The trip to Erik’s house is familiar but unsettling; Charles had convinced himself it was a journey he would never take again. The neighborhood is just as dodgy as the first time he was there, but this time Charles is nervous for a different reason.
Moira had been completely exasperated when he told her he had agreed to babysit for Erik again. She was convinced he was playing fast and loose with his career because he had some kind of martyr complex; Charles isn’t entirely sure she’s wrong. But here he is, standing outside of Erik’s run-down building, steeling himself to knock and see him again.
It had been a week since Erik showed up at his office—the boy had forwarded Charles his class schedule as promised, and Charles had surmised that he could watch Lorna two days a week this term, if he took a little time away from his own research.
Not that he’d told Erik that.
Martyr complex indeed, Charles thinks with a shake of his head, rapping his knuckles firmly against the unmarked door of Erik’s apartment.
The door is wrenched open before he’s even dropped his hand and there’s Erik, looking at him with a level of intensity that makes Charles falter.
“Come on in,” he says eagerly.
“Um, sure. How are you?” Charles steps into the dim hallway. It’s just as shabby and narrow as he remembered, but he doesn’t notice anything but the boy in front of him. He’s freshly showered, his hair still damp, curling just over the tops of his ears.
He really is very good looking, Charles thinks dimly.
“I’m fine. My classes seem good this semester.” Erik starts up the stairs, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure Charles is following.
Charles very pointedly does not look at how Erik’s slim-fitting jeans pull tight as he walks up the stairs.
“Except for Freshman Comp,” Erik continues scornfully. “What an absolute joke.”
That’s better, Charles decides. Talking about classes is something he’s sure he can manage, even with Erik in such close proximity. “Now, now,” he chides with a laugh. “Being able to write is important, even for engineers.”
“Taking this class is not going to teach me how to write,” Erik says. “Trust me. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s like it was designed by a mathematician. Everything is a formula, with no room for style.”
Charles is impressed. He’s used to science and math students deriding writing and failing to understand why it’s a useful skill. Charles agrees that the formulaic way composition courses are taught won’t make anyone a better writer; he just hadn’t expected an engineering student to pick up on that.
He suddenly very much wants to see Erik’s bookshelf, to know what the boy is reading.
“Perhaps you could opt out by taking something like English 101?” Charles suggests.
Erik looks back at him in surprise. “Is that allowed?”
“Well…” Charles hedges. “They don’t exactly advertise the fact, but I know other students have successfully petitioned to make the switch.”
He’s got a friend in the philosophy department who tries to get all his students to make the trade—Sean swears that Freshman Composition ruins philosophers, making them incapable of thinking outside rigidly defined boxes.
He’d rather they read Dickens and Eliot and figured it out for themselves.
“That would be amazing,” Erik says earnestly as he pushes open the door to his apartment. “I swear, if I have to take a whole semester of Comp, I’m going to kill someone.”
“Best not to resort to murder just yet,” Charles laughs as he follows Erik inside. “At least wait until you’ve had to deal with the administration about getting a schedule change.”
Charles surveys the small apartment; he had thought he’d never see it again. He’s incredibly glad to be back, even if it’s just as tiny and run-down as he remembered.
Lorna is seated in the middle of the living room, stacking blocks with fierce determination.
“Hi sweetheart,” Charles crouches down in front of her.
“Hi,” she glances up briefly from her small tower.
“Building is serious business,” Erik says from behind him. “You’re only a distraction.”
“I can see that,” Charles laughs.
Erik smiles at them, his expression fond, but then he gives a little jerk and quickly reaches for his bookbag. “So, everything is basically the same as the last time you watched her,” Erik tells him, shoving books into his bag as he speaks. “She talks more, I guess. Oh, and she’s really fast now.”
Charles laughs. “Fast?” he questions, glancing down at the chubby little legs Lorna has curled under her. “I think I can keep up with her.”
Erik smirks. “If you can’t outrun me, you can’t outrun her.”
Charles’ eyes drop of their own volition, scanning down the muscular lines of Erik’s body. He’s got a runner’s build, long and lean, and Charles imagines he’s pretty fast. He can just picture him, stretching his long legs, his tight, toned body glistening with sweat, as he runs.
“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind…”
Erik’s smirk deepens, and something in Charles’ stomach gives a little flip as he tears his eyes away, his cheeks heating.
Foolish body, he thinks. There’s no point getting all excited over every look and every smile.
He wishes he could read more into it, though. When he reaches out towards Erik he can feel fondness radiating off of the boy—he should be happy enough with that. They’re friends, or on their way to being friends.
Can’t that be enough?
But his stomach doesn’t think so, tying itself into knots every time Erik so much as looks his way.
“Okay, then. I guess I should go.” Erik hesitates by the door, his jacket on and his bag in his hand.
“Alright,” Charles says, wishing he could think of some excuse to get him to stay a little longer. But he’s here to ensure that Erik can go to class, not to make him late.
“Right,” Erik agrees. “So, I’ll just…go. But I’ll be back in two hours or so.”
“That’s fine. Have a good class.”
An expression almost like disappointment flits across Erik’s face before he turns to his daughter, giving her a gentle smile. “Be good, sweetheart,” he instructs, and then he’s gone.
Charles listens to his feet pound down the stairs and then hears the heavy thud of the outside door.
They were only in the same room for five minutes or so. Which is all he’s ever going to get when he’s just Erik’s easiest babysitter, he realizes with a sigh.
But Lorna is looking up at him with her big blue eyes, and he tells himself to stop being ridiculous.
“Can I build with you?” he asks, holding out a hand.
She gives him a considering stare before very magnanimously handing him a block. “Here.”
“Thank you,” he grins, reaching over to add it to the stack in front of her.
“No!” She smacks soundly at his hand, glaring for all she’s worth. Little but fierce, Charles thinks with a chuckle.
“Ah. Shall I just…build my own tower?”
Apparently in concession to his suggestion, she deigns to hand him another block.
“Well, thank you, your majesty,” Charles teases, ruffling her feathery hair. It’s longer now, curling around her neck, making her look so much less like a baby. It still glimmers a deep auburn, and Charles wonders if she got it from her mother.
Erik doesn’t keep any pictures of Magda in the house.
They build peacefully for a while, Lorna babbling to herself the whole time, seeing how high she can get the blocks to stack. Every time Charles stacks more than two blocks on top of each other, she reaches over and knocks it down again with a look of great satisfaction.
After he’s just about given up on building his own tower, Lorna puts her blocks down firmly and declares, “Candy drink!”
Charles smiles. “You mean juice?”
“Candy drink!” she insists again, looking at him beseechingly with her big blue eyes.
“Alright, just one second,” Charles gets up and heads for the fridge, hearing Lorna get to her feet and toddle along behind him. There are familiar juice boxes inside, and he grabs one and turns to hand it to Lorna.
“No juice!” She says sternly, pushing his hand away. “Candy drink!”
Charles peers back into the fridge with a frown. There’s a multitude of juice boxes, a gallon of milk, a six-pack of beer (which Charles pretends not to see, since Erik is not yet twenty-one), and a liter of coke.
The soda is the closest thing to a ‘candy drink’ in there, but Erik can’t possibly give his toddler coke already, can he?
“Candy drink!” Lorna whines.
Charles decides to have a look through the cabinets, too, just in case something jumps out at him. But besides an even bigger stockpile of juice boxes, he doesn’t find anything that lives up to the moniker of ‘candy drink.’
Meanwhile, Lorna is clutching the leg of his trouser, tugging insistently, while chanting out her demand.
“Candy drink, candy drink, candy drink,” she demands.
Charles looks towards the refrigerator skeptically. He’s nearly positive that soda isn’t good for small children. In fact, he’s read enough studies to know it isn’t good for adults either, but he tries not to judge, given the amount of tea he consumes on a daily basis.
But what Erik puts into his own body is different from what he allows his tiny daughter.
Charles hesitates with his hand on the fridge door, Lorna’s tone growing more and more insistent as she begs him for ‘candy drink.’ Surely a little soda won’t do her any permanent damage. But if it turns out he’s done the wrong thing, Charles isn’t certain he’ll be able to forgive himself. Erik trusts him with Lorna, after all.
He reaches out with his power, touching Lorna’s mind gently. Before her thoughts were pure images and base desires, but now more complex emotions and even words dominate, and for a second he just marvels at the way her mind is growing and changing. But she’s still whimpering, and so he looks with more purpose, trying to see what it is she’s after.
He gets pulses of frustration, helplessness, anger and upset, jumbling together in his mind in a confused mass. Beneath that is a low thrum of desire, sweet and a little tangy.
He pulls back, shaking his head. He got that she was thirsty, or hungry, or something, and that she wanted something sweet.
Which didn’t tell him a whole lot more than ‘candy drink,’ actually.
He reaches down to pat her on the head a little apologetically, chagrined at invading her mind, and tries to think what else he can do to figure out what she wants.
His eyes stray to his bag, tossed casually on the sofa, with his phone inside. He knows Erik is in class, and he knows the rules about texting in class.
Hell, he’s enforced those roles.
But Lorna’s eyes are starting to well up as she cranes her neck to look up at him, wondering why he isn’t giving her what she wants. He recalls vividly her one complete meltdown back at the café; in the rest of the time he babysits for her, he’s pretty sure his only goal is going to be preventing that from ever happening again. He can see now that she’s on the edge of a tantrum, frustrated as she repeats her demand again and again.
Texting Erik just once won’t hurt, will it?
His heart leaps as he scoops up Lorna and heads for his phone. Erik’s only been gone for a little over half and hour, and yet Charles is excited to hear from him again, excited to think of his name flashing on the screen of Erik’s phone.
But also he’s worried about Lorna, he tells himself firmly, depositing her on the sofa and pulling out his phone. She’s crying now, big fat tears rolling down her pink cheeks, and he genuinely wants to make things better for her.
He types off a quick message, sorry to interrupt, but what’s a “candy drink”?
He waits a few minutes, trying to sooth Lorna by flipping through a picture book, but she’s just gives him a pathetic look and whimpers, “candy drink.”
Finally his phone buzzes. Even though he’s expecting the text, has been sitting here waiting for it, the sight of Erik’s name on his screen makes his stomach flip-flop.
Honestly, he thinks. Like a twelve-year old girl.
Should have warned you about that one, Erik’s text says. She means oranges.
Like the fruit?
It’s a hard word to say. Charles can practically hear Erik’s defensive tone and his heart warms at the way the boy is standing up for his child. There’s a bunch in the fridge.
A second later, another message pops up. You’ll have to peel it for her.
Charles laughs out loud at that, drawing a confused look from Lorna.
He may not be the most competent babysitter in the world, but even he could figure that one out.
Thanks! Sorry for interrupting class.
Charles can just picture Erik, hunched over his desk, phone hidden in the shadow of the table. It’s a posture he’s seen a dozen times in his own classes, and he just hopes Erik’s teacher is a little less observant than Charles himself.
No worries. But if my phone gets confiscated, you have to talk my TA into giving it back.
Charles stares at the message for a long moment. Erik’s tone is teasing, almost…flirting? His heart thumps at the thought.
Btw, do you mind staying a little longer today?
Of course not. Why?
Friend asked if I could get coffee. Don’t want to keep blowing her off.
And suddenly Charles’ heart stops pounding, just enough for it to sink. Erik doesn’t want to blow her off.
Okay. No problem, he sends back quickly, stuffing his phone back into his bag.
“A friend, huh?” he says to Lorna despondently. “Want to bet it’s a beautiful blonde friend named Emma?”
“Emma!” Lorna says, brightening a bit from her tears.
Charles heart sinks further. “You see a lot of Emma?” he asks.
“Emma!” Lorna agrees.
Charles sighs. “Well, at least you like her,” he says morosely. That means Erik’s that much more likely to get serious with the girl.
Not that it matters. Charles is here as a friend. And if his gaze happens to linger on Erik a bit too long, or to stray over his toned body from time to time…well, he’ll just have to hope Erik never notices.
He leaves Lorna on the sofa and goes back over to the fridge, where he finds an entire crisper drawer full of oranges. He shakes his head; even if he had noticed the oranges, there was no way he would have guessed that they were ‘candy drink’ without Erik’s help.
He carefully peels one, placing the slices neatly on a plate before carrying it over to Lorna. He holds them out to her and she instantly brightens.
“Candy drink!” With great care and deliberation she selects one, her chubby fist hovering over the plate as she makes her decision.
Finally, she delicately lifts one slice, and shoves the whole thing into her tiny mouth.
“Mmm!” she declares, cheeks bulging.
Charles can’t help but laugh, his despondency lifting slightly. She chews noisily, smacking her lips with great relish.
“So very ladylike,” Charles grins.
After a moment she opens her mouth, letting the pulpy mass of orange slowly slide out, plopping down onto her shirt front.
“Ohh,” Charles groans. Lorna gives him a wide grin as she scoops up the goop, eyeing it with interest before extending her hand and dropping the whole mess over the back of the couch.
“Candy drink!” She reaches towards the plate on Charles’ lap with greedy hands.
“Oh god,” Charles groans, letting her snatch another slice as he peers over the back of the couch, seeing the mass of chewed orange clinging obstinately to the dingy fabric.
“At least it’s not a very nice couch,” he tells her with a sigh, steeling himself as he sticks his hand down between the couch and the wall and scrapes up the orangey pulp. It’s sticky and moist in his hand and he wrinkles his nose as he hurries over to the trashcan.
The perils of childcare, he thinks as he scrapes the mess into the trash and thoroughly washes his hands.
He turns back around just in time to see Lorna lob a mostly-chewed slice of orange onto the floor in front of her.
He grabs a roll of paper towels before heading back to her side.
The afternoon passes uneventfully, but Charles has to admit that his eyes stayed glued to the clock from the time he knows Erik’s class ends.
He wonders how long a ‘coffee’ Erik will have. A coffee with a classmate would be maybe fifteen minutes. Coffee with a friend, perhaps thirty. But coffee with a girlfriend…? It seems like the time it takes Erik to get back will reveal some secret truths about his relationship with Emma.
When twenty minutes have ticked by, Charles feels his heart begin to sink, even though he knows it’s another twenty minutes just for Erik to get the bus home.
When forty minutes go by, Charles is resigned. He’s sure Erik and Emma make a great couple.
He just wishes he wasn’t picturing it quite so clearly.
An hour later than usual Charles hears the lower door slam, signaling Erik’s return home. Coffee that takes an hour must be a date, Charles tells himself. He barely even spends that much time with Moira, and she’s his best (or perhaps only) friend in the world.
He schools his expression into something less dejected than he feels and waits for Erik to open the front door. Lorna is slumped against his side, her eyes heavy as she pages through a picture book.
“Hi,” Erik drops his bag on the kitchen table and crosses the room to the sofa. “Sleepy girl?”
“Very,” Charles agrees. He shifts to move out from under Lorna and stand, but freezes as Erik stretches his long legs over the coffee table and drops down on the other side of his daughter. He runs a gentle hand through her hair.
“How was she?”
“Good. Although…there might be some orange stains down the back of the couch,” Charles admits.
But Erik just laughs. “They wouldn’t be the first ones. I’m so looking forward to her learning to actually consume the food she puts into her mouth.”
“I can see why,” Charles smiles hesitantly. Erik’s sitting so close, and being so friendly. He’s not really sure what to do or say; he just wants this moment to last a little longer.
He loves hearing Erik talk about his daughter—his voice goes so tender, even when he’s complaining about her messes and tantrums. Charles thinks it’s a lovely contrast to the intensity Erik brings to the rest of his life. It’s like the one place the boy can relax is with his child.
Charles feels lucky to be here to see it.
He just wishes he was the only one who got to.
“So, did you have a nice time with your friend?” he asks, hoping he doesn’t sound as obvious as he feels.
He would have thought the temptation to peek into Erik’s thoughts would be stronger—to find out just what’s going on between the boy and the beautiful blonde girl. But Charles finds he doesn’t really want to know. Certainly not in the detail he’s likely to pick up out of Erik’s mind. If the boy was thinking about Emma at all, he might catch the image of a smile, a touch, a kiss…the fleeting feeling of her lips, the sensation of lingering caresses.
No, Charles keeps his mind well to himself. But still, he can’t help but ask, just to see what Erik will say.
“Yeah, it was good,” Erik agrees. “Thank you, really, for staying longer. I feel like I never get to spend time with anyone over the age of two.”
“I can see how you’d be itching to get out for a bit,” Charles responds lightly, trying not to feel slighted by the fact that Erik apparently doesn’t consider him adult company. “It’s nice that you have friends in your classes, anyway.”
“Oh, Emma’s not in my engineering class,” Erik snorts.
The lingering hope that Erik was out with someone other than his new girlfriend withers inside of Charles.
“She’s a business major,” Erik continues blithely, laughing, “She’s ruthless.”
Charles almost winces at the fondness radiating off of Erik as he talks about the girl.
“Well, that’s a…winning quality,” he says weakly. If Erik’s looking for someone ruthless and impeccably dressed, than Charles is about as far from his type as possible, nevermind that he’s also a man. “Is that why you fell for her?” he hates the words even as they leave his mouth. He doesn’t want to keep talking about Emma. In fact, he doesn’t even really want to keep talking at all. He wants to go home and nurse his wounds over a massive cup of tea.
“Fell for her?” Erik parrots with a frown.
“Oh, I mean, I don’t know how long you two have been dating…”
Erik gives a sharp bark of laughter, mirth playing over his features. Charles frowns, baffled.
“Dating? Emma?” Erik says incredulously. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re…not?” Charles is confused. Moira saw them on a date, Erik went out with her again today, Lorna apparently loves her, and Erik was radiating some pretty warm feelings for the girl as well.
“I would never date Emma,” Erik says, his laughter subsiding. “She’s a nice friend, but she hates kids.” He looks down at Lorna snuggled against his side, her eyes heavy, and smiles tenderly. “I could never be with someone who didn’t care about Lorna as well.”
He looks up then, fixing Charles with an inscrutable gaze.
“But…” Charles flounders, completely unsure of himself now. He’s been working himself into knots over Emma all afternoon. He doesn’t know what to do now that all his worries have been proven false. “I mentioned her earlier, and Lorna got all excited.”
“She did?” Erik says skeptically. “She’s barely even met Emma.”
“Well, I said Emma’s name, and she said it back. You know, happily.” It sounds a bit tenuous now that he says it aloud.
Erik laughs. “She’ll do that with anything. Hey, Lorna. Shoes!”
“Shoes!” the toddler repeats cheerfully.
Her pleased tone startles a laugh out of Charles.
“Oh.” Charles knows he’s flushing. “I guess I just…assumed.”
“I barely have the time to get a cup of coffee with a friend. I don’t know how you think I’d manage a girlfriend.” Erik pauses slightly and then continues with great nonchalance, “What about you? Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Me? No, no girlfriend,” Charles fidgets slightly, wondering just how much to reveal. He’s not ashamed of his sexuality, but he tries not to broadcast it to his students.
Of course, Erik isn’t his student any longer…
“Or, a boyfriend?” Erik says carefully, dropping his gaze back down to Lorna and reaching out to fiddle with her clothes, tugging her shirt down over her belly. “Professor McCone was awfully quick to believe you and I might be…involved.”
“Yes, I think he knows more about my personal life than I’d really like,” Charles says, letting that be admission enough. “But no, no boyfriend either.”
Hope rises within him at Erik’s questions, but he’s already misread the situation so badly, he doesn’t trust his instincts. Perhaps Erik is just making small talk.
“Charles,” Erik says, his voice gone deep and serious. Charles straightens where he sits, meeting Erik’s gaze.
“Daddy,” Lorna complains, butting her head into Erik’s side and whimpering.
“Oh. What time is it?” Erik glances over at the clock and swears quietly under his breath. “No wonder you’re tired, sweetpea,” he says, standing abruptly.
Charles bites his lip, standing as well. He wants to demand Erik say whatever was on his mind, but Lorna is tired and needs to go down for her nap.
He knows that’s more important.
“She probably needs to be changed again,” he says, glancing over at the clock as well.
Erik nods, scooping the sleepy toddler up in his arms and carrying her over to the changing table. His movements are quick and efficient, even as Lorna squirms under his touch, whining.
It takes him half the time it usual takes Charles, and then he’s carefully placing Lorna into her crib, pulling her blankie up over her tiny form.
Charles knows this is his cue to leave. As Lorna snuggles down into bed, her eyes falling shut almost instantaneously, he creeps across the room to where he’s left his coat and bag. He hates to leave, but reminds himself that he’ll see Erik the following week.
Whatever he had to say probably wasn’t that important, anyway.
“Charles, wait,” Erik says quietly, when he has his hand on the doorknob. “I’ll walk you out.”
Charles obediently pauses, his heart hammering in his chest, waiting for Erik to cross the room in long strides. They slip out into the hall, propping the door open behind them.
They hesitate at the top of the stairs, silent in the dim light. Charles fidgets with the strap of his bag. “Well, I guess I’ll see you next Monday,” he says, to fill the silence.
“I thought—“ Erik cuts himself off. “I was asking about your boyfriend before because I thought I got some signals from you.” The words spill out of him determinedly. “I thought you might be interested. In me. And that’s why you offered to watch Lorna.”
Charles’ eyes widen. “That’s not why,” he insists quickly.
“Oh,” disappointment doesn’t just cross over Erik’s face, it pours off of him mentally like a thick fog.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Charles shakes his head, worry and elation warring inside of him. “I don’t want you to think I was using Lorna to get close to you.”
“Oh,” Erik says again, but this time it’s accompanied by a little smirk. “What if I told you I was using Lorna to get close to you?”
“What?” Charles stutters out an incredulous laugh.
“I appreciate the babysitting, don’t get me wrong,” Erik says. “But I also wasn’t sure how else I was going to see you again. That’s why I came to your office last week.”
“Really?” Charles can’t quite believe this conversation is happening. He had only just managed to convince himself to give up wanting Erik. “So you’re—?”
“Interested?” Erik supplies, his voice low. “I have been for months. Even before that asshole McCone moved me out of your class.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Charles chokes.
“What?” Erik’s smirk deepens. “To my teacher?”
“Oh god,” Charles groans, hiding his face in his hands.
“Hey,” Erik’s large hand lands on his shoulder, warm and heavy. “It wasn’t stupid university regulations that kept me from saying anything. I just assumed you couldn’t possibly feel the same way. You’re like the ultimate good Samaritan, swooping in just when I needed the help, and being a good teacher on top of that, and so good with Lorna…”
Charles fights the urge to let out an incredulous laugh. Just as McCone was accusing him of the worst, Erik thought he was too good to be interested?
“And if I was interested?” he offers meekly, unable to match the deep, flirtatious tone Erik had used on him.
“Then I think I’d have to find another babysitter.”
Charles frowns. That was the last thing he was expecting Erik to say. “What?”
“So we could go out on a date.”
“Oh.” Charles knows he’s blushing now. “Well, I have some friends who I’m sure I could talk into it.”
Moira owes him for getting him all worked up over Emma, after all.
A/N: Sorry for being so inconsistent with posting! Real life just keeps getting in the way. Also, this story is out of control. It's now the longest thing I've written for this fandom, and I originally picked up the prompt, thinking it would be a oneshot. Oops?