Tom had his driver drop him off just north of College Bridge, which spanned the narrow channel between Haven Bay and Lake Concord and walked the rest of the way to the address the university had given him.
He felt slightly strange, he wasn't afraid to admit, but only because of his attire, he was sure: so different than the office. But as he delved into the mindset of the average collegian he would be miming today he felt more at home with it. In worn boating loafers and navy blue shorts his lower body was chilly in the early morning fog, but by time noon came around he knew he'd be burning up, even without the oversized green hoodie he was currently wearing
Speaking of which, he pulled against the restraints of his second-hand backpack enough to yank the hood up. He hadn't opted to disguise his long black hair with a wig or anything so uncouth, not unless it became absolutely necessary. Instead he simply wore it loose with no product, but that meant the morning wind invariably whipped it into his face, which aggravated him. Considering everything else about him obeyed his vaguest whims, one would think his hair could at least attempt to tow the line.
He wouldn't let that distract him though: he had too much to think through without focusing on that.
Charles' employers were woefully free with his information, so Tom had his home and office address, but he wouldn't necessarily need that information until things checked out with the boyfriend.
Years ago he had narrowly avoided premature action against Charles by meeting Harvey first. With Reed and Steven, all Tom had needed was a picture and some intel from Vision or like services to know that there was unfortunately no hope of these men bringing Charles up to heights glorious enough to throw him down from. Reed was too self-involved to love Charles into greatness, and Steven was even worse off: the kind of prude that could never tolerate Charles' variant and free-loving nature. Harvey, on the other hand, had looked good on paper. Hell, he'd looked fucking great. Tom had had every reason to get his hopes up.
The man was attractive, although Charles wasn't quite shallow enough to let that engross him entirely. A ridiculously passionate lawyer, he and Charles had taken turns prompting one another into ever lengthening leaps of naivete and hopefulness. They had dated for two years; Tom had even heard Charles say that he loved the man. If that wasn't enough to get your hopes up over then he didn't know what was. After all, Tom himself was the only boyfriend Charles had claimed to love up until Harvey.
Yet when he'd flown all the way out here and gone through all that trouble to introduce himself to the man all he'd gotten was a wasps' nest of intrigue: Moira, Harvey, Raven, Logan—all of them swarming up to protect the queen. He would have stood to fight, of course, if it had been worth it. But he had spent a whole ten minutes with Harvey waiting for the police to arrive and had realized that this man was not going to be the one to love Charles into perfection.
And of course he had been right. All he'd had to do was tantalize the man (through a neutral third-party of course) with the district attorney campaign up in Gotham and he'd dumped Charles straight off. Tom hadn't even finagled the man straight into the job! He'd still made him compete for it and everything! It was truly disappointing. Proved that he himself was a paragon among men to have loved Charles the way he had: no one else so far had managed it.
Needless to say, Tom had learned his lesson: he refused to get his hopes up this time around.
Reed had said that the boyfriend, one Erik Lensherr from the police report, was attractive and his mugshot proved it. But everything about him seemed so out of line for Charles. The fact that he had a mugshot at all (that wasn't for civil disobedience or eco-terrorism or something mundane like that) was curious enough to start with. Then when you took in the rest of him: capitalist entrepreneur who donated absolutely nothing to charity and did his own taxes so he wouldn' t have to pay anyone else to do it…the man was a penny-pincher if Tom had ever read intel on one, whereas Charles was generous to a fault and refused to keep track of his finances on principle.
Tom shook his head wearily. This would have all made much more sense if Charles and the strange Erik Lensherr had broken up by now, but six months after he'd heard of them they were still going strong. Indeed, Charles' colleague Professor Inham had gossiped that Erik had given Charles a key to his place and had even made a birthday present back in April of completely redoing the upstairs bathroom of his house so that Charles could take the baths he had always so loved, even back in high school.
Taking a deep breath, Tom thought that again: back in high school. This would be the first time he had seen Charles in person since they were teenagers. He had wanted the effect to be undiluted by repeated exposure, so he had always been careful to view from afar, like a proper anthropologist. Half the joy of this meeting would be seeing the blow his presence would strike against that pretty face, and he had plenty of photos to say it was still a very pretty face, for all the years since he had last held it.
Tom looked up and realized he was on Morrison and 19th now. If he went any farther he'd end up in front of Charles' apartment, quaint #1987-B, and that was not quite his goal. So he sneaked up just a little, just to take in Charles' new digs, and then turned right and headed up to Cafe Haifisch, an apt moniker since Lensherr's nickname around campus was apparently The Shark. Tom wondered which sort of shark they were talking about here...but he supposed he'd find out soon. The drug store across the street said it was approaching 8, and the redhead had said that the boss would be there by then (all it had taken was an apparently hysterical desire to complain directly to the owner about their lackadaisical tea-stocking). So Tom waited by the street-parking payment machine, and pretended to tie his shoes.
He was only at it for a few minutes when he heard Charles' ringing British voice and was surprised at himself that he felt the need to close his eyes for a moment to take it in. It sounded so different from the last time he had heard it, but then again the last time he had heard it the boy had been sobbing his guts out, so hard he'd been hyperventilating like a child with a skinned knee.
Tom pulled his backpack from around his back and pretended to be looking for something. He had expected the boyfriend to be on his own. He wasn't shaken, he was just surprised to hear Charles, to see him, because he could see him, from the corner of his vision although he couldn't risk taking him all in. As it was he saw the playfully boyish Keds, no socks, long khaki shorts. His legs were different than Tom remembered. In high school the boy had done track and his limbs were all wonderfully willowy, like a colt's. These seemed more grown-in, which made sense but didn't please him.
The men passed him without incident and ignored the back door to the cafe, going around to the front talking back and forth. Tom was surprised at the gravelly lightness to Lensherr's voice. He had been imagining something more like Logan's own snarling tones based on his mugshot and nickname.
"You picking the boy up straight from campus?" Lensherr questioned as they walked and Charles didn't answer so Tom assumed he had nodded. He glanced up and saw that Lensherr's hand was on the small of Charles' back, under his T-shirt. He choked back a swallow and nearly coughed but held it in at the last moment.
"I'm just going to do some labwork with Hank and then I'll pick up Kevin on the way back to meet you. Say, three?"
"Make sure Moira doesn't forget his math camp folder, I want to take a look at it."
Tom remembered then: Moira's son, a leftover from an abusive previous marriage. He had analyzed the woman extensively after she'd gotten him arrested and before deciding to go ahead and get her fired from the city police force over it. He wondered how she was liking being a university lackey, and hoped the answer was 'not much'.
Charles and his pet shark kissed deeply on the sidewalk and Tom forgot to swallow as he watched the curving line of Charles' body as he leaned, back and up, in Lensherr's grip. Then Charles ran to cross the street while the light was still green. Once safely on the other side though, he turned and cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Oi!" he cried, and the man turned from where he had been about to enter the cafe. Tom couldn't see him from his vantage point, but he could see Charles in full: the thrilled way he had tilted onto his toes to shout, the beaming blue eyes Tom could see all the way from here.
"What?" Lensherr called back, gruffness trying to drown out his actually cheerful tones.
Charles tipped back onto his heels and dropped his hands, tilting his head coyly.
"I love you!" he replied.
Lensherr was quiet for a long moment and then laughed back: "Get out of here, you ponce!"
Charles threw his head back and laughed and turned to walk off, tossing over his shoulder, "See you later, baby!"
"Don't call me that!" Lensherr laughed back and Tom could hear the bell chime as the front door opened.
He got up immediately and followed the man inside, flipping back his hood and ducking inside just as Lensherr was wrapping a dark red apron around his incredibly slim hips and moving behind the cash register, pushing the Spanish-looking girl there away.
"Time for a break, angel," he sing-songed to her and took the next person in line with a wide smile. Tom understood now, the shark moniker. He stepped up close beside the line and pretended to read the black-board menu above the bar, but really just listened as the girl ignored her break in order to mine Lensherr for information along with the blond boy running the espresso machine.
"Did you tell him finally?" she asked avidly and Lensherr's smile widened still further, if that were possible, so that Tom could glance and see all his sharp teeth.
"It came up, yeah," Lensherr admitted and the two kids shouted for joy and grabbed each other, jumping wildly and twisting in circles with excitement.
"What's this about?" the first customer in line laughed.
"They're psychos," Lensherr explained with a roll of the eyes.
"He loves his boyfriend!" the blond boy crowed, hugging his dance partner around the middle and spinning her hard, knocking her feet into the cupboards loudly.
"Put her down," Lensherr growled.
"Congratulations," the customer cheered and extended a hand. Lensherr looked as if he'd ignore it for a moment but ended up taking it, one pump, strong, and then let loose.
"What'll you be having?"
Tom turned and went to the end of the line to order, keeping an eye on Lensherr. Quick, pragmatic, minimum of socializing. Nothing like Charles at all...
The place was efficient once the kids stopped cheering and hugging each other and the line passed quickly. The girl went on her break and Lensherr took orders with little-to-no nonsense, although the boy made the drinks while dancing he was so happy.
When it was Tom's turn the tall man hardly looked at him, writing notes in sharpie on the last person's cup and handing it to the blond.
"Stop dancing and start steaming," he growled behind himself, and the blond technically stopped although he was still tapping his feet joyfully.
Then the man looked up at Tom with bored gray eyes and said, "Well? What are you having?"
Tom noticed he didn't say 'What can I get for you'. His gaze was businesslike, nothing inviting about them or conducive to conversation. How were he and Charles together? How had they stayed together for six months? How did Charles love him? The gaping confusion of the situation was jarring, but Tom worked past it.
"Um, yeah, do you guys, like, have wifi?" Tom asked, proud that his voice came out appropriately lazy.
"The code'll be on your receipt after you tell me what you're having," Lensherr replied, staring him down even though Tom was taller than he was. Actually the eyes were either green or blue, and Tom hated that he couldn't pin them down to a discernible color.
"Great. I'll have an iced Americano." Tom didn't say please, just grinned boyishly. Lensherr stared back at him flatly, for so long that Tom desperately wanted to fidget but wouldn't let himself.
Finally the man sighed and rolled his eyes. "What size?"
"Tall," Tom grumbled back. The blond at the machine turned slightly after putting up the last drink to whack Lensherr slightly on the angle of his hip.
"Five minutes? You exchange your first 'I love you's and it only buys you five minutes of enough happiness to not be an awful jerk?" the boy balked.
The shark growled at him wordlessly, curling his lip and handed him Tom's cup.
"That'll be three dollars," Lensherr said, but didn't snarl at him so Tom figured that was him trying to be nicer. The hand he extended was long and lean and Tom couldn't stop himself from seeing it on the nape of Charles' back under his T-shirt. He wondered what those fingers would look like broken, pushed the thought aside as a distraction to his task.
Tom let him keep the change from a fiver so that the man wouldn't complain when Tom stayed the rest of the day using up his wifi. The act didn't earn him any conversation points as he stood waiting for his drink: when he asked "'S gonna be a gorgeous day today, huh?" Lensherr ignored him as if Tom couldn't possibly be talking to him.
"Oh, yeah, it'll be perfect now that the boss is so thrilled," the blond laughed, icing up a cup.
"This is him thrilled then?" Tom questioned.
"This is him fucking ecstatic," the boy said and handed Tom his drink.
"Get back to work," Lensherr growled and the boy gave Tom a long-suffering look but grinned and went wipe down tables while it was quiet.
Tom didn't bother to try and talk to Lensherr; he could tell it would only draw unappreciated attention to himself. Instead he simply chose a table close to the counter so he would be able to overhear the man's interactions with people he actually knew, the only ones he was apparently capable of having conversations with. Tom would just have to get a handle on the man's personality through hearsay, since the guy apparently knew the tenets of Stranger Danger enough to refuse to speak to him.
Tom spent most of the morning IMing Rosamond, Lensherr's teenage neighbor. He and the girl had been talking for a long time since it took teenage girls these days so fucking forever to fall in love with their computer counterpart enough to agree to meet in person. He had already made sure her parents would be well out of the way tonight. It spoke to her inestimable love of him that she was not apparently nervous about their meeting. Still, it never hurt to check up on things.
When he was done talking to her and solidifying times for when he'd come over and when her parents would leave, and then on top of that doing all the other goofy romantic chit-chat that took up so much of his time with her, he logged off and went to work. Official work, that was. He was so busy with his extracurriculars, first Robbie and now this, it was sometimes hard to remember than he had an actual official job he still had to put in time with.
Mr. Ryking seemed to be picking up on the fact that Tom's head wasn't all that in the official game these days, based on his terse email. In actuality, Tom wasn't technically supposed to be in town at all. All that trouble last time had of course gotten back to Carter (everything got back to Carter in one way or another), and the man had said maybe it would be a good idea to stay away from the city for a while. Tom knew that Carter wouldn't be happy to find him back here, but it was the man's own fault for being so vague: what did 'a while' mean, anyway? Why add 'maybe'? And in any case, Carter couldn't tell him where to spend his vacations, could he?
Tom had weighed the pros and cons of this trip for a long time and had the balance sheet clear in his mind. He had made a mistake with Harvey, coming right out and saying hello before he had even known if the man was worth the consequences, and he hadn't been. He wouldn't act again until he was sure of Erik and Charles' relationship. If it was nothing he could hop a plane back home and no one would be the wiser. If it did require more activity, it would be worth possibly losing his job over (but what were the chances that Ryking would fire his most valuable employee over a vacation to a city he had only been mildly warned against?).
He still wasn't sure what scenario he hoped for. Or rather, he knew that with self-preservation being what it was he should be hoping Erik and his Charles was only a fling, wouldn't require him to risk his job. But actually he was on the scent of a great game, perhaps the newly-minted best of his life, and dangerous as that game could be he couldn't bring himself to hope for its cancellation. He'd just have to hope that Charles' psychological breakdown and implosion was just as worth unemployment today as it had been worth all the family drama of ten years ago.
In the meantime he could only focus on the present and await the future.
He eavesdropped with his full attention, pulling out his notebook to write down anything of real importance that came up. The girl quickly became his favorite since she had a knack for asking useful questions, even though she didn't dig after the answers with the proper tenacity. She seemed perfectly all right with allowing Lensherr to ignore any questions he didn't feel like answering. Apparently he was in a sharing mood, though, thank providence, because he rarely turned down her inquiries.
"So that's why you had Azazel and Janos both working yesterday!" she teased. "You wanted a day off to soak up all that lovin."
"Charles set that up," the man begged off.
"I heard that's not all he set up," Alex cackled. "What was this Sean was telling me about a fancy dinner? A towncar picking you up from the cafe?"
"Don't forget the adorable CD he made," the girl added.
"Oh my god, where is that? We need to put that on!"
"Do it and I'll drown you in the sink!" Lensherr growled and Tom glanced around so he could see what the man's face looked like angry; he'd need it to gauge later on.
Brows furrowed, teeth bared, lip curled back in a snarl. Tom felt that he could do better and should things work out with this spying he would put his hypothesis to the test.
"Only someone with your luck, Lensherr, could have babysitting duty on what should be the most lustful weekend of your existence after one's honeymoon," the girl sighed.
"It's not that lustful of a weekend," Lensherr shrugged, smiling widely.
"You mean you got it all out of your system yesterday," Alex said, making a grossed-out face.
"Well, I don't think I'll ever get it all out my system," Lensherr laughed, and they way he tilted his head back with it, the long line of his throat and the white shine of his numerous teeth was gorgeous and Tom hated him for a moment before he got a handle on himself.
If things worked out he could bring this man to his knees right alongside Charles. In fact, even if they didn't work out...After all, this plan's cancellation only meant that he had to wait until Charles was more ripe for the plucking. He could take Lensherr any old time, whether Charles was ready or not.
The conversation went on through interruptions and lunch breaks and customers and work, but Tom pieced it together well in his notebook. Moira had a hot date tonight, hot enough for her to pawn Kevin off on his godfather, Charles, and the boyfriend for the night. Charles was coming at three and Lensherr would drive the three of them to the park at Blue Lake, which Tom only knew from the map was to the West. Not the park with the hipsters (whom the man seemed to think of as a sort of sub-human vermin), but the good one with the old-school playground. Apparently there was a swimming area there, but Lensherr refused to say if they would be going for a dip, and the girl didn't force him to answer.
A memory came unbidden to his mind: Charles and him at the lake house, slipping out of the house in the dark and skinny dipping off the pier, the way he had held the piling with one hand and Charles with the other. The night was cool even though the day had been sweltering and they shivered slightly together, although, for Tom at least, it had been the texture of the night rather than the temperature: the hard grain of the wood, the soft slip of Charles' skin and the brush of his hair and the heat of his mouth on Tom's, the slick slide of his tongue.
He shook the reverie off himself roughly and scratched his palms to get rid of the lingering sensation of water-lapped wood and silken skin. He had lost track of Lensherr's conversation and pushed up from his chair angrily. For this sort of slip to happen to him now of all times! Just when he needed his wits the most about him they started letting through thoughts, memories like that!
He shoved his laptop into his backpack and left without busing his own table.
It was nearly 1 and it wouldn't do for Charles to catch him at the cafe, or anywhere for that matter, so he took a walk around the district to clear his head and waste time until three when he could stake the place out enough to follow Lensherr and Charles to the lake. He didn't want to spend the entire evening trying to figure out which park was the right one and where Charles was located in it.
Wasted time would only draw this thing out longer and he wanted to know now what Charles' feelings towards that cafe oaf were. 'I love you's didn't mean much to Tom-Harvey and Charles had exchanged them often enough and maybe it had even been true, but if it was it wasn't the kind of love that changed one's world. It wasn't anything like what he and Charles had had together, he knew that. It had been disappointing to find that out about Harvey, but also a little flattering: that Charles didn't love Harvey like he had loved Tom. His heart fluttered anxiously in his chest to think of what Lensherr and Charles might have together.
He wanted Charles to love Lensherr as much as he had loved Tom, he knew that, that was the only reason he was here at all. Only when Charles loved like that again could he be hurt like that again. But a rebellious part of Tom that didn't know anything about schemes and strategy wanted this to be a hoax, a false alarm, a mistake. It wanted Tom to retain his title for Charles' most-loved, most-adored, it wanted to remain the biggest thing in Charles' life for the rest of his life. It didn't want any sharky German immigrants going after his belt, his crown, his rule.
At two-thirty he called his driver and went to the soup and sandwich place across from Cafe Haifisch to set up shop at one of the tables they had set up along the sidewalk. He took off his hoodie and put on a baseball cap and it was amazing the difference this made on him. Even if Charles or Lensherr did remember the guy tying his shoes that morning, or the Americano kid at the cafe, he didn't think they'd recognize him now.
He tucked into his sandwich and took a book out so he'd look like a busy college student rather than a stalker when Charles came by around three. Considering that Machiavelli had written with a pen inked in sarcasm, he had gotten a lot of things incredibly spot-on, it seemed to Tom. When he looked up later to scope out the length of 19th, he could make out Charles' tell-tale mop of hair waiting for the light to get him over the border of campus. There was a small child with him, but from two blocks away Tom couldn't make out much.
He made himself appear completely involved in his book and didn't take his eyes off Charles for the whole two blocks. He was talking to the boy, smiling gaily, and they stopped on the sidewalk for a second for Charles to help the kid take off his sweatshirt and put it in his backpack. The boy was skinny and tanned like every kid in the summer, with sandy blond hair and scuffed knees. They were dressed similarly in T-shirts, shorts, and sneakers, Charles with his leather shoulder-bag and the kid with a dinosaur backpack by the look of it. Maybe dragons...
Charles put his hand on Kevin's shoulder as they crossed the busier street to the cafe rather than hold his hand, and Tom could hear them talking.
"Is it the park with the spinning wheel?" the kid asked.
"You mean the roundabout? Of course! Erik still hasn't given up on making you lose your lunch on that thing," Charles responded, holding the door open for the boy.
Tom couldn't hear them anymore so he watched through the big windows. His angle didn't allow him to see behind the counter, but he didn't need to as Lensherr came around to meet them, immediately throwing Kevin over one shoulder in a makeshift fireman's carry and then controlling his ear-to-ear grin long enough to lean in and kiss Charles on the lips.
Tom wondered if Charles thought Lensherr was a good kisser, or if he wished it were Tom he was kissing. Charles had always told him that he was the best kisser, although technically at that point Charles had never kissed another boy before...
He shook those thoughts away since they wouldn't get him anywhere and watched as Charles greeted various people before Lensherr set Kevin down and dragged the smaller man bodily from the cafe by way of an arm around his waist.
"We should stop by the store and buy some strawberries for our picnic," Charles pointed out, holding Lensherr's hand as they walked down the sidewalk towards Charles' house. Tom smiled accidentally, remembering how Charles pronounced 'strawberries' in a way that almost sounded like 'straw-burries'.
"No, ice cream!" Kevin begged.
"Nobody asked you," the shark pointed out, pushing Kevin by the head with a big grin.
Tom got his things together and met his car on the corner, and started his trek out to Blue Lake, with a short pitstop at the grocery store.