Chapter 1: Prologue
Charles no longer remembers the past.
He can’t recall the life he lived before this non-life, this parody of a life. He does not hold the face of his mother in his mind, no treasured memory of her voice, her smell, the touch of her hand. He did, once, a very long time ago, but none of that is his any longer.
The passing of a year doesn’t mean what it used to. If anything sticks, it’s small, fragmented. A wisp of conversation, an impression, brief images and sounds. He’s lived hundreds of lives and novelty is a luxury that no longer applies -- he doesn’t need to remember what he’s already done, feelings he’s already experienced. It’s superfluous. Such things have ceased to matter.
Charles does not know his own name. He chose the one he answers to now many hundreds of years ago, and only then because it felt right at the time, because it rolled off his tongue in a pleasing manner. Before that he went by another, and before that still others. It’s likely they were no more true to his original self than the name he bears now, but the possibility doesn’t bother him, the way that most things don’t bother him anymore. The names serve their purpose. They tell him who he is, tie him down to the earth for a little while, keep him in place when the sands of time are forever seeking to pull him onward, feet never touching the ground.
It’s always surprising to him, the realization of how seemingly easy it might be to simply float away, even when he’s burdened under so much weight.
Charles does not remember the past, but he carries it with him. The past sits crouched and invisible at the back of his mind, waiting for its moment to speak, to make itself known. He is conscious of too many things for one discrete lifetime, says things sometimes that make his skin prickle in recognition, as if they’ve been said before.
It’s not a particularly bold assumption to make, though it never gets any less eerie, having no memory of where his knowledge stems from. It simply is. It floats to the surface of his thoughts like an offering, a forgotten object clearing the murk.
Charles is very, very old. There’s little left to learn, if anything.
His existence is a strange thing, especially strange to others of his kind, a fact which he is all too aware of. He persists because he enjoys the complexities and variation of life, as much as he can anymore. He immerses himself in the identities he assumes for as long as he cares to, or remembers to, always wondering if they bear any resemblance to who he was before death. Which ones are closest.
Perhaps this state of being should distress him, but Charles knows no other. He cannot imagine how it should be different for one such as him, how it could be.
Charles has long since forgotten what it is to want anything at all with the same kind of focused intensity as he does the blood that sustains him. He has desires, and indulges them because it’s easy enough to do so, but the notion of a greater, all-encompassing longing for a life other than his own is so completely, utterly foreign.
This is what distresses him, when he lets himself think on it -- the inference that there was once a time in which he could have, and quite possibly did, feel that particular kind of longing. For what, he can’t fathom. A person, a place, a circumstance. He doesn’t know.
There is only one longing now: for the taste of warm, coppery wet in his mouth, the necessary fuel to perpetuate the inexplicable quickening of body and mind.
It’s the only thing he’ll ever need, the only thing he takes with him.
And then he meets the boy, and quite suddenly, a great many things begin to change.
The cafe is small and hot, uncomfortably so, windows fogged with condensation and the air gone close and damp.
Erik sits at the scratched formica table and eyes his mother at the counter, ordering them something quick and simple to eat. He should be watching his surroundings, as he’s been told many times, but the hunger gnawing at his insides keeps his attention focused solely on what matters most in this moment: food, soon to be acquired, soon to be eaten. They’ve been driving for six hours already today, and a single packet of tough jerky doesn’t go far when you’re a twelve year old boy already growing into his hands and feet.
His mother returns to their table holding a tray loaded down with sandwiches for them both, a black coffee for herself, and a can of Coke for him. She sets it in front of Erik then digs out a handful of loose change and a scrap of folded paper.
“I’ve got to go make a call,” she tells him. “Go ahead and start without me.”
She tosses him a small, pinched smile, and disappears out into the street. The bell above the door rings as she leaves.
Erik’s stomach twists. All of a sudden he feels too exposed, too conspicuous, a lanky young boy with a lean and hungry look, eyes older than his face would otherwise suggest. People don’t need much of a reason to stare, and there’s always been something about Erik that draws their gaze more consistently than most. His usual response is to stare back until they look away, unnerved, and it tends to work pretty well. This time is no different. Only once everyone around him has returned to their own meals does he relax, but he still reflexively pats his jacket pocket for a little extra reassurance, comforted by the familiar shape of his butterfly knife hidden there.
Halfway through his sandwich, Erik looks up again. There’s a man sitting at another table across the room, newspaper folded primly in front of him, and his eyes are fixed on Erik like there’s nothing else in the room worth looking at, head propped up and resting on one palm.
A cold shiver drifts down his spine, a small tendril of unease that should make Erik want to run. He knows this feeling, has trusted it before and not been proven wrong, yet for some reason running is suddenly the absolute last thing on his mind, the last thing he would ever want to do.
I should go and talk to him, he thinks. A quieter voice adds, tell him to mind his own business.
Erik takes his sandwich and crosses the room, approaching the man’s table slowly. He sits, takes a bite. “Hello,” he says, through his mouthful.
Up close the man is striking for reasons Erik can’t quite put his finger on. He continues to stare at Erik, but the corner of his mouth lifts in a tiny grin.
“Hello.” His voice is warm, slightly accented, and doesn’t appear to match his face. Erik’s not sure what he was expecting, but it’s certainly not this smooth, enthralling burr. “What’s your name, young man?”
“Erik Lehnsherr,” he replies blithely, even as he remembers how dangerous it can be to reveal such information to strangers. His mother would be furious, but Erik isn’t bothered by this slip in judgement. The man has a trustworthy face; he’s only being polite.
“Are you here by yourself, Erik? Where are your parents?”
“I’m here with my mother. She’s just down the street making a phone call to one of her contacts.”
The man quirks an eyebrow. “Contacts?”
Erik nods, takes another bite of his sandwich. “Other hunters,” he says once he’s swallowed, his throat tight and dry. “We’re driving up to Washington. There’s something we have to take care of, so my mother’s calling around for information.”
Something in his mind pleads, STOP TALKING, but Erik doesn’t see why he should.
The other eyebrow joins the first, and the man’s expression shutters a little. Erik wonders what it was he said that upset him.
“How old are you, Erik?” He sounds mildly distressed, a little bit angry. It seems an odd question to ask, but Erik doesn’t mind.
“I’m eleven,” he says, and the man’s face twists in disgust, a bewildering reaction if there ever was one. Erik lifts his chin defiantly. “I’m not a baby. I know how to shoot a gun, and I’m good with knives, my mother says so. I’m going to be a hero like her when I’m older.”
The man grimaces, and his eyes are a piercing, hectic blue when Erik meets them. His head feels strangely fuzzy, like he can’t quite remember why he was so indignant in the first place. Not when he feels the man’s regard like a physical weight, the concern and pity nearly oozing from his pores. He cares, that’s all. Erik should be grateful to have a perfect stranger care so much about his well-being. Certainly no one else in this dingy little cafe does.
“I have no doubt that you’ll be a mighty hero one day, Erik,” the man says gently, and though it seems like the words should sound patronizing, they don’t. “I can tell how much you want to protect those around you. It’s very noble.”
Erik feels a small burst of warmth in his stomach, a sensation not unlike pride. He preens, trying to sit up straighter, to appear even taller than he already is. The man takes note, nodding approvingly.
“You’re so very young though,” he continues, voice soft and contemplative. “Maybe too young, perhaps.”
Erik bristles. “I’m not!”
The man raises both hands in surrender. His mouth is lifting in a smile again, but his eyes remain so very sad. Erik doesn’t understand it, wants to follow that sadness as deep as it goes, chafes at not knowing the source.
“If you say so, Erik.”
“I do.” Erik says it firmly, with conviction. The man appears to believe him, if his solemn nod is anything to go by, and he reaches across to lay a gentle hand on Erik’s bared wrist. His touch feels like ice, his fingers like five searing lines of dry, papery cold curled over his skin, and Erik flinches away with surprise.
“My apologies, Erik,” the man says. “I haven’t had my meal yet today, and I forget sometimes how unpleasant it can be, to be touched by that hunger.”
For the life of him Erik can’t figure out what on earth he might mean by that. Something tells him he doesn’t want to know.
Another voice confirms it, no you don’t want to know, forget about it, it’s not important. Erik does so.
The man suddenly stands, tucking the folded newspaper under his arm. Erik stands with him.
“I’ve enjoyed chatting with you, Erik,” he says. “Thank-you.”
“Wait, are you leaving?”
The man smiles, but it’s still so sad. It doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, I really ought to. Your mother’s on her way back and she wouldn’t be happy to see me.”
Erik bites his lip, confused. “Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t.” He says it as if he wishes it were otherwise, voice hard and filled with regret. “But I know enough.”
It’s such a complete non-answer that Erik feels a fortifying surge of anger under his skin. He squares his stance, arms folded, trying to block the man from getting by. He gives Erik an amused look, but doesn’t attempt to brush him aside. “I don’t understand,” Erik says. “What do you mean? You’re not making any sense.”
There’s a long pause while they stare at each other in mutually assessing silence, the bustle of the cafe around them seeming far away, quiet and unconnected to this moment. After a while, the man reaches out again to touch, fingertips light against Erik’s temple before he can jerk away. “It doesn’t matter.”
Erik relaxes, mind going blank and unconcerned. No, it doesn’t, does it?
The man claps a hand on Erik’s shoulder and maneuvers him gently, coaxing him back to his original seat. Erik goes, tingling at the contact, even with his thick denim jacket acting as a barrier between their skin. Pushed a little, he sits down, folds his hands together in his lap.
“Goodbye, Erik,” the man says.
Erik looks down at his tray and wonders why his food has gone cold. He must have been daydreaming, and the thought makes his stomach roil and turn. Erik doesn’t often make mistakes, a fact which he knows makes his mother proud, and he’s glad she’s not here to witness his screw up. She would be so unhappy, so disappointed. He has to be perfect for her, he has to keep them safe. She shouldn’t have to watch over them both, not when doing so could get her killed. It’s just as much Erik’s job to pay attention as it is hers, and he’s failed.
When his mother walks back through the cafe door, Erik can’t meet her eyes. It’s as good as a flare in the sky announcing he’s done something to be ashamed of. She won’t ask, though. She’ll wait for Erik to twist himself up into knots until he comes clean himself, let him dig his own grave. Erik hates how well this method works.
She picks at her own sandwich, sipping the stone cold coffee and grimacing. “Finish up, Erik. We need to get back on the road.”
Erik finally gathers enough courage together to meet her eyes. She looks back at him, blankly unconcerned. She’ll wait as long as it takes, and Erik knows from past experience that will be sooner rather than later. He scowls when she ruffles at his hair, palming her keys.
“C’mon. We’ve got work to do.”
Erik gets up, follows her out into the cold and the rain, hunching into his jacket. His mother takes his hand, and they go.
Erik’s been on the road for almost six months straight, drifting from one town to the next, one dingy motel room to another in a daze of smoke, salt, and gunpowder, when he wakes up one morning and thinks, enough.
He blinks up at the watermarked ceiling, listening to the soft shushing of cars on the highway outside his door. The watery, pale blue of the early morning is bright enough to see by, but there’s nothing worth looking at. To his right is the bathroom, cramped and spotted with ominous black mold in the caulking of the shower tiles; to his left is the window, hung with drapes in an alarming shade of green. He didn’t manage to crawl under the blankets before passing out the night before, which in this case is unfortunate — god only knows what the top sheet is covered in, probably the usual unpleasant cocktail of bodily fluids.
Not that what Erik’s still covered in is any better. The whole room reeks of it, the cloying stink of burnt human remains, freshly turned earth gone muddy from the rain, crusted blood under his nose and itchy along his temple. If the sheets weren’t ruined before, they certainly are now.
The clock on the bedside table blinks 6:13 in neon red. Erik still aches all over but his mind is buzzing and there’ll be no going back to sleep. Best to get up, clean up, move on.
As he peels himself out of his jeans and henley, kicking off the steel-toed boots he managed to unlace but somehow not remove the night before, he thinks about what it might be like to stop. Lay down his gun and breathe, for once, when he’s spent his entire life rambling, following trails of dead bodies and mysterious circumstances from coast to coast. Across borders. He wonders if he can stop, if the momentum he’s built up over all these years won’t just chivvy him onwards against his will. That intolerable sensation of movement even when standing perfectly still, could he escape it?
Not forever. Never forever.
All he wants is a little while, some time to square himself away. He feels thin, stretched and taut like an animal skin left to cure in the sun. He needs to remind himself why he’s doing this, why it matters. On the road these things get forgotten, because it’s too dangerous to have them close at hand when a single hesitation could lose him his head, his whole life. His mother taught him that, even though in retrospect the hypocrisy was staggering — what was Erik but the most important thing, her heart that she dragged along behind her, bound by love and fear and the fierce need to protect. Hunters were thin on the ground back then, but Erik vividly remembers the ones they crossed paths with, the way they would look at Edie as if she were nothing more than a monster herself. He could read the horror in their eyes, the judgment, that a woman would willingly take on the burden they all shared, and compound her stupidity by cruelly raising a child in the tradition, as if it were any kind of life a mother would ever wish for her son.
This isn’t a family business, they seemed to say, and making it so is just asking to have that family taken away.
Edie tuned them out as best she could, because it wasn’t for them to decide that her vengeance was any less necessary than their own. That the drive she felt to beat back the dark, save others from the same loss she suffered, was selfish in ways theirs was not, because she chose to fight rather than cower but refused to leave behind the one thing she had left.
She’d given Erik his first knife when he was nine, taught him how to use it, clean it and keep it deadly sharp. He learned when it was useful and when another tool would do better, though even years later he would always reach for cool, capable steel first if given the choice. She needed him to be prepared, and so he listened with rapt attention and carved the lessons into his bones, never questioning. It’s gotten him this far; he’s not dead yet. That’s got to count for something.
Erik refuses to be ungrateful for being given such a clear purpose in life. Maybe it was dangerous to grow up as he did, but knowledge is always safer than ignorance.
Once he’s down to skin Erik wanders into the bathroom, plugs the sink and fills it with warm water before wiping his face clean of blood, dirt and ash. The cut high on his temple isn’t as bad as the amount of blood would suggest, but then again head wounds are always misleading, and the pain is negligible at best. He slaps on some polysporin and lets the air get at it while he prods gently at his nose and hisses through clenched teeth. It’s not broken — although even if it was, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time — but still throbs a warning whenever he so much as brushes against it. The beginnings of what promises to be a truly spectacular black eye add insult to injury.
All in all Erik looks a mess, and the story behind it is more embarrassing than impressive. Coming off a simple salt-and-burn his blood was up, as it always is after a hunt, not in the mood to take anyone’s shit and spoiling for a fight or a fuck, whichever came first. Erik has always hated the fact that he gets this way, but he stopped resisting the pull long ago when denying himself only made things worse. Last night was no exception to the rule, and ended with him laid out in the gravel lot outside the roadhouse, hurling curses at the three skinheads who’d taken a disliking to the gold Star of David hung about his neck. If Erik had been even a little less drunk he would’ve wiped the floor with them, maybe aerated one with the knife in his boot and not felt a lick of guilt over it.
But Erik was very drunk, and not only that but a little dizzy too from the blow to the head he’d already received that evening. Not the most promising of combinations.
And so he’s here, grudgingly awake in the early hours of the morning, squinting at himself in the bathroom mirror, skin sallow in the flickering fluorescent light. It makes everything look worse than it really is. It makes him look like a fucking corpse. Erik winces, splashes his face once more with the now tepid water and scruffs at the wreck of his hair with one hand before jumping into the shower.
He’ll get clean, and then he’ll go. Drive until he feels like stopping, wherever that might be.
Maybe he’ll call his mother before he goes, let her know he’s going off the grid, putting down roots for a while. Get his head on straight before returning to the fight.
Maybe he won’t.
Erik has entertained this thought many times, but the reality is he hasn’t spoken to his mother in two years. Before that it was three. Before that, five. Ten years, all told, since they parted ways, and if asked Erik would say he doesn’t regret the separation one whit. He hasn’t forgotten her; she burns just as brightly in his mind as she always has, her presence like a watchful eye over his shoulder. If not always welcome, he can’t deny the pure animal comfort of it, knowing that he keeps a part of her inside himself. That he is, in some small way, like her. Enough that her lessons have become instinct, no longer abstract principles but rules tried and tested, lived by. If he were less her son, he might have balked, tried to forge his own way, assured of his own knowledge. But Erik knows that he’ll never be anything but the best of her. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
The pathetic spittle of water against his back, rapidly cooling, makes him think of their first night on the road, the first time they spent the night in a rundown, less than reputable motel. The first of many to come. Just the two of them, still tentative and afraid of what they were about to face. Erik remembers standing in a shower much like this one, a skin-and-bones slip of a boy shivering and crying under the ice-cold stream as his mother knelt by the side of the tub and scrubbed him down briskly, her hands firm and capable. He remembers the dark circles under her eyes, the way her mouth pinched with unhappiness, but still so impossibly strong, even then. Determined to do what was needed of her, even if it hurt, to see her little boy so upset and afraid.
That determination coloured the entirety of Erik’s childhood, and it was what drove them apart, in the end.
Erik sighs, and pushes the thought away. It’s too early to reopen old wounds.
He towels himself dry, dripping onto the bathmat, and throws on whatever clothes are the least dirty before setting the room to rights. As much as he can, anyway. The sheets are a lost cause, and he tracked in enough dirt the night before to add more prominent stains to the already questionable, threadbare carpet. He packs with quick efficiency, trained by twenty odd years of making himself scarce at a moments notice if need be, disappearing like smoke on the wind. A woman and a young boy on the road together always attracted more attention than they would have preferred, and sometimes the locals took too much notice of the odd behaviour, the bruises, the dirt, the faded clothing from one too many cycles through the wash.
On his own, Erik’s always provoked suspicion more than nosy concern, but no one has ever questioned his presence the way they did when Edie would follow leads into shady dive bars and roadhouses full of good-old-boys. What remains of his accent occasionally gets him into trouble with this particular crowd, but Erik’s gotten used to cultivating an aura of unpredictable violence, and most know to leave him be. Edie never took him with her, but she’d relay what she learned back in the motel room when there was anything to share, and it was easy enough to read the frustration in her face. Erik is sure she never told him even half of what really happened on any given day, but the circumstances spoke for themselves, really — a woman, alone, in a bar full of men who’d be only too happy to fuck her when they weren’t looking to teach her a lesson, bitter and angry for being hustled out of their hard earned cash. It isn’t hard to guess.
All the same he tries not to think about it. She certainly never did, not in any way that he could tell, and there’s no point in obsessing retroactively over things he can’t change. Whether or not she still gets the same treatment is debatable, but he suspects it’s no longer the problem it used to be. Edie’s been up and down this country enough times by now to have established herself among those that matter, and to have no patience left for those who don’t.
Besides, it’s not the civilians she needs to be worrying about. That was her first lesson, learned harshly, and the scars that linger serve as constant reminder.
Erik has his own scars. They do the same.
By the time he’s loaded both duffle bags into the trunk of his car, the sky has gone pink, the sun just starting to crest the line of the horizon. Too early for checkout, but Erik was never planning on doing that anyway. The name on the credit card he used to pay for the room is fake, just like the card itself, a scam he’s never enjoyed pulling but is often necessary when money is tight, or nonexistent — as things stand currently, in fact. Hustling pool for cash only goes so far, even if Erik’s always been exceptionally good at it, and the emergency savings fund he’s been draining steadily since he and Edie parted ways isn’t going to last much longer. It’s not a particularly lucrative existence, hunting the things that go bump in the night.
Once he’s set up wherever he decides to stay, he’ll get a job, start squirrelling away what he can. For now, though, he’ll do what he has to.
Erik should maybe feel worse than he does about the mess he’s leaving behind, the damages he doesn’t intend to pay, but he figures it’s a fair trade for the work he’s done. And despite the bracingly cold shower, he’s still only about half-awake, so he’ll leave the guilt — should it come — for when he’s conscious enough to really care.
He needs to get on the road. He needs to get gone. Thinking comes later.
Erik cranks the engine, relishing its throaty purr, and pulls out of the lot. He slips onto the highway, points himself East, and doesn’t look back.
Three months after he and Edie parted ways, the first time, Erik got wind of a situation developing in the heart of New York City. A young girl, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, had effectively disappeared from the public eye — a strange occurrence, considering the fact that even at seventeen she’d already become an ubiquitous figure in the socialite scene, prone to appearing in the local gossip rags on an almost weekly basis. The family cited illness as the reason for her absence, but sources close to the family began circulating rumours that suggested this was not at all the case.
The ones that reached the public ear were predictable: an unexpected pregnancy, plastic surgery gone horribly wrong and the like. The usual guesses.
Through the kind of word of mouth that hunters thrived on Erik heard a very different story. Whispers from the help about being unceremoniously dismissed after paying too much attention to the strange noises coming from Miss Frost’s bedroom, about an unsettling chill that had descended upon the house and didn’t dissipate no matter how high they cranked the heat.
Some damning evidence, to those who understood the signs. Erik didn’t waste any time.
Getting in to see the girl proved to be an almost impossible hurdle. Her parents were terrified, out of their minds with worry, and neck deep in something they could hardly understand. They certainly weren’t going to let a stranger into their home under such circumstances, let alone one who was as untrustworthy on first sight as he was. Erik needed to be smart about it. Or blunt. Whichever would work best. Erik made it a habit of being fairly straightforward in his methodology, because any time spent dithering and trying to come at a situation sideways equalled time during which civilians were liable to end up dying horrible deaths. Which wasn’t generally a desirable outcome.
When no other option presented itself, Erik ended up stealing into the house late one night — laughably easy, and not at all what he was expecting, considering the neighbourhood — sedating both her parents before tying them wrists to ankles, just to be safe. The sedation would take care of things, but he wasn’t about to chance it either, not when a young girl’s life was in the balance. It was crude, yes, and perhaps overkill, but he couldn’t think of another option. No one was supposed to know a thing about what was really going on with Miss Frost; there wasn’t a way to get close that didn’t involve breaking-and-entering.
The inside of the girl’s room was a stomach-turning mess: the floor, scattered with things swept off shelves and other surfaces; long gouges in the wallpaper, stained with blood in places; the sad remnants of a wooden chair in broken pieces across what likely used to be a pristine white rug. The stench of an unwashed body hung heavily in the air, mixed with fear-sweat, piss, and vomit. Miss Frost herself lay on the bed in a tangle of stained bedsheets and stringy, greasy blond hair. She looked dead, except for the faintly perceptible rise and fall of her chest.
Erik stepped forward and the floor creaked loudly underfoot. Miss Frost jerked upright, her movements unnaturally stiff, as if she were being tugged to and fro by strings and an unskilled hand. Her eyes found him and held there, ice-blue and sunk deep into her skull, burning with an otherworldly fire. Erik stood his ground, more sure of his hypothesis now than ever.
“I would know your name, spirit,” he said, infusing his tone with the proper note of ritual and authority. “Tell me your tale of woe.”
The girl’s face twisted into an expression that did not fit her features, one of terrible agony and despair. Erik couldn’t help but shudder. The keening wail she let out next only made things worse, rising the hair along his nape and arms.
“You don’t care,” she insisted, her words sluggish and slow, exaggerated. “No one ever cared. Why should you be the first?”
Erik reached into his coat and drew out a small bottle make of blackened wood, setting it on the dresser to his left before removing the polished metal stopper. He kept his attention focused on Miss Frost while he did it, going slowly through the motions. “You’re in pain; you need rest. I can lighten your burden if you’ll let me.”
Miss Frost — the thing inside Miss Frost — sniffed indelicately, though it did nothing to help the glistening line already trailing from one nostril. “I don’t believe you,” she whined, and Erik grit his teeth, feeling irritation start to skitter across his nerves. Whoever this spirit used to be, they sounded like a real piece of work, some lonely soul who’d taken their own life and left behind no one who would mourn them. Cases like these were the hardest, and he didn’t have time to stand here and listen to an entire life story of indefinable misery, all in the hope of getting a name, he needed it’s name —
“I would know your name, spirit,” he repeated, firmly. “If you don’t give it to me, I will take it.”
Emma’s eyes flashed, a burst of pure, inhuman rage.
And then she leapt at him.
One thing Erik always tended to forget was how fucking fast the possessed could be when they had the right motivation. Luckily, Erik’s always been faster.
In the end it was the only thing that saved him from getting his eyes scratched out, allowing him just enough time to gasp out the beginning of the exorcism rite, pinning Emma to the floor. She hissed and thrashed under him like an angry cat, and it took all his strength to keep her down as the words started to take hold, drawing out a ragged scream from what sounded like the very depths of her.
Even with decades of hunting under his belt now, honed by the physicality it demands of him, Erik’s never been very large. Tall, yes, but with little real bulk to back it up. Erik was only twenty back then and whipcord lean, still growing into his bones, and he could barely hold on. It didn’t help that Emma was much stronger than she should be, quickened by the raging spirit that had housed itself within her.
She dug deep, painful gouges into his forearms, her hips bucking and twisting as he shouted the last few words of the rite. Erik reached out, palming the wooden bottle where it had been knocked onto the floor in their struggle, just in time for Emma to abruptly go limp as a corpse. What looked like grey mist started to ooze from her every pore, pooling around her body in a shifting, uncomfortably sentient mass. Erik grimaced and whispered the final command, guiding the mist into the bottle and stoppering it closed.
The sudden absence of sound was unsettling, as if all the air had been sucked from the room. Erik sat back on his heels and tried to calm the pounding of his heart, watching the steady rise and fall of Emma’s chest with a careful eye. It would be impossible to know if she was unharmed until he could deal fully with the spirit, but she at least appeared to be physically whole, which was more than he could say for most of the people he’d encountered in this business over the years.
There was still one more thing to take care of, though. He couldn’t rest yet.
Erik gathered Emma into his arms and moved her to the bed, eyeing the mess of the sheets with distaste. He kicked them away awkwardly, then lay her down where it appeared to be the cleanest; checked her pulse, two fingers pressed gently to her ivory pale neck. She appeared to be fine, and so he went in search of a bathroom, finding one right next door to Emma’s room. He dug out his lighter, dangled the bottle by its metal stopper, and held a flame to its underside until the wood appeared to catch before placing it in the sink. A few more words, and it was done.
The bottle, of course, didn’t really burn, spelled as it was to be a vessel for this purpose alone. This particular fire wasn’t meant to consume that which was physical, only spirits that lingered when their time was long past. The bottle itself had seen him and Edie through several possessions over the years, each iteration of the ritual blackening the wood even more, though never quite diminishing it. Where Edie herself got it from, Erik never learned. It was one of many things which she never seemed inclined to tell him, even once he was no longer a child.
Back then, he’d resented her for it, unable to understand why she insisted on keeping things from him, things that were important, and necessary. One of the first things she ever taught him was that ignorance was a dangerous game, that knowing there was more to the darkness of the world than he ever could have guessed would save him in the long run. As much as it pained her to raise him as she did, it pained her even more to think of Erik anywhere but by her side. It was never a matter of choice.
Thinking of Emma now, a battered and used vessel herself, he understood Edie’s motivations a little better. Sometimes it was kinder to remain closemouthed. Some truths should remain unknown. There’s nothing necessary in becoming the unwilling puppet of a malignant spirit, poisoned by its anger, its furious need to be present and known. Erik wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially one so young as Emma. She didn’t deserve to have her eyes opened so brutally, to be blinded before she had a chance to see.
Erik returned to her room to check on her one final time. She’d curled onto her side, childlike, but her cheeks were beginning to flush with colour again. Her breathing was steadier, more peaceful. It would be a while yet before she’d wake up, time enough to heal some. Erik would be long gone by then, as much as he might want to stay, to help her navigate the ramifications of what she’d just endured.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had a desire to see things out to the end, and it never got any easier to walk away, but it wasn’t something he’d ever actually done. Edie had ground that lesson into him from the very beginning. If they stayed, they’d never get where they needed to go. Dragging your heels, trying to carry the burden of everyone else’s life, was impossible. It would kill him, and then he’d be of help to no one.
So he had to go. Untie the parents first, as a courtesy, but no longer than that.
Erik could hear his mother’s voice, urging him along. It had only been months, then, since he’d seen her. Not years. The memory of her was still vivid, easily brought to mind; she kept him on track, as she always had.
Pick up, shove off, move on out.
And so he obeyed, as he always had.
He tried to make himself forget the note he left stashed in her jewelry box, a torn scrap of paper on which he’d written only his name, an address for three different P.O. Boxes across the country, and the words, If you ever have any questions. If you’re ever in trouble again. Send a letter and I will receive it.
He tried to forget because it was too close to a concession, too close to being tied down, pointing a flashing neon arrow at the places where he could be found, breaking the cultivated illusion of a man who lived in the wind. It was too dangerous to be allowed. It was a mistake, pure and simple.
But he did it anyway. Story of his fucking life.
Three years later, he got a letter. It wasn’t what he was expecting.
Emma informed him, in her crisp, flowing print, that she was immeasurably grateful for the help he’d provided, was interested in learning more, and cordially requested his presence at her apartment back in New York. Immediately. Following that was her address, her name, and the bright red lipstick print of a kiss in the bottom right corner of the page. Erik stared down at it, bemused and impressed in equal measure.
He ended up going, because what else was he going to do? He’d promised, and Erik was a man of his word.
The apartment, however, when he finally got to it, was exactly what he expected. Emma buzzed him into the building, and even the foyer reeked of the kind of wealth he had never experienced, never would experience. All glass and marble and minimalist decor, pristine enough to make him feel like his mere presence would set off some kind of alarm, like he would stain things just by looking at them. The concierge behind the desk was giving him the eye, likely had one finger hovering over the panic button, just waiting for a reason to call security and have them swoop in to eject him from the premises. In his worn-thin jeans and shit-kicker boots, currently sporting a rather spectacular black eye, Erik couldn’t blame him.
He took the elevator up to the penthouse floor, skin prickling with the unease that comes from feeling out of place, utterly out of his element. It certainly didn’t abate any once Emma opened her front door to him, done up all in white from head to toe, her long fall of shimmering blonde hair pulled back tight and severe. Erik hardly recognized her, remembering the wreck of a girl he’d wrestled to the floor, not this — this strange, cold, brittle creature. She offered him a stiff smile, stepped back to allow him in.
“Erik,” she murmured pleasantly, ushering him further into the apartment. “You’re exactly as I remember you.”
Erik tossed a quick, skeptical look over his shoulder. Emma’s mouth pinched. “Well, I suppose not exactly.” She tipped her head, indicating that he sit. “I can’t imagine the life you lead offering much in the way of permanence.”
“I’ve always felt that if you don’t get mauled at least once a month you’re doing it wrong.” Erik gestured to his left hand for emphasis, the puckering, still pink skin marring the webbing between thumb and forefinger. “Not exactly a mauling, this one, but I think you see my point.”
Erik took a seat, reluctantly, glancing around him with quick, assessing flicks of his eyes. The apartment was warm and lived in, infused with colour, though no less pristine and expensive for it, and Emma stood out in jarring contrast, the diametric opposite of a drop of red on a field of white. Erik couldn’t make any proper sense of it, everything a contradiction. The pieces didn’t seem to fit together, ragged around the edges, like an existence cobbled out of fragments of failed attempts. At what, he couldn’t tell.
He met Emma’s stare evenly, and it was like staring into a still, reflective pool, seeing nothing but himself. Unsettling, when he could remember very clearly the way her eyes had shone with an unholy light in the fierce throes of possession. Erik felt his stomach turn over at the thought that he might have left behind more of an empty shell than he’d thought, or hoped for. There are very few certainties in what he does, and victims of possession being entirely themselves once a spirit’s been driven away was most certainly not one of them.
Erik shuddered a little, but pushed on.
“Can I ask what was so urgent?” he began, linking his fingers between his knees.
“Oh, nothing in particular.” Emma tossed her hair and shrugged minutely. “I figured if I was going to call in my favour, I might as well see if you’d really come running as you said.”
Annoyance flared in Erik’s gut but he kept his face deliberately neutral. He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t considered this as a possibility, but the fact that he’d come anyway stung his pride. There was no sense letting Emma know that.
“I also thought you’d might like to know what became of me.” Her voice was very, very cold. Filled with contempt. “The fruits of your handiwork, if you will.”
Because Erik was nothing if not an unrepentant asshole when it suited him, when he found that particular armour necessary, he merely said, “You could have written that in the letter. No need to bring me all the way here."
“Need is irrelevant,” Emma said, and laughed — an awful, hollow sound. “I was never completely sure it wasn’t just a dream. I don’t think I ever would have been unless I saw your face in front of me.”
This, Erik could understand. A desire to prove one’s own mind wrong, always afraid of the uncertainties it would spin, those insidious moments of doubt. It was the same desire that had spurred his mother on in the early days, still reeling from grief and yearning to understand the impossibilities that plagued her, the things she remembered but couldn’t possibly be real. He felt his annoyance bleed away, familiar guilt taking its place.
Erik was good friends with guilt. They knew each other well.
“So,” he prompted. “Are you going to tell me what happened after I left?”
Emma nodded crisply, smoothing out invisible lines on her trouser legs. Her brow furrowed, as if she wasn’t sure where to begin.
“I was committed,” she said eventually, after a short period of silence, blunt and without inflection. “My parents thought I’d gone insane. It didn’t matter that I was myself again; it was the only thing that made sense. And I didn’t exactly have any way of refuting it. I was half convinced myself.”
Erik said nothing, trying to swallow down the sudden bile inching up his throat. He should have realized. How could he not have known —
“I was only there about half a year,” Emma continued, and she was watching him now, cataloguing his reactions. “I was a model patient.”
Her smile was like a knife. Erik nearly flinched at seeing it, and it didn’t go unnoticed. He waited for her to land another blow, expecting it, but Emma seemed perfectly willing to let him stew. They stared at each other, tension crackling in the air between them.
Erik cleared his throat. “Is that all?”
“All I’m interested in telling you.”
Which was fair. Erik could tell that even saying that much cost her something, even though it was meant as a kind of punishment. At this point any kind of apology would be hollow and meaningless, so Erik kept his mouth firmly shut, giving her confession the moment of quiet acknowledgement is deserved.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, once he found his voice again, and Emma’s entire expression shifted, like a mask suddenly ripped free, her face radiant with conviction.
“I want to know what happened. Beginning to end.” Her mouth trembled a little. “And I want to know what I have to do to make sure it never happens again.”
It was the most vulnerable Erik had seen her yet, and genuinely so. It wasn’t hard to pin Emma as the kind to use her emotions as bargaining tools, but not this time, not when she seemed to guess he wasn’t a man easily fooled. Maybe the fact that he came at all told her he responded better to guilt and obligation than he ever would to manipulation.
And it was true. He met her eyes, saw what lurked there, and couldn’t find it in himself to deny her. This was her turn for vengeance, the beginning of her own story. It would have been the height of hypocrisy to claim otherwise. She was unprepared, certainly, in a practical sense. But she knew her own mind, and her readiness was plain to see.
So Erik did what he had to. He put her feet on the path, a different path than his own but no less fraught, and told her what she needed to know.
Emma didn’t leave New York very often, after that, and only when she absolutely needed to. There were plenty of things that prowled the city streets, enough to keep her occupied. She liked to keep busy, after all.
That’s what she told Erik, the next time they crossed paths.
He was back in town looking to recuperate after a nasty injury, and looked her up because he had no where else to go. Erik had other contacts, at least three familiar names he knew would be around, but none of them would have been happy to see his face, let alone given him a place to lay his head. Emma seemed to find his predicament amusing, and let him crash on her rather expansive couch for as long as needed, though she took issue with him bleeding all over it.
“I don’t want the responsibility of disposing of your dead body,” she’d said, and it was difficult to tell if she meant it as a joke or not. Erik sensed that that might be an ongoing theme in their relationship, such as it was.
She’d lifted up the left side of his jacket then, her delicate nose wrinkling at the sight of his shirt nearly bled through. Erik had stitched himself up earlier that morning, but it was a rush job that left the wound oozing sluggishly every time he so much as breathed. Emma ended up hauling in her on-call doctor to do the job right, then pumped him full of antibiotics to fend off infection and left him to languish in front of her television, feeling cotton-headed and weak.
Three days later, as he was about to leave, Emma took him aside for a final word.
“Not that I don’t relish the opportunity to see your rather attractive face on my doorstep,” she began, dry as dust and leaning into his space, her eyes sharp, “but I don’t particularly like you, Erik. If you’re ever back in the city, there’s somewhere else I’d rather you stay.”
She went on to tell him about another apartment, much less nice but more than serviceable, that she’d purchased two days previous for this exact purpose, and then handed him the key. When he gaped at her she merely offered him a cool, reserved smile and shrugged. “I’m quite rich, Erik, in case you’ve forgotten. I was in your debt, and now I’m not, and not only that but I won’t be subjected to any more of your blood on my furniture without having to feel guilty about leaving you out in the cold.”
Erik muttered something wry about her generosity, but made sure he caught her gaze anyway, needing her to understand his gratitude. He’d never been particularly good with words, and didn’t know Emma well enough for much else. They shook hands, though, quick and firm, before she saw him out.
He hadn’t seen her since. In the years that followed, Erik stayed in the small, depressingly spare apartment a grand total of two times, and neither occasion left him much time for social calls. Emma kept to herself, and Erik went on living his life the way he’d always had, not sparing her a second’s thought. He could tell she wouldn’t appreciate it anyway.
But things weren’t entirely the same, of course. He’d been given a place, however grudgingly — a bolt hole, somewhere that would be always open to him. Not many hunters could say the same. It wasn’t a home; he’d never go so far as to call it that, but it was more than one motel room among many, more than bunking down in his car on the side of the road, curled up and horrifically cramped in the back seat, his balled up coat serving as pillow for the night. It was a roof over his head, somewhere warm, somewhere safe — as safe as he ever could be, doing what he did. Just knowing it was there was in itself a comfort, even when he was far, far away.
Erik mentioned it to his mother only once, wondering if she might think it a weakness. Fearing it.
But she’d merely nodded, her expression neutral. “I’m glad you have that,” she said, and Erik felt a knot in his stomach slowly unravel. He searched her face, the lines around her mouth and eyes, trying to find the lie in it, but of course it wasn’t there.
He’d thought to make the confession into an offer once upon a time, to tell her she was welcome to it, should she ever need the sanctuary. Her response, however brief, said more than enough. Erik kept his mouth shut, putting the idea aside.
Edie seemed to know his mind, though, and raised a hand to gently stroke his cheek, mouth curling into a small, private smile. Her palm was rough, familiar, and grounded him in ways little else ever did. He missed that feeling, sometimes. Not that often, but sometimes.
Erik went on his way afterwards, and they never spoke of it again.
And so it is, two days after putting the last grotty motel in his rearview, that vaguely East suddenly becomes New York. The decision is an easy one. There are certainly worse places to cool his heels, for however long that might turn out to be.
Erik wonders how he could have thought he’d ever end up anywhere else.
Erik sleeps for a full twenty-four hours the day he arrives in the city.
He stops only once on his way there, runs by a convenience store in search of a few essentials: some food, toiletries, a case of beer. The rest can be dealt with later, when his eyes no longer feel dry and gritty, his back aching from the hours of driving already behind him. He thinks fondly of the bed waiting for him, a little smaller than he might prefer, a little musty perhaps from his time away, but clean. That he can absolutely count on.
Emma has never said a word about it, of course; it’s not her way. All the same, Erik knows she sends someone in every now and then to clear away the cobwebs, open the windows and let it breathe, keep it from falling into disrepair. No matter how long it’s been between stays, the apartment remains a welcome constant. He knows what to expect, looks forward to it, even. After months of motels that offer nothing but the smell of industrial grade bleach and cigarette burns on the bedspread, well — clean sheets suddenly seem like the height of luxury in comparison.
Erik doesn’t even bother to unpack, merely drops his bags just inside the door and retreats to the bedroom on auto-pilot, remaining conscious just long enough to shuck his sweaty, travel stained clothes before crawling under the sheets.
He sleeps like the dead, and is woken a day later by the sound of a blaring car horn, quickly followed by an argument so pointed and loud he can nearly hear it word for word even five floors up. Erik rolls onto his back rubs at his eyes, finds himself grinning as he kicks free of the stifling bedclothes, trying to cool off. It’s typical summer heat, still early days yet and not as bad as it will be soon, but no less uncomfortable — it makes people edgy, patience wearing thin when they’re stuck in traffic and already sweating through their suits.
Sounds of the city. An oddly calming phenomenon, for someone like him. Edie has never understood it, prefers the wide endless silences of the country road herself, all those places where you’ll find no one and nothing except for the dark things that come out at night. Erik doesn’t try to explain, unable to articulate the way he thrives on it, the confirmation that all these people are living and safe if for only this one moment in time. That’s why they do what they do, so that those people can continue fighting, fucking, laughing, crying, filling the world around them with their presence, their need to be recognized.
Well, that’s why Erik does it at least. In truth he can’t speak for the rest of his kind, not even his mother. They all have their own reasons, some more questionable than others. It isn’t his place to judge, though; the work they do more than makes up for their failings, whatever they might be.
A small part of him, the part that remains young and untouched by the occasional cynicism of his later years, likes to think of himself as better than those other men and women. The best of them, even. His cause is more righteous, is selfless and good while theirs will always be motivated by vengeance, by a love of violence or a desire to hurt. He can’t know that of course, not when he’s only met a handful of other hunters over the years, but even those few coloured his perception, and all the reason in the world won’t quiet that little voice that dogs him in his weaker moments.
Erik called himself a hero, once, and ever since has hung onto that declaration with the fervour of prophecy.
As soon as he thinks it, Erik feels a twinge of…something, just behind his right eye, a strange hook tugging under his ribs. He blinks up at the ceiling from where he’s still lying on his back, wrestling with the odd sensation of having forgotten something very important. Whatever it is stays firmly out of reach though, no matter how strenuously he tries to tease it out into the light. Erik scowls, his serene mood suddenly gone.
It’s almost mid-afternoon by the time he manages to get moving, ducking into the bathroom for a quick shower to clean himself up before dealing with the bags he left dumped by the front door. The weapons duffle gets shoved under the bed, where it will hopefully stay if all goes well. He makes an exception for his favoured pistol, kept with him at all times, and the long knife tucked in his boot, both of which he lays out on the sturdy little kitchen table for cleaning once the rest of his clothes and other personal items are put away.
Food is next, acquired at the small, family run grocery a couple of blocks away, after which he retreats to the apartment again, his stomach rumbling in protest at having been denied breakfast. Lunch too, for that matter. It’s not surprising that he slept as long as he did, bypassing both meals, but it’ll certainly fuck things up a bit until he gets used to living like a normal human being again. Rarely has Erik ever operated under the standard schedule of breakfast-lunch-dinner, instead grabbing food when and where he can, sleeping when he’s not neck-deep in research or actively on a case. Not a healthy way to live, but “health” as most people understand it is a foreign, unrealistic concept to him — if Erik can move, he’s golden. Anything beyond that is extra.
The afternoon bleeds away into the evening. Erik spends a solid two hours at the kitchen table, dismantling his gun into pieces before attending to each of them with a rag and oil, one after another. The knife he sharpens to a keen edge, whetstone moving in steady, sweeping motions while the television drones on in the background. The rote familiarity of the act allows his mind to wander, mulling over possibilities: what he’s going to do with himself now, how he’ll spend his time, where he’ll get his money. Ideally he’ll find a job, something with enough of a paycheque to keep him in food and booze for as long as he intends to stay. Hustling pool and running scams are risky at the best of times; he doesn’t intend to waste his evenings skulking from dive to dive across the city just to avoid getting recognized by some gullible mark looking to get his own back after a nasty loss. In this instance only is it easier to fly straight.
Tonight, though, he intends to nurse his beer for as long as he deems necessary to finish his work, and then sleep again, even though it seems like he’s only just gotten up. Maybe that’ll shake off the lingering, irritating combination of restlessness and fatigue that makes his limbs lead heavy.
It feels indulgent, so much sleep, like he’s wasting time. Without his mother setting the schedule he’s beholden to no one but himself, and even ten years later he still doesn’t quite trust himself to keep going if he doesn’t keep going. Stopping is a liability, languishing — even for a day — equally so. More than once in the past he’s wished that staying up long enough might eventually take him out the other side, beat his body’s own needs, but it’s yet to happen. Erik is, after all, only human.
Doesn’t stop him wishing it, though.
The sun’s been set for hours when he stumbles upon the bar.
Erik’s spent most the day tooling around the city aimlessly, scouring the neighbourhood around him to re-familiarize himself before branching outwards in ever widening loops, wandering in and out of shops and sweating through his clothes. Against his better judgement he’d foregone carrying his pistol, if only because it was more than a little difficult to conceal a firearm underneath a clinging, sodden t-shirt, and it would have been suicide to wear his customary leather jacket in heat like this. The small of his back felt naked without it, and only the known presence of his knife kept Erik from flying apart at the seams, unused as he is to being so exposed. He’d soothed his nerves by gravitating toward some familiar haunts, grabbing newspapers out of habit and escaping to a blissfully air-conditioned diner to spread them out on the table and look for patterns. It’s second nature by now, and even though nothing jumps out at him, going through the motions is still a relief.
The bar, though, is a pleasant surprise. He almost misses it completely, a dingy, out of the way little hole across the road from where he’s walking and set down below the level of the street. It’s pure luck that he happens to turn his head at the right moment, something else having caught his eye, and notices the tell tale neon in the window. On a split second decision he dodges across the road and approaches at an easy walk. Erik can’t see much through the foggy glass, but close on he can now hear the low din of a sizeable crowd inside. Promising, and ideal for his purposes.
When he pushes his way past the heavy, solid wood door and ducks inside it’s…not what he was expecting.
There is indeed a fairly large number of men — and a good handful of women — taking up space along the bar and elsewhere around the room, but the place is far less of a dive than he initially thought. Everything is brass and polished, gleaming wood, with leather for the booths and what appears to be a rather impressive stock of liquor, if the crowded collection of differently sized and shaped bottles lined up for the bartender’s easy access are any indication. Everything is that particular shade of worn: well maintained, sturdy, but with history soaked into the floorboards, in the scratches and nicks left behind. There are very few places in the world that Erik has ever felt comfortable, but places like this are where he’s always come closest. The atmosphere is good, the crowd subdued but not quiet. He’ll be left to his own devices if he wants that, but there’ll always be company should he want that instead.
Tonight he wants company. The neighbourhood is working class, maybe lower-middle if he’s going to be generous, and he can tell just by scanning the crowd that he’s likely to find someone willing to shoot the shit, someone who’d be open to his gentle nudging about looking for work. So he installs himself at the bar, claiming the only stool still miraculously available, and tries to catch the bartender’s eye.
It takes a little while, but he eventually falls into conversation with two men slightly older than himself, Alan and Victor, who react warmly to Erik’s somewhat awkward, halting overtures. This is the part he’s always been terrible at, having to charm and wheedle civilians into giving him what he needs. For all that he does what he does in the service of saving people, he doesn’t particularly like them. His mother used to tease, calling him serious, shy, a young misanthrope in training — it turned out to be more true than she could have guessed. Navigating his way through the realm of casual sex is one thing — in that, at least, some people appreciate his more natural, direct approach — but small talk is something else altogether. Still, as painful as it can be, Erik knows how to get the job done.
The three of them talk for a while, trading stories, griping about the heat. Erik mentions that he’s only in town for a few months, complains that he’s hitting nothing but dead ends looking for work. He’s done nothing of the sort, of course, but he apparently sells the lie enough to have Alan shooting him a sympathetic look.
“Sorry to hear that,” he says, taking a sip from his glass.
Erik shrugs. “I don’t blame them, honestly. Guys on short time stints, not the most reliable sort.”
“Hmm. True enough.”
There’s a short silence while they all take that in, and then Victor seems to draw himself up, mouth working like he’s coming to a decision. Erik waits.
“You should talk to Charlie,” he finally says, becoming more sure of himself as he goes. “Boy’s got his ear to the fucking ground, I tell you. I’m sure he could point you in the right direction.”
Erik feels his pulse start to rush, just a little, satisfied that he won’t have to draw this out more than necessary. “And Charlie is—?”
“He owns this place, tends bar most nights.” Erik immediately seeks out the man who’s been serving them all night, but Victor shakes his head. “Nah, that’s Danny. He picks up the slack when Charlie’s not around.”
“When should I come back then?”
“Couldn’t say, really, not for sure. Tomorrow’s a good bet, though. He likes to be here when there’s a real big crowd, keep an eye on things, and Fridays never disappoint.”
Alan chuckles, shaking his head. “The local girls love ‘im; they come in droves. Boy’s got ‘em eating outta the palm of his hand.”
Erik mimics the chuckle, offers his most sincere smile and a quick murmur of thanks, then steers the conversation in another direction. He stays until he finishes his beer, but his mind is elsewhere, checked out and ticking ahead, only half-engaged. Neither Alan nor Victor seem to notice his distraction, too busy with what sounds like an old, well-tread argument about…sports, perhaps? Erik’s not sure, and doesn’t particularly care. Their back and forth ribbing doesn’t leave much room for strangers who don’t know the history or context, makes it easy for Erik to put on a show of listening without having to say much at all. When the hour crosses over midnight he throws down some crumpled bills and makes his exit, tossing the two men a quick goodbye salute that they return with absent waves of their own. Erik escapes out into the muggy night air, grateful for the reprieve.
His walk home is filled with thoughts of the next night, already planning the angle of his approach. He has to laugh at himself a little when he realizes what he’s doing, strategizing like he’s on a case when that’s the exact thing he’s trying to escape — for the time being, anyway. Hard habits to break. Erik really shouldn’t be surprised, not when he’s spent his whole life doing one thing and one thing only. He knows how to fake it like a professional; Edie wouldn’t accept anything less, not when a careless word could start their tenuous existence to unravelling.
When he was younger they spent fair chunks of time in a handful of cities and towns — Edie’s attempt at providing him with as much of an education as they could string together — but as much as Erik enjoyed accumulating knowledge he still resented being in stasis. He was so sure that there were more important things they could be doing, and his mother didn’t seem to care. Edie ignored his moods, in her typical way, and he eventually learned the hows and whys of taking a moment to breathe, the things that could be gained from lingering.
But Erik isn’t good at it, and he probably never will be. Something tells him before the week is out he’ll have pinned down a case nearby, something small and easy to keep him sharp. That is, if he doesn’t pack up and leave altogether. Either outcome is equally probable.
The next night is just as his drinking companions predicted, packed and skewing heavily in favour of women over men. Erik feels his hackles go up as soon as he walks in; he’s never not been irritated by crowds of this size, and it’s fighting instinct to muzzle the parts of him that want to make himself big, broadcasting do not touch leave me alone from every angle of his face. That’s not what he’s here for right now. He needs to put on his best mask, that of the genial, reliable wanderer, someone eager to prove himself. Charm the charmer, if what Alan and Victor said the night before is true. It’s one of many necessary evils; he can be a prickly recluse on his own time.
As he eels his way through the crush of people, Erik seeks out whoever’s behind the bar, and feels a bitter surge of disappointment when he spots the man who’d served him yesterday, not anyone new. For a moment he stands awkwardly in place, trying to decide if it’s worth it to stay, or if he’d rather hole up at home and try again the next night.
His deliberating is cut short by the loud bang of a door slamming shut, and Erik turns his head, follows the sound to a darkened alcove next to the bar — supposedly the entrance to a storeroom of some sort — from which a short, sturdy young man emerges, bearing a bottle of what appears to be whiskey aloft over his head.
“What did I say, my dears?” he crows, vaulting nimbly over the bar-top to the other side before twisting the top and pouring two generous glasses that he then slides across to a pair of grinning women seated in front of him. “I knew I had a bottle left. Don’t ever doubt me. Now I know you claim to disdain a good whisky, but I promise you’ll enjoy this. Give it a try? For me?” He flashes them a sly, curling smile and nudges the crystal tumblers closer.
Both women take an obliging sip after consulting each other with matching smiles of their own. The man — and he must be the infamous Charlie, from the way he effortlessly twines both of them around his finger — leans forward, eager for the verdict. “Well, ladies? Don’t leave me swinging in the wind. I have a reputation to maintain, I’m sure you realize.”
The taller of the two makes an agreeable noise, sips again. From Erik’s angle he can see the way Charlie’s eyes flick to watch her throat bob as she swallows. “Mmm, it’s good.”
Charlie’s smile gets wider. He tilts his head in the other woman’s direction. “And how do you find it?”
“I…um, I don’t really like it?” She makes it a question, looking guilty, and tries to cover it up with a tittering laugh that grates against Erik like sandpaper. “Sorry?”
“Oh, you wound me!” Charlie puts on an exaggerated show of upset, clutching dramatically at his chest, but his eyes still sparkle and shine with good humour. Both women rush to console him, recanting furiously, half-laughing as they cry she didn’t mean it, we take it back, we take it back! All three of them proceed to dissolve into hysterics, and Erik watches, stunned, both eyebrows climbing rapidly toward his hairline. What on earth? This is the man he’s meant to look to for help? This child?
For the second time that evening, Erik very seriously considers making a run for it. The thought of having to sit through even the most cursory of conversations with Charlie after witnessing this production makes a headache start to throb insistently behind his right eye.
And then he reminds himself that he fights and kills monsters for a living, and there’s really no where else to go from there but forward.
Erik elbows his way up to the bar, slotting himself in at the far end, away from where Charlie is holding court. He expects to wait, and is surprised when Charlie immediately makes his apologies to his companions and beelines straight toward him, his smile more subdued but no less welcoming.
“Hello there, friend,” he says. “Can I get you anything?”
Up close Charlie is a study in contradictions. He’s not a big man, settled somewhere between slender and stocky, with square, capable hands and strong shoulders, like someone who should be much larger than himself. Despite this, the impression he gives is undeniably electric, sharp and present like no one else around him. He’s pretty, Erik is startled to realize, with an incongruously feminine mouth, arresting blue eyes and a thick sweep of brown hair that falls in waves across his brow and around his ears. Worst of all is his accent, plummy and out of place in a joint like this. It seems strange that he’s such a revered figure among this crowd, respected and looked to for information, and even stranger how one so seemingly young as him could own and operate a bar all on his own.
First impressions rarely run true, a voice that sounds like his mother whispers at the back of his mind, Don’t be stupid, Erik.
As someone who employs any number of masks and smokescreens to move about in the world, Erik can concede this is a valid point.
He offers Charlie his most guileless, closed-lipped grin, looks behind him to the bottle still sitting on the bar-top. “I wouldn’t mind some of that whisky.”
“A wise choice.” Charlie fetches the bottle, pours another glass. “Do tell me what you think.”
It’s just as fine as Charlie claimed it to be, pleasantly smooth, and Erik allows himself to savour it before swallowing. “Very good.”
Charlie looks playful and smug, giving a mocking bow. “I’m glad you think so —“ He’s about to say something else, but is interrupted by a group of men at the other end of the bar hailing him for service. He slips away, and Erik finds himself idly tracking the sway of his hips as he goes, a sweet compliment to the burn of alcohol. It’s somewhat embarrassing to realize, but not too much. If he’s going to prostrate himself at this man’s feet for aid, he might as well have something nice to look at while he’s doing it.
Once he’s dealt with his other customers, Charlie wanders back in Erik’s direction, starts cleaning glasses next to him.
“You’re new,” he says, casual and easy. “I can’t say I’ve seen you around before.”
“Ah, good. I was worried I’d lost my knack for faces.” He pauses, swipes his rag once more before stacking the glass in one of its fellows. “There’s not many people I ever forget.”
Erik snorts. “That’s not ominous at all,” he says dryly. Charlie is startled into a full blown laugh, and there’s something different about it, not the same as the way he’d done with those women before. Erik wonders which laugh is the real one. It’s rare for him to get so close so quickly, but there’s a first time for everything.
“My intentions are completely innocent, I swear,” Charlie insists once he’s recovered himself. “I make a point of knowing my customers.”
Erik senses his opening. “Ah, I see. Dedicated to your job. Your boss must be pleased.”
“I’m pleased when my employees follow my sterling example, yes,” he replies archly, gesturing to himself with an imperious wave of his hand. “I happen to be the proprietor of this fine establishment, I’ll have you know.”
“Humble, aren’t you?”
Charlie winks. “Never.”
The two of them fall into a companionable silence, Erik returning to his drink with a smile that’s only half-faked. Charlie gets called away a few more times, but always manages to circle back, filling Erik’s glass when he taps for another. The crowd has started to thin some, the younger patrons having moved on, leaving the regulars to fill the booths and the round, sturdy tables scattered around the room. When it looks like Erik might have Charlie to himself for a little while, he makes his move.
“So you must be the Charlie I’ve heard so much about.”
Charlie is bent over the counter below the bar, writing something down a leather bound notebook, and doesn’t look up at Erik’s comment, merely smiling slow and amused. His lips curl absurdly, looking blood red in the low light.
“Have people been telling stories,” he murmurs. “Only good ones, I hope.”
“Depends on your definition of good. I was in the other night. A few older gentlemen mentioned you, said you were the man I should talk to about trying to find work.”
At that Charlie does glance up, looking a little surprised. “Ah, well, yes. I suppose I am.”
“I don’t mean to impose — “
Charlie waves his hand dismissively. “No no no, it’s not an imposition. They weren’t wrong.” He swipes one hand through his hair, looking a little rueful. “I’m in a unique position, doing what I do. People tell me things, more than maybe they should sometimes. I can’t promise anything, but I can certainly point you in the right direction. What exactly are you looking for?”
Erik shrugs. “Something temporary.”
“Might I ask how temporary?”
“Three months, maybe.”
Charlie nods, chewing at his bottom lip as he thinks, hands braced on the jut of his hips. Erik watches him closely, amazed at how still he’s become in the last few minutes, as if he’s some wind-up toy that’s finally reached the end of its crank. His expression is contemplative, serious, nothing of the earlier joviality in it at all. This is the third side of Charlie he’s seen in the space of one evening, and Erik wants to tilt him into the light, seek out the other facets.
“I’ve got a regular, Patrick O’Meara,” he says finally, meeting Erik’s stare. “He owns a restaurant a few blocks over, is always looking for help, especially during the summer. It’s nothing glamorous, mind you, but work’s work.”
“Of course,” Erik says. “I’ve got no expectations.”
He drains his glass, and waves him off when Charlie tries to pour him another.
“What’s this Patrick O’Meara looking for in a worker?” he asks. Charlie bites his lip again, hums a little.
“I think he likes the ones who can do a little bit of everything, someone who doesn’t mind being a bit of a dogsbody. It’s easier that way when he’s got employees coming and going as often as he does.”
“Oh, yes. Exceptionally so, I suspect.” His teeth flash in another of his quick, infectious grins. “So, should I put in a good word?”
“I would appreciate that.”
“Of course, I’ll need your name first.” Charlie crosses his arms, pops a hip against the counter. “And your word that you’ll live up to whatever tale I spin about your exceptional work ethic. Not that O’Meara particularly cares; if you’ve got a pair of hands and you’re breathing that seems to be enough for him…” He trails off, shaking his head slowly, as if remembering some prior incident. “From what I understand he also tends to pay under the table, so you’ll also need to be okay with that.”
Erik nods along, sticks out his hand to shake. “That’s fine, and yes, I give my word.”
Something in Charlie’s eyes flashes. “You still haven’t told me your name,” he points out, clearly waiting for that final piece of information before he’ll accept Erik’s hand. Before he can even think to do otherwise, Erik offers it up like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“Erik Lehnsherr,” he says, blithe and unconcerned, and then abruptly shudders all over, as if his whole body were in revolt.
But his reaction pales in comparison to Charlie’s. He looks shocked, for the barest scant of a second, before all recognizable expression disappears completely. His face is a dead, lifeless porcelain mask, his eyes fevered, burning coals sunk deep into his skull, his mouth a disconcerting slash of violent colour. Erik shudders again, and suddenly he knows, he knows that there is something very, very wrong, he has to do someth—
Charlie makes a low, interested noise, leaning forward. “Lehnsherr. Well that’s not a name I’ve ever heard before.” He narrows his eyes, one side of his mouth quirked, as if he’s trying to figure Erik out. “German, is it? You know, I can detect a bit of an accent, now that I really think about it.”
Erik nods. “I was born there.”
He’s not sure why he’s saying so much, why he feels so comfortable in this man’s presence. Perhaps it’s the whisky. Erik knows he’s had more than he normally would, and his mind feels pleasantly fuzzy, at ease. The skin on the back of his hand tingles, like the aftermath of some phantom touch, and he drums his fingers a few times on the bar-top trying to shake off the sensation. Charlie follows the movement, then glances away, looking strangely upset.
A moment later the look is gone. Charlie takes Erik’s hand, giving it a firm grip, and Erik returns it.
“Well, it’s lovely to meet you, Erik Lehnsherr. Charles Xavier, at your service.”
Erik turns the name over slowly in his mind, imagining its shape in his mouth. Charles Xavier, of course. The man could hardly be less of a caricature if he tried. It fits, though, more than what is obviously a nickname given but not, perhaps, enthusiastically received.
“Is that what I should call you, then?” he asks.
Charles’ mouth thins a little, but he nods. “Yes, please do. As much as I hate the diminutive, it’s still a mark of familiarity. I only abide it with people I know, and I don’t know you yet, Erik Lehnsherr.”
Erik raises both hands, palms up in surrender. “Fair enough. I think it makes you sound younger than you are, anyway.”
“And just how old do you think I am, Erik?”
There’s something about the way he voices the question, like there’s an old joke buried somewhere within it that Erik just doesn’t get. It skitters over him in a slow-moving wave, the faint vibrations of a large iron bell run deep underground, subcutaneous and strange.
“You don’t look a day over twenty, if that,” he says, looking to be truthful instead of diplomatic. “But something tells me I’m not even close.”
“Yes,” Charles says. “You’re a little off the mark.”
Again, that feeling, with Charles’ soft, self-deprecating laugh ringing counterpoint. “I have a young face, perpetually so. My curse, I suppose.”
“There are worse things.” Erik scratches absently at an old scar running in a clean, straight line along his neck, not meaning to be so pointed but feeling drawn to do it anyway. Charles takes it in, lips quirking in acknowledgement.
“Is it my turn now?” Charles leans forward, bracing his forearms on the bar-top and slipping into Erik’s space with the air of someone looking to buy, needing a closer look at all his lines and world-weary roughness.
As a general rule, Erik tends not to get physically close to anyone if he can avoid it, unless he’s planning to fuck them, or kill them. The last time Erik was this close to someone — something, he was in the process of driving a knife through its throat, trying not to gag as it jetted great gouts of steaming ichor all down his front. The contrast between these two moments in time has him nearly flinching violently away, though he curbs the reaction just in time. Charles either doesn’t sense his discomfort, or simply doesn’t care, and so Erik endures the scrutiny.
“My guess is that you’re younger than you look. A lot of time spent in the sun, time spent doing rough work. You’ve got a lot of scars, my friend.” He sounds almost upset, for all that they’re utter strangers to one another, and his voice becomes quiet, curious. “Why are you in New York?”
Erik stares him down and says, equally quiet, “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
Charles’ ludicrous mouth purses, but he doesn’t seem offended. Disappointed, maybe, although what Charles had been expecting Erik to say he cannot guess.
“All right, Erik, keep your secrets.” He perks up as a customer hails him, and flashes Erik a final look, a strange mix of playful and serious. “But you must promise to visit from time to time. I’m a bartender; you practically owe me your life story. That’s what we’re here for.”
Erik shrugs noncommittally. “I’m not in the habit of making promises to strangers.”
“All the more reason for you to come back,” Charles throws over his shoulder as he saunters off, grabbing a clean glass on his way. “There’s no need for us to remain strangers.”
Erik doesn’t say anything to that, not because he doesn’t agree, but because he actually might. Not yet, but eventually. Maybe.
Though he dreaded it at first, talking with Charles for the evening has been oddly enjoyable, in a somewhat roundabout way. If he’s a little too effusive on occasion, he at least appears to have the wit and charm to back it up, which is more than he can say for the majority of people he encounters on a day-to-day basis. This is the longest Erik’s spoken to anyone in months, and having done so he feels both exhausted and worked-up, like some bare-knuckled fighter bouncing in place from foot to foot, gone ten rounds and ready for the next. It’s a good feeling, not the bone-weary kind, the kind he’s been living with for six months now and is here to escape.
But for tonight, he’s done. He can contemplate Charles’…offer later, when he’s not four drinks in and feeling it.
Erik leans over the bar-top and filches the pen Charles has left behind, then writes his name and phone number on a napkin, tucking it neatly under his tumbler. He doesn’t miss the implications of such a stereotypical overture, and if Charles wants to take it that way he’s welcome to his delusions, but Erik intends to make an exit. Hopefully he can trust Charles to pass the information on as he’d promised. If not, he can always come back and give him a piece of his mind. Charles would probably like that.
Erik slips out while Charles is still engaged, and makes his way home at a leisurely pace. Only later when he’s lying in bed, stripped down to boxers and sweaty skin and thinking over their conversation, is he suddenly struck by doubt. It feels like there’s something he’s missed, or forgotten, some tiny elision of time gone unaccounted for. He runs back every word and traded glance, trying to tease it out, but nothing surfaces. The longer he holds onto it, the more it starts to dissipate, until he’s left with nothing but some mild embarrassment at having reacted over nothing, and a very urgent need to sleep.
So he closes his eyes and lets himself drift off, and just before he goes under he suddenly recalls the sensation of fingers brushing quickly across his temple, a strong, external desire for Erik to be well, be safe. A frisson of sadness, and a reluctant goodbye.
His mother’s hand, he thinks, and later on he won’t remember how certain he was, for only a second afterward, that it wasn’t hers at all.
He gets a call from O’Meara the next morning, and by the end of the day he’s elbow deep in soap suds, washing dishes while the sous chef shouts out orders and orchestrates the flow of everyone around him, the energy high, keeping them moving like a well-oiled machine. Erik says nothing, watching, seeing the way they talk to each other. He marks the tone of the banter, tries to imagine himself as a part of it, and…can’t. They’re a freewheeling bunch, competent and efficient but also familiar, affectionate in ways Erik doesn’t know how to fake. It would take more time and energy than he cares to spend on strangers that he won’t see ever again once he’s back on the road.
O’Meara seems to sense his discomfort, though. Later on, once the doors have been shut and locked, he tries to draw Erik into a conversation, take his measure. Erik’s wiping down tables, O’Meara’s counting receipts at the bar, and he pauses for a moment to give Erik the eye. “Pardon me for saying, but if I had to guess…this kind of work isn’t your usual, is it?”
Erik was expecting the question, and doesn’t react except to shake his head in affirmation.
“What’s got you wanting to wash dishes for a living?”
“Sometimes want has very little to do with it,” Erik replies bluntly, but softens it by looking up and giving O’Meara a small, wry grin. “I take what I can get. I don’t have many…documentable skills.”
On reflection, that probably sounds worse. O’Meara appears to agree, one eyebrow rising slow.
“Yeah. I kinda got that feeling.” He goes back to counting bills, licking his thumb every now and again. “Well, we’ll certainly keep you busy at least. Once you’ve been here a bit I’ll start you working with Matty on food prep, shake up the routine a bit.”
Erik doesn’t say anything, not sure whether to take that as a suggestion or an order. After an awkward stretch of silence, O’Meara speaks up again.
“Not a very talkative guy, are you?”
Erik pauses. “Is that going to be a problem?”
O’Meara lets out a short bark of laughter. “Not at all,” he says. “Long as you do your work, and do it well, you’re free to not say another goddamn word unless you have to.”
He starts gathering up the receipts, putting away his ledger, and sweeps by Erik as he makes his way back to the kitchen.
“A little bit of chatter does make the time go faster, though,” he says, and then disappears through the swinging doors.
Erik takes the suggestion in the spirit it’s meant, ignoring the usual bleat of cynicism that so often colours his thoughts, but by the time he’s left for the night it’s soundly forgotten. The rest of the week is a repeat of that first day, Erik occupying his little bubble of silence while the others orbit around him, not blinking an eye at his closed-lipped demeanour and one word answers to any question they ask him. O’Meara doesn’t even look at him when he makes his brief appearances in the kitchen, for which Erik is grateful. He suspects theirs was the first and last conversation Erik would be awkwardly subjected to, and O’Meara seems eager to put it behind them both.
It’s rare for Erik’s oddities to be so easily accepted, so completely un-remarked upon, and he has to wonder what Charles told him, what he could have picked up from their solitary conversation. To anyone else Erik would’ve seemed difficult, laconic, not the kind of man anyone would like as their employee if they had the choice. The fact that he’s being left to his own devices, taken at face value and not pushed beyond his boundaries, is strange. It hasn’t generally been Erik’s experience, that kind of accommodation.
Charles’ word means something, then. Whatever story he spun for O’Meara did the trick.
And yet, even as Erik recognizes his luck, to have found someone like Charles so quickly, his instincts blare a warning. At no point in his life thus far has Erik and luck ever been friends. These kinds of things don’t just happen. Every strand of self-preservation he possesses is clamouring for attention, trying to make him see something that just isn’t there.
There are things he can do, of course, resources he can plumb. It’s one of his many skills, after all: finding out people’s dirty little secrets.
He gives into the impulse by the time Friday rolls around again, a day off that sees him holing up in the apartment, looking to put his nagging suspicions to rest. After lunch he digs out his bulky, battered laptop and fires it up, typing out a quick Google search for one ‘Charles Xavier’. The results are disappointing, only giving him small tidbits of information that hardly add up to any kind of representative whole. Graduate of Columbia University, class of 2003; interviewed a few months previous for an article in the New York Post about local businesses; noted in a small byline for bestowing a generous donation upon The Humane Society of New York, and for adopting a rescue kitten the very same day. Erik only just refrains from rolling his eyes at that, trying to imagine the man he met, changeable and attractively elusive, caring for anything or anyone other than himself — but then again, his very changeability makes it hard to pin down any one impression as true. Charles could very well be an awkward amalgamation of all these random facts and impressions, or he could be someone else entirely. It’s impossible to tell, not after only one encounter.
So, the facts, the documented facts: Charles went to Columbia, came to own a bar, adopted a cat, and ostensibly still has it. Conclusion: nothing.
Erik hunches over the table and rubs at his eyes, laughing under his breath. Perhaps he’s a witch, he thinks, tongue firmly in cheek.
Or perhaps he just likes cats?
This distinct lack of information might have signalled something, once upon a time, but too many people these days have finally learned how to keep their internet presence to a minimum. Being a ghost doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. Unless he wants to really start digging, he’s not going to find anything else, and Erik isn’t in the mood to go excavating.
He tries to imagine what his mother might think of his sudden attack of paranoia, if she might deem him to be jumping at shadows.
Erik’s beginning to think it’s self-sabotage, that he’s looking for reasons to cut his sabbatical short. In retrospect, it seems typical for him to distrust the kind of open, thoughtless generosity that Charles appeared to ooze from his very pores — there’ve been so few good things in Erik’s life, so why would he deserve any better, now that he’s put down his gun (figuratively, at least) and turned his back on the mission?
Maybe it’s not rational to see the world in such a way, but the world stopped being rational a long time ago. Erik hasn’t put much stock in it since.
He decides, later that evening, to let his fears go, for once. He lies sprawled across the sagging checkered sofa, staring down the small army of empty beer bottles that have amassed on the table, on the floor in front of him, still lucid enough yet to realize he may come to regret that decision.
But not just yet. For now he’ll keep his eyes open, stay sharp, stay cautious.
Maybe he’ll call his mother.
Maybe he won’t.
As if invoked, the ring of his cell-phone blasts out from the cushion next him, and Erik’s head swivels towards it with a painfully violent twist in reaction. The chances of it actually being Edie on the other end are slim, but he stares it down all the same, wracked with indecision. On the fourth iteration of the chime Erik reluctantly palms the device, thumbing it open.
He’s answered by silence, then, “I’d forgotten how charming your phone etiquette is, Erik. Although perhaps I should be grateful that you haven’t stooped to grunting like an animal.”
Erik tilts his head back, closes his eyes. “Emma.”
“Hello to you too, Erik.” She sounds bored, or like her attention is elsewhere, her voice flat and dry as dust. “Good to hear you’re not dead yet.”
Erik doesn’t reply. It’s best to let Emma do the talking; the quicker she can tell him what she needs to, the quicker they can both get on with their lives.
“So I understand you’re back in the city,” she says. “Taken up residence in the usual place, yes?”
Emma already knows exactly where he is, of course. She just likes to hear him say it. Neither of them owe each other a thing anymore, but that doesn’t stop her from wringing as much residual satisfaction as she can from her final act of charity. Erik humours her, because even now the guilt still weighs heavy on him, and he doesn’t want to forget the things he’s done, the reasons he is where he is.
“As always, my answer remains the same.”
“Hm. Well, you know me, Erik. I like to keep track of my investments.”
“So I’m an investment now?”
Erik can just about hear the curve of her smile over the phone, the one that doesn’t reach her eyes. The only one he ever sees. “An investment in my mortal soul, of course. We’ve all got one, don’t we? Not souls, although I’d like to think we’ve all got those too, no, I mean that thing we point to, the thing that makes us good, if only a little bit.” She sighs, a delicate burst of sound. “You’ve got one. I bet I could guess it; I wouldn’t even have to ask. You’re amazingly transparent.”
“But you’re not going to ask, because that would be a waste of time for both of us. Why are you calling?”
“I actually think you might have told me yourself at some point. Something like, I do what I do, but I don’t like it, I don’t take pride in it, it doesn’t make me happy, that’s what keeps me good —“
“—God, I’ve always thought it would be nice to have that kind of purpose. You’re a miserable fuck but at least you’re doing something—“
“What?” she snarls, her breath coming heavy across the line. Erik takes his own breath, deep and measured, lets it out slowly. He doesn’t ask if she’s okay, because she’s clearly not. The Emma he knows is competent, reserved, biting when she needs to be, and at all times cold — a tragic likeness to her name, and Erik’s never been able to tell how much of it is a front, how much is real — but this is something else entirely.
“Have you been drinking?” is the question he settles on, and Emma laughs, brittle and mocking.
“That’s rich, coming from you, Erik.”
Erik’s lip curls. “Fuck off.”
There’s a long silence as they both retreat to their respective corners, cooling off so they can come at each other again for round two. Erik’s fairly sure this is the longest conversation they’ve had in years, and he is by no means in the right state of mind to be dealing with that. He’ll take any reprieve he can get.
“No, I haven’t been drinking,” Emma eventually says. “It’s been a bad week.”
Erik considers asking her what that means, then decides he doesn’t really want to know. What he really wants is for the last five minutes to never have happened. This is all such foreign territory. He and Emma keep up the pretence of caring about each other, because Emma used to be a socialite and knows how to fake it with the best of them, and because Erik feels compelled to follow her lead, but there’s nothing more to their mutual feeling other than a vague sense of guilt and obligation. At least not yet.
“Shall we start over?” Erik asks carefully. Emma makes a small noise of agreement.
“Yes, let’s,” she says, clearing her throat a little. “So, why are you in New York?”
“I’m taking a break.”
“A break.” She sounds skeptical, confused, and Erik sighs. He should have known he’d get this kind of response.
“Yes. A few months, maybe. I’m not sure yet.”
“Oh, Erik.” She laughs gently. “What makes you think you’ll last a week, let alone a month, two months?”
Erik feels his jaw clench reflexively, forces it to relax. “I’ve already been here a week—“
“—and if I had to guess, I’d say you’re half a day away from coming out of your skin. I don’t know you that well, but even I can tell you’re not a man made to sit still.”
The worst part is she’s right, in a way. All the proof he needs is that prickle he can’t seem to shake, the feeling clinging to his bones, settled down behind his eye; the suspicion that there’s more to Charles than he can see, his mind creating reasons to keep moving, fabricating proof of how much there’s yet to do. But he’s not about to tell Emma that, especially not when she’s in this strange, volatile mood.
“Maybe I’m not that man,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not sick and tired of sleeping in my car. It’s been a while since I had a home base.”
“Hm. Sentimental, Lehnsherr. I wouldn’t expect that from you.”
“Practical,” he counters. “There’s plenty to keep me occupied here if I really need the distraction. You know that.”
Emma hums. “Does that mean I can call on you if I want someone to partner on a case?”
Erik’s whole body goes tight in immediate refusal, virulently opposed to the idea of partnering with anyone, as always. Edie was different, but then again, just about every exception in Erik’s rule book has her name all over it. She’s his mother, not his partner. There’s a difference, and he knows that from experience.
And yet, if anything, Emma is just as much an exception. He chews his lip, considering.
“I’m not promising anything,” he says eventually, trying to ignore the twisting in his gut, “but I’ll consider it, if you ask me.”
“Good. Expect a call then.”
Erik can’t quite contain his sigh, finds himself rubbing furiously at the inner corner of his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “If you call tomorrow, I’m not answering.”
“Don’t worry, darling,” Emma murmurs. “I’ll give you some time. Get drunk, get laid, get some sleep. All the scary monsters will still be here once you get your head on straight.”
Erik snorts. “Maybe I should give you the same advice.”
“We’re not talking about me, are we?”
There’s a warning there. Erik hears it clearly enough to drop the banter. Best to wrap things up.
“Goodnight, Emma,” he says, and Emma echoes it back at him before hanging up. Erik flips his phone closed, stares at it in his hand for a moment and then tosses it on the table. A couple of the empty bottles go flying, but nothing breaks, thankfully. Getting glass out of the rug would have been a pain.
Erik listens to the street sounds floating in through his open window, the rush of traffic, voices rising and falling. Sitting alone in his apartment suddenly feels intolerable, even as his eyes start to droop with fatigue, and he ends up crawling out the window onto the fire escape. Leaning back against the brick, feeling the lingering heat soak into his skin, he lights a cigarette and takes a deep drag, exhaling to watch the smoke float away in lazy curlicues.
He sits there until his ass goes numb, his brain running in tired circles but always seeming to stall on all the things he’d like most to ignore.
Emma, the albatross hanging about his neck.
Edie, the shade that colours his every thought, every movement.
Charles, the new, unknown element. The compelling stranger. He remembers what Charles said, his parting shot that sounded far more like an opening salvo, an offer, and realizes all at once that there was never any question.
Of course Erik was going to go back. It’s never been in his nature to let a challenge lie unanswered.
Erik returns to the bar on Monday, not thinking about what he might be after, only knowing where it is he needs to be.
Charles isn’t there.
He tries not to feel disappointed, embarrassed by the possibility of someone reading it on his face and knowing. Instead of turning right back around and going home he stakes out a spot at the bar and drinks a pint in determined, defiant silence. No one bothers him, the only saving grace to the wasted evening.
He goes back two nights later, and yet again Charles is absent.
Erik doesn’t even go in, merely crouches down outside on the sidewalk to peer through the foggy glass, searching for that distinctive shape, the sway of his walk. He’s not behind the bar, isn’t out on the floor serving drinks. Erik curses under his breath and moves along, searching out somewhere else to kill time until he feels a little less pathetic. Three beers down at the sports bar a few blocks over, he allows himself one petulant, uncharitable thought — it would be a whole lot easier to get to know him if he stopped fucking hiding — then pays his tab and takes his leave.
On Friday, Charles reappears.
Erik almost doesn’t go that evening, unwilling to be burned again and exhausted after a long, tedious shift at work. He nonetheless drags himself over, and when he catches sight of Charles’ face, turned unerringly in his direction as he slips in through the door, the relief he suddenly feels is staggering. Completely disproportionate to the situation, not to mention the context. But Charles beckons him over, and so he goes, sliding onto the stool next to the woman he’d been talking to before Erik stole his attention.
She’s pretty, in that delicate, fine-boned way some women are, as if a good strong wind might blow her over. Her smile, when she offers it, is hesitant and small. Just like Charles she seems wildly out of place. Erik doesn’t smile back, but tilts his head in what he hopes is an adequate greeting.
“Erik, how lovely to see you again,” Charles gushes, leaning over the bar. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his white buttoned shirt, and the muscles in his shockingly pale forearms bunch and twist with the movement. “I was worried I’d scared you off.”
“No, not at all,” Erik replies, carefully saying nothing about his repeat appearances at the bar over the past week. “That would take some doing.”
Charles grins. “I don’t doubt it.”
The women twists in her seat, turning to face Erik better, and he tries to refrain from leaning away. She looks him over, speculative, her narrow eyes like chips of ice, a cold, melancholy blue. Whatever conclusion she comes to has her standing up, grabbing her drink as if she were preparing to leave. “It was nice talking with you, Charles,” she says, and then retreats across the room to a table where two other women are already sitting. They lean in close as she joins them, heads bent together, speaking quickly and quietly enough not to be heard. An interrogation of sorts. Erik would know, having conducted enough of them himself over the years.
“You appear to have put a damper on that poor girl’s evening, Charles,” Erik chides softly, playing at disapproval. Charles ducks his head and laughs.
“It wouldn’t do to play favourites.”
“Hm. What’s this, then?’
“This is me calling in a debt,” Charles says, as if it should be obvious. “You promised your life story. Or if not that, a few truths at least.”
“I don’t remember promising that.” Erik laces his fingers together on the bar-top, shrugging. “And who says I’m here for you?”
The look on Charles’ face goes a shade darker at that, more wry, more wicked. He tilts his head to the side like a curious dog, fine red lips pressed together and curled at one corner. “Are you not, then?”
Erik shakes his head. “I’m here for a drink,” he says. “Some good conversation would be a nice bonus, though, if your harem of hangers-on don’t mind sharing you for a bit.”
“My harem?” Charles almost cackles, lifting one eyebrow with remarkable precision. “That’s very bold of you.”
“Am I wrong, though? I was told you’re a regular celebrity, young ladies flocking here from miles around just to be graced with a moment of your attention.”
Charles scoffs. “Stories again, Erik. Stories. You don’t strike me as the kind of man to believe idle gossip, and yet here you are, letting two old men turn your ear.” He raises his voice suddenly, shouting across the room. “Victor! Have you and Alan been telling tales, again?”
Erik turns in his seat, looking to where a small huddle of older men are playing cards. One man’s head jerks up, and Erik recognizes him as the Victor he met that first night, now without his friend. He frowns for a second, confused by Charles’ accusation, before spotting Erik and putting the pieces together. “Not me, Charlie,” he protests, hand over his heart. “Alan’s your man, but he was only giving the poor boy a warning.” He gestures to Erik, almost sloshing his pint in the process. “What’s a man supposed to do when you’ve got a monopoly on all the pretty young things that come and go? He deserves to be prepared!”
The rest of the bar patrons laugh with him, a knowing ring to it, all of them apparently used to this kind of affectionate heckling. Erik prickles at being called a boy, but he’s prepared to let it go when to Victor, who’s easily in his sixties, Erik is very much a boy in comparison. It’s unpleasant to be the focus of attention, though, and he swivels around again, hoping to pull Charles into a more intimate back-and-forth. Charles catches his eye, appears to read his discomfort.
“Well I suppose that’s only fair!” he concedes, raising both hands in defeat. Victor salutes him with his pint and then returns to his game, the rest of the crowd following suit, the sound of their voices rising to the previous lively murmur.
Charles gets called away for a moment, and when he saunters back in Erik’s direction he brings a pint with him, setting it down between them. “On the house,” he says.
Erik shakes his head, pushing the tall, sweating glass closer to Charles with one finger. “I’m the one who should be buying you a drink. O’Meara just about hired me on the spot thanks to your good word.”
“Hm, did he really? I’m glad to hear that.” He settles himself over the bar again, elbows propped up, and Erik watches the way the satin backing of his vest strains a little across his broad, sloping shoulders, the way his shirt does the same around both arms. Despite how obvious it seems, nothing about the way he moves feels planned or deliberate. It looks thoughtless, natural, an unconscious display of strength. Erik takes it in, wondering at the purpose behind it, before meeting Charles’ eyes again.
“Yeah, he did, and it makes me wonder what it is you said that could have made him want to take me on so quickly.”
Charles’ mouth works a little, like he’s testing out a lie to see how it tastes, before saying, “Only the truth.”
Erik balks, laughing. “And what truth would that be? You said yourself you don’t know a thing about who I am.”
“Specifics, no,” Charles counters. “But I’m quite good at reading people. You seemed like the decent sort, or at least you cared enough about making a good impression to pretend to be the decent sort.”
“If you can’t tell, then I don’t think you’re as good as you say,” Erik points out. “And if I were the second, that would make me a liar, wouldn’t it?”
Charles leans closer, and all of his features seem sharper suddenly, more exaggerated in the low light. His eyes are the most striking, glowing with a conspiratorial fire.
“Let me tell you a secret, Erik Lehnsherr,” he says. “There’s more than one kind of liar, and you’re not the kind I need to worry about. So calm down, let me do you a favour, and stop looking for hidden motivations in everything I do.”
“No, I don’t think I will just yet,” Erik says, but it’s softened by the note of wry humour in his voice. “My mother always told me strangers weren’t to be trusted, and my caution has yet to fail me.”
Charles mouth twitches into a conciliatory grin before he lifts his pint for a long drink. His throat bobs slowly as he swallows. “Hm. If you say so.”
They lapse into a comfortable silence then, gazes locked over the bar-top in casual mutual contemplation. Erik searches for that uneasy feeling, the one he’d been so sure of, had agonized over incessantly, but this time there’s nothing. His mind appears to have settled, for the time being at least, and Erik’s content to ride this newfound wave of calm unconcern as far as it’ll take him. He knows it won’t last, only until the moment something snags on the delicate trip wire he’s strung about himself, leaving him anxious and wary and fighting to claw his way back to centre. And for all that Charles is a man of smoke, an amorphous charmer, he nonetheless strikes Erik as being made of nothing but angles, hooks, little imperfections that and niggle and catch.
It makes no sense, not really, but chewing on that contradiction like a hunk of gristle won’t make things any clearer. For now he can let it go.
Charles is the first to look away, casting a quick eye over the room to check for anyone who might need his attention before zeroing in on Erik once again. He pushes the half-empty pint in Erik’s direction, but Erik tries to wave him off.
“You said you came here for a drink,” Charles reminds him, as if he’s somehow forgotten. “So drink.”
Erik shakes his head and digs out his wallet, throwing down a handful of wrinkled bills. “For yours, and mine. I’d prefer one of my own.”
Charles takes his request in stride. He deftly retrieves another tall pint from under the bar and fills it, offering it to Erik with a flourish and an arched brow. “You’re awfully particular about your favours, my friend. You don’t bat an eye at being handed a job, but a drink is somehow beyond the pale?”
“This isn’t a drink without strings attached,” Erik says. “Don’t think I can’t tell.”
Charles smiles, dipping his head a little in a subtle acknowledgement. “Ah, yes. I still haven’t heard your story, have I?”
“No, not yet.”
There’s a bit of a pause, as if Erik’s about to elaborate, or so Charles appears to think. His expression goes from quietly hopeful to chagrined in a flash, and Erik can’t help but smirk back at him. He likes this game, holding information over Charles’ head while he spins his wheels, trying to wheedle it out of Erik with pretty words and pretty smiles.
“I did tell you my name, Charles. That’s enough of a start for most people these days.”
“Of course it is, but what do I care about facts — if there’s even anything out there on you to be found that is, which I highly doubt. Facts don’t tell me anything. Facts are lifeless.” Charles shrugs, the rise and fall of his shoulders almost hypnotically liquid. “And you’re really not helping your case by being so mysterious. The more you resist, the more I want to know.”
“‘Facts are lifeless’,” Erik parrots back at him, trying not to roll his eyes. “Very cerebral.”
“But it’s true! Even the most excruciatingly detailed biography can’t entirely capture its subject. There’s still so much missing, things you can only get from the source, from actual people.”
There’s something about the way he says it, almost painfully earnest and full of so much conviction, that makes Erik want to concede defeat. Charles is nearly glowing, little spots of flush high on his cheeks and eyes holding steady to his own, as if he could make Erik understand if he only willed it enough, and he finds himself taking a sip of his beer in hopes of breaking the connection, having an excuse to look away.
“Why do you care so much?” he asks once he’s swallowed his mouthful, a little more bite to his words than he intended, but Charles isn’t fazed.
“Because people are interesting,” he replies softly, simply. “There’s so much of history that repeats itself, but no two individuals are ever the same. Similar, yes, but not the same.”
“And that interests you?”
“Yes. Is it really so hard to understand?”
He doesn’t sound offended, just curious. Erik’s not sure what to tell him, how to explain that he’s not someone most people care to know, that he’s not used to this kind of scrutiny. There’s not much he can even say, not without lying through his teeth, and for some reason the thought of lying to Charles more than he has to makes his skin prickle with unease. He’s silent for too long though, and so Charles takes the opportunity to keep going, leaning forward so he can drop his voice to a gentle murmur.
“I don’t know why you feel so threatened,” he says, a small furrow appearing between his brows. “This is generally what people do, you know, when they want to become friends. Be a good sport and play along.”
Erik feels himself flush with embarrassment, heat flaring up the back of his neck, and nearly balks at it. A cruel snap of a reply sits ready on the edge of his tongue, his usual response to being made so unexpectedly vulnerable, and he only just swallows it back, forcing himself to calm down. He hates how one small, thoughtless quip could have the amusing cadence of their conversation turning sour so quickly. But then again, Charles doesn’t strike him as the thoughtless sort. He knows exactly what he’s saying.
“This may come as a surprise to you, Charles,” he mutters, “but I’m not actually a complete social incompetent. I just don’t feel any particular need to pry the life story out of every stranger who wanders into my field of vision.”
“That’s a hilarious exaggeration, Erik, thank you.” Charles sighs, runs a hand through his thick sweep of hair. “And I apologize if I—well, I didn’t mean to imply—“
He looks flustered, awkward, and Erik’s upset starts to bleed away a little, glad to be back on more even ground. “Use your words, Charles.”
“Oh, you can fuck right off,” Charles snaps, but it lacks heat. He fails to say anything more, and they sink into an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by the distracted tap of Charles’ finger on the bar-top.
“Fine, I understand, it’s none of my business,” he says, offering Erik a blatantly insincere smile. “What shall we talk about then, the weather?”
He’s clearly looking for some kind of reaction, but Erik has no intention of giving it to him. They stare at each other for one long, drawn out moment, until Charles blinks and looks away, throat bobbing as he swallows. This is the second time he’s backed down, but even as he does it Erik still can’t shake the feeling that Charles is anything but cowed.
“You’re forgetting that I don’t know a thing about you either,” Erik finally says. “Why should you hold all the cards?”
Charles laughs. “Such high stakes, Erik. And to think, all I wanted was some good conversation—,”
“No, I think you want a lot more than that.”
Erik’s not even sure himself what he means exactly, but it seems right to say it. His instincts, again, clamouring for attention. A shot in the dark.
Charles goes very still, then turns his head back to face Erik. There’s an oddly blank look in his eyes, as if he’s thinking, retreated inward somewhere deep, far beyond where Erik can see. A moment later the look is gone, replaced by a wry, lopsided grin. “A nice guess, but no. It’s not what you think.”
“Then what is it?”
“I’d like to get to know you, for however long you decide to stay.” Charles pauses, folds his arms across his chest. “I don’t know why you’re so surprised by that. A rugged stranger, appearing suddenly, already knowing my name — of course I’d be intrigued. It’s like I said: I find people fascinating, and right now that happens to be you, specifically.”
Erik takes that in, tries to decide if he buys what Charles is selling. In Erik’s experience, this kind of extensive verbal sparring, this bizarre, pointed interest has always been the prelude to a good hard fuck, not an overture to friendship. It can’t be something as benign as that, not when Charles still won’t stop looking at Erik as if he’d like to take him carefully apart, read his history in blood and bone and sinew.
Then again, what does Erik know. He hasn’t had friends since he was eight years old. Maybe Charles is just a little more intense than most, a little eccentric, relying heavily on his easy charm and attractive smile to feed whatever strange, voyeuristic inclinations he might have. Maybe he’s a fucking serial killer. Erik’s so turned around and off his stride he couldn’t make a good guess if he had all the time in the world.
If Erik were smart, he’d leave well enough alone. He’d walk away, remove himself from Charles’ scrutiny and go back to…whatever it is he plans on doing, for however long he ends up staying. But he…can’t. For reasons that completely elude him Erik feels compelled, like there’s something left unfinished between them, something long in the past, for all that they’ve only just met. There’s something he needs to know, something he needs to do.
What was it Emma said? Get drunk, get laid, get some sleep. Well, he’s already done enough of one and three, perhaps it was time for two. Or some close approximation of that. A diversion, a shiny knot of silver for him to tease and untangle.
Now who’s the serial killer?
Emma’s voice, again.
Humour the poor civilian, Erik. Pretend you’re a real boy. Maybe you’ll end up fucking him after all. A nice memory to keep you warm on all those cold nights.
He can practically hear the cold derision, the goad lurking underneath. Erik doesn’t know what it says about him, exactly, that Emma Frost has somehow become the devil on his shoulder, a guiding force whose opinion me might actually listen to. Erik should perhaps be more worried about that than he is.
Charles is giving him a look now like he’s wondering if Erik has checked out of the conversation completely, and so Erik decides all at once to make the leap, see where this takes him.
“How about we do this my way?”
Charles’ lips twitch, like he’s trying not to smile. “And what way is that?”
“The way where I tell you something true, and you do the same. One bit at a time.”
“This sounds needlessly complicated for what essentially amounts to conversation,” Charles points out, and Erik shrugs.
“I don’t think either of us are built for that,” he says, matter-of-fact. “You’re just as guarded as I am.”
Charles doesn’t say anything in return, his expression carefully blank again. Erik takes this non-answer as tacit permission to continue.
“I need some incentive to keep coming back.”
“And what, my charming personality isn’t enough?”
“I could get that anywhere, if I looked hard enough, and in people much more willing to let me fuck them.”
Charles eyes widen, and those lovely spots of pink appear again on his cheeks. He laughs, sounding a little choked. “Don’t sugarcoat it, Erik.”
Erik merely smiles, small and closed-mouthed and unconcerned.
“Maybe I’m just as interested in your story as you are in mine. A little quid pro quo, Charles. Can you handle that?”
Another short silence blooms between them, Charles searching his face with careful thoroughness while Erik stares right back. Somewhere across the room there’s an abrupt surge of laugher, several voices raised at once, and yet it seems very far away, like the muffled remnants of a dream. Charles’ eyes are almost glowing in the low light, his skin smooth and milk pale, and Erik thinks idly that it’s a shame he’s not interested. Erik doesn’t usually go for men, but he would gladly take Charles to bed and have a damn good time of it, maybe find out if he’s that pale all over, just how far that blush extends.
But Charles has made it clear he’s after something else, however bizarre.
“You are a very strange man, Erik,” Charles says, pointing an accusing finger. “I’m going to enjoy figuring you out.”
“The feeling is entirely mutual.” Erik offers a hand. “Shall we shake on it?”
Charles hesitates, then takes it in a firm grip. Palm to palm his skin is cool and dry, and the touch sends a gentle frisson of…something up his arm, something unnamed and familiar. Erik shrugs it off, squeezes Charles’ hand once and then releases. He raises his pint and drains it, dragging a thumb across his lips to clear away the foam before standing, pushing away from the bar. The look on Charles face as he does so is almost dismayed.
“You’re not leaving, are you?”
Erik shrugs. “Long day.”
“Ah, of course.” Charles clears his glass, wipes down the ring of condensation left behind. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“You might,” Erik says, even though they both can tell he’s bluffing. Of course he’ll be back. It would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise, as much as it pains Erik to acknowledge that truth. Charles nods anyway, as if resigned to the uncertainty of Erik’s comings and goings, but his mouth is quirked again, quietly knowing.
“Good-night, Erik,” he says, and Erik echoes the sentiment before turning on his heel and making for the door.
He feels Charles’ eyes on his back the whole way, a pleasantly heavy weight that follows him through the thinning crowd, and even once it disappears he carries the memory with him, all the way home.
“Have you thought up your first question? Choose carefully, make it good.”
They’re at a table in the corner, set back from the rest of the crowd. Between them two cut crystal tumblers are sweating condensation onto the scratched wood surface, a similarly incongruous decanter set off to the side.
When Erik arrived ten minutes ago Charles surprised him by coming out from behind the bar and leading him over to the shadowed, private spot, gesturing to another young man as he went who took Charles’ place with a nod and a smile. Erik recognized him from his first night in the bar, although the name escaped him. He brought the tumblers and decanter with him, and Erik raised an eyebrow in question, not expecting that kind of elegance.
“From my private store,” Charles had explained, pouring them both a small quantity of scotch with a deft hand. It wasn’t what Erik would have asked for, but he’d taken a sip dutifully and had to concede that Charles’ taste was, again, pretty squarely on the mark. He couldn’t help thinking, though, as they settled into idle small talk, that it was hard to believe this wasn’t a seduction, with an opening like that.
Charles places his elbow on the table, props his chin up with one hand. “Would it be awful of me to ask a question that you’ve already declined to answer?”
“Depends on the question. Depends on what kind of question you’re willing to answer in return.”
“Hm, I suppose I might as well.” Charles purses his lips briefly, narrows his eyes. “So tell me, Erik, why are you in New York?”
Erik had made a decision early that morning that he was going to be as truthful as he could with Charles, because it was easier that way. All the intricate lies he saved for the hunt, for victims and civilians and people he needed to manipulate quickly. Maintaining a lie for more than a week at most under stressful conditions was tricky work, and Erik wasn’t interested in jumping through hoops, not when he didn’t have to.
That didn’t mean, of course, that a little editing wouldn’t be required.
“I’m taking a break,” he replies. “Been on the road for months, and I’m tired of sleeping in my car between shitty motels.”
Charles smirks. “Well, that sounds exciting.”
“More than you might think, actually.”
The follow-up questions Charles now wants to ask hang so obviously in the air between them that Erik almost answers them anyway. But that would be making it too easy.
“And what is it you’re taking a break from?”
“Care to expand on that at all?”
Erik picks up his glass and takes a long, measured sip, savouring. “No.”
Charles’ brow furrows. He shakes his head back and forth slowly, laughing under his breath. “My, what a marvellous start. Are you sure this isn’t just an elaborate game of twenty questions?”
“Specificity, Charles, it’ll get you everywhere.”
Charles leans back in his seat, crossing his arms. He’s gone still again in that odd way of his, and Erik takes the opportunity to appreciate the pull of worn black cotton across his chest, around his biceps. There are enough buttons undone to reveal the white v-neck shirt underneath, the fine spray of freckles across his collarbones, the shadowed hollow of his throat. Erik looks his fill, not even playing at subtlety, then slowly drags his eyes back to Charles’. He doesn’t appear at all concerned.
“All right,” Charles says, slow like he’s choosing each word carefully. “I’ll take that into consideration. Your go next, I believe.”
Erik doesn’t bother to hesitate for effect. “Same question. Why are you in New York? What brought you here?”
He knows the answer already to some degree, but wants to see what Charles will say all the same. The answer turns out to be nothing more than he’d already gleaned from the internet, just with a little more detail. Enrolment at Columbia, fast track three year undergraduate degree in English Literature, followed by a year of Masters study before an unceremonious departure from the program. Charles claims dissatisfaction, primarily, as his reasoning.
“I could’ve gone all the way, a full PhD if I’d really wanted to,” Charles muses, tracing the rim of his glass with one bluntly tipped finger. “Turned out it wasn’t right for me this go around. Maybe next time.”
“‘Next time’? Are you planning on going back to school?”
“Mm, yes, of course. Different subject though, most likely.”
Erik, who’s never attended university once, let alone twice, finds himself wanting to roll his eyes. Only the significantly rich or excessively privileged have the ability to speak in such terms, as if it were a foregone conclusion, easy as anything. It shouldn’t surprise him that Charles is one of them, not with his name, his upper-crust accent.
He can’t quite decide, though, if he’s disappointed by the knowledge or not. The whole thing suddenly reeks of Charles slumming it because he can, buying a dive and prettying it up enough — but not so much as to drive away the locals — so that he can feel comfortable while he basks in the charming ambiance of the working class. Erik keeps his teeth from grinding together at the thought only through sheer force of will, hoping that isn’t the truth of it.
“Oh, I suppose I’m not giving the best impression of myself right now, aren’t I?”
Charles appears genuinely concerned by the possibility, and Erik is startled by the admission. No one has ever been able to read him the way Charles appears able to, and it’s disconcerting.
“Yes, as you seem to be wondering, I’m quite wealthy,” Charles goes on, ducking his head in obvious embarrassment, eyes cast downward.
“It’s like you’re reading my mind, Charles,” Erik murmurs dryly. “Or is this not the first time you’ve put your foot in it?”
That gets a laugh, one of the more genuine ones Erik remembers from the first night they met, and Charles’ eyes twinkle as he raises them again, his lips parted in a tooth-baring smile. “Oh, no. Not even close, my friend. It’s a bit of a habit. Never been able to shake it.”
“An inconvenient habit to have,” Erik says. “It’s a wonder anyone likes you at all.”
“That it is.”
“Maybe this is an insensitive time to point this out, but have you ever considered the possibility that your looks are your only redeeming feature? Or maybe it’s the accent?”
Instead of outrage, Charles’ smile slides into a more wicked curve. “I can assure you, that is not the case.” He takes a quick sip of his drink, licks the wetness from his lower lip. “Have you ever considered that the same could be said for yourself?”
“No one likes me,” Erik says. “So it’s not exactly an issue.”
“Well that’s not true. I like you.”
“And you’re one of the strangest people I’ve ever met which, trust me, is saying quite a lot. I’m not sure if your opinion really counts.”
Charles scoffs, sounding exasperated. “I’m already beginning to regret talking to you after all,” he says dryly.
“Did you really think I’d make it easy for you?”
“Oh, hardly.” He brushes his hair back, laces his hands together on the tabletop. “Anyway, the bar. Let me explain, as you seem very keen to get on with judging me for all manner of imagined reasons. Yes, I’m very rich. Yes, I went to Columbia, and yet somehow ended up owning a bar after all that. But it’s not what you think.”
“And what do I think?”
“Something insulting, I imagine.” He sighs, sounding put-upon. “The truth is I became quite close with some of my fellow Masters candidates during my singular year of study, and there was one of them who liked to drag the rest of us to this bar to wash out the taste of idiotic undergraduates from our mouths — and no, I absolutely don’t mean that in the way I’m sure you’re thinking. The owner at the time was this older gentleman, and he ended up passing away quite suddenly a few years back. His wife wasn’t interested in carrying on with the business herself, so I volunteered to take it off her hands.”
Erik stares at him. “You ‘volunteered’?”
“Yes, I had already taken myself out of the program by then, and what else was I going to do? That it also happened to combine two of my favourite things — alcohol and good company — was really all the incentive I needed. Better than wasting my money doing something useless.”
It’s a good story, Erik will give him that. Believable, probably true, and indicative of a good nature — compassionate, pragmatic, holding no illusions. Knowing this makes the wealth an easier pill to swallow. Not that Erik gives a fuck about money exactly, except in the sense that it would have been nice to have more than they did, he and Edie, back when they were criss-crossing the U.S., trying to make something of their shattered lives. A little more certainly would have made things easier. A little more would make things easier now.
But no, the wealth isn’t the issue. In the privacy of his own mind Erik can go so far as to acknowledge that he was, for a moment at least, afraid of being disappointed. That he wanted Charles to be something more, someone worth talking to, worth slowing down for.
“That was good of you,” Erik says eventually, though the honesty behind it sticks in his throat, coming out less nonchalant than he was hoping for. Charles’ answering smile is gentle, appreciative, and he very pointedly doesn’t comment on Erik’s slip. He just takes it, quietly pleased, and tucks the moment away.
For the rest of the evening they talk of lighter things. Charles recounts his college misadventures with an amusing mix of embarrassment and pride, but the whole experience is so foreign to Erik that all he can do is make the appropriate noises when they’re called for, smiling when Charles does. Not even the drinking is relatable, because while Erik is good at getting wasted when he needs to, he’s never approached it with the kind of single-minded, sustained fervour that Charles confesses to. He says as much, and Charles waves it off with a flick of his hand. “It’s practically tradition, really. Have money, will drink.”
He meets Erik’s eyes and smirks. “I promise not to think any less of your impressive, virile masculinity should you end the night under the table, my friend.”
“You’re too kind, Charles,” Erik says. “And very assured.”
“The data is in my favour, I think you’ll find.”
“If you say so.”
“Oh, but I do.”
Erik drains the rest of his glass deliberately, and places it back on the tabletop with a loud clink. “That sounds quite a lot like a challenge.”
“What’s one more challenge between us?” Charles raises his own glass in toast, then tosses the drink back with the same kind of offhand ease.
In the end neither one of them bows out. The scotch slowly disappears, round by round, and the conversation gets more and more ridiculous as the next few hours pass. In direct contradiction to his stated intent, Charles appears more than happy to talk about nothing other than himself, spinning out story after story, mixed in with long tangential asides into other topics, to which Erik has nothing of substance to add. He watches Charles the whole time, mesmerized by the animated flutter of his hands, the way his mouth moves, curving around words and smiles and Erik’s name, every so often. More than once he loses the thread completely, but Charles doesn’t appear to notice, or care.
It’s easy, and…comfortable, almost. He doesn’t even notice the bar empty, so engrossed in their own little private island of good drink and good company, and when the bartender announces last call it’s like coming up for air. His face feels hot, limbs heavy as if he’s been sleeping this whole time, and Charles stops mid-sentence, his train of thought derailed.
“Oh, Erik, I’m sorry. Please excuse me for a moment, there’s something I have to take care of. I’ll be back in a moment.”
As he speeds off his gait is strangely even, no weaving or stumbling. Erik is impressed.
Charles disappears through a door near the bar and comes back five minutes later, slumping back into his seat. He looks more flushed than he was before, like he’s just gone and done a hit of something, his chest heaving a little. Erik waits for him to say something, but he just stares off vaguely into the middle distance until Erik snaps his fingers in front of him and draws him back. Charles blinks, and giggles in a way that makes him sound even younger than he looks before leaning across the table with a playful leer.
“It’s appears I was wrong,” he says, his words slurred. It’s like the alcohol has caught up to him all at once, making him loose and liquid. “You’re more of a worthy opponent than I thought.”
Erik nods, mockingly solemn. “So it seems.”
The bartender is suddenly standing beside their table, an indulgent grin on his face. “All right, Charlie, closing time. You and your friend need to clear out.”
“Danny, darling, thank you so much for holding the fort,” Charles enthuses, grabbing at the man’s hand to clasp it tightly between both his own. “Erik and I had such a lovely chat this evening, didn’t we, Erik?”
Danny catches Erik’s eye and they share a look of amusement. “Does he always get exponentially more English the more he drinks?” Erik asks. Charles makes a noise of protest, punching Erik with surprising strength in the meat of his shoulder.
“Yes, he does,” Danny replies with the weight of intimate knowledge, then turns to Charles, raising his voice a little. “And thank god you live just upstairs, right Charlie? So you can lurch home on your own and puke into your own toilet and not some poor cabbie’s backseat.”
Charles flips him off and Danny walks away, cackling.
Erik decides it’s about time to leave. He still has a bit of a walk ahead of him, and he’d prefer to get that over with sooner rather than later. When he stands up Charles makes a small, mournful noise, and Erik raises a brow in question.
“Don’t think I’m not very much aware that you barely said anything about yourself the whole night, Erik Lehnsherr,” Charles remarks. “We will be rectifying that.”
Erik lets out a little huff of laughter. “Later, Charles.”
“Yes, of course later. Go home, sleep, and please try to forget what an arse I’ve made of myself.”
“Not a chance, Charles.”
“Well, it was worth a shot, I guess.” Charles sighs and cards both hands through his hair, leaning back until his spine makes an unpleasant popping sound, at which point he groans theatrically. “Good-night, Erik. Safe trip home.”
Erik stands there for a moment, considering the elegant sprawl of Charles’ limbs, the shine of his eyes where they’re fixed firmly on Erik’s own, more firmly than he would expect from someone so obviously drunk. Suddenly leaving is the last thing he wants to do, though he knows that he should, that there’s no reason at all for him to stay. As soon as he thinks it Charles’ expression of vague content smooths away completely into some emotion Erik can’t define, lashes fanning across his cheeks as he shuts his eyes.
“Good-night, Erik,” he says again, and this time Erik goes, without hesitation.
His hangover the next day is no worse than he’s ever had before, but for the first time in a long time there’s nothing he needs to do, nowhere he needs to go. Erik’s more used to gritting his teeth and barrelling through it, driving mile after mile while his head pounds, and escaping that is more of a soothing balm than any painkiller could ever hope to be. He spends most of the day wallowing, merely because he can, lying naked on the sweat-stained sheets and watching the slow turn of the ceiling fan. When he finally drags himself out of bed and cleans up, he relocates to the fire escape with one of the ragged paperbacks Emma’s stocked the apartment with under his arm, kills a few hours chain-smoking while he reads.
He does it not because he enjoys it, exactly, but because more and more he’s starting to realize what a poorly thought out plan this all was. What good is rest if there’s nothing to come back to, when your work is your life and your life is absolutely, entirely your work? He tries to keep his mind occupied, because if he stops and thinks about what a whole lot of nothing he’s been doing lately his skin starts to itch like he’s sprouted some terrible rash. Emma’s more right than she realizes: it’s a wonder he’s stayed this long already, when self-disgust is just waiting to rear its ugly head and remind him that he has work to do, that there is always work to do.
The pull of exhaustion and discontent has taken him this far, and yet now they mean almost nothing. That urgent feeling, of needing to stop for fear of grinding himself down to silt and bonemeal is all but gone, replaced by a different kind of urgency, one he knows too well. He’s on the knife-thin edge of bolting, driving back the way he came, no more rested or restored than he was when he arrived.
Erik flicks the ash off his cigarette and breathes slowly in and out, trying to settle his racing heart. There are reasons to stay, more than some childish need to prove Emma wrong. There are things he can be doing, things other than washing dishes for pocket change and letting Charles Xavier pick his brain.
There’s research, and reconnaissance, touching base with old contacts.
There’s physical training, the kind of stuff he never gets around to on the road. Stretching his legs a little, going for runs instead of endless pushups and sit-ups laid out on grotty motel carpet.
All that’s left for him to do is to remember how to be a person again, rather than a weapon just waiting to be drawn, some kind of shield against the dark. After six months on the road, after almost an entire life on the road, it’s harder than he’d like to admit.
Erik knows now what Edie meant when she’d told him she had no choice but to keep going, there was nothing else for her but this. He’d raged against it, against the idea that his mother had no relief waiting for her at the end of this hard, brutal road but death. The unfairness of it was staggering to his twenty-year-old self, who couldn’t conceive of a future in which his mother wasn’t safe and alive and unharmed, not when he was finally old enough to protect her. But she didn’t want his help, her mantle wasn’t his to take. She wouldn’t be sidelined, refused to lay down her gun, and nothing Erik said would sway her.
Now he could see why she might have resisted the idea so fiercely. The fear of tedium, of realizing there really isn’t anything but the hunt, living outside the lines and forever looking in. Another one of those times when ignorance was preferable to knowledge. Better to long for it and never have it, then to face the reality of one’s own isolation, an unsustainable existence doomed to fail.
After an entire lifetime’s worth of bleak landscapes, endless highways, and violent circumstances, more pessimism is the last thing he needs.
Erik crushes the the last few inches of his cigarette on the sill behind him, straightens out his legs along the hot metal grating of the fire escape. Another sweltering day, but cooling a little, now that the afternoon was sliding into evening. He wouldn’t be seeing Charles tonight, to give his poor liver some reprieve, but he still needs something to do.
Which is how he finds himself climbing the narrow, creaking steps of a sadly familiar apartment complex, the smell of old urine and rotting garbage heavy in the air. He doesn’t know how McCoy can stand to live in a place like this, day in and day out, surrounded by a hoarder’s treasure trove of books and old newspapers shoved in teetering stacks against the walls. But then again, perhaps he doesn’t care. The poor boy’s a recluse, after all; maybe it’s safer that way.
When Erik knocks on the chipped green door, he hears McCoy’s heavy steps approach followed by the slight creak of the peep-hole latch being lifted. His quiet, muffled voice filters through the wood. “Lehnsherr?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
Next is the usual symphony of chains and locks, tumblers turning, and the door eases open just enough so McCoy can thrust out a gleaming silver knife. “You know what to do,” he says, querulous and short. Erik takes the knife and draws it purposefully along his palm, skin parting like a sigh in a shallow, curved red line that instantly starts to weep thin rivulets of blood.
There’s a second of hesitant silence, and then McCoy opens the door fully, ushering Erik in.
“Go sit down. I’ll get the first-aid kit.”
He darts into the cramped bathroom, leaving Erik to inch down the hallway into the open living area, taking care not to brush against the stacks towering perilously over him. He goes straight for the sofa, it being the only surface not entirely covered in books, and he sinks down hesitantly, remembering the unusual give of the cushions. McCoy appears again bearing a battered red plastic box and sets to wrapping Erik’s hand, applying a quick swipe of disinfectant before swaddling the cut. Erik takes the attention stoically, even though he’d rather do it himself.
“I’m sorry I asked you to do that,” McCoy says, face downturned as he works. “You know I had to see. Can’t be too careful. I mean, you could have been —“
“A shifter, I know,” Erik finishes for him, and McCoy’s face turns red. “We go through this every time.”
McCoy bobs his head in acknowledgement and backs off, packing away the supplies. He seats himself next to Erik, adjusts his glasses with small nervous twitches of his fingers while Erik curls and uncurls his hand, testing the give of the bandage. Neither of them say a word, but this is normal. Erik waits, knowing McCoy will calm down in a minute, the adrenaline rush of opening his door to a potential unknown draining out of him slowly. He wonders, idly, how long it’s been since there was another person in the apartment. As far as Erik knows, it could have been months.
“So,” McCoy finally starts, his voice an even tenor again, “what can I do for you?”
“I’m in town for a while,” Erik says. “I need to catch up on what’s been going on.”
“Why don’t you just ask Miss Frost?”
“Emma keeps to herself. You know that.”
McCoy gives a hesitant little smile. “Except when it comes to you, of course.”
“Yes, well, I can hardly stop her. Emma does what she wants.”
Erik thinks of their conversation the other night, how unsettlingly volatile she seemed. It was strange, and unprecedented, considering that up until now what little they’ve had to say to each other has tended towards business rather than personal, but he can understand the impulse. Hunting was a lonely business, and Erik is a connection, however painful and unwanted. He can’t fault her for lashing out. No doubt they’ll continue to go on as they have before — it goes unspoken that Erik should forget it ever happened. She’ll do the same for him, if he ever lapses.
It works for them, which is good. No matter how much Erik might want to protect her in his more maudlin moments, he’s too emotionally stunted to have any idea as to how he might go about doing it, and she wouldn’t want the protection anyway. Same goes for any brand of half-baked emotional support; at that, he’s even worse. It’s better for everyone involved that Erik sticks to what he’s good at, and what he’s good at is killing things. That’s his legacy, and as far as he can tell Emma’s taken to it like she’s been hunting her whole life. He wouldn’t have anticipated that of a wealthy, old-money socialite, but Emma lives to defy expectations.
“I suppose you’re right,” McCoy agrees, “but you know her better than I do.”
Erik shakes his head. “Not by much.” He shifts, leans back further into the enveloping embrace of the sofa cushions. “You still haven’t answered by question.”
“About what’s been happening since you were last here?” At Erik’s nod McCoy seems to gather himself, rubbing his palms together slowly. “Well, a fair bit, I guess. A lot can happen in a year. But in relative terms, not much.”
“Please, be more vague.”
“Just give me a second,” McCoy says, a little growl of frustration rumbling underneath his words. “Do you want the full report or the abridged version?”
“Abridged. I don’t have all night.”
“Okay, well, spirit activity has been no more noticeable than any other year, most of it pretty bog standard. The usual manifestations, nothing a good salt and burn can’t fix. No possessions, thank god, although there was a nasty poltergeist in Brooklyn a few months back.”
“Who took care of that?”
McCoy frowns, brow creasing in thought. “Someone passing through, not any of the locals. I don’t think anyone ever got his name.”
“Hmm, okay. What else?”
“On the creature front, not a whole lot. There was a bit of a scare back in February, some woman just moved from Miami got mugged by some homeless guy a week before she left. Got all scratched up and stuff, and it turned out the guy was a Were. She had no idea of course, ended up killing a few people when she turned. Emma put her down.”
Erik sighs, tipping his head back against the sofa. He’s heard this story before, many times before, and it never gets any easier to take. Doesn’t make the act any less necessary, though. Sad, and unfortunate, yes, but necessary.
“Other than that, it’s been a pretty quiet year,” McCoy continues, and then laughs abruptly. “Oh, there was also that moron who decided to try his hand at some necromancy last month. He was just a kid, like seventeen or something, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing of course, but the summoning spells he’d somehow gotten his hands on were real enough. Aaron Mills was in town so he went and took care of it.”
“What happened to the kid?”
“What do you expect? Aaron put the fear of god in him.” McCoy shudders a little.
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Erik says. “Is that it?”
McCoy nods. “I do, however, have some books you might be interested in looking at.” He jumps up from his seat and disappears into his bedroom, returning a few moments later with three hefty leather-bound books held carefully in both arms. The two of them spend the next half an hour or so flipping through them, McCoy pointing things out as they go along, and when Erik asks if he can take them with him for a more in-depth analysis on his own time he gets a pained grimace in reply.
“Um, well, uh.” McCoy adjusts his glasses again. “You know I don’t really like—well, they’re really quite delicate—“
“Calm down, McCoy,” Erik says. “I’ll just come back if I need to. You can keep them here where they’re safe.”
McCoy’s eyes narrow, no doubt hearing the somewhat patronizing tone of his voice, but his relief is obvious. Erik claps him on the shoulder and gets to his feet.
“I’m going to go,” he says. “Let me know if anything comes up.”
“You got it.” His eyes track Erik across the room, watching him navigate around the delicately stacked piles. “It’s always a pleasure, Erik.”
Erik tosses him a half-hearted wave over his shoulder and shows himself out.
He spends the rest of the evening back at the apartment, sprawled out on the couch with his laptop, trawling through various and sundry local news outlets looking for anything that might catch his eye. Despite the wealth of death and mayhem on display, though, none of it appears to be overly suspicious. Erik tries not to be disappointed by that.
He also tries not to wish for Emma’s inevitable call to action, staring at his cellphone for minutes at a time as if he could make it ring if he merely tried hard enough.
He fails, spectacularly, at both of these things.
The next handful of times Erik visits the bar and sits down with Charles go much the same way as the first, although with considerably less competitive drinking.
There’s one night Charles is still working when Erik arrives, and the room buzzes loudly with the voices of dozens of people, buffeting up against him like the strong lap of the tide. Charles gives Erik a harried, apologetic look when he sidles up to the bar, already filling a glass for him from one of the taps.
“Apologies, Erik,” he says, flicking a small droplet of sweat off his brow. He’s attractively flushed from the heat of the room, colour high, and Erik is momentarily distracted by the teasing sheen of moisture at the hollow of his throat. “I’m on for another hour or so, unfortunately. Would it be too much for me to ask you to entertain yourself until then? I don’t know if you play billiards at all, but I’m sure someone would be willing to join you for a game.” He gestures to the pool table, where a group of men and women are already gathered in a loose circle, cheering on the two players currently matched against each other.
Erik grins, small and slow. “I’ll find something to do.”
Charles grins back at him and offers Erik his glass before shooting off to the other end of the bar, already calling out in greeting to the two young men waiting there. Erik retreats to a different table near the back with his pint and sits back to watch him work, not in much of a mood to socialize with anyone who isn’t Charles. It turns out to be both an amusing an frustrating experience in equal measure, and because Erik knows himself so very, very well he’s not even a little bit surprised.
Charles flirts like breathing, offering himself up to anyone who so much as glances in his general direction, his expression broken wide open, approachable and gorgeous and seemingly without guile. Erik knows differently, of course, which is the only thing that stops what feels suspiciously like jealousy from becoming anything more than a tiny, insignificant spark in the pit of his stomach. He’s like a child, really, with the way he never seems to want something until he’s been told he can’t have it. Considering how he grew up, with too little to call his own and too little time to go about changing that, this shouldn’t be a problem at all. He should have learned by now to take what he can get and not waste his time on things that are out of reach.
But, like anyone, Erik has his weaknesses. So he watches, and stews silently, and waits for his turn.
Just as the hour is nearing its end, a glittering clutch of twenty-somethings burst in through the door and make straight for the bar, calling Charles’ name. Charles greets them with a sunny smile as they swarm in close, and it’s clear by the way they instantly fall into conversation that at least one of them is a regular customer. Erik doesn’t even have to listen closely to catch what they’re saying; their voices seem to slice through the ambient noise, clear as bells to anyone paying half-attention.
“Sorry, Charles,” the one young woman says, her words already the slightest bit slurred. “We won’t be staying long. It’s just— it’s Alice’s birthday today, so we all thought we should come down for a celebratory shot?” She blushes then, and tugs one of the other women in close — the birthday girl, if the fake plastic tiara perched on her head is any indication.
Charles beams at them and immediately reaches for a bottle from under the counter. “Of course, of course. Shots on the house, my darlings.” He lines up six shot glasses and fills them, takes one for himself. “Many happy returns, Alice.”
They all echo the toast and do their shot. The first woman comes up laughing, her blush even darker now. “And maybe one of your notorious birthday kisses? I think Alice deserves a little tongue.” She turns to address her friends. “Don’t you think?”
A flurry of nodding heads has Charles practically cackling, the look on his face predatory and wicked. “Oh, of course. Will you have it, Alice?”
She smiles and leans forward eagerly. “Do your worst.”
Erik watches, a little stunned, as Charles reaches out and slips one hand through the thick fall of her hair, drawing her in. The kiss starts out chaste, just a firm press of lips, but it very quickly becomes something else entirely when Charles shifts a little to suck lingeringly on her bottom lip. Even from where he’s sitting Erik sees her flinch and gasp, and suddenly their mouths are open and slanted against each other, enough to see the quicksilver flash of Charles’ tongue. It goes on for another moment or two, and then Charles pulls back with a final peck. The group of women cheer and whistle, and Alice ducks her head, both embarrassed and shyly pleased.
“And now, unfortunately, I must take my leave,” Charles announces, executing a sloppy bow. “Have a wonderful rest of your evening, ladies.”
The group makes a show of disappointment but let him go without complaint. Charles scoots around the end of the bar and comes straight for Erik, sliding into the chair next to his own with a sigh and a quick gesture to flick the hair off his forehead — as always, though, it flops right back, falling over Charles’ brow.
“Did you enjoy that?” Erik drawls, unable to keep himself from commenting on the showy display. Charles’ mouth quirks, amusement sparking in his eyes.
“Watching, were you?”
This close on, Erik can see a smear of Alice’s lipstick left behind on his generously full lower lip, an even deeper red than the already ludicrous natural shade. He motions towards his own mouth instead of answering Charles’ question, and watches avidly as Charles’ tongue peeks out again to wet the skin before drawing his thumb across, attempting to wipe it away. He’s only moderately successful, doing more to rub it in than anything else, but doesn’t try again. It’s less noticeable now, at least.
Nothing more is said about the kiss that evening, but Erik makes sure to be as close-mouthed as possible during the conversation, content to make Charles work for his answers this time. It’s entertaining to watch him squirm and scowl and attempt to twist his words around enough to catch Erik unawares. But Erik’s made a life out of spinning lies and doing backflips to protect his secrets, and he’s not going to give in, or slip up, so easily.
Just before they part ways for the night Erik decides to mollify him with what he remembers about living in Germany, little though that is — they were there eight years before moving to Texas, and only two, at most, he has any clear memories of. Charles listens with a quiet, focused intensity as he talks, murmuring his way through his vague recollections of those simpler days before his whole life become one long, extended, waking nightmare. He doesn’t go so far as to tell Charles that, of course, yet he can’t help but colour his words with the knowledge of what comes after. Amazingly, Charles doesn’t prod him any further, although he no doubt can sense there’s more to the story than what he’s been given. Instead, he attempts to steer them in a more lighthearted direction, for which Erik is incredibly grateful.
“Are you still fluent in German?” he asks and Erik has to laugh, a rough, reflexive snort.
“Hardly. My mother always refused to speak to me in English, even when we moved to America, but eventually she had no choice. I had to go to school, so English took precedence. I can still get by, and my accent’s passable I suppose, but there’s so much I just don’t remember anymore.”
Charles’ brow furrows, the look in his eyes troubled and dark. “I’m sorry, Erik,” he says softly. “That’s terrible.”
Erik shakes his head. “No, it isn’t. Not really.”
“Is it not important to you?”
Erik thinks of his mother’s voice, whispering to him in Yiddish as she stroked his forehead, willing him to sleep even though the couple in the room next to theirs were shouting fit to bring the whole motel down around them. He thinks of the Star of David hung around his neck, hidden underneath as many layers as he can put between it and the world. He thinks of the knife tucked into his boot, of the duffle bag full of weapons stowed beneath his bed.
“There are more important things,” he says, as firmly as he can around the sudden knot in his throat, and Charles gives a small, almost imperceptible nod. He understands; it shines from his face, like a steady inner light, and for once Erik sincerely wants to know why. Not as some kind of payment in return for what he’s divulged, but for his own sake. He wants that story, very much.
“Well, take heart,” Charles says. “Your German is undoubtedly still better than mine.”
Erik smirks, though it’s weak, and still carries a somewhat melancholy edge. “That’s not as reassuring as you think it is, Charles.”
“Then I won’t make matters worse by attempting to demonstrate my utter lack of linguistic prowess.”
“Much appreciated,” Erik drawls, and Charles dips his head in acknowledgement. His attention catches on the sweep of Charles’ eyelashes, smudged darkly against his almost translucent skin, and thinks, I’m in trouble, aren’t I?
The answer, of course, is yes.
And even though Erik has made an entire life out of barrelling head-first into trouble, guns blazing, all he wants in this moment is to run far, far away.
It’s Friday, and Charles is not where he should be.
For all of two seconds Erik tries to pretend that he doesn’t care, that he hasn’t at the very least been anticipating seeing Charles all day in some sort of vague, unconscious way, because that would mean this whole agreement has become less about enabling Charles’ voracious need for knowledge and more about…something else. Something that makes his stomach twist, all the hairs on his neck standing at attention when he thinks about it, like he’s strung between the need to fight or fly but can’t bring himself to do either. He’s tethered down, and it’s unsettling and thrilling in equal measure. Another week has gone by and Erik has spent the entirety of it very deliberately not dwelling on what that means.
So his attempt not to let a bolt of irritation and what might actually be worry sing through him when he doesn’t see Charles behind the bar is flimsy at best.
Instead of Charles’ familiar shape flitting back and forth he sees Danny, tall and lanky and topped with a fiery red buzz-cut, serving drinks with ease and a great deal of speed. Erik sidles up to the bar and stands between two larger men, signals for a drink. He decides to wait a bit, give Charles a chance to appear. Maybe he just stepped out, maybe he’s in the bathroom, maybe he’s late. There’s a dozen possible reasons Erik can think of, each of them just as likely.
When Danny hands him his drink, however, he catches Erik’s eye and gives him what he supposes is some kind of knowing grin, like they’re sharing a secret. Erik tries not to recoil, put off by this show of familiarity, especially when he doesn’t understand the underlying subtext.
“I take it you’re looking for Charlie?” Danny asks, and Erik nods curtly.
“Well, you might be waiting a bit, then. He’s a little busy at the moment.”
Erik’s brow furrows. “Doing what?”
“I think the question is ‘who’, actually,” Danny says.
Charles hasn’t made a secret of all the freewheeling casual sex he has on an almost daily basis, so Erik isn’t surprised by this turn of events, but it’s the first time Erik’s ever been around for the direct aftermath. He’s not sure he wants to bear witness to that, in all honesty. Maybe he should just leave.
He’s already ordered his drink, though. He might as well stay to finish it, and hopefully make an escape before Charles shows his face again.
For the next twenty odd minutes, Erik grudgingly sips his drink and watches with dispassionate interest as Danny goes about his business, talking to customers, flinging bottles and glasses around in showy loops as he serves, an act that has the young women who are watching almost eating out of his hand. Erik laughs under his breath, thinking that Charles might not be the only celebrity this establishment has to offer after all.
Danny tries to engage him in conversation only the once, and Erik responds with a flat-eyed stare that has him holding up his hands in surrender, backing off with a wry look. Erik appreciates his keen sense of self-preservation.
By the time he’s draining his glass, Charles still has yet to return from his illicit back-room fuck, and Erik thinks for one blessed moment that he might get away with his dignity intact. You had your chance, Charles, he thinks, digging in his pocket for some crumpled bills.
Suddenly from behind him he hears a distinctly familiar laugh, and Erik’s stomach turns over, pulse starting to hammer for reasons he’d rather not consider. He turns to see Charles appear, as if summoned, from a door set further back in the room, his arm around the shoulders of a woman who’s still got her face buried in his neck, busy kissing the skin there enthusiastically. They’re both disheveled, although Charles less so than her, and Erik can’t tear his eyes away from the pleased, quietly satisfied look on Charles’ face. They aren’t being all that obvious, slipping fairly unobtrusively into the crowd and speaking quietly to each other, heads bent close together, but it’s all Erik can see.
And then Charles glances up and his gaze finds Erik through the crush of people with startling accuracy, holding it like he’s gripping Erik by the head with both hands, and one corner of his mouth — his swollen mouth, impossibly red and still a little wet — curls upward in a smirk that burns right through him, pins him to the floor.
This is what Charles looks like after sex, his brain helpfully supplies, and Erik wants to strangle himself.
He finds it incredibly hard to believe Charles could have forgotten that Erik was coming this evening, but the alternative is infuriating. It would mean he’s done this on purpose, and the possibility of that makes Erik’s blood run hot with embarrassment and something much darker, something he doesn’t want to look at straight on for fear of making it real.
Trying to figure out what ‘this’ entails, however, only makes things exponentially worse. Has Charles changed his mind, and if so why doesn’t he just come out and say it, instead of resorting to these juvenile games of jealousy and misdirection? But then again, Charles seems to treat everything like a game, so perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised.
And if he hasn’t changed his mind…well, Erik is too fucking tired to figure him out.
This is the point, of course, at which Charles gives his partner one last lingering kiss before detaching from her and coming straight for Erik, fetching up against his side in a sloppy, liquid move that rubs the whole lengths of their bodies together, a searing line down Erik’s right flank. Erik flinches away, but Charles doesn’t appear to notice, treating him to a lazy smile, blithely unconcerned.
“Erik, hello!” he says, as if surprised to see him. He sounds drunk, and the colour in his face, the wild shine in his eyes, is evidence enough. “Lovely to see you.”
He curls a hand around Erik’s forearm, bracing himself. The heat of his palm is incredible; he feels almost feverish, running hotter than Erik would have anticipated. He thinks about prying him off, but gives it up when Charles lists against him and rubs his forehead back and forth against Erik’s shoulder.
“Apologies,” Charles mumbles. “It’s been a bit of an evening.”
Erik peers down at him, skin prickling as Charles breathes on where his arm is exposed exposed beneath the sleeve of his t-shirt . “So it seems.”
Charles makes a mournful noise and then shores himself up again, removing himself from Erik’s space and taking a few steadying breaths. “I’ve gone and made an arse of myself again, haven’t I?”
“Well, your lack of personal boundaries is a little embarrassing I suppose,” Erik says. “Other than that, it’s not for me to say.”
Charles sighs. “Oh, my friend, you are far too good.”
Erik refrains from correcting him on that erroneous assumption, knowing it will only prompt more questions that he can’t answer, but that doesn’t make the truth go away any. There’s no way for him to un-know his own faults, after all, the many ways he is not good, not even close. He’s already living in denial about too many things; one more might drown him completely.
Charles blinks a few times like he’s trying to focus, taking another deep breath in and out, his shirt straining a little as his chest rises and falls again. He plants his hands on both hips, like he’s about to say something important, and then his face clouds in confusion. He squints at Erik as if seeing him for the very first time, his brow furrowing.
“Oh, well, you really are quite tall then, aren’t you?” He scratches at his hair line, makes a vague gesture in Erik’s direction. “I mean, I’m hardly blind of course, but — do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually stood next to you? How strange.”
They fall into a brief silence, during which Charles looks almost like he ought to be awarded for making such an astute observation. Erik’s not sure what to say.
“Was there a point to that non-sequitur?” he asks, because nothing else comes to mind. Charles shifts his stance, fidgeting, and then shakes his head slowly.
“No, I suppose not. I was just — taken aback, for a moment, by your rugged, manly physique.” He says it lightly, clearly trying to make a joke of it, but Erik doesn’t miss the way Charles’ eyes linger in places before sliding away determinedly. “You have a…commanding presence, Erik. It’s very engaging.”
Erik lets that hang, no less confused than he was before.
“I don’t understand you at all,” he says, and Charles laughs.
“I hardly understand myself, sometimes.” His voice has that odd quality again, heavy almost, some hidden current flowing steadily underneath. Erik wishes he knew the right words to draw out an explanation, what he might need to ask to be granted such a specific understanding. At the rate he’s going, he’s not going to get it.
Another moment passes and Charles’ face clears, the mood shifting. “So, would you like to grab a table?” he asks, gesturing behind himself to where there are a few empty spots left.
Erik considers refusing, not sure he’s up to more of Charles’ eccentricities, tumbling out scattershot from that red, red mouth.
Instead, he accepts, lets Charles lead them over to a more private spot. He has a different idea.
Charles drops into his seat with a soft groan, no doubt expecting to ease into another of his harmless, charming anecdotes that he regularly peppers through their conversations. His whole body goes stiff as a strung wire though when Erik bucks tradition by dragging his own chair closer to Charles with a purposeful tug, close enough so that when he sits he can lean forward, curve his body inward like a trap shutting slow.
Charles’ eyes track him steadily as Erik claims the space between them, his body unconsciously reacting to the leashed violence Erik has learned to radiate with his every breath.
Or consciously, perhaps. He seems much less drunk than he was only a moment ago.
“Was that little display just now for me?” Erik asks.
Charles cocks his head just a little, mouth thinning briefly before he speaks. “What? Me and Julia, you mean? How narcissistic of you to assume so.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Whatever you’re thinking, I can assure you you’re wrong.”
Below the table, Erik’s hand curls into a fist, knuckles grinding against the meat of his thigh. “Why on earth should I believe you?”
“I’ve got a better question,” Charles counters. “Why are you asking in the first place? Why do you care? Does it bother you?” He pauses, something mocking and a little mean sparking to life behind his eyes. “Are you a prude, Erik Lehnsherr? I never would have guessed.”
Erik bristles, laughing short and harsh to cover up the defensive anger he feels like static electricity crackling along the surface of his skin. “If you take a second to remember all the things we’ve talked about, I think you’ll find that a prude I am most definitely not.”
Charles smirks. “Only when you’re not the one involved, then. Or is it only when it’s me?”
“Now who’s being narcissistic?” Erik can’t help the sneer in his voice, the derisive curl of his lip — even if it’s humiliating, the way he’s so obviously deflecting, the utter transparency of his anger. He can tell Charles doesn’t buy the act, his expression still calmly neutral, except for the barest hint of knowing that makes Erik’s hackles rise in instinctual response. Charles clearly isn’t a man easily fooled, and Erik’s already off his game. He should know better than to be surprised.
But then again, Charles is deflecting just as persistently as he is, which bears investigating.
He decides on a different tack, wondering how Charles might respond to a more direct advance; if he’d blush, or stammer, or give as good as he got. Erik’s honestly not sure which outcome he wants the most.
“I have to be honest, Charles,” he says, spreading the clenched fist on his leg flat, as if to ground himself. “I was under the impression that you valued our little talks, but you had me waiting almost half an hour for you to finish up with — Julia, was it? So I have to assume one of three things: either you didn’t care enough to remember I was coming, you did remember and decided it was more important to get in a quick-but-really-not-so-quick fuck, or — you wanted me to see.”
Erik pauses, leans in close enough to inhale the distinct scent of sweat and sex.
“I wonder which is true. Options one and two would make me think less of you, but option three has me puzzled. Why would you do that, after all?”
“Why indeed,” Charles says softly, eyes held on Erik like he’s waiting for a reason to run, the smallest possible sign. Erik looks back, unblinking, taking in another slow, redolent breath.
“Do you want me, Charles?” he asks, and a muscle in Charles’ jaw tics once, twice. Erik smiles, with all his teeth. “Would you like to be more than friends? Are your intentions a little less than pure?”
There’s a long period of silence, until Charles says, “And what if I do? What would you say to that?”
“I’d ask why you’ve been wasting our time,” Erik says simply, enjoying the tight curl of heat that’s bloomed to life low in his gut. This is a language he understands, the thrust and parry of attraction; not friendship, or jealousy, or a desire for something familiar, stationary, safe. Maybe this will exhaust Charles’ interest, maybe Erik can finally cut the string that’s come to tug between them, inexplicable and unwelcome.
But Charles shakes his head, looking disappointed. “Do you really believe that? Is that what this has been for you, a waste of time?”
And the thing is, Erik would be lying if he said yes. Realizing that is like missing a step on the stairs, breath leaving him in panic, his chest going suffocatingly tight. He doesn’t want to admit it, because he’s never been this vulnerable, and showing his pale underbelly to a relative stranger goes against everything he’s ever been told. What does it say about him, about his life, that the possibility of making a connection with someone is equal to a threat? It’s only the beginning of something at most, in relative terms it’s hardly anything at all, and still Erik thrums with the need to throw up wall after wall, get some distance.
The lie sits at the back of his throat, a taste so bitter he’s nearly gagging on it, but he can’t dislodge the weight. He’s never felt so painfully sober.
Charles huffs out a tiny sigh and cuts his eyes away; it’s like a gunshot, sharp and sudden.
“I’m sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression,” he says. “I like being around you, I find you fascinating, but that’s really all there is to it. I know you’re trying to — to shock me I suppose, and I can understand why you might feel the need to do that — ”
The heat in Erik’s gut is suddenly a riot, a deep thread of frustration coiled around and around, writhing like a pit of snakes. “Don’t you dare pity me,” he grits out, and Charles flinches away from his sudden lunge forward. “I’m not some pet curiosity of yours, something to be studied and tested and questioned . I saw the way you looked at me when you came in. You sought me out, you wanted to see how I’d react. Why the fuck would you do that?”
By now their voices have reached a more noticeable pitch, and people are starting to glance nervously in their direction, conversations faltering. Erik’s skin crawls at the thought of being observed like this, making a spectacle of himself. He looks away from Charles only long enough to stare down some of the more obvious gawkers, allowing his expression to settle into a familiar dead-eyed hostility, one that’s served him well in the past, before returning his attention to where it belongs.
“I did no such thing,” Charles insists, both eyebrows climbing rapidly towards his hairline. Erik’s anger spikes again, but he can’t think of a thing to say. Charles has got his heels dug in. It’s clear to him that there’s no scenario in which he’s going to admit what Erik knows is true, and he’s not sure anymore if he has the energy to draw this out any longer. It might just be better to cut his losses and get out while he still has some pride remaining.
Charles appears to have nothing more to contribute. He sits there, still tense as a bowstring, perhaps waiting for Erik to hang himself with his own paranoia.
“I’m going to go,” Erik says eventually, pushing back his chair with a screech of wood against wood. Charles doesn’t seem to hear him for a moment, and then his whole face morphs through several emotions in sequence, settling on frustration.
“Erik, don’t,” he snaps, and surprises them both by grabbing at Erik’s arm with unexpected strength, clamping down like a vise.
“Get off,” Erik snarls. He peels Charles’ fingers away and jerks his arm free, his heart battering itself against the cage of his ribs. “If you want to touch me, say so. Otherwise, stay the fuck away.”
Charles squeezes his eyes shut, rubbing furiously at the bridge of his nose. “Erik, for god’s sake, will you please sit down?”
“No. I don’t think I will.”
With that, he spins on his heel and stalks off, slicing through the crowd of people standing around like the hull of a ship breaking a clean vee across still, mirrored water. Charles doesn’t call him back.
When Erik was seventeen, he and Edie spent two months holed up in a cheap, drafty, one bedroom apartment in Boston. They slept in the same bed for warmth, crowded together on a secondhand Queen mattress that took up almost all the available space, made dinners from cans and boxes when they couldn’t afford anything fresh. Edie knew how to cook, and did it well when she had the supplies, but Erik’s job as a stock-boy at the local grocery barely covered rent. What was left after that had to be split up between the utilities and food, and though nourishment always came before heat and light, it still didn’t amount to very much in the end.
It was a bad situation for everyone concerned, really. Edie was nursing a nasty broken leg, and being out of commission made her restless and prone to lashing out. She hated that she couldn’t seem to control it, and that more often than not Erik bore the brunt of her unpredictable moods, but Erik didn’t resent her for it. He knew he’d be the same way if he was the one laid up, and could easily understand the seething, impotent anger. So he bore it silently for the most part, and shouted back at her when he could tell she needed it, those times when she wanted the outlet of an argument that ultimately meant nothing to either of them. Erik had thick skin; he took none of it personally.
Those few months weren’t the first time Erik spent out of school, and they certainly wouldn’t be the last. He liked school, because knowledge was power, but it just wasn’t practical when the majority of his life was lived on the road, transient and lost to momentum. If he went back after this it would probably be his last attempt before giving up for good. Erik was almost eighteen, and already looked older than his age. Lingering much longer in high-school would make him a joke more than anything, and Erik wasn’t equipped to deal with that. He’d probably end up punching someone in the face eventually, and then where would he be? Dropping out was practically a public service, for the greater safety of others.
Just because he wasn’t actively taking classes, however, didn’t mean his mind was idle. He’d spend his breaks sitting outside the grocery on an overturned white plastic bucket like some rangy, gruff sentinel, hunched over copies of Steinbeck, and Orwell, and Fitzgerald, all liberated for a brief time from the library near their apartment — he never bothered getting a lender’s card, but his fingers were nimble and quick. Sometimes he smoked, though he tried to limit himself, knowing Edie would smell it on him when he came home. She’d never told him to stop, but the pinched look of worry and slight disappointment he saw on her face was more than enough of a deterrent to make him think twice at least.
The week he happened to be working his way steadily through Kerouac was also the week he met Magda.
She approached him one afternoon, a vague shape in the corner of his vision, and tapped at the cover of On the Road before saying, “That’s a good book.”
When Erik looked up and met her calm, curious stare, he didn’t know how to respond other than to nod his head dumbly and mutter, “Yeah, it is.”
She offered him a smile, a tiny quirk of her thin, pale lips, and then walked away. Erik twisted in his seat to gaze after her as she disappeared into the grocery, a strange weight in his chest. No one ever smiled at Erik these days, no one other than his mother. It was an odd thing to experience, from a stranger.
Two days later she was back. Erik was mopping up a spill near the back of the store, and she appeared suddenly at the end of the aisle wearing a vibrant red trench-coat cinched in tightly around her tiny waist. It caught Erik’s attention immediately, that bright splash of colour, and he stood there staring until she noticed him, mouth twitching up in another one of those intriguing smiles. She looked away again and picked up a box of something off the shelf, flipping it to read the back. “Did you finish the book?”
Erik’s hands clenched around the handle of the mop, feeling bereft, wishing he could see her eyes. He cleared his throat a little. “I did,” he said.
“And did you like it?”
He sounded like some kind of grunting neanderthal, unable to string together any more than two words or less at a time, and his face went hot when she suddenly laughed, the sound of it low and a little hoarse just like her voice.
“Not the talkative type, are you?” she asked, and then finally turned back to him, sauntering closer. He could see her eyes now, a murky hazel, slightly heavy lidded in a way that made her look relaxed and loose, a little tired maybe. Erik shrugged and shoved one hand deep in his pocket, fingers toying with the bullet he always kept there, shiny from touch and wear.
“I speak when I have something to say.”
She smirked. “How philosophical of you.”
They lapsed into a short silence, her face quiet and considering, and then she said, “My name’s Magda, by the way. If you wanted to talk about the book sometime I’d happily oblige you.”
Erik gazed back at her, stunned. Was she…asking him out?
“I can’t,” he said, tugging nervously at the green apron tied above his hips. Magda reached out and tweaked the bowed knot with two of her long, skinny fingers, tugging a little before moving away.
“Well, if you change your mind, I’m sure I’ll see you around.” She paused, shifted the basket held in the crook of her arm. “What are you reading now?”
Erik shrugged again, feeling the flush return. He’d picked up a tattered copy of some pulpy spy thriller the day before, by an author he didn’t recognize. It was unlikely Magda would either. “Nothing you would know,” he said dismissively, hating that he felt embarrassed.
She didn’t seem put off by his answer though, merely smiled again, broader this time. “Well, you’ll have to tell me how it is when you’re done. I’m always looking for something new to read.” And then she walked off, tossing a final look over her shoulder before disappearing into the next aisle. Erik stood still for a long moment, trying to digest what had just happened, and then returned to his work. He tried not to think about how much he wanted to go after her.
Things progressed from there as one might expect, as someone used to this kind of boy-meets-girl story might expect.
But Erik wasn’t one of those people, that lucky multitude. He wasn’t used to anything but violence, death, horror, endless movement, and the steady, blazing love of his mother. He’d never had the chance to look at a girl — at a woman — and think, I want to know her. It had never occurred to him that this was something he could want, and it put him off balance, this stirring in his chest when he thought of Magda, of the idea of talking to her, as an equal. Erik kept the feeling close, unsure of whether or not to coax the little flicker into something bigger, another light to follow just as bright as the one that held his mother’s face, but different.
A week later they ate lunch together during Erik’s break, sandwiches and soda from the little deli next door. They talked about Kerouac, briefly, Erik stumbling over his words like a grade-schooler, before Magda cajoled him into telling her about the other book, the one he hadn’t wanted to mention before. Then it was easier. He didn’t mention why a story about guns and espionage and fighting evil might appeal to him especially, but she seemed to read his enthusiasm as a more simple, childlike fascination, something she could relate to. Erik wasn’t sure if he should be disappointed that the voice of his own experience didn’t shine through, or if he should be grateful. It was easier this way, at least.
After that they saw each other more often, in the evenings, on the weekends, whenever Erik could find a spare hour or two. Edie didn’t ask where he went all these times, but she wasn’t a fool. As much as Erik wished his happiness were less visible, she could clearly see what was happening, and would look at him sometimes across their scratched, rickety kitchen table with a look on her face somewhere between indulgence and grief. It was an awkward mixture, and Erik couldn’t understand it. He chose to focus instead on the guilt that tied his stomach into knots over how he was abandoning his mother for someone who he’d only just met, which was more than enough to keep his conscience busy.
Despite everything, though, he was happy. Erik cleaved to Magda’s side, fascinated by her intelligence, the wry curve of her mouth, her biting sense of humour wielded with the precision of a gleaming surgical tool. She was older than him, he discovered eventually, almost twenty to his seventeen, but neither of them were bothered by it. She would wrap herself around him, so small against his side, and her hand against the small of his back would guide them as they walked like she was leading a wild, easily spooked animal. The touch was comforting, and so he never thought to be embarrassed by the comparison even in his own mind. Erik idolized her in turn, quietly, intensely, only letting it show in fragments and snapshots, unused to giving freely of himself when he’d spent his whole life drawn inward to protect his every vulnerable inch. Magda took whatever he could stand to offer and never asked for more, and for a month and three days, it was good.
When he and Edie left Boston at the end of that second month, Erik said his goodbyes with dry eyes and trembling hands, his lungs so tight and heavy he could hardly breathe.
He didn’t love her then, and that was a blessing, but for the first time Erik learned what it felt to have something, and to leave that something behind. It was almost unbearable, the calm acceptance on Magda’s face the last time he saw her, the emotion in her eyes he couldn’t put a single name to but felt just as strongly. Not loss, not grief, but the terrible weight of a premature death, of having seen the start of something that would never grow beyond its stunted, limbless beginnings. It was the not knowing that hurt so keenly, a deep and throbbing ache.
After Magda, Erik didn’t bother trying again. His whole life was an endless series of endings, one after another, often violent, never easy. This was his burden, the world he’d been thrust into, and it was selfish, dangerous, to want anything more. His family was enough of an anomaly as it stood; he had the rest of his days to prepare for Edie’s eventual death, and he didn’t have the energy to spare for anyone else. It was better this way, to be alone.
And yet, Erik is so very far from alone.
Jogging down the street in the pale blue pre-dawn light, sweating out his anger and frustration and confusion, he tries to figure out when that changed, when he allowed it to change. What came first? Was it Emma, the girl he saved and ultimately ruined, who now he can hardly speak to for all the guilt weighing down his tongue? The woman he now breaks all his rules for, hamstrung by the need to protect, a feeling that implies connection, time, a promise without end. Was it men like Hank McCoy, contacts and fellow lost souls who cross Erik’s path when their interests align, not friends but no longer strangers? Was it his mother, who for all her strength and wisdom is still a hypocrite with every breath, having pulled Erik along behind her from the very beginning even though she taught him that attachments only led to death and disappointment?
You can save them, but you can’t protect them. You have to move on.
And what of Charles, his erratic, enigmatic new acquaintance? He rubs up against every self-protective instinct Erik had ever learnt, pushes his boundaries, regards him with the kind of pointed fervency that should by all rights make his skin crawl, but instead has left him bewildered as to how he could be deserving of so much attention. Nothing about Charles rings especially true; everything Charles has told him, no matter how believable or factual, still seems lacquered to a high shine by a wealth of careful omissions. It seems impossible that he ever might crack through and dig around as he pleases, as Charles is so eager to do to him in return.
He’s a sly, beautiful distraction, but not one he can leave behind in the morning, driving fast to meet the horizon. This is a problem.
He needs to go and fuck someone. Maybe then he’ll be able to think again, no longer hounded by thoughts and feelings he has no strategy for dealing with. No more white noise, no more tension that leaves his back and shoulders a mess of knots. It’s worked before, and why fix with what isn’t broken?
When Erik gets back to his apartment building the sun is just starting to fully rise, bathing the street in a hazy yellow glow. His tank-top is soaked, front and back, and even the long mesh shorts hang low and heavy on his hips. The humidity is stifling, even so early, and he retreats gladly to a cold shower to sluice off the sweat and grime from his run. The water is almost excruciating, pebbling his skin, tightening his nipples to aching points, and making all the muscles in his body seize and tremble in revolt, but all the same it’s a relief.
He spends the rest of the day — well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say he wastes the day sleeping on the couch in his underwear, eating take-out, and fucking around on the internet under the flimsy pretence of researching. The glamourous life of a hunter: when he’s not neck deep in gore it’s nothing but greasy food and day-time television. If his mother were here she would laugh at him long enough to make a point before going back to sharpening her knives, he’s sure of it, and the thought allows him to hate himself a little less. The spectre of her affectionate ridicule always seems to do the trick.
When the hour ticks past ten he throws on a passingly clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt before hitting the streets, ending up in an absolute hole of bar that serves its drinks in foggy, spotted glasses and whose ambient odour is something between piss and old sweat. A charming place to spend an evening, but the alcohol goes down like liquid fire and kicks like a bucking horse. That’s all Erik really needs.
Sometime around eleven he hooks one of the two bartenders, a young woman who has the eyes of a person twice her age and a smile like a sickle blade, and fucks her in the back room like the class act he’s never claimed to be. The obvious parallels of the situation do not escape him. He doesn’t particularly care.
Back on the street a half and hour later his phone goes off, vibrating insistently in his back pocket. He palms it and peers at the display, but it’s not a number he recognizes, which isn’t actually all that uncommon. He answers with his usual gruff, “Yeah?”
There’s a moment of silence, and then a familiar voice, low and smooth and irritatingly cultured. “Erik?”
Charles. Of course. Erik is only very slightly drunk, but even so it takes him a few seconds to remember how Charles has his number. The little shit must’ve kept it after he passed the info on to O’Meara. Maybe he’s still got the napkin Erik wrote it on, stowed away like some bizarre voodoo talisman. Maybe he’s been under Charles’ spell this whole time. It probably says something disparaging about Erik’s state of mind these days that the thought of that is more amusing than worrying, as it should be.
“Yeah,” he repeats, scratching at his five-o’clock shadow. “The one and only.”
Charles makes a noise that sounds almost like a laugh. “Are you drunk?”
“Not really. It’s been a long day.”
“Ah, I see.”
Erik keeps walking, waiting for Charles to explain himself. He says nothing for the length of a block, and all at once Erik’s patience runs out completely.
“What do you want, Charles?”
Again silence, and then, “I was wondering if you might like to join me for a nightcap? I missed you at the bar this evening.”
Erik thinks about all the things he could say to that, things like, I wasn’t there for a reason, and Did you conveniently forget about what happened the last time we spoke? What comes out of his mouth is, “Are you inviting me over?”
“I am, yes,” Charles says. “I promise not to murder you and and stuff your body down the garbage shoot.”
“Hm, well, that was an attempt to lighten the mood, but my humour has always tended toward the morbid this close to the witching hour. My apologies.”
Erik rubs at his face, sighing. “I’ve never met a single person as strange as you are, Charles.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would have.” Charles says it softly, as if to himself. Erik goes on, feeling suddenly uncomfortable.
“I’m not sure I want to see you,” he says, even though it’s an obvious lie to both of them. “You’re lucky I haven’t hung up yet.”
“Erik, please,” Charles insists. “I promise you it’ll be worth your time.”
Erik stops walking.
“And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” His stomach flips, clenching wildly.
“Whatever you want it to mean,” Charles says, and he sounds so calm about it, so perfectly nonchalant. Erik wants to reach through the phone and strangle him.
“I don’t fucking understand you.” He starts walking again, faster now, with purpose, adjusts his route to take him in Charles’ direction. “Fuck, why do I even care, why am I even bothering —.”
“You know why,” Charles says, and Erik’s blood surges at the way his voice goes soft and teasing. So sure of himself, his Charles.
His Charles. Well, as if that doesn’t say it all right there.
Erik grits his teeth, jaw flexing, and then exhales in a rush, laughing under his breath. The sound of it is more angry than amused, a little unhinged. Perhaps he’s more drunk than he realizes.
“So now you want to play?”
Charles’ laugh mimics his own. “How about we talk when you get here, hm? Ring me again and I’ll buzz you up.” And with that the line goes dead.
Erik almost chucks his cellphone to the pavement, settles for clenching it tightly enough in his fist to feel the plastic creak in protest. He starts running.
Charles is waiting for him when he storms out of the elevator, leaning against the frame of his open doorway down the hall with both hands shoved deep in pockets. He’s radiating amusement even from a distance, as if he’s never witnessed something so funny in his entire life, and that nearly does Erik in completely. His long steps eat up the distance between them in seconds, allowing him to crowd in close and slap one palm up above Charles’ head, the delicate underside of Erik’s wrist just brushing his hair. Charles eyes him without comment, not even flinching.
“What is wrong with you?” Erik snarls, but Charles only smiles, as if it had never occurred to him to be bothered by his show of aggression.
“So many things,” he replies, and while Erik tries to digest that weirdly blasé confession Charles continues. “Let’s start again. Hello, Erik, do come in.”
Then he ducks neatly under Erik’s outstretched arm and slinks into his apartment, leaving Erik to follow behind.
For a moment he’s hit with an enormous wave of deja vu, looking around him at the books stacked on every surface. McCoy’s similarly cramped apartment springs to the front of his mind, although Charles’ is considerably neater and smells much less of piss and mildew. The two of them could be kindred spirits, although Charles’ collection is hardly limited to just books — Erik’s never seen so much stuff in one place before, not a single inch of space left unclaimed. Potted plants on window sills with their lush green vines drooping down, chachkas on shelves, everything from odd little porcelain figurines to what appears to be a metal mesh basket filled with scuffed golf balls. For all that the room is clearly full to capacity, it doesn’t feel at all cluttered. Everything has its place.
Erik walks forward slowly, stopping just before the fringe of a thick rug spread the length of the floor. He hears an odd chirruping noise and looks down just as squat little bullet of a cat darts forward and busses up against him, purring loudly as it starts to twine in figure-eights around Erik’s legs. It’s so unexpected that he nearly flinches away, only just saves himself from that embarrassment.
“That would be Moggett,” Charles says, and Erik looks back up to see him trying to hide a smile behind his hand, eyes glittering. “He’s a bit simple, and entirely too trusting by half. No instincts to speak of. The poor boy should realize you’re nothing but bad news.”
“Hilarious,” Erik grumbles, trying to nudge the cat away without outright kicking it. He doesn’t have a good history with animals, even with ones that very obviously mean him no harm. Thankfully, Charles swoops in a moment later and relieves him of having to decide what to do.
“Come here, Moggett,” he hisses when the cat tries to dodge his reaching hands, and he’s just fast enough to grab it before it squirms away, holding it close to his chest. “Got you, you fickle creature.”
Charles ends up tossing the cat into what must be his bedroom and shuts the door. There’s a loud yowl of indignation, and then it goes mercifully quiet.
“Apologies,” Charles says when he turns back in Erik’s direction again. “Cats do tend to spoil the mood.”
Erik raises an eyebrow. “And what ‘mood’ would that be, exactly?”
He watches as Charles moves closer, still looking entirely too calm when Erik had all but assaulted him in the hallway not a minute before. His eyes trace over Erik from head to toe, very clear and very blue. Erik almost has to wonder if the cat was a diversionary tactic — all of his anger and frustration has largely drained away after their little comedic interlude, leaving him bemused and off his stride. Something tells him that Charles never acts with less than absolute deliberation when it truly matters, and isn’t above using unsuspecting animals to get Erik where he wants him, on his terms.
“Like I said on the phone, Erik. Whatever mood you want it to be.” Charles spreads his hands in surrender, and then gestures towards the sofa. “Why don’t you sit?”
Erik does so, sprawling back against the cushions and letting his legs fall open of their own accord. “Why the change of heart?” he asks, because he might as well. There’s no guarantee Charles will tell the truth, of course, but whatever lie he spins might be interesting anyway.
Charles cocks his head, moves so he’s standing between Erik’s knees. They look at each other for one long, suspended moment, Charles’ face a neutral mask.
“A…personal revelation, if you will,” he says softly. “And as you now know, I’m also not one to pass up a fuck when it’s available.”
Erik grins humourlessly, his lips pressed firmly together. “Except when it comes to me, apparently.”
“Yes, well, I tried to play the moral abstainer, it was a failed experiment, won’t be attempting that again etcetera etcetera.” Charles waves a hand in a vague, dismissive gesture. “My reasons are my own, but none of that matters now.”
“No, not anymore.”
And with that he glides right onto Erik’s lap without so much as a twitch of warning, knees to either side of his hips, thighs spread, ass snugged right up against Erik’s cock. He moves like he’s gone boneless, swaying as he shifts his weight fact and forth, a brutal squeeze and drag where they’re pressed so intimately together. Erik nearly bucks him off in surprise but Charles just rides the jerk and thrust, tugging Erik’s limp hands to rest at his waist, leaving his own arms to hang at his sides. He settles right back down on Erik’s crotch, mouth going soft, pleased.
“Oh, that will do,” he breathes, and his eyes are so dark now, so focused, no humour left beyond a kind of distant, sardonic self-deprecation. Erik squeezes at his waist, tries to keep him from leaning forward.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Come now, Erik, don’t be dense.”
Erik jostles him roughly. “You know what I mean.”
Charles’ brow furrows and he rises up off his haunches, bringing one leg in again so the bony spur of his knee now rests threateningly over Erik’s crotch. “Don’t shake me, you neanderthal.” He frames Erik’s neck with his hands, thumbs resting at the hinge of his jaw and fingers laced behind, threaded through his hair. “And don’t even try to convince me that you have ever cared about other people’s reasons for wanting sex, because I won’t believe you.”
He sinks down again, the sensation driving all the air from Erik’s lungs. He finds his breath with difficulty, unable to keep his hips from twitching up in little pulses against his will, pressing closer and closer to the yielding round of Charles’ ass.
“I thought what we had was more than this, Charles,” he mutters, eyes fixed on the bob of his throat. “I’m so disappointed.”
“Well, we can’t all be as noble as you, darling.”
Charles arches over him and buries his face in the side of Erik’s neck, inhales deeply, and then goes very still. Erik, who’s still reeling from the last turn in the conversation, braces himself for whatever’s coming next. Charles pulls back just enough so their faces remain close, noses almost touching. His expression is that of mild shock, layered over by desire.
“You smell like sex,” he says. “You smell like a woman.”
Erik doesn’t recall the bartender wearing any perfume, but he can’t exactly deny the truth of Charles’ accusation when his mouth is still redolent with the taste of her, so he lets his silence speak for itself.
“You don’t waste any time, do you?”
“Actually, I think I’ve wasted a lot of time, considering my usual habits,” Erik says.
An odd little trill of laughter works itself free of Charles’ throat. “Were you trying to save yourself for me, Erik? Oh, you’re even more of a wonder than I could have imagined. We really ought to just shut up and fuck before this gets any worse.”
Erik’s eyes narrow in confusion, but at the same time he finds himself grinning against his will. “I never would have pegged you for a romantic,” he says, dry as dust, and Charles huffs, buries his face in Erik’s neck again, this time opening his mouth to lip and suck at the skin there. Erik goes rigid, sparks of arousal shooting off in all directions, and he sucks in a frantic breath through clenched teeth.
“I’m still not entirely sure how we got here,” he confesses, shifting a little to try and ease some of the pressure over his cock, but Charles just moves with him, rubbing wantonly back and forth in retaliation.
“Stop thinking,” he implores wetly against the underside of Erik’s jaw, his usual smooth voice starting to break a little around the edges. “You’re the one who’s wanted this the whole time, and now here I am, in your lap, ready and willing. You’d best take advantage of my magnanimous nature before I change my mind.”
An awful chill works down his spine, unexpected and enough to douse the flame of arousal almost completely.
Erik turns his head a little so his own mouth is closer to Charles’ ear, nosing at the soft waves of his hair. His hands grip at Charles’ waist tightly enough to have him making a small noise of pain and surprise. “You say that as if you’re doing me some huge favour,” he says, teeth bared. “If this is a pity fuck, you’re going to want to get off me right now.”
Charles hisses as Erik’s fingernails start to dig in to the soft flesh of his sides. He nips at Erik’s neck in retaliation, laves his tongue over the wound.
“Maybe I wasn’t expecting to get someone else’s sloppy seconds when I invited you over here. Honestly, I’m feeling less interested by the second.”
Erik eases his grip. “So give me a little advance notice next time. I’ll pencil you in.”
Charles’ whole body shakes as he laughs, nails scratching in rhythmic sweeps back and forth through the short strands of Erik’s hair, a pleasant pressure against his scalp. It’s unexpectedly lovely, the way Charles is curled around him, hands and arms and legs, skin almost feverish where they touch.
“‘Next time’? There hasn’t even been a ‘this time’. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.”
“So take your own advice,” Erik murmurs. “Stop thinking. Stop talking. We’ve done enough of that, haven’t we?”
Erik raises one hand and lays it firmly along Charles’ nape, squeezing and tugging lightly, trying to get Charles to raise his head. When he does Erik meets his eyes, sees the heated play of desire still shining there, bright enough to match his own. Erik remembers thinking — that first time they met — of tipping Charles into the light, trying to find all his different facets, the many shifting, fleeting sides that he showed to the world from moment to moment. There’s something about him, some quality to his thoughts and actions, like there’s a dozen or more different versions sharing space inside a single body, all clamouring for their say. This is yet another Charles, one he wasn’t expecting to meet, and now that they’re here all his previous bluster seems childish and impatient, unnecessary. Maybe they would have arrived at this point all on their own, in good time, but now he’ll never know.
It doesn’t make him want Charles any less of course. He’s never claimed to be a good man.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of you,” Charles says, so quiet and absent it’s almost as though he’s speaking to himself, “but I’ll take this too.”
With that he closes the distance, sighing into Erik’s slightly parted mouth. At first it’s almost awkward, their lips off centre and a little dry, but Charles makes a rough, impatient noise and shifts his broad grip on Erik’s head, tilting just enough to slot them together perfectly. From there it’s one, two quick kisses, Charles sucking on Erik’s lower lip in a gentle tease that Erik pushes back against, finally able to respond after the initial disorienting surge of desire. He clutches at Charles’ neck and back, pulling him closer, content to slowly savour the plush softness of his impossible mouth.
A second later something shifts, the mood suddenly changing, urgency flaring between them like an arcing electrical current. Charles comes alive in his arms, the kiss turning filthy in the time it takes to draw one hitching breath, his tongue sliding in against Erik’s own without preamble. They both groan almost in unison, Erik in surprise and Charles with a throaty, relieved, deeply resonant satisfaction. He starts rocking back and forth again, the zipper placket on their jeans rubbing together in an almost brutal grind that sets Erik’s blood to pounding, throbbing loudly in his ears. It was not even an hour ago that he had his face between that woman’s legs, stroking his cock with long, twisting pulls in eager preparation, and still he feels insatiable, like he could come at any moment and be ready again instantly for more.
The kiss, however passionate, remains agonizingly unhurried, deep and wet and drugging. When Charles finally pulls away his eyes are dark, heavy lidded, his mouth shining with spit. Erik takes a moment just to breathe and appreciate the sight of Charles, flushed and disheveled, swaying in his lap.
“You taste like her.”
Charles says it with all the neutrality of idle observation, not a hint of accusation in his tone, like it’s the only coherent thought he has left. Erik gazes back at him, amused.
“I didn’t exactly stop to brush my teeth on the way over.”
“Mm, well, we’ll have to fix that then, won’t we?” Charles rises up, starts unbuttoning his shirt with quick, deft fingers, shrugging it off and tossing it aside. Erik takes over from there, smoothing his hands up Charles’ torso, nudging his damp undershirt as he goes, revealing a field of creamy white skin dotted over by a fine spray of freckles. He squeezes and strokes, engrossed in the trim musculature under his roving fingers, flirting with the bit of softness around Charles’ waist. There’s an odd aspect to him, somehow both slender and sturdy, solidly proportioned to balance the broad expanse of his shoulders. It makes Erik’s palms itch, eager to map every inch of him, follow afterward with tongue and teeth.
He follows the impulse, arches forward and kisses just below Charles’ navel, open-mouthed and wet, plots a zig-zagging path upward until he can lick one dusky pink nipple, feel it go stiff under his attention. Charles makes the sweetest sound in reaction, his wide palm pressed to the front of his slacks as Erik switches from one nipple to the other, moving with the jerk and twist of Charles’ body when he squirms. Erik covers the hand with one of his own and Charles groans, hips twitching forward, allowing Erik to guide them both.
They’re breathing raggedly now, and yet Charles still finds a way to speak, though his voice is just about shot.
“While this is certainly lovely,” — A hiss, thumbing curiously over one swollen, wet nub while Erik is busy with the other — “this couch is absolute hell on my knees, and you are really wearing far too many clothes.”
Erik laughs softly, tugs Charles down into his lap again, curving his hands around to cup and squeeze at Charles’ ass. He gasps, pushing back.
Charles nods his head fervently, biting at his lip.
“Then lead the way,” Erik says, and Charles climbs off him, staggers back on legs that look shaky and weak. He grabs Erik’s arm and pulls him to his feet, helps him to stumble across the rug to the closed door of Charles’ bedroom. When Charles opens it, the cat goes streaking past as if he was waiting there the whole time, disappearing through one of the open windows and out onto the fire escape. Charles makes a noise that sounds very much like a giggle, and Erik just about rolls his eyes clear out of his skull.
“Calm yourself, Charles,” he says, loops an arm around Charles’ waist and steers him into the room.
“That ridiculous cat.” Another odd little giggle. “How is a man supposed to seduce a mysterious stranger into wild, no-strings attached sex when he’s got a needy feline underfoot?”
Erik leans in and mouths teasingly at the shell of his ear. “If anyone could manage it would be you, Charles.”
“I should bloody well hope so,” Charles grumbles, then eels his way out of Erik’s hold, stripping off his rucked up undershirt as he goes. Erik follows suit without thinking, unable to take his eyes off the gorgeous line of Charles’ back, the freckles across his shoulders he’s treated to before Charles spins around again. He reaches out and hooks two fingers under the waistband of Erik’s jeans, tugs him along as he walks backwards towards the bed. Just before they reach the edge Charles swarms in close again and lifts up a little on his toes to claim Erik’s mouth in another deep kiss that makes stomach clench painfully with lust, overcome by the way Charles’ tongue thrusts and twines lazily around his own.
Erik rakes his hand up Charles’ back, his neck, clenches in his hair. He pulls Charles away, just enough, breathes into the humid air between them. “What do you want?”
Charles shudders and moans, grabs blindly for Erik’s hand and places it over his cock where is juts forward, already beginning to dampen the fabric it strains against. “God, please, suck me,” he says, eyes shut and bottom lip savaged. “I want you on your knees —“
Erik drops, folding down as gracefully as he can manage, pulls Charles out of his tight black jeans. His mind is a haze of white noise, and without even thinking he manhandles Charles onto the edge of the bed, removing the pants completely so he can shoulder his way between Charles’ obscenely spread thighs, leaving only his briefs behind. Charles reaches for him again, grabs at Erik’s head two-handed and reels him in with a choked off groan. Erik mouths at his cock through the wet, clinging cotton, the heavy scent of him enough to have his own cock, already fat and stiff, throb in reaction.
From there it’s a blur of skin and slick: Erik removing the last barrier between them with frantic hands so Charles is bare and ready for him; sucking him down, his lips stretched wide, trying to breathe through his nose and almost choking when Charles starts fucking his face at Erik’s urging; the sounds Charles makes with every slow, wet glide, like every one feels better than the last, little hitches and choked off groans, words half-spoken before they unravel just as quickly as they form. When Charles comes his whole body seizes, legs coming up around Erik’s head in reflex, thighs trembling and the tight clench of his fingers in Erik’s hair a bright flash of pain. His bitten-red mouth opens in a wide “o”, letting out one aching, breathy Ah! that sounds like the last gasp of a dying man, trailing off into silence.
Charles falls back onto his elbows, chest heaving while Erik licks him clean. He’s flushed all over, lips bitten a deep red that Erik aches to kiss.
“You are — really quite good at that,” he says, and Erik grins wolfishly, teasing him with one last flick of his tongue that makes Charles hiss and bat him away with a shaking hand. “Stop, stop, come here —“
He tugs at Erik’s hair, looking dazed and content. Erik obliges him by rearing up, planting a knee on the bed to lean over and take Charles’ mouth, cupping the side of his face. Charles strokes his chest and flanks, moaning quietly, and then breaks away to scoot up further on the bed with Erik in tow. The two of them fumble with the button on Erik’s jeans, getting distracted every time Charles’ fingers nudge at Erik’s cock, too many times to be accidental. The sly grin on his face is equally as damning.
“Charles, for fuck’s sake…” Erik rolls off him onto his back, arches his hips to shove his jeans and underwear down, kicking them away. Charles follows after, falling across Erik’s torso like he’s starving with a disbelieving groan.
“My god, look at you,” he murmurs into Erik’s stomach, nipping at the skin with teeth that are disconcertingly sharp. Erik can’t quite prevent himself from preening under the attention, enjoying the feel of Charles’ tongue tracing slick curlicues across his belly for a few pleasant seconds before he goes cold all over at a sudden realization.
Erik is astonished that he’s failed to think about them until now, so used to being aware of his body, having to know his vulnerabilities and weaknesses at any given time, keep track of his injuries and calculate what he can handle, what might hinder him. But there have been other things on his mind for weeks now, things outside his normal sphere that take up space and push everything else to the side. It seems impossible that he could forget about the patchwork of white lines both jagged and smooth that criss-cross his skin from head to toe, angry red puckers from gunshot wounds and gashes sewed up by his own shaking hand. Seems impossible, but clearly isn’t.
He isn’t ashamed of them of course, doesn’t care how upset people get at seeing them, but…there are so many of them, some more ugly than others, and there are no good stories to explain that. He has a list as long as his arm of things he’s made up on the fly to placate one-night-stands, but like so much else in his life at the moment, Charles goes against type. There’s no flip answer he can give that Charles will believe, not without also weaving some elaborate lie to support it that he has no interest in having to maintain.
And yet, Charles hasn’t said a word.
Perhaps he’s one of the few, the very few, who are content to let him tell his story in good time, if at all. As much as Charles runs his mouth at every opportunity, he seems to know when to keep his own counsel, when his questions might be unwanted.
Like now, when there are other, nicer things for his mouth to do.
So Erik says nothing himself —
— and yelps when Charles suddenly twists his nipple, a sharp frisson of pain that almost has him reacting on instinct, a thoughtless impulse to throw Charles off the bed and reach for a knife that isn’t there. Charles looks down at him from where he’s crouched on all fours over Erik’s body, his hair a tousled mess.
“Where did you go?” he asks, bends to gently kiss the throbbing skin in apology. “I lost you for a second there.”
Erik shrugs. “I…had a thought. It doesn’t matter.”
“Mmm, dangerous thing, having a thought. Am I not engaging enough to keep your interest?”
Erik’s erection has, admittedly, flagged a little, only half-hard now, but reaching out to touch Charles and pull him down, pressing their naked bodies together, is more than enough to re-ignite the warmth in his gut. He rolls his hips, rubs his cock against the soft skin of Charles’ belly, groaning under his breath.
“Just a moment of distraction. I’m all yours now.”
“Good. I’m not done with you just yet, Erik Lehnsherr.” Charles punctuates that statement with a kiss, teasing apart the seam of his lips with that agile tongue. Erik opens gladly, kisses back with growing fervour. He moans when Charles wraps his hand around his cock, stroking slow and tight, thumb gliding over the head where it’s still slick.
“There you are, darling, good to have you back…” Charles breathes, changing his grip, wrist snapping faster as Erik hardens again.
Erik writhes in fits and starts against the messy sheets, trying to contain himself but failing utterly when his vision is filled with nothing but Charles’ flushed face still so close to his own, his blue, blue eyes dark with greedy possession. It’s all he can see, and the urgency from before has returned like he’s been jolted with a dose of pure adrenalin, heart pounding and breathing harsh in what little space remains between them.
“What do you want?” Charles asks, a purposeful echo of Erik’s own question earlier. “It’s your turn now. There must be something, after all that time spent pining —,”
“I wasn’t pining,” Erik grits out, and Charles just laughs, low and silky.
“No, of course not, I shouldn’t exaggerate. How terribly mean of me.” He scoots forward a little, just enough so that Erik’s cock slots into the crease of his ass, slipping easily back in forth with the aid of the slick leaking in copious strings when Charles rolls his hips. Erik’s eyes squeeze shut, breathing out a stream of curses. His hands fly to clutch and squeeze, holding all that firm, pert flesh in his palms, groaning as he pushes the cheeks together and fucks desperately into the tight space between them. Charles knows what Erik wants, gets pleasure out of teasing him with close and almost, and Erik has no desire to do anything to dissuade him, not when it feels like this. He can bear this a little longer, bring himself to the edge and pull away. He’s already come once this evening, and waiting is its own sweet torture.
For a moment it looks as though Charles is about to say something else, some sharp, wicked thing no doubt meant to hurt in all the best ways. The moment doesn’t last, Charles’ face going slack and dreamy after one particularly eager thrust, and suddenly Erik suddenly decides he’s waited long enough after all. He wants to see that expression again, wonders if Charles might beg for him when he’s finally balls deep and fucking, what that might sound like.
Without even thinking about it he rolls them, pushing Charles down onto his back with one hand and arching over him, still cradled in the vee of his thighs.
“I’d like to fuck you now, if you have no objections.” Erik says it against Charles’ mouth where he’s let it drop open in shock, his voice a deep, gravelly rumble. The response he gets is a hoarse moan, jagged like it’s being pulled from somewhere deep and secret, and it makes a flare of heat shoot up his spine, vision almost blurring.
Charles reaches up over his head, roots around under the second pillow and pulls out a large, half-empty bottle of slick, which he pushes into Erik’s hands. Erik smirks at him, considers the bottle. “You little slut,” he purrs, and Charles grins wildly, unapologetic.
“It’s nice having the necessary supplies on-hand,” he says. “I never use that pillow anyway. I sleep like the dead, don’t move at all.” He laughs, and Erik can’t figure out why it sounds so self-deprecating.
“And no one ever stays the night?”
Charles shakes his head.
“Am I expected to shove off as soon as we’re done, then?”
At that Charles’ face falls a little, and he pulls Erik down for a soft, chaste kiss. “No, I think I can make an exception.”
Erik would ask him why, but that’s a conversation for later, not when he’s hard as nails and dying to come, when he has Charles under him, eager to be fucked.
“C’mon, Erik, don’t lose the thread now.”
Erik chides him with a quick nip on his jaw, then leans back to generously coat his fingers with slick. Charles spreads his legs wide without needing to be prompted, both feet braced against the bed. Erik grabs at one thigh, pushes it up further and keeps it there as he starts to massage slow, drawn out circles at Charles’ hole while he pants and squirms under Erik’s touch. When he’s loose enough to start sliding in fingers, one at a time, Erik almost can’t bear to watch himself do it, shaking at the sight of Charles taking him so beautifully. The way Charles moves — arching his back, belly pulled taut and quivering, hands flat against the wall and pushing down to meet every thrust of Erik’s fingers — he looks earthy, his body so fleshy and firm, every colour saturated: his eyes, his mouth, the hectic flush of his skin where it’s not pale white, the freckles across his chest and arms, all of him. He’s biting his lip again, till it’s so swollen and red Erik wants to soothe the hurt, lave at it with his tongue, but that would mean looking away from where his fingers are stretching Charles open. However much it’s a torment, testing his control in ways he’s never experienced, he has to look, has to see.
Actually fucking Charles, however, is something else entirely. Pushing in just about does him in, and there’s a long moment where he has to grit his teeth and breathe, glaring daggers at Charles who grins cheekily and refuses to hold still when Erik is trying so hard not to come. Surely the bastard doesn’t want the whole thing over before it can even begin, Erik thinks, but Charles seems to derive such blatant joy from tormenting him, knows exactly how hard and how far to tease. He’s a fucking menace, and Erik only barely survives that initial push, groaning once his balls nudge up against the curve of Charles’ ass.
His grin is gone now, though, replaced by a glassy-eyed look of overwhelming pleasure, mouth pressed together and eyes shut, lashes trembling against his cheek. Erik wants to ruin him, shake him up and blow him apart, watch as all that smug charm turns to mindlessness. He holds off for only a handful of seconds more to let Charles adjust, get used to the feel of him. He breathes heavily through his nose, whining on every exhale, but once Erik starts to move the noises become louder, more guttural, spiralling upward. His fingers clutch at Erik’s neck and back, legs hooked around both hips, every part of Charles surrounding him as he fucks in, and in, and in.
When Charles’ cock starts to fill again, swelling stiff and thick against his belly, Erik reacts by thrusting harder, faster, rutting like an animal in heat. Charles throws his head back against the pillows and sobs.
“Erik, Erik, oh god fuck —“ The words tumble from his slack mouth, slip under Erik’s skin and burn. It’s too much. “Please, please, fuck me—“
For all his attempts at self-control, Erik doesn’t last as long as he’d like. When he comes, he buries his face in the side of Charles’ neck, holding fast to his hips and thrusting as deep as he can with one final, drawn out moan. Charles’ fist is a frantic, desperate blur on his cock until he comes a heartbeat later, silent and strung tight as a wire before dropping boneless against the sheets, still breathtakingly gorgeous in his satiety. Erik lifts himself up enough to see it, strangely desperate, staring like he’s trying to sear the image into his memory, just in case he never gets a second chance. Charles gazes back at him, the heave of his chest slowing bit by bit, and the expression on his face is more relaxed, though his eyes shine with some unknown emotion.
Outside a car-horn blares, followed by another in quick succession. The moment is broken.
Erik deals with the condom, uses his discarded boxers to clean up the smaller mess of come streaked across Charles’ chest, and then collapses, limbs refusing to hold him up any longer, all his energy gone. Charles pulls him in, tucks Erik as close as he can, and Erik allows it because he’s too exhausted to put up a fight.
“I have work tomorrow,” he mumbles, eyes already drifting shut. Charles hums in acknowledgement.
“Don’t worry about waking me up when you go,” he says, and then pauses, continuing in a voice so soft and familiar Erik should be running. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening?”
Erik’s heart thuds in his chest, rattling against the cage of his ribs, and he almost gags trying to swallow back whatever ridiculous thing he was going to say next. Instead, he grunts, letting Charles take that as he will.
Moments later he’s asleep, the feel of Charles hand stroking his temple following him down into the black.
It’s a sensation, a very specific one, that he somehow knows to trust.
Erik spends his day in a haze of satisfaction and remembered pleasure, going through the motions. It should bother him, the fact that work drags, leaving Erik far too much time with his thoughts; how he can’t seem to banish Charles’ face, his lazy smile, the sound of his voice when he comes. It should make him want to flee, that all he can think about is Charles’ humour, his insight, his incongruously posh accent, the way he refuses to let Erik off the hook for anything, fights him every step of the way. His curiosity, his intelligence, his undeniable charm — nothing but a litany of Charles Charles Charles drowning out the world around him.
Leaving Charles’ apartment that morning had been ridiculously, unreasonably difficult. He’d woken up to warmth all down his side, bare skin to bare skin pulling apart with a sweaty tackiness that made Erik long for a shower when he propped himself up on an elbow to look down at where Charles was curled on his side, away from him, hair spilling across his brow. The blinds were firmly shut over the lone window, letting in not even a sliver of sunlight, but even in the grey gloom Erik felt himself unable to look anywhere else than at the glow of Charles’ skin. He reached out to run a finger down the curve of his spine but flinched back instantly, unsettled by the utter lack of heat in every place where they hadn’t been pressed together all night. He felt…cold, which seemed impossible in this weather, unless Charles happened to moonlight as a cold-blooded reptile when Erik wasn’t around.
All the same he drew up the thin sheet they’d long since kicked to the foot of the bed and draped it over him, relieved when Charles didn’t so much as twitch in reaction. He’d told Erik not to worry about waking him up, but he still seemed to be sleeping so deeply that Erik was loathe to disturb him, even accidentally.
He dressed in the dark, wrinkling his nose at the come-stained boxers he had no choice but to put back on, shimmying into his jeans and retrieving his shirt from the floor where he’d dropped it earlier. When he slunk out into the main room of the apartment Moggett was waiting for him, curled up on the back of the couch with its luminous eyes fixed on the bedroom door. Erik ignored it, walked right past on his way to the kitchen where he poured himself a quick glass of water that he bolted down in three swallows.
And then he left, before he could talk himself into lingering for just a little longer. Because to do so would be out of the question. Completely.
Getting through the work day without maiming himself by accident is an accomplishment, and Erik escapes as soon as he’s able, rushing back to his own apartment to take the long-desired shower and wash away the the film of sweat, grease, lube, and come he’s been stewing in for hours. Afterwards he feels like a human being again, but there’s a small part of him that regrets removing the memory of Charles from his skin, replacing it with the bland, inoffensive stink of plain soap. Erik wants to lobotomize himself at the realization — this kind of sentiment is intolerable, and bound to sour. He has no idea what he’s doing. He’s going to fuck everything up eventually, sooner rather than later if his history is any indication.
This is why he doesn’t stop.
This is why.
Erik orders in a pizza for dinner, too distracted to make anything, and eats in stubborn silence, his phone deliberately turned off. Afterward he takes up his usual spot on the fire escape to read for a bit — and the fact that he has a usual spot is almost one revelation too many. His skin itches, feels too tight, but it has nothing to do with the heat. Nothing at all.
When the light finally goes he retreats back inside, wishing he’d at least had the foresight to dirty a plate at dinner rather than eat straight out of the box, if only so he might have something to do with his hands. There’s nothing to clean, though. Nothing at all.
Nine o’clock finds him out on the street again, en route to Charles’ bar, very deliberately not thinking about what it is that he’s doing, what he hopes to accomplish, why it feels like he’s being inexorably pulled in that direction, a compass point straining North. It’s too easy, going back. It shouldn’t be this easy. It shouldn’t be a repeat of the night before, prowling from block to block with the spectre of Charles haunting his every step, goading him onward, reeling him in because of course he’s going to see Charles again, of course.
Erik is so caught up in the roiling storm of his thoughts that he almost doesn’t hear it.
It being the sound of a metal garbage can toppling over, the shuffle of struggling feet, clicking heels. He stops abruptly just before the alleyway next to the bar, senses on alert, ears straining for more. The clang of the empty can hitting pavement wasn’t close, came from somewhere further down the alley, and there’s something in the air that makes his neck prickle with alarm, some nebulous danger. He hasn’t felt this way since his last hunt, and he recognizes the feeling for exactly what it is. The world narrows, becomes nothing more than the unknown threat waiting to be put down.
Erik bends over, eyes on the alley, and retrieves his knife from it’s sheath inside his boot. Keeping to the shadows he creeps slowly forward, waiting for his vision to adjust to the murky black. A quiet whimper rips the silence in two. Erik’s hackles go up, he moves forward, straining to see around the larger dumpster blocking his view.
And then he sees, and wishes he did not.
He doesn’t understand what he sees, for a long, long moment. Too long.
Erik knows that profile, limned just so by the moonlight. He knows those hands, clenched at the woman’s waist and buried in her hair, pulling her head to one side. He knows that body, intimately, the groan of pleasure he thought was for him alone. There’s no way he would give it up for anyone other than Erik, no way he could bare himself so completely.
He doesn’t know that thick, wet sound of sucking, the faint smell of copper hanging in the air. He doesn’t know the sharp glint of unnaturally long teeth, wicked canines that gleam black — they would be red, in any light other than this. He would know them then.
Erik feels dizzy, all of a sudden, his ears ringing louder than the clanging of church bells, vision going bright and spotty. He stumbles back, collapses behind a stack of cardboard boxes, legs drawn up close to his body, and is pathetically grateful that he remains unheard. With shaking hands he slots the knife back where he took it from only moments before, and slumps against the brick wall behind him, trying to breathe around the suffocating sense of disbelief, the howl of denial crawling up his throat.
He flinches violently when he hears a voice — his voice, solicitous and concerned.
“Darling, are you quite all right? You said you were feeling sick, you needed some air, do you not remember —?” A soft, shaky reply that Erik can’t discern. “How are you feeling now? We should go back in, you need to sit down. I don’t know why I didn’t just take you to the bathroom…”
The sound of an emergency door opening, the two voices fading away, the door shutting again with a loud bang.
Erik stares off into the black, his whole body numb, and wonders why he would want to breathe at all.
When Erik was eight years old he went to sleep one night, and woke up to the sound of screaming in the yard.
They’d been living on the farm for a month, his mother fretting more and more every day that they were imposing on the hospitality of his Aunt Caroline and Uncle Josef who had so graciously taken them in when they arrived from Germany. Jacob always shushed her, promised that his brother welcomed their presence in the house, that they had more than enough room to put them up until they were back on their feet again.
Erik would watch them argue and feel a strange pit in his stomach, worried that they didn’t love each other anymore. In Germany they had bickered from time to time, but that was what parents did, and so Erik never paid it any mind. But these days, it was different. His mother sounded frustrated, uncomfortable, angry — there was something about the house that unsettled her, about being there at all, displaced and without a home of their own in a foreign country. None of his father’s reassurances seemed to make things any better, and so there remained a tension between them that even Erik, who was young and didn’t quite understand these things, could feel just as keenly.
Erik liked living on the farm, but he never said as much, terrified at the thought of what his mother might think.
He couldn’t help it, though. The farm was so different from living in a city, the sounds and smells so much sharper, fresher, louder. He could run and explore to his heart’s content, catching frogs in the river nearby, tromping through the fields scaring off crows and other birds that showed too much interest in the growing crops.
He liked his Aunt and Uncle too, their warm smiles and easy laughter. Caroline was teaching him English, which he struggled with and was all the more determined to master because of it. Josef sometimes let him help feed the animals in the mornings, carrying the slop bucket for the pigs, the seed for the chickens. Other times he would sit on a bale of hay and watch as Josef mucked out the horses’ stalls, and occasionally he would sneak away to feed one a small piece of apple from his palm when his uncle wasn’t looking.
As the nights got warmer, Erik took to sleeping in the barn, curled in a nest of blankets he’d carried up to the hay-loft. He found it so easy to sleep with the smells and the sounds of the animals all around him, the chirp of crickets outside in the long grass. Every now and again his father would join him, and Erik liked those days best, the feeling of Jacob wrapped around him, his strong arms holding Erik close.
That night Erik had gone to bed before the others, left them in the kitchen drinking wine and beer, still warm and heavy from dinner. His father reassured him he would come to the barn later, he just wasn’t tired yet, and so Erik went on his own and bedded down in the sweet smelling hay, determined to wait for him but falling asleep anyway. It had been a long day. He dreamed of nothing, his exhaustion pulling him deep under, too deep for anything.
The scream split the night in two.
Erik sat up, instantly, and all of a sudden there was nothing but noise, shouting and hysterical screaming, too much for his cottony brain to discern with any clarity. He was barely half-awake, dry-mouthed and disoriented, but some instinct had him flinging back the blankets and crawling to the ladder, having to go slow as he descended so he didn’t fall and break his neck. He blindly ran to the front of the barn, bare feet kicking up dust and hay, and stopped where a shaft of moonlight cut across the floor, spilling in through the open door, just enough to slip through if he wanted.
He didn’t want.
Terrified, he clung to the aged wood and looked out, trying to see what was happening. Before he could even begin to take in the scene the shouting stopped.
The scream did not.
A moment later Erik realized it was his mother, though it sounded more like crying now, and some instinct had him moving out into the yard, needing to find her, to help her. He stumbled forward, looking around him, not comprehending what he was seeing.
Josef and Caroline were standing in the yard, with long, broad, serrated knives in their hands, and there were…bodies, fallen like puppets cut from their strings, all around them. None of them had heads, though they were nearby, rolled onto their sides, some with hair obscuring the macabre death mask of their face, others bare with eyes wide and staring up at the stars.
Erik must have made some kind of noise, because Caroline’s head snapped in his direction, arm raised to strike until she realized who he was. She immediately dropped the knife, rushing towards him.
“Come here, Erik,” she said, voice mostly firm, with only a slight tremble underlining the urgency of her words. She drew him in to her and pressed his face to her stomach, trying to shield him, stroking his hair without even seeming to realize she was doing it. “Oh, god, Josef! Erik is here! He’s fine! Oh, Erik, Erik, I’m sorry. I’m sorry—“
Erik couldn’t understand what it was she was apologizing for. His mother was still wailing.
“Take Edie and Erik inside, Caroline,” Josef said, approaching the two of them with a heavy stride. He was still holding tight to his own knife, and out of the corner of his eye Erik could see how it shone, slick and red. “I’ll take care of — of the bodies.”
Caroline did as she was told, steering Erik towards the front porch of the house, leading him inside. She sat him down on the sofa, hands on his shoulders, and they looked at each other in the dim yellow lamplight, her deep brown eyes filling with tears. Erik couldn’t tear his own away from the streaks of blood on her face, on her neck, her hands, the wild curling mess of her hair.
“Stay here, darling,” she said. “I need to go get your mother.”
“Okay,” Erik whispered, feeling himself start to tremble, though he couldn’t figure out why.
Caroline disappeared outside again, and a few minutes later his mother’s wild grief petered out into silence. He heard them come up the front steps, the creaking of the screen door, and then Edie was in the room. For one long, awful eternity she looked at Erik like she didn’t understand who he was, and then her expression crumpled and she staggered forward, falling to her knees in front of him. Her hands framed his face, gripping so tight it nearly hurt.
“Erik, Erik, my baby, oh g-god.” Her voice broke again, fragmenting into harsh, heaving sobs, and Erik could do nothing but fall into her arms, feeling tears start to stream down his face.
Erik doesn’t remember anything of what came after that night, not a thing until a week or so later when he stood in the shadows outside the kitchen and listened to Josef and Caroline tell his mother about the things that killed her husband, the…creatures, the vampires, but vampires weren’t real, they weren’t. The words made no sense; they couldn’t be true, and yet his Aunt and Uncle spoke with grim, sober voices, not a single falsehood in their account. He could tell, but the knowing didn’t make anything better. Erik didn’t like this dream, this impossible nightmare where monsters were real and his father was dead. He didn’t want it.
But nobody cared what Erik wanted. His mother was broken, and his father was never coming back.
He started overhearing more conversations late at night, voices raised almost to the point of shouting, his mother and Josef for the most part. Erik had no interest in any of it, made a point of leaving the house if he could, or plugging his ears if he couldn’t. Nothing ever seemed to get resolved; every few days it would to start up again, the argument rehashed over and over.
And then one afternoon Josef drove off into town for groceries and Caroline took Edie around the back of the house, set up cans along the fence and handed her a pistol. Erik sat on the back steps and watched as his mother shot the gun for the first time, flinching away and almost dropping it at the retort. Caroline stepped in and spoke to her calmly but firmly, correcting her stance, bracing her arms, murmuring other instructions Erik couldn’t hear. For the next hour Edie emptied one clip after another, and by the end of it she’d managed to shoot one can, clipping it just enough to send it flying into the long grass. Her face was like stone, but her eyes blazed with satisfaction, even from a distance.
They practiced the rest of the week, while Josef was away at work, and after the shaky start Edie progressed by leaps and bounds. Erik could see how impressed Caroline was. She wasn’t a woman to hide her emotions, and it shone from her face like a beacon, gaining strength as Edie did.
It wasn’t just the guns either. Day after day Caroline would drag out a new weapon: knives, machetes, crossbows of two different sizes. If it wasn’t too hot they would work on hand-to-hand in the yard, Caroline sweeping Edie’s feet from under her enough times in a row to have his mother spitting mad, more determined than ever to get Caroline on the ground. Sometimes Erik would get roped into the lessons, though neither could quite bear to hand him anything more deadly than a Swiss Army knife. The self-defence was easier for them to swallow; he took to it like a seal to water, quick and agile enough to make up for his utter lack of strength, and it was exhilarating to finally be doing rather than simply watching. Erik understood that his mother was preparing for something, though neither she nor Caroline would tell him what, and he didn’t want to be useless, a burden. He wanted to make his father proud, wherever he was.
Two months later, Edie packed up the car, dragging Erik out of bed just before dawn, and they drove off into the morning mist.
Erik fell asleep again as soon as they cleared the county line, and when he woke up he could see his mother was crying, silently, staring straight ahead at the road. The tears fell one after another, streaking down her face, but her hands were steady on the wheel, perfectly steady.
Erik sits in the alley for longer than he should, trying very, very hard not to think abut anything at all.
His heart is still going a mile a minute, his chest is still tight, but that could mean any number of things. It doesn’t have to mean that he’s in shock, that he’s half a second from lashing out in ways that are incredibly ill-advised. It doesn’t have to mean that he’s an idiot, an idiot, for not seeing what was right in front of his face, for ignoring his instincts, for being so obliging as to offer up his most vulnerable parts to the monster that likes to play with its food.
Erik can taste bile at the back of his throat, sharp and acidic, but the rest of his mouth is bone dry. Swallowing seems impossible.
The voice is his mother’s, as it always is.
Get up, Erik. Do your job.
Erik lurches to his feet, upsetting the precarious tower of cardboard boxes next to him. He wades through the ensuing mess and leaves the alley, starts walking away fast, fumbling for his cell phone.
He calls McCoy.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end is rough, as though McCoy had just been sleeping. Any other time, Erik might feel at least a little bad. Not right now.
“I need Dead Man’s Blood,” Erik says, skipping the pleasantries. A plan is already unfurling in his mind — a bad one, an incredibly bad one, but it’s something when all he wants to do is lie down somewhere small, dark, quiet, and scream — and McCoy is going to help him whether he wants to or not.
“Wait, what? Dead Man’s Blood?” McCoy still sounds half awake, cotton-mouthed and slow. “Since when are there vamps in New York City?”
Erik almost bites his tongue on the lie, his stomach lurching. “Just one, maybe. I’m not sure yet. A little insurance to have during recon would be appreciated.”
“Hm, okay, yeah. Do you want to come by tomorrow —?”
“No,” Erik snaps. “I’m on my way over now.”
There’s a short silence. “….Sure, sounds good.”
Erik doesn’t say goodbye before hanging up, bolts down the sidewalk at a dead sprint. He reaches McCoy’s apartment in what must be record time, sweating through his shirt front and back, chest heaving for breath as he bangs loudly on his door. When McCoy answers he looks ready to do the usual dance, but Erik’s impatience spikes dangerously into the red.
“Skip it, McCoy,” he snarls, and the door slams shut.
“You’re not coming in then.”
“For fuck’s sake, Hank, I don’t need to come in. Just give me what I came for.”
Silence, as though he’s considering.
A few moments later McCoy opens the door again, just a crack, and thrusts a brown paper bag in Erik’s direction, which he takes with a absentminded grunt of thanks.
“Tell me how it goes,” McCoy says, and Erik can just see the glint of his glasses in the shadow beyond the door. “Emma will want to know too, probably.”
Erik’s stomach lurches again, but he grits his teeth and nods. “I’ll be in touch.”
The first time Erik ever stayed in the apartment Emma had purchased for his use, it took no less than five minutes after walking in the front door to have him reaching for the phone.
“What the fuck did you do to the second bedroom?” he asked when she picked up, standing in the doorway to the room in question and looking in.
“I made it useful,” Emma replied idly, as if she were busy with something else and didn’t care about what Erik did or didn’t think. “It’s a panic room of sorts, a rich people thing. My parents have one in their house.”
“And why would I need a panic room?”
“You’re the experienced hunter, Erik. You figure it out. I’m sure there’s some use you could find for it.”
She hung up then, leaving him to explore the space to his satisfaction. The specs were impressive, admittedly: steel reinforced door, complete sound proofing, an extensive stock of non-perishables, a few gallons of water, a modest cot shoved in the corner on which piles of blankets and other linens were stacked, a desk with two chairs, a short-wave radio, and a whole host of other items meant for either comfort or practical use. Under the cot he found a large, comprehensively stocked First Aid kit, and another case that turned out to contain a gun, a taser, and a length of rope.
All told it was well put together, though unnecessary. Erik couldn’t imagine ever using it for himself. If something was gunning for his life, he intended to fight it, not run off with his tail between his legs.
From Emma’s point-of-view it made a certain amount of sense. As much as she was devoting herself these days to the art of self-defence, to making herself invulnerable, there were some fears that never quite went away. The fact that she was extending her protection to Erik, that she cared enough to do that, was something he could appreciate. Erik would never say as much to her, of course, but there was already so much that went unsaid between them; one more thing wouldn’t matter in the long run.
Erik never did end up using it. The door stayed closed, locked, and largely forgotten for years.
He’s found a use for it now.
The silver manacles and chain lie coiled at the bottom of the weapons duffel, next to the ones made of iron. The second set have always seen more use, but it’s good to be prepared.
Erik lifts them out, drapes them across the floor so he can check their strength, inspect the links for flaws. The silver’s tarnished, dark, missing the tell-tale gleam. Erik’s not worried, though. It won’t make any difference.
When Erik opens the panic room he’s assaulted by the smell of stale air and dust. There’s no window, and it’s been a very long time since anyone stepped foot inside, so it’s hardly surprising, though unpleasant. He coughs, waving his hand in front of his face, and goes to kneel down beside the cot, pull out the First Aid kit from underneath. More dust, enough to turn his fingertips grey, disturbed as he flips open the case and goes digging for what he needs.
A syringe, just one, packed in sterile casing. The brown paper bag sits on the kitchen table, waiting.
When everything is ready, Erik makes the call.
“Erik? Where are you? I thought you were coming tonight.”
“Sorry, I — something came up that I had to deal with.”
“Oh. Should I expect you tomorrow then?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Silence, hesitation. “Actually, do you…would you like to come over to my place? Tonight?”
“Erik, how forward of you —“
“Don’t. Please don’t joke. I just — I need to see you.”
“You…need to see me?”
“Yeah. I was thinking about last night, and I — I want to talk to you, but not on the phone.”
“Ah, okay. Sure, Erik, I’ll come over. Whatever you need. Text me your address?”
“Sure. Okay. I’ll see you soon?”
“I’ll be right over.”
Erik sits at the kitchen table and waits, full syringe placed next to his hand. He stares ahead at the door, trying to ignore its presence, but it sits damningly in the corner of his vision, a splash of red, a constant reminder of just what it is he’s about to do. All the windows in the apartment are closed for once, as a precautionary measure, leaving the air still and close.
A bead of sweat slides down his temple. There’s a twitch developing above his right eye. His stomach roils, clenching with a surging froth of emotions he refuses to name or acknowledge.
Unsurprisingly, it takes what seems like forever for Charles to arrive. Erik waits, though, with quiet, patient intensity. This is different, this is the hunt. He’ll sit here for as long as it goddamn takes, no matter what. He spent an entire night lying in a ditch, once; half an hour is nothing in comparison, nothing at all.
The clock says nearly eleven by the time the call button goes. Erik doesn’t flinch, gets up to buzz Charles in, then returns to the table.
He does flinch when Charles knocks, though. Violently.
Taking a single slow breath he palms the syringe with his right hand, braces it between two fingers, and goes to the door. Using the same hand he turns the knob, opens to see Charles standing there in the hall, calm as anything. Erik almost can’t look at him, fear and anger and denial, again, spiking dangerously. He bites his tongue and gives Charles a small, close-mouthed grin, uses the pain to steady himself enough to meet Charles’ eyes, see his answering quirk of lips.
“Come in,” Erik says, his voice miraculously steady even as his nerves jangle in protest. He’s inviting a monster into his home, giving him access. The thought should be enough to make him rescind the invitation immediately, have him reaching for the silver knife he’s got shoved through the back of his belt. It should be more than enough.
But he doesn’t. He waves Charles in, lets him pass, shuts the door quickly behind them.
Erik moves in close, loops one arm gently around Charles’ waist, and he almost gasps when Charles melts against him, making a low, pleased sound. The smell of him, so briefly dear, is almost overwhelming.
Erik bites his tongue harder, clears his mind, and slips the needle into the pale, gorgeous arch of his neck, presses the plunger down.
The sound Charles makes then is shocked, an almost animalistic yelp of fear.
“Erik! W-What are you —?” Erik holds tighter as Charles starts to thrash, surprise giving way to instinct, but it’s already too late. The dose of Dead Man’s Blood does its job with brutal swiftness, slowing him down, slurring his words, and a moment later he goes fully limp in Erik’s arms. He’s not unconscious, though, his eyes rolling, throat working as he tries to speak around a limp, almost unresponsive tongue. Erik ignores him, bends down to scoop up his legs and carries him bridal-style into the panic room, kicks the door closed before laying him down on the musty sheets. He takes up the silver chain then, threads it through the steel frame at the head of the cot and takes Charles’ wrists, one after the other, shackling him in.
Charles’ skin starts to hiss and sizzle, and he lets loose a thin, agonizing scream.
Erik stumbles away, falls into the nearby chair when his legs refuse to support him any longer, his skin crawling at the sound. He knew this would happen, he’s heard the lore, but the reality is worse than he could have imagined. The smell alone is enough to turn his stomach, but watching the way Charles writhes and bucks in weak little spasms, unable to truly move, the sound of his panic, like he’s choking and gagging on the pain — Erik feels his conviction start to rapidly unravel, nails scoring deep half-moons into his palms as he clenches both fists, swallowing back bile. The tableau is like some gruesome reenactment of the night before: how Charles had arched under him, the way he’d moaned, it’s both too close to and so very, very far away from what’s happening now.
Nausea rolls over him in waves, surging each time Charles’ voice breaks, his small chest lurching as he tries to draw breath.
“Erik.” It’s almost a whimper, high and reedy. “Please, please.”
Erik looks away, but it’s so much worse when all he can do is hear. Everything seems sharper, louder, more immediate.
A minute goes by, then another. Charles’ pleas become softer, petering out into silence broken only by the sound of him breathing in harshly through his nose. The smell is nearly unbearable now: charred meat and the ever so faint stench of burnt hair. Erik feels his gorge start to rise again, and this time can’t manage to hold it back. He bolts from the room, runs to the sink and heaves, puking up what little was in his stomach to begin with. His arms tremble where they brace him against the counter, and as soon as he realizes it the rest of his body starts to shake too. He feels like he’s in shock, sweat-cold and weak, and he doesn’t understand why.
Except that’s not entirely true. He does know.
Up until a few hours ago Charles Xavier was a human being, a little eccentric, charming, humorous, someone he willingly took to bed, someone he’d begun to develop a connection with, however much he wished it weren’t so. Now, Charles is a monster. Now, he’s shackled to a cot, incapacitated and tortured, all by Erik’s hand.
It shouldn’t hurt like it does. It shouldn’t.
He runs the tap, leans under to rinse his mouth, spits again. Seconds pass as he stands there shaking, breathing in and out slowly to the tick of the clock.
Some impulse has him stumbling into his bedroom and digging through the duffle, pulling out the iron restraints. He holds them in his hands for a moment, feeling their weight. Part of him insists there’s no reason to be in here, no reason to even be considering what he’s about to do. Silver is the most effective metal for subduing most supernatural creatures, vampires included; switching to less reliable restraints is illogical.
The rest of him, the bigger, louder part of him, balks at the thought of what he’s already done. Erik really should’t be surprised by this — the idea that there’s even a choice to be made is laughable.
Charles has already broken so many of his rules, what’s one more in the grand scope of things?
(The difference between life and death, if he’s wrong, for more than just himself. Erik knows that, he does. It just doesn’t seem to make any difference.)
When he returns to the panic room Charles has turned onto his side, both eyes firmly shut and arms twisted above his head. The position looks uncomfortable, but perhaps it doesn’t matter when the flesh of his wrists is effectively melting. That pain is likely to take precedence.
Erik feels uneasy just looking at him, taking in the furrow of his brow, the tic in his jaw that says he’s trying very hard not to keep screaming.
When he moves forward Charles doesn’t flinch at his approach, remaining deathly still while Erik takes first one wrist then the other, unlocking the cuffs. Drawing the silver away from his skin pulls at the wounds, and Charles makes a sound like he’s been gutted, pushing his face into the blankets while Erik unthreads the chain from the bed-frame and tosses it behind him. The iron manacles go on next, and though it seems cruel to fasten them over the burns he knows very well that once the Dead Man’s Blood wears off the skin will heal itself. Little consolation for Charles, of course, but there’s no more Erik can do. He’s already betrayed himself, betrayed his mother, by conceding even this much.
Erik takes a seat again at the table when he’s done, leans back to wait. It’ll be some time yet before Charles is coherent enough for a proper interrogation.
The next few hours are quiet, slow, and uniquely terrible.
Despite how little sleep he’s had in the last few days Erik has never felt more awake. It’s painful and exhausting to watch Charles, but he does, forces himself to look. His own kind of torture; punishment, almost, for his lenience. Merely imagining what his mother might say if she could see him now makes Erik’s skin crawl with unbearable shame. He’s never felt so young, wanted so much to have her by his side. She wouldn’t force his hand, that’s never the way it’s been between them, but simple reality of her presence, her regard, would be enough to shore up his resolve, keep him unmoved and implacable.
But she’s far away, where, he can only guess. And Erik is here, with Charles, however long this farce is going to last.
They’re just passing into the third hour when Erik notices Charles start to slowly, tentatively flex his hands. He shifts around on the cot, rolls his jaw like he’s trying to get feeling back into his face, eyes opening in small increments. Erik is not expecting this — the kind of dose he gave Charles should have had him out for five hours at least, given him enough time to figure out what he was planning on doing once there was nothing left to stall him. The fact that Charles is already regaining his faculties is a bad sign, and likely means that he is very old, and very strong.
“Thank you, Erik,” Charles says unexpectedly, his voice more even than Erik would like it to be. “The silver was a bit much, don’t you think?”
Erik almost sees red, his low-grade panic doing its best to remind him of how much he’s fucked up already, shortening his fuse. He’s not prepared to deal with Charles’ cheek.
“By all rights, you should be dead already. The silver was a mercy.”
Charles stares at him, expression subdued. “Well, clearly not. If it was such a mercy you wouldn’t have traded it for iron.”
There’s nothing Erik can say to refute that, so he keeps silent. It’s humiliating. He’s already shown his weakness, is already at a disadvantage, and Charles is going to use that against him every step of the way. That much is very clear.
Erik crosses his arms, leans back in his chair. “Why are you in New York City?”
“We’ve already had this conversation.”
“Do you expect me to believe that you were telling the truth?”
“Yes,” Charles says. He sounds so very sure, his gaze steady. “I do.”
Erik is bad at this. He’s always been bad at this. You don’t talk to monsters, you extract the information you need by whatever means necessary if there’s information to be gathered, and then you put them down. Talking just gives them opportunities to get under your skin, make you angry, make you sloppy. Charles is already doing an admirable job, and they’ve hardly even begun.
“I don’t have to believe a single thing you say. You’re a monster, you manipulate people every day. It’s not a stretch to assume that you’re an exceptional liar.”
“No, you don’t have to believe anything,” Charles says, still so infuriatingly calm. “But you should, because you don’t know what you’re talking about at all.”
“Don’t I?” Erik snaps. “I’ve hunted your kind since I was nine years old. If I don’t know what I’m talking about by now than what the fuck have I been doing with my whole life?”
Charles looks away, stares up at the ceiling instead, his brow slightly furrowed as though considering his next move. Erik waits, uses the brief silence to get himself under control again, though it’s harder than it should be.
Eventually, Charles sighs.
“You know, this is where I could easily point out that I’ve lived for somewhere close to a millennia, and thus your couple decades worth of accumulated knowledge is significantly less impressive than you seem to think it is, but that would make me sound like a twat, wouldn’t it?” Charles frowns, a pretty little moue that only serves to enrage Erik further. “But I’ve gone and said it anyway, how thoughtless of me.”
He probably means it to be flippant, but Erik’s attention catches on something he wasn’t expecting to hear.
“You don’t know how long you’ve…existed?”
Charles rolls his eyes. “You can say ‘alive’, it’s largely accurate in the non-biological sense. And no, I don’t know how long I’ve been on this earth. After the first few centuries it all just starts to…blur together.”
Erik tries to digest that, and fails. The thought of living for a thousand years, of forgetting so much, is terrifying in ways he can’t explain. He’s never heard of a vampire so old, and it seems almost impossible, but there’s no way for him to ever confirm or invalidate Charles’ story. Though he only just called him an exceptional liar, this somehow seems true, though Erik can’t say why.
“Are you here by yourself? Are there others?”
Charles shakes his head. “None, not as far as I know.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
Charles makes an inarticulate noise of exasperation. “Again with what you believe! Why are you even asking me these questions, if you’re not going to take the answers at face value?” Erik thinks Charles would throw up his hands if they weren’t currently chained. “This is a pointless exercise!”
Erik grits his teeth, breathes in and out through his nose. “If you were anyone, anything else, I would be torturing you right now, just to give your answers a little more weight.”
“Points for honesty,” Charles says quietly, his expression a combination of disappointment and frustration. “But anything, Erik? I’m not a thing.”
“Yes you are. You’re a monster,” Erik says, and yet, for all his vehemence, this time it sounds more like he’s spouting some kind of party line, mindlessly repeating himself as if that will make it any more true.
Charles shifts back onto his side again, the chains rattling in counterpoint to the rustle of the sheets. He looks oddly resigned now, but there’s also pity in his eyes, his damnable eyes. Erik wants to turn away, feeling his skin itch under Charles’ unwavering gaze, but he can’t.
“Erik, how is it that you can do so much good and yet be so…rigid? I thought you were better than the others.” He sounds weary, confused. “I’ve never had the intention of causing you any harm. I’m not what you think I am. Well, no, I am, but not in the way you’ve come to expect. Unclench, please, for just a moment. Let me explain.”
Erik opens his mouth to reply, some pithy thing on the tip of his tongue meant to wound, but he stops, chilled, a fingertip of cold suspicion sliding down his spine.
“Others?” he asks, sitting up and leaning forward in his chair, bringing their faces closer together. “What do you mean by that? Other hunters? Did you know I was a hunter before this?”
Charles holds his stare for one long moment, then replies, “Yes.”
“I would rather not say.” Charles face is smooth granite, impenetrable, and that alone tells him the answer is not one he wants to hear. For one very, very brief moment Erik imagines tying Charles up in silver again, seeing what he might say then — he shoves it away immediately, breaking out in a cold sweat at the thought of harming him so deliberately. It shouldn’t bother him at all, this isn’t his first rodeo by far, but still. He can’t expel it from his mind.
Charles is holding something from him, though. Something possibly damning, if he’s so reluctant to divulge the secret. Erik won’t forget that.
On the table his phone buzzes to life, jittering across the smooth wooden surface.
There are three people that have his number, and any one of those three might call at — he glances at the wall clock — three a.m. Erik answers it without thinking.
“I’m calling in my favour.” Emma’s voice, rough with lack of sleep.
“Why are you calling me right now?”
“Because I want to leave this morning, early. I’ve been up prepping.” In the background he can hear the scratch of a pen on paper, the absent clacking of keys. “Also, I figured if I waited until the last possible second to tell you, I could keep you from backing out.”
Erik leans an elbow against the table, rubs at his eyes with the hand not cradling the phone. “Devious. But you know I keep my word.”
“Just making sure, darling,” Emma purrs. “So I assume this means you’re in?”
Erik opens his mouth, pauses, catches Charles’ eye. His body looks relaxed, supine across the cot, but his eyes shine with an unnatural light, watchful and still. Erik’s blood is singing just from Emma’s implication alone, howling for the hunt, but even still he hesitates at the thought of leaving Charles here. It won’t be more than a day, two at most — Emma doesn’t like to be away from home for long; if the case turns out to require a more long-term commitment, she’ll hand it off to someone else. Erik will be back before he can be missed.
It’ll also give him plenty of time to think, to figure out how he’s going to handle the vampire who was very briefly his lover, what he’s going to do with him, if anything.
That’s what decides it.
“Yes, I’m in,” he says with finality, and Charles’ brow furrows in clear suspicion.
“All right, I’ll pick you up outside your building at seven. Pack a bag.”
She hangs up without waiting for confirmation, like usual. Erik flips his own phone closed, sets it back down on the table. He’s always appreciated her love of brevity.
Surprisingly, Charles doesn’t ask about the phone call, so Erik chooses not to offer an explanation on his own. He can feel Charles’ gaze follow him when he leaves the room though, heavy and accusing until he pulls the door closed behind him with a decisive, substantial clank.
Erik retrieves one of his smaller knives and sets to work carving sigils into the doorframe of the panic room, things that will keep Charles in if the chains fail to hold him. The door itself is reinforced, but he’s underestimated supernatural creatures before to his detriment, and would rather not repeat the mistake. Erik wouldn’t put it past Charles to be much stronger than he looks.
When he’s done he falls into his own bed and sleeps soundly until his phone wakes him at six thirty. His limbs feel like sacks filled with wet sand, and his eyes are gummy, but a quick shower restores some of his humanity, enough to have him pulled together and ready to go by seven. Erik shoulders his pack and makes for the front door, slowing as he passes the panic room. He could walk out so easily, without saying a word, and it would be the least Charles deserves. He could.
But he won’t.
Erik ducks his head in, finds Charles sitting up on the cot, slumped against the wall with both hands hanging between propped up knees. He looks the same as when Erik left him, expressionless and cool.
“I’ve got a case,” Erik says. “I’ll be gone for a day or two.”
Charles eyes widen a little, but other than that he remains unruffled.
“Okay,” he says, voice so soft Erik almost doesn’t hear him, and goes back to staring into the middle distance, dismissing him completely. Erik might be offended if he weren’t already eager to get away. He was expecting more of a reaction than this, but will gratefully take Charles’ dead-eyed neutrality over indignation or upset any day.
There will be more than enough of that to be dealt with when he returns. Erik is sure of it.
The hunt ends up providing very little time for reflection, and gives none of the expected relief he’d been counting on. Erik comes out the other end feeling no less wired than he was going in, the anxiety and restlessness that he’s been nursing for weeks now still humming distractingly under his skin. If anything, it gets worse, when he realizes that his body had been trying to tell him something from the start and he’d been too blind to understand. All those moments of uncertainty, of feeling the wrongness of Charles and writing it off to self-sabotage instead of listening to the persistent cues, they led up to this: his fall from grace, his one big mistake. Well done, Erik.
The case itself is a nominal success, as these things often go. Demonic possession, nothing terribly complicated, and the young man unlucky enough to play host survives with only a few minor wounds and more than enough horrible memories to fuel his nightmares for the rest of his natural life.
It does take two days, though, with most of their time spent trying to locate the missing boy. In the end they find him holed up in an abandoned church a half-mile outside of town, because demons are dramatic in all the worst ways, and most tend to enjoy supplementing their other chaotic intentions with a little bit of blasphemy for flavour if they have the opportunity. The rule that the ignorant like to reassure themselves with, the one that states no demon shall stand on hallowed ground, is a load of horseshit, unfortunately, though it would certainly make all their lives easier if it were so. No, demons can go wherever they damn well please, which is what makes pinning one down and keeping it there so difficult.
But Erik has been riding high on adrenaline and self-hatred for too long to do anything other than kamikaze his way through a hand to hand fight that ends with the demon pinned under him, doused with enough holy water from the flask at his hip to keep him distracted long enough for Emma to rattle off the exorcism rite. The demon spits and snarls, thrashing beneath Erik’s weight, and Erik snarls right back, letting loose a stream of curses that quickly goes ragged and wild, spiralling out of control until he’s nearly screaming, almost incoherent.
And then the push of resistance disappears, the body going limp as a rag-doll. It appears the host has passed out. The abrupt silence is loud in and of itself, a vacuum in the wake of an implosion. All he can hear is his own heartbeat, beating thunderously in his ears, and the shallow but peaceful breathing of the young man under him. Erik sits back on his heels while he tries very hard to stop shaking, clenching his hands into white-knuckled fists to keep them from betraying him any more. Emma stares down at him, her gaze uncomfortably direct. She won’t ask, she never does, but she looks more worried than he’s ever seen her — which for Emma is not all that much.
Erik suddenly can’t stand it. He staggers to his feet, moving away from the body.
“I need some air,” he says, casting a quick look in Emma’s direction. “Can you—?”
“I’ll deal with him,” she says, though she doesn’t seem happy about it. Her eyes are uncomfortably knowing.
Erik makes his escape, stumbles upon a winding staircase that takes him to the roof, where he stands next to the large wooden cross and looks out over the front lawn, overgrown with weeds and long grass, the sad, crumbled remains of what used to be a graveyard. He watches as Emma walks to the car, the young man slung over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and bears him down gently into the back seat. The setting sun creates long, thin shadows, and when she straightens up again and returns to the church her own precedes her in a stretched and spindly line, makes her seem larger than she is.
A minute or so later she joins him on the roof, the duffle bag slung over one shoulder, and the breeze catches at her hair, flings it in thick waves around her face.
“Enough brooding, Erik,” Emma says, her face betraying the lightness of her voice. Concern couched in a tease, their usual way. “We need to get him home.”
When she walks away, he follows.
By the time Erik gets home it’s full night, and the humidity has reached new levels of hellish intolerability. He doesn’t even want to contemplate what his apartment will be like, having left the windows closed while he was away. Even just stepping out into the street from Emma’s air-conditioned car is like getting slapped in the face by a wet rag, and he says his goodbyes quickly; Emma just laughs at his grimace and peels away once he’s shut the door. Erik sighs and scruffs a hand through his hair, then makes his way inside.
Just as he predicted the apartment feels like a sauna, but as much as it pains him the windows have to remain closed. The panic room is sound-proof of course, but any time he opens the door Charles could very easily make enough of a racket to catch someone’s notice. It’s not ideal, but Erik’s fresh out of other viable options.
He deposits the duffle on the kitchen table, takes out his pistol and starts to dismantle it piece by piece, setting each part down on a waiting cloth. When the whole gun is taken apart he starts cleaning, eyes focused on his work, hands moving in a familiar dance of quick, decisively economical gestures. The apartment is quiet, nothing but the creak of his chair as he shifts and the hushed sound of cloth on steel. Erik finds himself unconsciously listening for noise from the panic room, even though he logically knows that Charles could be screaming himself hoarse and he still wouldn’t hear a word of it. For some reason that thought is deeply unsettling.
Once he’s finished with the pistol Erik puts it right back together again in identical reverse sequence, sliding a clip of ammo in last and slamming it home with the meat of his palm, pulling the slide back and letting it go.The satisfying series of clicks and snaps eases some of the dread pooling in his stomach, the fear of what he’ll find when he goes in that room. Erik has no idea what to expect, and the longer he puts it off the worse it becomes in his mind. He needs to go in there, he needs to figure out what he’s going to do.
Skin crawling with apprehension, Erik takes the pistol, takes his silver knife, and ducks inside.
At first he doesn’t quite understand what he’s seeing. Charles lies slumped, curled into the corner where the cot is shoved up against the wall, mouth slightly parted. Erik steps forward, and feels a delicate wing of unease brush across his nape — there’s something very wrong, and the closer he gets, the more it crystallizes in his mind. The panic room is just as hot as the rest of the apartment, if not hotter, but Charles looks like a porcelain doll, like a statue, his skin dry and dead as marble. Everything about him is faded, cool, dead. Even his eyes, normally an arresting blue, have been dimmed, fogged over and milky as though he’s become blind.
The sight of him makes Erik’s heart thud and then seem to stop, chest hitching painfully as panic begins threading through him with insidious, seeking fingers. It’s wrong that Charles should look like this, wrong in a way that makes some deep, animal part of him thrash in protest, trying to slip the leash of rationality and cold calculation. Why has he done this to Charles? Why has he chained him here, chained him up like some kind of beast —?
Because he’s a vampire, he’s a creature, a monster, a killer. Same as what killed his father.
But he’s not —
He’s not . He needs you, Erik. He needs you.
Before Erik even quite realizes what he’s doing both weapons are dropped at the foot of the bed, leaving his hands free to grab at Charles as he crawls onto the cot, tugging him away from the wall. He doesn’t come easily, his limbs stiff and unresponsive, and the panic is suddenly overwhelming, all-encompassing. Erik feels like he’s about to fly apart, this is so wrong —
“Charles,” he says sharply, throat going dry and tight. “Charles.”
Erik shakes him, slaps him across the face. It doesn’t feel like flesh, nothing like it, so little give and so cold. Erik shudders, bodily rejecting the sensation, unable to process it when his memories are so different: warm, flushed, slick with sweat and pleasantly firm under his hand.
Some distant part of his mind insists that Erik knows what Charles needs, that there’s a way to fix this, but somehow that is anathema, that is one step too far.
But there’s no one else, there can’t be anyone else. He would never be able to live with himself otherwise, no matter that he’s already done so much to warrant that feeling. It would still be too much. It has to be Erik. It has to be.
“Fuck!” Erik shouts, and lunges forward to eel in behind Charles, pull him back against Erik’s chest. He winds all his limbs around Charles’ corpse-like body, locking them in place, then reaches for his knife, slicing the tip of one finger with a trembling hand. Blood seeps slowly to the surface of the tiny nick, a small, blooming pearl of red.
Erik hesitates for only a second before coaxing Charles’ mouth open and guiding the finger inside, rubbing it back and forth along his gums.
The effect is almost instantaneous. Charles convulses in his arms, tongue flicking to life and drawing the finger in even further, lips closing in a fervent suckle. Erik gasps and tugs his hand free, unnerved by the wounded noise Charles makes, straining forward, seeking.
“Charles, are you awake?”
Charles nods his head, breathing shakily. “Y-Yes.”
“Then listen to me. I’m going to cut my wrist so you can feed quicker, okay?”
Charles keens and starts to squirm more urgently, his whole body shuddering. Erik jostles him again, winding an arm around his neck to hold him in place.
“Listen. I’m going to help you, but when I say stop, you stop.” He reaches out, tugs the gun towards him and raises it so the muzzle rests against the soft, tissue-thin skin of Charles’ temple. “If you don’t stop, I will blow your fucking head off. Do you understand me?”
Erik drops the gun just long enough to pick up the knife, draws it across his wrist. He expects Charles to lunge forward, grab at him with both hands, but he does neither, simply lying passive against Erik’s chest while he shivers in anticipation. It’s a strange feeling, with Charles still so stiff and yet vibrating fit to spontaneously combust. Making him wait any longer suddenly seems immeasurably cruel.
So Erik retrieves the gun, positions it, and raises his freely bleeding wrist to Charles’ mouth.
The sound Charles makes then has nothing whatsoever to do with pain.
He seals his lips over Erik’s skin, cheeks hollowing obscenely as he sucks, and Erik feels the needle sharp graze of his eyeteeth as they descend, nudging at the wound to encourage the flow of blood. The sensation is both unsettling and deeply, uncomfortably exhilarating. Erik is assaulted all at once by memories of the last time they were this close, the way Charles’ mouth had felt then, lips and teeth and tongue so similar to how they’re put to use now. Charles rumbles in pleasure, breathes through his nose and groans again, longer this time, drawn out until it becomes a whine. Erik tries to ignore him, but everything is too close, too immediate. With Charles dragged up against him, slotted together front to back, there’s no escaping the sinuous physicality that creeps back into Charles’ limbs the longer he feeds, stone once again becoming living, breathing flesh.
A deep, drugging lassitude falls over him like a shroud, slow, smoky curls of desire lapping up against his self-control with greater and greater insistence the longer they’re locked together in this grotesque embrace. Erik thinks he should pull away — but no, surely it’s too soon. Just a little longer, enough to flush the apples of his cheeks, till Charles’ lips regain their impossible hue.
And then the hand holding the gun falters. Erik’s eyes fly open, though he can’t even recall having closed them, and he firms his grip, digging the muzzle in twice as hard as before.
To his immense surprise, Charles obeys. His tongue licks along the wound as if sealing it and then he wrenches himself back, hands coming up to push Erik’s wrist away. He stays in place for just a moment, watches Charles’ chest heave and fall, breath coming in short, ragged gasps, then makes his retreat, bringing both weapons with him.
Sitting back in the chair by the desk, Erik contemplates what he’s just done, what he may or may not do next. It’s terrifying to realize he no longer has a clear idea, that things he was so certain of only days before have now been muddied and turned on their heads. He’s not sure of anything anymore.
How could it be that easy?
Why did it have to be Charles?
He feels lightheaded and weak, rubbery-limbed like a newborn colt, a torrent of emotions spilling through hands that aren’t prepared to hold them in, fingers sloppily cupped. He wishes desperately to be elsewhere, to not have Charles looking at him, eyes bright with a familiar fever. His face is too bright, too alive for what he is, and it doesn’t seem right that something so inherently evil could be so fair.
Erik glances at his wrist, ready to reach for the First Aid kit, and notices that the wound is closed after all.
“It’s my saliva,” Charles says, noticing his surprise. “Convenient, no?”
Erik runs a curious finger over the thin line across his wrist, feels a tickle of sensitivity, a tiny flash of pain, but no more blood. “So it would seem.”
“Thank you for that, by the way,” Charles adds softly, and tongues his bottom lip, cleaning away a stray smear of blood. He looks high, like he’s just come — somewhat strange when considering the soft bulge just beginning to tent out the front of Charles’ jeans, which Erik seems incapable of looking away from now that he’s seen it. He feels his own cock stir, a flash of heat at his neck, and hates himself all the more.
“Why didn’t you tell me this would happen?” Erik asks. “Were you dying?”
“Hardly,” Charles says. “I really am very, very old, Erik. I was never in any danger, not the way you perceive it.”
Erik frowns, hesitates a little before speaking. “What do you mean?”
“I’m, shall we say, well preserved.” Charles smiles lazily. “The vampires you’re familiar with are young, their blood-lust is still strong, but that does go away eventually. The older one gets, the less blood one technically needs. When I don’t get it I…petrify, as you saw, but a little taste will wake me up quick enough, no matter how long I’ve been asleep.”
Erik’s mind ticks over the implications of such a wild claim. It’s anecdotal data at best, stacked up against centuries of hunter lore and tradition, and though Charles could be telling the truth, he could just as easily be lying through his teeth.
“I’ve never heard this,” Erik says. “None of the lore I’ve seen has ever said a thing about this.”
“Well, it wouldn’t,” Charles says, as if that fact should be obvious. “Not many make it as far as I have. And if they do, that means they’re smart enough to keep to themselves, rather than rampaging around dropping bodies left and right. Of course you’ve never heard about them.”
“So what you’re saying is you’ve found a more effective, less risky method of killing people?”
Charles expression goes dark, his eyes flashing. “No! I don’t kill people at all. It’s wasteful and abhorrent and I stopped doing it centuries ago.” He sits up, chains jangling, and leans forward till he’s encroaching on Erik’s space. “I’m no saint, Erik. I was no doubt just as vicious as the rest of them in the beginning, but I’m not that person any more. Literally. I have no memory of that time, none whatsoever, not of who I was or how I acted.”
“Provided I believe you, am I supposed to simply forgive and forget?” Erik sneers. “That’s not exactly how this works.”
“Don’t be absurd, Erik,” Charles snaps, then lapses into a furious silence, lips pressed firmly together in a thin, angry line.
Erik says nothing for one long moment, breathing carefully through his nose, before he replies, “Then please explain. Give me a reason not to put you down right here and now, like I should have done days ago.”
“Ah, but see, it’s so much more interesting, the fact that you haven’t done that yet,” Charles says, his anger becoming something else, sliding into dark, dangerous curiosity. “If you were really so convinced of my inherent evil, we wouldn’t be here talking in the first place. Honestly, I think your actions speak louder than anything I could ever come up with.”
“Indulge me,” Erik says, trying desperately to muzzle the small voice that keeps insisting: Charles is right. You know he’s right. What kind of hunter are you, letting a vampire live? It’s not his mother’s voice this time, though, it’s his own, riddled with self-loathing and humiliation.
Charles leans forward again, but this time Erik backs away, some of his instincts still coming to the fore. It earns him a small, shaky grin, tinged with disappointment.
“Let me be clear,” Charles says, “so we can move on. My name is Charles Francis Xavier, and I have been on this Earth for too many years to accurately recall. I am indeed a vampire, as you have discovered, and I drink human blood, but I do not kill. I glamour my donors and take from them only so much as they can safely give, after which I heal their wounds and send them on their way with no memory of the encounter. Or rather, a different memory of the encounter. Whichever seems more appropriate.”
Erik feels his lip start to curl in involuntary disgust. “Donors? That would imply some kind of consent, though you clearly receive none. What an interesting delusion.”
“I never claimed it was a perfect solution,” Charles replies, clearly frustrated, “It’s simply the best of very few other options.”
Erik can think of a few, but he keeps them to himself.
“Did you ever glamour me? Were you planning on it?”
“No, Erik. Never you, not for that.” Charles’ expression is unreadable, but the earnestness of his words strikes Erik like a bolt to the chest. “As I said before, that was never my intention.”
This is what they’ve been moving towards, this is what he’s been afraid to ask, for reasons he refuses to contemplate. Erik swallows thickly, fingers lacing between his knees.
“Then what was your intention?”
“Nothing other than what I said to you from the beginning. That I never lied about.” Charles’ gaze is very direct, pleading for Erik to understand, to trust him. “Is it so hard to believe? That I could want companionship just like any other human being?”
“You are not a human being,” Erik snarls, and Charles suddenly lunges for him, the chains snapping with a loud clang as they stop him just short.
“No! No I’m not! As we’ve fucking established, Erik!” he shouts, eyes wide and wild. “But I was once, and just because at some point a thousand years ago I was unlucky enough to be turned does not mean I’m some kind of rabid animal. What would you have me do? Go to meet the sun, make the ultimate gesture of repentance for misdeeds I no longer remember and have no desire whatsoever to repeat? Is it so wrong to continue living, to want to?”
“You’re a vampire. You shouldn’t exist at all.”
Saying it is harder than it should be, much harder. He silently berates himself for his weakness, even while his chest squeezes painfully, breath going short. Charles merely stares back at him, his mouth pinched white with fury.
“And regardless of what you do or don’t deserve,” Erik goes on, determined to get everything out in the open, “why would you choose me as someone to get close to? I made it hard for you, every step of the way. You said yourself that you knew I was a hunter the whole time — which you still haven’t explained yet. What was the point? What were you getting that was worth the risk?”
Erik expects another flurry of angry words in response, braces himself for it even, but instead Charles’ expression crumples, becoming a mask of exhaustion and resignation. He sighs quietly and settles himself on the cot, drawing his feet up to sit cross-legged, goes to card a hand through his hair and then thinks better of it when the heavy iron chain follows after.
“You think so little of yourself,” he murmurs, looking down at his lap for a brief moment before meeting Erik’s eyes again, a thick lock of hair falling across his brow. “I don’t imagine you’ve had many people in your life, have you?”
Erik feels his hackles go up, defensive. “That’s none of your business.”
“Of course not.” Charles smiles, a grim little quirk of his lips. “It’s not a difficult guess, though. You hunters are so similar in all the worst ways — lone wolves, every one, and you don’t have to be.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
Erik realizes the utter stupidity of the question as soon as it leaves his mouth, and only just manages to prevent himself from flushing in embarrassment. Charles, always so perceptive, sees it immediately of course, and gives Erik a wan smile.
“I’ve learned that it’s far better to use what time is given, use it shamelessly and without fear, rather than waiting for when it will be taken away,” he says. “You should trust me, I’m very old.”
“As you’ve said many times.” Erik can’t quite help the small answering grin, though the humour is muted, dying shortly after. Charles looks pensive again, like he’s struggling for the right words to say what he needs to. His fingers twitch and toy with the chain, nervous.
“I suppose now would be as good a time as any to tell you…” he begins, and then trails off, his expression wary.
Erik eyes him carefully. “Tell me what?”
“That I met you once, when you were younger,” Charles says, so matter of fact that Erik doesn’t quite understand the gravity of what he’s been told for several long seconds. And then he does, and all at once he goes bitterly cold, stomach lurching in violent denial.
“What?” His voice is shaky, hoarse, his skin crawling. “Explain.”
Charles looks away, finally, chewing at his bottom lip. “You won’t remember — well, no, that’s not accurate, you’ll remember part of it, but not me.”
Erik balks. “Did you glamour me? You — you said you’d never —“
“Let me finish,” Charles cuts in, voice firm. Erik subsides, but only just, still horrified by the idea of his mind being tampered with, what it might have been that Charles made him forget.
“You were eleven at the time, and you and your mother were stopped at a small cafe in Portland, on your way up to Washington.” Charles recites this with the calm, steady tone of perfect recall, staring blankly into the middle distance. “I noticed her first, of course. Hunters have this way about them, this…smell, it’s not hard to recognize. When she left you to go make her calls, though, I couldn’t help but notice you, sitting there at the table alone. You were so thin, your eyes were too old, it was disconcerting. I gave you a bit of a nudge so that you’d come over and talk to me; I wanted to make sure you were being treated okay. Your mother was the first hunter I’d ever seen with a child in tow, and it horrified me, that someone so young might be pulled into that kind of life.”
He pauses, and Erik realizes that Charles has started to shake, eyes blazing. The sight is arresting in ways Erik isn’t sure he can articulate.
“We spoke for a bit, you told me about what you and your mother were doing, where you were going. You told me you were going to be a hunter like her, that you were going to be a hero —“ Here he smiles, a full, true smile. His whole face seems to light up with it, tongue flashing as he starts to laugh a little, wondrous and happy. “You were so brave, so self-possessed, and focused, and…good. I could see it so clearly, I just knew.”
Charles takes a deep breath, as if trying to calm himself, coming down from some kind of delirious high. Erik is transfixed, as much as it’s strange to hear Charles say these things, expanding on a moment in time that he barely even considers a memory himself — he can recall the drive to Washington, their stop in Portland, but only vaguely, in snatches: the horrible damp of the rain, the sharp pain of hunger after having missed both breakfast and lunch that day, the sensation of holding his mother’s hand as they ran to the car.
“I made you forget the conversation afterward,” Charles says, and now he sounds somewhat contrite, regretful. “It was for my own safety, honestly. I couldn’t risk you mentioning me to your mother, there was too much of a chance that she’d put things together.”
He glances up, holds Erik’s gaze. “Do you understand? It wasn’t malicious. I didn’t want to do it, but I — I was too used to protecting myself.”
Erik nods slowly, considering. “I suppose I can understand that,” he says, a little ruefully. “The desire to protect oneself…is not exactly unfamiliar to me.”
Charles lets out a small, relieved sigh, seeming to sag as if all his strength has left him now that he’s gained that one small concession. “Thank-you, Erik.”
The lapse into another short silence, broken only by the occasional soft clink of iron.
Erik studies Charles’ face, contemplates what he’s been told. The horror is less potent than it was, but he still feels jittery, unsettled, needing to know more. The fact that they crossed paths so many years ago only to find each other again now is a coincidence almost too far-fetched to believe, but Erik’s seen worse in his time. After monsters, ghosts, and demons, anything and everything seems within the realm of possibility.
But why Charles? Why did it have to be him? He’s asked it of himself again and again, and still it haunts him, no answer forthcoming.
Here he is, neutered by panic, by doubt, questioning everything he’s ever been taught and known to be true.
All because of one man.
Erik has to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to have continued hunting after all, kept on the road day after day until he ran himself into the ground, maybe got himself killed in the process. He could’ve died with dignity, with some small measure of honour. It might be better than this, than being taken for an idiot, for compromising himself so thoroughly, better than letting down his guard only to get burned again.
His gut churns, churns, churns.
“I could hardly believe it, when I realized who you were at the bar,” Charles says abruptly, jerking Erik free of his spiralling thoughts. “I panicked, again, and badly. You might actually remember feeling as though you’d missed some time. The glamour was poorly done.”
Erik does remember. He can recall that feeling of having forgotten something, some small elision in his thoughts that he kept snagging on as he’d walked home that night. Charles appears to spot the realization on his face, and flushes delicately, looking down and away.
“I thought at first that you were hunting me. It was the closest anyone had ever gotten, and I was terrified. And the fact that it was you…it was like some cruel joke.” He huffs out a small, weak laugh. “But then I realized you were just…here, and the thought of letting you go was impossible. I had to know about you, about the person you are now, if you were as good as I remembered. You have to understand, Erik, I don’t remember things the way I used to, I just — I float along, cycling through one life after another, and nothing seems to change anymore. But you, you were something different.”
Charles reaches out, suddenly, as if to cup the side of Erik’s face, but again the chains hold him back, leave his arm strung tight, hovering in the air.
“You have so much purpose. It’s admirable, and interesting, and I feel drawn to you because of it. I feel…awake.”
Erik stares back at him, his mouth gone dry. Charles is so close he can feel the heat of his palm like a brand across his cheek, so close that Erik could lean into him if he chose to, if he was foolish enough, desperate enough, brave enough.
“I don’t know what you expect me to say to that,” he rasps.
Charles lets his hand fall away. “I don’t expect anything. I just want you to understand why I chose you, why I have this desire to be around you, in defiance of all reasonable preservation instincts I might claim to have.” He laughs, short and self-deprecating. “I don’t know your story, but I want to.”
Something deep, something primal and essential seems to shudder and move within him, emotions bubbling to the surface like a high-pressure valve suddenly released. The strongest is fear, a frantic need to be away, to be somewhere that Charles is not, for just a little while. He needs to think, even more than before.
It feels wrong to just walk away though, like Charles hasn’t just cut himself open and let Erik see the vulnerable pink of his insides, the things that make him weak, his secrets and his fears and the terrible reality of his strange, impossible existence.
What is there to say — good talk, a slap on the shoulder, nothing more to see here, move along move along.
No, Erik would like to think he’s better than that.
The sad truth is that he isn’t.
“I need to sleep,” he says shortly, rising from his chair and gathering both weapons to hand. “We’ll talk more later.”
Charles doesn’t visibly react, but his eyes follow Erik as they have so many times before, steady on his back until the door shuts behind him.
Erik flees, because it’s all he can think to do.
Several hours later his phone rings, buzzing insistently across his night-table before falling over the edge and onto the floor. Erik’s awake in an instant, rolling over to reach down and grab it, flipping it open without looking at the caller ID.
“Sorry to wake you,” comes McCoy’s voice down the line, apologetic but still unusually firm. “There’s a situation developing that would benefit from your attention.”
McCoy does this sometimes, speaking in vague euphemisms as if he’s afraid the call is being traced. It’s never become any less irritating.
Erik grunts and rubs the sleep out of his eyes. “Just tell me what’s going on. In plain words.”
“I’ve been hearing reports over the police scanner the last few days of noise complaints out in Brooklyn. There’s this old house that’s been set for demolition for a while now, and neighbours say they keep hearing loud noises coming from inside — they think it’s squatters, or kids fucking around. But last night a group of actual teenagers found their way in and one of them ended up getting killed. Police went in but there was no sign of squatters or anyone else having been inside. Sounds like a poltergeist to me.”
Erik sighs. “Yes it does.”
“Can you go take care of it tonight? I’ve already gone ahead and made some mojo bags for you to use if you don’t have the supplies yourself —“
“Thank you,” Erik cuts in. “And yes, I’ll take care of it.”
“Are you gonna need any help? You know how poltergeists can be…”
“I appreciate the offer, McCoy, but we both know you’re not going anywhere.”
There’s a pause. “Well…no. It just seemed polite to ask…”
Erik laughs under his breath. “I appreciate the thought,” he says dryly. “Expect me to be by sometime early evening then.”
“Sure thing, Erik.”
He lies in bed for a long time after the call disconnects, watching the sun creep slowly across the floor. Even though the window is closed Erik can still hear the muffled cacophony of road noise, and glancing at the clock he can see why — it’s just after noon, the day is already half gone. He’s surprised to have slept for so long, but perhaps his body needed it. The conversation with Charles was exhausting enough all on its own, leaving him limp and wrung out, grasping at loose ends. It’d taken him an hour at least to fall asleep after retreating to his bedroom, sprawled sweating across the sheets with his mind in an impossible knot, picked at mercilessly till it’s frayed and torn.
What’s worse is he feels no better with a solid chunk of sleep behind him. If anything the weight of all his problems is twice as heavy as it was before.
It seems, in some way, like a punishment. For what exactly he’s not sure. There are so many things now to be sorry for, it’s difficult to keep track.
When he’s cycled through the same stream of pointless self recrimination for the third time, Erik finally drags himself out of bed and cleans up before throwing on some exercise gear to go for a run. It’s much later than he would normally do this, and he’s likely going to regret it, but he needs to get out of the apartment. Charles is probably…sleeping, anyway, or whatever it is he does during the daylight hours.
On his way out he caves to the desire to check in on him, and opens the panic room door to see Charles lying down, turned away toward the wall. Erik’s gaze falls on the curve of his waist, his shoulders, the way his hair curls along the nape of his neck — he remembers abruptly how soft it is, how thick, the way it had felt in his hands; he remembers holding tight to that waist, pulling Charles down again and again onto his cock, the sounds he’d made. Images float to the surface of his thoughts, one after another, lurid and insistent, like they’re fighting for space.
He forces himself to look away, his blood going warm.
Charles doesn’t move, or acknowledge Erik’s presence in any way, so it seems safe to slink in and leave one of his well-thumbed paperbacks next to Charles on the sheets. He’s probably bored out of his mind, and might appreciate some distraction. Erik leaves again before he regrets the decision, filled with adrenaline and purpose, prepared to push his body to the limit, run until his mind goes quiet. Maybe then he’ll get some peace.
He ends up adjusting his course half-way through, veers off towards McCoy’s apartment block to pick up the mojo bags. It’s another flimsy excuse to stay out longer, but Erik’s the only one who has to know, and surely he gets points for showing some initiative. McCoy looks surprised to see him so early, but hands over the supplies in a plastic shopping bag without complaint, wishing him luck.
Just as Erik’s about to turn away, McCoy makes a sudden noise. “Oh, wait, I forgot to ask…the, uh, package I gave you last time, did it help with your investigation?”
Erik’s neck prickles with cold. “I haven’t had a chance to use it yet,” he lies.
“Ah, of course. Well, when you do, tell me how it goes?”
“You’ll be the first,” Erik says, lying again.
With that last remark, McCoy lets him go, offering a small, hesitant wave through the crack in the doorway. Erik bolts.
Later, once the sun has set, he gathers his things together and prepares to leave. The house’s address is written down on a scrap of paper that he holds onto with a tight, sweaty fist, and he slings his duffle over his shoulder yet again, the canvas weighed down by his sawed-off shotgun and the shells filled with salt, the four mojo bags McCoy prepared for him.
The closed panic room door looms large in the corner of his vision as he walks by, and just as he did earlier Erik stops in his tracks to turn around without even truly thinking, unlocks it and steps inside. Charles looks up from the paperback he’s got clutched in both hands, gaze bright and intense enough to pin him down all the way from across the room.
“Where are you going?” Charles asks.
Erik considers leaving just as suddenly as he entered, not saying a word. Why is he even here?
“Where are you going?” Charles asks again, a dangerous edge to his voice. Erik’s stomach twists.
“I have a case,” he blurts out, and then adds, “A poltergeist,” as if the elaboration is in any way necessary or required.
Charles’ eyes narrow, and he shuts his book, putting it gently down beside him. “Are you going by yourself?”
Erik would be completely justified in ignoring the question. The fact that Charles is interrogating him is ridiculous —
“Yes,” he says anyway. He’d think Charles were glamouring him if not for the fact that he feels painfully aware, the fact that Erik knows he’s already lost this game, is just going through the motions of resistance now. Charles’ reaction is unreadable, save for the way his hands have begun to toy with the iron chain again, a nervous tic reemerging.
“Take me with you,” Charles says. “You’re smarter than this, Erik. Don’t put your life in danger just to spite me.”
“Spite you? What makes you think that I would even consider—?”
“You know how dangerous poltergeists can be. Taking on one by yourself is practically suicide.” Charles sits up straighter, squaring his shoulders. “Take me with you.”
“There are other hunters I can call,” Erik says. “I’m not without allies.”
“Yes, of course, but you haven’t called them, have you?”
Erik marvels at how even from across the room, even with an open doorway at his back, Charles can look at him so intently as to make him feel cornered, hunted, dangerously transparent. It’s an admirable skill, one that serves a purpose, and one that Erik himself has employed on any number of occasions. Not with Charles, though, never with Charles. For the first time in a very long time, Erik is the novice here.
He grabs at the strap of his duffle like he’s clinging on for dear life.
“Why should I let you come?” he asks. “Why do you want to come?”
“To question one: because it would be an asset to have someone who is nigh on immortal when going up against an angry, violent poltergeist. To question two: because you are going to let me go, but I would prefer if it were now, before you go off and get yourself killed. I can protect you. I can help you.”
Erik can feel a small bubble of hysterical, despairing laughter start to crawl up his throat. How is it that he’s come to this crossroads? How is it that he’s a breath away from putting his trust in someone who could snap his neck the second he’s turned his back, easily, or pin him down and drain him dry?
Because Charles is right, he’s so infuriatingly right. Of course Erik was always going to let him go. He should have realized that the second he changed silver for iron, the decision was already made. It was never even a question.
Erik puts the duffle bag down, and goes to get the key.
The way Charles looks at him when he unlocks the manacles, pulls away the chain, makes Erik’s chest go painfully tight, like a band of steel around him winching smaller and smaller with every breath. He holds Charles’ hands in his own, cupping them gently for a moment before letting them fall, tries to forget the way his thumbs smoothed back and forth against the pale skin of his inner wrists, soothing wounds that were no longer there. When he backs up Charles gets to his feet, and he’s reminded yet again of his solidity, the physicality of his body in space, the breadth of his shoulders. Erik had been so sure, before, that his height and experience would have allowed him enough of an advantage to come out on top every time. Knowing what Charles is, he’s no longer so certain.
Erik tries, and fails, not to watch as Charles stretches with a long, relieved groan; his eyes catch on the flash of pale belly, the curve of his biceps, the twisting line of his back. Charles draws the eye, just as he has from the beginning, and now that Erik’s seen all that skin bared and flushed, he can’t pretend that he doesn’t want him. Despite everything, Erik still wants him.
Because he’s Charles, he doesn’t pretend not to notice Erik’s wandering gaze, and offers him a crooked little smile that Erik feels compelled to return, however shakily.
“Shall we go?” Charles asks, and Erik grits his teeth and nods.
Neither of them say anything on the ride over, save the one instance when Charles breathes in sharply and then frowns, brow furrowed, as if he’s just remembered something upsetting.
“Oh, Moggett,” he sighs. “Poor creature, he’s probably starving by now. I’m glad I left the window open for him. Maybe he’ll take a stab at hunting.”
The look on his face says this is unlikely to happen.
“Well, the old boy could stand to lose a little weight anyway,” he concludes, and Erik lets out a small huff of laughter.
“Your attachment to that animal is ridiculous.”
Charles leans back in his seat, folds his arms and closes his eyes. “I take my companionship wherever I can get it,” he says archly. “And cats are lovely pets.”
Erik chooses to let his skeptical silence speak for itself.
The rest of the drive is silent, but the tension has been significantly eased. The light, casual absurdity of their conversation seems to have done the trick. Erik wonders if Charles might have started it deliberately, for that exact purpose — it seems like something he would do. Glancing across to where Charles is still miming a doze, the small grin he can see curling at one corner of his mouth is as much of a confirmation as Erik needs.
The house they’re looking for sits at the end of its street like a pile of trash, a dilapidated eye-sore. Yellow police-tape is still strung across the front steps, fluttering a little in the weak evening breeze, but other than that there’s no signs of life. Erik would have thought they’d assign one patrolman at least to keep an eye on the place, make sure no more kids snuck in, but apparently preserving crime scenes in abandoned real-estate is not a priority. All the better for them, though.
Erik parks the car a ways down the block and they approach briskly on foot, Charles following behind as Erik leads them around the side of the house, looking to go in through the back door. He retrieves his lock-pick, and less than thirty seconds later they’re slipping inside, Erik wincing at the creak of hinges that announces their arrival.
“I hope you’re ready,” Erik mutters as he drops to one knee, setting down the duffle.
“I am,” Charles replies softly, crouching next to him. “Tell me what you need me to do.”
As soon as the words leave his mouth there’s a loud, ominous creaking from above them, followed by the sound of several doors slamming shut at once. Charles’ eyes go wide and Erik curses, pulling out his shotgun before dumping the mojo bags onto the linoleum.
“My guess is we now have about thirty seconds,” he says, thrusting two mojo bags in Charles’ direction. “Take these and go upstairs. Make two holes in the drywall, one at the front of the house and one at the back, and then stuff these in. I’ll take care of things down here.”
“Got it.” Charles takes the mojo bags in both hands, and then drops them almost immediately, yelping in pain. “Fuck.”
Erik stares at him, not understanding. “What? What did you do?”
Charles groans. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of this. Mojo bags are meant to drive out evil are they not? I mean, it’s semantics really, but if we’re going to get technical —“
“You can’t touch them. Of course you can’t touch them, fuck.” The sounds of disturbance are getting louder, more frequent, and Erik lets out another string of curses, casting around for an idea. “Fine, fine, I’ll do the bags myself. I sure as hell hope at some point in the last thousand years you learned how to fire a gun.”
Charles wrinkles his nose. “Please, Erik, have some faith.”
Erik rolls his eyes and shoves the sawed-off towards him, but Charles doesn’t take it.
“No, that’s a terrible idea. It’ll take you too long to do all the bags by yourself. Here,” he lifts up the bottom of his shirt and curls it into a kind of pouch, “put them in. I’ll carry them like this and then manfully bear a little pain once I absolutely have to.”
“Fine,” Erik growls. “Now go, and be prepared for things to get nasty really, really quick.”
“I’ve seen my share of nasty,” Charles says, and his mouth splits in a wild, cocksure grin. “I’ll be back before you can miss me.”
Then he sprints out of the kitchen, thundering up the stairs to the second floor.
Erik gets to work as soon as he’s out of sight, using the butt of his gun to bash in a section of the drywall next to the kitchen window, dropping one of the mojo bags in through the hole. Instantly all the cabinets start to rattle, opening and closing haphazardly, followed a second later by a drawer which comes shooting out fast enough to drive all the air from Erik’s body when it collides with his stomach. It feels like he’s been hit by a battering ram, and Erik wheezes out a pathetic noise that would have been a shout if he had any air left in him to make it, doubling over in pain. The momentum of the drawer is such that he falls back on his ass straight after, sprawling out across the floor, where he lies gasping for much too long.
He gets moving again when other drawers follow the first, rolling to grab the second mojo bag and his gun before scrambling to his feet and running into the living room, a wide open empty space that stretches all the way to the front door. Erik dashes for the side wall, but loses his footing again when the whole house shudders, an impossible wind stirring to life around him. Both the gun and the mojo bag go flying, Erik’s hands coming down hard on a patch of broken glass and other debris.
“Charles!” he shouts, and is answered by the loud groan of wood shifting and bending, as if the poltergeist is looking to tear the place down around them. The shaking is constant now, like some disastrous localized earthquake, dust and plaster falling from the ceiling above him, which is starting to crack in spreading, spindly lines.
Erik’s never had a hunt go south so quickly. He wasn’t prepared for this kind of push-back; the poltergeist is far stronger than he was led to believe, and it’s going to get them both killed if he doesn’t get his act together fast. So he picks himself up, hissing at the tiny pieces of glass embedded in his palms, and feels his heart jump clear into his throat at the sound of Charles running to the stairs above him.
“I’m coming!” Charles shouts. “Erik! You need to do the last bag! This house isn’t going to —!”
Erik loses his voice in the sound of wood cracking in two, as deafening as a thunderclap, and the rising roar of wind as it spirals up and up and up.
And then something strikes Erik hard on the side of the head, and he hears nothing at all.
There are hands on him, pulling, someone crawling around him and shifting things, lessening the strange weight on his lower body bit by bit.
He expects to hear noise, but there’s only the stunned silence of aftermath, the utter absence of sound.
“Erik, oh, Christ you’re really bleeding quite a lot, I can s-smell it.” It’s Charles, his voice frantic and shaky, stumbling over his words. “Are you awake? Erik! Erik!”
Hands on his shoulders, shaking him, and Erik tries to open his eyes but they refuse to obey him, remaining firmly shut. He feels lightheaded, floaty and very tired, like he’s going to fall asleep again any moment, and something tells him this is bad. Charles almost sounds like he’s crying, making wild noises of grief and frustration as he tries to dig Erik out from underneath what he suspects is the roof.
“No. No no no, Erik, fuck, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t let you — I can’t, Erik—“
He doesn’t understand what Charles is apologizing for until he feels a hand gently turning his head, lifting it so Charles can press something warm and wet against his mouth, something that tastes like pennies—
Erik lets out a guttural scream of negation, using what little strength he has left to jerk away, but Charles just moves closer, following.
“I’m sorry, Erik, I am, but you have to. Please, you have to. You’re going to die.”
He knows what Charles is trying to do, he knows. Terror grips him like a fist, but he can’t move, he can barely speak. His mouth feels numb, slurring his words till they’re almost indecipherable.
“N-No…” It comes out soft, pained, and there are tears on his face, streaming through the dust. “…don’t….please…”
“You have to!” Charles shrieks, sounding angry, panicked and angry and afraid. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He levers Erik’s jaw open and pushes his wrist between his lips, forcing him to drink. Erik chokes and splutters but he swallows some of it, too much of it, enough that some switch in his mind flips, has him yearning, aching for it before he even realizes what’s changed. The blood flows across his tongue and he sucks, mindless, thinking only of how he can get more, get it faster.
At some point Charles pulls away, finally, letting Erik go.
He falls down next to Erik and sobs, once, a ragged groan of despair.
It’s the last thing Erik hears before falls into the black, cold and shivering, so very very cold.
When Erik wakes up, he feels immediately that something is wrong.
When he opens his eyes, he knows it for sure.
“Hello, Erik,” Charles says. He’s sitting on the floor, leaning back against the wall with both legs stretched out in front of him, one ankle over the other. His arms are crossed. “Welcome back.”
Erik is on his side, but when he tries to move he realizes the impossibility of that desire. His arms and legs are numb, and shifting around prompts the telling clink of metal, giving the game away — he’s hogtied, hand to foot, probably with the same iron chain he used on Charles.
It would make sense. He can see they’re in the panic room, after all. It looks like a hurricane has blown through — the cot is somewhere by the door, in the corner of his vision, the desk is in pieces along with both chairs, there are books strewn across the floor, and Erik himself is lying amidst a puddle of blankets. He has no memory of how they got here, no clue as to how long he’s been out. His mind is like an echoing cavern, carved out and razed clean, nothing but blank space where before there was pain, and anger, and the deep, keen ache of betrayal.
Lucidity has brought with it a whole host of strange sensations, none of which Erik wants to think about too closely. Not yet.
(Especially the hunger, the deep and howling desire that thrums along every raw, trembling nerve. An emptiness that screams to be filled. His mind shies away from it, terrified of getting too close.)
Charles is staring at him, gaze fixed, and Erik looks back as steadily as he can. He wants to see Charles’ face when he asks. He needs to see.
“What did you do to me?” he croaks, his voice fragmented and hoarse. Charles visibly flinches; the satisfaction he feels from that is like the blooming warmth of good liquor, low in his gut. “Tell me.”
Charles’ mouth works, guilt etched in every single minute twitch of his expression. “You know what I did,” he says roughly, and Erik nods.
“I do. I want you to say it.”
There’s a long moment of silence before Charles answers. Erik waits, patiently. He can wait forever now. The muted agony on Charles’ face is like a sweet balm, and Erik can soak in that a while longer, let it feed the anger while Charles tries to find something to say.
Eventually Charles cuts his eyes away, biting his lip before he speaks.
“I turned you,” he says, and doesn’t need to add into what. Erik will give him that, save him that small trial. They both know very well what’s going unsaid.
“Can you unlock me now?” Erik asks. “Am I safe?”
Charles bites his lip, nods. “Yes,” he says, almost too softly to be heard. After a pause, he rolls into his knees and shuffles over, digs the key out of his jeans pocket. Erik holds still while Charles leans over him and reaches to undo the restraints, letting the iron chain fall away. He backs up afterward, gives Erik room to unfold all his limbs and stretch.
Instead, Erik lunges, bears Charles down to the floor and pins him there.
At which point Charles flips them, and slams him to the floor in turn.
Erik lies there, dazed, while Charles holds firm, his face placid like he’s exerting no effort whatsoever. When Erik starts to struggle it makes no measurable difference, and the longer he fights the more his throat swells shut on some nameless emotion, choking him as it rises up.
“Why did you do this to me?” Erik howls, eyes squeezing shut. He throws his head back so that it cracks against the floor, but he barely feels the pain, and only then in the sense that he remembers how it used to feel, how it might feel. Charles changes his grip to curl one hand behind his skull, cushioning it from further blows. Even that enrages him, makes him scream again.
“I had to,” Charles says. “You were going to die.”
Erik bares his teeth, making a wordless sound of misery. “You should have let me.”
“How can you be so selfish?” Charles asks, voice shaking. “Do you think this is just about you? Do you think no one would mourn you? What about your mother?”
Erik’s vision goes red, almost blurring with the intensity of his emotion. “Don’t say a fucking word about my mother,” he snarls. “Don’t you dare.”
The need to throw Charles off, to lash out and make him hurt is so strong it shoulders out everything else. Stronger than the hunger, stronger than his grief. All the thwarted violence needs somewhere to go, and the best he can do is scream. It isn’t nearly enough of a release.
“I’ll talk about her as much as it pleases me,” Charles snaps. “I haven’t taken you away from her, Erik. I’ve given you more time. You know how I live with it, and I can help you do the same. You can explain to her, like I did to you!”
“You have no idea,” Erik says, shaking his head. “None. You’ve taken away everything.”
“Erik, you’re not listening to me—“
“Be quiet,” Erik says softly under his breath, then again louder, “Please, be quiet. Let me tell you what you’ve done.”
Charles looks down at him, brow furrowed in confusion and no small amount of frustration, but all the same he shuts his mouth, allows Erik the chance to say what he needs to so desperately.
“When I was eight years old,” he begins, the words feeling like ash and glass on his tongue, “my family and I moved from Germany to America. We went to live with my father’s brother and his wife on their farm, and for a month things were good. I was happy to start my new life in America, and excited to learn all I could about my new home.”
Erik stops, has to take a moment to catch his breath. His heart is pounding, a strange, unnatural, halting rhythm.
“And then one night, my father was murdered.”
He stops again, looks up so he can meet Charles’ eyes. “My aunt and uncle are hunters. Just before we arrived they’d worked a case, tried to clear out a nest of vampires. They only got about half.” Erik lets that hang, watches the slow dawning horror on Charles’ face with a grim little pulse of pleasure before forging on, struggling to keep his voice even. “But this is the thing about vampires, although I’m sure you already know: once they get your scent, there is nowhere far enough on this Earth that you can run where they won’t find you. So they followed the trail, all the way back to the farm, and my father was there to greet them. He wasn’t who they were after, but they killed him anyway.”
Erik holds Charles’ gaze, drinking in the encroaching shadow of grief and regret that seems to hollow his features, throws the beautifully preserved planes of his face into sharp relief. It’s the least human he’s ever looked, coldly perfect like a statue carved of marble, suffering forever in silence.
After what seems like an eternity, Charles exhales, closes his eyes, and lets Erik go.
Erik throws him off, grabs him by the neck and drags until they fetch up against the wall, chest to chest, Erik boxing him in with his hands and knees. Charles goes without complaint, endures Erik’s brutality and seems to ask for more, arching into him, encouraging the clench of Erik’s fingers.
Erik only just stops himself from pulling Charles apart, limb by limb.
“Do you understand now?” he asks, tilting his head to speak against the whorl of Charles’ ear.
Charles nods, eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks. “Yes.”
“How am I supposed to look my mother in the face? Her only son, become one of the things that murdered her husband? How could I do that to her?”
“I didn’t know,” Charles whispers. “I didn’t know, I’m sorry.”
All at once the anger seems to drain away as fast as it appeared, leaving Erik limp and wrung out, leaning against Charles for support. That anger has taken him so far in the past, but there’s no where else to go. He’s not going to hurt Charles, and he’s run out of words; he doesn’t need it anymore, so it’s gone.
In it’s place is grief.
Ever since Erik and Edie went their separate ways, he’s been waiting for her death, preparing for it, building his shields brick by heavy brick. When it happened it would destroy him, he knew that, but there would be enough left in the aftermath to continue the hunt, just enough for that. This is worse, in ways he could have never dreamed up himself. Knowing she’s alive, but out of reach; letting her think him dead, giving her that terrible burden.
And she’s only the first — he can’t help the way his thoughts turn next to Emma, to all the things that have gone so long unsaid between them. She is a…friend, though the word seems grossly inaccurate, an awkward fit for their mix of mutual respect and wariness, each other’s confidant and confessor, offering silence and no comfort but finding comfort in it all the same. He put her on the path, changed her life forever, and now he must melt back into the shadows, remove himself just as quickly and destructively as he appeared.
He won’t be the first hunter to disappear off the face of the earth, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Scorch the earth, salt the remains. There’s no other choice. He has an eternity ahead of him; there’ll be time enough to come to terms.
That doesn’t stop him from wishing he didn’t have to. Let me be selfish, and angry, and hurt. Let me think only of myself, for just this moment.
Erik tucks his face into the curve of Charles’ neck, breathes him in. He feels Charles bring both arms up, wrap around him, draw him into an embrace. Erik lets him, finding some small measure of comfort in it even though his chest still aches with the pain of betrayal, of knowing Charles did this do him. It hurts, so much more than it should.
“I’m sorry,” Charles says, and then stops, his voice seeming to break. He clutches Erik tighter, presses his mouth to the crown of his head. “I was selfish. I couldn’t let you die, and I— I couldn’t even think I was so afraid. And I didn’t even have time to…your leg was sliced right open, you were bleeding out so fast, what was I supposed to do?”
Erik turns his head a little more, rests it on Charles’ broad shoulder. “Not what you did,” he says, and Charles laughs, short and humourless.
“No, I suppose not.”
They stay that way for a long while, Erik on Charles’ thighs, curled into him, Charles holding him close. The clock ticks on, loud in the heavy silence. Louder than Erik remembers it being before — before this.
“How long was I out?” he asks after some time.
“Four days,” Charles says. “I kept you in here, to starve the blood-lust. You were…out of your mind, and if I just let you go and kill someone I knew you’d never forgive me.” He pauses. “Not that it matters much now, I guess.”
“What do you mean, ‘starve the blood-lust’?”
Charles shifts, clears his throat a little. “Ah, well, when a person is turned most often they’re left to their own devices, which leads them to seek out victims while they’re high off the initial change. That first taste of living, human blood, that first kill — it…sets the tone, shall we say. But if you don’t feed the impulse, you can control it, like I do now. I gave you animal blood to keep you going until you were yourself again, but if you keep doing that you’ll get sick. Human blood is what you need, and you should be able to feed without harming your donor, unlike most of your…brethren.” He laughs, quietly. “A little free will, my gift to you.”
Erik breathes in, then out, turning that over in his mind.
“Would I…be safe on my own?”
Charles goes still, hand clenching slowly in the fabric of Erik’s shirt. “Do you want that?”
The answer sits at the back of his throat, crouched and waiting. It will hurt Charles, maybe more than he wants, but he can’t say anything else. So he doesn’t.
“I think so, yes,” he murmurs. “For a while.”
Erik wonders if Charles will lie to him now, if he’ll do his best to keep Erik by his side. He made one selfish decision, what’s to keep him from making another?
“I need to figure out if I can do this,” he adds. “I need to know if I can be this.”
Charles swallows, throat bobbing smoothly in the corner of Erik’s vision. He remembers kissing him there once, the taste of his skin. It’s a memory he’d like to take with him, one of many. Maybe it’ll be easier that way.
“Okay,” Charles says, stiffly, as though the word is being pulled from him against his will. “Okay, yes, I think you should be fine. Your mind is your own now. If you’re careful…you just, you have to be careful, Erik.”
“I know, Charles.”
Erik leans back, and Charles reaches for his face with both hands, holding him tight enough that Erik can feel the tremor shivering under the surface of his palms. He brings their foreheads together and just breathes for one long moment, eyes drifting shut.
“Please come back,” Charles says. “I want to know you, Erik Lehnsherr. I want to hear your stories.”
Erik mirrors the embrace, pulls Charles closer into a small, chaste kiss.
“We’ll see,” he says. “Maybe the road will point me in your direction. Maybe I’ll follow it home.” He pauses. “Maybe I won’t.”
Charles’ mouth twists into a pained, crooked smile, head ducking low as if he wants to hide how it wavers uncertainly at the edges. “No, maybe you won’t. Just…try. That’s all I ask.”
And then Charles releases him, again, and waits for Erik to walk away.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
Charles never used to dream. Or if he did, he never once remembered them.
In the year that Erik is gone, he dreams almost every night.
His sleep has always been an odd thing, not as necessary as it would be if he were human, coming in fits and starts that seem to offer no real rest but coming all the same. He used to endure it as an annoyance to be dealt with, holing up obediently every day to wait out the sun like the rest of his kind, falling off and waking up at intervals and twiddling his thumbs in between. As he got older, he learned to use the time constructively; he no longer fought the pull, let it come as it would. But still, he didn’t dream.
When that changes, it’s almost cruel, at first.
Charles doesn’t think about Erik as often as he might want to, forces himself to carry on as he’s been doing for so long now. He misses him, of course, but in that vague sort of way he misses the people he’s met over the years who are long dead and gone, turned to bone and ash and earth. Charles has spent too many of his years suffering his mistakes, and he’s learned how useless an endeavour it can be to wait for something that’s out of his hands. Erik knows how he feels; whether or not he chooses to return is his decision alone.
But every night, he dreams, and every night Erik comes home.
Which is why he doesn’t think anything of the presence in his room, one night in early September.
The sun has just gone down and Charles is drifting, curled on his side, sweating out the last of the summer’s heat. He hears the door open, as it has before, and the soft sound of bare feet crossing the floor. Behind him the bed shifts, a weight carefully pressing down, and then skin against skin, another body curving into his own. A hand drifts over his hip, slides to rest low along the soft skin of his belly.
And then a voice, low and familiar against the shell of his ear.
“Wake up, Charles.”
Charles knows, instantly, that this is not a dream.
He sucks in one sharp, painful breath, and grabs desperately at the hand — at Erik’s hand — tugging it up to his mouth so he can press a kiss to the knuckles, threading their fingers together. They haven’t spoken once since Erik left, and Charles is almost overwhelmed by the relief that sings through him at the sound of his name, the urge to ask all the questions that he’s been hoarding. He needs to know if Erik is going to stay this time.
“Tell me,” he says, sure that Erik will catch his meaning. There’s only one thing he wants to hear.
Erik says nothing for some time, though, breathing softly as he strokes his thumb back and forth along Charles’ own.
Charles waits, focuses on the rhythmic push of Erik’s chest against his back, the way their legs tangle together. To feel Erik so close again after so long is enough, is more than enough.
Eventually, Erik speaks.
“I’d like to try,” he says, and he sounds so calm, so sure. “I still have work to do. Will you come with me?”
Charles smiles, is unable not to, wants all of a sudden to burn this moment into his memory. He doesn’t remember things, not like he used to, but this — this he wants to hold onto, for as long as he is able.
“Of course, Erik,” he says. “Of course.”