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Paper Monsters

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Café Kafka was always empty in the afternoons, save for the odd solitary student mumbling feverishly over their attempt at an essay, or a few tourists seeking respite from the hot Riverside sun, fanning themselves with their dog-eared maps. Charles liked the solitude, though, and made his way down every Monday and Thursday like clockwork, always arriving just after lunchtime. By then the lunch crowd would have fizzled out, and Sean would be wiping down the tables. "Sup?" he would say when he saw Charles, who would grin back and sit at his favourite table, the slightly cracked marble one behind the pillar.

Then, he would order his favourite drink, a triple white chocolate mocha, and Sean would always make sure there were three butter cookies on the side.

Then, looking around furtively, Charles would take out his favourite book of the moment - the titles varied, but the author rarely changed - and lose himself for the next few hours in a world he never wanted to leave.

This routine worked perfectly well with his part-time hours at the university, although Stryker had practically been begging him to come back as a full-time member of the faculty. The shorter hours suited him and gave him time to do more of what he wanted, which was to read, basically. Being a English literature professor, one would have expected him to cling to the canonised classics such as Dickens, Austen and Steinbeck. But years and years of over-analysis and grinding the joy out of the English language – because surely, that was the purpose of academia – and Charles just ended up wanting something fun and brainless to read.

It had been pure coincidence, perhaps, that on the day of the accident, Charles had been preparing to fly home and he had stopped at the airport bookstore, wanting something dumb and written in the last 50 years to take his mind off the grief and the pain. The cover of 'Judas' by one E.M. Lehnsherr had caught his eye, and he had been debating whether to buy it when he heard the boarding call for his gate, so he had quickly paid and ran off.

Maybe he had been expecting the book to be bad and trashy, and maybe he had been in a particularly vulnerable point in his life where his estranged mother had just died and he had been grappling with a strange, terrible mixture of grief, guilt and relief. Whatever it was, Charles had been unexpectedly swept away, hijacked by the masterful language and gripping plot of two brothers, one of whom grows up to be a leading politician and the other a hitman, their lives culminating in an unexpected betrayal.

So Charles had gone to Amazon to stock up on E. M. Lehnsherr's entire back catalogue. It had cost him a pretty penny and a lot of cursing from his overloaded mailman, but he had devoured the books – all fifteen of them – like a man drowning of thirst in the desert. Some had flaws, of course, and Charles didn't particularly care for 'The Last Hunter', a book also panned by most of the other fans on the official forum, but even in the worst book, the language was still lyrical, colourful, gripping.

Ever the academic, Charles dove into research about the elusive E. M. Lehnsherr, who seemed to be a Salinger-like literary recluse. There were barely any interviews, and there were no pictures except for a blurry, hazy fan photo taken of the back of the man at a book expo. One of Charles' fellow enthusiasts, HankMC1306, had dubbed the picture the Sasquatch photo, and the name had stuck. Charles looked at it more often than he would like to admit to, his eyes lingering over that nice arse in chinos before shaking his head at himself.

Indeed, Charles Xavier, a specialist in 18th and 19th century English literature, was slightly obsessed with a mainstream author who had literally saved his sanity, and if anyone had anything derisive to say about E. M. Lehnsherr, they were in for a hearty debate (and sometimes, argument, as Raven unfortunately found out) with Charles.

So when the man in the turtleneck sat down opposite Charles at Café Kafka and made a soft, derogatory snort when he spotted the cover of Charles' book, Charles understandably felt his hackles rise. "I'm sorry?"

The man in the turtleneck simply smiled, shaking his head. "Nothing."

Charles raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I do apologise. I thought you were making fun of my book."

"I was." The man's smirk deepened. "Why would you want to read that? Was Stephanie Meyers out of stock?"

Charles was so taken aback that he could only laugh. "You're serious?"

"Very much so." The smirk had now disappeared. "I'm not a fan of populist fiction."

"Populist?" Charles was intrigued enough to lay down his battered copy of 'Judas', the one with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon on the cover from the movie adaptation, because his first copy was far too precious to bring outside. "How is E. M. Lehnsherr populist? The themes he has written about hardly have mass appeal."

"It's obvious in the language," Turtleneck said airily, stirring his cappuccino – and Charles' burgeoning irritation. "Sometimes I feel like he's writing to impress someone. And that's not good. You should have your own style, like the great masters."

Charles didn't know whether to laugh or not. It was like arguing with a version of himself from five years ago, at the height of his literary snobbery before the accident, and hence, the discovery of E. M. Lehnsherr. "So what you're saying is that anyone published in the last 50 years has no literary merit."

"Not at all." Turtleneck sipped his cappuccino. His accent sat oddly in Charles' ears, the consonants particularly hard-hitting. "There are plenty of good living authors today. Sadly, E. M. Lehnsherr is not one of them."

Charles shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose and aching to get back online where he could complain to HankMC1306 about this impertinent fellow. "Fine, then we'll have to agree to disagree, my friend."

"Fine." Turtleneck nodded at him rather amusedly before taking out his laptop and setting it up. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

They fell silent for the rest of the hour, Turtleneck's fingers clattering on the keyboard and irritating Charles even more, and finally Charles folded his book and called for the bill, not bothering to explain to a puzzled Sean why he was leaving earlier than usual.

Turtleneck's smirk followed him out of the café.

***

The encounter with the rather condescending man in the turtleneck soon proved to be only the first of many blots in Charles' week. The Northanger Abbey essay that he had set for the UZS2101 undergrads turned out to be a nightmare, as several of the students seemed convinced that Charles had never heard of Sparknotes (and never would, forever and ever, amen) and they had gleefully lifted chunks of text from the McAnalyses that Sparknotes was famous for, and Charles had spent Tuesday and Wednesday crossly slashing at the damning essays with an angry red pen.

Stryker had somehow also suckered him into covering Moira's classes while she recovered from a bout of chicken pox (Charles was torn between teasing her for catching a child's disease and begging her on his knees to come back, and never mind if the undergrads ran screaming when they saw her spots.) Understandably, Charles was very much looking forward to a quiet Thursday at Cafe Kafka and a much-anticipated re-reading of 'Magnetic Fields', his very favourite E. M. Lehnsherr novel, and arguably the man's magnum opus.

On Thursday, it rained.

It was still raining after lunchtime, and Charles decided to risk the 15-minute walk from his flat to Cafe Kafka without an umbrella. It turned out to be a decision he would regret, because when he finally arrived, he was perplexed to see a few customers standing outside in the rain, looking just as confused as he was at the 'CLOSED' sign still displayed on the door.

Charles checked his watch. It was already past two, so where was everyone? Rain dripped down his neck and seeped into his clothes, and he ignored the stab of irritation when he saw Turtleneck standing nearby, smirking under a large luxurious umbrella.

"What happened?" Charles asked Alex, another regular who did nothing but play games on his iPad at the cafe.

Alex shrugged. "I don't know, I came by this morning and they were closed, so I thought I'd come back after lunch." Unlike Charles, Alex didn't seem to mind being wet, merely pulling his up his hoodie. "Maybe Sean's sick. I saw him looking pretty weird yesterday."

"Ah." Charles didn't know what else to say; this was frankly the longest conversation he had ever had with Alex. He nodded in thanks and wandered off, shielding his eyes from the rain. He would wait fifteen minutes, and if it still wasn't open, he would head over to the X Factor, an annoyingly loud cafe nearby that seemed to take delight in playing the entire discography of Maroon 5.

He stiffened when he realised he was no longer alone, and rain was no longer seeping into his clothes. Turning around, he fought back a sigh when he realised Turtleneck was now standing next to him, sharing his umbrella. "Are you always this masochistic?" Turtleneck said, the corner of his lips crooking up in a slight smile.

"Pardon me?" Charles decided his best refuge was pretended ignorance.

"Well, first you insist on subjecting yourself to crappy authors. Then you deliberately walk about in the rain with no umbrella, getting wet." Turtleneck shrugged. "Seems to me you're a glutton for punishment."

"Must be true, because here I am, talking to you," Charles said cheerfully, and to his surprise, Turtleneck was ducking his head in laughter. Still, shelter was shelter, and Charles wasn't foolhardy enough to refuse, even if Turtleneck was standing a little too close, close enough that Charles could smell a hint of the clean, earthy cologne he was wearing.

"Do you come here every day?" Turtleneck asked when he was done laughing, and Charles raised his eyebrows at him. Considering that they hadn't even introduced themselves properly yet, Turtleneck seemed genuinely interested in the answer, and Charles wondered if it would just give him fodder to poke more fun at E. M. Lehnsherr.

"Just a few times a week," Charles said, deciding that there was no harm in being friendly. Which he would have been with this chap, if he hadn't called E. M. Lehnsherr a talentless hack for no good reason other than to rile up a complete stranger. "It's nice and quiet here."

"It is," Turtleneck said reasonably. Now he was tilting his head a little at Charles, that generous mouth widening into a proper smile this time. "I'm Erik."

"Charles." No last names, then. Charles wondered if that was because Erik didn't want him rounding up all the other E. M. Lehnsherr fans and forming a lynch mob to hunt him down. Thankfully, Charles could see Darwin hurrying to the entrance of the cafe, soliciting a 'Thank fuck!' from a relieved Alex.

Erik and Charles huddled closer, all the customers watching a harassed Darwin trying the different keys. "What happened, Armando?" Charles asked. "Woke up late and discovered you had turned into a giant cockroach?"

Darwin only looked confused, but there was a quiet snort of laughter from Erik behind him, his breath warming the nape of Charles' neck. Now Darwin was nodding in realisation. "Oh, I get it, very funny." He shot Charles an even look. "Sean was sick this morning, too sick to tell me he wasn't coming in."

"Ah, poor chap." Now the customers were all scurrying into the dim cafe, and Alex and Charles helped Darwin to take the upturned chairs down from the tables. Erik was shaking out his umbrella to dry it, then taking the table opposite Charles' favourite spot. Again. Charles decided against sitting somewhere else; if he did, it would call Darwin's attention to it and then Erik would spend the entire afternoon smirking at him again. No, Charles Xavier would meet his adversary head on.

As Erik plugged in his laptop's power adapter, Charles very casually strolled over to his favourite table, very casually sat down and very casually pulled out his copy of 'Magnetic Fields' while waiting for his triple white chocolate mocha to arrive.

It took all of five seconds for Erik to groan, "Oh no, not again," and when Charles looked up, Erik was shaking his head like a dispirited old metronome.

"Something wrong?" Charles said smoothly, flicking over the page with more relish than necessary.

"There are thousands of good authors out there, Charles," Erik said, a little more seriously than the situation called for. "Why would you want to keep reading him?"

Charles just stared at Erik with amazement. "And why not? I enjoy him, he's good and he can weave an absolute devil of a tale. Believe me, after years of wading through 'Bleak House' and 'War and Peace' and other books thicker than your head, this is really quite refreshing."

Now Darwin was bringing over Charles' coffee, setting it on the table. His face lit up when he saw the cover of 'Magnetic Fields'. "Oh man, I love this book. I read it during my senior year and I fell in love with the girl who lent it to me."

"See?" Charles said to Erik, gesturing vaguely at a rather confused Darwin. "Lehnsherr inspires people. Just because a lot of people read him and his language is very accessible doesn't mean that his writing isn't up there with the best."

Erik only shrugged as his fingers clattered on the keyboard. "A lot of people read the Archie comic books too, does that mean they're on par with 'Moby Dick'?"

"You're impossible," Charles said with an exasperated laugh, because he had never met anyone so vehemently opposed to E. M. Lehnsherr's work before. "I wonder whether you'll say the same thing if you're standing face to face with him."

A muscle twitched in Erik's right cheek, but he continued typing steadily on the keyboard, his face impassive. "I can't imagine I'd have very much to say to him."

They fell silent after that, and this time it was Erik who left early, but not before giving Charles a nod. Charles nodded back, then lost himself in the rest of 'Magnetic Fields'. When he finally got up to pay, he was informed by Darwin that Erik had settled both their bills, then left a generous tip for Darwin. "I hope he comes back," a happy Darwin said as he wiped down the espresso bar, and Charles looked down at his book, wondering why he was wishing for the same.