The kitchen is cold, a good sign that the fridges and freezers are in full working order. The one time it hadn’t been cool had been the time when the electricity from the entire block, and the blocks surrounding them, got cut off because some guy slept on the job. The first thing he had noticed when he walked in had been the flies, then the smell that was hanging in the air like meat going rank. After demanding reparation and calling in exterminators and throwing away hundreds of dollars worth of food out into the bins, he had made sure to invest in a back-up power system. It never came in handy, but Erik preferred to be safe rather than sorry.
He pulled out two bags of brown onions from storage and set it on the floor beside him. Then he picked out a chopping board, unrolled his knife bag and began to hand-peel the onions of its’ brown skin and first layer. As soon as he set the onion down on the chopping board, a knife pulled itself free from the bag and began to chop methodically. He went through both bags, and was left with onions that were sliced, diced, quartered, halved or simply left whole.
That was how Erik began his working day, with two bags of onions and a sting in his eyes.
The restaurant was bustling, famous for two things; quick service and the secret ingredient in the desserts, which isn’t really a secret as it was more of a family recipe that Erik held dearly and viciously with both hands. He was, after all, a very private man.
The doors into the kitchen swung open and Emma stepped in with a slip of paper in hand. As the doors swung close behind her, Erik could hear the loud chatter coming from the diners above the exhaust system and the sizzle of the grill.
‘Compliments to the chef; table 13.’
He paused momentarily to remember. Table 13; lamb cutlets and sirloin steak, cooked medium rare. He nodded, tossed in two pinches of finely chopped parsley into a portion of béchamel sauce and stirred just enough to mix. When he turned to spoon a serving of creamy mash on top of a clean plate, he caught Emma watching him expectantly.
‘What,’ he bit out, feeling his eyebrow twitch, as he put the pot on the side and stared at her with an unimpressed look, ‘I don’t do customer service.’
She sighed in mock-exasperation, already used to his attitude. ‘And here I thought you might be in a better mood.’
Erik waved it aside as he gathered a portion of long beans cooked in garlic butter and placed it on top of the potatoes. ‘If you think I’m happy because I drove my competitors out of business, well, then…yes, but it’s business, nothing personal,’ he grumbled as he picked up a clean spoon in time for a metal spatula to come from the stove with a grilled salmon on top. As soon as it touched the plate, he gently poured the béchamel sauce on top and slid it under the heat with a sprinkling of crispy fried shallots on top.
When Emma began to tap her heels on the tiled floor, he fought the urge to roll his eyes and rang the bell with a shouted, ‘service!’
Rule with Emma, never expect her, as a maitre d’, to ever pick up a waiter’s slack.
Angel came in, cleaned the side of the plate of fingerprints with a hot, wet towel and was out again without a word, efficient, no dilly-dallying. Erik liked her for the professionalism she displayed in front of him, but whatever happened outside of his kitchen was none of his concern, unless a customer complained about his food or one of his workers dropped a searing hot plate on a customer’s lap.
‘I’m not going outside,’ he said as he waved his hand at the stove to lower the heat then walked over to the cooler part of the kitchen to plate out some desserts; the part of the meal that people make bookings and willingly line outside his restaurant for.
‘I didn’t ask you to.’ Emma said as she neatly folded the paper in half, then in half again, then threw it in the bin.
‘No, you expect me to.’ He pulled out a cold plate from the small fridge that also served as a work surface area, along with one chilled panna cotta.
After all these years working together, he didn’t know why Emma still thought he would ever venture out of his kitchen in the middle of a busy shift to speak with customers and shake their hands and make nice. It was ridiculous.
‘It’s customer loyalty,’ she said with a long-suffering look.
Erik didn’t know if she heard his thoughts or if she was just continuing their conversation. Knowing Emma, she was just being difficult on purpose. Even if he left the kitchen to…mingle with his clients, it’s not like there was anybody else in the kitchen to take over for him.
And that’s another thing his restaurant was famous for; it’s a one-man operational kitchen. He did everything himself. It was easy, given his mutation.
Emma watched as he plated up the panna cotta, drizzled it with a generous spoonful of crème anglaise and then topped it off with a single, fresh mint leaf.
Erik was by no means a sweet man, he was anything but. However, she was the only person in his life that noticed the delicate way he treated his desserts. She smiled.
The man was glowering at him as he checked through all of the boxes, layer by layer, to make sure that he got what he paid for; nobody wants rotten tomatoes or mashed cucumbers served on a pretty plate.
On the last box, the man sighed in a gruff manner and said, ‘hey, I’ve got other deliveries to make,’ he then held out a clipboard for Erik to sign and tapped at it with a red-tipped pen.
After a quick survey to make sure everything was in order, he took the board, signed it with a practiced flourish and gave the man his thanks. The man tipped his cap in welcome and stalked back to his truck, hopped in and was gone in under a minute.
As Erik carried his purchases into the kitchen, Emma came in through the front with a piece of A4 in hand. He raised an eyebrow at her white fur coat (it’s not that cold, but he’ll admit that it looks fashionable) and waited for her to start as he labeled the boxes with the day’s date so he wouldn’t accidentally use the fresh batch by mistake.
‘There’s a new diner opening across the road,’ she said once he was out of the fridge and motioned at the ‘HELP WANTED’ sign on the table.
He stared at her, then the sign, then back to her again. ‘Your point?’
Businesses come and go; it’s the way the economy works. It’s the fashion, it’s the trend; it’s fickle. He was mildly surprised that it took over two weeks for someone to snap up the spot – it’s prime real estate, right smack-bam in the middle of the business district. Though, he could understand why it took that long. To start a new business opposite a well-known restaurant, such as Erik’s, was a bold and risky move. It would either crash and burn within the year or it would somehow make do because they offered something that he didn’t have on his menu. Not unusual.
Their previous competitor offered items made from organic and free-range produce. Most people who ate there were health junkies who were concerned with the global impact and the effect of their carbon footprint. The only reason the business ran to the ground was that someone ratted out that they couldn’t afford organic or free-range goods anymore, haven’t been able to afford it for months, therefore, have been selling and feeding people lies.
They pretty much deserved to be closed down. If the public has been given high expectations and it hasn’t been fulfilled, be prepared for the consequences.
Erik made no such promises, other than to serve good food in a timely manner, charge no more than necessary, and keep the health grade to a high level.
‘My point is that we should prepare to make some changes.’
He frowned, he didn’t like changes. ‘The menu is not set to change for another two months.’
‘I’m not talking about the menu,’ she snapped, which was surprising considering that he rarely ever sees her get flustered over things such as these. Emma was normally cool, calm, collected. Today, however, it seems to have flown out the window, or stuffed in one of the fridges, somewhere. She brought a hand up to the bridge of her nose and pushed gently, ‘I was talking about—you know what? Never mind; you never listen to me anyway.’
‘Good,’ he said as he returned to the task of cutting the mushrooms into quarters before the delivery man came along, ‘you’re learning.’
Emma sighed as she walked out of the kitchen, taking the sign with her to the front table to do the accounting; wages, rents, bills and any other miscellaneous things that popped up with owning a restaurant.
Occasionally, as Erik drove down the street to turn into the road leading to the back of his restaurant, he’d notice the movers, the workers and a few men and the odd woman wearing a bright yellow hard hat standing outside of the building across the street.
Occasionally, Erik would notice repeats of the same man, and the same woman, how they would point and gesture and sometimes laugh. They must be the new owners.
Occasionally, he would come out of his kitchen and stand beside Emma by the windows and watch their progress. The woman wasn’t there today, but the man (wearing tweed?) was overseeing the sign painter.
‘It looks like a diner,’ he said, feeling just the slightest bit bemused.
She rolled her eyes at him. ‘Yes, I’ve already mentioned that.’
‘Yes, but I didn’t think it would be one of those retro diners from the 60’s. It’s cliché.’ It’s something out of a Roswell drama. He turned to her with a raised eyebrow as if to say, this is what you’re worried about?
Emma merely huffed, shook her head and returned to her accounts. ‘Some of the chairs are getting old; there’s no even footing,’ she said as she pulled out a catalogue for chic furniture and gave a cursory glance through it, ‘do you want to replace the few or buy everything new?’
Eventually, Erik turned away from the construction site across the road to face her. ‘Just replace the few. I’m sure we have extras down in storage.’ Then he paused. ‘I hope you weren’t implying a restaurant overhaul as one of the ‘changes’ you mentioned a couple of days ago.’
They could afford it, but he didn’t want to spend it on unnecessary things. Putting new tables and chairs in the restaurant just because a new diner, of all things, was opening up across the road was unnecessary. If he humored her (not that he would), next thing he knew, Emma would make the suggestion to put up new wallpaper, buy new decorations and go organic.
She looked up from the booklet and gave him a hard look. ‘I’ll get Janos to go down to storage to pick up the chairs on his way in.’
He raised an eyebrow at the subject change, but decided not to pursue it as he went back into the kitchen to the bag of potatoes waiting for him to be peeled, diced, boiled and mashed to a puree.
The restaurant was bustling, so was the one across the road, having finally opened their doors to the public. There were balloons, confetti, hand-painted banners, and free soft drinks limited to one per person.
The kitchen closed at the usual time of 9:30pm, but the restaurant stayed open until 11pm or whenever the last customer decided to leave, no later than midnight. The diner across the road was still going strong. Erik wondered if they were going to be a twenty-four hour diner.
As soon as all the staff got everything ready for tomorrow, they left, leaving just Emma and Erik behind to close up the place and do a bit of last minute stock-taking.
Emma was standing by the window again, a half-glass of Pinot Noir in hand (the leftovers from a customer perhaps). There was the slightest pinch of concern on her face. He didn’t know why she was so worried; a diner versus a fine-dining establishment was nothing to fret over. They had different clienteles, different menus, different atmospheres, overall they were just different.
‘You’ll see in a few days,’ she said hauntingly as she brought the wine up to settle on her cheeks; a distraction.
Erik has never had the problem with lack of customers before, if anything, sometimes he hasn’t got enough tables for everybody despite doing their best to provide enough seating and timing the bookings down to the second.
A table for two didn’t make their 8 o’clock booking, which was unusual, but again, nothing to fret over; it happens sometimes.
Still, Erik wasn’t worried, but Emma looked somewhat edgy, which brought out the first roots of doubt.
The kitchen is cold, just as he had expected it. However, he hadn’t been expecting Emma, stuffed in her usual white fur coat, to be sitting on the stool doing her paperwork on his work table. It was unhygienic, but he supposed he could give it another good wipe down before he made a start on the onions, potatoes and carrots.
Without prompt, just as he had set down his knife roll, she shoved the restaurant’s planner book at him.
He picked up the book, stared at her for a moment before he flipped towards their current date. There was a list of bookings, and two of them had a red line straight across it. Emma was exaggerating again.
‘What of it?’ He asked as he snapped the book shut and put it down in front of her. It was only two bookings; people cancel all the time, so what? It wasn’t as if two tables were going to make a considerable dent in their earnings.
She gave him another hard look and went back to her paperwork with a more aggressive jerk to her penmanship. ‘You’ll see in another few days.’
He fought the urge to roll his eyes at her and shooed her out of his kitchen. While she did pack up her things from the table, she still stayed behind to watch him work, her eyes unnaturally bright, though she blamed the onions.
The restaurant was…marginally quiet. There were only sixteen tables filled out of their twenty-five, but then again, it was well over half-way through dinner service and Erik didn’t have any other dishes to plate up.
Emma stalked into the kitchen with another slip of paper in hand, and almost like a rehearsed speech, she said with somewhat exaggerated flair complete with a dainty hand gesture; ‘desserts were spectacular, table 19.’
His frown deepened as he looked up from where he had been examining his menu, trying to figure out what to change and what to keep. Table 19; panna cotta, dark chocolate volcano cake with one extra scoop of vanilla ice-cream. He nodded and went back to the menu in front of him. ‘I’m still not going out.’
She rolled her eyes, having expected that, as she took in the stillness around the kitchen; surely he couldn’t already be done. ‘Well,’ she began in a quiet hum, ‘since you’re free—’
Emma harrumphed and began to fold the piece of paper in half, then in half again. ‘Do you see what I mean, yet?’ She asked as she tossed the paper into the bin and put her hands on her hips.
‘Maybe I’ll change a few dishes from the menu,’ gooseberries were in season, ‘but I don’t want a restaurant overhaul.’ No need to be dramatic.
‘No; it’s quiet,’ the echo of her tapping shoes illustrated her point clearly. The exhaust system was on low-power and there was nothing on the grill to provide the occasional spit and sizzle to the quiet hum of the inbuilt fans.
‘It’s Tuesday.’ Mondays and Tuesdays are always notoriously quiet. Wednesday, however, was pay-day.
‘We were supposed to have more than this booked in, but people have been cancelling.’
‘People cancel all the time, Emma,’ he said with a frustrated breath as he made the occasional note on the margin of the menu. Maybe he could provide more dips and spreads for the bread rolls.
‘Sometimes we get one,’ she pointed out on a single manicured finger, ‘occasionally we get two, but we’ve never had five cancellations before. Just for one day.’ It’s been barely even two weeks.
Erik flipped the menu shut and narrowed his eyes at her. ‘OK, what do you want?’ He asked, just to get her edginess out of the damn way. She was terrible to be around when she was like this; she projected her anxiety for the whole restaurant to feel. He was more susceptible to picking up her moods, having been around her the longest to see the signs.
She mellowed down almost instantly and returned to being a cool, calm and collected woman who knew how business works. ‘We put up more ads. Newspapers, magazines, on TV if we need to.’
He almost groaned at the last suggestion but at her frown, only managed a downward quirk of his lips instead. ‘Do the newspapers and magazines, update the website if you need to,’ he valiantly ignored the suggestion for putting up their restaurant on TV for the whole state to see, ‘and for God’s sake, stop drinking the unfinished wine that the customers don’t get to take home!’ He finished in a harsh whisper.
She sniffed. ‘Wine has nothing to do with this.’
Of course it doesn’t.
One tomato, two tomatoes, three—oh God, the whole bottom layer has gone rotten. Erik frowned as he overturned the box and threw it all out. It smelled sickly sweet and horribly tangy.
Emma was updating her wine list on his work table, but he didn’t care; he had other things to worry about, such as the rotting food in his fridge. He swore vehemently.
He merely grunted as he pulled the box apart until it laid flat and moved onto the box of herbs. Some were browning and the edges of a few were turning into mush. He swore again as he pulled it out and began to sort through them. He’ll salvage as much as he can and make herb butter with it, or something. He’ll think of something.
‘We’re usually done by now,’ she pointed out with a casual tap-tap of her pen. It was well past midnight and they had closed half an hour earlier than usual; they’ve been here for over two hours now.
While all of their staffs were already home and probably snug in bed, Erik and Emma were still in the restaurant. He didn’t know why Emma stayed; it never takes her long to make sure the bar is properly stocked and the wines are properly stored or disposed of via her own wine glass. He supposed she only stayed behind to make a point, an annoying point.
‘You can go home, Emma,’ he said politely, though really, he was gritting his teeth in displeasure, ‘there’s no need for you to watch me do stock-take.’
He’s gnashing his teeth, but not at her, though it seemed as though her mere presence was feeding his discontentment.
He has food spoiling and he doesn’t feel happy about that; it’s wasteful. He’s got too much stock incoming and not enough outgoing; his supply is exceeding the demands. Orders for stock were still coming regardless of whether he’s ready or has any room for them or not. It couldn’t be helped, they were preorders fixed according to the days of the week. Come morning will bring in a shipment of avocadoes, two boxes of them.
‘Would you like me to call the suppliers in the morning?’ She asked, almost as if reading his mind. He wouldn’t think it beyond her to, especially in times like these. He wouldn’t be surprised if his surface thoughts were louder than usual.
Erik sighed as he tried to rub out the persistent kink in his neck. Stock-taking has never been this tedious before and he’s only gone through one and a half of this two fridges. ‘It’s fine, I’ll do it when I get in tomorrow.’
‘I have to call the wine suppliers, too, so I might as well,’ she said with a helpless shrug. ‘Our alcohol sales have plummeted by quite an amount.’ Practically a week’s worth…
‘Right,’ he huffed tiredly as he put the herb box back in the fridge and pulled out one last tray before heading home. The spring onions looked like Black Death. He swore mentally as he tossed it into the bin with a foul cringe. ‘Thank you,’ he said belatedly and wondered how much more torture he was willing to put himself through for the night.
He hated wasting food, and it tore at him that he’s had to throw so much of it away, not only from his fridges but from the larder as well. The last time this ever happened was when he first opened up the restaurant over six years ago.
Six years is a pretty long time, considering how nitpicky the economy was. But he was certain, no matter how bad the economy got, he wouldn’t blame his downfall on it. Blaming the economy was for people who failed to prepare enough for it.
‘What the hell is this?’ He asked as he picked up an over-ripened avocado and showed it to the delivery man.
He’s never had the problem of getting bad orders before; he’s intimidating enough that most suppliers know never to give him a foul slip by putting bad produce at the bottom layer hidden by good, fresh, crisp ones.
The man shook his head and said gruffly, ‘hey, don’t kill the delivery man. You got a problem; take it up with the head honcho.’ He said as he tapped the clipboard with the same red-tipped pen and waited, albeit impatiently.
Erik frowned, shoved the lid back on the box and gave it back to him. ‘Return it; I’m not paying for expired food.’
Before the delivery man drove off, Erik was already on his phone waiting for the owner of ‘Green Acres’ to pick up the damn call. As soon as he did, he began to demand to know just what the hell is going on that they thought it would be a great idea to give him less-than-excellent quality products.
The man on the other side sighed tiredly, ‘OK, we won’t charge and we’ll try and get you new stock by tomorrow.’
But Erik, not one to be easily placated by that, also demanded to know the reason why. He didn’t care about the lack of customer service from the delivery man, he only cared that he almost got duped into purchasing poor goods.
The man sighed again, ‘my motto is first come, first serve; there’s a new diner in town and—’
When Erik snaps, he doesn’t become angry. Instead, he becomes disconnected.
‘Thank you,’ he interrupted the man, ‘please cancel my orders, all of them. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.’ He hung up before the man could get another word in. Time to move on.
Emma found him in the office by the computer with a phone book opened half-way, and a notepad covered in scrawls and scribbles on top of it. She frowned at the surface thoughts he was broadcasting and she almost dropped her coffee on the tiled floor.
‘Oh my God, you let go of our supplier?’
‘He tried to sell me rotten avocadoes,’ he reasoned as he tapped away at the keyboard and scrolled down the page in search of another fruit and vegetable supplier.
She spluttered. ‘He tried—that doesn’t mean—Erik!’
He ignored her as he called a company called ‘Green House Goods’, maybe they’ll be better for him. When he found out that they couldn’t sell him any avocadoes on such short notice due to demands from other buyers, he said his goodbyes and went back to search for another one.
‘Erik, this is not like you,’ she began once he was off the phone.
‘The moment your supplier tries to shove bad produce on you, that’s the time to find a new one. I learnt that from my lecturer.’ The man was wise, if a bit on the overzealous side.
Before Emma could begin to preach about the ethics between suppliers and goods and customer service, a hard knock on their back door drew their attention. She trailed behind him as Erik greeted the man who was holding out a box of leeks for them. The top edges were brown and the bottom was dry and wrinkly from old age.
She sniffed, unimpressed.
As soon as the man left without delivering the goods, Erik went back to the computer and Emma was feeling more sympathetic to their dilemma. She sighed as she took the opposite seat and pulled the phone directory towards her while pulling out her smart-phone from her bag.
‘I’ll do some research.’
Erik was never one to form associations with other people. A head chef (the only chef) of a popular restaurant doesn’t really have much of a social life, and he tended to ignore most of his staff anyway, unless they asked him specific questions regarding items on the menu.
Everybody involved in the restaurant have meetings once every two weeks, they discuss the food, wine and any possible mishaps or compliments from customers, and that’s it; they don’t do more than that. Emma is the only exception, but it’s only because she’s the maitre d’ of the restaurant and the both of them need to confer with each other constantly. But even then, they don’t meet outside of working hours unless it’s an emergency.
It’s Wednesday and the atmosphere is subdued for a pay-day. Emma is quietly going over the new additions in the wine menu with the staff by the bar while there’s a lull in business and for once, Erik is outside of his kitchen; there’s nothing to do.
When the front door opened, Emma suddenly stilled and snapped her mouth shut with a loud click. It took her a second to compose herself, move away from the bar and greet the new customer, who was wearing tweed and looking awfully familiar.
Erik was about to head back into the kitchen when Emma shoved a mental ‘STOP’ sign at him.
He’s here to speak with you.
He almost groaned. Then Emma cut in before he could think his answer back at her. He’s not here for that; he’s not a customer.
Emma was just telling everybody to go back to waiting tables, polishing cutleries, folding napkins and so on, when the man, a gentleman by the looks of it, settled on the free stool next to him.
‘Hello,’ the man said with a pleasant smile, ‘I’m sorry it’s taken me this long to introduce myself but my name is Charles Xavier.’
Erik raised an eyebrow at the other and wondered why the man even felt the need to introduce himself to a stranger such as him. ‘Erik Lehnsherr,’ he said as he took the outstretched hand.
There was something about Charles that was quietly springing up alarms in his head. It was odd. He looked familiar and yet, Erik was pretty certain he’s never met a Charles Xavier in his whole life. He hummed to himself in thought.
‘I’ve introduced myself to almost everybody on this street, but I’ve yet to come to yours. In all honesty, I was a bit intimidated; your aura is rather aggressive during service times.’
Erik frowned; what is this man on about? Is he another…
‘So, anyway, I’m the owner of ‘Heart and Soul’, the diner just across—’
Erik stood and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Well aware that he was on the verge of making a scene, he quickly retreated to the kitchen, all the while ignoring the wide-eyed look from the man. Charles followed after him just as he sealed himself in the cooler; the place he liked to go to when he wanted to…cool down.
He was quietly fuming. He’s never held grudges before, especially to people whom he’s never met before. He was well aware that he was being aggressive, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out the reason why.
Then he remembered that the diner across has been opened for well over a month and during that time, his business has been slowing down tremendously.
The door knocked twice. And then, ‘I’m sorry, but I feel as if I just said something wrong.’
Erik groaned inwardly. Oh God, I lost two of my suppliers to him?
The door opened to reveal the man, who was wincing sympathetically. ‘I’m sorry that happened to you but I—’
‘Get out of my head,’ he pulled the door shut again and sat on an overturned bucket. He might be in here a while.
From the inside, Erik could hear Emma’s soft voice, as well as the man’s apologetic tone. Within a few minutes, it was all quiet and he confirmed they were out of his kitchen when he stretched out his ability to note that Emma had returned to her front desk and the man was crossing the road to return to his diner.
Erik, are you OK?
Fine. He bit out as his leg shook erratically beneath him.
It’s nothing personal, sugar.
It’s business, I know.
It’s just business, it’s nothing personal. But for Erik, whose life has always been about this restaurant, it feels personal. For once, he’s not blaming the economy. He’s blaming Charles Xavier.
Emma was sitting on the stool by his work table again, with pens, papers, catalogues and books all around her. Why she couldn’t do this in the office, or even up front at the bar, he has no idea.
There was a box of something beside her, he finally noticed. He was about to question it when she popped open the lid and showed off the pavlova with freshly whipped cream and a generous topping of fresh passion-fruit pulp inside. He raised an eyebrow at her.
‘I’ve always assumed you be somewhat hopeless in the kitchen.’
She rolled her eyes at his teasing. Very funny. ‘It’s not me,’ she said as she picked up a red pen and dashed a hard line across a 6 o’clock booking, ‘it’s a gift to you.’
Erik frowned as he closed the lid in search for a tag, a scribble, a name, some indication that Emma was telling the truth and that this was for him. He gave up after half a minute and looked at the pavlova again, it seemed home-made, and terribly sweet. His teeth ached just from the thought of it.
‘I’m not one for sweets,’ he reminded her and noticed her careful gaze stuck on him, ‘do you know who this is from?’
He closed the lid and stalked away from it towards the storage for a bag of onions.
A quiet laugh tinkled the air and he couldn’t help but deepen the frown already on his face as he put the onions to the side, pulled out a chopping board and unrolled the knife bag to pull out a paring knife.
‘I never took you one to be a messenger,’ he confessed as he began to rip the brown skin away.
She ignored the ferocity of which he was chopping the onions with as she watched him with a grin on her face. ‘He saw me coming in, and he asked if you’ve arrived yet. He means well; he never meant to…hurt you.’
Erik snorted and peeled the onions with more oomph than necessary. ‘Take your things outside so I can prepare.’
She packed, but she still stayed behind, occasionally opening the box to peer inside with a knowing smile on her face. This was one of the few times he felt greatly annoyed by her.
He finished the bag of onions in less than ten minutes.
The next day, Emma appeared in his kitchen with a box of chocolate-squiggled cookies.
He raised an eyebrow at her then returned to the potatoes. ‘Share it with the others when they arrive. If the pavlova’s not finished yet, best throw it away.’ It wasn’t meant to be a jibe, but fresh cream, out of the bottle, becomes a health hazard after a second day exposure.
‘Janos took it with him last night, so it’s gone.’
She sat at the stool and began to nibble away at the cookies. ‘They’re quite good.’
‘I have no doubt.’ The diner was doing well. Obviously, they offered something that Erik’s restaurant didn’t. It happens. But the thought did very little to quell his indignity and anger.
The phone rang, Emma picked up once her lips were free of crumbs. ‘Good afternoon, this is—Oh, yes, just a moment.’ She stood and left the kitchen, taking the box of cookies with her.
He let out a quiet sigh, happy to be left to himself again as he peeled and chopped the rest of the potatoes before putting as much as he could in the largest pot he had. People don’t normally do it the way he does, but then again, most people aren’t born with a mutation that manipulates metal nor have an affinity towards them. He counted himself quite lucky.
‘Indeed you are.’
Erik almost flung the paring knife to Charles’ head. The man seemed rather sheepish for catching him off-guard.
‘Sorry to intrude, Emma let me in, I’ve brought a peace offering?’ He rambled as he held up a white box.
He growled and ignored the tinkling laughter in his head he knew came from Emma. ‘You’re not allowed in here.’ He made an exception for his maitre d’ and occasionally his staff, but he definitely won’t for Charles. When he noticed the watch and the belt that the man was wearing, he forced him out of his kitchen. Startled, the man couldn’t help but follow, but despite the blatant rejection, Charles remained by the door.
‘Do you like carrot cakes?’
‘No!’ He stormed into the fridge and stayed there until he was certain that the potatoes were done boiling. He kept himself busy by checking through the cucumbers and cabbages. The cabbages were fine, but the cucumbers have seen better, fresher days.
Charles was coming by more and more often, always with a box of something, sometimes sweet, and sometimes very occasionally savory. He always comes with a gift; a peace offering, an attempt at an olive branch. One day, it was brandy snaps dipped in chocolate. Emma hoarded them all to herself and kept it a secret from the others.
After the fourth day of his incessant visits, Erik blurted out to him, ‘what do you want?’
‘I just—’ he paused and noted the distance between the paring knife and his nose; there was very little. He swallowed and smiled, albeit nervously. ‘I wanted to make conversation.’
Erik raised a scrutinizing eyebrow as he pulled back his knife and continued shape the carrots in equal sized batons. ‘Most people leave once they realize that I’m not being rude on purpose; it’s how I am.’ (Though, with Charles, it’s a bit of both.)
Charles sighed in relief once the knife was out of his face, but there was still the slightest sheen of sweat across his forehead. ‘I confess; I’m not used to being disliked so vehemently. More so for something that was out of my control.’
Erik stopped and put his paring knife down. ‘It’s a business,’ he said slowly, more to sink it into his head than anything else.
‘I know, but I have the feeling that this is more than just a business for you.’
‘Please respect the privacy of my thoughts and stay out,’ he said as he leaned over the table and stared down at the orange-tinted board.
‘It’s not your thoughts I’m reading; it’s your feelings, your overall emotions. Your heart, I suppose you could say.’
Erik barked out a laugh and picked up his knife again. ‘Service is about to start in half an hour, please see yourself out.’
It was a harsh dismissal, but Charles left without another word.
After that, Charles did not come for two days. Emma refused to talk to Erik unless strictly necessary because she was left without something to appease her growing sweet tooth.
‘Do you not have cravings, at all?’ The man asked randomly as he sat by the stool that usually belonged to Emma. Today, she was doing her paperwork outside. Erik reckoned that she’s trying to annoy him by being a pain in the ass.
‘I’m not fond of sweets.’ The conversation felt like déjà vu, but he ignored it as he continued to pour the panna cotta mixture into their molds.
‘I find it ironic, then, that you’re famous for your desserts,’ he said with a quiet smile. Erik felt the corner of his lip quirk up just a fraction, remembering the time when Emma said the same thing after having worked with him for over half a year.
‘So you’ve been trying to bribe me then, by making desserts and bringing them over.’
‘Well, only because I’ve always thought the saying, ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ has always been true. Apparently not.’
Erik shook his head in quiet disbelief as he gave each of the molds a light tap on the table to get rid of any extra air bubbles before putting the entire tray into the fridge to cool down. He was just slicing open a couple more vanilla pods when Charles spoke again.
‘I confess; I don’t actually have any culinary skills, only the bare basics.’
Erik wasn’t interested, but he couldn’t stop himself from listening in. A part of him wondered if the man liked to speak just to hear his own voice echo off the walls. He wouldn’t be surprised.
‘I don’t have the technique that you do or the efficiency in which you go about your tasks; I never went to college for that, but I know what people want, so it helps.’
College wasn’t everything. Erik remembered graduating from his course and spending months trying to find a place to take him in as an apprentice. After half a year and still without a job, he began to work pro-bono until the owners decided to give him a chance to prove himself. After that, he spent the better part of four years learning under the head chef in one of the top-chain hotels around the city. He spent the next two years travelling from city to city, country to country, learning everything he could about the food, the culture and the heritage. After that, he opened up his restaurant and the rest, well…
‘I’m not an expert in cooking like you are,’ Charles continued, ‘though I’ve watched a lot of TV about it. I only know what people are after and that’s comfort food. I specialize in comfort food because comfort food soothes the weary soul.’
If Erik cared at all, he might’ve said it was noble, as it were, he was just plain annoyed that an amateur cook could best him at what the only thing he knew how to do.
‘By the way, I admire your skill, I really do.’ Charles couldn’t help the awe on his face as he watched Erik keep one whisk constantly stirring the béchamel sauce while a spatula with a metal handle kept sure that the crème anglaise didn’t go curdling in the double boiler; it’s not thickened enough yet, but Erik kept a close eye on it as he continue tossed the vanilla, pods and all, into another pot of boiling milk.
He wasn’t trying to show off or anything, it was just the way he liked to work, but Charles was impressed all the same.
Charles came by almost every day, always with a box of treats. It made Emma happy.
Erik wondered if Charles was trying to bribe Emma into leaving his restaurant and work for their diner instead. But then again, one look at their uniforms was enough to make her stay firmly on their side of the road. No matter how many sweet treats Charles gave her, she won’t be tempted to cross; she was far too fashionable and too in love with the color white to ever were dark blue pleats.
‘It’s like you read my mind,’ Emma said after one indulgent bite into a real passion-fruit cheesecake. Charles chortled. ‘Erik, you need to at least take a bite of this.’
He sighed and wondered how many times he needed to repeat that he wasn’t fond of sweets before the fact finally sunk into their heads. He wondered if this was a telepath thing; ignore the obvious. Just as he was about to say again, Emma stuffed a mouthful between his lips and put a hand over his mouth.
She was looking at him expectantly, so was Charles, and he could feel two of his teeth rattling from where they collided with the spoon. He hoped it was merely his imagination.
That was rude. He projected to her as he chewed. She pulled her hand away after he took two bites.
‘Why don’t you ever make cheesecakes for the restaurant?’ She asked as she went back to her own plate.
The texture was smooth, and the biscuit base was quite substantial, unlike the ones that come out of the box and break into little crumbs after one slice. It was sweet, but not overly so and while he was not a fan of desserts, he’d concede that he might just order a slice if he ever visited the diner.
Both of them were smiling at him, as if reading his thoughts. He frowned at them and swallowed the rest down his throat.
‘I’ve made cheesecakes before,’ he said once he check that, yes, the rattling teeth was just his imagination. ‘It was before you worked for us, and we had received a few comments about how it was not too dissimilar to the ones you’d buy from a supermarket. My pride took a beating.’
Emma gasped dramatically. ‘You mean to tell me that someone actually took you down a peg or two before?’
He rolled his eyes. ‘Hilarious, Emma.’
‘Hey!’ Angel stormed into the kitchen through the back door and narrowed her eyes at them. ‘I’ve been knocking on the damn door for over ten minutes!’
‘Sorry, darling, I was busy.’ Emma said as she finished up the last of her cheesecake and put her plate into the sink.
‘Getting fat from cheesecake.’
Emma gasped again. ‘You did not just call me fat.’
‘Honey, we’re all getting fat from that wild cat sitting over there,’ she jabbed her fingers at Charles who looked visibly sheepish. ‘The only person who isn’t is Erik, who doesn’t even like sweets.’
Erik thought he saw the light; finally, somebody who actually knows!
She sighed and ushered Angel and Charles, who was laughing a little to himself, out into the front. Eventually, she came back for the cheesecake, but not before cutting up one more piece.
‘Self-control, Emma,’ he warned.
‘It’s not for me,’ she said as she slipped it onto a clean plate and licked her finger clean of it. ‘I’ll leave a slice just for you. You might not get another,’ she said with a wink as she took the rest up to the front to put in the bar fridge. The staff can gorge themselves on desserts once the shift was over.
Erik stared at the cheesecake before moving it into the desserts fridge right beside the panna cotta. After the shift ended, he ate it in the confines of the cooler.
I'm sorry for the huge delay, but it wasn't my fault! SERIOUSLY! My internet was down and we were also trying to switch ISP and then things got fucking crazy and OUR PHONELINE GOT DISCONNECTED and the person on the phone said that we might've lost that number and I was like, WTF ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! And I might've cried a little bit while I was talking to them and I'm soooo ashamed but...but...yeah...
...Here you go. Have this chapter as a token of my apology!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘We’ve done considerably less than we did in the same week last year.’ Emma said by way of greeting.
He put his knife roll down on the table and walked over to where she sat. In front of her were the planner books, the accounting sheets and a laptop that stored the back-up files from the computer. He still didn’t know why she couldn’t do this in the office, but he’s long gotten used to it.
Erik looked at the chart, took over the wireless mouse and scrolled in between their current year and the year before. There was quite a significant drop. But just to make sure, he opened up the year previous to that, too. They weren’t doing as well as they had hoped.
He felt it when he had to cut back on his stocks, and he felt it most when some nights crawled rather than moved in the usual fast pace he was used to. He felt it when he had to throw more food away because they were no longer of good quality and he felt it in the way he cooked; agitated and with a lack of passion. But then again, he’d admit that he had never been a man of passion in the first place; it was just a job.
He no longer blamed Charles for it, maybe because he always came by with something to share with the others and held no malicious intent. Erik doesn’t blame the economy either, it’s a fickle thing to rely on and he’s never relied on it in the first place. No, he supposed he could only blame himself for not listening to Emma in the first place.
‘No, I don’t think a restaurant overhaul would’ve helped us, either.’ She said, never minding that she just read his thoughts, though he was certain that he was pretty much like an open book these days.
Erik picked up the daily planner and flipped to their current date. They’ve got thirteen tables booked, not including the three that already had a red line dashed over it. He shrugged it off; maybe they’ll get some walk-ins.
As part of his daily routine, he went to the storage and pulled out a bag of onions. To do something different, he pulled out two paring knives and handed one to Emma.
‘You look like you need a distraction,’ he reasoned and noted the pinch between her eyebrows slowly smooth away as she looked at him and then back at the knife. She didn’t look like she appreciated being used as menial labor, but she appreciated the thought.
Emma took the knife by the handle and began peeling the onion of its skin and first layer. After two onions, she decided to forgo the knife and use her diamond-tinted nails instead.
He raised an eyebrow at her secondary mutation, and thought that it was quite handy.
She smiled the whole way through.
‘There’s something in your panna cotta. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really beautiful.’
Erik’s never heard people say that his desserts are beautiful before; spectacular, yes, mouth-watering, yes, delectable, yes, but beautiful? It’s not a word used for desserts, unless they were one of those decorative cakes or pulled-candy that nobody can even eat. Beautiful is a word somebody would use to describe people, places, occasionally over-pampered pets, but food?
A pleasant hum escaped from Charles as he took another bite. He practically swooned. ‘You can use the word for food, too. I use it all the time.’
Erik still wasn’t convinced it was the right word to use for food, but this is Charles (eccentric) so he let it go.
His thoughts were drifting, as he had been finding himself doing a lot of these days with little to nothing to prepare for the service. Over the years since he opened up, no matter how many times he changed the menu, he always kept the panna cotta on, occasionally with different sauces or different toppings, but it was always the same panna cotta, the same recipe. He’d supposed that it was practically his signature dish.
‘Is it your favorite dessert, then?’ Charles asked.
Erik leaned back on the work bench and stared ahead of him on the blank wall. Was it his favorite? Yes, but he didn’t make a habit of eating it.
‘I like it for the smell, the aroma; the memories.’ If he closed his eyes, he’d see it; the white bloom surrounding him. No, even without closing his eyes, he could still see it clear as day.
‘Is that what you put in the panna cotta?’ He asked as he tapped his head for clarification.
His heart jerked to the side for a moment, but then he remembered that it was never really a secret. ‘It’s a family recipe,’ he said softly and offered the man another panna cotta. Charles gleefully accepted.
Business was doing poorly. There were no more tables booked to come and dinner service was half-way gone. The staff had nothing else to do because everything they could do have already been done earlier. Now, they were just stalling, occasionally speaking to the last few customers around, and sometimes sneaking a quick text in the shadows before hastily putting their phones back in their apron pockets before Emma caught them.
Emma was in the bar wiping down the wine bottles with Janos because they needed to look busy but the atmosphere was so quiet that they might as well be dead. Not even the musical ambiance did much to help relieve the obvious boredom floating around their heads.
For once, Erik was out of the kitchen and actually speaking with the customers. Emma would’ve laughed her pretty little head off if she hadn’t realized how desperate they looked.
She let out a quiet sigh and waited for Erik to finish before walking into the kitchen, confident that he would follow after her with a question mark above his head. Sure enough, two seconds later, he did, along with Angel because she was bored and decided it would be a good idea to check the cutleries to make sure they were all polished properly before putting it back outside to set-up the tables with later.
‘Erik, this is bad, this is very bad.’
It’s a Friday night and it’s quiet. They might as well close since all they’re making tonight is a loss.
He shrugged. ‘It’s a lull in the business, it happens.’
The diner’s been opened for almost two months; he’s gotten used to the slow intensity. It’s been building up for weeks.
‘Normally, you don’t even step foot outside of this kitchen during the dinner service, but you did and you’ve been doing it for a while now and I don’t understand why you’re not feeling as anxious about it as I am,’ she finally snapped.
‘You’ve been trying to get me to speak with the customers for years, and now that I am, I don’t know why you’re still complaining about it.’ He sighed as he pulled her stool towards her and forced her to sit. ‘You’re also anxious enough for the whole restaurant, so I don’t need to add anything along with it. One person panicking—’
‘Freaking out,’ Angel supplied helpfully as she checked her reflection on a service knife.
He grinned. ‘—is enough for everybody. Now, sit down, calm down, and I’ll make you something to drink.’
‘Gin and tonic, ease up on the tonic,’ she suggested before he could get one step towards the door.
‘Make that double.’
‘No,’ he directed to Angel who laughed cheekily.
When Erik went out towards the bar, he was both surprised and not very, to see Charles standing at the front with a box of treats in hand. Emma would be happy to see that. She would be doubly so if they were brandy snaps dipped in chocolate or that passion-fruit cheesecake she’s been harping at him to make for a while now.
With a casual hand wave, Erik gestured for Charles, who began to walk towards him. When Erik stepped back into the kitchen without a gin and tonic, minus the tonic, Emma was not happy. When she saw the white box, she brightened up considerably and practically hopped off her seat at the sight of it.
‘Please tell me it’s something with alcohol in it.’
Erik cringed at the desperation in her voice but Charles merely smiled and opened the box to reveal—
Oh God, Emma’s in heaven, there’s no saving her from Charles’ wicked charm, now. Dark blue pleats or not, she’s converted and there’s no getting her back.
The man couldn’t help the cheeky grin at Erik’s thoughts as he set the box down on the table and the both of them watched as Emma took one and swooned after a bite of it. Angel, after a quick look at Erik who nodded his permission, also took one bite and slumped down on the seat, her legs no longer capable of keeping her upright.
‘Well done, Mr. Xavier; you’ve thoroughly wrecked my staff,’ Erik said with a slight tease in his tone, his arms crossed over his chest in a casual way. He was impressed; he’s never seen Emma get so worked up over treats and desserts before. She’s always been very professional about her behavior at work, but obviously something has changed over the course of the two months that changed her mind set. He can’t say it’s entirely bad.
‘You should try one.’
‘Later,’ he didn’t want to get in the way of two women and their truffles. It would be a death sentence.
‘There might not be any left later,’ Charles said in a light warning.
He shrugged. ‘You can always make more.’
‘I suppose I can,’ he conceded, ‘but I don’t recommend more than two per person; they’re quite potent.’
Erik rolled his eyes; the man was exaggerating, had to be. He’s made truffles before; he’s only ever added enough alcohol in it to give it a faint flavor, a definite taste and presence, but never enough to overwhelm the chocolate.
‘Try one,’ he urged as he walked to Emma who was on her second and was on the verge of picking up a third when Charles shut the lid on her, ‘aren’t you still in the middle of dinner service?’ He looked at her expectantly, a twinkle in his eyes.
She pouted, stared at the box, before daintily stomping out to check that the restaurant was still in working order. Just as she stepped through the swinging doors, Charles let out a huffing laugh.
Erik raised an eyebrow at him and wondered what that was for.
‘She just called me a cheeky devil,’ he sounded appalled, but there was laughter in his eyes.
He snorted and waved it aside. ‘Trust me; you’re the picture of an angel compared to another certain devil I know.’
Angel laughed and brought a hand up to stifle the rest of her giggles. After a quick wash of her hands, she picked up the cutleries and popped back outside, possibly to tell everybody that they’ll be having truffles after the shift tonight. Knowing that there was something to look forward to at the end of a dinner service always made the last couple of hours more bearable. Erik supposed it was true.
‘Honestly,’ Erik started just as Charles gave him the box, ‘I don’t know how many times I need to tell you and everybody that I’m—’
‘Not fond of sweets, I know.’
In the end, Erik gave in and ate one, then almost balked.
‘How much did you put in here?’ It was like eating a ball of pure alcohol with a smear of chocolate on the side.
‘I said it was quite potent.’
‘No wonder Angel lost her footing and Emma kept trying to eat it up like a tequila shot.’ He wasn’t sure if he could finish the other half of the truffle. Erik was not a light-weight when it came to alcohol, but his professionalism was warring against the fact that there was nothing to do. Professionalism wasn’t winning by a huge margin.
Charles looked marginally confused. ‘Well, to be fair, I didn’t put in all that much, but it’s possible that Raven dumped more in while I wasn’t looking,’ Charles said with a sheepish air. ‘I didn’t eat the finished product; only tasted it once and I already thought it was quite a heady amount.’
‘Here, you’ll see what I mean.’
Before Erik’s brain caught up to what he was doing (he blamed it on the alcohol), Charles already took the other half in his mouth, careful not to bite his fingers by accident. He cringed, and coughed just a little.
‘I’m going to murder her. This is sabotage.’
Erik didn’t comment, merely folded his arms back together, ignored the chocolate smudge across his sleeves and withdrew into himself. What was he doing? What did he just do?
‘Erik, are you OK?’ Charles asked, as if sensing the shift in mood.
‘Yes, fine,’ he said in clipped tones. This was too friendly; out of character, and it worried him how quickly he made room for a man like Charles in his life.
Erik could count the amount of friends he had on one hand. Emma was one of them and she was supposed to be just a business associate but he had somehow extended it to her as well over the years. Erik was not one to make friends easily; people tended to avoid him simply because of how he looked, and if not that, then his attitude. It took constant exposure to get used to someone like Erik, chalk everything up to his personality or lack of one.
Azazel was probably the first friend, having known him since all throughout college. High school didn’t matter; he was considered a loner by most cliques. Janos was another; they travelled together but he was more into bars while Erik stuck with food. Michael, the head chef he worked with for four years, was considered one though their clashing work schedules ensured they did nothing more than send a simple text to each other every once in a blue moon. Shaw was his lecturer, and while he rarely kept in contact with the man, he still taught Erik the fundamentals of how to be a chef.
There, that was his friends counted on one hand, his friends that took at least one year for him to grow accustomed to. How did Charles manage to wrangle his way in without even trying and without even requiring half the time?
Erik wondered if this was because he was a telepath, but he immediately brushed the thought aside. Emma was a telepath and it took him close to three years to get used to her. They still fought, they still bickered, but it’s comes with the territory between a head chef and a maitre d’hôtel.
No, whatever this was, it was all Charles, and it made him anxious.
‘Erik, are you OK?’ he asked again, anxiously this time.
‘Yes, fine. It’s half past now, I need to clean up.’
‘Oh,’ it was another dismissal, but this time, Charles had no idea what he’d done wrong, if there was anything wrong in the first place.
God, now that I think about it, I feel like I've rushed it. I was agitated when I wrote this chapter and it didn't help that I didn't have the internet either. Maybe I was going through withdrawal. I think that's very bad...
College seemed like a lifetime ago, yet, he could remember almost each and every day he went into lectures, into practical lessons and buried his head in books for an essay based on gastronomy. Gastronomy was the worst topic, but at the same time, it intrigued him, especially the time when he went travelling with Janos around the country and finally understood what it meant. At the time, there had only been a small handful of books for anybody to use from, but the books had the same references used in them that it made writing the essay difficult to be original with. Everybody practically used the same references, used the same books, used the same quotes and wrote in almost the same way. Everybody also passed, so what did that say?
He remembered his college years better than his high school. High school had been something of a blur; nothing fascinated him enough to grab hold of his attention and distract him from his childhood woes. Then he found his calling on the final year, and pursued that subject right through to college.
College had been exciting, had been tedious, had been worrisome and had been fulfilling. It had been everything, gave him a sense of direction to walk towards and provided him that distraction he had been desperately searching for, for years. But with its ups, it had plenty of downs to go with it.
They were required to work in groups; partners. Everybody that was competent had been snapped up practically on the first day. It was an unwritten code of conduct. He hadn’t known at the time that if you do things on your own, you’re bound to crash and burn.
‘Cooking is a social interaction. It’s about teamwork.’ Their lecturer introduced himself as Shaw, because he didn’t like to be called Sebastian because it reminded him of a Jamaican crab. ‘Getting along, communicating, and performing tasks together will help get you from start to finish. Everybody needs to partner up.’
Erik shifted in his seat. He didn’t want to partner up. He’s done well on his own for years, why does he need to partner up now?
Almost as if reading his thoughts, Shaw landed a hearty pat on his shoulder and smiled at him. ‘Why don’t you partner up with Azazel, there?’
He didn’t want to, but if he’d known at the time that Azazel would later become one of his closest friends, then maybe he might not have fought so hard every step of the way. But where would the fun be if he hadn't?
Truth be told, he didn’t like to study, but it provided him something else to think about, so it wasn’t unusual to find him with his nose buried in a book somewhere in the food history section of the library.
If he wasn’t studying, then he’d be at his apartment cooking and remaking whatever it was they made earlier in the week. Most of the time, he practiced the dishes he needed to make for the final practical assessment and he’d end up with a fridge and freezer full of food and pockets empty of money. Soufflés had been the hardest, despite being the easiest to prepare. After that particular assessment, he vowed never to make one in his life ever again.
Lectures were tiring, boring, and people occasionally fell asleep in the middle of class. Shaw disliked it and often kicked people out and marked it on their attendance sheet that they slacked off. It wasn’t just good grades that needed to be attained to pass, people were required to attend at least eighty-percent of the lectures and practical sessions to pass the course. Shaw was a hard man to please, but he seemed to have taken a shine to Erik. It showed in the way how he hovered around Erik during class.
Despite the extra attention from the lecturer, Erik enjoyed the practical sessions the most, because it gave his hands something to do and his mind something to focus on. Azazel was a lazy ass, but he had a decent amount of common sense, was quick and was able to keep up with Erik’s pace. They were always the first ones to finish whatever it was they were meant to do for that four-hour session, and Shaw was always impressed by their teamwork. Erik was impressed with Azazel.
Somewhere along the way, they formed a relation outside of lectures. They met up to discuss their papers, copied extra notes from one another, prepared for their next practical class; who got what.
‘You get the equipment and I’ll get the ingredients, deal?’
It was like clock-work.
Shaw experimented one time and forced the two of them to work in separate teams. They managed along fine, but they suffered tremendously. Shaw merely laughed and decided to leave them together after that.
Erik hadn’t appreciated it at the time, but it provided a lesson; not everybody will work as efficiently as Azazel, and not everybody will get along with Erik. It was life.
High school was a piece of cake. College was easy. It was life after everything else that proved to be difficult.
Erik couldn’t find a job.
No, he could find a job, he could get a trial, but he never got anywhere beyond a trial. They said he was good, one of the better ones they’ve seen in a trial. They don’t say more than that, but he could guess that his personality was getting in the way of him actually landing him a job.
After a little bit more than half a year of trying and failing and trying and failing again, he went up to a hotel and begged to work with them, pro-bono, he didn’t care, he just wanted the experience.
The sous chef wanted to turn him away, said that they weren’t looking for anybody at the moment, but then the head chef came out to see what was causing a scene and then he saw Erik; bright, determined Erik, on his knees and asking to work for free.
‘Remember when you started working for me?’ The man asked his second in command.
He cringed as if remembering, rolled his eyes but gave up because, in the end, it wasn’t his decision.
The man, he later learned was named Michael, pulled Erik up to his feet and asked him three questions; ‘do you have a uniform?’
‘Do you have a knife roll?’
‘Can you start tomorrow at 11 in the morning?’
And that was the start of his four year career working alongside the head chef of a top-chain hotel in the city.
‘Have you thought about travelling?’ Michael asked one day just as they were preparing the pineapple and mint refresher to serve in the hotel’s buffet restaurant.
‘I have, occasionally,’ he confessed as he rolled up a few more leaves of mint together and then sliced them in a chiffonade. ‘I haven’t decided when or where, yet.’ It was a difficult and bold move, one he wasn’t quite ready to make yet.
‘Janos, our bartender, is leaving soon. He’s going to travel from country to country, city to city; you should go with him.’
Erik breathed in deeply, noted how the smell of the mint was clinging to his fingers and would definitely stick to his clothes. It’s not a bad smell.
‘Think about it,’ Michael said as he gave Erik a reassuring pat on the back, ‘it’s good to travel with somebody; it’ll be good for you.’ He said with a kind smile as he continued to cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. ‘He’ll be leaving at the end of the month, so if you’re going, then you should hand in your two weeks’ notice by this Sunday.’
That was only three days away. Erik wasn’t sure if he could come to a decision like that in just three days. Something like this, like travelling across the country from one city to another was a huge step; a big decision. He’ll need at least a week to think about it.
He slept on it, then printed out his resignation the very next day. He handed it to Michael before he could change his mind. The man merely smiled again as he gave Erik another pat on the back. ‘You’ll learn more from this trip than I could ever teach you in these last four years.’
Erik thought he was being ridiculous, was exaggerating. But as he spent the better part of two years travelling all across America, overseas to China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, over to the islands of Fiji, New Caledonia, Tonga, Samoa and down south to Australia and New Zealand, he realized how right the man had been. With Janos as his travelling partner, he pretty much ended up with a full-on world experience.
He also learnt about hangovers (he never really indulged that much before), alcohol poisoning (over-indulging), and how to increase his tolerance for them (one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, oh hey, the floor’s coming up pretty damn fast).
The kitchen is cold, and quiet, and Erik almost missed Emma’s presence beside him; the flutter of paper, the scribble and scratch of pens, the tap-tap-tap of the buttons on her laptop.
He couldn’t find it within himself to work that day.
As soon as Emma walked in through the doors with her arms full of books and paperwork, he told her that much. In the end, they closed down the restaurant for the day, called everybody to take the night off, called all the customers that booked (only four tables) and profusely apologized to them and then the both of them lounged in the kitchen on the bar stools with a bottle of bourbon between them.
A quarter ways into the bottle, Janos joined them, and half way through, Erik sent Azazel a text and he popped in within seconds.
Erik couldn’t remember the last time he let loose, but this felt good. It gave him something else to think about that didn’t wear tweed, have blue eyes, and always came in with treats for everybody to eat.
Later that night once Janos and Azazel were gone and the bottle of bourbon hasn’t a single drop left, Erik confessed to Emma that he’s hit a wall.
She was supposed to be drunk, or at least tipsy, she wasn’t supposed to still be posh and pretty with her words, but he took comfort in the fact that she was slurring her words just a tiny little bit. At least he wasn’t the only one.
‘I’ve hit a wall. Do you mean to tell me that you’ve no idea what that means?’ He was flabbergasted; he thought everybody knew it, thought it was common knowledge. Maybe not?
‘Where did that come from? It’s not like you to ‘hit a wall’,’ she quoted him then narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Is this about Charles?’
He frowned, didn’t like the sudden turn of their conversation and waved the topic aside. ‘It has nothing to do with Charles.’
She hummed in disbelief. ‘Charles hasn’t popped by in a while.’
‘What of it?’
‘It’s been four days, and that’s four days that I’ve been without desserts. I’m going through withdrawal and I’ve a terrible feeling that it’s your fault,’ she hissed at him.
‘Get out of my head.’
‘I’m not in your head; I don’t need to be in your head to see that this has your name written all over it.’
Erik fumed, picked up the bottle and tossed it in the recycling. Then he picked up their empty glasses and stalked out of the kitchen to put them in the bar’s dishwasher. He was just in the middle of pouring himself another generous serving of fine whisky when Emma came up and stopped him from pouring up to the brim.
‘Erik, I’m being serious now; please tell me what’s wrong.’
He sighed, and wished he could tip the whisky back into the bottle; he wasn’t really in the mood for it anymore, he only did it to spite her.
‘I have personal problems that I need to address.’
‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’
Erik wondered if she had ever been drunk in the first place or had only been pretending for his sake. He also wondered if she had a telepath trick up her sleeve to ‘switch off’ her drunkenness; it would be very handy to know and experience, especially in mornings of terrible hangovers.
He shook his head and took a careful sip of the whisky. ‘I need to sleep on it.’
‘Well, you’re going to have to sleep here; I’m not letting you drive home with you being this maudlin.’
‘I’m not being maudlin.’
‘Yes, sugar, you are. You just can’t see it as clearly as I do.’
Together, the both of them looked out of the windows towards the diner. It was closed.
When Charles failed to show up for the entirety of the week, Emma finally decided to take it upon herself to visit the diner. What she found out when she entered was that Charles Xavier was on leave due to family matters that needed to be taken care of.
When she relayed the news back to Erik, he remained carefully aloof, but she could see it in the way he stood, how he held his shoulders and with the agitation in his movements. He was worried about the man and he wasn’t fooling anybody, least of all her.
Erik didn’t know if he should breathe out a sigh of relief or drag out another two bags of potatoes to distract himself with.
He couldn’t think properly, couldn’t plan his meals, couldn’t stop feeling tense, edgy and just a tiny bit moody.
Emma’s finally stopped setting up her office in his kitchen, Charles stopped coming over with distracting treats and Erik has his space back; his freedom, an equal footing. But despite that, he’s lacking clarity and he can’t recall any of the skills he’s acquired over the years.
Erik put the knife down before he could hurt himself, stopped the onions from being chopped to a rough and inconsistent dice and turned the fire down from his grill and stove.
He’s hit the wall.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It’s a lull in the business.
No, it’s not that. The economy has moved on across the road because their restaurant could no longer provide that something ‘special’ to make it stay on their side. But then again, economy has always been a fickle thing; easily bored and what not.
But it’s not a lull in the business, it’s not a quiet transition between seasons, this is them going under.
Erik sighed, watched his breath form in cloudy wisps in front of him and then fade away. It’s cold, but it’s only because he’s sitting in the middle of his cooler on an overturned bucket. If anybody wanted to try getting sick, this was the right way to start going about it.
Outside, he could hear footsteps, the clack-clack of high heels, and he could feel the familiar metal of Emma’s watch, her earrings, her ring, her necklace and her decorative belt buckle. She really was quite ostentatious, but it suited her beautifully. She should never be anything less.
The door to the fridge wrenched open and he was momentarily blinded by the bright lights of his kitchen.
She sighed. ‘Now I know there’s something wrong if you readily admit that I’m beautiful, even in your head,’ she said softly as she closed the door behind her and sat on another overturned bucket. He put a dry hand towel on top before she did. Emma smiled in thanks.
‘I’d tell you to get out of my head, but knowing how I’ve been these days, I must be something of an open book for you to read.’ If he was still a smoker (he gave it up years ago), he reckoned he might’ve gone through the whole pack by now, and he’d only just started his shift.
Nobody else was outside; it’s not time yet.
Instead of drawing in a breath filled with nicotine and tar, he breathed in the smell of fresh herbs, young spring onions and raw capsicums. When he exhaled, seeing the cloud form in front of him gave him temporary relief. At least like this, he could pretend.
‘You haven’t just been thinking aloud,’ Emma watched him carefully, ‘I can feel your moods, too.’
‘Of course, must be a telepath thing.’ He wasn’t all that surprised. Didn’t Charles say almost the same thing once before?
Emma scooted a little closer, dragging the bucket on the ground along with her. The scratching of plastic on worn cement grated on his ears, but it provided sharp relief and a tickle in his chest. Weird. But it wasn’t bad.
‘Erik,’ she leaned in, almost as if about to whisper conspiracies to his ears, and asked him, ‘is there something you want to tell me?’
He snorted and kept his gaze firmly fixed on the door handle of the fridge. ‘What, you can’t find out for yourself?’
He didn’t mean to sound crass, aloof and uncaring, but his business was going under and it felt like he was going down with it. He couldn’t tell if he was drowning, or if he was being buried, he just knew it felt like suffocation.
Emma remained quiet, waiting and very still, as if the slightest movement from her might agitate him even further. She didn’t doubt that it might be the case. He was too strung up and wired, on the verge of snapping or collapsing. This was not the Erik she’s come to know for the last five to six years, but while it wasn’t a good thing, it wasn’t a bad thing either.
Eventually, Erik let out a breath, slow and shaky, as he leaned back until his shoulder blades touched the shelf. He couldn’t feel the cold snap of the metal through his chef’s jacket and for a moment he wondered if he’d lost his sense of feeling, too. Rather than say that, he said, ‘sell it.’
The pinch between her eyebrows deepened but she sighed, having figured out that much. As much as she was reluctant to do so (this has been Erik’s life for so long), she knew he was reaching his limit and this was how he wanted to cope with it. ‘How much?’
‘As long as we can make a profit from it,’ he said with finality as he stood up and pushed the door open to pack away his tools. ‘Pay the staff their wages, their holiday pay, annual leave, compensation if they ask for it. Just wrap everything up.’
She followed him out, closed the door with a snap behind her and continued to watch him. ‘This restaurant will sell for quite a fortune, just from the name alone.’
He paused, his attention piqued, and he turned to her as if noticing for the first time. ‘Sambucus.’
She nodded curtly. ‘Yes, your restaurant’s name.’
Erik turned back to his knives and tucked them neatly into their slots. ‘They can have the restaurant, but not the name.’ The name belongs to him; a memory he wanted to keep to himself.
‘If that’s what you want.’
‘We might get less—’
‘As long as we make a profit from it, it’s fine.’
He didn’t want to think about it, talk about it or even listen to this subject anymore. This was it; he’s hit the wall and no amount of filleting with a knife could get him through. He’s never been one to give up but he’s never had the passion to keep going before. Passion might’ve been involved in the beginning, but he’s lost it somewhere through the years and it’s gone. Cooking; being a chef, was just a job, just something to bring in the money, just something to pass the time; keep him busy.
‘We’ve been losing business for months.’
Months? He couldn’t believe his own words. It’s been almost four months, hasn’t it? Somewhere in his own mind, he knew, but he’d only just realized it now. He’d laugh if he didn’t think it’d make him look demented.
He put away the onions, washed the chopping board, gave his knives and peeler a quick rinse before putting it into the knife roll and bagging it up.
‘We should cut our losses while we still can,’ while there’s still something to save, he thought to himself as he turned off the inbuilt exhaust system and switched off the dishwasher from the wall.
Erik turned to Emma just as he was about switch off the lights for the kitchen. He raised an eyebrow and waited for her.
‘Can we keep the alcohol?’
He smiled, all teeth. ‘I said to sell the restaurant; I never mentioned anything about alcohol or food.’ He gestured for her to follow him out through the front before he flicked off the lights. ‘By the way, I’m keeping the espresso machine.’
The kitchen is cold, dark and quiet.
Strange, there wasn’t anybody in the restaurant. Charles was certain this was about the time that Erik or Emma would be in by now, either doing paperwork or chopping up bags of onions.
He couldn’t sense anybody in the building, it was entirely empty. He couldn’t feel the cool and calculating thoughts coming from Emma as she scrolled through the laptop or flipped through the planner, and not even the fervent emotions rolling away from Erik as he went about his daily tasks. There wasn’t anybody inside. Perhaps they were closed for the day?
Charles walked from the windows up to the front door, in search of a change in opening times, or a sign. What he got was a ‘CLOSED’ sign, as well as a notice declaring the closing of their restaurant, thank you for your patronage throughout all these years.
He almost dropped the box in disbelief. They’ve closed down?!
No, it couldn’t be; they couldn’t possibly be doing so horribly that they decided the only way to move out of this slump was to close. It’s too drastic, and it made guilt form a tight knot in his chest.
He snapped his head towards the voice and let out a small whine when he saw her carrying an empty box. ‘Emma, please tell me this is a joke,’ he pleaded, but he knew from her expression that this was a very serious matter and that it’s permanent; there’s no turning back. ‘What happened?’
She sighed as she unlocked the front door and gestured for him to come in. ‘We’ve hit a wall,’ she said with the slightest of shrugs as she set the box down and began to put in the books and catalogues she kept in the front desk in a neat order. After that, she moved behind the bar and pulled out all of their menus and tucked it inside.
‘People usually climb over those walls, not—’ he set the box down before he really dropped it, ‘whatever it is you’re doing.’
‘It was Erik’s decision;’ she tried to ignore his wounded look but she was wounded herself, ‘he opened it, and now he’s closing it.’ She couldn’t coddle him when she felt the need to be comforted as well. This was the end of her career as maitre d’hôtel for one of the top restaurants in the city. No, it wasn’t just that. This was the end of her happy lifestyle with Erik and their staff.
‘Is it because of the diner?’
Emma paused and turned her gaze towards him. Charles looked tormented, guilt-ridden, but it’s not his fault. So she told him. ‘Erik hasn’t been happy in a very long time. The diner may have given him the final push but this has been a long time coming; it’s not your doing.’
‘I’m not so convinced.’
‘Take my word for it.’
He felt uncomfortable, completely out of place. It was worse than the time he first set foot in the restaurant. Before, there hadn’t been any expectations other than to introduce himself, make some connections and friends along the way. He never meant to drive people so far over the edge that the only thing they could do was jump.
He hoped Erik would survive the fall.
‘May I provide some assistance?’ He finally asked, wanting to do something other than just stand there.
Emma looked up from where she had been trying to pile some oddly shaped bottles of alcohol into the box and smiled. ‘Yes, please.’
He’s got one and half bags of onions, one sack of potatoes, and enough carrots to happily feed a family of rabbits for the next month and a half sitting in his kitchen. And this was after they had a barbeque and a final get-together earlier in the week with everybody who worked with him in the restaurant.
If Azazel hadn’t been there, he was certain that he wouldn’t have gotten rid of as much food as he did without him. That man was capable of eating quite a hefty amount, and yet, how he managed to maintain such a fit shape was almost beyond Erik’s comprehension. Almost.
Erik considered that maybe he should’ve sold some of the ingredients off to make a little bit more money, but his laziness won out in the end and he was left with far too much grocery and no room left in his fridge and freezer. It was like a memory of college all over again.
He sat on his kitchen stool and stared out of the window that was covered in ivy. Nobody’s been here for years, so he wasn’t all that surprised to see that the garden, or what’s left of it, has been completely overrun with weeds and the sides of the house covered in a thick, lush layer of ivy. It was green, and it was the wrong color.
He wished it was spring, or early summer; either season would be fine as long as it brought with it the right color. He wondered how much longer he’d have to wait to see it, to remember.
Erik pulled up his knife roll from the floor beside him and set it down on the dining table.
Almost out of habit, he pulled out the chopping board, and began to peel the onions. It wasn’t until there was a knife hovering beside him that he realized that he had reverted back into a routine he made for himself back in the restaurant.
With quiet effort, he set the knife down and decided to do everything by hand. No need to rush anymore. Dinner service is over.
By the end of two diced onions, he was left with a sting in his eyes and a tear down his face.
We're coming close to the end of it! The next one's the last chapter for this story, and guess what!!! It's going to be a Fusion! Best of both worlds, I say! Well, I hope it'll be good, anyway.
Now, to finish this off...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Childhood seemed like a lifetime ago, a lifetime where he had been happy, calm and knew that he belonged. It was easy, it was hard, it was tiring but this was their life and they somehow made do with it.
Father worked in a flour mill at the next farm over. Sometimes, he would come home with a bag of flour to give to mother and most of the time he would come home covered from head to toe in a white layer of dust like he had just finished diving into the clouds. Sometimes, he didn’t come home at all, not until Erik was snug in bed and too caught up in dreams to see his father drag his feet in looking tired after working hard to provide for the family.
Mother was a house-wife, spent the whole day cooking, cleaning, running errands and sometimes baking. Sometimes, she would make fresh knotted-bread from the flour that father brought home. Sometimes, she would make a simple apple cake. Sometimes, she would make dumplings filled with onions, potatoes, chopped liver and serve it for dinner. She was also always the first to rise and the usually the last to go to bed.
Erik would go to school. He would slowly wake in the mornings, eat a simple breakfast of bread and cheese and his mother would accompany him as he walked to school just twenty minutes away. He would study, he would learn, he would try his best so he could make his parents proud. After he returned, he would have a snack (whatever his mother made while he was gone) then he would do his homework, and after that, he would go outside to play.
They were not rich, they were not poor; they made do with what they had. Everything was good.
His mother used to spend almost all day in the kitchen, cooking for the family, for her husband, for her child, so they can have something hot and filling to come home to after school, after work, after a hard day.
That was the childhood Erik remembered living.
Late spring, or early summer, those were good months of the year; when the tress bloomed white and he would go pick their flowers for his mother, as many as he could carry with him. They smelled sweet, wonderful, and if he took enough, the house would smell bright, warm and sometimes, his mother would make a cordial with the flowers and would add a simple dash of it to their desserts, just enough to give Erik the lasting impression of home, peace, and happiness; a life long forgotten.
Elderflowers were his mother’s favorite flower.
Elderflowers were Erik’s favorite flowers, because it was his mother’s and because it reminded him of better, simpler times.
It reminded him of times when everything was good.
That was the memory Erik held dear to him.
The door to his apartment opened and Emma stepped through with the last bag of things from the restaurant that they didn’t want to sell. The living room was stuffed full of boxes, there’s the espresso machine from the bar facing the front door in the kitchen and there’s no one home.
Charles questioned it.
‘Erik is attempting to drive around the wall.’
He hummed. ‘That might work.’
It’s been days. They’ve been packing for days. And now that it’s over, they can finally move on to the next step of selling, by showing the potential buyers the restaurant, fully equipped with the standard fittings, constantly upgraded as newer, better things came along and all the best money could buy. The tables and chairs will come with the restaurant, if they want it as well. All the light fixtures, all the wine racks, napkins, cutleries and table cloths. They can have everything, everything but the name. The name belongs to Erik and will stay that way.
‘Do you know when Erik will be coming back?’ Charles asked and fought the urge to go into the kitchen. The espresso machine was beckoning towards him. Polished steel and sleek, not a single fingerprint on it. He’s got a hankering to leave a mark.
‘He never tells me these things,’ she shrugged as she began to pull up the bottles, one by one, to read the labels. She stopped when she found what she was looking for and went into the kitchen to retrieve two glasses. ‘I suspect that he probably won’t return for a while, maybe a few months.’
‘A few months?!’
Charles was well aware that he was causing a bit of a fuss (Emma looked amused by that), but had there really been a need for Erik to go and exile himself off somewhere? It seemed a bit too much.
‘Sugar, when it boils down to Erik, this is exactly like him.’
He calmed. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really.’ She sighed softly as she unscrewed the cap of the whisky and poured herself and Charles a generous serving of it. Without waiting for the man, she picked up her glass, clinked it with his and said, ‘cheers.’
Emma couldn’t sense where Erik was properly. She could; there was a small spot in the very back of her mind with his name on it, but she’d have to fight through all the other thoughts that surrounded them, cast her mind out in all directions and spread it thinly in order to latch on, and even then, she might not be able to keep a proper hold on him.
In order to find Erik, she’d have to walk through muggy waters, and if she wasn’t careful enough with where she stepped, she’d end up with her feet stuck in the mud, metaphorically. The effort to try would always leave her feeling tired and with a migraine. She wasn’t a powerful enough telepath to attempt and once before had been enough.
‘This isn’t the first time he’s taken annual leave,’ she began, remembering the time when she went into work only to find out that he’d closed it for the next few days. She fumed and wondered why she hadn’t been told previously. Her temper flared to a dramatic amount when she tried to call him only to find out that his phone was out of range.
‘But he owns the restaurant; he’s the only chef.’
‘Which is why he never goes for more than a few days, one week at the most.’ She took another sip, then decided for a mouthful. They could’ve made a hefty profit from the days he went AWOL, but it wasn’t always about money.
Charles was staring down at the glass, unsure if he wanted to drink so early into the day; it was barely midday.
‘I thought the restaurant was important to him,’ he said questioningly.
‘It’s not the restaurant that’s important to him,’ she began with another quiet sip of the drink, ‘it was more the ideals, or the name; mostly the name. He wasn’t doing it for himself, despite it starting out that way.’
Charles was intrigued and encouraged Emma to continue, but she became tight-lipped after that. Usually people become very talkative after consuming alcohol, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on her.
‘No, I just don’t think it’s my place to talk about Erik’s personal life. If you want to find out about him, then ask him. Get the facts straight from the man, himself.’
He snorted. ‘Right, of course, how silly of me to rely on gossip so I can know deep and intimate details about the person of whom my affections are for.’
She laughed and wondered how much of that was just a sarcastic comment and if any of his words were genuine or not. ‘Intimate, hm?’ Somehow, I knew you only came by with those treats to distract us so you could have Erik’s attention all on you.
He didn’t dignify her thought with an answer, but he began drinking the whisky so he could blame the alcohol for the heat blooming on his cheeks.
There will be boxes, and plenty of them, stacked on his living room floor. There will be empty bottles of whisky, scotch, wine and possibly vodka all around his kitchen table, maybe on the floor and somehow on the top of his fridge. The sink will be full of dirty cups, pots, plates and cutleries and it’s bound to be disgusting to go through. The espresso machine will be dirty because people don’t know how to clean it properly and he suspects that his coffee grinds will be completely empty. He also assumes that there will be extra food in his fridge that he didn’t buy and most of them are either expired, growing a colony or on the verge of death but still barely hanging on to dear life. Somebody will also have made use of his bed and there’s bound to be at least two extra toothbrushes by the bathroom sink.
This was what Erik expected to see and find when he returned back to his apartment. When he went in through the front door, he saw Charles snoozing on his couch instead.
The man was obviously a light sleeper, because Erik had barely formed a thought (what the fu—) before Charles jumped off the couch completely wide awake.
Instead of the usual ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ or even ‘it’s not what it looks like’, Charles asked him a series of questions; ‘Did you climb it? Did you get over it? Did you drive around it? Or did you drive through it?’
‘What?’ He reckoned that Charles was possibly also a sleepwalker, or a sleep-talker.
Erik stared at Charles as if he’s gone crazy. He wondered if this was a real conversation or if he’d accidentally dozed off in the middle of his drive back home and he was dreaming everything up. He was probably bleeding in a ditch somewhere on the country side, if that’s the case.
‘Emma told me that you’ve hit a wall.’ Charles tried to explain as he straightened out his clothes and tried to rub out the kink in his neck from sleeping on a couch instead of a real bed.
‘I did, yes, but you do realize that it’s just a metaphor, right? There is no physical wall to climb over.’ He said as he shut the door behind him and dropped his bags on the floor.
He noticed the boxes on his living room floor but they were pushed to the side and stacked neatly one on top of another. He had no doubt that it was Charles’ doing.
‘Then did you metaphorically climb over it?’
‘I hope you’re merely teasing me because this is the strangest conversation I’ve had in a long time,’ he couldn’t help the quirk of his lips as he went into the kitchen.
It was clean. There were no empty bottles strewn all across his table, floors or even on the fridge. There wasn’t anything in the sink and everything that was washed was drying on the wire rack. He was tempted to check the fridge to see if there was anything with growing colonies in it.
‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, maybe, I suppose so. What are you doing in my apartment?’ He asked after he gave the espresso machine a quick once over. Yes, it was used (there was a used coffee cup right beside it), but the dirtiest mark he saw were just simple finger prints, nothing more.
‘Emma gave me your keys.’
‘Why on earth did she give you my spare key? I gave it to her for emergency use only. And you lounging on my couch, making yourself at home and helping yourself to my espresso machine does not constitute an emergency.’
‘What if I became bankrupt and I had to sell all of my assets and I didn’t have anywhere to go?’
‘In that case…’
This was unexpected. He had planned to find Charles sooner or later, maybe even go to the diner with a box of something and have a chat over a slice of cheesecake, but to see Charles the very minute he arrived back to his apartment, well…he wasn’t quite prepared enough for that.
‘Do you want me to leave?’
Erik paused just as he opened the fridge. There were only a few extra things in there, but nothing that looked terrible. There was cheese wrapped in plastic on the middle shelf, but he couldn’t tell if that was blue cheese or cheese that’s gone off, especially since it doesn’t have its original wrapper. He never really liked working with funky cheese.
‘We might need to talk,’ Erik settled for saying as he closed the fridge door, though the cheese was making his skin itch. He supposed it was because it didn’t look hygienic and ever since he became a chef, he’s been all about food and health safety.
‘But you seem like you need time to gather your thoughts.’
Erik turned, and saw that Charles was leaning on the wall with his hands in the pockets of his wrinkled jacket. Casual, but the way he held his shoulders gave his anxiety away. At that thought, Charles relaxed them, but not enough.
‘Did you come here for something?’ Erik asked as he walked back to the front door to pick up his bags.
‘I wanted to see that you were OK; Emma informed me that you were prone to disappearing,’ he said as he followed Erik towards the bedroom but stopped at the door.
He scoffed. Trust Emma to meddle in businesses that didn’t require her attention.
He dumped his bags on the bed (it was properly made) and wondered if there was any damage done to his bathroom. One glance into it just two steps down the hall showed that nothing’s changed; there wasn’t even an extra toothbrush to be found.
Erik turned to Charles again with arms folded across his chest. ‘How long have you been staying here?’
Everything was clean, almost exactly the same way he left his apartment, save for a few minor shifts. Maybe it was pure luck that he happened to come home just as Charles decided to take a nap on his couch.
‘Would you like the long or short version?’
‘Short, then long,’
‘On and off? Roughly two months.’
Erik had only been gone for two and a half months.
Without a word, he walked past Charles towards the kitchen to switch on the coffee machine. Without a shift in his thoughts, he pulled a metal chair out without turning around and gestured for the man to sit. After fixing them both a cup of coffee, he settled down to hear the long version of Charles’ two month stay.
If somebody had told Erik that he’d change his entire life just because of one man, he’d point his knife at that person and tell them to get the hell out of his kitchen. As it were, he’s now sitting on the chair opposite of that one man drinking coffee and making conversation. He’s only realized now that it’s not entirely a bad thing.
‘You said it usually takes you a while to get used to people, right?’
‘I never said; you made that assumption from what you found in my head.’
Charles winced and tried to go on like he wasn’t just found guilty for rummaging around people’s head without permission. It really wasn’t on purpose; it’s his second nature. ‘Maybe the reason why you’re growing accustomed to me so quickly is because you’re becoming a better man?’
That made sense, but…‘why are you talking in questions?’
‘Why aren’t you answering my questions?’ He retorted with more bite than he wanted to.
Erik tried not to outright laugh, but he settled for an unwilling smile instead.
If somebody had told Erik that he’d go and find some space in his life for one man that’s his complete opposite in almost every way, he’s most likely tell that person to leave before knives start coming their way. For some reason, despite actually pointing a knife in that one man’s face, he’s still here, sitting in the kitchen of his apartment with plates of home-made quiche between them.
‘I’m not a confessional, you know,’ Erik couldn’t help but drawl out.
Charles ignored him. ‘—the reason why I’ve been coming by a lot is because…I’ve grown rather fond of your company.’
Strange. Erik was fairly certain he’s done nothing to warrant that fondness. He’s not known exactly for his warmth. Hell, he was pretty certain he’s never even give Charles, or anybody for that matter, a good first impression. Everybody he knows would vouch that Erik is a complete ass; it’s his second nature.
‘It’s not really your company, although that’s also a large part of it. I was mainly drawn to your passion.’
He quirked an eyebrow. Passion? He didn’t think he had any. If you looked through a dictionary, you’d find the word and Erik would be listed as an antonym.
‘Raven didn’t want to open up the diner there at that spot,’ he waved to some vague location behind him, ‘because it was shabby and the previous owners pretty much gave that piece of land a bit of a bad reputation.’ He shrugged as if it didn’t matter but focused on Erik as if he did. ‘I wanted it because you were just across the road.’
He raised both eyebrows now, and noted the blush creeping on the man’s cheeks.
‘You were very meticulous, very passionate; alive and it made me…for lack of a better word, giddy.’
‘Giddy,’ he deadpanned.
Erik didn’t know if he should be worried about Charles’ mental health or not. He didn’t know if he should be worried about his own mental health or not, considering that he’s willingly decided to spend time with this man; this man who was all about confessing his feelings, opening up and being everything that Erik should find appalling but didn’t.
If somebody had told Erik that not only would his life change towards a different direction, that he would find himself using his other hand to begin counting the amount of friends he has in his current life and that he would actually consider that one man to be more than just a friend, he would bodily throw that person out and sue whoever it is for harassment for a hefty sum. Right now he’s just contemplating how the idea even got to his head and why it took so long.
‘Erik, what do you say to…a partnership?’
‘Is this you trying to start a relationship with me or are you implying something else?’ He was a little surprised he was only half-joking but completely serious.
Charles fidgeted in his chair, looking somewhat bashful. ‘Both?’
Erik was quietly impressed by him.
‘What are you proposing?’
He has technique, skill, efficiency, but he lacks passion, love, and creativity. He’s clean cut; professional, so he doesn’t know why this other man, this one man who owns a dirty apron, and who wields a blunt knife, can best Erik at what he knows best. This one man who happens to go by the name of Charles Xavier and who also happens to be his partner for their newly opened bistro.
‘Don’t be silly, Erik; you have technique, skill, efficiency, and passion, love as well as creativity.’
Erik didn’t comment, but the upward tilt of his lips, if not the emotions that Charles could feel from his heart, gave everything away. It’s not an entirely bad thing.
AND THAT'S A WRAP! Thank you all for sticking around with me this the very end! Cheers to y'all!
If anybody's interested, I have a Tumblr account, too. It doesn't hold anything new other than a couple of one-shots that have pictures to go with it (because I'm a total HTML noob and I don't know how to properly link things (as seen below)...).
Link - http://straggling-wanderer.tumblr.com/
Also, the next story is going to be a Fusion. Shall I give you a hint? Wesley's involved in it. HAH! But I'll be posting up a one-shot before I go ahead with that one. I still have a couple more edits I need to do before I submit it in.
CONFETTI ALL AROUND!