future. He’s a firm favorite with the Caspartina crowd, popular as a spunky little guy against some of the hulking behemoths that come to fight at Shaw’s, and if it weren’t for that popularity then he’d be long since barred from the premises for winning too many fights. If everyone knows he wins most of his bouts, the house doesn’t make much money on the betting, and that’s bad for business. But Charles is too well-liked for Shaw to ban him, and there are always those taking a gamble on this fight being one of his rare losses.

If Charles is sometimes encouraged by the house -- firmly and unpleasantly -- to lose a fight or two, he keeps that to himself. And thanks his lucky stars that so far Erik hasn’t come to any of the nights when Charles has had to take a beating, even if he has on occasion seen the aftermath.

The bell clangs. The fight begins. And Charles doesn’t hold back.

Sometimes Charles tries to stay out of his opponents’ minds for a while at least, to try and even the score, but when the other fighter is as big as Keane, it’s not worth the risk -- if he lets Keane get even one hit in, he might very easily break a bone, which would mean no construction work for months, and definitely not enough money from the fight to cover the loss. So tonight Charles dips and evades from the very start, getting in his own hits where he can. Even that is a struggle. For his size, Keane’s remarkably fast and agile: he recovers quickly, moves nearly as soon as he thinks. With the bright lights beating down overhead, Charles is covered in a thin sheen of sweat by the first two minutes in.

This isn’t boxing. No one takes a break when someone lands a good punch. When Keane finds a rare opening in Charles’ defenses and lands a hit on Charles’ face -- light exploding behind Charles’ eyes, pain screeching through all his senses and leaving them ragged and torn -- no one cleans the blood off his nose and mouth. Instead it drips down onto his tongue and off his chin, staining the mat underfoot and making it slippery in places, dangerous. Clogging up Charles’ nose and the back of his throat and making it difficult to breathe.

All he can taste is copper, his face throbs, and the longer this goes on the more likely Charles is to make another mistake. He has to end this, and fast, but it’s not that easy. Keane’s resilient, and no matter how many hits Charles makes he somehow manages to keep going. Charles doesn’t want to cheat any further -- he’s never resorted to mind-control during a fight, never, but he’s considering it by the time he finally gets the right angle to kick Keane, hard, in the back of the knees. Keane goes down and stays down, because once he’s on the floor Charles breaks his nose with the heel of his foot and sends Keane curling sideways, arms drawing up protective over his face.

“Winner!” the ref declares, grabbing Charles’ slick wrist and holding it up over his head even as Charles spits another mouthful of blood out onto the mat.

Jesus. His head is pounding, his heart, too -- Charles makes himself grin and wave to the crowd even though it pulls at his ribs, trying not to wince even though they love it, these people who are cheering him on, the more so because he got battered first, as usual. They don’t enjoy it as much if he wins too easily. All those faces and minds out there, roaring at him, replaying snippets in their heads and thinking of the next drink, the next fight -- Charles is swept up in it, adrenaline still pumping as he heads to the edge of the ring to climb out between the ropes.

Before he bends, though, he looks up at the slightly raised area on this side of the basement, the so-called VIP area, and finds Sebastian Shaw watching him with cold, emotionless eyes, like a snake’s, a chill smile on his lips as he watches Charles wipe away the blood with the back of his wrist. Charles’ heart stills for a moment, caught in that gaze -- then Shaw looks away, turning back to speak to Emma Frost where she’s sat by his side in her pure white furs, and Charles shivers before ducking under the top rope, the rough hemp scraping against his sweaty back.

He doesn’t stay long after that. Just long enough to collect his money from Logan -- two dollars on top of his original two for winning the bet, and another five as wages for fighting at all -- and to get dressed again for the cold outside. He hears Keane and Freddie nursing their wounds in the little bathroom the fighters are given to clean up in, so he doesn’t go in, just wipes himself off as best he can with his undershirt and heads out onto the street where the cold air stings at his bruises and split lip, the cut on the bridge of his nose. There aren’t many people still out and about at this time of night, but those who see his face steer well clear.

Though he lets himself into the apartment as quietly as he can, Charles already knows it’s futile; Erik is sitting up waiting for him on the end of the bed, and when he catches a glimpse of Charles in the light from the hallway he lets out a huff and says, “Lose, did you?”

Charles just holds up his nine dollars as a response, wondering whether he ought to feel flattered or insulted by the surprise Erik feels at that, his mind turning more attentively toward Charles even as his body stays exactly where it is. Charles pushes the door shut behind him and turns the latch. It’s pitch dark in the apartment without the light from the hall, Charles’ eyes unadjusted and the shadows seeming deeper somehow when he knows Erik is looking at him.

With a flick of his thumb, Charles turns on the lamp by the kitchen table; It casts a small pool of light around the stove with its pots and pans, illuminating a circle around itself and leaving Erik at the edge of it sat at the foot of the bed, all muted grey and blurry edges. Past him, blackness.

Charles goes to hide the money in the coffee tin, and when he starts to strip off his outerwear he sees Erik turn his face away, pretending to check on the baby in his crib.

“There are better ways to make money,” Erik says.

“Are there? You know a lot of jobs that pay nine dollars for an hour’s worth of work?” Charles dumps his sweaty clothes in the hamper and changes into a fresh shirt and trousers, ignoring the feeling of Erik’s eyes very deliberately not on him, almost as palpable as his actual gaze would have been.

Erik waits until the chair legs scrape against the floorboards when Charles sits down to look at him again, his hand still resting on the gate of the crib. “No, but I know plenty of jobs that aren’t just making money and stacking it in the hands of the mob.”

“Which ones would those be, then?” Charles asks, and if it comes out tired he doesn’t mean it to be; the adrenaline is wearing off now and he’s starting to really feel it everywhere Keane hit him, hot and pulsing under his skin where he’s bruised and sharp everywhere he’s cut. “Everyone pays too much to the mob in protection money anyway, including us just for living here. Just because I had a paying job somewhere else wouldn’t mean I didn’t have to give Shaw his percentage. It’s just how it works, Erik. You were the one who told me that, when I first got here after Westchester and I wanted to tell them to go to hell.”

At the mention of Shaw Erik stiffens, and his next words are bitten off, carefully measured as if he’s worried he might snap. “That doesn’t mean you go out there and let people beat the shit out of you for their entertainment.”

“Erik,” Charles says, then sighs and shakes his head, closing his eyes and resting his unbruised cheek on his hand. “I’ll be fine. I’ve done this plenty of times before, and I’m always fine. We can get some meat tomorrow, that’ll be nice.”

He feels Erik’s displeasure like the opposite of the crowd from earlier, cold and settling over him like a fine mist, but at the same time, under that is Erik’s worry for him, and that, at least, is worth the pain.

After the seconds have stretched out so far Charles thinks they might break, Erik says: “You should at least put some ice on that nose.”

Charles keeps his face carefully neutral, knowing too well how Erik might react if he lets him see how much he appreciates Erik’s concern. Instead he just nods and finally pushes himself up, heading to the icebox to fill a dish towel with a couple handfuls of cubed ice. It hurts more than it feels like it’s helping, to press that against his aching nose, but soon enough the flesh will go numb and Charles won’t feel much of anything anymore.

“No,” Erik says, exasperated. “Clean the blood off first -- do you want to dry the dishes with a bloody towel? Here.” Erik crosses to the kitchen, snagging a rag from the pile and wetting it in the bucket of water he keeps in the sink for Shabbos. It’s the first time Erik has been on the same side of the room as Charles since he moved in, close enough now Charles could reach out and rest a hand on his shoulder, close enough Charles can smell the scent of him hanging in the air.

Erik turns and steps toward him with the rag, intending to reach out and dab at the bloody skin himself. Charles feels the exact moment when his mind clicks over from intent to hesitation, the mental recoil when Erik realizes how close they’re standing, when he looks at Charles and see him with his face beaten black-and-blue from winning a fight and his pheromones still high from the exhilaration.

Stiffly, Erik passes him the wet rag and then immediately retreats back to his corner of the bed, putting ten feet between them again and wishing for more.

“Thanks,” Charles says, trying not to let his disappointment show through, and dabs at his nose again, wincing at the pain. The tissue comes away red, so though it hurts he keeps going until it comes away almost clean. Putting the ice back on his face is worse, but he grits his teeth and says nothing, ignoring the way it burns.

“Did he get you anywhere else?” Erik asks after a while of silence.

“Ribs,” Charles says, gesturing vaguely at his side; he’s pretty sure nothing’s broken, it was only a glancing blow. “I’ll be fine. Even if I have trouble getting work tomorrow, I’ve earned enough to keep us going for a while now. You can keep the rest of your money from Mr Goldberg as a nest egg towards getting your own place again.”

It’s the wrong thing to say -- Erik’s mind immediately bursts into angry spikes, his brows snapping together in a scowl. “We’re not living off your fighting, Charles, and I certainly didn’t ask you to go get your chest stoved in for our sake.” He glares at Charles, his hands in fists on his thighs as he snaps, “I’m not taking your blood money.”

At that Charles has finally had enough. “For God’s sake, Erik, I’m doing what I can to get by, same as you,” he says, trying to keep his voice low so the neighbors don’t hear, though there’s small chance of that with the walls so thin. “I know you think I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth and have no clue of how to live like you do, but I sure as hell don’t have a spoon now, and I get by okay, mutant tattoo and all. I had to drag myself back up from nothing after Kurt had Mother disown me, so don’t you judge me for doing something I’m good at to make sure I do more than just scrape a living.” His blood is boiling -- it’s hard to keep it down, keep it in, when he’s still so keyed up from the fight earlier.

Erik, of course, is infuriatingly unsympathetic. He just makes an exasperated noise, his arms folding over his chest. “You do whatever you want, but don’t expect me to take Shaw’s handouts from you and then thank you for it.”

The last few words are louder, sharper, and it’s enough to start David crying from his crib. For a moment Erik just glares at Charles, his eyes narrowed and his short nails digging into his own arms, before at last he breaks and turns away, reaching down into the crib to lift the baby out and settle him against his shoulder, tapping his fingers between his tiny shoulder blades. Charles closes his eyes and presses his face harder against the ice, hard enough to sting. He knows damn well why Erik doesn’t want Charles’ money, the lines Erik’s drawn for himself in shifting sands, but Erik doesn’t seem to realize either that if he kept to his strict ideals he and David would both starve to death within the month. Maybe Erik’s too proud to take Shaw’s money himself, but Charles isn’t; he doesn’t care where the money comes from if it means keeping the three of them out of a pauper’s grave.

Across the room, Erik is murmuring something to David in German, his voice soft even though the anger still smolders within his mind. When Charles opens his eyes Erik is trying to convince David to suck on his fingertip just to stop him crying, the child’s thoughts a wordless haze of anxiety and fear.

“I’m going to bed,” Charles says, but Erik doesn’t so much as look at him, simply turns his shoulder and hunches over David, pretending not to have heard.

*

The next afternoon Erik sets out to find himself a new job. He’d seen Charles off that morning wincing at the stiffness in his ribs, his face a lovely shade of black and blue -- it’s doubtful Charles will find a day’s work looking like that, unless he uses his power to cover for it, and Erik knows full well Charles will be camouflaging it at the diner, since they’ve almost fired him before for coming in all beaten and unhygienic-looking, even if he is just working the tables. Still. Erik needs to find work for himself and for David, not for Charles’ sake, and he needs something long-term, something stable. So he dresses himself up in his best shirt and tie, wraps David in a blanket so he looks even younger than he already is, and heads down the street two blocks to where he knows the bubbes will be holding court.

His mother used to love going along to chat and spend time with the older omegas from shul, but Erik has never enjoyed it, not really -- too tall, too forthright and not omegalike enough to really please them, he always got told off for wanting to play with the alpha children. They know everyone in the Jewish community, though, and that’s what makes them invaluable at times like these: they know who might be hiring.

The bubbes spend most of their time in the community center knitting and crocheting and talking about how disappointing their grandchildren are in comparison to each others’. Erik hears them even as he comes along the corridor to the main room, along with the shrieks and laughter of playing children whose parents have left them there while they go to work.

“Erik, liebchen,” Mrs Bergmann calls almost the moment he crosses the threshold, waving at him to come closer with her thin, bony hand. “You brought David, how lovely, let me look at him. So good to see you.”

The other old omegas have turned to look at him, too, an array of wrinkled faces and gray hair -- except for Mr Horowitz, who is bald as an egg. He smiles at Erik, as does Mr Mendelssohn, but Mrs Nadler glances down her squat nose at his hand and makes that sour face she does so well, turning away at the sight of the tattoo that marks him out as a mutant.

“Here now,” Mrs Bergmann says as Erik reaches her, and she stretches out to take David from his arms, settling him easily against her birdlike chest. “Hello, schatz. Ah, Erik, he is so beautiful, but so thin, just like you!”

Erik doubts he’s lost weight since he saw her last; she’s been saying he’s too skinny ever since he was eight years old -- all his weight goes to height, not girth. “Well, he certainly eats enough,” Erik says, lingering there a moment, his gaze still fixed on the back of David’s head, his brown hair slipping beneath Mrs Bergmann’s fingers, before he makes himself step away and take one of the chairs near hers instead. “He’s only five months, but he’s teething already.”

“Mmm,” Mr Horowitz hums out, “but you were always a precocious thing yourself, Erik. I remember when your family moved here and you learned English like that,” he snaps his fingers.

“So clever,” Mrs Bergmann agrees. “Harvard didn’t deserve you.”

Erik’s not so sure that’s how it works, considering Harvard was perfectly happy to renege his acceptance when they found out he was Jewish; he doubts the deans are sitting around bemoaning their loss. Nor should they. Just look how Erik turned out, fifteen and pregnant only a month after the letter came.

He smiles anyway, because it’s the polite thing to do, even if the expression feels taut on his lips. “I couldn’t have brought David with me anyway,” he says.

David himself is playing the perfect part of the ideal baby, content to sleep and keep himself unsoiled while he’s in the bubbes’ arms. When it’s him and Erik, David screams and cries and dirties himself and spits up in Erik’s hair, but the moment a grandmother shows up --!

“Well, he looks just like you,” Mrs Bergmann declares, which all of them know isn’t true.

“Better that than the alternative,” Mrs Nadler says, and Mr Horowitz says, “Ruth, hush!”

Erik feels hot, his stomach clenching in on itself. “It’s hard to tell at this age,” he says, voice tight. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Mr Mendelssohn hums, leaning over to peer at David through his thick-rimmed glasses. “I think he’ll be very handsome,” he says, and pats his hand on David’s stomach. “Just like his mother, and his grandmother. Edie was a very beautiful woman.”

Erik’s mother was the most beautiful omega he’s ever seen, once, though not for a long time, since his father passed and took with him their livelihood. Erik swallows and nods, trying to think of her as she was when she was young, in the one photo of her he has from that time before they left Germany to return to Mama’s native Poland. This, too, is why he doesn’t like to come spend time with the bubbes. Erik can’t stand nostalgia, not anymore, and it seems sometimes that it’s all the old folk have left.

“I heard Mr Goldberg had to let you go,” Mrs Bergmann says finally, looking up at Erik again with a sharper gaze, as if she’s seeing inside him. “A sad day when Jews cannot stand up for one another. Who else will stand up for us if we don’t? I am very disappointed in him.”

“What is he supposed to do if the goyim won’t take goods handed to them by a mutant?” Mrs Nadler says, and she frowns back at Mrs Bergmann when it earns her a pursed mouth, shrugging her skinny shoulders. “Let’s not play silly games, Hannah, we all know and pretending it’s not true doesn’t make it not true. Would you hire a mutant?”

“I’d hire Erik Lehnsherr,” Mrs Bergmann says stalwartly. “He’s a good boy, and how else is he supposed to care for that child on his own?”

“Oh I don’t know, seems to me he has an alpha looking out for him now.” Mrs Nadler turns her gimlet gaze onto Erik, looking far too satisfied with herself for the dubious achievement of having embarrassed Erik in front of the bubbes -- but Erik is taken aback all the same, suddenly stiff-spined and defensive, lifting his chin in response.

“What’s all this?” Mrs Bergmann says, she and the rest of them all looking back to Erik, the scent of gossip to them like prey to hawks. “Did we miss the happy announcement?”

Erik’s jaw hurts, and he realizes a beat later he’s been gritting his teeth. “No,” he says. “Charles offered to let me stay with him, platonically, while I find a new position. There’s no announcement. Nor will there be any announcement.”

“Charles?” Mr Horowitz’s eyes are huge and owl-like, blinking brown over the wire rims of his reading glasses. “The Shabbos goy?”

“Charles Xavier is that one boy over in 8B, brown hair, pretty blue eyes. You remember, Edie used to bring him around for dinner sometimes.” Mr Mendelssohn obviously remembers Charles well, though Erik had somehow forgotten about his nearly photographic memory for gossip. “The telepath. He might be a goy, but Edie used to have an eye for him and her baby all the same, always said Charles was weeks away from going down to the rabbi to ask for a proper gerus.”

Mrs Bergmann looks like she can’t decide whether to be scandalized or fascinated. “Erik, tell me you aren’t --”

No,” Erik says as firmly as he knows how.

“Isn’t his family rich?” Mr Horowitz asks, ignoring Erik and speaking directly to Mr Mendelssohn. “From upstate? I think I remember Edie saying they were rich.”

“They disowned him and kicked him out for being a mutant,” Erik says, and this time he is a bit too sharp, all four of them turning to look at him with disapproving, disappointed faces. Erik cringes automatically, long since conditioned to react to those sorts of looks. “And we’re not together like that anyway, so it doesn’t matter! We’re just saving money while I get back on my feet. Charles is a gentleman so there’s no cause for concern.”

“Hmm,” says Mrs Bergmann. “He is a good-looking boy, that Charles. You should bring him to see us since your mother is no longer with you to make sure of his intentions.”

“There are no intentions!” Erik’s face is hot, probably bright red, and he wishes he had David to hold so he had something to do with his hands rather than having to keep from clutching at his own thighs. “Nothing is going on. Nothing is ever going to go on. I don’t want or need an alpha, and I’m fine on my own. This is temporary.”

The bubbes look at one another, and it’s almost as if they’re the telepaths, not Charles, a silent conversation happening between them before Mr Mendelssohn says, “We should ask Rabbi Liebowitz what he thinks.”

Erik swallows the frustrated yelp that practically claws its way out of his chest and tries inhaling instead, then exhaling, nice and slow.

“I came here to see if any of you knew of job openings in the city. Not to debate Charles’ honor or lack thereof.”

Erik half-expects Mrs Bergmann to declare it takes two years to convert, so Charles had better start now -- but instead, thankfully, she just holds up one surrendering hand, the other still cupped around David’s bum. “All right, all right, don’t get yourself so wound up, liebchen. It isn’t good for milk production.”

What happened to the old world manners, Erik wonders. Weren’t they supposed to offer him a brandy when he showed up?

“Do you know of any jobs or not?” Erik says, still more testily than he ought, and Mr Mendelssohn says, “We’ll ask around for you, dear. If nothing else, I can make you an appointment with the shadchan, which is as good as. Better, really; you need to be at home with the baby. Now, you don’t have your mother anymore, but I’m sure any of the omegas here would be happy to serve as references for you.”

The part about Erik not wanting an alpha has clearly gone over everyone’s heads.

“Thank you,” he says anyway, deciding it’s not worth the battle; they can’t make him see the matchmaker or get married, after all. He looks over at David, meaning to pick him up to take him home, but before he can Mr Horowitz leans over and takes him from Mrs Bergmann, resettling David in his own arms and cooing at him when David squirms into a more comfortable position and tries to grab at his own feet. Erik resigns himself to waiting until they’ve all had a turn, and at least it means he gets served a cup of tea and a piece of cake, even if it is rather humiliating to get lumped in with the children’s snack time at his age.

*

Four years ago

Charles isn’t entirely sure how he ended up here; to be honest this whole day has been a blur, a mingling of emotions he doesn’t know how to deal with. First the crushing shame and his trepidation at being driven into the city with only two suitcases to his name; then the loneliness of being left on the street, his mother’s driver shaking his head as he drives away. He has snapshots, instead, still life moments -- standing there like an idiot clutching his bags in the middle of New York City, fifteen and alone and afraid. Then turning to look at the building he’s to live in now, the apartment his mother paid one month’s rent for upfront, all she was willing to do for her mutant son. Charles doesn’t really remember much of the slow walk inside, or opening the door to the tiny studio, or sitting down and crying on the end of the bed with the door still wide to the corridor not caring who saw him.

And yet somehow he’s ended up here, and he has no idea what to do about it.

“There you are,” Mrs Lehnsherr says, bustling back over to place a cup of tea and a slice of pie in front of him, then a fork, her hand brushing over his hair with such instinctive maternal affection even for a boy she doesn’t know that Charles wants to cry all over again. “Eat up, pie will make everything better. I just can’t believe your parents would just leave you here, at your age! Oh -- how old are you, zeisele?”

“Fifteen,” Charles says, swallowing down the lump in his throat.

“Fifteen! How could they do that to their own child?” Her hands curl in the faded floral pattern of her apron, wrinkling it in her fists, but then Mrs Lehnsherr smoothes them out, as if she’s pushing away the bad feelings and thoughts, putting them away. “Well. You’re here now, and I can at least give you some pie.”

Charles picks up the fork from the table tentatively, unsure if he’s supposed to say anything to that -- he still feels rather blank, and embarrassed, but he does as he’s told for now, and the pie is delicious, warm still from the oven and sweet with apples. “This is wonderful, thank you,” he says, looking up at Mrs Lehnsherr with a watery smile and trying not to think of Cook, and how he’ll never see her or the butler or Sarah the maid ever again.

“I’m so glad you like it, dear.” Mrs Lehnsherr sits down in the chair next to Charles, folding her hands neatly atop the table, her own tea gone cold in its cup an inch away from her little finger. “Just let me know if you need seconds -- or thirds. I wasn’t making it for any particular reason really, it’s just Rosh Hashanah coming up so it seemed festive to make something with apples.”

Charles nods awkwardly and takes another bite of the pie. He’s never, he realizes, met an actual Jewess before now. He’s read Ford’s The International Jew of course, it was assigned reading in one of his school classes, but Mrs Lehnsherr looks neither like a Bolshevik nor like the cartoon caricatures in the newspaper, even if she does wear her hair wrapped up in a scarf. In some thoughtless way he’d assumed all Jews were like the ones on the Upper East Side that control the media and the world banks. But Mrs Lehnsherr seems very far from all of that, and she doesn’t seem to have begrudged him the lost cost of baking materials at all.

“I think mutation is a lovely thing,” Mrs Lehnsherr says after a moment’s pause, smiling at him. She must have seen his hand. “So many possibilities. Such wonderful diversity. I’m not a mutant myself, but my husband was, you know, and so’s my son. He’s at school now, but he’ll be home any minute. He’s about your age, actually, he’s twelve last month. It would be good for him to have another mutant friend.”

Charles swallows his thick bite of pie. Mrs Lehnsherr doesn’t quite look old enough to have a child Charles’ age (not that Charles considers twelve to be ’about his age’), but the idea’s -- Charles can’t decide if he’s relieved to have a possible friend, or worried, because he had such a hard time getting along with the children his own age back in Westchester. Even before they knew he was a telepath, Cain made it clear to everyone that Charles was a freak.

His hand still stings from the fresh ‘M’ tattoo when he moves his thumb too much, the skin still red around it. When his mother saw it and looked at it like it was the first sign of leprosy Charles knew it was the end.

“What’s his power?” he asks, trying not to sound as though he’s uncertain if it’s rude to ask; it wasn’t exactly covered in his etiquette lessons.

“Erik can control metal,” Mrs Lehnsherr says, picking up her own cup and holding it between her palms. “And electricity. He’s a good boy, he works very hard to learn how to manage it -- he used to lose control sometimes, but not often now. What about you, dear?”

Charles swallows, looking down. “I’m a telepath,” he says quietly, staring at his ‘M’.

Mrs Lehnsherr’s hand comes into view and covers his own, hiding the mark. “That’s lovely,” she says with every sound of meaning it, though Charles can hear her wondering about it, that instinctive kick of worry that everyone seems to feel when they find out what he can do. “I would suggest, though, that you tell other people that you’re an empath. I don’t mean for you to feel ashamed, not at all, but they might not understand.” She means it so kindly it’s hard to feel hurt, though Charles still manages, somehow. Mrs Lehnsherr is very kind, but he knows that nobody is ever going to truly accept his ability, and today of all days that stings quite badly.

He hears footsteps in the hall outside right before the door opens. There’s a boy on the other side, his hands in his pockets, and he steps right inside before noticing Charles and coming to a sudden stop, blinking at him with wide eyes.

The boy is tall and coltish, with gingery-brown hair and a wide mouth; he’s wearing an omega-style school uniform, patched at the knees, and has the perfect kind of poreless gold skin Charles has only ever seen in magazines. He’s … the only word for him is pretty, Charles thinks, staring back at him.

“Mama, who’s this?” the boy asks, looking at Mrs Lehnsherr. It takes Charles a moment to realize he didn’t ask it in English -- that he asked in a language Charles doesn’t recognize, and Charles has simply translated it through Mrs Lehnsherr’s mind.

“This is Charles,” Mrs Lehnsherr says, and this is in English, rather pointedly so. “He just moved into our building, into the apartment right below this one. I’ve invited him in for pie. Stop gawking at him, love, come and sit down.”

The boy -- Erik -- hangs his satchel up on a hook behind the door and obeys, taking the chair just opposite Charles, where Charles has no choice but to look at him. Not that looking at him is such an imposition: Erik has eyes the color of the Atlantic, framed by long omegalike lashes and reflecting the light from the chandelier ... and he’s looking right at Charles. Damn. Charles turns his gaze back down to his pie, but not quite quickly enough; Erik’s noticed, and he’s thinking about Charles now, wondering who his parents are and why he has such a goyische name and if Charles has a good reason for staring at him.

“Where did you come from, Charles?” Erik asks a beat later. His voice is accented, not quite German but not quite Eastern European either. Charles, who has always been fascinated by geography, is dying to ask but doesn’t want to be rude.

“Upstate,” Charles says, intentionally vague. Somehow, with Erik here, he’s suddenly self-conscious of the story he’d so easily blubbered out to Erik’s mother not an hour before.

“Charles’ family’s not with him anymore,” Mrs Lehnsherr says, blessedly discreet as she pats his hand twice more. “So we’ll have to be his family for a while, neshama. He’s a mutant.”

These appear to have been the magic words. Interest lights up Erik’s mind and he leans forward against the table, his long fingers grasping the edge of it almost like he wishes he could push it out of the way. “Are you?” Erik says, his tone brighter now, his mind a blur of attentive enthusiasm and hope and something oddly like relief. “Me too. Look --” and Charles’ wristwatch slips off his wrist without anyone touching it, darting up to dangle in the air in front of his face, glinting silver in the overhead light.

It’s wonderful, it’s -- Charles smiles, something inside of him just so -- seeing someone else with an ability, someone else who isn’t scared of it, is like a fist inside of him has finally let go and let his blood circulate again. “That’s really swell,” he says, reaching for his watch and tugging against Erik’s hold; Erik lets go and it falls back into Charles’ hand, still once more.

“What can you do?” Erik asks, excited.

“I … ” Charles pauses and glances at Mrs Lehnsherr for a moment before saying, “I’m an empath.”

“You needn’t lie to Erik, dear, I didn’t mean to include him,” Mrs Lehnsherr says, reaching over to squeeze his hand again. “Erik, meyn lib, Charles is a telepath. I suggested he might be better to tell other people he’s an empath, though. There’ll be less talk.”

Erik gives Charles a considering look, glancing him up and down as if trying to decide if he believes Charles could be a telepath. “What can you do, though?” he asks finally. “Can you hear thoughts and stuff?”

And stuff, Charles says very carefully, trying to be sure that’s all he’s doing -- Erik’s eyes widen, as do his mother’s, and then Erik smiles, big and broad and a bit too toothy for his face, thrilled.

“That’s great,” he says, beaming at Charles, and Charles feels teary all over again, because Erik is the first and only person who’s ever been excited rather than scared of his telepathy.

The feeling coils up in Charles’ chest and stays there, golden and warm, for the rest of the evening, while Mrs Lehnsherr cooks dinner and Erik does his schoolwork, Charles advising on the more challenging questions -- that glow swelling until it burns like a light inside him, brighter than the sun.

*

Chapter Text

Autumn dips down into winter, and the last of the leaves of the trees wither and die and crumble underfoot. On December 10 it snows 1.3 inches, a record, draping the city in a thin veil of white -- at least as long as it takes for car exhaust and horse droppings to tramp the white down into grey again.

The past four winters have seen hardly any snow, so it comes as a surprise when Erik first wakes up to see the city covered in the stuff. The magic doesn’t last long, though; their radiator barely works to heat the apartment, and when it’s draped in soaking-wet trousers and socks meant to dry before work tomorrow, it doesn’t work at all. Luckily the snowstorm itself comes on Shabbos, which means Erik spends most of the day in the blessed warmth of the synagogue listening to the chazzan sing out the Torah portion with David bundled warm against his chest, blissfully sleeping through the word of G-d. The next day, though, he and Charles have to bundle up to journey down to the main street market, which is crowded with enough pushcart peddlers that there’s barely room to stand, all of them calling out their wares in Yiddish or Russian.

“I’ll take David,” Charles says; he already has the baby in his arms, David’s snotty nose dripping onto Charles’ coat lapel. “I’ll handle produce if you want to buy the meat?”

Usually, they have to wait in the soup line like everybody else, but for the start of the new month they’ve taken two dollars down to try and stock up on the basics: meat, bones for soup, vegetables they can chop up and turn into pickled preserves. Just a few blocks away is a Hooverville, cardboard walls and tin roofs, and seeing them makes Erik keenly aware, as he always is, that he’s only sheltered by brick because of Charles and Charles’ wants. That if it weren’t for Charles, by now he’d have been forced to choose between those shanties and working for Shaw. Or worse.

“Fine with me,” Erik says; he has a much better eye for a bargain than Charles does, and a better cut of meat. Charles can’t go too wrong with vegetables, surely.

They separate, Charles turning left and Erik going right towards the butchers, who are yelling out their prices at the tops of their lungs, trying to drown one another out. He can smell the blood as he gets closer, that rich, meaty smell that makes his mouth water and his stomach squirm with hunger, but of course the bloodiest butchers are for the goyim. Erik walks past them without responding to their shouts, heading for the kosher butcher he always uses. Ms Lipstein is shouting, too, but in Yiddish and German, alternating between the two as she holds up a prime cut of lamb; she spots Erik in the crowd and smiles widely, gesturing towards him with the meat before she remembers to put it down.

“Erik, good to see you,” she says, leaning forward a little over her scales. “How’ve you been?”

“Well, thank you.” The trays on her stall are as ever almost overflowing with meat of all kinds, lamb and beef and chicken; there are even some turkeys, though Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is hardly a concern for most of her customers. Erik has one of their dollars in his glove, and he glances over the array, trying to decide what will stretch them the furthest. “What’s cheapest?”

It doesn’t take long for them to conclude their business, and Erik takes the greasepaper-wrapped packages of pastrami, tucking them into the crook of his arm. Nodding to Ms Lipstein, he turns, ready to go find Charles -- and then freezes, staring across the market at the bogeyman as the bottom falls out of his stomach.

Suddenly, he can’t feel the cold air on his skin anymore; it’s as if he’s sucked it into his lungs and it’s crystallized there, spreading like frost throughout his insides. His feet may as well have grown roots, stretching into the ground and keeping him here to watch the market swirl around him, everyone -- for now -- oblivious to the boy standing here frozen in his steps with his heart in his throat.

He can’t look away. He can’t stop staring, caught and horrified as that too-familiar head turns, mouth cracking into a smile at something someone has said, and Erik knows, Erik knows their eyes will meet --

Erik? Charles’ voice says in his head, and Erik cracks like an egg, spilling runny yolk everywhere.

He shoves his way desperately through the crowd, elbowing people who don’t get out of his way fast enough, and when that’s not good enough -- Erik can practically feel hot breath on the back of his neck, his pulse a crazed drumbeat in his ears -- he uses his power to pull them out of his way instead, jerking them aside by their watches and wedding rings and coins in their pockets, making a path for himself to run down the street until he can cut quick into an alley and lean up against the frigid bricks, gasping and wild-eyed, hands braced on his thighs and his lungs burning with the cold air.

Is he being followed? Erik can’t tell, can’t be sure whether there’s someone coming along in his wake, whether that metal is moving after him, or simply moving -- his mind clouds red, and he ignores Charles, who is saying something between his ears, to flee along the alleyway to the next street, then dart into their building, the doors bouncing shut behind him. Erik takes the stairs two at a time, the cold turned to fever now and burning him from the inside out.

When he finally reaches their floor he bursts into their apartment and immediately turns on his heel, pushing the door shut with the full force of his weight and slamming the lock shut with his power. Then, a beat later, Erik’s knees give out. He sinks, shaking, to the floor, realizing only after a moment that the odd choking noise is him, crying.

For a few minutes that’s all there is, a gurgling, awful, hitching sort of sound like he’s gagging on blood, and he feels like he can taste it, salty in his mouth, running down his face and collecting in the corners of his lips.

It feels like forever until he finally hears Charles coming slowly up the stairs, more a sensation in his mind than a real sound. Erik? Sweetheart, it’s okay. You’re safe. A feeling of foreign calm, like a hand smoothing over his brow. I have David.

Erik can’t move, not at first; even when he hears Charles’ steps for real, senses him on the other side of the door, his metal cold and jangling in his pockets, Erik can’t make his limbs respond, or his power, not even to unlock it.

“You’re all right now,” Charles says out loud, his voice muffled. “You’re safe at home. Can you let me in?”

Slowly, awkwardly and unwillingly, Erik shuffles far enough out of the way for the door to swing open when he releases the latch, though he stays sat on the floorboards with his knees pulled up close and his arms around himself, holding himself tightly, as if he might shake himself to pieces if he doesn’t.

Charles comes in quietly, and closes the door behind himself. There’s a rustling sound, then a murmur of his voice, and then he’s right in front of Erik handing him David, handing Erik his baby.

Something twists in Erik’s gut and he shakes his head, too violently -- it makes his temples throb -- but Charles retreats all the same, taking the baby with him to settle on the floor a few paces from where Erik sits, David in his lap. When Erik meets his gaze Charles’ eyes are very blue and very concerned. Erik can’t take the way Charles is looking at him so he closes his own eyes to shut it out.

“I’ll stay over here,” Charles says, and Erik tilts his head back against the shut door, feeling both sick and foolish at the same time -- embarrassed for reacting like this, but unable to do anything else, waiting to hear another knock at the door.

“Nobody’s coming,” Charles says gently, after a moment. Erik tries very hard to believe him.

For a long while, there’s silence except for the pneumonic rattle of the radiator against the wall and the uneven pattern of Erik’s breathing. His power keeps him aware of Charles’ blood pulsing through his body, and on a smaller frame David’s as well, two red lives hovering in the world of metal, surrounded by cutlery and pipes and the belongings of everyone around them. Erik’s distantly aware as well of the meat on the floor next to him, Charles’ own forgotten groceries in their bags somewhere to his right. At first Erik worries he’s going to throw up, but after a time that passes.

Five feet away David makes an anxious noise; Charles murmurs something indistinct, trying to quiet him, but Erik knows the tenor of that sound. David’s hungry, and he won’t quiet down until he’s fed. The noise rises into a wail, earsplitting and insistent. Erik opens his eyes and watches Charles worry about David, carrying him on his hip over to the cabinet to dig out the bottle containing David’s formula -- David screams so persistently it’s like he barely stops for breath, but when as Charles sits back down on the floor where he was and tries offering the bottle to him, David furiously turns his face away.

Erik should be there, feeding his own baby. He’s supposed to be the one who’s stroking David’s thin infant-hair and dabbing away his tears, whispering soft lullabies to try and soothe him. Instead Erik sits like an empty shell and watches Charles struggle to do it himself, desperately wishing he could feel and think nothing at all.

“Come on, baby,” Charles murmurs, his brow creased and the corners of his mouth turned down, tight; he rubs the nipple of the bottle against David’s lips but David just keeps crying, looking over at Erik and reaching out his hands for him.

“I can’t,” Erik says to him then, not caring that David can’t understand him yet -- he knows he can’t, and hates himself for not going to him, for sitting here like the world’s worst mother while someone who isn’t even David’s father takes care of him. “I can’t, just -- just take the bottle -- ”

Charles doesn’t say anything, just persists, jiggling David gently in his arms and shushing him. Erik can feel the calm warmth Charles is projecting on his own skin, starting to seep into his bones as Charles cuddles David close, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

Finally David’s wails get quieter, more fretful, until at last, with a whimper, he turns to look at the bottle in Charles’ hand and parts his lips for the teat.

“There you go,” Charles says, relieved. “There you are, darling. What a good boy, Davey.”

Erik just watches for the longest time while David suckles and feeds, and it’s not until David has taken half the bottle that Erik says, “Let me see him,” and pushes himself up to his feet, taking the two steps closer to Charles to reach down with both arms.

Charles doesn’t hesitate; he lifts David up for Erik to take him, Charles keeping hold of the bottle as David leans his face in against Erik’s shoulder, his tiny hands curling loosely in the wool of Erik’s coat. Like this, all Erik can see is the crown of David’s head, fine brown hair plastered against his skull and the pale nape of David’s neck disappearing beneath the collar of the little brown sweater Mrs Bergmann knit for him. Erik’s hand looks too large against David’s back as he turns away from Charles, pacing up the length of the apartment toward the radiator and back, then to the radiator once more, stroking David’s spine over and over again like an apology.

“I do love you,” Erik tells David in Yiddish, too embarrassed to let Charles overhear. David hiccups but at least he doesn’t spit up, reaching with one hand to splay chilly fingers against Erik’s throat.

There’s a rustling sound from behind them, then the suction-noise of the icebox lid opening as Charles puts the meat away, then the vegetables, whatever he got before Erik panicked and ran. Erik doesn’t look, but the next time he paces to the kitchen he takes the bottle where Charles has left it on the table and lets David have the rest of the formula, sucking noisily at the rubber nipple until it’s all gone.

Then it’s just the sound of the water running into the kettle, a match striking, the hiss and pop of cold damp wood catching a flame.

A breath. “I won’t let anyone hurt you,” Charles says into the silence, and when Erik looks at him all he sees is Charles’ back, the thick dark hair at his nape, the blue wool of his cardigan pulled too tight over his shoulders where he’s growing out of it still, the shape of his hand where he’s grasping the edge of the stove tightly, knuckles proud under pale skin. “Never again.”

Erik says nothing, but there’s something caught in his throat, and he can’t decide if it’s anger at being defended when he doesn’t need it, at Charles’ presumption, or something else, something less welcome.

Charles shifts, still facing the stove, and his head dips forward for a moment, conceding Erik’s unspoken point. “The bathroom’s free. I’m going to go take a bath.”

“Okay.” Erik watches Charles retreat out of the apartment, taking a change of clothes and a towel with him as well as the kettle, and once he’s gone Erik draws a chair from the table over to sit down near the still-hot stove with David’s body turned toward the heat.

That night, the last of the stovewood used up and the radiator still struggling to emit its fizz of hot water against the wall, is one of the coldest yet. Erik curls up under the two quilts from his old apartment and brings David into bed with him, tucked against his stomach where it’s warmer than the thin blankets of David’s crib, David himself a tiny nugget of heat pressed against Erik’s body that shifts every time David breathes.

Even with the quilts Erik’s shivering, badly enough he’s sure it’s at least partly hysterical, his hands clenched into tight fists against David’s back and his eyes clenched shut so hard it hurts. None of that holds the cold at bay, though -- it seeps in through the cracks and freezes down to the bone. When Erik tried to feed David his formula before bed, the liquid had frozen in the bottle. David whimpers in his sleep, restless and unhappy.

Across the room, the boards creak under Charles’ weight as he rolls over in his makeshift pallet on the floor; Erik cracks his eyes open a tiny fraction and looks at the dark shape of Charles’ body, the blanket pulled up over his head and his frame shivering just as badly as Erik’s is. He must be -- he must feel like he’s dying, and yet he’s still there on the floor, hasn’t so much as looked at Erik and the bed.

If Charles were an omega, or even female for that matter, Erik would have told him to get in with them hours ago. And yet -- and yet, Charles is an alpha male. It would be against Erik’s rules, and those rules are what keep him safe, no matter what Charles thinks. No matter that it’s cold enough Erik can see his own breath, that the window is frozen and steamed even from their meagre body heat.

But … this is Charles’ bed, that Erik is sleeping in. This is his apartment, that he didn’t have to open to Erik and David, especially given how ungrateful Erik was for it. And this is Charles, who would rather die of cold on the floor than make Erik do something he’s uncomfortable with.

In the end it comes down to common decency, and so Erik opens his mouth -- the air that rushes in is frigid, dries his throat instantly -- and croaks out, “Charles, come here.”

He can tell Charles isn’t asleep by the way the bundle twitches, but it’s a long few moments before Charles’ head emerges, his face deathly pale in the dim light. “W-what is it?” he asks.

Erik wants to chicken out, to say it’s nothing, to go to sleep. But he can’t do it. “It’s freezing. Come get in the bed, you’ll die out there.”

The floorboards creak again, uncertain. “... A-are you sure? I w-wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Don’t be a hero,” Erik says, a little more sharply than Charles probably deserves, but he’s panicking a bit now that he’s made the offer, his gut roiling; he jerks his head towards the bed, impatient to have this over with so he can try and calm down. “Come on. This is purely transactional, so don’t get ideas. I just want your body heat for David.”

“You make it sound so se-seductive,” Charles says, teeth chattering, but he gets up, clutching his bedding around himself as he shuffles over to the bed. It must be excruciating, the exposure of the few seconds after he flings the blankets off himself and over the top of the rest that cover Erik and David, leaving himself entirely uncovered while he spreads them out before he finally lifts the corner of the whole pile and slides underneath. As soon as he’s in the bed Charles immediately curls in on himself again, his shivering shaking the whole bed frame.

It’s fine, Erik tells himself, and tries to believe it. Charles is close enough their knees brush, his head sharing Erik’s pillow and his breath gusting against the cold tip of Erik’s nose. His scent is somehow both terrifying and reassuring in equal measure, spicy and sharp and unavoidable, flooding Erik’s senses every time he inhales. It rattles him inside, makes him want to pull away, take David and vanish, like snow and ice might be safer. And yet it’s familiar too, in its way, tied to old and good memories which Erik clings to now in the tense darkness like they might offer some protection.

He’s known Charles for years, and yet it still comes as a surprise when he feels Charles extend a telepathic thread into Erik’s mind, tentative and wordless, like a hand outstretched for Erik to hold. It’s both an offering and a question. When Erik takes it, letting Charles weave himself into his mind, Charles’ lips curve into an almost-smile.

Charles closes his eyes and murmurs, “Go to sleep,” the trembling of Charles’ body slowing as his body heat warms the bed to something near liveable.

Erik watches as Charles’ face slowly goes slack, his telepathic grip on Erik’s mind loosening as his breath slows and steadies. But it’s hours after Charles is already snoring that Erik’s shivers finally quit -- and even then he lies there, eyes open, watching the shadows touch the curves of Charles’ face until the sun begins to rise and at last his heavy lids fall shut.

*

Charles wakes up slowly, tepid and heavy, to the sound of New York rumbling outside in spates of car horns and distant shouts. It’s still dark, and he’s more comfortable than he’s been in a very long time, so it takes him a while to open his eyes and look across the pillow at Erik.

Erik is asleep; his lashes are long and dark on his cheeks, his face younger than it is when he’s awake, relaxed for once from the tension that will age him before he’s old. His breaths are soft, in and out susurrations that echo David’s where he’s still tucked in close against Erik’s chest, little hand curled in the bedclothes.

Here in the bed, in sheets that smell like Erik and omega and home, Charles realizes with distant heat that he’s hard, his cock swollen between his thighs.

God, he thinks, staring at Erik and wishing -- wishing this was his life, that he woke up like this every day, beside this beautiful man and his -- their -- baby, that he could lean over and kiss Erik awake, touch his hip, his thigh -- press himself against Erik and be welcome there, invited --

Charles is breathing a little heavily just at the thought of it, and he makes himself roll onto his back, his hands firmly at his sides and nowhere near his erection, even though what he wants more than almost anything right now is to touch himself. He knows better than to think that Erik wouldn’t mind, wouldn’t smell it on him the moment he woke up.

Still, the want throbs in his stomach like a live thing, and rolling over didn’t take him any further from the thick scent of Erik’s pheromones -- Charles could swear they’ve been getting stronger the further he gets from David’s birth, like Erik’s body is trying to attract an alpha, to get itself with child again. It’s an absurd thought. Maybe he’s going crazy. Maybe at last, after all those years loving Erik but never having him, ever since the moment Charles first saw him, the desire has fermented inside him and turned into something terrible and rotten and mad.

When Charles is absolutely sure he can’t take it anymore, that he has to get fresh air, he pushes himself up and swings his legs off the side of the bed, and that’s when he hears Erik’s voice from behind him murmur, “What time is it?”

God. Of all the times for Erik to wake up. “A little after eight,” Charles says, getting to his feet with a creak of the bedsprings and willing his erection down, shuffling over to the stove to put the water on before remembering that they’re out of wood. “We’re out of wood,” he echoes out loud.

Behind him, David makes an unhappy sound, like he’s displeased to have been woken up by their voices -- never mind that he got Erik out of bed at least three times during the night to be changed. Charles hears Erik kick the quilt back and get up himself, and once he’s certain he can turn around without embarrassing himself Charles does, watching Erik settle David down in the crib and tuck his blankets back around him.

“I’ll go get some,” Charles says to fill the silence, then goes to pulls on his coat and boots, strangely clumsy as his gaze keeps slipping back to where Erik stands at the kitchen table measuring out David’s powdered formula -- though with the water frozen, it won’t do him much good.

Outside it’s bitterly cold, the snow piled up in thick drifts that haven’t yet been shoveled. Despite the weather the store is open, though, thank God, and Charles can buy two heavy bundles of pre-chopped wood right away, one tucked under each arm as he shuffles back home, trying not to slip on the black ice that often lurks under snow in this city. Thank God, too, that he’s done so much construction work this year and has the strength to haul it all up three flights of stairs to the apartment.

Erik is back in bed when Charles gets in, conserving body heat; when he spots the wood he says, “Baruch HaShem, it’s colder than Emma Frost’s nipples in here.”

Charles laughs and sets his bundles down, fishing in his coat pocket for his penknife to cut the string tying one of them together and free the wood; he tucks three or four pieces into the stove, then adds some old newspaper for kindling, and finally strikes a match to light it. The immediate heat even from the newspaper feels like a breath of tropical air on his face. He lets out a sigh of pleasure, holding his cold hands up to the open hatch to warm them. “There,” he says, glancing back over his shoulder at Erik. “We should be able to feel our toes soon.”

“I’ll settle for my face,” Erik mutters. Charles smiles at him, standing up and then -- pausing, wondering if it would be presumptuous now to get into the bed as well to stay warm while they wait for the apartment to heat.

Probably. Instead, Charles reaches for the saucepan and the gruel oats to make a thin porridge for their breakfast. It’ll fill them up at least.

He sets some water to heat in the kettle for David’s formula and busies himself with the business of the morning; he can feel Erik watching him, but he doesn’t turn around, not wanting to see Erik’s expression and not quite wanting to dip into his head and find out what Erik is thinking, either. Last night was … the closest they’ve been in a long time. Erik is so skittish, Charles doesn’t want to know if he’s regretting it now, when for Charles it’s a careful fanning of a very small and hopeful flame he’s only just been keeping alive this past year.


*

Fifteen months ago

Charles could feel the crowd gathered in the Lehnsherrs’ apartment all the way downstairs, the blur of their mental voices like white noise in his mind, and now that he’s standing outside the door he’s starting to wonder if this is a mistake. This isn’t his religion, his culture -- he doesn’t know what the protocol is, if he’s supposed to knock or just to walk on in, if he’s even welcome as a gentile. He’s certain he’s too ignorant not to cause offense somehow, but he couldn’t just … he had to come. He has to pay his respects, and to make sure Erik’s all right -- for whatever values of all right he can be, that is.

God. What can Charles even say that won’t be awful? As thorough as his mother’s etiquette lessons were when he was small, drilling him in everything from how to address different levels of nobility to which spoon to use for every type of food imaginable, somehow she never taught him how to approach a situation like this. How to behave and speak and act when the worst thing imaginable has happened to someone he loves.

Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, he knocks anyway, before he can think better of it. A skinny older omega woman opens the door. “Yes?” Her accent is thick Russian, barely interpretable.

Over her shoulder, all Charles can see is the swarm of people in black, murmuring in Yiddish and Russian and Polish and English, a tall candle burning on the kitchen table; Erik isn’t visible at all, though Charles can feel him in there, a sucking void among the gathered mourners. “I’m here to pay my respects,” he says, reaching up and taking off his cap, clutching it against his breastbone. “Can I come in?”

The woman looks at him long and hard. Her gaze is sharp and penetrating, like she’s trying to unravel him without the benefit of telepathy, but then at last she says, “All right” and lets him in, closing the door shut behind him.

Several of the adults turn their faces toward him the moment Charles enters, the conversation almost immediately switching to exclude English -- he doesn’t have to look to know they’re talking about him, perhaps about whether he should be allowed to get so close to Erik considering the circumstances, if what they really want is a goyische alpha in their midst in this time of grief. Still, none of them stop him as he edges past them, skirting the knot of Orthodox alphas holding prayer books and rocking over them, murmuring Hebrew with white scarves drawn over their heads, someone singing low and baritone.

What is the right thing is to do here? Charles feels awkward and ungainly, his suit ill-fitting and shabby, and even if everyone else is in similar clothes, just as poor as he is, it’s not his culture and not his family, and they fit in in a way Charles never will. Nobody seems to want to tell him how, either. If Edie were here … he swallows, hard, to try and get rid of the sudden lump in his throat. Of course, she’s not here. That’s the whole point.

In her absence he’ll have to try to be as -- as polite as he can be without knowing what he’s supposed to do or say, Charles decides, his jaw tightening, and so he settles his shoulders, firms his mouth, and makes his way across the room, slowly edging his way around the groups of people crowding the tiny apartment to where he senses Erik.

Erik is sat on the floor by the window, his low, cross-legged posture weirdly juxtapositioned with the way he’s all brushed and neat and tidy, the very picture of formality except for the ribbon torn on his lapel. Charles has never seen Erik so contained, so … quiet, and still. There are dark, eggplant-colored circles under his eyes, and he’s so pale he might as well have lost all his blood, starkly white against the black of his suit. He looks and feels like a ghost of himself, and Charles comes to a halt a couple of feet back, even more unsure what he’s supposed to do now. Erik doesn’t even look at him.

Eventually Charles steps forward, and he sits down beside Erik, trying to mirror his posture and ignore the way Erik flinches in on himself when he catches Charles’ scent -- the way Erik smells himself, a bitter musk.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Charles says, as quietly as he can, looking down at his own hands. “Edie was -- she was such a special person.”

A long silence.

“You’re not allowed to talk to me unless I speak first,” Erik says, and his voice is cracked and almost unrecognizable, as if his throat is all torn up from crying. “Goyische.”

Charles glances up at him sidelong, but Erik’s still staring at the window. At it, not through it, his eyes glazed like a blind man’s. Charles’ chest feels like it’s collapsing in on itself, crushing his heart and lungs. More than anything in the world he wishes now that his power was to turn back time and fix things. He’s too aware of his own body and its proximity to Erik’s, the tight curl of Erik’s fingers against his thigh, the way some of the omegas murmur among themselves, Do you think we should take that boy away from him?

But before they can, and before Charles can get up and remove himself, Erik speaks again.

“Thank you,” he says. “She -- she would be glad you’re here.”

Heat stings the backs of Charles’ eyes and he resists the strange desire to draw his knees up to his chest and clasp them there, curled in on himself like a child. He should be -- he doesn’t know what he ought to be for Erik, not really, but he’s certain that childlike isn’t part of it. He should be a friend, gentle and nonthreatening, a comfort in any way he can be.

“I can still come on Shabbos, if you want,” he says softly. “And I can … you don’t have to be alone. I could, I could stay and make sure you’re okay. And cook, and things.”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the tiny waxpaper-wrapped square of fudge he bought off one of the pushcarts, pushing it across the floor toward Erik’s knee. It cost him as much as his groceries for the week, but it will be worth it if it brings Erik any pleasure at all, even an inkling, even just the exotic joy of tasting chocolate.

Erik hesitates, but then his hand dips down to pick up the chocolate, closing around it. His voice sounds hollow when he says, “You’re sweet, Charles.”

“I’ll kill him, if you want me to,” Charles says, fiercely, before he can stop himself. His voice is even lower now, trying to keep from being overheard. “You know I’m good in the fights, I could -- I’ll kill him, and then you won’t have to be afraid any more.” His hands have curled into fists on his thighs, ready to do it. But Erik -- Erik just looks at him with dead eyes, and shakes his head.

“He’s a mutant, Charles,” he says. “And he’s invincible. Don’t you think I’d have done it myself if I could?”

Charles’ teeth grind together as his jaw tenses -- but then he makes himself let it out, because getting angry now among all these people isn’t doing Erik any good either. “I’d do it,” he says, anyway, emphatically, knowing in his heart that he’s not sure he’s brave enough. But he wishes he was. “He can’t just get away with this.”

At that Erik lets out a sound that’s something like a laugh, though there’s no humor to it. “He always gets away with it,” he says, and looks away again, eyes unfocusing. “That’s just life, Charles. You still don’t get it after living here three years. You’ll never get it.”

Charles understands more, he thinks, than he’d like to. There was an innocence he’s long since lost when he moved here that he didn’t appreciate until right this moment, how naïve he’d been despite everything that had happened to him.

“We were supposed to be making challah today,” Erik says quietly, and Charles breaks for him.

He reaches to put his hand over Erik’s, light and easy to dislodge; Erik tenses but doesn’t object, and Charles says, “She loved you more than life itself, more than anything, Erik. It was in every part of her mind, every ounce of her, and I would have given everything to have that from my family. Edie was -- she was just the most wonderful person I’ve ever met, and she was proud every day to have you as her son. I swear.”

Charles hears the breath catch in Erik’s throat, and the glimmer of tears in his eyes before he closes them. For a long, taut moment there’s silence, Charles trying not to stare as Erik wrangles himself back under control, until at last Erik draws his hand out from under Charles’ and clasps it with the other in his lap.

“I’ll go now,” Charles says, knowing his cue when he sees it. “If you need anything, just -- I’m right downstairs, okay? If you want me to come up you can just think at me. And when everyone leaves I’ll come up anyway to check on you. No matter what. No matter what time. Is that all right?”

Erik nods, once, the gesture stilted and jerky.

“Okay,” Charles says again, and pushes himself up, brushing imaginary lint off his trousers, ignoring the way the attention of the others in the room swings back toward him as if on a pendulum, making him feel raw and too-visible, though surely not as badly as Erik does.

Downstairs, safely back in the empty silence of his own apartment, Charles lies down on his bed and presses his face into the pillow, trying to forget the way it feels like the world has fractured and shattered into a thousand irreparable pieces.

*

Erik finally finds a job in early January, right when the winter is getting to its coldest -- every street is icy and snow-buried, narrow walkways shovelled through the middle of it where people jostle one another’s elbows, forced too close for comfort. It’s nothing terribly exciting, just a secretarial role at one of the warehouses in the Lower West Side, filing invoices and shipping orders while the hauliers drag the goods around and leer at him.

Still, it’ll pay him, which is more than staying at home watching David has done, and so even though he’ll be home later Erik can’t quite resist going down to the diner to find Charles and tell him the news, happiness and relief bubbling over inside him like a soda fountain.

The diner where Charles works in the late afternoons sits right on the corner, big windows giving a wide open view of the street on either side. Through the polished glass Erik sees Charles behind the counter talking to the cook, an apron tied around his waist and a smart uniform shirt on that he has to give back every day before he goes home. It’s nicer than anything Charles wears elsewhere, neat and a bit too tight across the shoulders so that when he reaches to pick up a tray from the cook even from the street Erik can see the muscle there shifting under the blue cotton.

Erik bites the inside of his own cheek, hard, to remind himself not to look. It’s been more difficult ever since he started letting Charles sleep in the bed, even though nothing has happened and Charles hasn’t tried any funny business with him. He’d suspect Charles of deliberately trying to worm his way into Erik’s pants by being subtly and underhandedly attractive if Erik didn’t catch him just as often drooling into the pillow or farting in his sleep. Still, it takes Erik several moments standing there in the middle of the cold sidewalk, staring at Charles, to get himself under control -- and even then, it’s only David’s testing cry against his ear, squirming against the chilly wind, that snaps Erik back to himself and makes him push forward, opening the diner door with his power and stepping into the grateful heat.

Charles’ gaze turns to meet his the second the door swings shut, the bell ringing to announce his arrival. Even from all the way across the room Erik sees the way they widen just slightly -- for all his telepathy, Erik’s managed to surprise him. It shouldn’t be as pleasing as it is, and yet Erik smiles to himself as he edges around the chairs and tables, only a couple of which are filled this time of day, and slides himself onto the seat of a stool at the counter, propping David up in his lap.

“Lemon water?” Erik asks, noting Charles’ eyes where they’re fixed on his mouth, and Charles twitches as though he’s been caught out, turning to grab a clean glass and fill it from the pitcher, then garnishing it with a yellow slice of lemon before he slides it across the bar into Erik’s waiting hand.

“This is new,” Charles says, with a tilt of his head as he takes Erik in, hand fisted at his hip where he’s holding a damp rag. “You’ve never come to visit me at work before. Is everything all right? Is David --”

“Everything’s fine,” Erik says, and can’t help the smile that starts pressing up the corners of his lips. “I got a job, Charles. An actual job. I start Monday.”

“Oh,” Charles says. It takes a moment, but then he smiles back at Erik, a strange sort of happy-sad smile that sits strangely on his face before he reaches over to squeeze Erik’s hand with his own, his expression becoming more … normal. “That’s wonderful, Erik. I’m so glad.” He lets go and lifts his rag, wiping it across the counter even though it already looks clean. “What’s the job?”

What on Earth is wrong with Charles? “File clerk,” Erik says, watching Charles’ face and trying to work out what’s going on. Erik getting a job is a good thing. “It pays three dollars a week.”

Charles nods, glancing back at the cook for a moment to make sure there are no new orders up before turning back to Erik again. “That’s really great, Erik,” he says, that sadness there again under it, poorly hidden. “You deserve to catch a break. You’ve been looking for work long enough.”

It’s infuriating -- Charles couldn’t possibly support the three of them on his own forever, nor can Erik imagine Charles particularly wanting to. He works two regular jobs already, fights at least once a month to make some more petty cash, and they’re still only just doing anything more than scraping by. What is his problem? Erik thinks, annoyed that Charles has spoiled his good mood.

“Okay,” he says snappishly, “why aren’t you really happy, Charles? Don’t try and bullshit me, your feelings are always all over your face, no need for empathy.”

Charles’ hand tightens on the rag, and he looks down at it, swipes half-heartedly at the countertop again, leaving a gleaming damp trail on the slick surface. “I … well, I was just thinking that I’ll miss you, when you and David move out,” he says, stiltedly, not looking Erik in the eye.

It should be infuriating, to hear that kind of nonsense out of Charles’ mouth -- that Charles can’t even be happy for Erik without thinking about the impact this will have on himself -- but strangely, instead, Erik feels like there’s something pulling his nerves tight and taut in his chest. “I’ll only be right upstairs,” he says, tugging David further back in his lap when David tries to reach forward and grab one of the salt shakers. “You can come and visit any time you want -- I’ll still need you for Shabbos, after all. Think, you’ll have your own bed back.”

Charles gives him a forced smile, and Erik knows without having to ask that Charles doesn’t want his bed back. He wants Erik to stay, to make himself a home in Charles’ space, to twine them together more and more irrevocably. Really, Erik thinks, that ought to be pathetic, but ….

“Of course,” Charles says, clearly trying to sound cheery, and failing. “It’ll be just how it was. You told me from the start that you’d be moving out as soon as you got the chance, and so you should. It’s my own fault for not taking you at your word.”

Erik looks at him, at the smile Charles is trying so hard to keep on his face, his knuckles white where they grip around the dishcloth. He’s about to speak, quite possibly to say something he’ll regret, when the bell on the door rings again and cuts through the meat of the moment.

“Hey there, Chuck,” a voice says from over Erik’s shoulder.

“Logan,” Charles says, voice pained, and even Erik dearly wishes Logan could turn around and come back in just another five minutes.

“Bad time?” Logan asks, but he pulls out the stool next to Erik’s anyway, settling into it with the ease of someone who never questions whether or not he’s welcome somewhere -- legs sprawled apart, elbows on the counter, the alphatine stench of him strong enough to suggest he’s been wearing the same clothes for a few days. “Sorry. Man’s gotta eat, and besides, you can flirt with Erik all you want but he’s still running you ‘round the mulberry bush, so frankly I think you can spare me a few minutes.”

Erik flushes with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, his grip on David pinching a little too tight and making him squirm; Charles is pink-cheeked too, his lips pursed. He glances at Erik, his gaze apologetic, but in the end he just reaches into his apron pocket and takes out a little notepad and pencil, settling into a neutral sort of expression, letting Logan’s comment slide. “So. What can I get you?”

“Get me a full breakfast, fry the eggs, lots of bacon.” Logan looks sideways at Erik, mouth quirking when he takes in Erik’s face, then down at David. The corners of his mouth tighten, his brows drawing in. “So this is the tyke? Cute.”

“This is David,” Erik says stiffly, resisting the urge to turn away and hide David from Logan entirely. He’s hardly going to do anything to him, and if he tried Erik can feel fifty sets of knives and forks in this place that he could use to skewer Logan to the wall in a heartbeat. “Are you really here just for breakfast food, or was there some message or other you’re delivering?”

Logan snorts, then shakes his head, nodding at Charles when he offers him a cup of coffee. “Nah, kid, I’m just here to eat. No sinister motives. I might work for Shaw, but I’m not always on the leash.” He slurps noisily at the coffee. “I’m not on the clock, Erik, and even when I am I’m no snitch. I ain’t taking notes on you to send back to the boss.”

Erik believes him -- there’s nothing in Logan’s aspect to imply it’s a lie -- but he glares at Logan all the same before he turns back to David, who has somehow managed to fit one of Erik’s fingers into his mouth and started gnawing on it with surprisingly-sharp milk teeth. “Yes, I know,” Erik says smoothly, before he can really think better of it. “You’re very good at keeping secrets, aren’t you?”

A long moment of silence, and when Erik looks up against Logan’s frowning, tapping one heavy finger against the diner counter. His amber eyes are shuttered, unreadable. “That I am, kid. And don’t you forget it, either.”

It’s not a threat. It does what it’s intended to do -- Erik flushes a little, embarrassed, and doesn’t look at Charles. He has no idea how much Charles knows, just how far Charles’ excavations in Erik’s mind have gone, and he doesn’t really want to find out.

“I need to get David home,” Erik declares, pushing away his still-undrunk lemon water. “It’s nearly time for his nap.”

“All right,” Charles says, the sound of his voice breaking the tension like cracking ice. When Erik does look up at him he seems perfectly neutral, reaching for Erik’s glass to pour the water out in the sink. “I’ll see you at home later on then, shall I? Congratulations again on the job.”

“Congrats,” Logan echoes, slapping him on the shoulder once with his wide palm, and though Erik startles at least he doesn’t physically flinch this time. “Don’t be a stranger, eh?”

“Sure,” Erik says, bundling David up against his chest, and escapes before he has to say anything else.

*

Chapter Text

Fourteen months ago

He feels like he’s been scraped empty from the inside out, clawed hands raking his guts to make sure every gram of food or water is out. Erik retches again over the toilet bowl, his fingers curling on the porcelain and his hair laying sweatily against his forehead. This is awful, the worst day yet -- every morning the same thing, vomiting up anything he manages to take in, expulsing a sea of bile and self-loathing. His stomach cramps, and Erik heaves, but nothing comes up.

There’s no knowing how long he’s been there. It feels like hours, days. But eventually he hears a soft knock at the door, unwelcome and unwanted, and Erik’s stomach turns for an entirely different reason. “Erik? Let me in?”

“No,” he gasps, knowing Charles will hear it from his mind if he’s talking too quietly -- his throat is too raw to shout. “Fuck off, Charles. I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” Charles says. His watch moves upwards in an arc, probably his hand pushing his hair away from his face. Erik wishes for a pathetic second it was brushing his own hair back, then shoves that thought away forcefully. “Come on, Erik, let me in so at least you’re not alone.”

Just the idea of it is awful, Charles seeing Erik like this, sweaty and pale, shaking with the need to vomit. Erik can’t imagine anything worse than voluntarily letting himself be seen to be so pathetic and weak, so vulnerable. His stomach heaves and he retches again, a thin gasp of something or other landing in the toilet with a splash.

Please, Erik, Charles says in his head, sounding tired and sad, longing. I don’t want to push you, but there’s a growing line of people waiting for the bathroom and I’ve brought you a bucket. Come wait it out in the apartment and I’ll sit with you until you feel better. Or not, if you’d rather be alone. Just come out so Mr Gerber can have his bath.

Charles must have known that Erik’s conscience was the key to action, because Erik sags with guilt even as he cringes over the toilet once again.

All right, he thinks wearily back. Just a minute.

It takes several seconds for him to steady himself enough to lift his head from the cool porcelain and flush the toilet, rinsing his mouth out with cold water at the sink. When he opens the door, dizzy and reeling with another wave of nausea, it’s clear Charles wasn’t lying about the line. None of them can quite meet Erik’s eye though -- none of them except for Charles, who offers him a cold cloth to put on the nape of his neck and the handle of a tin bucket.

At least Charles doesn’t ask him if he’s okay.

“Come on,” he says instead, stepping back toward Erik’s apartment instead of reaching for Erik’s arm. He walks backward down the hall as if he needs to keep his gaze on Erik at all times, like he thinks something might happen to him between here and the door, which Charles pushes open with his elbow and holds while Erik trudges in after him.

Erik dearly wants to tell Charles to go away, but there’s no point -- what purpose is there now in preserving his dignity? Anything he might have had to offer Charles is gone. He might as well come to terms with it.

“You don’t have to offer me anything,” Charles says, his voice carefully calm, hiding some other feeling under it. “Erik, I just want to help. I’m your friend, isn’t that enough reason?”

Not really, no -- but Erik can hardly say that. It’s clear to him that Charles is doing this for Mama’s sake, even if he won’t admit it, and Erik wishes … he wishes they could just be honest with each other. He drops into one of the kitchen chairs and puts the bucket on the floor between his calves, leaning forward so he can rest his elbows on his knees and brace his hands against his own temples, his head bowed, staring into it as if somehow an answer might come out.

His head pounds with the nausea, his whole body feeling wrung out, like it’s been squeezed for every last drop of liquid in him. There’s nowhere that feels comfortable to be, either here or on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor -- there’s nowhere to run from this, nowhere to go, and Erik stares into the bucket, its dull metal bottom reflecting back nothing, just waiting for his vomit. He knows how it feels.

“I’ll get you some water,” Charles says from somewhere out of Erik’s eyeline, and busies himself clattering around for a few seconds before coming to crouch down at Erik’s side, not touching him but offering him a mug, being so careful that Erik wants to scream.

“Why are you here?” he demands, breaking at last and lifting his head to glare at Charles, teeth bared. “Why do you keep pestering me like this, always hovering around as if -- as if this were your baby! It’s not your baby, Charles, so why don’t you just go away and leave me the fuck alone?”

Charles’ mouth tightens, and he puts the mug down on the table with a clack of pottery on wood. “Because I’m your friend, and I care about you,” he says, his voice cracking a little now, something else showing around the edges. “I don’t care whose baby it is, it could be President Hoover’s for all I care. I just want to look after you and help you -- you’re my family, Erik! Just you, and I’m not giving up on you just because things are tough right now. I’m not like my mother, I want to be like yours.”

That stings like acid, and Erik snaps, “Dead, then? I’m sure someone would help you with that.”

“You’re not yourself at the moment.” Charles gets to his feet, brushing his hands down his thighs to sweep off imaginary dust. “And that’s understandable, I get that. So I’m just going to keep being here for you until you are yourself again, and past that, and even if you never are. Because that’s what family does. Edie taught me that.”

Erik squeezes his eyes shut, pretending not to notice the tears prickling beneath his lashes. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to throw up again, though, so after a moment he gets up and moves to the temporary pallet he’s made for himself on the floor, all new blankets donated by his neighbors in a messy pile. He hasn’t been able to sleep on the actual bed since his mother died. It only feels moderately better to have his head on a pillow, one arm curled up beneath it and his knees drawn toward his chest -- how long will he be able to do that, he wonders, before his stomach is too big to allow it?

He just swept yesterday, but from down here at floor level he can see where the dust has started to gather again, some crumbs near where Charles stands from when Erik tried to eat some soda crackers this morning. His whole body feels hollowed-out and weak. He wishes he actually were hollowed-out. He tried taking care of it himself, of course, but no good; his body wants this baby more than Erik does.

Charles takes the chair Erik just vacated, his knees coming into view as he sits down, Charles’ hands pale fists atop them.

“Do you need anything?” he asks after a little while, his voice soft and almost tentative.

“Water,” Erik admits, giving in, and watches Charles pick up the mug again to bring it over to the pallet. He sits down on the floor this time, a few feet away from Erik, and slides the mug across the space between them.

“Here,” Charles says, pulling back and wrapping his arms around his knees, which are bent up to his chest, making him smaller.

Erik has to sit up to sip at the water; he leans into the corner and tugs the blankets up higher around himself, elbows in tight to his chest to cup his hands around the mug, half-hiding his face. It’s impossible to know what to say to Charles anymore. Impossible to know what he’s supposed to do, when everything is so wrong. He hasn’t gone back to school since … it happened, and he doesn’t suppose he ever will, now. No more Mama to work and earn money to feed both of them, to pay for school things and justify the time Erik could be bringing in his own earnings; no point in learning when he’ll never get out of the gutter now, a teenage single mother without an alpha to take responsibility for him and his baby. He knows Charles would, if Erik would let him. Would even claim to be the father, legally, if it weren’t for the fact that everyone knows who the real father is, and Erik refuses to shame himself enough to lie to the government and pretend he’s just some feckless brainless omega fluffhead who went and got himself knocked up by an older boyfriend.

Charles must hear it all, all of Erik’s venomous musings, but he doesn’t say anything, just waits quietly, his eyes half-closed as if he’s dozing or daydreaming, anything but paying attention. Even though he must be. Erik knows Charles listens to a lot more than he lets on.

“I’ll never love you now, you know,” Erik says finally, when the silence gets to him enough, and Charles says, without opening his eyes, “I know.”

 

*

 

Erik keeps intending to go looking for a new apartment, his old place long since taken over by a family of five, but somehow that task keeps slipping lower and lower down his priority list, subsumed by his new job and David’s needs and the chores around the house Erik keeps trying to stay on top of. The least he can do, after all, while still living off Charles’ grace, is ensure the place remains spotless.

There are other reasons, too, though Erik refuses to acknowledge them -- reasons that have nothing to do with responsibilities and everything to do with the way Charles looks while he’s still sleeping in the early morning, lips parted and hair falling into his face, David’s tiny fist curled around his forefinger. The way he is with David, for that matter, having stepped so surely into the role of supplemental father that sometimes Erik forgets he isn’t, and then immediately feels guilty, as if such forgetfulness spites his mother’s memory, never mind he knows that’s what she would want. Charles has resumed his classes at Columbia Teacher’s College, and now he spends their evenings at the kitchen table with his nose buried in one of his huge books, just like he used to, back before Erik had David and Charles spent all his time with them instead of in class. Sometimes Erik steps into their apartment to find him like that, sleeves rolled up and his shirt unbuttoned, completely absorbed in a text, and he almost believes he’s stepped back in time, that Charles might look up, smile at him, say something flirtatious that curls warm in the pit of Erik’s stomach and glows there the rest of the night.

Once upon a time, Erik pushed Charles away because he wanted to draw him closer, every rejection just intended to tease, to draw it out, to relish the way Charles looked at him, the way Erik knew Charles wanted him. It never seemed so bad, to make Charles have to wait, when both of them knew where this was heading eventually.

Now, Erik has started to wonder if that was cruel of him, intention aside.

Four weeks into his new job Erik comes home to a dark apartment -- all the lights are out, and he only has long enough to wonder why he can feel Charles’ watch when he’s not here before Charles’ voice says, “Surprise!” and Erik can suddenly see a cake with a candle on top lighting the kitchen table, a soft yellowy glow illuminating Charles’ smiling face on the other side and David leaning against his shoulder, thumb in his mouth staring wide-eyed at the flame. “Happy birthday,” Charles says, his teeth sparkling white in the dim light, and Erik, startled, smiles back.

He’d actually forgotten it was his birthday today.

“Good job I didn’t, then,” Charles says as he rounds the table, already lifting David away from his chest to offer him to Erik; Erik takes him still a little stunned, and the warmth inside him has little to do with coming in from the cold outside.

“Where did you get the cake?” he asks, since he really ought to say something.

“Fenwick’s, the place with the fancy window display,” Charles says, sounding incredibly self-satisfied about it. He looks at the cake with the sort of pride Erik might otherwise expect if Charles had made it himself. “I thought about buying a cheaper cake, or asking someone to make one, but then -- well, you like looking in the window at these ones. So I thought I’d buy one of these and be a bit reckless for once. It’s like two birthday presents in one -- you get a cake and you get to yell at me. Two of your favorite things.”

Erik’s lip twitches. He wants to be mad -- he really does, Fenwick’s is expensive and how on Earth did Charles justify spending that much on a g-ddamn cake -- but he really doesn’t want to shout right now, with David burbling in his ear and tugging on his hair, and Charles looking so pleased, and that beautiful cake sitting on the table, chocolate-frosted and rosetted, just waiting to be eaten. So all he says is, “That cake had better feed us for a week,” and pretends to be cross when Charles laughs, subduing his own smile, but he doesn’t do a very good job of it, really.

Later that night, when Charles and David are both asleep in the bed next to him, drooling on the pillow like perfect twins of one another, Erik thinks -- he’s seventeen, now. If Mama were still alive, she’d be starting to draw up his portfolio to give to the shadchan, lining up references and lists of accomplishments in the hope of snaring him a good Jewish husband. Erik’s family would talk to the alpha’s family, they’d come to some sort of arrangement, he’d meet the alpha in question and be given a chance to veto -- and then he’d get married, just like that. Within a year, unquestionably, he’d be pregnant with the alpha’s child.

What would have happened if that were how things had turned out, he wonders. Sure, Mama talked about him marrying Charles, but she never really meant it. Charles is a goy. Would Charles have been there on the alpha’s side of the room during Erik’s wedding? Hidden behind the mechitza while Erik and his husband were lifted up in their chairs, maybe Charles grasping the leg of Erik’s alpha’s, trying to be happy for him?

Certainly, at this age, he wouldn’t be allowed to lie in bed next to Charles at night. There’d be too many concerns from all parties about what might happen, as if it would be only natural should he and Charles start inching toward each other in the dark, with curious hands and hot mouths.

Erik doesn’t let himself imagine his mother choosing that husband to be Charles.

The cake lasts all of two days and they both eat enough to feel sick.

 

*

 

It’s hard, living in such close quarters with Erik like this. It’s been hard for months, of course, ever since Erik moved in. Charles can’t pretend he hasn’t thought about it on near-constant repeat the entire time, seeing Erik every morning and every night, sleeping beside him, the shape of his hands on David’s bottle, the turn of his head and his profile against the light of the window in silhouette, the smell of him in the blankets, warm and enveloping. Now, though -- now that Erik has a job, and money, and could move out if he wanted to but hasn’t -- hasn’t mentioned it again barring once or twice, rather half-heartedly -- Charles is struggling, really struggling to keep himself from reaching out.

They’re sitting in bed beside each other to help preserve body heat, David sat between them playing with some little hoops Erik made for him out of metal; he’s mostly just ringing them together, the sound something like a triangle or a bell, and Erik is floating others around him, making them twitch and wriggle, something that makes David laugh in delight and Erik grin at his baby, so relaxed, so happy. Charles’ books are spread across the other half of the bed, and he’s supposed to be studying, but it’s difficult not to watch the two of them like this.

Charles wants, so badly, for this to be his.

He shifts his leg, trying to get more comfortable, and it brushes up against Erik’s under the covers -- it’s like a static shock the way the touch runs through Charles’ body, and he can tell Erik feels it too because he freezes for a moment, the hoops jangling discordantly together above David’s head as Erik stifles his instinctive urge to pull away.

It still stings, for Erik to be so wary of him, even if Charles understands it’s not about him; even so, he has to control his breathing to be sure not to sigh before he says, “I can move into the kitchen if you like,” no point in pretending that they haven’t both noticed.

“No, it’s fine,” Erik says without looking at him. Charles can feel the effort he’s putting into focusing on the metal rings as he dips one down lower so David can grasp at it with both hands. David instantly brings the toy to his mouth and starts chewing at it, getting his spit all over Erik’s fingers too as Erik reaches down with his hand to tug it away. David screeches, furious and earsplitting, but is quickly distracted when Erik starts dancing the hoops overhead again. Erik’s embarrassed, though, that much is obvious, as if he needed to be ashamed of his own thoughts around Charles….

“I’ll try to take up less space,” Charles says, giving Erik a small smile despite knowing Erik isn’t looking.

He turns back to his books, reading the same words over and over again in his head, but somehow he can’t process them -- it’s like his mind has short-circuited, and instead he keeps coming back to Erik, who has turned his head down to try and read his own book while David chases after the spinning metal rings, Erik close enough that Charles swears he could count each of Erik’s long eyelashes, Erik’s lips parted like he’s murmuring to himself as he reads along. Their thighs are still pressed together, and for the time being Erik seems to have forgotten it. The warmth of Erik’s body alongside his own is … it warms the scent of him, as well, familiar and comforting and desirable all at once, something Charles longs for but in a quiet way now, something he’s got used to pushing down, every time he notices Erik’s height or his pale eyes or the line of his throat when he swallows, the cutting intensity of his gaze.

Maybe Charles should go find a bout tonight, he thinks distantly, work off some of this energy. Sometimes the best way to keep himself from getting too easily worked up when he’s sleeping next to Erik is to take it out on some other poor bastard, so he doesn’t end up hard and aching in his trousers while they both pretend not to notice.

The next time he glances over David’s chewing on a metal ring again, and Erik sighs, reaching over to take David’s wrist between two fingers and drawing his hand down away from his face. “No,” he says again, and then in German for good measure: “Nein. Zu verstehen?”

“I’ll get him a biscuit,” Charles says, and sets his book aside further down the bed, lifting the blankets just enough to swing his triple-socked feet out onto the bare floorboards. He lays the bedding back down as soon as he’s upright to keep some of the heat in, and shuffles down the narrow gap on this side of the bed to go around the foot and head for the kitchen. Now that he’s up he feels stiff, and he stretches his arms up over his head then out to either side, flexing his back to try and ease it out; it’ll be no good boxing like this. “Do you want some tea?”

“...Sure,” Erik says, and Charles tries to ignore, too, the way Erik’s mind has focused on watching Charles, and the hot clench of Erik’s gut as he does, that attraction between them. It would be far too easy to take it as an invitation, and it’s not -- but try telling Charles’ dick that.

“Two sugars, then,” Charles says, and he walks over to the stove to add some more wood and stoke the fire, working on bringing his breathing back under control. “I was thinking I might go out and see if there’s a fight on tonight,” he says as he finds one of David’s biscuits. It’s hardened from being out in the air and a bit stale: perfect for teething.

Charles is shocked though when Erik says, “All right,” his voice so casual it’s clear he knows, too, how odd it is for him to talk positively about Charles’ fighting. He continues almost too quickly, before Charles can reply, “If you go, David and I might as well come with you and put some money with the sharks. I can use what’s left of my last paycheck.”

If Erik not immediately telling Charles he’s an idiot was surprising, him actually saying he’ll come along …! “Are you sure?” Charles asks, failing to keep his astonishment hidden, turning to face Erik and half-dropping the kettle onto the stovetop, the damn thing landing with a loud clang. “You never come to my fights. I know what you think of the mob.”

Erik looks down and away at that, his lips pursing. “We could use the money,” he says, looking at David, who’s taken to grabbing at his own toes, and is in danger of rolling right over onto his back. “You’re more or less a safe bet, so. It seems like a good investment.”

It’s obvious that’s not the whole reason, or even the main one, but it warms something inside Charles anyway, the thought alone of Erik coming to watch him fight -- wanting to watch him -- an inherently pleasant one. “It’ll definitely be a good investment if you’re there,” Charles says, turning to get the tea leaves out of their tin and scatter them in the bottom of two teacups, pretending to himself he can’t feel Erik watching him, Erik’s gaze on his skin, that he’s not imagining feeling it when he’s in the pit, urging him on. “I expect I’ll fight harder trying to impress you. I’m terribly alpha, you know.”

Erik makes an amused sound from behind him, one that’s echoed a moment later by David; when Charles looks around he sees David really has fallen onto his back now and can’t seem to figure out how to get back up, his eyes wide and confused, his biscuit still stuck by a string of drool to his chin. Charles can’t help smiling himself, watching Erik pick David up and set him firmly on his rump again, helping David to stick the biscuit back in his mouth.

“Just don’t bet the baby on me,” Charles continues, leaning back against the countertop, grasping its edge with both hands to keep himself from moving forward and embracing them both. “I can’t take that kind of pressure.”

Even Erik grins at that, showing teeth -- says, quick and teasing, “Maybe I’ll wager myself, then you’re certain to win,” and then immediately goes still, only-just realizing what he’s said. What he’s implied.

Just the thought of it is ...

Charles’ heart is beating too fast, the primal, possessive instinct in him rearing its head and wanting to snarl -- he can feel that look is in his eyes a little no matter how he tries to hide it, as he says, as lightly as he can, which isn’t very, “But then I’d have to go to jail for killing a man, and who would you have left to nag about studying?”

He looks at Erik’s beloved face, that strong brow and wide mouth more used to worrying than smiling, his tan skin and the way his hair curls on his forehead, a little overlong -- looks at him and wants to kill anyone who might hurt him. Wants to kiss him, to make it clear that Charles would fight for him, would fight anyone he had to, if it meant keeping Erik and keeping him safe. Would fight until his knuckles were bruised and his face bleeding and his bones broken if it meant he won.

Erik swallows visibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Well,” he says after a protracted pause, “I can’t afford your bail, so perhaps not.” Even David is quiet, like he’s realized something’s happened, chewing silently on his biscuit.

How is Charles supposed to be normal now, when he feels like this?

He turns to stare at the kettle, willing it to boil, and it feels like forever before it finally starts to hiss and then to whistle, steam shooting out of the spout; his hands are still trembling with adrenaline as he pours the water over the tea leaves, and he doesn’t quite fill the mugs as far as he might usually before he picks them up to carry them back to the bed.

He hands Erik his mug in silence, neither of them daring to say anything, then walks around the bed to his own side in the same mode, setting his tea down on the windowsill to steam up the glass. Charles feels like an animal, his skin alive all over and ears twitching for the first sound of something moving in the underbrush.

It’s difficult to put that wild impulse back in its box once it’s made a foray out, and though he pretends to be studying his breathing is still heavy, his chest shifting visibly with each deep inhale and exhale. He knows he probably smells a bit wild, too, and though he can’t help it he wishes dearly that he could, because he knows full well that this might frighten Erik into being skittish again, make him feel less safe.

“I guess,” Charles says, then stops, unsure of what he was going to say. The desire is too strong, the urge to put his face in the curve of Erik’s neck, and inhale, to just breathe him in, fill his lungs with Erik’s scent. It’s hard to resist when it’s right there, still milky from David even though David long since stopped breastfeeding, so perfect and maternal and Charles’, even if Erik won’t let himself be. Charles can -- he feels it, so strongly, that desire to be complete, a unit, to finish the circle and bond. But. But.

He can’t help it. He lets out a pained sound and rests his forehead down on Erik’s shoulder, keeping his face away, his hands tense on his papers, crumpling them.

Erik takes in a sharp breath and does not move, so still it’s like the winter outside has frozen him in place. Charles doesn’t dare to inhale, too worried he’ll breathe in too much and lose himself, scent Erik. Beneath him, Erik’s trembling, both with the effort of keeping himself in place and with something else, something deeper, fear but not entirely just.

“I’m sorry,” Charles says, without lifting his head. Erik doesn’t make him -- Charles is too busy holding himself back to dare move. The urge to scent Erik properly is like a burning feeling, a want he has to struggle to work back down, and when he finally does pull away he presses a brief, chaste kiss to the angle of Erik’s shoulder, then looks up at Erik, their faces too close now, near enough to feel Erik’s breath on his face, soft and shallow. “I’m sorry,” Charles says again, and his eyes dip down to Erik’s lips.

Erik swallows, but doesn’t pull back. His eyes are wide, pupils dilated, staring at Charles like he expects a sudden movement, his hands clenched into fists in his lap.

“I …” Charles starts, then falters. He glances up at Erik’s eyes, down at his lips again, an urgent, hungry feeling calling to him, desperate, unleashed from its usual bounds. This is … this is absolutely the best way to end things between them forever, he thinks, certainly the most efficient, and yet … and yet. “Erik,” Charles says, helplessly, and lets his head fall again, safer there than where he might lean forward and kiss Erik on the mouth at last. He’s distantly aware of Erik turning his face away, and when he opens his eyes he can see Erik’s fingers uncurl from their fists to grasp the elbows of opposite arms instead, folded in on himself, like he’s holding himself together.

“I can … I can calm down, I’ll calm down. Just give me a minute and then I’ll go out for a while,” Charles says, his voice strained, struggling for control.

He wants with a desperation he can’t entirely overcome, despite knowing that he’s being everything Erik hates right now -- an alpha who can’t restrain himself, instinct-driven and hypersexual, grasping for what he wants. Maybe … maybe Charles should go to one of the disorderly houses and work some of it out of his system a more direct way. Except Erik would smell it on him, and he’d never come near Charles again.

“All right,” Erik says. He turns his head to look at Charles, his body still shivering just that little bit, a tension running through him like he’s a guitar strung too tight, waiting for the wrong note to be struck. “I -- I just can’t, Charles. I can’t.”

“I know,” Charles says, and he finally manages to sit back up, meeting Erik’s eyes with a small, sad smile on his face, because he does know, and yet he still hopes, perhaps fruitlessly, that one day Erik will be able to love him without being afraid of it. “I’m going to go out until the fight. See you there?”

Erik nods, slowly, his eyes measuring Charles, looking for something in him that Charles isn’t sure he finds. “Yes. What time does it start?”

“I usually head over for about eight.”

“Then I’ll be there for eight,” Erik says, and he doesn’t move from the bed as Charles climbs out of it, just sits very still and quiet as Charles gets into his coat and gloves and cap and watches him leave without ever -- quite -- opening his mouth to ask him to come back, the way he’s thinking about doing in his mind, a silent and unspoken request he can’t decide if he really means.

 

*

Two years ago

Erik stayed an hour after school to go over his college applications with Miss Garvey, the guidance counselor. She’s encouraging him to apply broadly, in many ways more broadly than he thinks he can afford -- application fees are expensive, after all, even offset by donations from people at shul -- but there’s a part of Erik that can’t even care about that, too enamored with the idea of university, broad stone walls and grassy quadrangles, students with books under their arms and glasses perched on their noses. Imagining Erik himself as someone who belongs there, sixteen and grown-up and erudite. A scholar, like Charles. Someone impressive.

He’s toying with the idea in his head still as he walks home, his imagination spinning out like a ribbon in front of him, transforming the gritty grey streets of New York to the brick lanes of Cambridge, the buildings to the gothic cathedrals of Duke. His leather satchel is so heavy with books and papers that he has to keep his thumb hooked under the strap to keep it from digging in too badly, and even so sometimes he bruises himself on the walk to and from school and has to switch the bag to wear on his other shoulder the next week or else cringe at every step. Perhaps in college everyone will have bookbags this heavy -- perhaps he’ll have to line it with metal so he can lift it a little with his powers, subtly, though, so as not to be noticed.

Such musings could carry Erik all the way home easily, and he smiles to himself, delighted by the images in his head.

The sunlight’s golden in late afternoon, and given it’s Friday, which means Erev Shabbos, perhaps he shouldn’t have stayed so late. Mama will be at home, preparing dinner and the charoset for tomorrow, wondering where he is. Charles might be there as well, off his Columbia classes, sitting in one of the kitchen chairs with his cap resting on his thighs and an easy smile waiting for Erik. The thought makes him walk a little faster. The streets aren’t too busy at this time of day, the other kids his age already home, the adults still finishing up work.

Which makes it all the more difficult not to notice when the door of a fancy apartment block up ahead of Erik opens and a red man walks out, dressed in smart black suit with slicked-back hair, and a tail behind him that whips into view as he turns to hold that door open. He’s astonishing to look at, and it’s not that Erik hasn’t seen physical mutants before, just, well, never one so well-dressed; distracted, it takes him a good four or five steps closer before he looks from the red mutant to the second man exiting the building and realizes that man is looking back at him over the rims of a pair of dark sunglasses, one eyebrow raised in wry inquiry.

Oh, shit. Oh -- never mind his language, that’s Sebastian Shaw, Erik thinks, his whole body lurching with sudden fear, and his feet jerk to a staggering, awkward halt.

“Little Erik Lehnsherr, isn’t it?” Shaw asks, reaching up slowly to take off the sunglasses and tucking them into his jacket pocket. He doesn’t come any closer, but Erik’s heart thumps hard and scared in his chest, his skin crawling, trying to get away. How does he know Erik’s name? “You’ve grown up.”

It’s always best to be polite to dangerous strangers, Mama tells him at least once a month in utter seriousness, and so Erik swallows down the lump in his throat and says, “Yes, sir.”

“Hmm,” Shaw says. His eyes look Erik up and down, and if Erik felt uncomfortable before he’s doubly so now, rooted to the pavement. “Interesting.” And with that Shaw steps forward again, gesturing to the red man -- that must be Azazel Rasputin, Shaw’s favorite wiseguy, G-d, how could Erik not recognize him before? -- to open the door of the waiting car for him to climb inside. In a few moments they’re gone, as if they were never here, and Erik is left standing on the sidewalk staring after them and thanking all his lucky stars that it’s over, dry-mouthed and trembling with fight-or-flight adrenaline.

Of course, it isn’t over.

Shaw’s famous in their neighborhood, and not just because money only ever flows into and out of his hands, everything good they have a gift graciously bestowed by Shaw and his Hellfire Club. He’s famous as well for his unique talent at making everyone agree with him. Everyone who doesn’t tends to disappear. He’s famous for the bloody fights down at the Caspartina Club, the hundreds of mutant powers he keeps at his fingertips in the form of henchmen and blackmailees, the dead bodies that look like they’ve had their skulls crushed in by strength too powerful to be held in a human hand. People are afraid of him, and even the people who admire him just manage a terrified sort of sycophantism, shaky flatteries, Ukrainian babushkas crossing themselves after someone says his name.

The next time Erik sees Shaw, it’s outside the Caspartina. Charles just won his first bout of the evening and Erik slips out the side door, sick to his stomach with the stench of blood, iron ringing in his ears. More than that, though: inside he saw Mr Gershowitz, and he’s fairly certain Mr Gershowitz saw him. It won’t be long before the gossip’s rounded its way back to Mama, who will surely box his ears for going to the fights when she’s made it clear a thousand times before it’s no place for a young omega. That Charles is there, Mama says, is no consequence; how can he chaperone Erik when he’s busy getting his nose beat in?

Outside the air’s frigid cold, tasting like ice -- it’ll snow tomorrow -- as Erik leans back against the alley wall and closes his eyes, taking in a deep and steadying breath. He can’t get the image out of his mind, the last blow the opponent landed on Charles, crunching into his ribs with a sickening sound Erik could hear even past the ropes. He wants to believe he imagined it, but isn’t sure he can.

Something smells sick, acrid.

“Here,” a voice says, “this will help.”

Erik opens his eyes and finds someone offering a cigarette beneath his nose, held between the long fingers of a black-gloved hand. He turns to look properly and his stomach drops. It’s Sebastian Shaw, standing just a pace away in his dark greatcoat, the sunglasses gone now, their absence leaving Shaw’s pale and nearly colorless eyes visible as they watch Erik with something unreadable moving behind them.

“Th-thanks,” Erik mumbles, trying not to show how afraid he is right now. He’s alone in a dark alleyway with the most dangerous alpha in Manhattan, and as he reaches up to take the cigarette his fingertips brush Shaw’s gloved ones, just for a moment, but long enough for him to see Shaw’s thin lips shift, a flash of teeth white in the dim light.

The cigarette is slim in his grip. Erik knows Mama will kill him if she thinks he’s been smoking -- but then, that’s the difference between Mama and Shaw. Mama will pinch Erik’s earlobe and give him a lecture. Shaw might crush him like an egg. So Erik lifts the cigarette slowly to his mouth and pretends to inhale, tries not to cough on the smell of it so close to his face.

“How old are you now, Erik?” Shaw asks, his voice slow and sinuous.

Erik lowers the cigarette, biting the inside of his cheek for a moment before he says, “Fifteen.” Just.

“Fifteen.” It earns him a long look, up and down again, like the last time Shaw saw him, only this time they’re closer. Erik can feel it like a hand against his body, groping him, and he stiffens, wanting to take a step back but not quite daring to. His fingers twitch and the cigarette falls to the ground, hissing for a second on the damp concrete before fizzling out.

Oh G-d.

“Sorry,” Erik says, horrified -- he’s wasted Shaw’s tobacco -- but before he can bend to pick it up Shaw says, “Never mind, my boy. What’s a cigarette between friends?” and raises one narrow eyebrow, smiling now, all teeth and self-satisfaction.

Erik has to get away. He can’t stay here.

“I have to go,” he says abruptly, moving back a good couple of steps as if he’s just remembered something. “Mama gave me a curfew tonight and I’m running late. It was -- it was good to see you again, sir.”

“Likewise,” Shaw says, and draws another cigarette out of his pocket, still watching Erik even as Erik backs away and then turns to walk as quickly as he dares to the main street, his spine crackling all over with tension and fear.

The third time he meets Shaw, it is neither an accident nor a surprise.

The black Cadillac waits in the street when Erik gets out of school, engine on and purring charcoal exhaust smoke against the snow. For a moment Erik wonders if something’s happened, if there’s a government investigation or if a movie star has come to town -- but when he reaches the sidewalk the driver steps out and goes to open the door for him, standing with his free hand hidden behind his back.

Erik falters, and Sebastian Shaw gives him a tolerant smile, sitting relaxed inside the cabin with a cigarette in hand, his arm stretched out along the black leather backseat. Those fingers lift off the upholstery to gesture at Erik to come closer.

“My dear boy, it’s freezing out. Do let me give you a ride.”

Erik doesn’t have to look to know the way people are staring at him -- at Shaw -- his classmates and teachers alike, gossip smoldering behind him in the murmurs and whispers not meant for his ears.

“Thank you,” Erik says, trying to sound steady, “but I’m happy to walk.”

It comes out more firmly than he means it to, no waver to his words, no fear or deference. He immediately regrets it, but there’s no taking it back now he’s said it, not without degrading himself, so he lifts his chin and keeps his mouth shut, clenching his hand tighter around the strap of his satchel bag.

“Are you certain?” Shaw asks. He doesn’t seem fazed at all, or at least not that Erik can tell with his features obscured by the shadows and smoke within the car.

Erik’s heart is in his throat, swelling there, threatening to choke him. “I’m sure. Sir.”

“Well then,” Shaw says with a sharp exhale of something like satisfaction, and Erik startles when he grasps the inner door handle to push open the other car door himself, the steel moving in Erik’s metal-sense as Shaw steps out into the street. Erik feels, too, the crunch of snow cold against the nails at the soles of his shoes, the weight of his body atop them. The friction, as he crushes the cigarette butt beneath his heel. “I hope you’ll allow me to accompany you on your walk all the same. It’s a dangerous neighborhood, Erik; one can never be too careful, especially as an omega of your age.”

It’s a dangerous neighborhood because of Shaw. Erik has walked home hundreds of times and never had any trouble, until today.

“I’ll be all right, thank you, sir,” he says, making his voice deliberately more deferential; he hates himself for it even as he knows it’s necessary, but all it does is widen Shaw’s smile, and when he steps up to Erik and simply takes his bookbag, lifting the strap from Erik’s shoulder and sliding it off and onto his own, Erik does nothing, too taken by surprise to object.

“Nonsense,” Shaw says, and pats Erik’s bag. “My, this is heavy -- I’ll carry it for you, Erik. We can’t have it stunting your growth.”

Erik has no choice, now -- he swallows, hard, and manages to say, “Thank you, that’s very kind,” though he wants to run, wants to get as far away as possible because twice -- twice was coincidence. Three times is deliberate, and Erik is starting to feel altogether too much like prey.

“Very good,” Shaw says, smiling beneficently at him, and he reaches for Erik’s hand, long fingers wrapping around Erik’s wrist before he tucks it into the crook of his elbow.

Erik wants to die. He can feel everyone staring, hear them whispering -- he wants to scream for Charles to come find him, to claim him in front of Shaw and make him back off. But all that would do is get Charles killed, and Erik right back where he started -- getting the wrong kind of attention from definitely the wrong alpha.

The walk home feels long, and awful, and Shaw talks to him of trivial, meaningless things the whole way, asking Erik about school and Mama and his friends, all the while watching him with those eyes of his, far less kindly than his words or his mouth. Those eyes are cold. Hungry. He leaves Erik on the sidewalk outside his building that day -- but over the next few weeks he keeps coming back, not every day, always just as Erik is starting to hope he’s lost interest. He appears as if by magic outside the school in his sleek black car, inviting Erik to get inside, walking with him when he refuses. He doesn’t seem to be upset that Erik keeps saying no. If anything it’s quite the opposite -- Shaw seems amused. As if this is all just a game, and one he’s sure he’ll win.

Is this surrender, Erik wonders two months later when he finally gives in, sliding across the leather seat and letting Shaw’s driver slam the door shut behind him. From his position leant against the opposite window, Shaw puts out his cigarette in the ashtray and smiles, slow and sweet. Is this surrender, or is this just practicality? Shaw is going to walk him home every day anyway, and it takes longer to trudge through the long streets and alleys of the Lower East Side than it does to let Shaw’s car escort him there. And this way he doesn’t have to let Shaw loop their arms together, be seen allowing Shaw to carry his books -- no, Erik tells himself. This isn’t surrender.

“I must admit, my boy,” Shaw says, “I had wondered how long you were going to make us keep walking an hour in the elements every day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy your company, but I much prefer experiencing it in the warmth of the car, don’t you?”

Erik doesn’t have anything to say to that. Shaw must have grown used to his silence by now, he thinks, turning his face away from Shaw to watch them peel away from the sidewalk, merging in amidst the traffic on the main road. Erik never says anything on their walks, nor should a drive be any different. Shaw has more than enough fondness for his own voice to while away the time quite contentedly.

“That reminds me. I brought you something.”

Erik hears, feels, the metal buckles unlatch on Shaw’s briefcase, and a moment later Shaw’s fingers curl around his wrist, turning his hand palm-up on his thigh to press something into his grasp. When Erik looks down, curious and afraid, it’s a bar of chocolate, something expensive-looking with Italian writing on the label, gold embossed font on rich brown paper. Shaw’s still touching him, holding his wrist, like he thinks Erik is liable to throw the chocolate out the window if he doesn’t.

G-d, he wishes he dared.

There’s nothing else for it but to murmur, “Thank you,” and try not to shiver at the feeling of Shaw’s hand on him, still gloved, his finger and thumb so easily encircling Erik’s arm. It’s an almost embarrassing gift, something clearly worth a lot of money, and Erik wishes he didn’t want it so badly -- that he could just toss it away when Shaw can’t see, discard his gifts and reject him even if he’s not brave enough to do it to Shaw’s face. But … Erik has such a sweet tooth, and his mouth waters just thinking about taking this home to share with Mama.

How on Earth, though, is he going to explain where he got it?

Shaw’s fingers loosen, and Erik holds very still to avoid pulling away from him. Except -- the hand isn’t withdrawing, and Erik feels his breath catch like a knot in his throat as Shaw slides his hand under Erik’s, his long, strong, elegant fingers curling around the top of Erik’s thigh and squeezing it, fingertips dangerously close to Erik’s crotch. When Erik jerks his head up to meet Shaw’s gaze his eyes are staring right back at Erik, daring him to say anything, intense and intimidatingly close.

“You are such a very beautiful young man, Erik,” Shaw says, his hand shifting a little, feeling out its captive. His voice is quiet, so much so that Erik almost leans closer to hear him. “This slum ill-deserves you. I should take you to my home, instead -- it’s not far. And there I could show you such wondrous new things to enjoy.”

Erik doesn’t know what to do, what to say -- he feels frozen, trapped, and it’s only when he recognises his own apartment block outside the window behind Shaw’s head that he manages to blurt out, “No, thank you, I -- I have to go,” and wrenches his thigh from under Shaw’s hand, simultaneously flinging the car door open with his power and all but rolling out of it before he even has his feet under him.

His heart thuds loudly in his ears, drumlike, and he’s nearly to the door of his apartment building when he senses the car door opening again and Shaw stepping out of it, the movement of his expensive watch and cufflinks unmistakable amidst everyone else’s cheap alloys. He turns around despite his better judgment, and it’s only when Shaw steps alongside him and rests a gentle hand on Erik’s shoulder that Erik realizes he was expecting a blow.

This close, Erik can smell Shaw’s scent, unavoidable, sharp and alphatine and making his blood feel hot beneath his skin. Erik loathes himself for how his body reacts, tuning itself to Shaw’s presence, a strange and horrible part of him wanting to move closer. Shaw says nothing, though he must be able to smell Erik’s reaction on him somehow -- his lips curve into a thin, humorless smile and he nudges Erik forward, into the building … then follows after him, all the way up the stairs to the ninth floor. Erik hesitates on the landing outside his apartment, keys in hand even though he doesn’t need them, heating them up against his palm with his power.

“This is my apartment,” he says at last, when it’s clear Shaw doesn’t intend to dismiss him.

“Yes, I know,” Shaw says, and he gestures toward the door with a lifted brow, leaving Erik no choice but to fit the key into the lock and twist the latch, pushing it open.

Mama’s at the stove, heating water for coffee. When she turns around and catches sight of Shaw, Erik’s power is the only thing that keeps the kettle from crashing to the floor and scalding them all with boiling water.

“Mr Shaw,” she says, recovering more quickly than Erik would have expected, though her hand is still at her throat, fluttering there in time with Erik’s pulse, as if Mama is as scared as Erik is. “I -- if I had known you were coming, I would have -- would you like a drink?”

The words come out sounding fumbled, Mama’s command of English impeded by her obvious discomfort; she glances between Erik and Shaw as Shaw steps further into the apartment, his fine suit and shiny shoes so obviously out of place against their shabby furnishings and uneven floorboards.

“No,” Shaw says, without even looking at Mama. Instead, his gaze travels through the single room, lingering on the wood stove, the single bed, the hole in the window they’ve patched over with cardboard. “I merely came to return your son to you. I don’t intend to impose upon your hospitality.”

Erik can’t take his eyes off of Shaw. Not for any nice reason, but because he can’t convince himself that Shaw isn’t about to do something terrible to Mama.

“I’ll take my leave,” Shaw says once he’s looked his fill and turned towards the door, his smile still in place, terrifyingly sharp. “You have a lovely son, Mrs Lehnsherr.”

“Thank you,” Mama says, her fingers curled tightly in her apron. “You walk him home sometimes, I think. It’s kind of you, to look after a child out on his own. Erik is still so young.”

Shaw pauses on the threshold, and looks back at Mama. “He’s not so very young any more, Mrs Lehnsherr,” he says, teeth gleaming, and leaves, closing the door behind him.

As soon as the door shuts Mama seems to give way -- her legs bend, and Erik cries out even as he jerks forward to try and catch her on her way to the floor; her knees land with a loud bang that no doubt Charles will have heard if he’s home, and she’s shaking in his arms, her hands grasping at Erik’s shirt as she pulls him in close, embracing him tightly.

“Oh, meyn lib,” she murmurs, trembling fingers lifting to stroke over his hair, again and again. “Oh, Erik. What are we going to do? Shaw is a bad man, his interest is no good thing.”

“I know,” Erik says, his eyes prickling, and he buries his face in the curve of her throat, inhaling Mama’s familiar scent, trembling enough himself that they magnify one another, like tuning forks striking a similar key. “I’m sorry, Mama, he won’t leave me alone -- ”

“We’ll move,” Mama says, and her voice seems more determined now, though her hands are still touching him all over, checking for damages. “Far away. We’ll move.”

*

Chapter Text

The rabbi is in the main room at the community center the next evening when Erik goes to retrieve David from the bubbes after work, chatting to Mrs Goldstein and Mrs Bergmann, his fingers stroking his beard thoughtfully as they talk. It should just be normal -- after all, this is the Jewish community center, and Rabbi Liebowitz has always been deeply involved in the local community, helping his congregation to stick together and build a sense of home here in New York when so many of them have left the old country behind to come here, accents still lying heavy on their tongues. And yet Erik smells a trap the moment the rabbi turns to smile at him, Erik caught with David halfway into his arms and out of Mr Mendelssohn’s.

“So good to see you here.” Rabbi Liebowitz straightens from where he was leaning down to speak to Mrs Goldstein in her wheelchair, folding his hands over his stomach. “I was hoping to speak to you soon, actually. I see you at shul but we so rarely get to talk outside of services. Do you have a few minutes?”

“Ye-es,” Erik says, trying not to sound suspicious, though he knows he fails from the way Mrs Bergmann’s mouth twitches, her hand coming up to cover it with a fake little cough. “Though I need to get home soon to make dinner.”

“It won’t take long,” Rabbi Liebowitz says blithely, and he nods at the bubbes before coming to take Erik’s elbow and nudge him towards the hallway.

Erik manages not to pull back, but it’s a hard task. He wants to jerk himself free, knock the intruding hand away, but he can’t do that to the rabbi. He doesn’t mean any harm by it -- it’s just old-world alpha manners, no matter how jumpy it makes Erik, and Rabbi Liebowitz has been there for him through everything, knows Erik’s whole sordid history and has never judged him, has always helped and never pried, welcomed him and David into shul with open arms when some others in the congregation would have judged him unclean. So Erik grits his teeth and bears the hand on his arm long enough to be led into the rabbi’s little office and into an armchair, settling himself down with David sat in his lap while the rabbi takes the seat opposite.

“So, Erik,” Rabbi Leibowitz says, peering at Erik through his round spectacles. “Catch me up on the past few weeks. How have you been?”

David squirms in Erik’s lap, stuffing one tiny fist into his own mouth. For his own part, Erik tries not to squirm himself, although he’s starting to feel very much like a fish caught on a line.

“Nothing has happened of any significance,” Erik says, though -- perhaps Rabbi Liebowitz means his seventeenth birthday? Surely he wouldn’t start pushing Erik into shidduch so soon after David’s birth -- besides, what alpha will be interested in an omega who already has a child from another father? An omega’s treasure is his virginity, and Erik cannot offer that. But he is getting to be that age; some of the omegas he grew up with are already married and planning children of their own.

Or perhaps --

When Erik was a child himself, he used to think the rabbi had special powers given to him by G-d, that he could somehow see and know everything, like a blasphemous combination of Moshe and the moshiach. He learned better as he got older, of course, but even now he feels a twinge of guilt twist the pit of his stomach: surely Rabbi Liebowitz can’t know about last night, about how close Erik came to letting Charles ….

“I heard you got a new job,” the rabbi prompts him, and Erik’s stomach clenches before it relaxes, because of course, that makes more sense. He nods, though he’s not truly relieved, not yet.

“Yes. Secretarial work. I’m grateful to have it.”

David pulls his hand out of his mouth and reaches up to slap it wetly against Erik’s neck, smearing drool against his skin; Erik flinches and grasps at David’s arm, pinning it down, but when he realizes he’s been thwarted David lets out an angry cry, one which threatens to become a wail. Erik presses his finger to David’s lips and lets him mouth at that instead, calming down as he concentrates on gumming Erik’s first knuckle.

“I will admit that I was relieved to hear it,” the rabbi says, unperturbed by David’s acting up; he looks a little like an indulgent grandfather, his greying hair and smile-crinkled eyes only adding to the impression. “Mrs Nadler among others had expressed some concerns about your living situation to me, but I suppose that now there is less to worry about, as you have your own income to support you.”

Erik can’t help it, he stiffens, every muscle in his back tensing up around his spine until he’s sat with perfect posture, upright and chin lifting in reflexive defiance. It’s no business of anyone’s who he lives with, or what his and Charles’ financial arrangement was -- if they want to read sordid things into it then that’s their problem, he wants to snap, even as he bites down his bile. He’s too proud to give Mrs Nadler more ammunition against him if she heard he’d shouted at the rabbi.

“Charles has been a good friend to me and my mother for the past four and a half years,” Erik says instead, though his voice is still a bit cold. “There’s nothing untoward about it. When I lost my job he took David and I in, and asked for nothing in exchange. He gave us his bed and took the floor himself, even. Mrs Nadler is always looking for things to imply about me, but I am most certainly not -- using lesser currency, to secure a roof for our heads.” The very fact Erik has to say that is an insult.

Rabbi Liebowitz shakes his head. “Erik, I didn’t say that you were. I know you’re a good omega, and you’ve learned well enough that you need to look after your virtue. But it is good, too, that you now have funds of your own and are not dependent on your goyische friend.”

There’s not a lot Erik can say to that. It’s too factual to take offense to, though he can feel a follow-up waiting in the wings. “I’m not moving out right away,” he says finally, when he’s sick of the silence between them. “Charles is fine with us staying, and it’ll give me a chance to save up a buffer against future problems.” It’s eminently sensible, he tells himself, keeping his chin high.

“Of course,” Rabbi Liebowitz says. “Though, Erik -- it is probably a little cruel of you, too. You must know that boy is in love with you.”

It’s so blunt that Erik is almost excused in the way his cheeks flush -- but there’s no excuse for the warmth that pours into his stomach in the same moment, like swallowing honey.

“That’s very forward,” he says before he can think better of it, one hand taking a fistful of David’s sweater. He can practically taste the ice on his own tongue; he’s past the point of rudeness now, angry and defensive. “Even Charles hasn’t said as much.”

The rabbi arches a brow. “You think it untrue?”

Erik ignores the question and instead pushes on, heat deepening in his veins, “You think I would -- would flaunt myself for him, like Batsheva for King David? I’ve done no such thing!”

Rabbi Liebowitz holds up a hand as if to stop him, or perhaps as in surrender. But Erik can’t stop thinking about last night, about the way Charles sounded when he spoke to him, his voice low and rough. How Erik didn’t move away. The feeling that claws at his insides isn’t entirely guilt.

“Of course not,” Rabbi Liebowitz says gently, like he’s trying to calm a mad horse; Erik half-expects him to reach out and stroke Erik’s hair. “No. I only meant, Erik, that this boy would do anything for you if he thought it might turn your heart in his favor. I believe you when you say he doesn’t ask anything in return for giving you food and shelter, but now you must ask yourself whether it’s appropriate to keep living off his hospitality, knowing what prompts it.”

Erik flinches inwardly, the words hitting at least some kind of target, and David yelps, squirming; it’s only then that Erik realizes he’s been holding him too tight, clutching him against his chest like a life vest. relaxing his grip, he tilts his head down to take a soft breath of David’s scent, milky and light, pretending to kiss the crown of David’s head even as he avoids the rabbi’s gaze.

“Charles knows I don’t -- that I would never … he isn’t Jewish,” Erik says at last, David quieting in his arms and forcing Erik to lift his head again.

“You would never?” The rabbi makes a humming noise under his breath, thoughtful, his fingers tapping against his belly. “Erik, there would be no shame in it if you did have feelings for the boy -- he is, at least, of appropriate age, and he has work and a home to offer. And Charles could convert, if he has a mind to it. He has no Christian family to object and make trouble, he is good to you and to David, and from what I hear of him he is a good man as well, well-liked by others in the local community.” He takes a breath, then laces his fingers together, stilling them. “Forgive me if I speak wrongly, but I don’t believe you are indifferent to him, the way you want to pretend. And that being the case, if he would convert then it would be a shame to be cruel to yourself, too, by denying him the opportunity, if his religion is all that stands in your way.”

Erik doesn’t know what to say to that. To have the rabbi defending Charles, suggesting Erik should ... it’s so far away from what Erik expected that he’s rather stunned, blinking down at David as he tries to think of any way to respond that doesn’t give away more than he wants anyone to know. “I should get home to make dinner,” he says eventually. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine.”

There’s a long silence, drawn out and awkward, before the rabbi finally says, “Very well. I’ll see you in shul, Erik. But please do think on what we’ve talked about.”

“Thank you, Rabbi,” Erik says, and gets to his feet, shuffling David into a position where he can hold both the baby and his own knapsack and leaving before the rabbi can unsettle him any more.

It’s only two blocks from here to their apartment building, but they feel unnaturally long tonight, the air too cold and the wind too strong, and every time they pass someone Erik recognizes Erik wonders if they’ve thought, too, that Erik’s taking advantage of Charles. If they’ve thought that Erik ought to simply marry him and get it over with.

David’s somehow asleep in his arms by the time Erik reaches the eighth floor, apparently immune to the freezing air that stung at Erik’s cheeks and prickled the back of his neck. Erik goes straight to the crib to put him down as soon as he’s inside, then lingers there, tucking the blankets in around him and pretending not to notice Charles sitting at the kitchen table with his schoolbooks, watching.

He keeps expecting Charles to say something, ask after Erik’s day perhaps, or the bubbes. It’s only when the silence stretches on that Erik wonders if Charles is in his mind right now, flipping through Erik’s memories of what the rabbi said … and then, a split second later, realizing with a flush of horror that it’s not that, it’s that Erik’s still standing bent over the crib with his ass on display right in front of Charles’ face, like he’s engaging in some primal mating ritual. Erik snaps upright, and stands there humiliated, gripping the edge of the crib with torturous force and wishing he had Charles’ power, that he could simply reach into Charles’ memories and erase the past several seconds entirely.

“How was work?” he asks at last when it’s clear Charles won’t, knowing his face is still beet-red but unable to justify standing motionless with his back to Charles any longer. He makes himself turn around and head to the stove, desperately trying not to look at Charles. If he makes too much noise banging around the pots and pans as he uses his power to dump them on the stove, well, surely he’s excused.

“Cold,” Charles says, without getting up from his seat -- he stays right where he is, no sudden movements, nothing to startle Erik. It’s infuriating to realize just how good Charles is at keeping from triggering Erik’s anger or fright, how well he’s adapted to Erik’s moods. “But I’m sure I’ll look back on it wistfully come summertime when we’re all sweating like pigs and there’s nothing to cool us down. At least hard labor warms the body. How was yours?”

“Fine,” Erik says shortly. He sets a knife to chopping up some root vegetables, a turnip and a rather elderly swede.

Charles shifts, his chair creaking. “Do you want to talk about whatever’s bothering you?”

“As if you don’t already know,” Erik snaps, and the knife tip stabs so hard into the turnip that it goes right through it and lodges in the scrap wood they use for a chopping board. He turns to glare at Charles, hackles raised and scalp prickling with the need to fight, to prove to himself -- something, perhaps just that he’s not in love with Charles, that he’s angry about what the rabbi said and nothing more. “You’re the telepath here, Charles, not me!”

Charles’ mouth twists, but he doesn’t so much as raise his voice as he says, “You know I can’t much help overhearing things, Erik. I do you the courtesy most of the time of pretending I don’t hear, but if you’d rather we both accept I know everything you think, then I’ll happily do so. Just don’t be angry with me for being what I am.”

G-d, it’s infuriating that he doesn’t even get angry back! “And what’s that?”

“A mutant,” Charles says simply, and raises his hand to show Erik the ‘M’ tattoo, stark and dark against his weather-tanned skin. “You can’t help what you are any more than I can, so don’t blame me for my telepathy. I’ve never hidden it from you.”

And there it is, now, the twinge of Erik’s conscience, but he forges ahead anyway, hands flexing at his sides. “I don’t. I don’t care if you’re a telepath, Charles, and I don’t need your courtesy. I just want you to stop being so self-satisfied all the time, like you think because you can read my mind you know everything about me and everything I’m going to do and decide.” Because surely that’s it -- surely the reason Charles puts up with Erik in his space, with Erik’s anger and pushing him away and ingratitude, is because Charles has the gall to believe he knows Erik will give in eventually. Because he thinks Erik’s will is going to wear down and he’ll choose Charles, just like Charles always knew he would.

“You know perfectly well that’s not what I think,” Charles says, his voice even, no edges Erik can cut himself on, his anger battering itself against a brick wall.

“Do I?” It comes out as a challenge, Erik’s arms folding over his chest and his nails digging hard into his biceps. “And what else do I know, Charles Xavier? Please be so kind as to inform me so I can get to know myself a little better.”

Charles doesn’t even flinch. “You know you’re not really angry with me, but you’re taking it out on me anyway. Be fair, Erik. At least go and shout at someone who’s done something to deserve it.”

Oh. A sinking feeling, like being dragged down to earth with a bump.

It’s pathetic, how quickly Erik’s anger evaporates, as if it’d been a flame and Charles’ words several thousand gallons of water extinguishing it in a single stroke. Erik tries to cling to scraps of it, to at least be upset with Charles for defusing Erik’s emotions so easily, but all he wants to do in truth is cringe at himself: because Charles is right, and because the rabbi’s right. The only reason Charles isn’t punching Erik in the face right now is because Charles … has complicated feelings, ones that haven’t died no matter how many times Erik’s tried to kill them.

“I don’t expect anything from you,” Charles says, and at last he looks away, over towards David’s crib, or perhaps to the bed where they were so close yesterday, his breath shuddering against Erik’s skin. “If I’m a hopeless idiot who ought to give up already, that’s my business. You’ve been very straightforward about everything; I can’t claim you’ve led me on. If anything quite the opposite.” He closes his schoolbook, the heavy pages falling shut with a thump that sends his pencil rolling off the table. “Your rabbi was wrong about one thing.”

“What’s that?” Erik asks, his heart unexpectedly throbbing in his throat.

Charles turns back to face Erik, his smile awkward, but he says, anyway, “It’s not cruel for you to stay. It would be crueler for you to go away entirely.”

Erik doesn’t know what to say to that -- his face is hot under the skin, and he glances at the vegetables instead of at Charles. They’re in tiny pieces now, and he uses the knife to sweep them into a pan of boiling water, trying to picture them as his embarrassment, cooking off like alcohol fumes and disappearing into vapor. “I can’t stay here forever like this,” he says to the pan, his hands curled tightly on the counter’s edge. “Now I have this job it’s even harder to convince people there’s nothing scandalous going on, with me still living here.”

“You earn little enough you couldn’t move out, anyway. Be sensible about it, Erik, and let them talk. It only matters if you let it.” Charles’ chair scrapes the floorboards, loud and startling in the quiet. “I’ll fetch some more wood for the stove.”

He leaves the apartment with a quiet click of the front door, and Erik can’t help but stare into the soup, teeth gritted, feeling more and more like something has to give.

*

Usually Erik falls asleep easily once Charles starts snoring, the immediate threat removed and his exhaustion heavy after waking up so often the preceding nights to care for David. Tonight, though, is clearly to be an exception. It’s been over an hour since Charles’ face went lax, his body softening into the bed next to Erik with one finger extended so David can wrap his little hand around it and hold on tight. Erik’s tried everything he can think of: counting sheep, thinking of nothing at all, but distraction creeps in again and again until at last here he is, eyes open, watching the moonlight play tricks on Charles’ features and thinking -- I’ve been an absolute egg.

Two years ago, if Erik had known anyone to treat Charles the way he does now, he’d have found some way to make them deeply unhappy; at the time he thought Charles was the best person he’d ever known, kind and clever and alphatine. Charles still is all those things. Not that you’d know it, from how Erik acts, of course. Sometimes he wants to tell Charles he doesn’t mean it -- he’s an idiot, a twit and a bitch -- but he always thinks better of it. He always remembers: I have these rules for a reason. If I break them, I lose everything. The rules keep me safe.

Even from Charles.

But as much as Erik might flinch when Charles moves too suddenly, or pull away when Charles reaches for him, there’s nothing threatening about Charles now. Charles is twenty, but somehow he looks younger like this, his head tilted toward Erik and his lips parted in sleep, lashes shifting against his cheek as he dreams about something. Some dream he’ll never tell Erik, because Erik always makes it so damn clear he doesn’t care, doesn’t want to listen. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to know.

Charles makes a little murmuring noise, nonsense really, except that Erik can’t quite be sure it wasn’t his name.

Carefully, slowly, Erik tugs the blanket down from around Charles’ shoulders; it’s not as cold now as it was in the winter, so he doesn’t feel bad about it when Charles is exposed to his sternum, the thin, worn white fabric of the undershirt he’s sleeping in pale against the darkness. There’s just enough light for Erik to be able to see the muscles in Charles’ bare arms, defined even while relaxed, one arm raised to tuck his hand under his pillow, drawing that side of his chest taut under the cotton. He is … Charles is so … Erik looks at him, and looks at him, drinking him in, and feels himself stir inside in a way he wishes he didn’t, because it would be so much easier not to feel this way about anyone. But Charles is just … so sexy.

Erik wants to touch him, to test it, to know what it would be like. But if he did -- if he skated his hand over Charles’ collarbone and down over the skin of his pectoral, brushed over the line of his tricep muscle -- Charles would almost certainly wake up. And finding out what Charles’ skin feels like isn’t worth the risk of being caught, of having to explain.

That he needs to know if he can stomach touching Charles at all, or if being that close to an alpha is going to send him into a fresh fit of madness which might ruin everything.

So Erik doesn’t touch him, though his hand wants to move, twitches to, yearning to reach out; instead he tries not to think of it, closes his eyes, even, to shut it out. But all that does is turn Charles’ quiet, familiar breathing into the inhales and exhales of quite a different person, and Erik has to open them again just to be sure it’s Charles and nobody else laying beside him in bed, covered in his scent.

If Mama were here, what would she think of all this? Erik in Charles’ bed. Erik lusting for him. Erik with a stranger’s baby tucked in against his chest. Of course, she isn’t here. If she were, Erik wouldn’t be sleeping next to Charles, wouldn’t have David at all, and if he still lusted for Charles it’d be with the knowledge that if he wanted to, really wanted to, he could do something about it. He wouldn’t feel as if his hands and feet are both tied behind his back, keeping him strapped in awkward stasis, wondering if he still has the capacity to love at all.

*

It would have happened inevitably; sooner or later, everything that’s worth anything in this city passes through the hands of the mob, assessed and labeled in a ledger -- people every bit as much as things. At his old job Erik used to flinch every time a customer came through the door -- but over the months he’s become too relaxed, too complacent, too much like the Erik who got himself in so much trouble in the first place.

Erik’s official job is secretary, but that’s only a title: he does all kinds of odd jobs in the warehouse, taking notes every bit as much as he does inventory, fixes broken hinges with his power, works out dents in metal pots and car doors so they can be resold for higher value. The people who own this place don’t know who he is. They’re neither Jewish nor immigrants, just capitalists who know a good deal when they see one, that they can pay a mutant less than nothing for twice the work when it’s all done under the table. They don’t know about David -- they don’t see his history when they look at him, written in the body he’s learned to hate, on the skin he loathes.

The skin Charles loves, G-d help him.

Erik is in the back office standing at the filing cabinet sorting through the accounts and slipping bits of paper into the proper folders when he hears the urgent whispers from some of the laborers, then the quick, sharp order to shut the fuck up, from Mr Van Hosen the owner; Erik looks up through the windows that let light in through the top half of the dividing wall between the office and the main warehouse and sees the door at the far end of the warehouse swing open, then a silhouette fill that bright rectangle of outside light. It’s impossible that he could see who it is from this far away, in this light, but Erik freezes nonetheless, some animal instinct catching him before he even knows what he knows, and then Shaw takes another step inside and out of the light and Erik can only stare for a moment before his hindbrain kicks in and he drops to the floor, knees catching the floorboards hard and brutally painful so he can hide behind the lower, opaque half of the wall, his breaths coming in gasps.

Shaw. Here. Now. And no way out that doesn’t get Erik seen, that doesn’t give Shaw a chance to see Erik and be reminded of him, to start up his interest all over again.

Erik’s legs feel as if they’ve been cut off from the rest of his body, dead and unresponsive, and silently, eyes clenching shut for a long second, he prays that Mr Van Hosen doesn’t bring Shaw into this office, because there’s no chance Erik could fake well enough to pretend he’d just dropped something. His heart is pounding in his chest like there’s something fighting to get out. Erik feels sick, and cold, and he hates himself for hiding even as he knows it’s the only option that keeps David safe from Shaw.

“It’s been a while, Mr Van Hosen,” Shaw’s voice says from the other room. It sounds exactly the way Erik remembers it, and he can still hear it saying so many other things. Terrible, awful things that he can never seem to forget. Hearing it again -- Erik wants to cut his own ears off. “Quite a while.”

“Has it?” Mr Van Hosen sounds nervous. The uneasiness in Erik’s stomach sours further -- he hopes to G-d it’s not because Mr Van Hosen has been trying to cheat the mob somehow. That if he is then Erik isn’t somehow unwittingly complicit in it.

Erik hears footsteps moving in the other room, the floorboards creaking beneath Shaw’s weight. When he speaks again, his voice is closer -- he’s moving toward this door, Erik thinks, and bites down hard on his lower lip to keep from crying out.

“You certainly seem as if you’ve been doing well for yourself,” Shaw murmurs -- drawls, really. Erik can’t breathe, won’t breathe, certain if he does Shaw will hear it. “You’ve put on a few pounds around the middle, I see.”

“Oh, uh,” Mr Van Hosen stammers, “that would be getting married, sir. Getting a wife does wonders for the waistline.”

“I see.” Creak. Creak. “Congratulations are in order, then. I’ll have one of my alphas run you over a bottle later. In any case, we should get down to business. How is my investment going?”

“Very well, sir. Uh. Very well indeed. There were no, um, problems with getting your shipments in along with the regular, and the boys know how to sort them one from the other. Your, uh, red associate came to pick them up yesterday. Distinctive fellow, that.”

As well as Erik once knew Shaw, he can almost hear the cold smile on his face, the way the left corner of his mouth would tilt ever so slightly as if lifted by a hook, his humanity all mechanical. “Indeed he is,” Shaw says, sounding amused. “He also told me that when he informed you of the size of our next shipment, you were less than enthusiastic. I came to find out why that might be. After all, you are a valued business partner. I could only come and see you myself.”

G-d. Erik wishes he dared move, dared get up and confront him -- there’s a hot, reckless part of him that wants to dash to his feet and command every scrap of metal in this place at Shaw, to crush him in an iron fist and keep crushing until Shaw bursts, to scream and rail at him. But there’s a part of him, too, that can’t -- that knows he would die if he tried, or worse, that Shaw would laugh and take command of him again, and while Erik might have risked that if it were just himself -- some suicide run at gaining his true freedom -- he has to remember David.

“It’s just that … I don’t have the room, sir,” Mr Van Hosen says. “You’ve seen my warehouse, Mr Shaw, it’s but modest in size.”

“Then you shall get rid of some of your excess inventory to make room for mine,” Shaw says smoothly. He’s so close -- he must be just on the other side of the wall, close enough that were the divide not here Erik could reach out a hand and curl it around Shaw’s ankle.

He is so keenly aware of his own presence, the throb of his blood in his veins and the rasp of breath in his lungs, the weight of his body atop his knees and the slip of fabric against his skin, that he can’t imagine that Shaw doesn’t know he’s here, that any moment now Shaw will turn and tell Erik to get to his feet, will greet him like an old friend and smile that shark’s smile at him once more.

Mr Van Hosen hesitates, but he knows what’s best for him. “Of course, Mr Shaw. I’ll make it happen.”

“See that you do,” Shaw says, and when Erik hears the click of footsteps again they’re in retreat away from where Erik crouches, blind with dizziness, heading back toward the front door. “I’ll be back in three days’ time, Mr Van Hosen, and I expect to see my shipment in storage.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Excellent. Good day to you.”

Erik follows those cufflinks, that watch, to the door -- the heat of Shaw’s hand against the knob, the shape of his fingers pressing against the metal and making Erik’s stomach clench -- and then he’s gone.

When Mr Van Hosen finds him a few minutes later Erik is still huddled on the floor inside the office, light-headed, and when Erik mumbles something indeterminate about dropping a coin Mr Van Hosen says, “Don’t be such an omega, Lehnsherr, as if Mr Shaw were going to take any damn notice of the likes of you.”

There’s nothing to say to that -- nothing that isn’t too revealing, anyway -- and so Erik struggles through the rest of the afternoon, trying to look as if everything is normal, until finally it’s time to go home. He doesn’t really remember the walk back to the apartment, which is worrying enough in and of itself that when he finds himself at the front door he feels panicked, his hand on the knob shaking and shuddering as he thinks, what if Shaw was there, his car, what if he saw me, what if --?

He only realizes he’s forgotten to collect David when he gets inside and nobody is there, not Charles or the baby. The apartment is dark and cold and silent, and Erik stands there in the doorway and stares at it as if it might change if he waits long enough.

Shit. He has to get it together.

Charles? he thinks, hating himself even as he does it, but -- right now he’s not sure he should be outside, let alone trying to field questions from the bubbes about why he’s so pale, why he’s shaking. He’s long suspected Charles always has a finger in his mind even when he’s not listening, and so it’s not exactly surprising when he feels a question in response, like a ? appearing in his thoughts of its own accord.

Could you fetch David from the Community Center on your way home? Erik asks. He knows all too well that Charles will be able to feel his emotional state, but right now -- right now he just has to hope that Charles will leave it alone.

Of course. A sensation of worry runs down Erik’s spine, like a nervous finger, but Charles doesn’t say anything directly, just, Will they recognize me to let me take him?

They should, Erik thinks, with rather too much certainty. The bubbes love nothing more than gossiping about Erik and Charles as it is, after all.

There’s a wisp of mental acknowledgment from Charles and then he retreats from Erik’s mind, at least obviously. Erik opens his eyes -- he hadn’t even realized he’d closed them -- and is suddenly so grateful he’s here, in Charles’ apartment, instead of his own. Upstairs has memory laced through its corners like cobwebs, staining the floorboards like blood. Here might smell like Charles, but at least Erik doesn’t have to look at a spot on the floor and think, that’s where it happened, that’s where she died.

He goes to sit down on the bed instead, toeing off his shoes to pull his feet onto the mattress and his knees to his chest. It’s dark outside, distant electric lights reflecting off the glass of the closed window, and somewhere he’s out there, right now. Shaw is out there, free and alive and filthy with his evil. And there’s a chance, no matter how small, that even now he thinks: that Lehnsherr boy, I wonder whatever happened to him….

Eventually Erik turns on the bedside lamp with his power, unwilling to move from where he’s put himself to physically turn the switch but equally unwilling to sit in the dark. Shadows too easily turn into monsters.


*

A year and a half ago

“It’s such a shame Charles is busy this week,” Mama says, stirring the stock as it simmers on the stove. Her apron is already stained a little with the occasional spit from the saucepan, though as ever it’s pin-neat around her waist and tied in a perfect bow -- Mama always tries so hard to make their crappy little apartment into a real home, as if they lived in one of those perfect Connecticut farmhouses you see in magazines, with their perfect omega and perfect alpha and everything clean and new. Erik doesn’t need any of that -- for one thing he’s only ever had what they’ve got now, or at least that he remembers. But still, he appreciates that Mama tries, even when she does turn to him and continue, “I’m sure Charles would have been able to help with moving the boxes for the community sale. It wouldn’t have taken you anywhere near so long if Charles had lent a hand.”

Erik makes a face, embarrassed by the insinuation. “He’s not our indentured servant, Mama,” he says. “You shouldn’t ask him to do all of our chores. Don’t you think you’re taking advantage a bit?”

Mama just scoffs and flaps a hand at Erik, waving him off, her eyes twinkling. “It’s hardly all our chores, and Charles likes to help,” she says, adding a little more salt to the pan. “He’s a very good boy, very kind, and he’s very fond of you. I dare say he’d have jumped at the chance to show off his muscles carrying things for you. He might even have paid me for the privilege.” She smiles at Erik, reaching out to pinch his cheek; the kitchen is small enough she barely needs to stretch. “Besides, you like to watch him work, don’t pretend you don’t. Such a shame he’s goyische. Then again, you never know, perhaps he will convert and everything will be perfect.”

“Maybe it’s best you aren’t sending me to a matchmaker after all,” Erik tells her. “You’d dismiss all of her matches because none of them are Charles.”

But when Mama isn’t looking he smiles a little, and bites the inside of his cheek to swallow it down. He likes Charles, a lot, and there’s no denying that Charles is very attractive, with those luminous eyes and that red mouth. He has the kind of body Erik would tear a photo out of a magazine for, tack it up on the wall over his bed and stare at it for days -- if he were that kind of omega, anyway. He’s really, really not that kind of omega.

“Perhaps I will speak to the rabbi,” Mama says thoughtfully, which is enough to make Erik roll his eyes where she can’t see them. “Could you chop the onions for me, bubbala?”

Erik sets the knife to chopping the onions on the countertop, the blade moving far more quickly than it would by hand and with far fewer tears. “Mama, you can’t be serious. You haven’t even asked me if I want to marry Charles, but you’re already going after Rabbi Liebowitz to give Charles a gerus?”

“Don’t be silly, you’re all goo-goo-eyed whenever you think nobody is looking at you,” she says, turning to smile at Erik. “I think it’s sweet. Besides, who else would put up with you and your surliness and your pouting? Charles would make a wonderful husband and father and he wouldn’t mind a bit. You could rule the household and he would let you. I should have thought you’d love that.”

Erik’s blushing a tiny bit, he can tell -- he can never hide these kinds of things from Mama. If he didn’t know better he’d swear that both Charles and Mama were telepaths, in telepathic cahoots with one another to embarrass Erik. “I’m not goo-goo-eyed,” he mutters.

“Of course not,” she says magnanimously, knowing full well she’s won. She smiles as she takes the onions from Erik and adds them to the soup, stirring them in. “You look at everyone’s back like they hung the moon and stars then ignore them as soon as they turn around, as if they have a bad smell. Dear, you’re just lucky Charles is a telepath or the poor boy would think you hate him.” Her eyes crinkle at the corners. “You should be nicer, or he might not ask you to marry him; I hear Lacey Green from the second floor has eyes for him too, you know.”

Stung but pretending not to show it, Erik shrugs, and grabs the cloth to start wiping down the table for dinner, scrubbing at the crevices and grains in the wood. “He’s probably listening in on this conversation right now, swelling his already-enormous ego,” he says.

Charles had better know that Erik does not think he hung the moon and stars. That would be … childish, and romantic. Erik would die of embarrassment.

“Uh-huh,” Mama says. “Please chop the carrots and potatoes now, meyn lib.”

Erik obeys, using the same knife as he did for the onions. Mama seems to have -- maybe -- dropped the subject of Charles for the moment, but Erik almost doesn’t dare say anything that might remind her and put her right back on that track. Of course, now that she’s brought him up Erik has a hard time not thinking about him. About whether he’s downstairs, lying on his narrow bed in his tiny apartment, reading one of those thick textbooks for his college classes. If he’d have unbuttoned his collar and rolled his shirt sleeves up as soon as he got home. If he’s thinking about kissing Erik. Or maybe he’s just down there furiously wanking off, alone and pathetic.

Charles probably is doing just that, Erik thinks as he gets the dishes out to start setting the table. Alphas are so very predictable. He pretends the idea doesn’t warm his belly despite everything, thinking of Charles wanting him so badly he can’t keep from touching himself.

Erik is concentrating so hard on not reaching out with his power to see if he can feel Charles’ watch downstairs that he almost doesn’t notice the other watch, rivets, coins approaching along their corridor -- but when he does the knife stutters, and Erik turns to stare at the door with a lurching stomach for the ten seconds before the knock sounds, three sharp raps against the wood, and he hisses to Mama, urgently, “Don’t open it!”

“What is it, Erik?” Mama asks, though she’s already moving towards the door, as if she can’t help herself, her manners too ingrained. Her mouth twitches as her hand falls on the knob. “Is it Charles, then, come to embarrass you?” And she twists the handle before Erik thinks to catch it still, opening the door to Sebastian Shaw stood on the other side, a self-satisfied smile on his face as he looks down at Mama, then over at Erik, eyes sly.

There is a moment where Erik thinks Mama might faint, or might slam the door in Shaw’s face and damn the consequences. He wishes she would, even as he hovers by the counter, too frightened to move.

“Mr Shaw,” Mama says. Erik hears the tremor in her voice, the shock when she’d been expecting something so light-hearted the moment before. “What a -- a surprise.”

“I do hope it’s not too late,” Mr Shaw says, all unctuous politeness, and he blinks once, slowly, the effect reminding Erik more than anything of a snake’s third eyelid, alien and reptile, cold-blooded. “I was in the neighborhood so I thought I would drop by to speak to young Erik. Might I come in?”

What else can they do but say yes? Shaw holds all the power in the Lower East Side, Erik knows that better than anyone, but he still wishes desperately that he dared say no, throw Shaw out and slam the door in his face, anything to keep him out of the apartment and away from Mama. When she steps aside without a word and lets Shaw over the threshold Erik can see her face drained of color, and her eyes flick over to meet his, a sort of knowing passing between them that this isn’t a simple visit.

Erik thinks -- this is it, this is when he makes his move. He’ll threaten to -- to hurt us, to evict us, maybe, blackmail Mama somehow. His power’s grip tightens around the blade of the vegetable knife. If he has to -- if he --

“Can I get you anything?” Mama asks, coming to stand over by the stove and wiping her hands down her front, over her apron. They’re trembling. “Water, tea, coffee?”

“Not for me, thank you,” Mr Shaw says. His eyes slide over to Erik and settle there, meeting Erik’s gaze. “Mrs Lehnsherr, Erik is a credit to you. You have a beautiful son.”

“He takes after his father,” Mama says.

Shaw’s eyes are all but transparent, the pale color of rainwater. They look at Erik as if they see right through him, peeling away the layers of his skin like onion paper, and Erik feels like a butterfly pinned to velvet; he suddenly regrets how cool he’s been with Shaw these recent weeks, how dismissive, and forces himself to smile -- like an apology.

“Are you staying for dinner?” he asks, knowing the answer must be ‘no’ and hoping that might prompt Shaw to leave, knowing it won’t.

There’s something almost mocking to the sharp tilt of Shaw’s mouth, tight and amused. “I don’t think so,” he says. He takes a small step forward, and Erik fights to keep himself from stepping back in turn. “You know who I am, don’t you, Erik?”

The step doesn’t just bring him closer to Erik -- it brings him closer to Mama as well, who is clearly fighting the same battle as Erik, her hands twisting in her apron, rocking back on her heels, but she doesn’t move away.

Erik nods.

“Of course you do.” Shaw’s voice is silky and patronizing, like he thinks he’s talking to a child. “So Erik, perhaps you can help me understand something…. You know who I am. You know what I can do. So why do you insist on playing these games with me?”

Erik’s heart pounds in his chest, so loud it feels like he can hear marching in his ears, feet stamping the ground all around him. “What games?” he asks, his mouth dry.

“Erik, Erik, Erik. Let’s not pretend. I’ve been courting you for months, squiring you home from school, making my intentions clear. And yet you continue to play the coquette, cold and indifferent, shying away from what you know will happen. I always get what I want.” Shaw blinks, again, that slow, glacial movement, deceptively lazy. “If you stop playing hard to get, this will be an enjoyable night, I promise you that; I’m not a cruel lover. But if you continue to rile me … well. It will be less enjoyable for you, though not for me. I will have what I want.”

G-d. What to do, what can he -- Erik knows all too well that his gifts will be useless against Shaw, the same way everyone else’s have always been. Shaw rules the neighbourhood not because he’s gone unchallenged, but because he’s invincible. If he wanted to rule the whole city, he probably could. Erik looks at Mama before he can stop himself, wanting her to tell him what to do, what to say, but she looks just as scared, tongue-tied, her fists clenched in her apron as she leans back against the countertop.

Erik can’t -- he can’t. He can’t just let Shaw fuck him, like some messed-up droit de seigneur. He ... Erik has imagined what his first time would be like, who it might be with. He can’t give that up just because Shaw demands it.

“What if I say no?” he asks, his voice as firm as he can make it, standing up to his full height and puffing up like an alpha, trying to look determined.

“Do you really want to learn the answer to that question?” Shaw drawls softly. “My car is downstairs, my boy. Come along. I’ll have you back by morning at the latest, and you’ll be able to enjoy more of that chocolate you liked so much.”

What kind of omega does Shaw think he is -- to trade chocolate for his virtue? He might be poor, but he’s not entirely classless!

“Don’t be stupid, Erik,” Shaw says when Erik doesn’t respond, and moves forward another step, two steps. Panic claws at the back of Erik’s throat and he swallows hard against it, fear like knives that cut deep with every anxious breath. “You’re lucky I’m giving you a chance to do this the easy way, but that’s only out of respect for your beauty. Don’t gamble with me, child; you can’t afford to lose.”

Shaw is going to hurt him, Erik knows that. And he might lose his virtue tonight either way: but he’d rather survive any pain, have Shaw drag him kicking and screaming out the room and down the stairs, than simply surrender. Especially under force.

He can’t. Charles’ face flashes in his mind, smiling at him, lips red from kissing, and Erik pushes it away even as he thinks -- he can’t just say yes, and have it be his own fault for consenting, no matter how coerced he was.

“I’m sure you’re used to people giving you what you want,” Erik says, shocked by his own daringness but thrusting forward all the same, reckless and determined now not to show he’s afraid. “But in this case, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to take it, because I’ll die before I go with you willingly.”

Shaw’s face is still just as calm, just as self-assured. “Oh, Erik,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t want to have to prove my point by punishing you the way I would anyone else, but if you insist,” and before Erik can move, before he can even think, Shaw reaches out with both hands to take hold of Mama’s head, and effortlessly snaps her neck.

It’s as if all the light in the world has been switched off at once -- as if everything that is Erik, all his heart, his soul, has been ripped from his body and torn apart in front of his eyes. He hears screaming, and doesn’t realize it’s coming from him until he’s already stumbled forward and thrown himself on the ground by his mother’s broken body, his knees hitting the floor hard. The force of it jars his entire body, but he has no mind for that, no eyes for anything but the emptiness of Mama’s eyes, how limp she is, how small -- how frail she looks, now, with the life in her snuffed out. The world is blurry -- he’s crying, he realizes distantly -- inside he’s an ocean in storm, too much of everything beating itself against the inside of his skin, crashing together, fear and grief and rage.

He barely even registers Shaw standing beside him until a hand lands heavily on the back of Erik’s neck, and then -- Erik lashes out, jerking away from that murderous touch and throwing everything metal at Shaw at once, knives, forks, even the saucepan with their soup in it, the hot liquid splashing down around them and splattering Erik with boiling-hot droplets that scald him even as he tries to get away --

“Pointless,” Shaw says, as every piece of metal drops to the floor around him, its momentum arrested, as the soup that hits him steams and goes cold, and he steps over Mama’s prone body to grab Erik by the arm, his fingers digging in mercilessly until Erik cries out in pain. “This is your fault,” he says, shaking Erik and starting to drag him across the room -- towards the bed. “If you were less stubborn all this could have been avoided, you stupid boy. You knew who I was.”

Charles! Erik screams out in his mind, and only after a moment does he realize he’s screaming it out loud, too. If Charles is downstairs he has to hear him -- he’ll come, Erik knows he will, Erik knows he --

Shaw’s grip tightens, and Erik finds himself lurching off the floor and onto his feet. It doesn’t seem to matter that his knees buckle beneath him, feet incapable of staying under him. Shaw moves like an unstoppable force, like a wave that levels a city. He pauses next to the bed, and even through the blur of tears Erik sees the way he eyes it distastefully, mouth twisting; Erik can’t look anywhere but Shaw’s face, horribly certain it’ll be the last thing he sees, just like it was the last thing Mama ….

“I would have much preferred to do this at my home,” Shaw says, “where I’m less likely to bring back a bedbug infestation,” and he pushes Erik forward, Erik’s thighs hitting the edge of the mattress before the force of Shaw’s hand sends him tilting forward under his own weight, sprawling on the bed.

He immediately tries to move, if not to escape then at least to keep Shaw in his line of sight, but a second later Shaw’s hand bears down on the nape of his neck again, pulling him several feet further up the bed then pushing him against it, and no matter how much Erik struggles it’s useless against strength like that. The mattress dips, Shaw climbing onto the bed after him -- Erik shakes so violently he’s certain his bones will break, and Shaw’s other hand smooths down his side, hot like a brand.

“Such a narrow waist,” Shaw murmurs, his thumb pressing in between Erik’s ribs. “Remarkable. What a feat of divine engineering.”

“Don’t,” Erik says, but it’s not strong any more, not defiant. He hates the sound of it, defeated and pleading. “Please don’t.”

“Be quiet,” Shaw says, and the hand at Erik’s waist moves to his ass -- then rips the fabric, tearing it away from his body to expose his buttocks to the air, a sudden coldness that makes Erik jerk, only to be shoved down again, his face crushed into the blankets until he can hardly draw in any air. With Erik subdued, Shaw continues, “Very nice,” and then his hand is on Erik’s ass, is stroking over his flesh there -- pinching and squeezing, thumb stroking the crease under his right buttock where it meets his thigh. Then sliding up, and between, and Erik sobs as Shaw’s thumb rubs over his hole where nobody has ever touched him before, a hard pressure circling it like a vulture over a corpse.

Where is Charles? Where is Charles, when Erik needs him most?

Shaw’s thumb stops circling, Shaw making a considering sound where he’s crouched above Erik’s pinned body, and then it pushes against his hole firmly, and no matter that Erik clenches, that he tries to keep it out -- Erik yells as that thick digit forces its way inside him, hooking the inside of his rim and tugging at him like a fish on a line, palpating his lubricant glands, and G-d, fuck, there are tears and snot and who knows what else smeared all over Erik’s face as he feels himself getting wet inside for Shaw’s thumb, his body betraying him in the most mechanical way possible, slicking itself to be raped.

After a minute of this Shaw forces his forefinger in alongside it and starts scissoring them, stretching Erik’s hole wide. “There, there,” he says, his voice bland and unconcerned by Erik’s tears. “Calm down, my boy. This will all be over soon once I’ve had my fill. Or rather, once you’ve had yours.”

It hurts, it hurts badly, is the only part of Erik’s body that he can feel anymore. It feels wrong, unnatural, and it’s hard to imagine that it had ever felt good when Erik did this to himself, those secret nights under the covers thinking of a strong and beautiful alpha feeling like they belong now to someone else. Because Erik, this Erik, would never want something like that. Like this. He squirms, and he can’t help trying to pull himself away, to dislodge Shaw’s fingers from his body.

Useless, of course -- Shaw just moves his hand down from Erik’s neck to press between his shoulder blades instead, and he’s suddenly, horribly aware that the hard pressure against the back of his thigh is Shaw’s cock, Shaw rocking his hips down against Erik’s leg in rhythm with the motions of his fingers.

This can’t be real, Erik thinks to himself, dazed. This isn’t happening. It’s too cruel even for Shaw, so it must be a dream, a terrible nightmare, and any moment now Mama will wake him from it. She isn’t dead, that’s not her body lying there on the floor, and this isn’t Erik, here on his stomach, the scratchy blanket pressed against his cheek. He closes his eyes, to block it out, but when he opens it again he’s still here, Shaw’s still kneeling behind him on the bed, and his mother’s body is still there on the floor, her neck at a terrible angle.

Something hot brushes his throat -- Shaw’s lips, grazing his pulse point. Erik shudders; he used to imagine that someone (Charles) might do this, kiss him there, gentle and loving, his hands on Erik’s body and his voice in Erik’s ear.

Instead, he gets this. The sound of Shaw’s zipper coming down, then the rustle as he pulls himself out of his pants, and the slap-slap sound of him jerking himself to get harder, a meaty sort of noise that makes Erik want to retch.

“Keep still now,” Shaw says from behind him, and Erik can’t even move to try and get away, eyes screwing shut and mouth falling open on a silent cry as the thick blunt head of Shaw’s cock butts up against Erik’s wet hole and shoves inside him, jabbing through the ring of muscle and into his ass with a burning sensation like Erik’s been torn inside, stretching out around it and gasping as Shaw thrusts himself all the way in, one two three jerks of his hips to bury himself in Erik’s cunt.

It hurts -- it hurts badly, being forced open like this, and Erik can’t even scream, his breath caught in his throat; there’s barely a pause before the cock inside him pulls back to shove in again, fucking him relentlessly while Shaw grunts and groans above him, his hands pinning Erik to the mattress as he rapes him.

The whole thing seems to go on forever. It’s painful, the thrusts too hard, bruising his rim; the width of the thing inside him, filling Erik up over and over; Shaw’s fingers too tight on Erik’s shoulders, digging into his flesh. Erik keeps thinking: the walls are thin, the neighbors have to hear, they have to know what’s happening -- they’ll come, they’ll stop it. Someone will stop it. The mattress squeaks and groans, eek eek eek eek in time with Erik being fucked, taking it like a bitch, his thighs lax now as he tries not to resist in case that makes it easier.

It doesn’t.

“You’re obedient enough now,” Shaw says in Erik’s ear, his breath hot against Erik’s skin as his balls slap Erik’s ass. “Now you know how to behave, don’t you? You won’t be walking around town like a virtuous, prim little angel any more now you know how to take a knot.” He screws into Erik particularly deep, and Erik gasps in pain, then --

-- the cock inside him is getting bigger, and Erik starts to struggle to get out from under Shaw, because he’s going to knot inside him, come inside him --

“Stop fighting me,” Shaw snarls. He bites Erik hard on the nape of his neck as he shoves his cock deep inside Erik and comes, the root of his dick swelling and straining Erik’s insides until he feels like he’s going to burst open, locked full of Shaw and Shaw’s spurting semen flooding him, hot and wet.

Erik feels sick to his stomach, nausea pulsing through him with every throb of Shaw’s cock, hot and acrid-tasting on his tongue. Shaw shudders above him with his own pleasure, and Erik is stock-still, afraid to move, afraid that now Shaw has what he wants he may have no further use for him. Shaw’s fingers brush perilously close to his neck, grazing bare skin. His hands, Erik notices dimly -- this is the first time Shaw hasn’t been wearing gloves. He wants to burn his flesh everywhere Shaw touches it.

He struggles to keep himself alert, but there’s a strange lethargy creeping over his bones now, slow and thick as molasses. His limbs feel heavy, and Shaw hums out something soft and amused as he releases his grasp on Erik’s shoulders to skim his touch over Erik’s body once more.

“Better,” Shaw says, tugging Erik’s shirt out from where it’s tucked into his trousers -- what’s left of his trousers -- and smoothing his bare fingers up beneath the hem to spread against Erik’s torso, feeling out the shape of him, sliding under his prone chest to rub curiously at a nipple. “I’ve wanted this for a long time, you know. I will say this much for you: you’re a talented little cocktease.”

Erik’s eyelids want to close; he won’t let them. He stares at Mama’s broken body and wishes Shaw would just kill him and get it over with. It’d be done in an instant. Mama didn’t even have time to cry out.

“Omegas are so pleasant at this point,” Shaw continues, still stroking his hands over Erik’s prone body, his cock twitching inside Erik. “You probably don’t even know what’s going on, do you? You’re just a sleepy little lamb, rendered helpless by my knot. Being knotted makes omegas placid, Erik. It makes them behave, the way they ought to. I knew fucking you would get that rigid neck of yours to bend.” For all that his touch was rough before, it’s sickening how gentle it is now, almost like a reward for being -- Erik can’t, won’t, call it being obedient, not now he knows it’s the knot making him feel this way, making him useless to help himself.

He swears in that moment he’ll never let anyone knot him again. He’ll never be this helpless again.

It seems to take forever, waiting for Shaw to finish him. Erik isn’t sure how long he lays there stretched open and locked together with Shaw, his ass full of cock and semen, Shaw’s shuddering gasps overhead as he continues to come, before Shaw finally grunts and tugs himself free, Erik’s hole screaming in strained agony as the knot finally comes out. Erik senses blood. “There,” Shaw says from behind him, and pats Erik on the ass, a wet slap that makes a slick dribble trickle out of Erik’s loosened ass. “Now perhaps next time someone asks you nicely, you will be more polite.”

Erik can’t even make himself move, too full of self-loathing and shame, but he hears it when Shaw wipes himself off on their sheet, when he tucks himself away with a rustle of fabric, and when the door closes behind him, leaving Erik alone and filthy on the bed, his hole burning and Mama’s body still on the floor where Shaw left her, cooling now against the metal of her wedding ring.

Charles finds him like that later, but Erik doesn’t really remember that part.


*

It feels like hours before Erik senses Charles’ metal moving on the stairs, and he tells himself to get up, off the bed, to at least pretend like he hasn’t spent the past who-knows-how-long curled up here listening for Shaw’s knock on the door.

Charles doesn’t knock, of course; it’s his own home, so he opens it with a key in the latch, the metal clanking around outside and Erik staring at the door from his spot on the bed by the window, watching the brass knob turn. Charles, when he enters, has David tucked in against his shoulder and a paper bag clutched in the same hand as his keys: dinner, no doubt, though probably cold by now after going to retrieve the baby.

“He fell asleep on the way home,” Charles says, setting the bag down on the table and turning toward Erik with David still in his arms. He doesn’t move to pass him over until Erik reaches out, a silent acquiescence.

David’s heavy once Charles settles him against Erik’s chest, and he shifts a little in his sleep, murmuring something indistinct. His eyes are closed: Erik doesn’t have to gaze into those pale irises and pray for the thousandth time they might change, darken to green or deep grey, knowing all the while that they won’t. It’s enough motivation to make Erik unfold himself from the bed and cross the two feet to settle David down in his crib, tucking the tatty little blanket in around his tiny body, David’s fists balling sleepily in the fabric.

“Hey,” Charles says quietly once Erik is just stood looking down at David, coming to stand beside him, not touching but close, anyway. “Come on, let’s go sit down and eat.”

He ushers Erik over towards the table and pulls out a chair for him to sit down, and for once Erik doesn’t even want to snap at him for it; he just sits, and lets Charles plate up some cold chicken and fries in front of him, bring him a glass of water, and sit down beside him, hands hesitating over his own plate, his eyes on Erik’s face.

“Maybe,” Charles says, picking up a fry and toying with it, fingers picking it to pieces, “maybe you shouldn’t work there anymore, if Shaw’s going to be coming in all the time.”

It’s nothing that Erik hasn’t thought himself over the course of the evening. It’s all he’s been thinking, but to hear Charles say it is -- it’s like lighting a pool of gasoline, and Erik glares at Charles furiously, hands balling into fists and his lips peeling back from his teeth as he snaps, “I’m not giving up my job because of him! I won’t let him make me helpless again, Charles, I’m not going to let him take away any more of my independence than he already has, and if you can’t understand that -- ”

“I do,” Charles butts in, his eyebrows flying up towards his hairline. “Erik, I get it, I really do. I’m just worried about you, that’s all. I know -- I know who Shaw is and what he’s done, and I want you to be safe. That’s all I care about. I mean, God, if I’d been there I’d probably have tried to kill him with my bare fists for being anywhere near you.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed by how very alpha that makes you?” Erik says coolly, and immediately regrets it, because he can’t miss the slight tightening to Charles’ expression, a pain Charles tries to hide from him, not entirely succeeding. Erik sighs and holds up a hand to catch the fork that flies into his grasp from the cutlery drawer, stabbing it down at the chicken on his plate -- or what’s left of it, after Charles cut off the part the customers had been eating. “I know, Charles. You’d have done something rash, and stupid, and likely gotten yourself killed in the process. You don’t need to explain to me why you weren’t there to stop him.”

“Don’t I?” Charles says, quietly enough that Erik nearly misses it.

Silence stretches out between them for a moment, long enough Erik could count the heartbeats that fill it. Charles’ gaze is downturned, just the dark fringe of his lashes visible as he drops the shredded fry back down onto his plate. His cheeks are pink-tinged, Charles’ left hand curled into a fist atop the table like he’s holding himself back from saying something else.

“No,” Erik says at last. “You don’t. I know there was nothing you could have done. I might -- “ his voice sounds strange, edged, and Erik clears his throat. “I might not act like it, not all the time, but I do know.”

“If I hadn’t been out at the fights, like Edie begged me not to …” Charles trails off, then swallows, hard, his shoulders tense enough they look like his bones might break if he gets any tighter. “I should have been there, I should have … I don’t know. Maybe it’s stupid of me to think so, but … I just wish I’d been there for you. What kind of a -- a suitor was I, that I wasn’t there when you needed me the most?”

It’s the first time Charles has ever said it out loud -- that he was courting Erik, back then when they were both so naïve and Erik used to pretend not to know, teasing him mercilessly by being mean to Charles when both of them really -- they both --

“It wasn’t your fault,” Erik says, and he reaches out and places his hand over Charles’, squeezing it tight and ignoring the strange fear thrill in his stomach at touching Charles on purpose this way, holding his hand like this, as if they were … something. “I’m not giving up my job, Charles. I’m not.”

Charles gazes at Erik’s hand, and slowly, cautiously, he turns his own hand over so he can wrap his fingers between Erik’s, squeezing back and looking up at Erik with a tentative hope in his eyes, the sort that Erik normally quashes but can’t quite bring himself to crush right now. “I just want you to be safe,” he says. “I know you don’t need me for that, you can look after yourself, but still. Everything in me is saying you shouldn’t go back there.”

“Shaw owns this neighborhood,” Erik says. “He owns everything in this city below 14th Street. If I don’t see him at work, I’ll see him somewhere else. I can’t avoid him.”

And as true as that is, it feels like swallowing a lit coal, burning all the way down. The certainty that sooner or later, Erik will see Shaw again. That eventually there won’t be an easy way to escape, or to hide. And Erik’s power will be no greater weapon against Shaw then than it was a year and a half ago.

“If he wanted to find us, he could. All he’d need to do is give my name to Toad or Pyro; they know where we live. And Logan knows everything. The only reason Shaw doesn’t is because we’ve been lucky.” It’s a truth Erik’s managed not to admit to himself so far, at least not in those words. His grip tightens around Charles’ hand. “We won’t be lucky forever.”

“I’ll graduate Teacher’s College soon,” Charles says after a moment, and though Erik grasps tight enough he can feel Charles’ pulse against his own hand, Charles doesn’t so much as flinch. “When I do, maybe I can get a job teaching somewhere far away. California, maybe. I’ll take you with me.”

The implication, as my wife, goes unspoken. Erik bites down the inside of his cheek, but doesn’t correct him.

“We’ll see,” he says instead, and slowly Erik extracts his hand from Charles’, drawing it away to tuck in his lap out of sight.

“Erik … ” Charles trails off, meeting Erik’s gaze with a look so heartfelt and longing that it makes Erik wish … he doesn’t know what he wishes. “If you never want me that way, that’s okay. It’s not a condition or a requirement for us to stay friends, or whatever it is we are. I would take you with me no matter what, because … well, to me you and David are my family. I love you.”

Erik’s breath catches in his throat, and he can’t keep Charles’ gaze; he looks down at his plate and says, “This must be completely cold now. I can heat it up in the oven.”

“All right,” Charles says quietly, and lets Erik take his plate from him, even though he must be starving, and this will mean waiting at least half an hour -- and all Erik can think of is how Mama used to say that Charles would be the perfect husband, never complaining, just happy to love Erik and let him have his way and accept his scoldings with good grace.

*

One and a half years ago

Charles hears Erik coming, of course. It’s impossible to really sneak up on a telepath, especially when one’s mother is thinking amused thoughts about one sneaking downstairs to spy on the neighbor, and given the way the fire escape creaks if it has any weight on it there’s definitely no chance of stealth. Still, he doesn’t stop what he’s doing. He wants to see what Erik does when he thinks he’s not been spotted.

So Charles keeps the needle moving steadily in his hand, sewing the patch to the knee of his trousers. He’s not the best seamstress in the world by any means, but at least he shouldn’t have a drafty leg any more.

There’s a moment where Erik merely crouches outside the open window, almost out of sight, peering in. His shadow falls on the floor in the rectangle of light from outside, and Charles hears him wondering first what Charles is doing, then -- pleasantly -- admiring Charles’ forearms where his shirtsleeves are rolled up, which is nice, and then looking again at what Charles’ hands are doing, and a sort of outraged amusement replacing the admiration.

“You’re terrible at that,” Erik says.

“I know,” Charles says, and looks up at Erik with a smile, his hands pausing in their work. “But someone has to mend these, and it looks like that person is me. So.” He waggles his finger through the still-open side of the hole. “I’ll do my best to meet your standards.”

Erik’s cheeks flush, and his eyes are dark with something as he swings his legs in through the window, sitting on the ledge. “You’ve got it all puckered and pulled out of shape. Why didn’t you ask Mama to do it for you? You know she would.”

“I have to figure this stuff out for myself eventually,” Charles says, sticking the needle back in the pincushion for the time being and setting the trousers aside to wrinkle on the bed. Erik eyes them dubiously, his mind shying from further thoughts about Charles on beds, what Charles might do on beds.

“One day you’ll have an omega who can do it for you,” Erik says a beat later, “so why bother?”

Charles shrugs one shoulder. “What if my omega doesn’t know how to sew?”

Their gazes meet, Charles pretending not to hear the reflexive words Erik keeps himself from speaking, defensive: I sew. Erik pushes himself off the ledge, feet hitting the floor and rattling the loose floorboard; he doesn’t hesitate the way some omegas would, soft and shy, just strides across the room to where Charles sits and retrieves the trousers from the bed, examining the hole and Charles’ shoddy handiwork with a critical eye.

“You’re right,” Erik says, the needle tugging free of the pincushion, chased by the scissors as Erik unpicks Charles’ stitches, loose thread drifting down to pile up on Charles’ knee. “You’ll never be able to convince any sane omega to marry you. You’d better learn how to do all this now while you still have Mama and I around to teach you.”

Erik’s watching Charles out the corner of his eye, waiting for a reaction, and Charles makes damn sure he doesn’t get one. Erik’s been doing this more and more lately, ever since he figured out Charles’ intentions, poking and prodding at Charles’ affection like he expects Charles to take it away under enough duress.

“I am your humble student,” Charles says, as if entirely unconcerned by Erik’s disapproval, and pats the bed beside himself for Erik to sit down -- he might or might not, it depends how naughty Erik is feeling today, whether he’ll insist on propriety or take the opportunity as presented.

Erik gives Charles a long, wary look before he sits, a decorous few inches between them as he rethreads the needle.

“I won’t be able to see what you’re doing if you’re all the way over there,” Charles says.

“I’m not going to sit in your lap, Charles,” Erik says snippily, but he does move closer, his mind all thoughts on how close is too close, whether he can feel Charles’ body heat, the scent of him, alpha so near to Erik’s omega, whether their scents might mingle sitting this near and people might misunderstand and make assumptions. Charles doesn’t say anything, just leans towards Erik with his hand on the mattress behind him, so they’re as close as they can get without true impropriety.

Erik smells delicious, a warm, sweet sort of scent -- untouched and virginal but aroused by Charles’ closeness. Charles wants to bury his face in the crook of Erik’s neck and breathe him in, but not only would that be massively inappropriate, he has to keep reminding himself -- Erik is only fifteen. Even if Edie does let him marry Charles, it won’t be for at least a year yet.

“You have to make sure you don’t stretch the fabric out of shape,” Erik says, his voice a little strained as he lays out the patch again and pins it in place, smoothing it down with his fingers and glancing sidelong at Charles. “Otherwise it’ll be all lumpy.”

“Show me,” Charles says, and Erik does, his slim nimble fingers stitching up the tear in Charles’ pants, his power manipulating the needle through the underside of the fabric to make the task go more quickly.

Upstairs, Edie is not at all concerned about Erik down here alone with Charles in Charles’ apartment, taking far longer than necessary to retrieve a cup of flour. It’s quite clear from where Charles sits that she sent Erik down here on purpose, just for this reason: hoping they might end up spending time together without supervision. That maybe Charles might kiss Erik, and Erik might let him, and she’ll see Erik return up the fire escape with red cheeks to hide himself away in the corner for the rest of the night writing those letters to Charles she knows he keeps in a box under the bed and never sends. That Erik might stop insisting he doesn’t care a thing for Charles, and admit what they all know is perfectly true: that Erik has a soft streak for Charles a mile wide.

It’s a lovely thought, and Charles is far more distracted now by Erik’s mouth than by his hands, the soft curve of his lower lip, imagining what it might be like to touch him there, feel Erik’s breath against the pad of his thumb.

“I know you’ve heard about Mr Shaw,” Erik says, and Charles startles a little; he’d been so focused on Erik’s mouth that he hadn’t realized the direction of Erik’s thoughts, but now they arrest him mid-fantasy, his gaze flicking up again to meet Erik’s -- or would, if Erik wasn’t so determinedly looking down at his sewing. “What have people been saying about me?”

This is … well, this is rather more serious than Charles was expecting. “Nobody thinks you’re encouraging him,” he says, carefully, since he’s well aware Erik has been worrying about that, about people thinking he’s a slut, that he’s let Shaw … the thought of it makes Charles feel overwarm with jealousy, though he knows Erik doesn’t want Shaw at all. “I’ve heard one or two people saying you should try harder to avoid him, but most people know it’s not really an option.” Charles included -- if he could go and meet Erik at school every day himself he would, would walk him home and follow him up, make sure he got to his door safely every time -- but he would lose his afternoon work, and he can’t afford to lose that much money.

For now, Shaw hasn’t done anything, and if that ever changes, if it ever looks like changing, Charles will live on the street if he has to to keep Erik safe. Still. He feels like a failure that money is even a consideration, even though Erik himself would tell him not to be an idiot if he suggested quitting his job.

Erik’s mouth tightens, and Charles wishes more than anything that he could wipe away these fears, that he could make this all better for Erik, erase it and keep him safe. “Hey,” he murmurs, and waits until Erik looks at him, their faces very close, before he says, “It’s going to be okay. If he tries anything, let me know and I’ll fight him for you.”

There’s a pause in which Charles can hear Erik trying to decide what to say -- his mouth wants to smile but what he finally replies is, “Don’t get so bigheaded. You’re not my alpha,” and he jostles Charles with his shoulder, half a shove.

“Is that so?” Charles asks, and manages not to smile either, putting on a rejected expression. “Well then. I guess I’ll have to ask Lacey if she wants to come to the movies with me tomorrow instead -- ”

No,” Erik bursts out, the needle dropping from its position in the air to dangle on its thread, and his hand snatches at the sleeve of Charles’ shirt as if to hold him in place. There’s a cloud of embarrassment around him even as he realizes what he’s done, but he doesn’t let go, just glares at Charles as if he’s done him a grievous wrong, and says, again, “No.”

“Oh?” Charles asks, enjoying this a little too much, probably, for a nice boy. “Why not?”

“Because you like me best, that’s why not,” Erik says, valiantly refusing to look away, never mind the color high in his cheeks. He looks fierce and beautiful, and Charles would say he’s never wanted him so badly, only he has -- every minute, ever since he first laid eyes on him. Always will.

“But you said it yourself, I’m not your alpha. I thought, perhaps, if my efforts are better spent elsewhere ....?”

Erik makes a face like he’s seriously considering slapping Charles, eyes glittering with something indefinable in the lamplight, and Charles senses the decision in his mind a split second before Erik moves, leaning forward to slip his hand into Charles’ hair, curving round the nape of his neck and pulling Charles down to meet him as he kisses him firmly on the lips.

This close, Erik’s scent is intensified thousandfold, and his mouth tastes just the way he smells, perfect and incredibly arousing. For someone who’s never been kissed before, Erik isn’t at all shy -- his fingers are all tangled up in Charles’ hair, his teeth catching Charles’ lower lip as Erik leans in closer, taking what he wants. And there’s nothing for Charles to do but kiss him back, helpless, happier in this moment than he’s ever been.

He lifts a hand to cup the side of Erik’s face as he presses back against his mouth, careful not to move the rest of his body -- he doesn’t want to scare Erik off, but he wants more and more and more of this, and he lets out a soft little growl against Erik’s lips as he nips Erik in return, his free hand coming to rest on Erik’s shoulder near his throat so he can stroke his thumb over Erik’s pulse and the scent point there, pressing down over it to make Erik gasp.

Erik’s thoughts are all jumbled up, wondering what to do, caught in the moment, heat and excitement and nervousness all at once, pleasure at being so close to Charles at last; he tugs on Charles’ hair, trying to keep control, and when Charles groans he feels Erik’s thrill at getting that sound from him, the way it arouses Erik, his cock stirring between his legs.

When the kiss breaks Charles leans his forehead against Erik’s and just breathes, staring at Erik’s dilated pupils and flushed cheeks, and says, “Are you sure I like you best?”

“You’d better,” Erik says indignantly, and pulls Charles’ hair again where it’s still caught in his fist, jerking Charles’ head back. “Don’t be an asshole.”

Charles laughs, warmth swelling in his chest, something pure and unsullied, a childlike sort of giddiness he hasn’t been able to feel since before his mother’s driver left him here. “And what about you?” he says. “Does this mean you like me best, too?”

Erik sniffs. “I haven’t decided yet. It certainly doesn’t mean I have feelings for you, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Of course not,” Charles says dryly, “I would never try to presume something like that from such meager evidence,” which earns him another glare, though when he can tell Erik’s thinking about how much he wants to kiss Charles again it has less effect than Erik might be aiming for.

“Less talking,” Erik says, and Charles leans in to press his lips to Erik’s, hard, until neither of them is thinking in words any more, and it feels like the beginning of something big, and real, a future Charles can feel unfolding from this moment until he can’t imagine anything but happiness existing from now on.

As with most good things in Charles’ life, it lasts about a week.

*

Chapter Text

Erik starts coming to Charles’ fights.

Not all of them -- not even most of them. And never with Charles; from time to time he’ll recognize Erik’s mind in the crowd, see him standing outside the ring, watching, his thoughts circling Charles, drawn to him even in the midst of hundreds of others. Erik hates fighting. Not the violence of it, but the bureaucracy: the fact this is Shaw’s club and Shaw’s bookie and Shaw’s tax. So he comes for the same reason he did when they were younger: to watch Charles.

It’s a heady feeling, the first time Charles realizes Erik’s watching him, staring at his bare skin and body in the ring and wondering if Charles would look the same in bed: flushed and sweaty and firm. Wanting to be the one to finally put Charles down and hold him there, climbing over him to straddle his hips, the final victor. At home, though, Erik is as aloof and standoffish as ever, particularly on days when he’s come to the club. It’s almost as if Erik thinks he can balance out lust with scorn, that if he shows enough of the latter it’ll make up for secretly indulging in the former.

Charles knows that sometimes Erik looks at him at night, his eyes tracing the shape of Charles’ body even though he never dares touch. It’s a strange, push-pull, two-steps-closer sort of situation, one that Charles can’t influence for the better, only for the worse -- if he did anything about it Erik would back off, throw it all over and leave Charles behind for the sake of his pride.

So Charles keeps going as he has been -- not pushing, not showing off or trying to make Erik act, because he knows full well that’s the best way to make Erik dig his heels in and do the opposite, no matter what he really wants. Charles goes to work and brings home food from the diner when he can, sleeps next to Erik without touching him except for when Erik rolls in closer in his sleep, and does his schoolwork in the evenings at the kitchen table while Erik plays with David, who has recently learned to pull himself up to standing when there’s anything nearby he can grab hold of. He’s so much more mobile now, interested in the world around him and everything in it, and if Charles had been asked two years ago if he was ever going to love anyone as much as he loves Erik he would have said no, never. But it’s not true any more, even if it’s not the same kind of love that he feels for David. Not at all.

As much as he knows Erik thinks him useless at household chores, Charles still does his best to pull his weight in the apartment so Erik doesn’t feel like his wife, and so one Sunday afternoon Charles grabs the bucket they use for laundry and sets himself up in the kitchen to wash, filling the kettle and setting it on the stove to heat. Erik and David are sat on the floor, playing with a wooden ball a little further over; Charles watches them for a moment before interrupting to ask, “Do you have anything you want me to clean?”

Erik glances up at him. At first he meets Charles’ gaze, but after a moment his eyes flicker down to Charles’ bared forearms, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and Charles feels the pulse of attraction run through Erik before he pushes it down and looks back up at Charles’ face. “I can do my own laundry,” he says, thinking about Charles washing his underwear and flushing a little at the thought.

“I know,” Charles says. “It just seemed easier.”

But it’s clear after a moment that Erik doesn’t intend to change his mind, so Charles gathers his own dirty clothes from the hamper and dumps them into the bucket along with the hot water, then lastly peels off the shirt he’s wearing and pushes it beneath the sudsy surface as well. He keeps his undershirt on, not because it doesn’t need cleaning but because he knows too well how Erik might react to Charles wandering around the apartment entirely bare-chested. Even so, it’s hot, laborious work, and sweat beads at the back of Charles’ neck before he’s even finished scrubbing the first pair of trousers. As winter fades into spring, the tenements trap heat inside, and the steam rising up from the washtub doesn’t help much either. Charles’ hands go raw quickly, his skin drawn taut over his knuckles and the smell of lye overwhelming that of dinner from an hour earlier.

After a while he feels Erik’s eyes on him again. It’s unmistakable, the heat of that gaze, and Charles is suddenly very aware of the way he looks through Erik’s eyes: the tension in his shoulders as he scrubs at one of the shirts, the lines of his body, the way sweat and steam plaster a few stray curls of hair against his temples. It’s like being at one of Charles’ fights, Erik’s thinking, only better, because now Charles is here in their apartment and there’s no other alpha Erik has to imagine out of the way. Like this it’s easy to picture himself walking over to where Charles sits and smoothing his hands down Charles’ spine, feeling out the muscle of him, then -- Erik’s mind skips over this part, but he imagines letting Charles prove in every way just how much he wants Erik to be his, and there’s a rush of heat in Erik’s mind that has nothing to do with the steam from the laundry.

Speaking would break the spell, so Charles doesn’t say anything; he just keeps scrubbing away, his tensed hands making the veins pop on his forearms. Erik’s mind is increasingly occupied with them, with the thought of seeing if he could fight Charles to a standstill, and when Charles reaches for the next shirt his vest rides up a little, baring the skin at the small of his back. Behind him the ball clatters uncaught against the leg of the dresser, and David lets out a wordless cry of protest at the loss of his mother’s attention, a squeal of indignation that startles Erik out of his distraction.

“I’m sorry, schatz,” Erik says, grabbing the ball back and rolling it over to David as Charles turns back towards them, smiling at them both as if he hadn’t heard any of it. Instead he looks back down at the bucket, rearranging the washboard, and starts to soap up the next item, which turns out to be a pair of his own undershorts. Perhaps it’s mean, to tease Erik like this, but Charles can’t help it -- he starts to hum as he works, scrubbing the fabric up and down the metal board and shifting up onto his knees, thighs spread to hold the bucket stable between them, making his pants fabric pull tight.

He wipes the back of his wrist over his brow to get at some of the prickling sweat, and water drips off his fingers onto his undershirt, sticking it to his chest.

“You’re doing it all wrong, you know,” Erik says suddenly, a burst of determination crying out from his mind, and Charles looks up just as Erik gets to his feet, handing David the ball to hold and crossing the few feet between them. He kneels down beside Charles close enough that Erik’s body heat warms Charles’ bare arm, then reaches out and wraps his hand over the top of Charles’ where he’s grasping the cotton of his underwear. Looking Charles in the eye boldly, not wavering at all, Erik starts a hard, rough rhythm with his hand, rasping the fabric over the washboard and splashing water over their joined grips, sloshing over the side of the bucket and wetting their knees, too, spattering his shirt. “You have to do it like this,” he says, holding Charles’ gaze, and before he can stop himself Charles leans forward the few centimeters between them and kisses him.

Erik’s mouth is a startled ‘o’ against Charles’, warm and open -- his hand stops in the bucket, gripping tightly around Charles’, and his breath shudders against Charles’ lips, a flare of anxiety rushing through his mind. It’s like being doused in ice water, and it’s that that makes Charles pull back, horrified and kicking himself for having done something so stupid as to kiss Erik, to push things over that line. “I’m so-- ” he starts, but Erik looks away before Charles can finish, color rising in his cheeks. The word sorry dies unspoken in his throat and Charles’ heart wilts and withers inside him as Erik stands up, hands dripping hot water all over Charles’ wrists and the floorboards.

“Komm her, David,” Erik says to his child, his voice taut and edged as he turns his back to Charles.

Charles has no choice, then, but to finish up the laundry with shame and regret burning a hole in his stomach, nausea eating its way into his bones as he watches Erik with David, Charles scrubbing his own knuckles raw.

He never should have done that. He’s a fucking idiot, is what he is, for letting himself pretend that Erik’s attraction meant anything more than physical reactance, that Erik might actually want from Charles something Charles knows perfectly well still wakes Erik in the middle of the night, sweaty and shaking from memory. If ever there might have been a chance of Erik loving Charles back, of him wanting him again the way he used to before Shaw happened, Charles has now effectively ruined it for good. He curses himself as he scrubs his way through his two shirts and all his socks, all of them holey and in need of repair; if he weren’t so damned impulsive, he thinks as he squeezes the water out of everything by hand, twisting and squeezing at the fabric, then maybe Erik would have kissed him, instead of Charles ruining it all.

On the other side of the room Erik’s mind is churning, feelings turning over too quickly to follow, upset and surprise and strange satisfaction and annoyance all roiling over one another until Charles shuts them out, closing down his mind with a quiet sigh. He’d rather not hear it, anyway, he thinks, and wrings out his best shirt over the bucket.

They keep a box of wooden pegs in the cabinet under the sink, and when he’s done wringing Charles sets at last to hanging everything from the clothesline he’s zigzagged across the room, the old twine tied to the pipes, the cabinet handles, and a couple of nails held in the thin plaster more by hope than anything else. He hears the ball rolling across the floor, hears Erik murmuring to David, and concentrates instead hanging things up, shaking out a pair of trousers and pegging them by the ankles to sway gently from the line.

Charles is hanging up a woolen blanket -- it’ll take ages to dry, he knows, but it was starting to smell -- when he hears the ball roll roll roll -- then keep rolling instead of stopping, until it knocks against something else with a quiet thunk. David makes a questioning sound, and Charles -- he barely has time to react, but he hears footsteps on the other side of the blanket, and then Erik sweeps it aside with one hand, eyes narrowed and glaring at him with cheeks flushing red.

“Shut up,” he snaps, and his other hand flies up to take hold of Charles’ hair, curling his grip tightly into it as he kisses Charles on the mouth.

For a second, that’s all it is: Erik’s lips pressed against Charles’, Erik’s hand keeping him there, and Erik’s so stunned with himself Charles is sure he’s going to pull back -- that he’ll never speak to Charles again, never look at him again, that despite the fact Erik has decided to do this it’ll be both the beginning and the end, that this is it. Only Erik doesn’t pull back. There’s a sharp surge of fear, and then that ebbs away, and Erik’s lips soften slightly a split second before he leans back enough to look Charles in the eye, not stepping away, still thoroughly in Charles’ space. The look he’s giving Charles dares him to say something about it, narrow eyes dark-pupiled, Erik’s hand grasping the front of Charles’ shirt and wrinkling it in his fist.

“Quiet, Charles,” Erik says, even though Charles hasn’t said a word, and he pushes Charles back enough that he can step forward past the blanket and let it fall to hide them from David, the two of them caught between the soapy-scented layers of laundry as Erik leans in again.

When Erik kisses him this time it’s only a little softer, his body still tight with tension as he leans in against Charles’ chest -- Charles dares to settle his hands just above Erik’s hips, light enough that Erik could knock them away if he wanted. He can’t quite understand what’s going on, what this means -- to have Erik’s warm weight in his arms, Erik’s taste on his tongue, Erik combing his fingers back through Charles’ hair so his thumb brushes the collar of Charles’ shirt.

Charles feels like the floor has opened up beneath him. He’s free-falling, dizzy stars exploding overhead as Erik parts his lips and lets Charles keep kissing him, keep touching him. Not giving him any choice: Erik’s grasp on Charles’ undershirt is tight enough that if Charles tried to pull away, the fabric would rip.

Carefully Charles lifts one arm to wrap it around Erik’s back, crossing diagonally up towards his shoulder blade so he can hold him closer, tighter; Erik shudders against him but doesn’t push him away, and Charles tugs Erik’s lower lip between his own, doesn’t dare use teeth. He won’t do anything to scare him away from this, from Erik’s body leaned in against Charles’ and Charles’ hips awkwardly canted away so Erik won’t feel that he’s already half-hard, just from a kiss. It’s what he’s wanted for so long that it feels utterly surreal, dreamlike and hazy.

Charles breaks the kiss with a soft gasp, keeping his hands on Erik and holding him close, suddenly afraid that Erik might escape if he lets go. “Okay?” he asks.

“I said no talking,” Erik says sharply, but it’s not really a scold. His fingers loosen in Charles’ hair, stroking it back from his temples where it’s damp with steam from the washing bucket, his breath warm and moist against Charles’ face. “I don’t want to talk this to death.”

If that’s what Erik needs to make this okay, to make this feel safe, then Charles can do that. Charles knows enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth. “All right,” he says quietly, and tilts forward to press his mouth to the corner of Erik’s, then his chin, then works his way along Erik’s jaw, softly, hoping Erik can interpret without words just how ardently Charles loves him, how gentle he can be, if Erik will let him. He reaches Erik’s ear and lips at the lobe, earning a shuddering exhalation from Erik that ends in Erik stepping in closer and his foot knocking against the bucket on the floor, threatening to spill it.

“I should move that,” Charles murmurs, but before he can the bucket moves on its own -- or, rather, Erik moves it, sliding it away across the floorboards.

“Mama. Mama.”

It’s startling to be interrupted; Charles has been so focused on Erik, on this between them, that he jerks in surprise when David speaks, then feels ashamed for having forgotten the baby so completely. It’s nothing however to how Erik feels, embarrassment running through him as he pulls back from Charles -- not entirely, but enough that they’re no longer practically entangled, and pushes aside the blanket as they both turn to look at David, who is pouting furiously at being ignored.

Erik turns and pushes past the hanging blanket without a word, crossing the two brief steps to the other side of the room to scoop David up into his arms, murmuring something to him in Yiddish. When Charles steps to the side to see around the blanket Erik has his back to Charles, a clear sign if any that he regrets what happened -- but then he glances at Charles over his shoulder, and the pulse of want that throbs through Erik’s mind says otherwise.

Things are quiet for a while after that. They don’t go back to kissing, even when Erik puts David down for his nap -- but there’s an electricity in the air that wasn’t there before, a mutual knowing that Charles sees in Erik’s eyes as much as feels in his gut, an animal awareness of each other’s bodies that beats hard in his heart, impossible to ignore. Dinner is a strange affair, Erik and Charles sitting at their usual opposite ends of the table with David’s high chair between them.

Charles can’t stop staring at Erik’s mouth: the mouth he was kissing just two hours ago. He stares, too, at Erik’s hands, which touched Charles’ body so passionately; even Erik’s mind is a new-found, low roil of desire, carefully-restrained and tangled up with old anxieties which rise and fall in countermelody. When Charles passes Erik the salt, Erik’s fingers brush Charles’ wrist, and their eyes meet, a thread drawing taut between them that only snaps when Erik looks away to season his soup.

Charles knows what he wants. For a long time he refused to let himself even imagine it, so sure it was an impossibility that even daydreaming about it was a form of self-torture. Now, though … now he can at least entertain the possibility, even if he can tell Erik himself hasn’t decided what he wants. How much he’s willing to give, and ask for.

It’s almost impossible to think about anything else, so to distract himself Charles cleans the table after dinner, too, pausing to take Erik’s plate and resting his hand on Erik’s shoulder; when Erik turns his face towards it Charles tips his arm in so his forearm presses against Erik’s cheek, brushing against the stubble there, the rasp of it arousing as it rubs against his skin. When he has to step away to put the plates in the sink he hears the almost-silent sound of Erik breathing out, heavier than usual, and if Erik steps rather closer than he would usually when moving past Charles to go out to the washroom -- his body glancing across Charles’, barely a touch save that Erik has never stood so close -- Charles can’t blame himself for closing his eyes, a shiver running down his spine that is unstifled by David knocking his cup over with a squawk.

Three long hours follow that one, crawling past like glaciers across continents, before it’s finally time for bed, to lay down beside one another and … something. Charles isn’t sure how he survives it without self-combusting, catching Erik’s eyes on him every few minutes, being caught himself, each of them unsure of whether they should be pretending not to be looking. And yet somehow he makes it -- and it’s worse than before, because now Charles comes back from the washroom in his pyjamas to find Erik already in bed, a book in his hands that he’s not reading, and Charles has to walk slowly across the room, rounding the bottom of the mattress, to climb in on the other side, pulling back the covers and sliding between the sheets beside Erik, into a space pre-warmed by Erik’s body.

“Hey,” he says, finally, for want of anything better to say. What is there to say?

Erik tilts the book down against his thighs, and when the cover falls shut and loses his place, he doesn’t seem to care. “Is David asleep?” he asks.

Charles nods. Anticipation simmers in his stomach, both hoping and not daring to hope. Erik’s thumb catches a loose thread on the quilt and loops it around his knuckle, skin going white then red as he cuts off the circulation.

It’s a long moment before Erik speaks -- or at least it seems that way, though in truth it may have only been a second. “After everything happened,” he says, “I thought you wouldn’t want me anymore.”

“That isn’t true.” Charles isn’t sure if Erik wants him to reply, but he can’t let something like that go without a response. Not without correcting it. “That would never be true.”

Erik gives him a strange sort of crooked half-smile, one that seems to suggest he thinks Charles is wrong, or naïve -- that there might be some way in which what Shaw did could justify Charles turning away from him. As if Erik’s virginity were the only thing any alpha might care about. He releases the string, his finger flushing pink as blood rushes back to its tip.

“Perhaps not,” Erik says, and curls that hand into a fist instead.

“Besides,” Charles says, reaching out to put his hand over Erik’s, far too aware that it’s high on Erik’s thigh, “you have to have had some idea in the past year of how I feel about you. Otherwise you wouldn’t have kept giving me such a hard time.”

That earns him a sharp sidelong glance, half-smile and half-warning.

After a long silence Erik finally says, “You kept coming back, though.” Under Charles’ palm Erik’s hand turns, until he laces his fingers together with Charles’, squeezing tightly -- this time without the excuse of laundry in the way. “And I … I’m glad you did.” Erik’s thoughts are full of trepidation, wavering between anxiety and determination -- but there’s want under that as well, and that doesn’t falter, the desire to be closer, to stop being afraid.

“You can have whatever you want.” Charles leans nearer, not quite bridging the gap between them. “I love you. In any way that makes you happy. If that means we never get further than this -- it’ll be hard, I won’t pretend it won’t, but if it means we’re together then I don’t care if it’s difficult. I want you in my life more than I want sex. You and David both.” His heart thrums in his chest, like a hummingbird caught in a cage. “I’ve loved you ever since I first saw you, and nothing’s going to change that.”

Erik kisses him this time. It’s softer now, Erik’s lips moving against Charles’ as his hand slides from beneath Charles’ to smooth up Charles’ thigh instead, hidden under the sheets where neither of them can see it. Charles’ breath shudders in his chest -- it might not be much, but it’s more than he’s ever had from Erik before, more than he ever thought he could have. His skin feels overly warm beneath Erik’s hand, even with the fabric between them, feverish everywhere that Erik touches.

Charles’ breath shakes, and he leans into the kiss, trying to be -- slow, and gentle, not to push even though he’s so keyed up he feels like he could jitter right out of his skin. Erik’s mouth is soft and a little chapped but unmistakably Erik’s mouth, and Charles lifts his hand to touch his fingertips to the side of Erik’s face, not holding him there but just … touching him, as Charles parts his lips to very carefully suck on Erik’s lower lip. His heart is pounding fit to burst in his chest. Erik kissed him. Erik is kissing him, sweet and tentative, but enough to make Charles both want to sing, and afraid of fucking it up and driving Erik away again.

Slowly Charles cups his hand around the side of Erik’s face, letting his palm come to rest properly against Erik’s cheek; he presses a little further, tilting for a better angle as he licks at Erik’s lips, trying to encourage them to part. Erik is warm and here and he smells good, intoxicating. Charles wants to touch him all over, taste every part of him. When Erik’s tongue comes to meet Charles’, a soft, testing contact, Charles sighs and tilts his head further, deepening the kiss. His free hand he lets come to rest back at Erik’s waist, and he grips him there, tugging to encourage Erik to turn onto his side to face Charles properly so they can get closer.

Erik goes with it, turning with Charles’ hand and reaching for Charles in turn, his hand on Charles’ waist -- the moan that startles out of him when Charles shifts closer goes straight to Charles’ dick, his blood running south, and he wraps his arm fully around Erik’s hips to pull him bodily in, until they’re pressed together from chest to groin and he can feel the heat between Erik’s legs meeting his own, hardening in his pyjama pants.

“Tell me to stop if you need me to,” Charles murmurs between kisses, though his whole body buzzes with it now, the need to be closer and closer still to Erik.

Erik makes a hmphing sort of sound, the flat of his hand pressed to Charles’ back where he’s sweating through his shirt. “I’m fine,” he says, despite the fact both of them can feel the tremor running through him, the knee-jerk impulse to pull back. His fingers pluck at the cotton of Charles’ pyjamas, his eyes meeting Charles’ and refusing to look away. “Take this off.”

God. Something so simple should not make Charles’ dick twitch, but the tone of Erik’s voice … Charles immediately leans back enough to get some room and reaches for the hem of his shirt, dragging it up and over his head and tossing it away onto the floor. Erik’s hands reach for him again, less tentatively than his mind would suggest, warm fingertips ten points of heat that skim Charles’ flesh and leave fire burning in their wake.

For a long few seconds they just breathe there together, Erik’s gaze on his own hand against Charles’ skin, as if the sight of it alone is arresting; Charles leans his forehead forward, against Erik’s, and just … breathes, achingly hard and wanting, so badly … but he has to be calm, be safe, let Erik set the pace.

“I love you,” he says quietly, opening his eyes and looking at Erik, so close, at his gingery eyelashes and the stubborn shape of his chin. “I … I’ve wanted this, for a long time, and … I don’t want to scare you away. You have to tell me what you want. I don’t want to push you.” He glances down at the open V of Erik’s collar, the flash of collarbone under the shirt, pale and secret, alluring in its simplicity. He’s achingly hard, and Erik must know it, too, for all Erik’s gaze too obviously skirts away from Charles’ lap, like he’s afraid to look.

“It’s okay,” Erik says. His voice is hoarse, as if he hasn’t spoken in years. One hand slips down to rest on Charles’ hip, light enough he’s barely touching him at all.

Charles stays very still for a long moment, then he moves, pressing closed lips to the corner of Erik’s mouth, to his cheek, the corner of his eye; then, slowly enough for Erik to stop him if he doesn’t want him to, Charles kisses the lobe of Erik’s ear, before tucking his face into the side of Erik’s neck and inhaling deeply, scenting him properly. Erik smells amazing, like that sweet-laced omega scent and spice and musk and sex, like desire; Charles rumbles deep in his throat and inhales again, pressing a kiss to the skin there, over Erik’s pulse.

A soft sound escapes Erik’s lips, the hand on Charles’ hip suddenly finding its confidence -- sort of -- as his thumb hooks against the elastic waist of Charles’ bottoms, his fingers pressing more surely against Charles’ body. Charles’ mental sense of him is dizzy and disjointed, Erik’s mind as frazzled with Charles’ scent as Charles feels himself, set adrift on the ocean during a storm. Charles’ lips skirt a constellation of Erik’s freckles, watching them disappear beneath his mouth, then reappear.

“I can take these off as well, if you like,” Charles says against Erik’s skin. Even though he probably ought to be cold he’s hot all over, prickling with sensation. Charles has nothing to be shy about in nudity -- he’s muscled from the construction work, of course, scarred in places where he’s hurt himself or been hurt in fights, far rougher in appearance than he’d ever expected to end up as a child. But this way Erik can look and feel in control, still fully dressed himself where Charles would be vulnerable, bared to his gaze. “You can inspect the goods.”

Erik snorts and shifts, pulling back a little -- Charles lets him go, but he doesn’t go far, just enough to be able to look at Charles properly. “Do it,” Erik says, husky, his eyes intent on Charles’ chest.

“All right,” Charles says, and takes his hands from Erik’s body to put them at his own waist, then rolls onto his back so he can push his pants down over his hips, lifting his ass from the bed to slide them off his thighs.

Erik’s eyes follow as if entranced, the weight of his gaze making Charles’ cock twitch again where it’s standing proud between his legs, the darker skin at the bottom where his knot sits already noticeable, ready to swell; Charles stays where he is rather than coming back to Erik -- lets him look, watching Erik’s gaze flick around and over his cock, neither able to settle on it, now it’s exposed, nor look away, his thoughts in conflict over it, warring with his own reactions.

“I know I’m a bit beaten up around the edges,” Charles says to break the tension, his voice quiet and soft as he runs a hand down his own chest, stroking his own skin, half display, “but I figure you don’t usually mind a little wear and tear if the bones of a thing are good.”

A pause, while Erik decides whether or not to push forward, that feeling back again where he might go either way, rocking between feet on either side of the line he’d set for himself, the line between him and Charles. Then, finally, Erik says, “Let me see,” and holds out a hand, beckoning for Charles to move closer again. Charles hardly hesitates; he shuffles near enough for Erik to touch him again, Erik’s hands on him light but hot -- it’s like every part of him is on high alert, like he can feel every molecule that touches, every millimetre of Erik’s fingertips on him.

“You can touch me wherever you like,” Charles says, voice low and throaty.

Erik kisses him again. Every time he does, there’s less fear and more surety, and Charles can hear Erik thinking about how long he’s been wanting to do this. How many times he lay awake at night and imagined it, imagined Charles’ skin soft and supple beneath his hands, how the weight of Charles’ body might feel against his chest. Erik’s fingers curl around one of Charles’ wrists, and Charles’ breath catches in his throat when Erik lifts it to press Charles’ hand against the collar of his own shirt. When he feels the button pop out against his own thumb as Erik’s power nudges it through its hole, it’s an obvious invitation, one that sends a hot rush through Charles from head to toe, almost impossible to suppress.

His fingers clumsy and wrinkling the fabric, Charles goes for the next button, simultaneously wanting to rush and to keep himself slow; he watches as the fabric starts to fall away, exposing gold skin, and even before -- even before everything happened, Charles had never seen even this much of Erik. Never seen the lines of his collarbones, or the flush of Erik’s nipples, the flat plane of his stomach trembling beneath Charles’ touch, every part of him perfect. “You’re beautiful,” Charles says, and means it more than he’s ever meant anything.

Erik doesn’t seem to know what to say to that; he lets out a quaking breath, working up his courage, then draws his hands back from Charles’ body to pull his shirt the rest of the way off, dropping it off the side of the bed. He reaches for one of Charles’ wrists and tugs his hand forward to press it against his own chest, his warmth, and Charles’ hand splays over Erik’s nipple, his gaze caught on his own fingers touching Erik as he strokes down over Erik’s skin, soft and supple, down his side and up again. He brings up his other hand so he can frame Erik’s chest and mirror the motion, and rubs the flats of his palms over Erik’s nipples, knowing many omegas are sensitive there, wondering if feeding David made it more so or less.

When Erik sighs, shifting against the bed, Charles smiles, then ducks his head and draws the right nipple into his mouth, sucking on it gently and tugging at it with his lips.

“Ohhh … ” A hand comes to rest on the back of Charles’ head, and he can feel that the shiver that runs through Erik now is different than the ones before -- not fear, but pleasure. “That’s … ”

“Good?” Charles asks, smiling as he breathes the word over Erik’s dampened skin; his nipple contracts, tightening in the cooler air, and Charles leans over to do the same to the left, suckling at it and grazing it with his teeth.

“Good,” Erik agrees, sounding surprised; of course nobody but David has ever done this to him, Charles thinks, and that was entirely different from this, having an alpha using his nipples to give Erik pleasure. His hands smooth down Erik’s sides to toy with the waistband of his pants, still hidden under the covers. Perhaps …

“There are other things I can do with my mouth,” Charles says, coming away from Erik’s nipple and pressing a kiss to his sternum before lifting his head to look up at his face, his cheeks flushed and his eyes dark.

Erik’s expression looks dubious, but when Charles nudges a hand against Erik’s chest he goes down all the same, tilting back against the pillows and reaching for Charles to pull him closer when Charles straddles Erik’s hips, kissing his temple. Like this, Charles can tell Erik is only half-hard, but even that feels like an accomplishment. Charles rocks his ass down against Erik’s cock and slips the tips of his fingers beneath the waistband of Erik’s pyjama pants. His skin there is smooth, warm, virtually untouched.

May I take these off? Charles asks telepathically so he can keep his mouth where it is, exploring the line of Erik’s cheekbone, kissing down toward his lips. There’s a moment of anxious trepidation before Erik nods, but a confused surge of desire as well, tumbling through Erik’s mind and into Charles’ own, sinking like heat into his groin.

Charles sits back over Erik, looking down at him, breathless, flushed, and reaches for the drawstring of Erik’s drawers, slipping it free with slow deliberation, his breath catching in his throat because -- this, this -- this is so far beyond his expectations that he might die before he manages it. When the string is loose he takes hold of the waistband and pulls Erik’s pants down his thighs along with his underwear, peeling them off to reveal long, lean thighs, and between them, nestled there, Erik’s cock, firm and perhaps three-quarters of the way hard now -- big, long and thick.

“Oh, Erik,” Charles breathes, and finishes taking off Erik’s pants only to just … stare at him, naked and gorgeous and laid out on their bed, all of him visible, nothing left to hide.

“Don’t stare,” Erik says, tensing now though he tries to hide it; his hands are still touching Charles, stroking over his shoulders and down his chest, exploring his body with nervous fingers.

“Of course I’m going to stare.” Charles smiles at him, still mesmerized by Erik’s body, the smoothness of his skin and that beautiful cock of his, and beneath that, hidden … “You don’t have to be embarrassed. Let me show you something? I promise it’ll be good,” and he lays his hands on Erik’s thighs, pressing against them to encourage them to spread.

For a moment he doesn’t think Erik will do it -- there’s a second where Erik’s panic is louder than his arousal, and Charles is about to pull back when suddenly Erik shifts and, swallowing hard, spreads his legs, his body propped up against the pillows and his back arched a little, thighs wide. It means Charles can see so much more than before, and the scent of him … God. Open like this Erik’s scent is twice as strong, the musky wetness of his arousal thick in the air between them as Charles stares at the dark cleft between Erik’s buttocks, a jolt of lust running through him from head to toe.

“So what is it?” Erik asks, his hands falling to the sheets to curl into them there.

“You’ll find out,” Charles says, and lays down on his belly between Erik’s legs, his arms curling around Erik’s thighs to hold them up and wide as he presses a sucking kiss to the base of Erik’s dick.

The sound Erik makes is deep and throaty; he jerks against Charles’ mouth and moans when Charles licks up his length, shock and pleasure warring for dominance in his mind. “What’s this for?” he asks, sounding a bit breathless.

Charles just looks up at him, and kisses the tip of Erik’s dick. “To make you feel good,” he says, and takes it into his mouth.

Erik gasps, and Charles watches his hands twist fistfuls of the bed sheets out of the corner of his eye, his cock slowly hardening the rest of the way in Charles’ mouth. But surprised as Erik might be, it doesn’t last long -- he relaxes back against the bed easily enough, letting Charles push his mouth further down Erik’s length and smooth his palms up his stomach, feeling the blood pulse through the veins below his hip bones.

One of Erik’s hands moves to tangle in Charles’ head instead, like he thinks Charles will pull away if he doesn’t keep him there, and after a second Erik presses his other hand to his mouth to bite at its heel -- suddenly worried, Charles surmises, that the neighbors may overhear.

How’s this? Charles asks, pushing his head further down, trying to suck as much of Erik as possible into his mouth, and all he gets is a wordless mental push in response, urging him to keep going.

So Charles, obediently, does, flattening his tongue against the underside of Erik’s shaft and teasing at his frenulum, doing everything he can think of to make Erik feel good. And it works, too; Charles keeps one telepathic thread tied in Erik’s mind, tracking what’s effective and what isn’t, what’s too far, though Erik’s quickly lost his modesty, swept away by the newest tide of pleasure.

I want to put my fingers inside you, Charles says after a while, his head still bobbing between Erik’s legs, eyes flickering up to check Erik’s expression. Is that all right?

Erik goes still beneath him, breath catching audibly. For a moment Charles thinks he’s going to say no, is ready to withdraw entirely -- but then, finally, Erik says, “Yes,” in a cracked, uncertain tone of voice, his head tipping back so he can stare at the ceiling. He’s still afraid, the feeling killing some of the buzz in his veins as he waits for it. Trying his best to be gentle, Charles keeps sucking Erik’s cock steadily, bobbing up and down as he reaches one hand down between Erik’s legs to stroke his fingertips down into Erik’s most private, most defended place.

God. God. Just to touch him here -- Erik’s hole is slick and small, a tight pucker of muscle twitching under Charles’ fingers like it’s flinching away even as he rubs at it, soothing. How anyone could hurt this tender part of Erik Charles can’t imagine. He wants so badly to be inside it, to make it feel good for Erik in this place where he’s so utterly and inescapably omega, to slide his cock in and lock them together, to bring Erik pleasure. Just the thought of it leaves Charles hot all over, the arousal of touching Erik here at all making him harder, and he has to pull off sucking Erik’s cock just to look at it, at his own fingers as he presses two to Erik’s entrance and slowly pushes them inside.

Inside Erik is wet, and tight, his inner walls rippling around the intrusion; Charles exhales shakily even as Erik stifles a discomforted sound up above him, hips squirming on Charles’ fingers. It’s difficult to draw his attention away from the sight of Erik’s hole stretching around his knuckles but Charles looks up, his other hand stroking Erik’s thigh soothingly, to find Erik with the side of his hand caught between his teeth, eyes screwed closed.

“Does it hurt?” Charles asks, worried, though he knows it’s not that kind of discomfort Erik is feeling.

“No,” Erik says, his breath shaking. “No, I’m fine.”

He’s thinking, perhaps inevitably, of another time, another place. Charles doesn’t move his hand between Erik’s legs, keeps it still, not wanting to make it worse. “Hey. It’s all right,” he murmurs, and presses a kiss to the inside of Erik’s leg where the skin is softest. “Do you want me to stop?”

Erik’s voice is sharp: “I told you. I’m fine.” And he tilts one knee in against Charles’ head -- though Charles doubts Erik knows how that tightens the passage inside him, making it grip still harder around Charles’ fingers.

Erik drops his hand from his mouth to take up his fistful of bedclothes again, but nods tersely at Charles once more, and so there’s nothing for Charles to do but keep going, rubbing the pads of his fingers up against the inner wall, watching the muscles of Erik’s stomach tense in anticipation. Charles’ erection is a solid heat against his hip, and the feel of Erik’s body clenching and undulating around his fingers makes him imagine how that might feel on his cock -- his dick swells further, a feeling almost like an itch creeping down his spine.

Keeping his eyes on Erik, Charles kisses the inside of Erik’s thigh again, Erik’s muscles quivering beneath his mouth, and Charles traces his tongue in a small line against them, soothing them.

He fingers Erik carefully for a few minutes, sucking Erik’s cock as he does to try and make it better; it only helps a little, though, and eventually Erik asks, his words too carefully steady, “Do you want to?”

Charles doesn’t have to ask what Erik means.

He doesn’t laugh because Erik would never forgive him, but he does smile when he says, “So much, Erik. I’ve wanted this for -- a very long time. But only if you want to, if you want me this way.” Down here between Erik’s thighs he’s surrounded by the smell of Erik’s slick, heady and dizzying; perhaps if Erik isn’t ready Charles can eat him out instead, bury his face there and lick him until Erik comes on his tongue, squirming and crying out.

But instead, “I want you to,” Erik says in a quiet voice that shakes a little, his hips twitching as Charles’ fingers work inside him, and if he still doesn’t sound sure -- still has that quaver of doubt in the back of his mind, that old fear rearing its head -- Charles does him the courtesy of believing what he says, rather than assuming he himself knows better.

“All right,” he says, and pulls his fingers slowly out of Erik’s ass, wiping them off on the bed sheets before getting up onto his hands and knees and coming up the bed to hover over Erik, leaning down to kiss his mouth again. Erik kisses him back immediately, just as fervently as before; his hands come to take hold of Charles’ hips, and then slide down and back, emboldened enough to take grip of his ass in each palm and squeeze.

“Tell me if you want me to -- ”

“Stop asking me that,” Erik says, his voice low and fierce. “I said I want you to, Charles. Now do it.”

“There’s no need to rush,” Charles says again, his heart beating faster, but he can barely make himself take it slow as he reaches for Erik’s thighs to hook them over his own, spreading Erik out and bending him back a little to get a better angle. It feels like it must be a dream, but the smell of Erik’s slick and the sweaty grip of his hands on Charles’ upper arms, the way Erik’s eyes are so intent on Charles’ own and the soft clench of his hole as the head of Charles’ erection brushes against it -- they’re all too real to be his imagination, and Charles bites his lip, hard, as he pushes forward, sliding his dick into Erik’s body at last.

Inside Erik is … Charles groans, loud and heartfelt at the feeling of Erik around him, clenching, rippling, wet and slick and so tight and hot and fuck. It feels incredible, like pushing into heaven after so long waiting for this to maybe never come, and Erik is velvety inside, his clenching passage gloving Charles’ cock centimetre by centimetre as he pushes in deeper, throbbing with arousal. The feeling of it is almost overwhelming, and Charles has to concentrate hard to focus on the way Erik’s breath hitches, his thighs trembling on either side of Charles’ body and his hands in fists against Charles’ shoulderblades.

“Hey,” Charles murmurs, leaning forward to press his forehead to Erik’s, staying very still inside him even though he’s only a small way in. “Are you okay?”

“Just -- one moment,” Erik says, his eyes clenching shut for a moment, before he seems to decide that makes things worse and opens them again, gazing up at Charles’ face like it’s the one thing anchoring him here. His palms are sweaty against Charles’ skin as they slip against Charles’ shoulders, fingertips digging in hard. Charles doesn’t need to be a telepath to know what he’s thinking about, though he’s sure Erik wouldn’t take well to Charles offering to turn his attention away from old memories, even if just for now.

Charles nods, and Erik exhales slowly, shakily, before lifting his head to press his nose against Charles’ scent point and breathe him in. After several long seconds Charles feels Erik start to relax in small increments, even if every little while his hole still clenches up, like he’s trying to push Charles out.

Erik’s fingers comb through Charles’ hair over and over, twisting the locks around his knuckles, and at last he says, “All right. Keep going.”

And Charles does, kissing Erik’s mouth gently as he pushes his hips forward again, past the resistance of Erik’s muscles and deeper into the blindingly perfect tightness of his body until he bottoms out. Then all he can do is breathe, fighting the overpowering urge to come immediately. He hasn’t touched anyone in over a year, not since Erik’s mother died and everything changed, and Erik is … Erik is all he’s ever wanted.

“That’s all of it,” Charles says, and spits on his hand before reaching between them for Erik’s softened cock, starting to stroke him there again and hoping that the pleasure will help Erik relax. “We’ll wait here for a minute, just try and relax and it’ll be better, I promise.” His other hand he reaches up to take hold of Erik’s, worming his fingers into Erik’s grip until he can hold it himself, squeezing tight.

“I’m fine,” Erik says, exasperated at last, and digs his fingers into Charles’ back, shifting under him. “Just fuck me, Charles.” His cock is starting to harden again in Charles’ grip, the thick long curve of it swelling against Charles’ fingers, and so Charles leans down to kiss him as he pulls his hips back a little to push his way back in, a slow steady roll that sends a shiver through his cock and settling in his gut, hot and glowing.

It gets easier after that. Erik’s hole relaxes after the first few thrusts, and when Charles pushes particularly deep inside him he groans, eyelids fluttering shut for a few seconds, his thighs tightening around Charles’ hips. Charles presses kisses across Erik’s face and keeps rocking in and out of him, trying to find an angle that works best for Erik. It’s hard to concentrate on fucking him well, though, when he’s so overwhelmed by the fact that he’s fucking Erik, that this is Erik’s tight grip around Charles’ cock, his inner walls stroking Charles’ dick.

“Do you want me to pull out before I knot?” he asks, looking up at Erik.

“You probably should,” Erik says, then grunts when Charles thrusts in again, a sound halfway between pleasure and pain. “Ahh -- I’m okay, don’t stop -- ”

“You don’t have to prove anything to me,” Charles says, stroking Erik’s sweaty hair back from his forehead with one hand, his hips slowing down until he’s almost not moving at all, a small, steady rocking, just an inch or so sliding out and sliding in. “You’re already the bravest person I know.”

Erik’s eyes are so determined, though, looking back up at Charles as he squeezes deliberately around Charles’ cock. “Maybe I have to prove it to myself.”

Charles leans down to press his brow against Erik’s, Erik’s face so close; he’s still half-certain this is a dream, Charles’ whole body simmering with pleasure, and he picks up the pace of his thrusts a little, blood pulsing in his groin already, fighting to hold off the knot just a little longer.

It’s everything he’s ever wanted. It’s better than he ever thought it could be.

“I love you,” Charles says on an exhale, and Erik, his hands twisted in Charles’ hair, says, “I know” and kisses him again. Erik doesn’t have to say the words in return. Charles doesn’t need him to. He sees it in Erik’s mind, in the way Erik holds him close even now, the fact Erik lets him do this at all, after everything.

The small room is filled with the sound of their heavy, arrhythmic breath, the scent of Erik’s pheromones and both their sweat, the creak of the mattress beneath their moving bodies. Charles, tied into Erik’s mind, feels the fear slowly start to unspool, dissipating into nothing. Not all of it, not even most of it, but some of it, and his lips are hot against Charles’ mouth, his tongue soft and wet against Charles’ own.

It feels timeless, endless, being here with Erik in the dimness of the apartment making love to him, curled over him with breaths mingling and Erik’s thighs pressing against Charles’ hips, his body surrounding Charles’ cock in its perfect grip. But it’s not long enough, either, before Charles starts to feel his pleasure cresting, the base of his cock throbbing as it starts to fill with blood. “I’m going to come,” he gasps against Erik’s mouth, and it takes all his effort to slide out of that warm wet space into the cold air, his cock twitching as if to shiver; Charles wants to put it back in, bury himself inside Erik and lock himself in there, but he can’t. Not and have Erik ever let him in again.

He reaches down to start stroking himself, his hand curling tightly around his shaft. It’s not the same, but Charles is panting anyway, and when another hand slides down between them and squeezes his knot, hard, then starts working it, Charles’ eyes flick up to Erik’s face to stare at him, then down at his hand jerking Charles off, long elegant fingers wrapped around the thickening base of Charles’ erection, gorgeous and obscene.

“Come on,” Erik says, his attention all on the cock in his hand, his thoughts swirling between fascination, fear, and a desire to see Charles come. He wraps his other hand around the top half of Charles’ cock, pulling at the head. “Come on -- ”

Charles comes like a dam bursting, his breath catching in his throat as his pleasure hits him and sweeps him away, his knot swelling to its largest and then semen spurting from the tip, long thick stripes of it splattering on Erik’s taut belly and painting him with it, one nearly reaching his collarbone. It goes on for a long time, or it feels like it, Charles’ orgasm spending itself on Erik’s skin, his body tight and ecstatic with the release, before he finally sags, heart pounding and his breath rasping in his throat.

The rest of the world slowly creeps back into his awareness, Erik’s body warm beneath his, Erik’s hands moving away from his cock to settle on his hips instead, not pushing him away. Erik’s shivering slightly, but it’s not entirely from fear -- with their bodies still the room is abnormally chilly, the cold air colder still when it hits their sweaty skin. Charles fumbles for the blanket and draws it up over their shoulders, cocooning them together wrapped up in warmth.

“How are you?” Charles says when he’s sure he can speak again. His voice comes out low and raspy.

Erik hums out something wordless; he’s completely covered in Charles’ come, and Charles didn’t really realize before now just how much of the stuff there is during a knot. It’s difficult to imagine an omega’s body capable of holding that much fluid, and yet clearly, it’s possible. Erik’s cheeks are pink even in this dim light, and Charles thinks he detects a slight curve at the corners of his mouth, like he’s biting back a smile.

“Shall I …?” Charles asks, slipping his hand down between them to palm at Erik’s cock, but Erik shakes his head.

“Not tonight,” he says. “I think it would be … too much.”

Given everything Erik’s been through in the past, Charles can understand that, even if he can’t quite imagine being content not to have come himself. Still. “All right,” Charles says, shifting so he’s laying more beside Erik than atop him, close enough that they’re still pressed together all along their sides, skin-to-skin. His hand he places at Erik’s hip, first, but it’s restless, so he ends up stroking Erik’s side, slow and steady, feeling his own heartbeat finally start to relax. “That was …” He sighs. “Was it all right?”

Erik doesn’t say anything at first, but then he tips his head over to rest against Charles’ throat, and his inhale is both audible and deep, like he’s scenting the both of them, the way they smell now, together. “It was fine,” he says, reaching for Charles’ moving hand and stilling it with his own, holding it steady and lacing their fingers together. A pause, then, “Better than I thought it would be. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For making it about me,” Erik says, the feel of his mind like a cautious creature, unsure if coming closer is wise but wanting to be brave. “For making it better for me instead of for you.” He’s thinking that he can’t imagine any other alpha pulling out at the end instead of knotting inside an omega, that he’d half expected Charles to claim he’d forgotten or got lost in the moment and done it anyway. He’s feeling sticky and a bit gross, but it’s so much better than the alternative that Erik doesn’t care.

Charles presses a kiss to the top of Erik’s head. “I just wish it was as good for you as it was for me.”

Erik tilts his face toward Charles. His features look like they’ve been carved out of limestone the way the moonlight falls on them through the open window, pale and beautiful. “It was good,” he says after a moment. “Maybe not the same way it was for you. But I’m glad we did it.”

Charles wants to kiss him again. He wants to always be kissing Erik, to be touching him, to be doing all the things he’s kept himself from for the past two years.

“There’s just one thing, though,” Erik says.

The light, pleasant feeling Charles had been enjoying a second before wavers, his mind immediately tilting toward the worst: that Erik will say this was a one-time thing. That he doesn’t love Charles after all. That he’s going back to his own apartment.

“What is it?” Charles says, pushing himself up on his elbow to better look at Erik’s beloved face, Erik’s lips set in a firm line now, not that they were necessarily playful before.

“We can’t do this again,” Erik says, and his tone is so serious that Charles’ heart stops dead in his chest, a sucking feeling like a void inside him before Erik continues, “not unless we get married. This was a sin, and I can’t risk getting pregnant again outside of marriage. Once was bad enough.”

For a moment Charles can’t quite believe what he’s hearing -- he feels stupid, blindsided first by his fear and now by this, the complete opposite. “You -- want to get married?” he asks, knowing he sounds like an idiot, tongue slow in his mouth.

It’s the wrong thing to say.

Erik sits up and gives him a very sharp look, his fingers stilling on Charles’ skin where they were idly stroking him before. “What did you think was going to happen?” His voice is razor-edged enough it feels like it could flay Charles’ flesh from his bones. “Just because I’m not a virgin doesn’t mean you can make a hussy out of me. You -- ”

“Let’s get married,” Charles interrupts him hurriedly, sitting up himself and catching Erik’s hands in his own, holding them tightly and trying not to float away on the giddy, nervous feeling in his stomach, entirely different from the aftershocks of his orgasm -- these are deeper pangs, hollowing him out to fit something else inside. “Erik. I love you. I’ve loved you for years. I would like nothing more than for you to marry me.”

Erik softens slightly again, and his voice is so gruff when he says “Good,” that Charles has to kiss him now, pressing their lips together until Erik’s finally part against his and let Charles show him just how happy he feels right now. Just how happy both of them will be -- together.

Charles is about to pull Erik back down onto the bed -- not for sex, of course, but just to curl up under the covers and keep making out for a while -- when Erik draws back again and says: “But you have to convert.”

Charles props his weight against the palm of his hand, flat against the mattress, meeting Erik’s steady grey gaze. “To Judaism?”

Erik nods. “Mama must have told you. I can’t marry someone who isn’t Jewish. It’s not that I wouldn’t make an exception for you, myself, but if I do the community won’t accept us. I wouldn’t be totally cherem, but I might as well be excommunicated for all the difference it would make. I have to marry a Jewish alpha. It’s always been this way.”

Charles grins, and allows himself a moment to relish the look on Erik’s face: confused, a little irritated that Charles is clearly so dismissive at a time like this, Erik’s mind a jumble of annoyance and helpless affection.

“I did that already,” Charles says. “A little less than two years ago. At Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.”

Impossible not to feel rather smug as Erik says, blankly, “What?”

“I know they’re Reform,” Charles says, shifting a little so he can put his free hand on Erik’s thigh, thrilled, still, at being allowed to, “but I thought -- well, I already knew I wanted to marry you. I’m not particularly religious, never have been, so it’s not a big deal for me to give up being a nominal Christian, but at the same time I didn’t want to be a hypocrite by converting Orthodox if I didn’t believe in it, so I decided to compromise and meet you in the middle. Your mother was never going to let me marry you if I wasn’t a Jew, and -- well, I thought it would be a nice surprise, for when I asked her if I could marry you.” He pauses, a little of the enjoyment dimming when he thinks of how that turned out. “I never got the chance, in the end -- everything happened with Shaw before I could, and it didn’t seem appropriate to tell you after that, in case you thought I was trying to manipulate you.”

Erik doesn’t say anything at all at first, but Charles can feel his incredulity rising, and a sort of fond aggravation that he doesn’t really understand until Erik says, finally, “You do realize that Orthodox Jews don’t recognize Reform Jewish converts as being Jews at all. You idiot.”

Charles’ heart starts to sink. “What?”

Erik looks -- his mouth twitches, and he snorts, shaking his head and rubbing his hand across his face as if he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You idiot, Charles. I can’t believe you just went and -- Reform? Really?”

“I didn’t know.” Charles rather fervently wishes he’d never said anything about it, because now Erik is going to think he’s a complete imbecile. “I’m sorry. I fucked it all up.”

Erik fixes him with a faintly amused look and says, “It’s very sweet, Charles. A bit useless, unfortunately, but still sweet. And it’s far more than I would have expected.”

Charles is lucky it’s dark, because he’s certain his cheeks are bright red. That Erik seems to think his mistake was adorably moronic doesn’t help reduce his embarrassment much. He twists around to lean back against the headboard, tilting his head against the wall and gazing up at the ceiling so he doesn’t have to keep watching Erik’s face; though of course, nothing saves him from having to listen to Erik’s thoughts. A second later, Erik’s hand slips into his, lacing their fingers together just out of Charles’ sight.

“I’ll talk to the rabbi,” Erik says. “Normally an Orthodox conversion would require you to learn Hebrew, and spend years living a frum lifestyle before the beis din would consent to convert you. But presumably you already learned Hebrew for the Reform gerus. And you’ve spent the past several months living with me, and I’m frum, so you already have a head start on the competition.”

Charles glances down at Erik, who is watching their linked hands, following the movement of his own thumb as it scratches at the back of Charles’ knuckles. Charles can’t imagine waiting another two years to be with Erik -- not now that he knows what he’s been missing. He couldn’t go to sleep every night next to him and not want to touch him, kiss him, push himself into Erik and make him feel good.

“Besides,” Erik goes on, “Rabbi Liebowitz likes me, and he likes you for me. He might be willing to make things go a little faster in our case.”

That, at least, is encouraging. “All right,” Charles says, and before he even realizes it’s coming he yawns, wide and long, his mouth stretching and his eyes clenching closed. “Do I need to go and talk to him, then? Tomorrow maybe?”

“Maybe not tomorrow.” Erik looks down at himself, and picks at the drying come on his chest with his fingernail and a wry expression on his face. “We’ll go together. When I don’t smell like I’ve been having premarital intercourse any more.”

“Oh,” Charles says, and yes, that probably is a better idea. “Okay. In a few days, then.”

Erik squeezes Charles’ hand, then lets go, and shifts his legs over to the side of the bed to stand up, stretching his arms over his head for a moment. The back view of him like this, nude and lean and gorgeous, takes Charles’ breath away -- Erik’s narrow waist, the breadth of his shoulders and the curve of his buttocks where so recently Charles was inside -- God. “I need to go clean up,” Erik says, stepping back into his discarded pyjama pants and covering up his marvellous ass. “Go to sleep, Charles. I’ll be back soon.”

“All right,” Charles says, and he lays down in the bed, rearranging the covers so they’re in their right places again, no longer shuffled down to the bottom of the mattress, kicked out of the way while they fucked. He closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of them together, Erik’s slick and his come, sweat and pheromones, and he dozes there until Erik slips back under the blankets, then wraps his arm over Erik’s side and pulls him back into the curve of Charles’ body to spoon while they fall asleep together.

*

Chapter Text

Walking to the Community Center with Charles at his side is an experience wholly unlike any Erik’s ever had before, or indeed expected to have. The neighbors in the hall, who expect to see Erik come here every day with David in tow, give double takes when they see Charles trailing a half step behind -- he might have been here a few days ago to pick up David, but that was the once, and he’s never come along with Erik before.

“Is there something on my face?” Charles asks, voice more tense than it should be for a joke as they ascend the stairs to the next floor up, where the Community Center is housed. Erik reaches back while no one else can see to graze his fingertips against the top of Charles’ arm, a silent point of connection -- he smells Charles’ nerves on him, even though he’s not the telepath.

“Just ...” They pause on the landing outside, and Erik turns around to look at Charles, hitching David further up his hip and craning his head away to keep his hair out of reach of David’s grabbing hands. “ … Just be circumspect. All right? Don’t say anything to the rabbi you wouldn’t have said to my mother.”

“Who do you think I am?” Charles says with a snort, but he comes quietly all the same, following Erik into the Center and nodding at a couple of alphas who are on their way out, polite as anything. Once they’re past he slips his arm around Erik’s waist and steps up to walk beside him, the same way the other couple were walking, and Erik stiffens, uncertain -- they’ve never touched like this in public, barely done so at home, even. He doesn’t pull away, though, the warmth of Charles comforting and familiar, even though there’s a part of him that’s afraid even now that people will see Erik letting an alpha touch him and read into it more than Erik wants.

The corridor has never felt so long, nor Erik so self-conscious about walking along it. The carpet is threadbare, doesn’t muffle their steps at all as they head for the main room together.

“It’ll be fine,” Charles says, giving Erik a little smile and squeezing his hold on Erik’s hip.

Given that the rabbi’s office is on the other side of the main room, there’s no way of sidestepping the bubbes and their nosiness. They’ll have to walk past them, or rather, Charles will, and Erik is going to have to sit with them while Charles talks to Rabbi Liebowitz. Sit with them while the question him, and probe at his answers, and discuss them amongst themselves.

There’s a chance that maybe Erik didn’t think all of this through.

They’re on the threshold before he can say this to Charles, and almost as if they already knew -- they can’t possibly already know, they’re not psychic, but somehow the bubbes all turn in their chairs to look at them there in the doorway. Already Erik sees their eyebrows rising as they take in the two of them, together, see Charles’ arm around Erik’s hips, his hand curled at Erik’s waist to keep him close.

Erik wants to die of embarrassment.

“Erik, liebchen,” Mrs Bergmann says, and raises one spindly hand to beckon at him and Charles, gesturing for them to come closer. “How lovely to see you. And you brought Charles, too. What an unexpected treat.” Her old eyes sparkle with amusement at his expense, and Erik wishes with unusual heat that he could stuff a sock in her mouth.

“Hello,” Charles says, walking forward as if he hasn’t a care in the world and tugging Erik with him, the bastard, putting him squarely in questioning range of the bubbes -- they come to a stop beside the armchairs, and Charles immediately tries to get Erik to sit in the empty one. This, at least, Erik isn’t putting up with, and he gives Charles a sharp look that makes Charles subside with a twitch of his mouth, holding his hands up in surrender.

“Be nice to the poor boy, Erik.” Mr Mendelssohn leans forward in his chair, his eyebrows already risen as he took in the byplay -- even in his seventies he still has eyes like a hawk, Erik thinks sourly. “Lovely to see you again, Charles! After so long of Erik keeping you to himself, twice in one week is such a treat.”

Charles just smiles as if this weren’t complete and utter bullshit, and says, “Yes, I’ve had a slightly freer work schedule this week,” Charles says, which is also bullshit. “Normally I’m busy at all hours, so I don’t have much chance to meet people.”

“Hmm. We just thought Erik was ashamed of you,” Mrs Nadler says, without even looking away from her knitting.

Color rises fast and hot in Erik’s cheeks, not least because she’s not entirely wrong, the old bitch -- he wants to say something cutting, something to try and cover over that thought before Charles hears it, though surely he has already, but instead he says, “Charles is here to see Rabbi Liebowitz,” not wanting to let Charles sweep in and say something polite and charming to smooth it all over, either. “And I’m only here to drop off David. So if you don’t mind, Charles has important business of his own to attend to, since he works all hours to make a living instead of sitting on his ass all day.”

It’s ruder than he’s ever dared be before, but after getting what he wants -- Charles -- Erik finds he’s rather less inclined to tolerate Mrs Nadler’s crude comments about him. Which is, of course, exactly where this is going: Erik can see it spreading out before them like a carpet, all the little insults about Erik’s virtue and Charles’ goyische boorishness, and likely an implication or two as well that either Erik was slutty enough to give it up easy or that Charles forced him into bed, neither better than the last.

“Oh, is that so?” Mr Horowitz says, owl-eyes blinking behind his enormous glasses. “So, Charles and the rabbi? Well, I suppose we mustn’t keep you ….” The twitch at the corner of his mouth, of course, says everything his words do not: that he knows exactly why Charles is here, and what he wants to talk to Rabbi Liebowitz about, and thinks Erik is delightfully foolish for pretending otherwise.

“His office is there,” Erik says to Charles, pointing.

Charles is able to take a not-so-subtle hint. “I’ll meet you back out here in a moment, then,” he says, and dismisses himself -- though Erik doesn’t feel right about it until he’s seen Charles knock on the door and be welcomed in by the rabbi, felt the latch turn in the knob behind him.

There is a moment of peace before the next assault begins.

“Erik,” Mr Mendelssohn says, “my dear, is he really here to talk to the rabbi about a gerus?”

“How difficult,” Mrs Nadler says, needles clacking together. “Does he know he’ll have to wait a whole two years before he’s converted? I hope he’s patient.”

“Oh, do shut up, Ruth,” Mr Mendelssohn snaps. It’s entirely shocking, and Erik blinks, surprised enough that he’s forgotten entirely what he was going to say -- normally Mr Mendelssohn is so friendly and warm that to hear his voice so sharp is utterly unexpected, almost as bad as hearing him swear. “That boy has been waiting to marry Erik for going on five years already, he’s a nice boy and he’s doing something about being goyische, so stop being such a bitter old shrew and be happy for Erik.”

“... Well,” Mrs Nadler says, her mouth a stunned ‘o’, apparently as taken aback as Erik is.

Mrs Bergmann reaches over to take David’s hand in her own, his little fingers curling in her palm. “I think it’s lovely, liebchen,” she says, smiling up at Erik with every sign of genuine pleasure. “Edie would have been so pleased for you.”

It takes a moment even to decide what to say, but finally Erik just says, “Thank you.” His throat is thick with something he can’t name, only the comfort of David’s weight on his hip grounding him and keeping him from fleeing the area. There’s no point denying it -- they obviously all already know, or they know enough to know their guesses are almost certainly right. He steels himself to say, feeling rather exposed, “Anyway -- Charles is Reform, and he’s been living frum for a good long while, so it shouldn’t be two years. He’s already most of the way there.” They’ll find out one way or the other after all, so he might as well spin it the way he wants it told.

He wonders what’s going on in that office, what the rabbi is saying -- what Charles is saying.

“Reform?” Mrs Bergmann asks, blinking in surprise. “I didn’t know he was any kind of Jewish. I thought he was your Shabbos goy?”

“He used to be,” Erik says awkwardly, “but not any more. He converted two years ago.”

“To Reform?” Mr Horowitz makes a noise in the back of his throat. “You can’t tell me he did that by religious choice. That boy is entirely about marrying you. Didn’t he ask first what he should do?”

Oh, G-d. Why couldn’t they just leave it at that? “No,” Erik says, lifting his chin and deciding to stubborn it out. “He did it as a surprise for me, to show how serious he is about me. He didn’t know he got it wrong.”

Mrs Nadler snorts. Erik can see Mr Mendelssohn laughing behind his hand, though he tries to pretend he’s having a coughing fit; Mr Horowitz doesn’t even do that much, letting out a loud guffaw.

“It’s lovely,” Mrs Bergmann says again firmly, keeping her eyes on Erik and David, and when she smiles up at him, bright and genuine, Erik is surprised by how affected he is -- to have someone be so pleased for him, when there’s no real reason for her to care -- it’s something he hadn’t thought he had, and to find it here, where his mother would have wanted him to come first with the news, makes something in him ache in the best possible way.

“Sit down,” Mr Mendelssohn says, still snickering, and gestures at an empty chair. “You’re only going to have to wait anyway, you might as well be comfortable.”

Erik takes the seat, unable to keep from glancing back over towards the rabbi’s office even as he settles David in his lap, and it’s only the baby’s weight that keeps his leg from bouncing while he waits to find out what’s been said.

*

The office is small and snug, as well-worn as the rest of the community center, the chairs crammed in together on this side of the desk, barely enough space between desk and wall for Charles to slide into the nearest one. The rabbi has a similar job getting into his own chair, edging in between a noticeboard and a bookcase to settle down behind the desk. “Mr Xavier, is it?” he says, giving Charles a quick, bland smile. Charles’ stomach is starting to shift uneasily already, and he settles his hands in his lap in a way he hopes is the spitting image of a marriage-appropriate alpha.

“Yes,” Charles says, with a smile of his own. “‘Charles’ is fine.”

The rabbi taps one finger on the edge of his desk and Charles does his best to look respectable -- Mr Liebowitz is presently cataloguing his assessment of Charles, his ill-fitting shirt and patched denim jeans, what Mr Liebowitz considers to be an overly-youthful face, even going so far as to note that Charles is much shorter than Erik.

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re here, Mr Xavier,” Mr Liebowitz says at last.

This, at least, Charles knows how to answer -- has rehearsed in fact with Erik over the past few days until he had it down to Erik’s satisfaction. “Well, as you know, Erik and I have been friends and neighbors for the past four and a half years,” he says, keeping his voice and body easy and relaxed. It’s difficult not to dwell on the possibility that his chances of marrying Erik might rest entirely on how well he presents himself to the rabbi right here, right now.

“Yes,” Mr Liebowitz says, “I’m aware. Erik speaks of you often.”

A tiny burst of warmth erupts in Charles’ stomach, thinking of Erik mentioning him to his rabbi, not just once or twice but often, imagining what he might say.

“Often,” Mr Liebowitz continues, “to protest that there is nothing between you, that you are merely friends -- or roommates -- or nothing at all. You might therefore understand why I am surprised to see you here with Erik and David.”

Oh. It’s not surprising, or shouldn’t be, but it still stings a little nonetheless, even though Charles knows Erik has changed his mind. “I wouldn’t like to speak for Erik,” he says, linking his hands in his lap to keep from fidgeting. “But while that may have been true before, the reason I’m here to see you is that I’ve asked Erik to marry me and he’s said yes, on the stipulation that I have to convert to Orthodox Judaism first. And so I’ve come to ask you for a gerus.”

Another one.

“I see,” Mr Liebowitz says, his voice very serious, but Charles feels his inner smile anyway, even if the rabbi hides it well. “You are aware, then, that conversion takes years of commitment, and that you cannot be married in the eyes of the Jewish community if you are not a converted Jew yourself? It might be a long wait, and there are no guarantees you will make it to gerus.”

Charles nods. “I converted to Reform two years ago and learned Hebrew at that time, was circumcised at birth, and have been living in an observant manner for the past year. I was hoping that it might be possible for me to prove my knowledge and commitment to you so far and have it count towards my gerus.”

“Hmm. That would be highly irregular.”

“I know,” says Charles, heart in his throat. “But I hoped it might demonstrate … how much I care about this. About Erik.”

“And you’re prepared, then, for the responsibility you would have not only as a Jew to follow all 613 mitzvos as handed down from God, but to care for Erik’s son David ben Avraham? Just because Erik’s child is not your own, doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have a responsibility to him as Erik’s alpha.”

A part of Charles is deeply offended by the insinuation he’d ever be anything but -- but he’s well-aware that plenty of alphas neglect their omega’s children if they’re not of their own blood, or worse. It’s hard to be upset when he’s just glad the rabbi asked about it at all. “David would be like a son to me,” Charles says, and doesn’t say -- even though he feels it, deeply -- he already is.

Mr Liebowitz looks at Charles for a long time, weighing him up, taking him in -- it’s enough to make Charles wish he’d come by before so that the rabbi would know him already, be able to trust him on more than five minutes’ acquaintance. “I’ll need to speak to the beis din,” he says finally, with a small smile. “Since they’ll decide if you pass or fail your gerus, it’s up to them whether they allow you to come up early to be tested. Do bear in mind, though -- if you fail, you cannot try again. So be very certain that you know everything you need to pass, Mr Xavier, before you do this.”

Now that he puts it that way it sounds worrying; Charles’ stomach dips, but he says anyway, “Please speak to them and let me know what they think? I’m happy to come to class to study in the meantime to make sure I’m well-prepared.”

“Very well.” Mr Liebowitz gets up from his chair and offers Charles his hand with a smile, affable enough now that the interview is over. His handshake is warm and firm, his eyes crinkled at the corners. “I am pleased that Erik finally admitted to himself what it is he really wants from life, but I just hope you’re not being too hasty in trying to fulfil that desire.”

“Me too,” Charles says, more honestly than he means to, but the rabbi just laughs and gestures towards the door, saying, “Go tell him before he gets too impatient and comes in here to retrieve you.”

Charles does just that, escaping from the rabbi’s office to where Erik is being held hostage by a court of elderly omegas. He looks relieved when he spots Charles emerging, immediately rising to his feet from where he’d been sitting with David balanced on his hip. “Are you ready to go?” he asks, eyes a little wide.

“So eager to leave, are you?” one of the omegas says, glancing between Erik and Charles with an amused smile on his lips. “Well, I can’t say I blame you.”

Charles laughs. “Bye, Mr Horowitz,” he says, and the man winks at him, eyes twinkling.

When they finally get outside, Charles dares to loop his arm through Erik’s, and to his surprise Erik leans into him slightly, their shoulders bumping every now and then as they walk down the street. Erik lets Charles take David into his free arm when Charles reaches out to carry him, and once the baby is leaning safely against Charles’ shoulder Erik says, “So? How did it go?”

If it weren’t for his telepathy, Charles would think Erik was the peak of indifference -- there’s nothing in his affect or tone to suggest otherwise, but his mind is a tumbling mess of interest and concern and hope, Erik’s thumb pressing into the hollow of Charles’ wrist.

“He’s going to speak to the beis din and see what they think,” Charles says, navigating them around a group of workmen going the other way and jiggling David to keep him from overbalancing trying to grab one of their hoods. “But he approves, so I think he’ll put in a word for me. He thinks I’m good for you.” He glances over at Erik to gauge his reaction, amused and pleased by the way that makes Erik want to puff up with indignation even while inside he thinks Mr Liebowitz is probably right.

“That’s good,” Erik says instead of complaining, without looking back at Charles. His eyes are fixed forward, looking where they’re going, but his grip on Charles’ arm softens, becomes less like a death grip and more an omega simply walking with his alpha, his weight leant just a little against Charles’ side. “All the rabbis in New York know each other, so if Mr Liebowitz didn’t like you he’d tell all the rest and you’d be out of luck.”

“Good job all the nice Jewish boys seem to like me then,” Charles says, grins when Erik huffs, and tries not to be charmed.

*

Seventeen months ago

 

Everything is too loud, too smelly, too everything for Erik these days -- he feels like all his senses are grating on his nerves constantly, like he’s being scraped away piece by piece, exhaust fumes and clanging hammers and alpha scent and bright, cheerful posters, all of them too much and hateful for it. Even when he hides at home he feels overexposed, and all it does is serve to ramp his temper higher, his self-loathing and his wretched fury combining together until he’s jittering out of his skin with it, every spoon and pot and pan rattling in the apartment until he can’t take it any more.

He won’t. His fuse has finally lit, and now he’s a missile ready to explode, stalking down the streets of the Lower East Side towards Shaw’s club where he keeps his office, teeth bared and eyes wild, ready to kill him and have done with it at last. Go out in a blaze that incinerates them all, Erik and Shaw and baby all together like a happy fucking family.

When people look at him on the street, Erik imagines they know, that they can see what happened like grime on his skin, that they smell Shaw’s child in him. He wonders if that would make them more or less likely to stand in his way.

He hasn’t been in the Caspartina Club since things started intensifying with Shaw, and definitely not since -- that. Some part of Erik was certain that Shaw would be able to tell just by looking at him that Erik is carrying his child, but, well. Now it won’t matter. Erik doesn’t intend to leave anything left but dust.

He pays the cover fee at the door, murmuring something indistinct about the fighting matches, and Brutus steps aside to let Erik into the dimly-lit building above the real club below, and as he walks across the fake floor to the door downstairs he spools out his power through the bones of the city, choosing weapons, booby traps, tricks -- but no escape routes. Shaw’s metal is in the office above the fighting pit. Erik feels Shaw’s skin, warm and loathsome, against his wristwatch, the pulse of his heartbeat against the clasp.

Maybe that’s how he’ll do it, Erik thinks, fists clenching at his sides. Sink his power into the iron in Shaw’s blood and rip it from his body.

It’s eerily empty in the Caspartina at this time of day, almost nobody here at all -- some of the staff cleaning up for later, one or two alcoholics draped mournfully over the bar like wrung-out towels. All the better. There’s fewer people around to get themselves hurt. Erik knows where the stairs are that lead to the office, separate from the storefront that hides the club and only accessible from inside once you’re past all the security; he walks with purpose across the stained and grubby floor, not even pausing when one of the sweepers gives him an odd look, and he immediately starts up the steps, his eyes wet with anger -- definitely anger, his hands are in fists and trembling at his sides --

-- there’s someone on the landing.

“Get out of my way,” Erik says through gritted teeth, glaring up at Logan Howlett where he stands looking down at Erik, a cheap cigarette hanging from his lower lip, eyes dark.

“Go home, kid,” Logan says, taking the cigarette from his mouth and letting it dangle from his fingers instead, lit end glowing softly in the dim staircase before it dulls without his breath to light it. “He ain’t in the right frame of mind for omega visitors to get treated decent.”

Erik thinks he knows exactly what ‘frame of mind’ Shaw is in.

“I don’t care,” he says, and grabs Logan’s watch and belt buckle with his power, heating them up against his skin -- a warning, not really meant to hurt. Not yet. He pulls a few coins out of his pocket and floats them up to Logan, pushing them against his breast pocket. “Go buy yourself a drink on me, Logan. Get out of here.”

Logan exhales, and the noise is too loud in the close quarters, itching at the base of Erik’s spine like an unwanted touch. A beat, and then Logan shakes his head. “I don’t think so. I have a job, you see, and that’s makin’ sure little spitfires like yourself don’t end up getting yourselves killed for no good reason. If you’ve got a message you want me to pass along, I’m happy to oblige, but otherwise I suggest you come back during business hours.”

Erik takes another step closer, grabbing onto the banister with one hand; his nails dig into the wood, scraping splinters into his skin. “Get out of my way, or I will make you.”

His hatred is like an ocean in his stomach, crashing against him from the inside, threatening to swell up in a gale and overwhelm him too early. Past Logan, in the office at the end of the hall, Shaw picks up a fountain pen and starts scratching it against a page. If Erik concentrated, he could tell what Shaw is writing. He feels the contours of Shaw’s fingers against the pen’s chassis, the press of his thumb, and feels sick.

Logan breathes in, and that’s when Erik sees it -- his expression changes, crumpling into dismay, and then he says, “Oh, kid. I didn’t know.”

“Know what?” Erik demands, baring his teeth. “Move!”

“It’s not worth it,” Logan says, and he comes down the stairs to stand right in front of Erik, puts his hand on Erik’s shoulder, even, and -- his bulk fills the stairwell above Erik despite Logan’s short stature, overwhelmingly larger than Erik and alpha, entirely alpha -- Erik reels back, repulsed, and Logan just looks sympathetic, his face caught in a permanent wince. “Come on, kid. Erik. Hasn’t that bastard upstairs done enough to you already?”

Just the softness of his voice -- it’s awful, intensely painful, and Erik chokes, the tears springing to his eyes again as he covers his nose with the back of his wrist to try and block out the stench of alpha, his heart wavering now. “Not as much as I’m going to do to him,” he says, but it doesn’t sound so strong, more posturing than intent.

Logan sighs and shakes his head, one hand on either bannister, blocking the way. “Come on, kid. We both know he’d kill you soon as you came in, or worse -- I can’t let you up there. I might work for him, ain’t much else choice in this damn city, but I’d be worse than a murderer if I sent you to Shaw’s office. I ain’t willing to do that.”

“There isn’t any worse,” Erik snaps back, wishing he could shove at Logan -- push him aside, force him to let Erik at Shaw, and then they’d see who’d kill who. “He’s already done the worst, there’s nowhere left to go. I don’t care what happens after. Maybe you can take over as boss.”

“Kid,” Logan says, and sighs. “Kid, there is always worse. Believe you me, I’ve seen enough of the world to know that. And saying you don’t care what happens after -- that’s all very well for you, that’s your choice even if it is a dumb one. But that baby ain’t done nothing to deserve it. All it’s done is be conceived, it’s not its daddy.”

It’s the worst thing Logan could have said right now, because as much as Erik wants to hate him, to shout and scream that he’s wrong, his voice catches in his throat with a taste like bile.

Erik swallows, hard, his teeth grinding together, and forces words out. “Don’t tell him,” he says finally, and it’s a weak voice now, one he hates, pathetic and loathsome, breaking on the words. “He’s not its father. So don’t tell him.”

It’s clear from Logan’s expression that he doesn’t believe that, but all he says is, “I won’t,” still looking at Erik with unbearable kindness in his eyes. “Kid, you shouldn’t come anywhere near him where he might find out, okay? Or he’ll be far too pleased to remember you, and take ownership of his get when it comes out of your belly.” He puts his cigarette back in his mouth and sucks on the end, rekindling it. “Stay away for your own damn good.”

“How can you work for him?” Erik takes a step backwards, down, then another, pausing as he fights the part of himself that still wants to fight even when he knows he’ll lose. “You obviously hate him.”

Logan shrugs, lets out a huff. “What else is an immortal lethal-grade mutant gonna do for work in this city? I can’t starve to death, kid. I can’t die of cold. I prefer to keep my undying ass off the street and fed than virtuously waiting half-dead for people to change their minds about mutants.”

I won’t ever work for Shaw, Erik vows. He’s a lethal-grade mutant himself, and so is Charles, but Erik would kill them both before he allowed either of them into Shaw’s employ. And Logan’s right -- Erik doesn’t doubt that if he went up there right now, let Shaw smell that he is pregnant, Shaw would give him more money than he knew what to do with in exchange for the care and feeding of Erik and Erik’s child, but at what cost? Erik will never take Shaw’s charity, and certainly not for this.

“That’s very utilitarian of you,” Erik says coldly, and goes before he can break under the force of his own anger and do something he might regret.

*

Starting that Friday night, Erik informs Charles that from now on he’ll be shomer Shabbos, following all the restrictions of the sabbath, which means he’s no longer allowed to turn on the light. Erik tells him this in the doorway of their dark home, lit only by the flickering flames on the twin Shabbos candles on the kitchen table, his hand tight around Charles’ wrist to keep him from reaching for the switch; they’ve just come from shul, where Charles spent a rather bewildered two hours trying to follow along with the prayers in Hebrew, Erik invisible behind the lace mechitza separating the alphas from omegas and therefore unable to prompt Charles along -- even telepathically, because Erik was too distracted trying to keep David from crying and socializing with the other omegas to pray himself.

In the end Charles cheated a little -- he borrowed the gentleman in front of him’s understanding of Hebrew, which made things much easier, but he knows that he’ll need to relearn it properly if he wants to really commit to this. And Erik won’t accept anything less.

“I guess we’ll need a new Shabbos goy, then,” Charles says, smiling at Erik, then down at David, who is gripping the collar of Charles’ coat in one hand, his head leaning against Erik’s shoulder. “Since I’ve been promoted.”

Erik snorts and lets go of Charles’ wrist, his fingers trailing across Charles’ palm for a moment before separating. “At least you waited until spring to abandon the post,” he says, and walks further into the apartment to set David down on the floor by some of his toys, then starts unbuttoning his coat. “If it were still winter you’d be cursing yourself for owning up to it when the fire burnt through all the wood and went out.”

It’s strange to see Erik by candlelight, all the angles and shapes of him rendered new and soft in the dim gold, his hair reddish and gleaming. Even his shadows are tender like this, smudged charcoal where they might otherwise have been stark ink. Beautiful. Unable to resist, Charles crosses to him in three steps and kisses his mouth, cupping Erik’s cheeks in his own work-rough palms, stubble scraping callus in the dusky room.

It still seems strange, miraculous, that Erik kisses him back. Erik’s lips are soft and warm as they part for Charles, his hands hesitant as they come to settle at Charles’ hips; Charles is grateful for his telepathy, for the way it lets him sense the warm kernel of affection Erik tends for him, like a smoldering coal in Erik’s heart, the part of Erik that’s still amazed he dares love anyone at all.

His body is hot-feeling where it presses against Charles’, taller than Charles is but slim and omegalike in other ways. Charles feels certain that if his hands were just a little larger, Logan’s size perhaps, he could encircle Erik’s waist between them, the way he can Erik’s slim wrists. Such thoughts unravel quickly, and Charles soon finds himself remembering how Erik’s body felt beneath his, the quiver of Erik’s thigh against his hip, Erik’s fingers in his hair, how Erik smelled when Charles scented him at the crook of his neck.

“You know,” Charles says when he draws back a little, though not enough that he can’t still feel Erik’s breath on his nose, “I’m told it’s a mitzvah to have sex on Shabbos.”

Erik sighs, though, and shakes his head. “Not if you’re not married, it isn’t.” He doesn’t let go of Charles’ waist, doesn’t move away, but Charles can feel the shift back from the ease of a few moments ago in Erik’s mind, Erik pushing down his desire the way he had so many times in the past, detaching from it.

“Hey, don’t do that,” Charles murmurs, and strokes Erik’s thoughts with his own, gentle. Erik’s breath hitches, and he stares at Charles before leaning forward to kiss him again, aroused despite himself by the touch of Charles’ mutation.

The kiss is hot, and a little wild, their bodies jostling to get closer; Charles tugs Erik’s hips in against his own and rolls against him, one hand slipping down to grab Erik’s ass --

“Wait,” Erik gasps, and Charles stops immediately, moving his hand back up to the safer ground of Erik’s hip. They’re both breathing heavily, foreheads pressed together, Erik’s eyes closed, lashes dark on his cheek.

“Sorry,” Charles says, and lifts one hand to stroke that cheek, softly now, trying to calm his body down. Erik turns into the touch, but says nothing else, and for a while they just breathe, in and out, slowly settling into an almost synchronous rhythm.

On the floor, David starts knocking two toys together with a crash of wood-on-wood; it’s enough to break Erik away from Charles’ hold altogether, and he steps back to move around Charles and kneel down beside David, murmuring to him quietly as he takes one of the toys from him.

Charles sighs, and goes to sit down at the kitchen table, watching Erik play with his son. It occurs to him that if they get married -- when they get married -- he’ll be David’s father. David will grow up calling Charles ‘Papa,’ perhaps never knowing his biological father ever even existed, and for all intents and purposes … for all intents and purposes, it will be true. Charles will get his teaching license and they’ll move far away from here, to a place where no one knows any differently, where they can be a real family.

The idea warms something inside Charles, and he slips out of the chair to sit down on the floor next to Erik, reaching out a hand to brush his fingertips over the crown of David’s head. His baby hair is fine and silky, a light brown that could as easily have been inherited from Erik as from Shaw. And not inconceivably from Charles, either.

As if he knew what Charles was thinking, Erik looks up, then, and smiles at Charles, and says, “He looks like you.”

“Bah,” says David, and looks up at them both with a gummy smile, his head tipped back so far he might have tipped over if it weren’t for Erik’s knee behind him, bracing his little body.

Charles just smiles back, stroking David’s hair again, and thinks -- this can be my life. This is going to be my life, now.

“I can’t wait to be married to you,” he says, leaning against Erik’s side to feel the warmth of Erik’s body against his own, even though it’s more a tease than anything else, the fire inside his belly banked but not extinguished. “Not just for bedroom reasons. Just -- I’ve wanted it for so long, and I never thought I’d get it. You.”

Erik shifts awkwardly, his thoughts tinted with mild embarrassment, but he doesn’t move away. Instead he lays his head down on Charles’ shoulder, shuffling a little to give himself the space, and says, “I know.” He doesn’t say, me too, but then, he doesn’t have to, not out loud.

That night, after David is asleep, Charles lies in bed next to his Erik and reaches across the space between them to lace their hands together atop the mattress, Erik’s fingers long and fitting perfectly between Charles’ own. Charles keeps his hips twisted, pressed down against the bed, not wanting Erik to bend a knee and accidentally discover how hard Charles is just being near to him, like his body recognizes Erik’s scent and wants more. The pressure helps, too, even if it makes Charles ache inside to be so close to having real friction against his cock but unwilling to give in and seek it out.

“It won’t be forever,” Erik tells him, which almost makes Charles laugh, because it feels sometimes like it already has been. Not just since they kissed that time in Charles’ apartment, before Edie died, and Charles finally knew they would eventually be together, but since the day they met and Charles felt it down to his bones that this was it, that Erik was it.

“I know,” he says instead, and squeezes Erik’s hand, relishing the wave of want that rolls out from Erik’s mind, deep and real. “I can wait.” What’s another six months? Another year?

He closes his eyes and lets his hips press a little harder against the bed, even though in a way that makes it worse. The mattress shifts beneath him, and then Erik presses up against his side, a solid presence that curls its arm around Charles’ waist and presses his nose to his neck, his scent flooding Charles’ senses and sending a shiver down Charles’ spine. He smells … aroused, a little, a sweet musk that matches the weight that’s laying half-hard against Charles’ hip.

Charles concentrates on not moving, but he allows himself to just breathe in the reassurance that Erik wants him in return, and it’s enough to keep him from rolling over and ruining things, at least for another night.

 

---

 

The Caspartina is almost overflowing with people the next Saturday evening, enough that Brutus is managing a whole line of people waiting to get into the ‘soda shop’, all of them apparently dying for a cola. Charles can feel Erik’s mingled disdain for the people desperate enough to queue to get into a mafia joint, and satisfaction at being able to jump the line with Charles instead of having to wait like the rest, the two things sweet and sour in his mind. For Charles, the fact that Erik is allowing him to take his arm is sweet enough.

“Huh,” is all Brutus says when he sees them, bristle-like eyebrows rising as he nods them inside.

“What was that for?” Erik asks, glancing back over his shoulder as they walk down the back stairs. Charles just smiles to himself, belly warm with Brutus’ surprise at seeing the two of them together, looking coupled-up, when everyone knows Lehnsherr’s always been so cold towards Charles he might as well have ice stuffed up his cooch.

When they reach the basement floor Logan’s at the door, and he, too, looks surprised to see their arms linked; unlike Brutus, however, Logan doesn’t hold his tongue.

“What’s this? Erik finally gone soft for you?” he asks Charles, a slow grin spreading and baring teeth, eyes glittering with amusement. “Jesus, Chuck, you didn’t give in and whammy him, did you?”

“Mind your own business, Logan,” Erik snaps, glaring at Logan and quickly drawing his arm free of Charles’ to wrap it around David with his other. Charles feels the heat of Erik’s embarrassment seeping between their minds like wet tar.

Logan’s grin just widens and he holds up both hands, as if surrendering. “No ill will meant,” he says, “I’m happy for you, kid. Both of you. It’s just a pleasant surprise, is all.”

Erik makes a harsh, disdainful noise in the back of his throat and steps away, giving Charles no choice but to say “Thanks, Logan,” and let Logan pat him twice on the shoulder with one shovel-like hand before he follows after Erik through the crowd, winding between the gathered alphas and a few interested omegas to sit at a table next to the bar where Erik immediately lifts a hand to order them each a drink.

“That kind of night?” Charles says, brows lifted when the bartender returns with a gin and tonic for them each, sliding Erik’s across the table toward him and watching Erik down half of it in two swallows.

“You didn’t tell me I was such a frequent object of gossip among your friends,” Erik says coolly, setting the glass back down with a click.

Charles shakes his head, holding up his hands defensively. “Quite the opposite,” he says, leaving his drink alone -- better to have a completely clear head to try and dethorn this bramble bush. “I’m the one they gossip about -- what a sad sap I am for pining after you all these years.”

“Hmm,” Erik says, resettling David on his knee, and if he’s at all mollified he doesn’t deign to show it.

Charles just smiles and picks up his own glass to sip at before turning to look out over the room, taking it all in. It’s jam-packed which makes it hard to pick out any individuals, but the atmosphere is high and festive, everyone looking forward to the fights tonight, which bodes well for the house. A busy night makes book, which keeps the management sweet.

He turns back towards Erik who is finishing his drink, and says, “Darling, if you want me to go beat up Logan for impugning your honor I will.”

At that Erik’s expression twitches, just a little towards a smile. “Logan’s invulnerable.”

“Still,” Charles says, “I’d hate you to think wouldn’t try.”

“Try and get brutalized,” Erik says, but he’s hiding a real smile behind the rim of his glass now, and Charles feels good about the world as he gestures for another -- just one, though. He can’t get drunk before a match, not and do as well as he wants to in front of the man he’s marrying.

“That reminds me,” Charles says a beat later, and reaches into his pocket to draw out the three bucks he’d brought with him out of the sock drawer, passing them to Erik. “Put this on me for tonight, will you?”

He doesn’t tell Erik the real reason he’s increased the amount of his bet by half -- when he gives Erik the ring, he doesn’t want Erik’s reaction undermined by his displeasure at how Charles saved up the money for it.

“Sure,” Erik says, folding up the bills and slipping them into his own back pocket -- the movement nearly shifts David off his thigh, and David wails warningly, grasping at Erik’s shirt with both hands before deciding that, no, he’d actually rather walk, and launching into a full-throttle struggle to escape Erik’s arms and get to the floor. Charles is nearly out of his chair, ready to take David from Erik if necessary, before Erik simply gives in and deposits David on his own two feet next to the chair. David, clearly regretting this decision, grabs onto the table leg and clings to it as if for dear life.

“One of these days he’s just going to run off somewhere and I’ll never find him again,” Erik says, dangling one arm down for David to hold onto his fingers, keeping himself upright as he takes a hesitant step forward, toward Charles, who holds out a waiting hand for him.

“Your mother once told me you learned to walk at nine months,” Charles says. “She said you climbed out onto a fire escape at David’s age. It’s a good job you didn’t decide to see if you could fly.”

Another few tottering steps take David out of Erik’s reach; he snatches at Charles’ hand before he can overbalance, then laughs when he doesn’t fall over, wobbling the rest of the way to Charles, where he promptly sits on his foot, leaning against Charles’ calf.

“I think I just liked the metal,” Erik says, taking the new glass from the waiter when he comes to deliver it and having a sip. “It was a good place to sit.”

Charles smiles, feeling the corners of his eyes crinkle with it as David struggles back to his feet to start all over again. “I’m certainly a fan of fire escapes.”

“I’m sure most peeping toms are,” Erik says dryly, reaching out for David’s outstretched hand. “Come here, neshama -- there you go,” and he picks David back up into his lap, inspecting his dirty socks despite David’s protests.

As much as Charles would be happy to stay here all night with the two of them, just enjoying being out with his two favorite people, that’s not why they’re here. So, eventually, he gives in and finishes his drink, then says, “All right, I’d better go get ready.” He gets up from his chair, leaning over to press a quick kiss to Erik’s cheek. “Cheer me on?”

Erik shrugs. “Perhaps, if you put on a good show.”

“You wound me,” Charles says, but he grins, anyway, because he’s not worried about that. He always fights better when Erik is there to watch, after all. He picks up the sack he carries his gloves around in and slings it over his shoulder, then waves goodbye to David before walking away, heading for the dressing room.

*

With Charles gone, there are far fewer options for entertainment. David absorbs himself in trying to bite Erik, which requires quite a bit of attention to redirect his efforts to chewing on his toy instead; then Erik finishes his drink and pays the tab, trying not to hold anyone’s gaze for too long as he scans the crowd looking for a bookie to take down Charles’ bet. By the time he finds one, the throng is thickening, most of the queue from outside having finally found their way in, all of them well on their way to intoxication. The alphas that don’t know any better give Erik leering looks, and the few hands that find their way to Erik’s body end up with broken fingers and wrists, thanks to their owners’ fancies for wearing rings and wristwatches. If Erik were the sort of publicize his power, that might be enough to get him kicked out, but as it is no one can prove it was him who did anything.

Erik secures himself a new table with a good view of the fighting pit, sharing the space with an alpha-omega pair who seem more interested in kissing and fondling each other than watching the bouts and a grizzly old alpha who keeps pounding the table and yelling curses and encouragement down at the fighters. All three are happy enough to leave Erik and David alone.

Erik sets David in his lap, facing out toward the pits, and murmurs to him in Yiddish, “Do you want to watch Daddy fight? Daddy is going to kill every single one of these mob-sympathizing fucks. Just wait.”

David screeches happily and slaps at Erik’s thigh, which Erik interprets as approval.

It being Saturday night, there are plenty of fighters which means plenty of fights; Erik watches the first few with only semi-interest. Though there’s a lot to be said for sweaty, muscular alpha bodies grappling under bright lights, many of the alphas down there are brutish, lumpen sorts, who look more like gangsters than some of the gangsters themselves do. There are none that look like Charles.

He’s focused enough on the pits below that he isn’t really paying attention to the crowd around him, and when they finally announce Charles -- to a great deal of stomping and cheering from the crowd -- Erik cheers along with the rest of them, holding up David’s little hands to wave at Charles down below as he comes out of the dressing room, worn red gloves on both hands, only a pair of long loose shorts on, leaving his chest exposed. In the surrounds of the pit he looks small and lean compared to the other man, who must be a foot taller, and twice as wide. Erik knows Charles’ body for himself now, knows how broad his shoulders are, how thick his thighs. And this other fighter makes Charles look like a stereotypical schoolmaster, not the brawler Erik is marrying.

There’s an eddy in the crowd to his left that Erik ignores, concentrating on Charles bouncing on his toes, limbering up, but his spine stiffens and freezes solid when he hears a too-familiar voice at his elbow say, “How are you, Erik?” in a tone of infinite satisfaction.

Erik turns his head slowly, eyes wide, to find Sebastian Shaw stood at his side, leaning on the railing in front of them. He’s smiling that gash of a smile of his, an exposure of teeth like a wound showing bone.

It feels like being exsanguinated, blood draining so quickly from Erik’s face that he’s left light-headed. Whatever thoughts were in his head a moment ago blow away like ash, leaving nothing behind but the clanging alarm-bell of panic in Erik’s mind, his body remembering what Shaw did to it and desperately urging him to run away.

Instinct takes over. Erik pushes his chair back, the legs scraping against the floor with a sound like nails on a glass window, hitching David up despite David’s squawk of protest and turning on his heel to push through the people standing behind them. His heart beats like a ticking clock in his ears, an inevitable drumbeat, horrible heat burning beneath Erik’s skin. The gin he drank half an hour ago is rotten in his stomach, threatens to climb back out of his mouth and Erik -- he doesn’t dare look to see if Shaw is following. He just elbows his way through, using his power where sharp joints fail to tug people out of his way.

In the end, he makes it about twenty feet before his eyes catch a glimmer of white and his limbs freeze in place. Emma Frost stands five paces ahead, the onlookers giving her a wide berth in her pristine, snow-colored dress as she lifts a hand and flicks her fingers in his direction. His body operating on its own, Erik turns and starts walking back the way he came, slow horror welling up in his gut like a sickness. Fighting it does no good. Emma’s grip is like diamond, and it keeps his power just out of reach where he can’t use it to slice her pretty face to ribbons.

When he reaches Shaw again his space is still open, and the older alpha has vanished to be replaced by Shaw; he sits as though there could be not a thing in the world to be troubled about, his hands folded neatly atop the table as he watches the fight.

“There’s really no need for such theatrics, Erik,” Shaw says when Erik stops two feet away from him, looking around with a genial expression, one eyebrow raised. “We’re old friends, aren’t we? Take a seat.” He keeps Erik’s gaze until he sits, holding it like a snake charmer, not even blinking.

Erik perches on the edge of the chair, ready to run at any moment if he has to -- no doubt Emma Frost could take him down like a roped steer if she wanted to, but rather that than be led like a lamb to the slaughter. “No,” he says through a thick throat, his hands clutching David tightly enough that he squirms and makes a squalling, demanding noise, unhappy at his mother’s restrictive grip. “We’re not friends.”

“Oh dear,” Shaw says, with a twitch of his mouth. “I had forgotten you were so stubborn, Erik. I don’t know why, it’s not as if it’s done you any good in the past.” Then he looks down.

At David.

There’s a long pause in which Erik’s heart stops beating and David keeps squirming; he’s looking around, trying to find something to grab, and he twists to look back over his shoulder only to meet Shaw’s cold eyes, his baby-pink lips parting on a loud “Nah!”

“And who is this?” Shaw asks, watching David with the attention of a predator.

Erik tries to call out for Charles in his mind, but Frost blocks it -- it’s like running headlong into a glacier, leaving him dizzy and disoriented in its stead.

“No one,” Erik says, his fingers digging harder into David’s skin. “A friend’s baby. I’m watching him for the night.”

Shaw hums consideringly, and extends a finger which David grabs at with both hands, twisting violently enough that he nearly lurches out of Erik’s grip altogether in his eagerness to draw Shaw closer for inspection. Next to Shaw, knowing how much power Shaw contains in just that one finger, David looks altogether too much like prey.

“He looks and smells so much like you, my dear, don’t be absurd,” Shaw says, a thin smile curling at his lips, and David -- who doesn’t know any better -- squeals in delight, having found himself a new friend. Shaw’s hand pushes forward, thumb rubbing a streak of drool from David’s chin. “He has my eyes.”

*

Chapter Text

“He has my eyes.”

“No,” Erik croaks.

“Yes,” Shaw drawls, and withdraws his hand from David’s chin to wipe his wet thumb on his pants leg. He looks like the cat that’s got the cream, stood here on the balcony of his club with Erik at his mercy, everything about him screaming power. There’s no doubting who’s in control here. “Erik, my boy, you should have told me you were with child. I would have made sure the two of you were very comfortable -- particularly considering you bore me an alpha.”

“He’s not yours,” Erik says, dredging up every ounce of belief, every moment he’s ever thought of David as being Charles’ son in truth, Charles’ get; it’s small defense against Frost but he pulls it over himself anyway, willing himself to believe it so Shaw will, so Shaw will leave them alone. “He’s my husband’s. You had nothing to do with him.”

Shaw’s gaze flicks down to Erik’s hands, then back up, one eyebrow rising. “Then where is your wedding ring?”

Erik’s heart thuds in his chest. Oh, G-d. “We had to pawn it. My husband is going to go fetch it back tomorrow when we have the money.”

Shaw smiles.

“Erik, let’s not play silly games,” he says, finger tapping against the balcony railing. “This is my son, and you have kept him from me this past -- year or so, given the circumstances. Were I a vindictive man, I might take offense at that. But instead I am just delighted to find he is in the world.” His smile widens, showing teeth and genuine, awful pleasure. “What a treasure you have given me, and after already offering up the flower of your omegahood. You truly are a marvel.”

Shaw reaches over again, and before Erik can stop him -- as if he could stop him -- lifts David from Erik’s arms, David’s little legs motoring in the air before settling his weight against Shaw’s own chest, his father looking down at him with the same eyes that stare back up, icebergs meeting excited innocence.

“Give him back,” Erik says, half-rising from his chair, his heart in his throat feeling as if he might vomit it out at any moment. “Give me David -- ”

“David? A fine name,” Shaw says, and bounces David a little in his arms, eliciting a bright laugh just as the crowd around them roars, grunts and fleshy impacts resounding from the pit where Charles is still fighting. Erik can’t spare him any time, even to look and see how he’s doing, because his entire life is in the hold of the person he fears and hates most in the world.

Give him to me,” Erik insists, but all that earns him is a disapproving look from Shaw, who has his hands on Erik’s child, one on his back and the other curved under David’s bum, supporting him against his hip. David must feel like nothing to Shaw, formless and weightless, helpless in contrast to Shaw’s massive power and strength -- the thought, to Erik, is terrifying.

Shaw gestures for someone to approach, then looks back to Erik and says, “Let us go to my office to discuss this further. Logan,” and when Erik dares glance away from Shaw he sees it’s Logan Howlett who’s stepped in near, his broad build and his alphatine face completely impassive and unreadable. “Escort Mr Lehnsherr to my office, and ensure he doesn’t cause too much of a disturbance to our customers on the way.”

Logan nods, and turns to Erik with that same blank expression on his face. When he places a hand on Erik’s back Erik jerks away, furious and afraid in equal measure, and Logan shrugs then says, “Go on, then.”

Erik has no choice, not really -- not if the choice is between staying here and letting Shaw disappear upstairs with Erik’s child, never to be seen again. So he starts off after Shaw, following him through the crowd; the gathered drinkers part like the Red Sea to allow them passage, first Shaw and David, then Erik, with Logan taking up the rear as they make their way across the basement and to the narrow set of stairs leading up to the ground floor and the offices. They have to cross the same landing where Logan caught Erik a year and a half ago with murder on his mind, and Erik can’t help but wonder -- if he’d gone through with it, perhaps he would have succeeded. Then none of this would be happening.

He doesn’t look away from Shaw, can’t take his eyes off him, gaze fixed at the point between Shaw’s shoulder blades where his jacket is drawn taut, at David’s little leg hitched over Shaw’s hip, foot dangling in midair. Shaw is saying something to David in English, but Erik can’t hear it from this far back.

Shaw’s office is at the end of the hall, and he pauses in the doorway as Erik and Logan approach to say, “Good, Logan. Now go and fetch a glass of the ‘83 Scotch for me and a -- hmm, a French 75 for our Erik. That will be all.”

He lifts a hand as Logan’s footsteps retreat behind Erik, beckoning him to come forward and step into his office. The place is nothing at all like what Erik would have expected from Shaw. It’s all warm colors, leather chairs and mahogany desk and a plush Persian carpet underfoot, books lining the walls. None of that distracts Erik, however, from the press of Shaw’s hand on the small of his back, ushering him over the doorstep and into the amber light within.

“Now then,” Shaw says, guiding Erik to one of the chairs in front of his desk and then gesturing for him to sit -- Erik does, numbed to obedience by David’s perilous perch -- “this is much nicer, isn’t it? Certainly far quieter than out there. That Xavier boy does draw crowds, but they get rather rowdy when he’s having the life beaten out of him by a superior fighter. He should have lost more often; it wore my patience a little thin.”

Erik’s stomach lurches -- he has no idea if that’s true, if Charles is being hurt, really hurt, and there’s no way to know now, caught here in Shaw’s net like a stupid fish.

“I must admit I had moved on from our little dalliance these past months,” Shaw continues as he rounds his desk to take a seat in the thronelike chair behind it, settling David on his lap and fixing Erik with a cool, cruel smile. “I thought you had nothing left to offer me. And yet clearly I was wrong. Mea culpa; I should have followed up and made sure.”

“Mama,” David says, reaching for Erik. “Ma -- ”

“Hush,” Shaw says, and pushes his little hands down gently. “Mommy and Daddy are talking now, David. Later.” He looks back at Erik. “He is beautiful, Erik. As he should be, of course, with two such parents. Has he shown any sign of mutation?”

Erik doesn’t know what to say -- to tell the truth might free them or damn David, if Shaw decides he’s worthless, and to lie would be worse, Shaw wanting a demonstration. So instead he decides to grit his teeth and say nothing, hands clenching into fists on his thighs, knowing his eyes are blazing hate but unable to do anything to stop it.

“Now now. You ought to be thanking me,” Shaw says, turning David’s hand over in his own, inspecting him intently, looking over his worn little trousers and sweater, tutting over the state of his socks. “After all, my dear, it does take two to make a third. Without me there’d be no child to argue over at all.”

“You killed my mother,” Erik says flatly, the only words he feels capable of speaking anymore.

Shaw taps his tongue against his teeth. “Ah, yes, that. Regrettable, of course, but what did you expect? You should have come with me when I gave you the option -- and I did. Twice, might I add, which was uncharacteristically gracious on my part. It’s your own fault if you were too haughty to take the opportunity.”

A knock on the door -- Shaw holds up a hand to stop Erik answering and says, “Enter.” It’s Logan, returned with Shaw’s whisky and a glass of what looks like champagne for Erik, curled through with lemon rind. When Erik refuses to take it, Logan simply sets it on the edge of Shaw’s desk, within reach, then disappears again. Erik doesn’t realize until after he’s gone that he’d expected Logan to do something. To take some kind of action, give Erik a chance to take David and escape. He’d thought they were friends. Clearly not good enough friends for Logan to turn against his employer.

So, knowing he’s on his own, Erik rolls his power out through the club, and wishes he hadn’t learnt from experience how useless it is against Shaw. He counts dozens of weapons, all of them less than worthless.

“Now,” Shaw says, once Logan has gone and he’s taken a sip of his drink, setting the glass back down on his desk and swatting David’s hands away again when David tries to reach for it. “This is what’s going to happen, Erik. You and David will return with me tonight to my home, where I will have the maid prepare one of the guest rooms for you. Only temporary, of course; I’ll have a permanent nursery made for David -- and as for you, well, in time, who knows? You may find yourself sharing my bed voluntarily.” His lips curve up at one corner, like it’s a joke only Shaw appreciates. “No need to concern yourself with any of your personal belongings. I’ll have a new wardrobe made for you and our child, and you will want for nothing. As my heir, David will have the kind of life you never could afford to give him on your own, and I daresay you yourself will be the envy of every omega in this neighborhood.”

Erik sincerely doubts that, unless Shaw is thinking of particularly stupid omegas.

“I disagree,” he says, though he can feel his bones shaking in their sockets, trying to hide the trembling of fear and rage in his feet where perhaps Shaw won’t see it. “David and I will return home to our apartment, and you will have nothing to do with him, because he is not your son.”

“Biology says otherwise.”

“Biology says nothing of relevance,” Erik snaps, his hands curled so tightly now that it’s painful. “I bore him, gave birth to him, raised him, and it has nothing to do with you because I never wanted you involved. You raped me, which as far as I’m concerned waives any rights you ever could have had to David or to me. I’m not just going to do what you want because you say so like the rest of your lackeys. I’m not your bitch to order around.”

“Oh?” Shaw raises an eyebrow, and reaches up -- for a moment his hand is around the back of David’s neck, and Erik lurches forward out of his seat, mouth open and lungs heaving upward on a desperate cry of horror and memory, the way Mama’s body had fallen, her head twisted the wrong way --

“See,” Shaw says, and strokes that hand down over David’s hair, a mockery of the way Charles does it, his hand so much more elegant and fine, and terrifying. “My dear, I have you on a string. Perhaps it would be best for you to accept that rather than make me prove it over and over again.”

Erik hates him. He loathes Shaw so fiercely that he feels he might combust, might set the whole place aflame. David, seeing his face, is starting to look worried -- he makes a soft little noise and reaches out to Erik again, frowning, hands grasping.

“Now be a good boy and drink your champagne,” Shaw says, pressing David’s arms down once more. “This is a celebration, after all.”

Erik obeys, because he worries now if he doesn’t, Shaw might make good on his threat. The drink tastes too sharp and sour, stinging the tip of his tongue. The syrup does little to cut the bitterness of lemon. Shaw watches him with his mouth still smiling, and Erik can’t stand to see him and David together because it’s too keen a reminder of David’s paternity, forced to see it in David’s face, all the little ways he looks like his father.

He finishes his drink, still holding onto the stem of the now-empty glass; Shaw nods approvingly. “You can have more of that when we get you home,” he says. “More of those chocolates you liked so much, as well. So you see, my boy, there’s no need for the long face.”

As if chocolate and champagne were all Erik wanted.

“Now,” Shaw says, rising from his chair with David in arms, somehow standing even taller now than he did all those months ago. “I have a few things to handle before we retire. Stay here with the child and wait for me to retrieve you. Emma’s outside, so don’t bother trying to defy me.”

And then Shaw hands Erik his baby, David’s tiny body warm and solid in his arms again, some part of Erik feeling like it’s shaking into a thousand shattered pieces from relief. He barely notes the click of the door shutting behind Shaw, except that it means the immediate threat is out of physical reach.

It doesn’t make him feel any safer.

Even when Shaw’s left the room his presence lingers behind like a bad smell, clouding Erik’s mind. Erik thinks about trying to sneak out anyway, that maybe Shaw was lying about Frost, but just the thought earns him a mental prick: like the tip of a knife splitting the surface of his skin. He flinches, grasp tightening on David, who makes a discomforted sound in Erik’s arms and burrows his face against his shoulder.

The way Shaw described it, it’s too easy to imagine what life would be like under his reign. The claustrophobia of walls closing in around him, Shaw around every corner, every item he touched paid for with Shaw’s blood money. Nights in Shaw’s bed. David, growing up with Shaw as Papa, dressed in Shaw’s fine clothes, getting everything he wants, never knowing who he is or where he came from. David giving his first kill order. David taking over for Shaw as king of this city.

No. Never. Erik could never let his child become his father -- can’t imagine anything worse. When he thinks of what he wants David to grow up to be he thinks of Charles, of hard work and persistence and kindness, of David sat at Charles’ side learning his times tables, riding his shoulders through the park and helping Erik make dinner, of the three of them curled up in their one bed reading together in the light of a dim candle, David’s voice getting stronger and more confident as he grows under the kind of care and love Shaw will never give him. Shaw might give him money, give him power, but his love would be cold and sterile, incapable of fostering anything like life.

Erik buries his nose in David’s soft hair, breathing in that baby smell of his as he paces between bookshelves, the thick carpet deadening his footsteps and leaving everything silent but for the ticking of a clock and the rush of his own blood in his ears, the snuffle of David’s breath against his neck. Erik will never let any harm come to his baby. Even if that means harming him himself, to keep worse from befalling him.

He can’t leave -- not with Emma Frost listening to his every thought and policing his every move, ready to stop him. Nor can he use his power, for the same reason. He can’t even throw them both out of the window, not with her out there -- she’d stop him before he could even move. Erik tries not to panic, but he can’t see any way out of this, any way that doesn’t end in the same place: caught in Shaw’s mansion like a mouse in a trap, pursued at leisure by a particularly sadistic cat.

Even so, half-expecting to be stopped in his tracks, Erik goes to sit himself in the chair behind Shaw’s desk, setting David on his rump on the floor and letting him mouth at the leg of the desk as Erik pulls open the drawers one by one, dumping their contents out on the surface of the desk for examination. He doesn’t know what he’s hoping to find -- a weapon, maybe, or at least some kind of information he could use to blackmail Shaw. The papers are all invoices on various orders, none of them damning. Erik pricks his finger on the nib of a pen, too anxious to stop the metal from piercing his skin, but that’s the closest thing he finds to a weapon. Shaw doesn’t even have a gun. He doesn’t need one.

Erik makes a frustrated noise and sits back in the chair, glaring at the mess on the desk top as he sucks the bead of blood off the tip of his finger. He had thought there might be an assassination order in there, or something to do with Shaw’s illegal purchases, something he might be able to bring to the police, but it’s clean. Shaw must keep all of that stuff at his own home. Well, Erik thinks darkly, the rate things are going he’ll have access to Shaw’s home study as well, soon enough.

He hears the footsteps outside before he hears Shaw’s voice, saying something to Emma Frost; Erik grabs David and leaps to his feet, holding him close and moving away from the desk just before the door opens and Shaw is there, looking at him with that same calm, commanding smirk, his hand still on the handle as he says, “Emma my dear, go downstairs and sort out that ruckus, won’t you? I’m sure you can keep an eye on Erik at the same time.”

Emma Frost just nods, giving Erik a cool look before turning and walking away, another heartbeat’s pain accompanying her stride as if she’s trying to make sure Erik knows she’s still in his head.

“Now then,” Shaw says, stepping inside and closing the door behind himself. “I’ve made us some arrangements to get you safely home and outfitted and make sure your … ’husband’ … Mr Xavier understands he’s not to interfere in our family’s business going forward. I heard downstairs that the two of you are engaged -- is that true, Erik?”

Erik says nothing, but he feels his cheeks heating, and he raises his chin, defiant, trying to stare Shaw down.

Shaw, of course, only looks more amused, and he doesn’t even comment on the mess Erik has made of his desk as he goes perch on the corner of it, arms folded across his chest. “Well,” Shaw says, “That will hardly be necessary now, of course; you won’t need his money to legitimize yourself or our child -- you’ll have me.”

How long Shaw will actually care to keep Erik, of course, goes unsaid: they both know that once David is old enough, if Erik hasn’t learned how to fall in line, Shaw will get rid of him only too easily.

Erik takes a step back, away from Shaw, toward the seat he was in before. David struggles in his arms, trying to get to Shaw, chasing the attention of this novel and therefore fascinating new person in his life. Erik’s grip is vise-tight as he sits down, picking up the champagne flute that he’d left on the seat of the chair to clutch it in one hand, like an awkward toast.

“You won’t need his prick to keep you satisfied, either,” Shaw continues, the corners of his eyes crinkling now with his smile as he bares his teeth; he lifts a hand and strokes the backs of his fingers ever so lightly down Erik’s cheek, gaze boring into Erik’s. His voice is sickeningly sure as he continues, “I’ll keep you satisfied and full enough, once you’re under my roof,” and Erik snaps, something inside of him breaking away and only leaving room inside him for rage and desperation.

Jerking away from Shaw’s hand with a horrified cry, Erik smashes the champagne glass against the arm of his chair and holds the razor-sharp tip of the broken stem to David’s throat -- far enough away, he hopes, to keep a wriggle from impaling him, but close enough to make his damn point. Maybe close enough Frost can’t be sure she can control him in time to stop him.

“Let us go, or I swear to God I will kill him to keep him away from you,” he says, staring at Shaw with fierce eyes, daring him to make a move.

Shaw has frozen in place, even his legendary sangfroid taken off guard by Erik’s action. His pale eyes stare back, paralyzed for a long moment before finally saying, “My dear, we both know you would never harm a hair on that baby’s head.”

“I’ve already tasted your ‘affection,’” Erik snaps, getting very slowly and very carefully to his feet, “and I’ll never let David be subject to that. I would rather he and I were both dead than you ever touch him again. Believe that, because I mean it with every breath in my body.”

“You would damn yourself that way?” Shaw asks, taking a small step towards them; Erik braces himself with the glass, holding it closer until David makes a soft, pained noise, trying to move away from the prick at his throat. “I thought Jews saw suicide as a sin.”

“I would rather have everyone I’ve ever known curse my memory and spit on my grave every day than ever let you have David,” Erik says, and backs away towards the door.

What’s surprising is that Shaw lets him go. With every step Erik takes, he’s more certain that Frost will interfere, or that Shaw will move, either for Erik or for David, will use that preternatural strength to rip David from Erik’s hands before Erik can get away -- either to defend them or to make good on his threat. It’s only when Erik is at the door -- and he’s amazed to find that, somehow, his power is in his hands again, that the knob twists of its own accord behind him, what the hell -- that Shaw speaks.

“There’s nowhere for you to go, my boy,” Shaw says, almost gentle. “I own this city. There’s nowhere for you to hide.”

Erik pushes the door back. “We’ll see about that.”

He doesn’t dare lower the glass from David’s throat until they’re down the stairs and out of Shaw’s sight.

*

Charles feels like utter shit, his head pounding along with his ribs, upper arms, lower arms, thighs and back. Still, despite the pain he keeps working his way along the corridor, leaning heavily against the wall as he heads for Shaw’s office, and Erik. He has to get there. He has to.

Mueller was a bigger bastard than the guys Charles usually fights, with a wicked right hook and much lighter feet than someone his size ought to have. Even with telepathy Charles was barely able to keep ahead of him half the time, and the other half he spent getting the snot beaten out of him while trying to land his own punches, enough at least to be unembarrassed by his performance. He could only imagine what Erik was thinking to see Charles being demolished like that, and the thought of losing those three dollars … it stung as badly as the sweat and blood dripping into his eyes.

He won, in the end, by cheating and messing with Mueller’s vision until Charles could get in with a haymaker and lay him out cold on the floor, huffing and blowing over him like a mountaineer -- and then Logan had grabbed him as he eased himself sorely through the ropes and told him Shaw has Erik, upstairs in his office, has David, too.

Hearing that -- Charles had wanted to destroy Logan for leaving him there, to beat him so badly even he wouldn’t get back up. His heart and mind had seized up, terror and fury and desperate love all together, and then -- forget Logan, the only thought in his head was to get to Erik. To get to him now.

Charles wants to scream, his body hurts so much, but he has to keep moving. Has to get to Erik. It’s the only important thing.

He keeps moving, only pausing when he hears someone moving around the corner. He’s in no state to take anyone on physically, so he gets ready in his mind to lash out and tries to look as if he’s ready to beat the shit out of somebody -- when suddenly the person coming around the corner is Erik, stopping dead in the middle of the corridor and brandishing a piece of broken glass at Charles with wide, animal eyes.

“Charles,” Erik breathes, voice breaking. He has David in his arms, thank God, and Charles tries not to overinterpret the tiny pinprick-sized bead of blood on David’s throat. Erik grabs Charles’ sleeve, shaking him urgently. “You have to wipe his memory, you have to wipe everyone’s memory. Make them forget we ever existed.”

Charles sways on his feet when Erik grabs his arm, but Erik scarcely seems to notice. What Charles feels of his mind is all rabid fear and desperation, Erik’s nails digging into his flesh.

“He knows. Charles, he -- he knows about David, he’s going to take him from us. You have to make him forget!”

The words slot into Charles’ mind belatedly, fitting together like puzzle pieces, and the bottom drops out of his stomach. Because he knows without looking exactly what Shaw saw in David’s face, and what lengths Shaw would go to in order to keep his child and that child’s mother in line. “Christ,” Charles hisses, and grabs Erik’s arm in turn, as much to steady himself as to try and pull Erik away, toward the door. “Okay -- okay, but we need to get you out of here, I can’t -- I need to think.”

His mind is still woozy from the fight, and even with Emma’s influence gone -- Logan said he took care of her, whatever that means -- Charles doesn’t trust his power to operate under stress right now.

“There’s no time for that,” Erik says, voice low and urgent. “Just do it now, please, Charles. He’ll come after us as soon as he thinks I’ll have let my guard down enough, he might even get Azazel to grab me or David -- ”

“Okay,” Charles says, trying to focus, and tugs Erik into the shadow of the doorframe, leaning back against the wood and closing his eyes. “Give me a minute.”

It’s excruciatingly difficult trying to think his way past the muffled feeling in his brain, and it takes Charles several seconds longer than usual even to find Shaw’s mind, now pacing upstairs on his phone listening to it ring; he reaches out and holds him still, pausing him, and even that is marathon-like, straining a muscle that shouldn’t be so overstretched. Taking deeper hold takes longer, spreading tendrils through Shaw’s mind to find all the recent thoughts related to his top priority -- Erik and David -- and Charles lets out a low breath, ribs screaming, as he wipes them away, leaving déjà vu behind instead, repeated memories filling in the gaps until nobody will be able to see them without inspecting every inch by hand. It won’t get rid of any older memories of Erik -- of raping Erik, that bastard -- but it will mean he forgets all about David, and that’s the important thing.

“Shaw’s done. Who else?” he asks, breathlessly, opening his eyes and looking at Erik.

“Emma Frost,” Erik says immediately, “and Azazel, if he’s in range.”

“Okay,” Charles says, and closes his eyes again to concentrate on the new names. While he’s in there he takes away the memory of Logan attacking Emma, too -- he might not have helped Erik directly, but that doesn’t mean Shaw won’t kill him for doing as much as he did, even if he doesn’t know why.

When that’s done he feels rougher, if possible, than he even did before, as if every part of him now has been run ragged; Charles pushes to his feet and wavers there for a moment before saying, “Let’s get out of here,” and taking Erik’s arm.

It’s a dizzy path out of the speakeasy and onto the street. Erik keeps tugging out of Charles’ grasp, looking over his shoulder like he expects to find Shaw standing there, smiling at them -- a part of Charles does, too, even though he still has one finger in Shaw’s mind, knows Shaw’s forgotten about the past hour entirely.

“It’s okay,” he tells Erik as they spill out into the alley, turning to catch Erik by both shoulders; Erik’s shivering, and not just from the rain that pours down over them, soaking through their clothes chilling them to the bone. His hair is plastered over his forehead, his skin pale and eyes wide -- he looks how Charles imagines a ghost might, his mind rattling up against Charles’, strung taut and afraid. “It’s okay, Erik -- it’s over. I promise.”

Thunder cracks overhead, but Erik doesn’t even blink, or move from the puddle he’s standing in even though Charles feels it soaking into Erik’s shoes, his socks.

“Are you sure?” Erik insists. David’s screaming in his arms now, cold and wet and afraid because his mother is afraid. Charles tastes blood in his mouth, mixed with rainwater as it cuts down his face.

“I’m sure,” Charles says.

“Then let’s get out of here,” Erik says, tugging on Charles’ arm. They walk quickly away down the street, though Charles is struggling a bit to keep up given the way he feels like his stuffing got taken out and then put back in wrong. Still, they can’t stay here, not risking Shaw or any of his other goons coming out and finding them, and Charles -- well, he won, he’s owed his money, but he’s not going to stop to get it, even if it means losing his three bucks. If he’s very lucky Logan will be good for it.

He reaches out with his mind to soothe David, quieting him until he falls asleep on Erik’s shoulder; when Erik glances at him, nervous and curious, Charles says, “We’ll draw less attention this way.”

Erik accepts that easily enough, but when Charles hisses through his teeth as he joggles what he suspects is a broken rib he says, sounding worried, “You don’t look so good.”

“I’ll be fine,” Charles insists, setting his jaw and keeping putting one foot in front of the other, though every part of him feels bruised. It’s a sign of how freaked out Erik is that he doesn’t argue, just falls silent and keeps moving. Despite everything he stays with Charles instead of racing on ahead the way he clearly wants to, to get inside and out of sight.

It feels like the journey home is ten times longer than usual. They walk for what feels like impossible miles, as if some giant has grabbed the island of Manhattan and stretched it like taffy, making every street, every sidewalk, elongate until Charles can barely see the end of them, thin and wavering; that might just be his vision, of course, after taking a few blows to the head. Erik is all but holding Charles up by the time they get back to the apartment, and once he’s sat Charles down at the kitchen table Erik goes immediately to the windows to draw the blinds, though that doesn’t seem to make him feel any better. He comes back over to sit by Charles, clutching David in both arms, staring at the door like he still expects it to slam open.

Charles reaches over, settling his hand on Erik’s thigh and giving it what he hopes is a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll graduate soon,” he says. “We don’t have to stay here.”

Erik swallows, his throat shifting beneath thin skin. “That’s what Mama said. Before she died. She said we’d move.”

“We will move,” Charles promises. “We have enough money saved up. It’ll be hard at first, but we can do it. We’ll go as far as we can -- we’ll go to California, and never come back.”

Charles can tell Erik’s thinking about the life he has here, about the Jewish community and his job and the memories of his mother -- but he’s also thinking about memories of how she died, and what might happen if he ever, ever sees Shaw with David again. He nods. “California. All right. ...All right.”

*

After everything that happens at the Caspartina, Erik doesn’t want to linger in New York even if Shaw doesn’t remember, and Charles can’t blame him. Given what happened to Edie right after she decided they should move, it feels like an omen, and so Charles turns his attention entirely to finishing his teaching qualification so they can get out of the city as fast as possible.

He quits his jobs and turns to studying full-time, working long hours at their kitchen table with his books and his papers, cramming his brain so full that by the time Erik gets home from the shift he’s taken over from Charles at the diner Charles can barely remember how to talk about anything that isn’t classroom control and lesson planning. Charles being at home means that David can stay there with him during the day, which is better, too, because it means Erik almost never leaves the apartment with the baby, giving them the chance of being seen by Shaw or any of his goons.

It’s a tense two months, that summer, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Rabbi Leibowitz isn’t happy about them leaving either, even if he does understand it -- he seems to think Charles and Erik are running away so they can live in sin where nobody will know they’re not married. There’s no point trying to convince him, though. Soon enough Charles and Erik will be far out of his reach, and that of everyone else they know.

It’s bittersweet, when they finally sell the last of their belongings and board the train, bags in hand, that takes them across the country and to California. Charles catches Erik sitting by himself in the cabin one day as they steam through Iowa, his brow pressed against the cold window-glass watching the prairie slip by -- for a long moment Erik doesn’t seem to realize Charles is even there, twisting his engagement ring round and round his finger. It’s the same ring his mother had, though Erik wears it now, and it’s her she’s thinking of as he stares out at the rolling hills and amber grass, seeing none of it.

“I’m sorry,” Charles says, when he finally sits down at Erik’s side. Erik just shakes his head, looking back over his shoulder at Charles and at David in Charles’ lap, and says, “She isn’t there, anyway. She isn’t anywhere.”

Charles doesn’t know what to say to that.

Erik’s happier when they’re actually in California, when they move into their second floor walk-up in San Francisco -- the rent’s far cheaper even than their shoddy tenement in New York, and their window faces east, where they can watch the sun rise over the foggy hills and the clouds creep between the houses. Erik pins David’s crayon drawings on the walls next to Charles’ diploma and slowly, slowly, the lines start to ease from his face. He looks young again -- like the seventeen-year-old he is, no longer old before his time.

They find a new rabbi, Charles completes his Hebrew studies, and they get married six months after they reach California. Charles has a job as a teacher; Erik is applying for scholarships to go back to school.

Everything is just -- perfect.

“Come here,” Charles says, drawing Erik into his orbit, and kisses him soundly, enthralled even now after two weeks of marriage at Erik letting him do this again, not pushing his hands down and telling him they have to wait, holding him just as close. It’s sunny outside, the afternoon light streaming in through the window and painting a rectangle on the floor where the dust dances like motes of gold, warming Charles’ back where he’s stood right in it, kissing his wife. Erik pushes back against Charles just as fiercely, his fingers laced into Charles’ hair to hold him there, his mouth hot and hungry. When Charles’ hand slips down to Erik’s ass, squeezing, Erik just groans and kisses him harder, tugging on Charles’ lower lip with his teeth.

It shouldn’t be so easy, and yet it is, Erik responding to Charles’ touch and letting Charles draw him back toward the bed. This time, Erik pushes Charles down, climbing after him to straddle his hips and bite at his neck.

“I love you,” Charles says, tugging Erik’s clothes off and away from his body, tossing them onto the floor for the time being; he’ll pick them up later, but for now he just wants to look, to see Erik in daylight, bared to his gaze. They can afford heating here -- Erik can grab Charles’ shirt and drag it off him, then look at him with hot eyes, months of waiting not yet sated by two weeks of marriage and moments grabbed when David is asleep or elsewhere, like now while he’s at daycare. They can afford daycare, now, which means enough time for Charles to strip off his pants and for Erik to climb back on top of him and slowly, achingly, sink down onto Charles’ cock, his throat and chest flushed with arousal as he fills himself with Charles.

Erik’s breath shudders when he starts rocking back and forth, riding his own pleasure, and his hands lace tight with Charles’, fingers curling together as he works them both to orgasm and doesn’t pull away when Charles comes, stays there even though it scares him.

Charles has never known anyone braver, or loved anyone more.

Afterwards, when they’re tied together and Erik’s body is a hot weight against his, his limbs lax and languid and moving easily as Charles positions them together on the bed, Erik murmurs: “As it turns out, I like this better than cake.”

And even though Charles has already bought him a cake, has it hidden in the back of the icebox, he says, “Well. Happy birthday, then.”

Erik is tight and clenching around Charles’ knot, his body welcoming Charles in, working around him like he wants more. It’s everything Charles used to think he could never have, to the point it had seemed it would never happen. Charles strokes Erik’s back, the back of his neck, and kisses his shoulder, almost overcome with the feeling of it, of finally being here.

Later, they’ll have to pick up David from daycare, and maybe go for a walk, all three of them, around the neighborhood; Charles has homework to mark, and Erik will listen to his radio shows, and the couple who live downstairs will have an argument, and Charles will rap on the floor with the broom handle to get them to shut up. They’ll eat dinner and talk about the future, and all of that sounds great, but right now -- right now Charles is exactly where he wants to be.

*