Erik hates coffee. He finds it extremely unfortunate that most of his clients are addicted to the vile drink and often arrange to meet at coffee shops where he has to order something for the sake of propriety.
The coffee shop Worthington proposes is less shined and polished than the ubiquitous Starbucks that Erik despises with the entirety of his being, but even the deep, squashy chairs and the battered bookshelves full of second-hand classics can't make him want a grande vanilla bean frappuccino with non-fat milk and whipped cream. He orders black coffee in the smallest size available.
The barista has incredibly blue eyes. "Black coffee. Very traditional," he says, upbeat. "I'm Charles. May I have your name?"
"Erik," Erik replies, a bit thrown by the dissonance between his bleak mood and Charles' cheer.
"Erik," Charles repeats, scrawling the name on a napkin and transferring it over to the bit of counter space under a hanging sign that reads Order Pickup. He spells Erik with a k instead of an unthinking c as most people do.
Erik's surprise must read on his face, because Charles immediately says, "I'm sorry. Did I spell it wrong?" He reaches to grab the napkin back. "I shouldn't have assumed, just because of your lovely accent."
"No, no," Erik assures him. "You spelled it correctly. I was surprised because people usually don't."
Charles smiles and Erik thinks, suddenly, I'd like to know more about you than your name, but that's the moment Worthington walks in, orders a venti cappuccino with whole milk and an extra shot of espresso and proceeds to drag Erik over to a table to complain about the projected construction costs for the office building Erik is designing for him.
By the time Worthington finishes his rant and Erik walks him through the redesign of the first floor, an hour has gone past. When Erik glances over to the serving counter, Charles has been replaced by a boy with floppy brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses.
Erik rolls up his blueprints and pushes open the door.
It's just one more missed connection, Erik tells himself when he sometimes thinks of Charles as he wanders through his normal, coffeeless life.
Then Worthington calls to schedule a final meeting before the ground breaking and Erik finds himself saying, "Let's meet at that same coffee shop, the one on Riverside," and hanging up quickly before Worthington has the chance to suggest a different venue.
Charles makes Erik a terrible caffe mocha and spells his name with a k and smiles.
Erik adds a two o'clock coffee break to his calendar for the rest of the foreseeable future.
For the first few weeks, Erik orders complicated concoctions like tall white chocolate mocha no-foam lattes with extra espresso shots and grande caramel macchiatos with double vanilla syrup and caramel drizzle, just so he can have more words to say to Charles, so it takes longer for Charles to steam the milk or pump in syrup or spoon on whipped cream, and Erik has a few more seconds to watch the line of his back, the curve of his neck.
Then he discovers that Charles has the unique skill of turning practically any sentence into a lecture on genetics.
"How are you?" Erik asks simply one day, tired of the excessively complex coffee terms he'd learned by trolling through starbucks.com and eavesdropping on the orders of people ahead of him in line.
Charles smiles brighter than ever and says, "I'm wonderful. There was a girl in here just half an hour ago who had the most interesting mutation. Heterochromia. Did you know that heterochromia occurs in only 0.67% of the population?"
"I can't say I did," Erik says, telling himself its ridiculous to feel so crestfallen over Charles noticing a girl's eyes.
"It's caused by the expression of different OCA2 genes in each eye. Really quite beautiful," Charles enthuses as he over-steams the milk for Erik's latte, the froth clumping together alarmingly. He winks, handing Erik his coffee, "Not to say that your EYCL1s are anything to scoff at."
Erik stares at him blankly, about eighty five percent sure that he's been complimented in some obscure way.
"Green eyes," Charles clarifies, smiling sheepishly.
Mollified, Erik commanders a table with a clear view of Charles at the counter and spreads out blueprints of a highrise he completed work on weeks ago as camouflage. He refuses to wince as he sips at the patently disgusting coffee in the stenciled magnesium element cup he'd chosen from a line up of hideous mugs offered to him when he'd been officially deemed a regular.
The cups at 645 Riverside Drive—which has no actual name, Charles once explained to Erik, because it was opened jointly by Alex, who had wanted to call it The Bitchin' Kitchen, and Hank, who had wanted to name it something unpronounceable and French—are mismatched china pieces, reusable, instead of the throw away paper and foam of most coffee shops Erik has been forced to visit. It's rather a detriment for Erik, who would prefer to pretend to drink the coffee and then pitch the cup with no one the wiser.
He can't return his cup to the counter half-full.
He'd done so, once, when he'd ordered a truly heinous concoction of coffee and cinnamon.
Charles had smiled at him and reached to take the cup to put it with the rest of the dirty crockery behind the counter. His smile had fallen when he saw the remnants of Erik's coffee. "Not good?" he'd asked, like he was going to take it as a personal failure.
Erik had snatched the cup back and pounded down the rest of the cinnamon sludge in three seconds flat. "It was perfect," he'd lied. "Thank you, Charles." Charles beamed.
Erik never leaves so much as a drop of coffee behind afterwards. Frankly, he would do a lot more than drink sixteen ounces of disgusting, hot, burnt-tasting liquid to have Charles smile at him.
Since Erik started his daily two o'clock coffee breaks to coincide with Charles' schedule, he's missed four project meetings about the new art gallery going up in Midtown. It's 1:45 and he's about to skip out on a fifth when Azazel, arms loaded down with portfolios and scale rulers, appears in the doorway of his office.
Erik shrugs into his coat nonchalantly, refusing to be cowed by the narrowing of Azazel's eyes. "You're doing a good job heading up the Midtown project," Erik says. "I knew you were ready for more responsibility."
The problem with Azazel is that he's known Erik since they were both students at Stuttgart, constantly red-eyed and sleep deprived, cuts all over their fingers from X-Acto knives, and he knows that when Erik offers praise, it's usually a manifestation of guilt.
"Where are you going?"
"I have an appointment," Erik hedges.
Azazel, sensing weakness, says, "I will come with you," then drops everything he's carrying on Erik's previously immaculate chrome and glass desk and follows Erik out of the office, through three subway exchanges, and into 645 Riverside Drive.
"Erik," Azazel says, looking at the chalked order board and hipster college students, "This is a coffee shop."
"Thank you, I realize," Erik says sarcastically.
"Please explain," Azazel says, patiently, because he was there when everyone else in their Concrete Structures workshop would huddle jealously around the coffee maker, watching the drip with covetous, crazy-eyed expressions, while Erik sneered at them in disdain and mainlined Jolt.
Erik opens his mouth to say something scathing and obfuscatory, but then Charles says, "Erik! Always lovely to see you. What would you like today?" Erik's magnesium mug ready in his hands.
"Hello, Charles," Erik says, warmly, lifting his eyes to scan the order board. Erik orders something different every day in the apparently vain hope that Charles will finally produce something palatable. He's more than halfway through the menu. "Vanilla latte, please."
As Charles goes through the motions of steaming the milk and incorrectly measuring the necessary amount of syrup, Erik can feel Azazel's eyes sliding between them, calculating the angles, the distances, like he's drawing mental blueprints.
"Sorry it looks a bit odd, today," Charles says, handing Erik his cup. "Sean has been trying to teach me to do pictures in the foam."
Erik squints into his latte. There's a bit of a white blob in the middle, separated from the dark brown of the coffee. "What is it?" he asks.
"Well, it was meant to be a sort of leaf design, but I don't think it came out," Charles says, apologetically.
"No, I can see it now," Erik assures him. He doesn't admit that he'd rather been hoping for a heart. "This is my colleague Azazel. He'd like one of your cappuccinos," Erik says, because he feels that Azazel deserves some form of punishment for making Erik show him this weak point, the soft underbelly where he could be gutted, splayed open like a rib cage versus rib spreaders, his heart fluttering frantically, exposed.
"He is very pretty," Azazel says once they've sat down at a table. "And very sweet." He sips his cappuccino and winces. "But not a good barista."
"Hmm," Erik says, watching over Azazel's shoulder as Charles fusses about, rearranging cups and wiping down the counter with a wet cloth. He frowns at the row of syrup bottles—added shots of hazelnut and chocolate and cinnamon spice—and rubs the cloth, slowly, his palm curled delicately, up and down the long neck of a bottle with drip trails down the side.
Erik chokes on air. For once, he finds it fortunate that he has a coffee in front of him. It's extremely useful for the dual purposes of helping to resume his normal breathing pattern and reintroducing moisture to his suddenly dry throat.
Azazel intersperses mocking Erik between actual discussion about the art gallery design and how, as Lead Architect, the project is entirely Erik's responsibility until the clock winds to half past and he stands up to leave, his cup still almost full. "Wait," Erik says, remembering the devastating collapse of Charles' bright, wide-open expression. "You can't give it back like that."
"Why?" Azazel asks, one eyebrow quirked up, quizzical.
"Charles will think you don't like his coffee," Erik explains.
"I don't like it. It tastes like motor oil," Azazel says.
Azazel clearly has yet to understand the shattering power of Charles' disappointment, so Erik takes one for the team, grabbing the cup and downing the remnants of the cappuccino like a shot while Azazel watches with morbid fascination. "Here," Erik says, throat burning. "Now you can take it back."
Azazel peers into the bottom of the empty cup. "Clearly this is very serious," he says. "Fine, I will manage the Midtown project."
In the three months that Erik has been patronizing 645 Riverside Drive, Charles has always been at the serving counter at two o'clock. His absence pulls Erik up short, derails his afternoon completely.
Erik loiters outside the shop, peering shiftily through the window for as long as possible before the judging eyes of passersby force him inside to sullenly order coffee from a blond who is emphatically not Charles. Erik is preparing to order the most complex coffee ever out of sheer spite when Charles rushes through the shop door, shirt collar askew, hair in windblown disarray.
"I've got serving, Charles," the blond at the counter says, smirking at Erik as if he's saving him from something. "Why don't you go help Hank with inventory?"
"Thank you!" Charles calls pushing open the door to the back room without even glancing at Erik.
"I would like Charles to make my coffee," Erik says, annoyed. He stares at the blonde's nametag—Alex—as if it has personally affronted him by not reading 'Charles' in untidy, blue-inked letters.
Through the half-open door to the back kitchen, Erik can just see the familiar outline of Charles' face.
"Seriously?" Alex asks, sounding dumbfounded. "I mean, I love Charles, but he makes incredibly terrible coffee." He peers at Erik shrewdly and Erik doesn't have enough time to pull his eyes away from the sweep of Charles' cheekbone and pretend innocence.
Alex smirks. "Oh, I see," he says. "Charles!" he calls. "I have a customer here who will only drink coffee made by your delicate artist's hands!"
Erik has decided to hate Alex with the entirety of his resolve when Alex adds, lowly, as Charles approaches, the door swinging wide, "By the way, when I said 'I love Charles,' I meant in a friend way. He's totally single."
Erik thinks maybe he and Alex can be friends.
Erik is draining a café au lait and watching Charles utterly and endearingly fail to make a macchiato, shots overflowing the cup, for a boy in a Columbia hoodie when a girl with blonde hair breezes into the shop, grabs an application out of the rack on the wall beneath the We're Hiring! sign and parks herself across from Erik. "Name?" she says, pen poised over the form.
"Excuse me?" Erik says.
Erik, the girl scrawls in spiky cursive, despite the bolded please print instructions Erik can read even from his vantage point, looking at the paper upside down. "I'm Raven," she says. "Charles is my brother." Erik notes the possessive. Charles is my brother. Charles isn't Erik's anything. "It was recently brought to my attention that you have designs on him. Spell your last name for me."
Erik is still half in shock as they go over his university years, GPA, job history and U.S citizenship.
"Have you ever committed a felony?" Raven asks.
"No," Erik says, a little too slowly, seconds wasted on the bloody fantasy he still has of picking up a gun, the metal cool and controlled in his hands, and firing a hot lead bullet into Shaw's smirking face.
"Hmm," Raven says, marking an x between the yes and no checkboxes and drawing an angry face and several question marks in the comments section.
Erik glances toward the door, calculating his escape route, but his eyes catch on Charles, who waves at him cheerfully from behind the cash register. Erik waves back, awkward, and suddenly unwilling to make a spectacle of himself fleeing from Charles' sister.
He navigates safely through references—Azazel had better take this seriously and say something fucking glowing or he is so fired—and skills, and then Raven turns the hobbies and interests question into, "How to you feel about kids?" Erik, who had been gearing up to discuss chess and shamelessly embellish the few times he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, chokes on the very last sip of his coffee.
He gasps fruitlessly for a few moments and Charles rushes over with a new terrible coffee that Erik will now have to drink. He puts a hand on Erik's back and his eyes are so blue and concerned that Erik can't help but wheeze a sincere thank you at him. Erik sips the—oh God, terrible, so terrible—coffee and coughs a few times more than necessary just so Charles will keep his warm hand between his shoulder blades a little longer.
Charles' pats Erik on the shoulder. "All right?" he asks, waiting for Erik's reluctant nod before he returns to the counter where an annoyed-looking businessman has been pointedly checking his watch.
When Erik looks back at Raven, she's smirking. She's written swayable on the application.
Erik scowls at her. "So, do I pass muster?" he asks.
Raven laughs. "I wouldn't go that far," she says, smiling with too many teeth. "But I promise not to actively impede your efforts unless your background check shows that you've been less than truthful with me. Frankly, you seem to be doing a pretty effective job of cock-blocking yourself."
"Background check?" Erik says.
Raven folds the paper into quarters and waves at him saucily as she goes out the door.
It's a cool autumn Tuesday, the trees shading red, when Erik says, "I think I'll have a Turkish coffee today," choosing at random off the order board.
Charles' ever-bright smile flickers and weakens a bit. "All right," he says, voice hesitant.
Alex is waving his arms frantically behind Charles' back and making a cut-throat motion.
What the actual fuck? Erik thinks.
He understands after the first sip. Every cup of coffee Charles has ever made him has been uniquely terrible, but this, this... Erik suddenly knows that this is the coffee that has had several customers doing spit-takes and returning to the counter, demanding a refund, sick looks on their faces.
He still wants to punch every single one of them for the way Charles frowned and apologized and spent the next thirty minutes looking like someone had told him genetics wasn't a legitimate branch of science, but he feels a small spark of understanding now.
Erik drinks the coffee down like a man in love, feeling Charles' worried gaze on him all the while. He has to swallow three times against each sip, his throat trying to close in self-defense.
When he brings the empty cup back to the counter, the look of relief in Charles' eyes is entirely worth it. "Alex!" Charles calls, grinning crazily, "Alex, Erik drank one of my Turkish coffees!"
"Better you than me," Alex tells Erik, shaking his head in respectful awe.
Erik throws up in a trash can outside.
Still worth it, he thinks.
Erik's primary reason for coming to the coffee shop is to see Charles, so when Charles spares a furtive look around the mostly deserted shop and reaches beneath the counter, Erik takes notice.
Charles balances a small tin box on the cash register and selects a mug embossed with a double helix, filling it with boiling water.
"Are you making tea?" Erik asks, intrigued.
Charles glances over the counter guiltily. "I know, it's terrible," he says, ripping open a packet and dunking a tea bag into his mug. "I work in a coffee shop and I hate coffee. I have my own secret stash of Darjeeling hidden under the register."
"I enjoy tea on occasion myself," Erik says, wondering how he can maneuver Charles into trading him a cup of tea for the salted hot chocolate he's currently drinking. It might have been almost enjoyable if Charles had used a teaspoon of salt rather than a tablespoon.
"You like tea?" Charles says brightly. "Would you like me to make you a cup?"
Charles makes everything so very easy, Erik thinks as Charles fills another mug and brings it over to Erik, his own tea cupped in his other hand. He sets them carefully on the table and pulls a scuffed up chessboard down off the top of one of the bookcases, their ritual for when business is slow.
The chess set is old and well-loved. Half the pieces have chips in them. The black king is missing the cross pattee off the top of its crown. Erik scoops the white pieces out for Charles then reaches into his back pocket for his wallet. "For the tea," he says, holding out a five.
Charles scoffs, waving it away as he lines up his pieces. "Really, Erik," he says. "It's on the house."
"Charles," Hank says, fondly exasperated, from where he's taken Charles' place behind the serving counter. "You can't just give away the coffee. Even if Erik is your favorite customer."
Charles smiles. "He's actually having tea. Which comes from my own personal stock, so I'm perfectly obliged to give it away."
Hank looks like Charles has dumped a bag of Kopi Luwak beans all over the floor in front of him.
"I told you other people in America drink tea," Charles says, vindicated, as he absentmindedly takes the rook which just happens to be the key piece to Erik's long game. "If we put it up on the order board, people would actually pay for it."
"This is a coffee shop, Charles," Hank says stubbornly. "People come here to drink coffee." He turns to Erik in mute appeal.
Erik looks at Charles, then down at the chessboard, nudges a pawn forward. "I come for the service," he says.
Your minion, is he single?
Erik looks at his phone for a solid thirty seconds. The question still fails to make sense. Who is this? he texts back.
When the return message comes through, even the beep sounds annoyed. Raven, duh.
Ah. Erik may have given Raven everything from his bank routing numbers to his garage key pad passcode, so he supposes her access to his phone number is probably the least of his worries. He backdials the number. "My what?"
"Azazel," Raven clarifies. "When I called him for a reference, that's how he self-described his relationship to you."
"Ah," Erik says, resolving to kill Azazel on sight. "Yes, he's single."
"Great," Raven says. "By the way, your background check came back clean. I'm giving you the yellow light to date my brother."
"You mean the green light?" Erik asks.
"Yellow," Raven says and hangs up.
Erik is taking miniscule sips of the concentrated hell that is Charles' attempt at an espresso when it happens. "Your name, please?" Charles asks a young man in a close-fitting, pin-striped suit straight out of Fashion Week.
"870-1535," the man says.
Charles writes it down on the napkin automatically and then stops, looking up, puzzled.
"You keep that one," the man says, smiling and reaching for another napkin and Charles' felt-tip pen. "It's my phone number. My name," he adds, holding up the new napkin before putting it on the counter beneath the Order Pickup sign, "is Ben."
Charles' blushes. "Oh, erm, thank you, that's very kind, but I'm..." He darts a glance at Erik.
Erik can feel his heart pounding. He shouldn't have ordered that second espresso, but he hadn't realized they were so ridiculously tiny and the first one would have only excused his hanging around the shop for about five minutes.
"Already spoken for?" Ben says, sighing amicably. "Story of my life. I suppose I'll have my latte to go then."
Erik watches the door close behind Ben with a vindictive sort of pleasure before returning his tiny espresso cup to Charles at the counter. "He was rather attractive," Erik says casually, testing the waters.
The look on Charles' face is crushing, wilted. "Oh," Charles says, a hurt-sounding exhalation. He puts on a brave, self-effacing smile. "Well. Here," he says, placing the napkin with Ben's phone number down in front of Erik.
Erik cannot convey the depth of his horror.
Then Charles says, "You'll think me terribly silly, I'm afraid. Everyone in America is really very straightforward, I don't know why I thought, well...that you were courting me." Charles flushes and it's really very fetching, the pink in his cheeks, but Erik hates that it's an indication of embarrassment, of shame, backward and unfounded.
"No!" Erik says, rather too loudly. Half the coffee shop turns to look over curiously and Charles flinches back. "I mean, yes," Erik amends, quieter. "The courting, that is. I was...doing that. I don't want..." He rips the napkin with Ben's number into the tiniest shreds possible. "I want you."
God, Erik wants to punch himself in the face. He's fluent in seven languages. He doesn't know why he's bungling so badly in one he learned at his mother's knee.
Charles doesn't seem to mind Erik's stumbling. "Oh," he says, but this time the word is rounded, pleased, and he's smiling as the blush rises higher on his cheeks. "Well, in that case." He leans across the counter, eyes fluttering closed.
Erik leans forward to meet him, palms pressed flat against the countertop to stop himself from grabbing Charles by his apron and never letting go.
The next day is the second time in six months that Charles is missing from behind the counter at two o'clock. Erik can feel his pulse skyrocket.
"Don't freak out," Alex says, rolling his eyes, before Erik can demand Charles' whereabouts. He hands Erik a napkin with an address inked on. "He left a forwarding address so you'd have a new place to stalk him."
Erik wanders down Broadway then through the tall ionic columns and pale stone archways of Columbia University until he finds the right office, its heavy wooden door ajar.
There are stacks of boxes and books all over, and in the middle of them is Charles, sitting at a scarred mahogany desk reading a journal that looks like it escaped the fires of the Library of Alexandria.
Erik clears his throat and Charles startles, looking up. "Erik!" he says, leaping from his chair and navigating perilously around the boxes and books until he's close enough to clap Erik on the shoulder. "I'm terribly sorry to change location on you without notice. Dr. Lange had a family emergency and she asked if I could take over her 300 level genetics courses immediately rather than at the start of the new semester." Charles gestures expansively around the office, "So, what do you think of my natural habitat?"
"I could get used to it," Erik says. There are two leather chairs in the corner and he thinks that one of them could become his. There's a short table that could accommodate a chess set, a teapot on the windowsill. There's Charles, in a shabby tan cardigan, smiling up at him.
Erik leans down to kiss him, gentle and chaste, not because he's unsure, but because if things get heated he knows he's going to make a bid to get Charles spread out over his desk and with the obstacles in the way, that can only result in a concussion for one or both of them.
Charles kisses him back sweetly, then wetly, his mouth open for plundering, but just when Erik has decided to fuck the head injury, it'll be worth it, Charles pulls back. "I'm trying to figure out how to get us from here to my desk without cracking both our skulls," he breathes against Erik's lips.
Erik laughs, his whole body shuddering with it, like the day Shaw finally gained a controlling interest in Lehnsherr Industrieller—his smirking face all over CNN, talking about new management and rising stock prices, while Erik's mother was discreetly led out the back door, something in her quietly bleeding out, as effectively as if she'd been shot—and Erik had ended up drinking five americanos because he'd needed to be where Charles was for as long as possible, the last barrier holding him back from a homicidal rampage.
"We're truly perfect for each other," Erik says. "I was just contemplating that problem. And I believe I have a solution."
Charles lets out an undignified yelp when Erik scoops him up into his arms, but he recovers quickly, his arms looping easily around Erik's neck. "Brilliant, my friend," he says, between sucking kisses against Erik's jaw.
Erik trips on a book that he thinks might have been a first edition copy of Darwin's Origin of Species and Charles accidentally kicks over a short stack of boxes that land on their sides with ominous thuds, but they make it to the desk with minimal injury.
Erik sets Charles on the edge and clears the desk of papers and books and a small desk lamp, with a sweep of his arms.
He lays Charles out on his back, climbs up to kneel over him, to press kisses into the join of his neck and run his thumbs over the curves of Charles' collarbones.
Erik is moving his hand from under Charles' cardigan to the buckle of his belt when Charles says, his voice breathy and low, "Erik, Erik, I haven't actually gotten around to stocking my office with the, erm, necessary items."
Erik forces his hands to go still, rests one palm flat against Charles' stomach, and wills his pulse to slow. He's about to apologize for being presumptuous, for moving too quickly, but then Charles hooks the crook of his elbow around the back of Erik's neck, drags him down to lick into his mouth, and when he pulls back, leaves Erik gasping for air, he says, "My flat is just across the street."
Charles rolls ungracefully off the desk and propels Erik unresistingly through the chaos of his office and out into the hall.
Erik looks at the sign on the outside of Charles' door. "Did we just get to third base on your desk during office hours?" he asks.
Charles waves him off carelessly. "Students only ever come to those during exam weeks," he says, grabbing Erik's hand and dragging him toward the stairs.
Erik has already started to get used to the press of Charles' body so when he wakes up, alone in the mussed grey sheets of the enormous bed, he feels, for a moment, utterly bereft.
Then Charles walks into the room, wearing the t-shirt Erik threw somewhere in his haste to tumble Charles into said sheets, and offers Erik a mug that reads If I were an enzyme, I would be DNA helicase so I could unzip your genes. "I made you coffee," Charles says, looking pleased with himself.
"Thank you, Charles," Erik says, setting the mug on the sidetable and pulling Charles back into bed. He'll drink it later, stone cold and gritty, the dregs crunching in his back teeth, remembering the sweet taste of Charles' mouth, spun sugar and affection, warm with the beginnings of love.