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Charles climbs onto the bus, eyeing the number at the front warily as he slides into a seat. He’s pretty sure he’s on the right one, but now would not be the time to make a mistake, not with Erik waiting for him. Charles hasn’t had much need to rely on the city bus system—he lives within walking distance of campus, and the University’s internal bus system takes him everywhere he needs to go. But it seems Erik lives quite a bit off campus, and so he spent the morning online, trying to figure out his bus route.

He tells himself that someone who almost has a doctorate should be able to figure out a small city’s public transformation, and leans back into his seat, forcing himself to relax. He has the name of Erik’s stop written down on the piece of paper clutched in his hand, and he watches the streets go by with trepidation, determined not to miss it.

Charles has no illusions about how spoiled he is—he grew up in the lap of luxury, where even the idea of getting on a city bus would be laughable. In Boston he took the T, but only within the fairly affluent neighborhood immediately surrounding Harvard. As he watches the streets pass by, he begins to realize that Erik might not live in the best of neighborhoods.

And when he sees the stop that’s written on his slip of paper, he’s sure of it.

The buildings surrounding him as he steps off of the bus are grimy and run down, garish graffiti scrawled across their every surface. Charles grips his bag a little tighter as he walks down the street, suddenly thankful that he doesn’t have to be here after dark. A lean, hard-eyed boy lounges at the corner, watching him from underneath his raised hood. Charles averts his eyes and walks a little faster.

The street number Erik gave him leads him to a run down convenience store, a blinking neon sign in the window advertising the beer they stocked. He eyes it mistrustfully, certain he must have gotten something wrong, until he notices a door to the right of the store, gray paint peeling off of its unmarked surface. Tentatively, he raises a hand to knock.

The door opens almost immediately. “Hi,” Erik says hesitantly. “You found it.”

“Yeah, no trouble,” Charles says as smoothly as he can manage, as if he didn’t notice the state of the neighborhood.

“Come on up,” Erik pivots in the dimly lit hallway and starts up a flight of stairs. It’s so narrow that they couldn’t walk side-by-side. Charles trails after him, certain he’s never been in a place like this before.

At the top of the stairs is another door, adorned with two locks more than the one downstairs. Right now, however, it’s propped open, and from within he can hear the strains of happy children’s music.

“Well, this is it,” Erik tells him, pushing the door open all the way. The nervous hunch of his shoulders would tell Charles of his embarrassment, even if he wasn’t projecting shame so loudly Charles almost flinches away from it.

He doesn’t want someone as respectable as Charles to see the state he lives in. Doesn’t want anyone to know that this is the best he can provide for his daughter.

Charles wants to reach out for him, then, to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder and tell him how brave Charles thinks he is, how astonished he is that Erik manages as much as he does.

But he can tell from the tense lines of the boy’s back that his fumbling comfort would not be appreciated.

The apartment is tiny, barely bigger than Charles’ kitchen in his own place on campus. The room they stand in contains the kitchen (a clutter of appliances on the left-hand wall and a tiny table, one leg propped up by a thin book) and the living room (a shabby futon underneath the only window). Charles’ heart sinks as he notices the crib, tucked into the corner of the room.

Two door lead off from the main room, which Charles assumes must be the bedroom and the bathroom.

At least it’s not a studio, he tells himself firmly as his eyes linger on the crib and changing table crowding the room. It could be worse.

As tiny and shabby as the apartment is, it’s impeccably clean, except for the detritus that comes with having a baby in residence—flashcards depicting adorable animals are spread under his feet, a blanket lies haphazardly in the middle of the floor, and Lorna herself is perched next to the futon, surrounded by a sea of crayons. A 13-inch television sits on the floor in the corner, blasting something Charles vaguely recognizes as Sesame Street. That has a big yellow bird, doesn’t it?

“Um, there’s juice in the fridge, and I left some snacks out on the counter,” Erik says, drawing Charles’ eyes away from the cramped sitting room. “Bathroom is through there. She should be happy playing and watching Sesame Street for awhile. If she starts to fuss, she’s probably hungry.”

Charles congratulates himself on his knowledge of children’s television shows. He’s practically a natural at this babysitting stuff.

“I’m sure we’ll be fine. She seems much more comfortable here than at the café.”

“Yeah, the bus ride stresses her out a little, I think,” Erik says ruefully. “And all the bustle of getting her packed up and out of the house.”

“I can imagine.” Charles doesn’t have to imagine; he can see Erik running around the apartment, gathering everything while Lorna whines on the floor. He can feel the frustration and helplessness coursing through the boy as he tries to quiet his daughter, even as she squirms and protests being placed in the carrier he wears on his back. He can practically taste Erik’s panic as he glances at the clock and realizes they’re going to be late, again.

Charles shakes his head, drawing himself out of Erik’s thoughts. He knows better than to go delving where he hasn’t been invited; he hasn’t even told Erik about his mutation yet (although the boy would have been issued with a automatic warning when he was assigned Charles’ seminar group, just like all his other students).

He feels like it’s a conversation they could have, though, without Erik getting upset or afraid. Even without Erik’s mutation, Charles is aware of how much metal there is in the tiny apartment. The furniture is metal where possible—nearly everything but Lorna’s crib and changing table. Balls of metal line the shelves in the kitchen, unformed masses just waiting for Erik to shape them into something new and incredible. What little decoration there is appears to have been provided by Erik, shaped out of metal and hung on the walls. Some of them are quite lovely, Charles notes.

Erik clearly delights in his mutation. He’s not afraid to use it, to exercise it, to flaunt it. Perhaps, then, he will be accepting of Charles’, as well.

“Alright, I guess I should go,” Erik says, shifting awkwardly. He’s clearly aware of how strange it is to have a teacher in his home, just as Charles is surprisingly uncomfortable with this peek into his student’s life. He’s grown so accustomed to knowing nothing about the kids he teaches, to going without the insight he’s relied on his whole life. It’s funny how two-dimensional people become when he can’t read their minds; he sometimes finds it hard to believe that the rest of the world functions that way all the time.

But now, even without his accidental slip into Erik’s mind, Charles is seeing so much more of the boy; he is seeing behind the façade of ‘student,’ to find the real person underneath.

“Have a good class,” Charles tells him pleasantly, trying to restore some semblance of normalcy to their interaction. Erik nods and ducks down beside Lorna, running a hand gently over her hair. She spares him a brief glance before turning back to the television.

“She’s certainly engrossed.”

Erik rolls her eyes. “Wait until Elmo comes on. She won’t even know you’re in the room.” He ducks down, pressing a kiss to her auburn hair. “Be a good girl for Charles. Daddy will be home soon.”

He looks at her fondly for a moment before standing and reaching for his school bag. “Thanks again,” he says gruffly as he lets himself out the door.

“Alright,” Charles smiles down at Lorna. “It’s just you and me again.”

She glances over at him stonily, before shifting her gaze back to the large yellow bird on the screen. If Charles hadn’t just seen her do the same to her father, he’d be offended.

While Lorna is suitably distracted, her gaze going back and forth between the television and her coloring, Charles looks around the apartment again. He sees the piles of books by the small metal table, jutting awkwardly out from the kitchen into the living room space. They all bear the bright yellow “USED” sticker used by the campus bookstore. Charles hopes they aren’t in too bad condition to be of any use. He’s seen used books where every line of text had been highlighted, by either a very enthusiastic or very dense (or, likely, both) student.

Stuck to the refrigerator is an impressively lengthy list of female names and phone numbers. For a second Charles is scandalized, until he looks closer and sees notes under each name. Becki—can’t stay after 9pm. Jennifer—mom can only drive her on Tuesdays, etc.

Babysitters, Charles realizes.

There are a dozen names on the list, each with their own caveat, preventing them from being really useful to Erik. Some of the notes added make Charles wince, like Showed up stoned, and I think she stole money out of my bedroom.

He hopes Erik never called those girls again.

As strange as it is to be in a student’s house, to be granted this intimate peek into his personal life, Charles is once again relieved that he can do this for Erik, that he can help out, even if it is for just an hour and a half each week.

If Charles’ other students put the kind of energy that Erik puts into merely finding a babysitter into their schoolwork, he’d have a class of straight-A students.

Next to the list are several photos of Lorna: one in which she is a tiny infant, asleep in her bassinet, impossibly small and angelic. Charles can’t help the grin that spreads over his face at the sight. In the next she’s older, strapped into a highchair and wearing a goatee of orange puree. She blinks up at the camera, appearing startled by everything that’s happening to her. Charles chuckles. In the last she is nearly the age she is now. It’s an extreme close-up, as she evidently reaches for her father’s camera, one side of the photo obscured by a small, baby thumb.

All three are cute photos, but what Charles really notices is the lack of anyone but Lorna represented on the fridge. Erik isn’t in any of the pictures; presumably he was the one behind the camera. But there’s also no one else. No family, no friends. Charles wonders where Lorna’s mother is; even in the photo in which Lorna is a newborn, there’s no sign of the woman who gave birth to her.

He feels something brush against his leg, and he looks down with a start into Lorna’s grinning face.

“Hi!” she says, tugging on his trouser leg. She is somewhat unsteady on her little feet, and she grips tightly to the fabric to keep herself upright, neck craned back to meet Charles’ eyes.

“Hello,” he says gently, reaching down to lay a hand on her downy soft hair. He glances back at the pictures on the refrigerator. “Where is your mother, little one?” he whispers under his breath. He’s not sure how much Lorna understands of what he says, and he neither wants to set her off, or have her repeat something damning in front of Erik. The last thing his student needs is a reminder of the people who should be present in his life, but apparently are not.

As if Lorna isn’t reminder enough, Charles thinks sadly.

He leans down to scoop Lorna up, grunting under the weight of her. He’s only twenty-two, but his back gives a twinge of protest as he straightens from the waist, hauling her twenty-odd pounds up against his chest.

One she is at face level she reaches out, and with an air of utmost gravity, inserts her hand into his mouth.

“Hey!” he protests, words muffled by the fingers curled around his bottom front teeth.

“Teef!” she declares.

“Yes, teeth,” Charles agrees, maneuvering her fingers out of his mouth. He grimaces at the taste, wondering just what all she’s been touching since her hands were last washed.

He looks at her, and then at the kitchen sink, and then back again. How does one wash a toddler’s hands, he wonders?

He sets her gently on the kitchen counter, standing close to box her in with his own body, and reaches for a paper towel. She watches with interest until he reaches for her with the damp towel.

“No!” she scoots back with surprising speed, batting angrily at his hands.

“But I want to wash you off, “ he cajoles. “You’ve got my saliva all over your hands.”

He grabs for one of her tiny hands, but she pulls it out of his grasp. “No!”

“Please?”

She looks at him sternly. “No!”

Charles sighs. Objectively he knows that he is the adult here, and he should be able to get her to do what he wants. He just doesn’t know how, exactly. “Alright,” he relents, turning to deposit the damp paper towel in the trash.

“Ooh!”

Lorna’s delighted coo has him spinning back around. She’s leaning forward, little hands thrust under the spray of the faucet.

“Well.” Charles says. “I suppose that’s one way to do it.”

He leans over, helping her to suds and rinse her tiny hands, scrubbing between each finger. She laughs delightedly the whole while, splashing playfully at the rush of water. By the time they are done Charles is more than a little damp, but Lorna’s hands are definitely clean, and he feels inordinately pleased with himself, a feeling of accomplishment that is startlingly akin to when he finishes an important piece of research for this thesis. Look at me! the feeling says, look what I can do!

He lifts Lorna off the counter with a swoop, smiling as she squeals and claps her hands.

He carries her back over to the refrigerator and is just reaching for the handle when she slaps her hand against its surface excitedly.

“ Baby!” she declares, running her hand over the pictures of herself.

“Silly,” Charles chides. “That’s you.”

“Baby!” Lorna corrects.

“Yes, you as a baby. You’re very tiny there,” Charles points to the newborn picture.

“Baby,” Lorna grins.

Charles knows he’s not going to win this argument, so he gives up trying, instead swinging the door open and reaching inside for a juice box. It’s interesting, though. When do people begin to recognize themselves in pictures? What cognitive functions does that require? How will Lorna learn how?

He’s never thought much about child development before, past the fact that they do develop, that the screaming babies in grocery stores and on planes will one day stop being senseless noise machines and grow up into real people, with whom Charles can have a conversation.

But the way it happens…he’s never really thought about it, and now as he looks at Lorna, sucking happily on the straw end of her juice box, it seems incredible. The things she will have to learn to become even a child, let alone an adult.

The human mind, Charles thinks with a shake of his head. He knows how incredible it is, has felt every crevice of it, every quirk and every depth. But it seems so much more incredible now that he’s looking at Lorna; who is already a person, and yet who will become an entirely different person.

Shaped, in large part, by Erik; the only person truly in her life.

What responsibility to place on the shoulders of a teenager.

Charles sinks into the cushions of the beaten-up futon, settling Lorna onto his lap as she happily drinks her juice.

He wants to know so much more about Erik, about how he ended up in this situation.

It is clear that the boy adores Lorna and would do anything for her. But being a single dad to a toddler is not the goal of most teenage boys. How did he find himself here?

____________________________________________________



Charles hears the door on the street level slam, and then the sound of Erik running up the stairs, taking them two at a time if the thud of his steps is to be trusted. A second later the boy bursts through the door. He pauses in the threshold, surveying the room as if he expects to find disaster.

Instead, Charles knows that he sees Charles and Lorna nestled together on the couch, the toddler’s eyes growing heavy as they read through one of her many picture books. She’s snuggled into his side, one of her fists jabbed into her mouth, sucking on it noisily. The moment she spots her father, however, she removes the hand from her mouth and gives him a big, moist grin.

“Hi!” She says, rousing enough to sit up slightly, leaning instinctively towards him.

“Everything go okay?” Erik asks, a smile forming on his face.

“Everything was fine. She was so much happier being here than in the café.”

Erik nods, setting his bag down and crossing the room. “I figured it would be easier, except that you had to come all the way out here…”

“I didn’t mind,” Charles assures him, closing the book and setting it aside on the towering pile of those he had already read today. “It really was much easier looking after her here.”

And it was, truly, but Charles can also see that it was easier on Erik, and knowing himself, he’d tell the boy everything was fine even if Lorna had screamed the whole time and he got mugged on his way home.

Which he certainly hopes doesn’t happen.

Erik comes to stand in front of the futon, leaning over close to smooth the hair back from Lorna’s forehead. She smiles sleepily, dropping back against Charles’ side.

“Looks like it’s time for your nap,” Erik says fondly, scooping her up in his arms.

“I’ve only just changed her,” Charles reports, “And she had a big snack and two juice boxes.”

“Good job,” Erik says, clearly impressed. Again, Charles feels inexplicably proud of his ability to keep a toddler alive, clean and hydrated for two hours.

Lorna droops against Erik as he carries her over to the crib, settling her in and drawing a blanket up over her small form. She burrows into it, turning onto her front and curling up into a little ball. Charles feels his heart go soft.

“Uh,” Erik says, turning back around and finding Charles watching him. “Since she sleeps in here, I normally just have to hide in my room for her whole nap.” He shifts awkwardly on his feet.

“Oh!” Charles realizes. “Yes, of course, let me get out of your hair.”

“You’re not in the way, or anything,” Erik says hurriedly. “It’s just that she can’t sleep with people in here. It’s why we don’t share the bedroom in the first place.”

“That makes sense,” Charles agrees in a whisper, reaching for his bag and gathering up the few belongings he’s strewn about Erik’s apartment, and making sure he has all the essentials: bus pass, keys, phone and wallet. Wouldn’t do to leave one of those behind at his student’s house. “I’ll see you in seminar, then,” he offers hopefully, knowing (and hating) that Erik’s attendance relies on the availability of one of the irresponsible girls listened on the door of the refrigerator.

“Let me walk you out,” Erik offers. It’s not much of a walk, but they step out into the exterior hall together, letting the door swing gently shut behind them. Erik stops it a moment before it closes, propping it open ever so slightly.

“Thank you again for doing this,” he says, not quite meeting Charles’ eyes. It clearly takes a lot out of him to say the words, and Charles wonders once again what’s happened in his life to make him so fiercely independent, so unwilling to rely on the help of others.

“Erik,” he says after a brief moment of hesitation. “I don’t mean to pry, but…how did this happen? Lorna, I mean.”

For a second Charles can see that Erik is caught off guard; his hand falters on the knob of the door. It is only a second, though, and then his confident mask slides back into place. He arches an eyebrow at Charles. “You teach biology. Surely you know.”

“Very funny,” Charles rolls his eyes. It is an opportunity to let the question go, to walk out the door and leave Erik his privacy.

But Charles has never been very good with boundaries. “Where is her mother?” he asks bluntly.

Erik blanches, the expression just flickering over his face. “Not here.”

“But she’s…?” Charles asks, surprised.

It takes Erik a moment and then realization dawns. “Alive? Yes. It’s nothing like that.”

“Ah.” Charles hadn’t been able to think of any other excuse for Erik’s total independence in caring for Lorna.

Erik shifts awkwardly, peering behind himself at the door to his apartment, as if considering making a break for it.

But after a moment he squares his shoulders and turns back to Charles. “She left,” he says flatly.

“Left?” Charles parrots dumbly. “Just…left you with Lorna?”

The boy nods. “We lived here together, for a bit. Her parents kicked her out when they found out she was pregnant, and she had nowhere else to go. My parents wouldn’t let her stay at our house, so I found this place and moved out. My parents…weren’t happy about it.”

Even without using his powers Charles can feel the depth behind that statement, the layers of anger and sadness.

“So, what happened?” he ask gently, shifting closer and, after a second’s pause, laying a hand on Erik’s arm.

The boy tenses but doesn’t shake him off. Charles can tell that Erik isn’t used to people getting close, but Charles always been tactile, especially when he feels like the person needs to be comforted.

He’s had to turn that aspect of himself off for teaching, but he figures it’s alright to make an exception now, when Erik looks so vulnerable.

He gives the boy’s arm an encouraging squeeze.

“After Lorna was born, Magda just got…overwhelmed. It was hard.” He looks up, meeting Charles’ eyes. “Really hard. She got up six or seven times a night. It seemed like neither of us ever slept for more than twenty minutes. And it just went on for weeks. Money was really tight, and then Magda decided she didn’t want to breastfeed, and formula is so expensive, and we could barely keep it together and one day I came home and she was just…gone.”

He gives a shuddery sigh that nearly breaks Charles’ heart. He can see that Erik is trying to steel himself, to keep it all together as he has so clearly done for the past two years.

“Lorna was in her bassinet, all alone in the apartment,” Erik’s face clouds, his brow lowering. “She just left her here alone, knowing I wouldn’t be back for hours. What if something had happened?” he snaps.

Even through his shields, Charles can feel Erik’s rage bubbling to the surface. “But nothing did happen,” he says soothingly.

“Yeah, but she couldn’t have known that. It was just so,” he clenches his fists, arm muscles contracting under Charles’ hand. “So irresponsible. She left a note, saying she couldn’t handle it, she was too young to be a mother, and that her parents had told her she could come back if she came back without Lorna.”

Charles shakes his head. Of course it was hard, he can see how hard it must have been for them, two seventeen year olds with a newborn. But it must have been just as hard for Erik, and he stayed.

“And so you were left to care for her on your own?”

Erik’s nod is weary. “My parents were happy Magda left. They thought I’d put Lorna up for adoption and come home and be their good son again, go to temple and meet some nice Jewish girl and forget all about Lorna. When I told them that I was keeping her, they shut me out.”

“Just like that?” Charles has known neglect; he has long since ceased being surprised that some parents don’t care. His own mother would have probably loved to do just what Magda did: to abandon her child and go back to living her life, without a baby getting in the way. There had been nannies and maids and cooks to raise Charles, and it had still been made clear to him that he was impinging on Mother’s social calendar.

But what he can’t understand is a previously happy family torn apart by something like a baby. If Erik’s parents had loved him, if his childhood had been a happy one, how could they just…turn it off like that?

Erik gives a weary shrug. “Just like that. I think they’re hoping it’ll be too hard, that eventually I’ll give up. As if Lorna is just something I could walk away from.”

Like her mother, hangs unspoken in the air, tangible as if Charles had dipped into Erik’s mind.

Even without reading the boy’s mind, Charles knows not to say ‘I’m sorry,’ even though he wants to. He knows not to give Erik anything approximating pity.

Instead he says, “You’re doing an incredible job with her, and school, and everything. I’m very impressed.”

Erik straightens up ever so slightly, rising up to the praise. “I make it work,” he says, and Charles hears steel in his voice.

“Yes, you do. But I’d like to help when I can,” he adds gently.

“I—” Erik stops, looks away, and then starts again. “I don’t want you to go out of your way.”

He’s so unused to receiving help, Charles knows. He’s used to doing this all on his own, finding pride in mere survival.

“I want you to do well in your studies,” Charles says, just as firm as Erik can be. “And I like spending time with Lorna.”

The boy softens, slightly. “Well, thank you.”

There’s so much more Charles wants to say, but he settles for, “You’re a good student. I like having those.” He gives him a small smile. “So, I’ll see you in seminar?”

“See you then,” Erik agrees. Charles thinks he feels a slight contentment radiating off of the boy, that hadn’t been there before. He hopes it’s been cathartic for Erik to talk about his family, his struggles as a single dad. He hopes his encouragement makes things even a little bit easier for the boy.

He lets himself out at the street level, the noisy blare of traffic piercing the quiet of the dim hallway. He shuts the door behind him, his thoughts still back in the small apartment, with the stubborn, resilient, capable young man and his adorable daughter.


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