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A Matter of Convenience

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The first time Erik remembers seeing Charles is a few days into fall, a rainy Friday sometime in mid-September. Erik knows, in theory, that he’s seen Charles before this, because Fridays for a convenience store near a university are hectic enough to drive Erik to madness every week and he can’t be expected to remember every single face he sees, but this Friday sticks out.

Charles is huddled over in a sweater too thin for the weather, which isn’t exactly unusual for the first cold day of the season, but is odd considering the downpour Erik can see beyond the dirty window of his shop. Charles only places a bottle of water and a six-pack of ramen on the counter for purchase and Erik loses himself momentarily in the chance to relax, not having to check his ID like he does every other college student on a Friday evening. But their fingers brush as Charles hands over a fistful of loose change that Erik knows instinctually is the correct amount and Charles gasps, his eyes bouncing up to Erik’s face for the first time.

“Oh,” Charles says, drawing his hand back slowly, as if he’s afraid Erik might bite. “You’re a mutant.”

The words are quiet enough that no one else can hear them, Erik’s sure, and Charles’ tone doesn’t suggest he means anything other than a statement of fact, but the words fall like a barbed accusation on Erik’s ears. Only briefly does he panic and consider where he’s slipped up, before quickly schooling his thoughts. He doesn’t actually believe he should have to hide, and he tells himself there’s no reason to worry about every single detail of his day. Still, living in the current world environment has left him wary and judgmental of everyone and everything, including himself. It’s just so much easier, sometimes, to pretend he can’t do what he can, and the thought sickens him.

Erik snatches his hand back as well, dropping the coins into the till and making sure Charles can see exactly how he’s sorting them without touching them. “What about it?” he asks scathingly. He has no intention of being polite to customers who have no respect for him.

Charles’ gaze flits away and he ducks his head again, much to Erik’s satisfaction. “Nothing, sorry,” Charles mutters, gathering up his purchases and leaving, whispering a hurried thanks over his shoulder as he does.

In Erik’s mind, Charles is filed under human-supremacist jackass, because Erik remembers every single one he encounters in hopes that one day he will have a chance for some sort of retribution. He achieves it in little ways whenever he can, overcharging, taking too long, forgetting to put up a wet-floor sign, and only occasionally using his powers to assist him in jamming the doors or slamming them shut. They’re all petty inconveniences for the bigoted idiots who enter his store, but they make Erik feel at least a little better and allow him to fantasize about being the activist he wanted to be before he took over his parents’ business.

So when Charles places his water bottle and ramen on the counter the following Friday, Erik smiles sourly and overcharges Charles a full dollar. Charles looks up at him, concern, surprise, and finally panic settling over his features. It’s clear that Charles knows what Erik’s done, but instead of calling Erik out on it, for which Erik has prepared the perfect response, Charles just shakes his head and says, “I don’t have it. Can I just get the ramen, not the water?”

Erik tries not to scoff as he repeats the same price, grabbing the water bottle and placing it on the other side of his cash register with a few other items he needs to take back to their shelves. There’s no one waiting behind Charles to call Erik on his bullshit, and Charles obviously isn’t going to, so Erik sees no problem with keeping it up. He holds out his hand for the money and raises an eyebrow expectantly.

“I’m sorry about last week,” Charles says softly, gaze focused on the package of ramen. He runs a hand down his face before he turns to go and that’s when Erik sees it, the bracelet on his arm that would look like a normal medical alert bracelet, except Erik can feel the differences, can feel the letters carved into it. Telepath.

Erik’s eyes jump up to Charles’ neck, where he now sees the tattoo poking out from under his collar that he’d overlooked before, the bold T that’s nearly glowing red against Charles’ pale skin. Red instead of black, Erik’s mind supplies belatedly, is a warning that the mutant with the tattoo is not on suppressants, a warning that the mutant is entirely unchecked. Charles is gone, however, before Erik can react, the ramen left on the counter, which is probably a good thing, since Erik isn’t quite sure how he feels.

Only half grudgingly does he then re-file Charles from human-supremacist jackass to enigma.

A shiver runs down Erik’s spine as he considers the potential that lurks behind Charles’ tired, blue eyes. It’s not that telepaths are forced to take suppressants anymore, but most states do still enforce the law that telepaths—and certain other categories of mutants, as well—must warn people of their abilities if they choose not to suppress them. Charles probably could’ve taken whatever he’d wanted from Erik and no one would’ve been the wiser for it; Erik certainly would have taken advantage of the situation had he been in Charles’ place. He feels guilty, suddenly, for not allowing Charles to buy at least the ramen, and the feeling sits heavy and uncomfortable in his stomach until he sees Charles again.

-

Two weeks pass with no sign of Charles, and the awful feeling in the pit of Erik’s stomach grows with each passing hour. After the second Friday, he almost considers trying to find Charles, the need to explain—not apologize, just explain—is so strong. He’s never really felt this way before, perfectly content to be a judgmental ass to anyone and everyone, including other mutants. But there is something particularly unsettling about the way Charles hadn’t even put up a fight against Erik’s shit, the way he’d apologized and left instead of setting Erik straight.

On the third Friday, Erik finds Charles lurking by the refrigerated water, a six-pack of ramen clutched in both hands as he considers the fifteen different brands of water available. He’s soaking wet again from the rain outside, wearing the same sweater as before, despite the added weeks they’ve travelled into fall, and he looks miserable in every way. Without the counter between them, Erik can see that Charles is too thin for his size, although it’s clear he’s leanly muscled and in no way about to melt away. He can only be a few years younger than Erik, but he manages to look both half Erik’s age and twice it at the same time.

Erik shivers and clears his throat, alerting Charles of his presence. He’s fully intent on getting his explanation out, but Charles jumps as he notices him, nearly dropping his ramen.

“I’m so sorry!” Charles says, composing himself, but shifting backwards slightly, away from Erik. “I would’ve stayed away, but yours is the closest shop to my apartment and, well,” he says awkwardly, fading out and gesturing towards the window where the rain is coming down so hard that Erik can see nothing past the glowing neon signs mounted there. The only fortunate thing about the rain is that it means there won’t be as many rowdy customers in tonight, only the most desperate and most diligent.

“It’s fine,” Erik says, making sure not to take another step towards Charles. “I don’t turn down business.” He means it as a joke, but he can tell it falls a little flat.

Charles gives him a small smile that seems at least half genuine as he opens the door of the water display and grabs a bottle of the cheapest off-brand water that Erik sells. “I’ve got the extra dollar, this time,” he says, sticking the water bottle under his arm so he can reach into his pocket to pull out all of his change. Erik can’t feel the magnetic strips of any credit cards in Charles’ pockets, and while he can’t actually feel paper bills, he’s fairly certain Charles doesn’t have any cash, either.

“Look,” Erik says, sucking up his pride, “I was an ass last time. Why don’t you go get another pack of ramen.”

Letting out a breath in a small burst, like someone’s punched him in the stomach, Charles says, “I don’t have enough—”

Waving a hand at him and turning to walk back to the register, only half because he can’t stand the despairing look on Charles’ face, Erik says, “They’re buy-one-get-one-free tonight.” He only takes a moment to be glad no one else is in the store to hear that offer, even though he would’ve made it even if there had been someone else.

“But,” Charles starts, but Erik turns to glare at him. Charles holds his gaze for a moment, searching for something, before letting out a short laugh that sounds almost pained. “Thank you,” he says, making his way back over to the dried goods aisle.

“I’m Erik, by the way,” Erik says as Charles tries to pay him the extra dollar at the counter. He magnetizes the extra coins to Charles’ hand and tries to swallow down the warmth that bubbles in his chest at the way Charles grins down at his hand and moves it around, testing the magnetism.

Charles turns his grin up to Erik and says, “This is amazing. I thought telekinesis first, but this is better.”

Erik bites down on the way he wants to refuse the praise; it is amazing, what he can do, no need to deny it. He takes a quick breath and asks, “And you are…?”

Charles’ free hand flies up to his neck at the question, hiding his tattoo, and he drags his gaze away from Erik. “A telepath, yes. Oh, you meant,” he stumbles awkwardly, glancing back up at Erik in surprise. “I’m Charles. Sorry, I just presumed—everyone always—no. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Erik says, torn between amusement and concern over Charles’ struggle. What is really amazing is the fact that Charles seems so intent on not using his telepathy that he is oblivious in every area he should have an advantage, or at least, in the areas Erik’s used to seeing telepaths have the advantage.

Biting his lip and grabbing his purchases, which Erik has bagged for him already, off the counter, Charles says, “No, it’s not. I’m sorry. I just—I promise I don’t use it unless I have to. You shouldn’t have to worry about that.”

Erik doesn’t know what to say for a moment, unable to fit the pieces he has of Charles together to form a coherent picture. Charles is obviously waiting for something, lingering, turned halfway toward the door, but still watching Erik closely. “I won’t,” Erik says eventually, “so you shouldn’t either.”

The small smile that catches Charles’ mouth at that is heartening and Erik feels that warmth bubbling in his chest again and it doesn’t really go away as Charles nods and walks out the door back into the storm.

-

It’s a few weeks before it occurs to Erik to ask why ramen and water, always ramen and water. Charles enters the shop as a large group of sorority sisters leaves with their weekend booze, dodging them with practiced ease. Charles avoids contact as much as possible, going as far as to put a few feet between himself and people he interacts with at all times, even with Erik. It’s not that odd, if Erik thinks about it, but it’s still troubling to view in the extreme instance of a small doorway. However, Erik is pleased to see that Charles is finally bundled up in a winter coat, mittens, and a hat, even if they are perhaps too warm for the current weather. It’s a better deal than the thin, blue sweater from before.

Charles smiles at Erik and waves as he makes his way over to the dried goods, calling out a friendly hello. Erik is sorely tempted to put the busy sign up on the counter and go over to Charles to chat, but there’s already a line and a handful of people milling about the store. It takes a good ten minutes of pointless haggling, ID checking, and chasing minors before Charles makes his way to the front of the line.

The exact amount of coins is already in Charles’ hand, but Erik frowns as he rings up the items, water bottle and ramen. He remembers being in college, living paycheck-to-paycheck, maintaining the worst diet possible, but this is really all he ever sees Charles buy. He hopes that Charles gets this for a special occasion and has another time set out for real grocery shopping, but he can’t stop himself from wondering.

“Do you really like ramen that much?” he asks, inspecting the orange package. Charles always buys the chicken flavored ramen, proving to Erik his good taste.

Charles places his coins on the counter, where Erik can surreptitiously move them without actually touching, and runs a hand through his hair. “Not really,” he admits softly, “but it is rather inexpensive.”

Erik rolls his eyes. “Believe me, I know. I went to university as well,” he says, and scoffs, gesturing around the shop. “Shining example of the proper use of a liberal arts degree.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Charles says with a grin. “I’m majoring in molecular bio and genetics and psychology. I’ll be stuck in a lab for the rest of my life come spring. It’s already started, actually. Taking a fifth year to complete three degrees probably wasn’t the best choice.”

The man behind Charles in line lets out a loud groan and Charles blushes deeply, the color bringing out his freckles. Erik tries not to glare too hard at the next man as Charles ducks away with a hurried farewell. Someday Erik is going to get to spend more than a few minutes at a time with Charles.

The following Friday is busy again, and Erik doesn’t even see Charles until he’s there placing his water bottle and ramen on the counter. “Hello, Erik,” he says happily, grinning as wide as he had when Erik had first stuck quarters to his hand.

“Hello,” Erik replies, moving to ring up the items on reflex, already reaching towards Charles’ pocket with his mind to show off a new trick with the coins he knows Charles has for him.

Charles’ grin turns sly and he cocks his head, placing his hand over his pocket. “You know I love it when you surprise me, darling,” he says, and Erik tries not to choke at the endearment, taken completely aback, “but today I think I’ll get something a little extra.”

Reaching to the side of the register, Charles pulls one of the apples out of the fruit basket there and turns his fond smile down to it. “How much are these today?” he asks, rolling the apple in his hand. Erik can’t stop staring at it either, because Charles’ long, squared fingers are gorgeous to the point of distraction.

“All the fruit is fifty cents,” he gets out eventually, glaring at the frustrated snort the next person in line gives, half-afraid Charles might flee again.

Instead, Charles ignores the frustration of the queue and says, “Perfect.” He grabs a second apple and places them both on the counter, looking more than a little pleased. “It just so happens that I have an extra dollar, today.” Reaching into his pocket, Charles pulls out the exact amount for his water and ramen in coins, as usual, along with a crumpled, sad looking dollar bill.

Erik frowns and takes the money. It doesn’t seem right that Charles is so happy over an extra dollar, and it certainly isn’t fair. “You can have the last banana, too, if you’d like,” Erik says, not looking up as he sorts the change manually.

Charles tsks harshly, but when Erik looks, Charles doesn’t seem too upset. “Don’t ruin this for me, Erik. I don’t need your charity again,” he says, gathering his food into his arms without the help of a bag.

“Take it, it’s going bad anyway,” Erik says forcefully, grabbing the banana and shoving it at Charles. It’s still green, and Erik doesn’t care if the people behind Charles see, he just needs Charles to take the goddamn banana and take better care of himself.

After a long moment of staring Erik down, Charles lets out a defeated sigh and takes the banana, juggling his purchases awkwardly to accommodate it. “Thank you,” he says, voice soft again and his earlier smile half faded.

Erik can’t be sure, but he thinks that he can even feel the remainder of Charles’ smile, his happiness, as Charles disappears out the door.

-

The Friday before Thanksgiving, Erik is entirely out of Red Bull and has been for six hours by the time that Charles walks through the door. He’s been arguing over the phone with his delivery service on and off for an hour with no results, at least no reasonable results. No, he cannot wait until first thing Monday morning, he needs Red Bull for the weekend and pre-Thanksgiving exam rush of the surrounding university students. His customers are none too happy with either his lack of Red Bull or his attitude, which he isn’t quite able to get a handle on. But his delivery service is closing for the day and there’s nothing to do anymore except wait until eight AM the following morning to get on the horn again. And there’s a woman on Charles’ arm as he enters, which is certainly a more important development than no Red Bull.

Erik can’t stop himself from growling as his current customer curses at him and his lack of Red Bull, but he pushes through and is relieved to find that no one else is waiting. In fact, he seems to have scared off most of his customers altogether with his last yelling match on the phone. Losing business on a Friday is never good, but Erik finds himself a little relieved that he has a moment to breathe by himself. Well, Charles is there, too, but that’s little concern.

“Hello, Erik,” Charles calls across the shop as Erik’s last customer exits, still cussing Erik out. Charles sounds happy enough, which, Erik supposes, makes sense with the addition of the hot blonde babe on his arm.

Jealousy sparks in Erik’s mind at the sight of someone else with Charles. It’s a slow thing, but Erik realizes it nonetheless. Somehow, he’s come to think of Charles as his, or at least, the few moments that he and Charles share each Friday as something that is only theirs. There’s no reason for it at all that Erik can think of; he has more regular customers than he can count, but Charles is the only one that matters.

Trying not to glare, Erik calls a greeting back and turns to focus on taking inventory of his cigarettes. It is mindless and unnecessary, since the shipment had come in yesterday, but he needs the distraction. Without it, he’s fairly certain that he would be pulling Charles’ friend’s fancy boots apart from the inside out. Except maybe he’ll be okay if he doesn’t distract himself; maybe he can go over and say hello and hold a conversation like the normal person that he is.

The train of thought is absolutely foreign, but it takes a moment for Erik to realize it and trace it back to Charles. Erik stares at him across the store, more surprised by the intrusion in his mind than he’s ever been by Charles before. Charles, for his part, is talking quietly with his friend as they examine frozen dinners. Erik blinks slowly, trying to figure Charles out. It’s not that he’s never considered the fact that Charles might be listening in on his thoughts before, or even that Charles might be influencing his thoughts, but it’s another thing altogether to realize that Charles actually does it.

I’m sorry, Charles’ voice says, somewhere much nearer to Erik than Charles actually is. Erik does not jump. He does not.

“I’m so sorry,” Charles actually says, finally looking back towards Erik as his friend finally selects her frozen dinner of choice. He looks miserable, shoulders hunching forward with his hands up in surrender.

Erik takes a deep breath and says, “Don’t be. That’s amazing.” It’s true. A little frightening, but true.

“Oh god, Charles, did you really just do what I think you did?” the woman next to Charles asks, sounding both amused and concerned.

“Raven—” Charles starts, blushing a flattering shade of red, even in the awful lighting of the store.

“It’s fine,” Erik cuts in, coming out from around the counter. “I was just startled, that’s all.”

The woman squints at Erik thoughtfully for a moment, before smiling at him. “Charles did say you were special,” she says, and Charles covers his face with his hands. Erik tries not to be too happy, now that he’s sure Charles at least sometimes listens in. “I’m Raven,” the woman says, holding her hand out, “Charles’ sister.”

Erik smiles back and takes her hand, much more at ease with that than any other explanation she could possibly have offered. “Erik,” he says.

Raven grins at him. “I know,” she says, and winks. “Charles talks about you all the time.”

“Shut up, Raven,” Charles mutters, grabbing the dinner out of her hand and pushing it into Erik’s. “We’re just going to get this and go.”

Erik frowns and glances toward the dried goods aisle. “Aren’t you going to get anything?” he asks as they move back to the counter. Unfortunately, neither of them knows the exact amount of a frozen dinner like they do a six pack of ramen.

“Oh, no,” Raven says, and Erik knows from her tone of voice that they’ve had this conversation already. “He’s already eaten. He couldn’t wait the extra hour until I arrived. And heaven forbid he eat twice in one night. It might ruin his figure.”

Charles rolls his eyes at this. “How much?” he asks, fingers clenched around the change in his pocket.

The meal is twice as much as Charles’ normal Friday night purchase and Erik is tempted to lie about it, but Charles will know, or at least he might know, and Erik really doesn’t want to make Charles feel like he’s treating him any different than any other customer. So Erik tells him and waits.

“Thank you,” Charles says, fingers lingering over Erik’s as he passes over a larger handful of change than usual and Erik can tell that Charles is thanking him for more than just the dinner.

-

By three o’clock on Black Friday, Erik’s cleaned out of almost all the food he has, and a good deal of the other things he carries. It’s not even that he puts anything on sale, it’s just that people are really weird about the things that they need to eat on Black Friday. It’s been great for business, especially after the Red Bull debacle of the previous weekend, so Erik stays open in hopes that someone is desperate enough to buy his last few cans of spam.

In the quiet of the afternoon, Erik can finally get around to reading and decidedly not thinking about Charles, or the fact that he’s probably at home with his family and his sister, warm and happy and stuffed with leftovers from Thanksgiving. It’s actually nice to have a Friday free of undergraduate partiers, and Erik has always liked the lull in the afternoon of Black Friday, even if he's glad to have Alex and Darwin's help on mornings as busy as today's. Erik doesn’t get a whole lot of time for reading, and he misses it sorely and is always frustrated at interruptions. But when Charles pushes his way into the store that evening, Erik finds that he is not at all upset. He might even be glad for the interruption.

“Thank god you’re still open,” Charles says in way of greeting as he wipes his feet off on the doormat. His voice echoes slightly in the mostly empty store.

Erik sets his book down and leans forward over the counter. “What?” he asks playfully. “Didn’t get enough turkey yesterday?”

Charles closes his eyes for a moment and Erik worries that he’s said something wrong, but Charles is smiling at him as he opens his eyes again. “I had enough yesterday, but I snuck out a little earlier than I anticipated and missed my chance at getting the leftovers,” he says. “I do hope you still have some ramen.”

“I should still have some. But you’d be amazed what people are willing to buy today. It’s absurd,” Erik says, watching Charles move quietly around the store, gathering up the last package of ramen and a bottle of water.

“Raven’s told me many stories of the insanity of Black Friday,” Charles says as he sets his items down on the counter. “Lucky for me, I don’t often have the chance to get out on such busy days.”

Erik frowns when Charles taps his forehead in a clear indication of his telepathy, but he doesn’t comment. He wants to ask, of course, and he wants to ask why Charles would need to sneak out of his Thanksgiving dinner, but he shouldn’t pry and Charles seems happy enough to reveal himself in bits and pieces. So he takes the coins Charles offers him instead and sorts them with more flare than is strictly necessary. It’s nice to have the entire shop to themselves, no fear of anyone lashing out.

“You’re not missing much,” Erik says, threading a nickel through his fingers.

Charles hmms and leans into the counter, eyes glued to the coin and Erik’s hand. “What about you?” he asks eventually. “How was your Thanksgiving?”

Briefly, Erik thinks of the last Thanksgiving he shared with his parents, when the food had been perfect, but they’d fought all day about Erik’s decision to apply to grad school right away. The fight had lasted months after, as well, and Erik can’t help but regret it now. He shakes his head and thinks of dinner yesterday instead.

“I went to a college friend’s and pretended to be his boyfriend for the day,” he says, watching closely for Charles’ reaction.

A smirk catches at Charles’ lips and he raises an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t have thought you the type to pretend like that,” he says. “Very nice of you.”

Erik tries not to absorb the compliment badly. He would really like to lean over and kiss the smirk off Charles’ face, and he has to fight the thought of it down. “I owed him. Don’t think I’d do that if I didn’t.”

Charles laughs. “I imagine you play a gentleman very well,” he says.

“Yes, well, at least until his parents realized I was a mutant,” Erik says, amused by his story now, even though it has been burning in him since the day before. “I wasn’t going to pretend to be nice at that point.”

“Please tell me you didn’t break any china,” Charles says, his amused smile turning simply content as he relaxes further against the counter.

“I wish I had,” Erik grumbles, not unhappily. “I just gave them a piece of my mind and left with a baggy of leftovers they were too nice to renege on. I’ve got the turkey in the back, if you’d like some.”

Charles’ smile tightens at the edges and he stands up straight again, grabbing for his ramen and water. “Thank you very much for the offer, my friend,” he says, voice still as warm as before, “but I think I should be going. Raven will probably be off work now and wondering where I ran off to last night.”

Erik tries not to feel too disappointed. Family is important, the most important, and although he thoroughly enjoys talking with Charles, he’s not going to stand in the way of that. “Of course,” he says, standing straighter as well.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Charles says with a wave as he walks back out into the cold evening. He doesn’t leave enough time for Erik to call back, but Erik does anyway. He feels much less foolish for it when he receives a warm brush against his mind in return. Charles’ mutation is fascinating, just as fascinating as Charles himself, and Erik wants to know more.

-

Charles looks exhausted as he pushes his way into the shop. It’s around ten-thirty and there’s a lull in business, although Erik expects it will start to pick up again soon. He wonders, briefly, if Charles can tell when there aren’t very many people in the store and chose to come then, rather than when it’s busy. The extent of Charles’ power is still a mystery to Erik and Charles doesn’t seem to be willing to fill him in on it, so Erik shelves the thought away for later. He doesn’t want to scare Charles away with too many questions, even if Charles seems just as interested in mutation as Erik is. Instead, Erik chooses to focus on the more prominent of his concerns—the way that Charles’ shoulders are slumped forward.

“Hello,” Charles says when he finally reaches the counter, his ramen and water at hand. He manages to look cheery as he says it, shoulders straightening a bit. Erik should start keeping them closer to the counter, or at least keeping some for Charles on Fridays.

Actually, he should start figuring out how to get Charles something more than ramen. Eating food with no nutritional value can’t be good for him. Erik finds himself hoping, once again, that Charles is shopping somewhere else as well as here.

Charles smiles at him with a gleam in his eye. “If I was shopping somewhere else, why would I come here to buy ramen? It’s cheaper at a supermarket. Just like everything else you sell,” he says, handing over his change.

“Hey,” Erik snaps back, stung by the jab even if it’s true and he knows it.

The smile on Charles’ face doesn’t waver and it takes Erik a moment to realize that Charles has read his mind and responded as naturally as if it they were speaking aloud. Erik’s gut reaction is to think of nothing, or at least think of the most innocuous things he can, which of course leads to thinking of the least innocuous things. “Sorry,” he mutters, glancing away. Charles really doesn’t need to hear any of this.

“It’s fine. It takes a lot to faze me anymore, although I don’t often listen very closely to anyone in particular most of the time. I can stop, if it bothers you.” With his last sentence, he seems to droop a little, falling back into his earlier exhaustion.

Erik glares gently as he bags up Charles’ food. “Don’t stop yourself on my account. We should be able to use our powers however they come naturally to us,” he grumbles. Not waiting for a response, mostly because Charles looks like he needs another moment to formulate one, Erik continues. “And if you really only eat what you buy from me, I can help you find other places to help you. This isn’t healthy.”

Charles glances away and gathers the bag to his chest. “Thank you, but I’m fine. Believe it or not, my parents are well off. I get at least one proper meal every weekend, and I’ve learned to stretch the leftovers.”

The look on Charles’ face is mildly embarrassed and determined and Erik chooses not to push it as Charles turns to leave. Instead, Erik thinks hard about how parents should treat their children.

Charles just shakes his head at Erik and collects his purchases. “To answer my own question from before, the service here is good enough incentive to come,” he says with a wink.

Even if Erik is lost for the entire week in a confused swirl of pleasure at Charles’ compliment and seething anger at Charles’ parents, Charles shows up the following Friday looking as happy as ever, with ink smudged on his hands and across one cheek. It’s rather a distracting sight, Charles smiling up and down the aisles as Erik is forced to ring up yet another six-pack of light beer.

There’s a quiet press against the back of Erik’s consciousness, like a knock, before Charles’ voice speaks in his mind. I would have washed it off as soon as I realized, but I’ve come to understand that it enhances my looks. The words come with the distinct impression of a wink and Erik gives a short laugh out loud that startles his next customer. Fuck him, anyway.

And who told you that? Erik thinks, and hopes he’s done it the right way, so Charles will hear and understand.

Charles’ pleasure is warm as it washes across Erik’s mind. I don’t think I should say, he answers, I think you know him.

Erik is consumed with jealousy, wondering which one of his other regular customers might know Charles, for only a moment before he looks up to find Charles staring directly at him across the shop. Realization comes slowly as Charles holds his gaze fondly. It’s not that he hasn’t realized Charles flirting before, but it feels much more real now, with Charles in his mind. Erik is unable to come up with a response, and he hopes, quietly, that Charles isn’t looking too hard. Even if Erik believes every mutant should use their power as often and freely as they like, he still wants to discover this for himself, rather than have Charles find it for him.

“Wish me luck for my exams,” Charles says once he reaches the counter, his voice quiet but somehow still affectionate.

“Of course,” Erik says, and pointedly shoves a pair of bananas into Charles’ bag. “And I’ll also give you some luck.”

The scowl that twists at Charles’ lips is less angry than amused. “I can take care of myself, you know,” Charles mutters, but accepts the gift with little other protest.

“Everyone deserves a present during the holidays,” Erik says, patting the sparkly snowman decoration he keeps on the counter gently.

Charles is smiling still as he leaves the counter, sending back to Erik, If you’re going to get me a present, bananas are rather low. Does that mean I should get you a bunch of grapes in return?

It’s silly and probably means nothing, but the thought that they are sharing presents at all, even in jest, lights Erik up inside. I’d prefer an orange. Grapes feel a bit elitist, he thinks, staring at the back of Charles’ head as Charles passes through the exit. He can hear Charles laughing out on the street.

-

Erik hates the holidays. He refuses to play the radio stations that only play holiday music, even if every other store seems to think those are the only stations worth playing, November first through January; he doesn’t put up any decorations beyond the snowman on his counter, and he only has that because his mother had loved it so much; he even tries not to buy as much holiday-packaged merchandise as other stores. The holidays are a sore reminder that he has no one left in the world. The fantasy of sharing presents with Charles this December might warm him a little, but it doesn’t change the fact that the dead of winter is the worst time of year.

Although it’s been five years since he graduated from university, and the thought of exams are far from his mind, he finds that this December, they are another reason to hate the winter holidays.

Charles pushes into the shop Wednesday morning during his finals week and Erik doesn’t even realize it’s him until he picks up the ramen and water to ring them up.

“Charles?” Erik asks, glancing Charles up and down, trying to place just what exactly is wrong. Charles nods at him slowly, barely looking up from the counter, and Erik sees it. The T on Charles’ neck is faded and black, completely non-threatening. It’s not uncommon to see telepaths on suppressants, rather the opposite, in fact, but Charles is somehow diminished physically with the drugs in his system. And it makes no sense. Erik is sure that Charles agrees with him that mutants should use their powers as much as they want, and Charles has certainly never appeared like this with Erik before.

Betrayal surges up through Erik at the idea that Charles would cave to society and hide his abilities like this and he finds a sneer pulling at his mouth. “What did you do?” he asks, leaning back from the counter, away from Charles, and crossing his arms over his chest.

Charles lets out a long breath and runs a hand down his face. He looks tired and weak and the knowledge that he’s so human in this moment makes him all the more pitiful in Erik’s eyes. “I thought it was rather obvious,” Charles murmurs, and even his voice is less than it should be.

“Yes,” Erik bites out, “but why?”

The answer wouldn’t matter with anyone else. Erik wouldn’t have even asked anyone else. A mutant choosing to hide who they really are isn’t worth Erik’s time or energy, but this is Charles and he’s different. He means everything.

“It’s finals,” Charles says simply. The dark circles under his eyes are bigger than normal, much more striking against the unnatural paleness of his skin. He looks sick but Erik barely feels the need to comfort him.

“So you needed to concentrate? So you gave up everything that you are?” Erik demands, nearly slamming his hand down on the counter. He pulls at the change in Charles’ pocket without asking. He doesn’t care who sees, even if the emptiness of the store registers somewhere in the back of his mind. In the face of Charles’ weakness, Erik feels the need to prove himself even more than usual.

Charles glares at him, then, bracing himself against the counter either because he’s having trouble standing up or because Erik has really struck a chord with him. Possibly both. “Of course not,” he says slowly. “University policy. All mutants who can easily cheat have to take suppressants the whole week. I would never—suppressants don’t sit well with me.”

Erik’s anger doesn’t subside, just changes direction. “They’re forcing you? I thought those policies were overturned a decade ago.” He’s growling now, he can’t help it.

With a small sigh, Charles’ anger fades. “They’re not forcing me. I could just not read my exams,” he says.

“Excuse me if I don’t see the difference,” Erik spits. He doesn’t remember anything like this at his university, and he’s certain there have been some federal laws passed since then about the rights of mutant students.

Charles gives him a small smile, one that barely pulls at one side of his mouth, but it’s still a smile. “Thank you for getting so angry on my behalf, Erik,” he says, and Erik wonders for a moment how well the suppressants actually work on Charles, “but laws regarding telepaths are different. I’m sure you see the difference in our circumstances.”

It makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Erik likes it. The idea that there are mutants out there powerful enough to bend minds or even reality to their will is terrifying, and Erik understands implicitly the desire to protect certain aspects of society and himself from them. But that doesn’t forgive this, doesn’t forgive how Charles has been affected by it. “No,” he says, finally.

“I’ll be fine, really,” Charles says grabbing up his food from the counter. “I’ve finished my exams already and this should wear off in a couple days. Getting out of the city will help, too.”

Erik is so caught up in his anger at the system and at Charles for being so accepting of it that he almost misses what Charles is saying. “What?” he asks, feeling guilty that he’s momentarily glad Charles can’t read his mind. The thought of Charles leaving the city makes his heart ache.

“It’s winter break and my parents live out of the city. They’re sending a car tomorrow morning,” Charles says, voice getting minutely weaker as he goes. Maybe the prospect of a month away from each other is as upsetting to Charles as it is to Erik. Or maybe the suppressants are really wearing him down.

“Don’t look like that,” Charles says softly, and Erik glares at him. Charles laughs and says, “I expect you to have sold everything in the store by the time I come back.”

And even though Erik hates the holidays and has stopped practicing entirely, this year hurts just as much as the first year alone had.

-

The gunshots in the street shouldn’t be as unexpected as they are. Erik wasn’t here the first time, but he’s been imagining what it must have been like ever since. No one has ever been under any illusion that the Lehnsherrs’ shop is located in a remotely safe neighborhood, but the precautions they’ve taken against danger weren’t enough the first time and as the guns sound down the street, even though he’s fairly certain he can deflect the bullets from doing any real damage, Erik feels exposed and weak.

Erik doesn’t even see the car go by, but he can hear the shouting over the jazz music he’s playing tonight. They sound far away, past the music and the pounding of blood in his ears, but he recognizes them as the men and women from the diner on the corner. It’s not hard to imagine that it’s his father from this distance and Erik feels dread knot in his stomach as he sinks to the floor behind the counter, pressing his face between his knees.

It takes him at least fifteen minutes to regain enough composure to stand up and take stock of his store. He might have lost some items to shoplifters while he was down, but there are lights flashing outside the windows and a few worried customers milling about outside the door, so he doubts there’s been much damage here.

With a deep breath, he places his ring the bell for service sign up on the counter and steps out into the store. It’s hard work, getting himself to move, but he has to do it, has to see what’s happening at the diner. Growling at the few customers still inside makes it easier, gives him something to hold onto besides the fear and uselessness raging within him. By the time he reaches the door, he even has the presence of mind to flip the open sign and lock the door as he leaves.

The noise on the street is deafening, the sirens and the shouting ringing in Erik’s ears. There’s already police tape up around the store and the bodies—because Erik is sure there were bodies—have been covered or moved away. The scene is so familiar, the flashing lights and the spectators huddled in the dark, that Erik is almost sick. He’s supposed to be better than this, he’s supposed to be over this completely; his store hasn’t even been targeted this time, and he’s still nearly paralyzed just watching.

Erik stays out by the diner watching until the last police car drives away. It’s freezing and he’s left his coat inside, but he doesn’t realize that his fingers have gone numb until he’s inside again. It’s after midnight already and he busies himself with closing, doing the math for the business he’s lost this evening and the business he’ll probably lose the next few days. It barely even fazes him, although he’s fairly sure it should. Holidays are iffy on business, but people do buy a lot of things for parties and last minute meals.

In the morning, Erik finds himself frozen in bed above the shop. He should get up and go on a jog and make his breakfast and help Alex and Darwin with opening, but he spends an hour just breathing. He imagines he can hear the gunshots and shouts again through the unnatural silence of the morning out on the street and he can’t move.

He makes his way slowly through his morning routine, sans jog, and excuses himself from work after opening the doors for Darwin and Alex. The freshly delivered newspapers he finds in the machines outside say nothing about the attack last night, but Darwin and Alex both confirm the culprit. The Hellfire Club is back after nearly five years, and they’ve already killed four people.

The second day is easier, and on the third, Erik is able to function just fine. It’s only then that he realizes the attack had been on Friday. Friday, when Charles would have been there, or at least could have been. Erik has made peace with living here, in this neighborhood, or he’s told himself that he has. It’s been his way of standing up to his past, but now it feels like all the closure he’s built up and convinced himself of over the years has been washed away.

He’s almost relieved that Charles isn’t here as the atmosphere of the neighborhood grows dark and anxious once more. And when Charles pushes in through the door of the shop a week into the new year, Erik’s chest seizes up with a protective kind of fear he’s never felt for anyone but his mother.

Charles looks different, but subtly so. He’s smiling brightly, which isn’t altogether new, but somehow he looks happier. His clothes are nicer, and it’s not just that they’re clean. They’re new, and he’s filling them out more than Erik has seen him do before. The holidays have been good to him, and Erik wishes Charles would return to whatever weird family he has, even if Erik’s wanted to gut them in the past. Charles clashes with the surroundings of Erik’s little shop more than he has before, possibly more than any of his customers ever has, and Erik wants to keep him that way.

“As lovely a thought as that is, Erik,” Charles says brightly over the tops of shelves, “I’m rather stuck here until I graduate.” Erik’s stocking the gum on the opposite side of the dried goods shelf and being this close after so long is startling, and not badly so.

Blinking past his surprise, Erik glares and says, “You don’t understand.”

“I do get a lot of news most people don’t,” Charles says, tapping his forehead, before disappearing from Erik’s line of sight to, presumably, grab his ramen from a low shelf. “I can take care of myself just as well as you.”

Erik considers this for a moment, the potential power that resides behind Charles’ blue eyes, but it doesn’t do much to assuage his fear. This is a place where people die, and it is the Hellfire Club that does the killing, even if they don’t usually target mutants.

Charles is still smiling as he stands up again. “Really, Erik,” he says quietly, pushing his bangs off his forehead, “I’ll be fine.”

“This isn’t a joke!” Erik says, frustrated by Charles’ calm.

“I know it’s not,” Charles says, finally sounding serious. “But don’t worry about me.”

It’s only after Charles has left that Erik realizes he’s paid with three crisp singles rather than a handful of change.

-

Erik is getting ready to close shop on a rather snowy Monday night, the clock on the wall winding itself ever closer to midnight. It’s been a slow evening, but the traffic he has had has brought with it enough muddy snow that Erik has mopped up the entrance four times and placed multiple wet-floor signs up around the shop. Somehow it hasn’t helped everyone, and more than one of Erik’s shelves and displays have been pulled down by customers trying to keep balance. He’s frustrated and wants the day to be over, but Erik Lehnsherr does not close shop early.

And I am glad of that, Charles’ voice rings lightly in Erik’s mind, startling him into upsetting the chips he’s restocking. The sensation of Charles speaking in his mind feels new, even if Erik has felt it before, and before he can compose himself, the doors chime and Charles stumbles over the soggy doormat on his way in. He’s covered in wet snow, his hair and coat lined with white, a few flakes even clinging to his eyelashes. The red of his cheeks and nose is captivating, and Erik tries fervently to think of how Charles should find himself a hat and scarf instead of how he’d very much like to touch Charles’ face.

Taking a moment to rein his thoughts in under the guise of righting the bags of chips in front of him, Erik manages to say, “I didn’t expect you tonight. Was there something wrong with the ramen you bought last time?”

Charles laughs just like Erik had hoped, but the sound of it is weak and hollow. Erik looks back around to find that Charles is standing a few feet away, looking weary and uncertain. It’s not the same fatigue that Erik remembers from the suppressants, but Charles looks like he might cry, or like he has been crying already, and it’s not just from the cold. The chips can wait.

“What’s wrong?” Erik asks, turning to face Charles fully.

For a moment, Charles does nothing; he stands perfectly still, the snow in his hair melting and running in small streams that must be freezing down the side of his face and neck. Erik wants to reach out and touch again, but knows he shouldn’t. He doesn’t know what to do with his hands instead, and settles for keeping them loose and open at his sides instead of crossing his arms over his chest.

“Can I stay here for a while?” Charles asks eventually, his fingers gripping tightly at the front of his coat. “I mean—just for a few hours. Nothing permanent. Sorry, I know you close at midnight but—but I have nowhere else to go.”

“Of course!” Erik says, taking a step forward. It’s stupid. He should say no. There are a million reasons why he should say no, he knows, but he can’t think of a single one. “Any time. You’ll find that I have very little life outside this shop. You can come here whenever you need to.”

This earns him a quirk of the lips that might be considered a smile on anyone who is not Charles Xavier. On Charles Xavier it just looks like a weak impersonation of a smile. Erik tries not to be upset with himself. The almost smile disappears quickly and Charles sags, running his hands over his face and then back through his hair, the water of the melting snow splashing against the shelves behind him.

“Thank you so much,” Charles says, rubbing at the bridge of his nose after trying to dry his hand off on his snow-soaked jeans. “Can I help you with anything around the shop?”

Erik purses his lips, but can’t stop himself from a vehement, “No, you’re a guest now.” The ensuing argument lasts nearly ten minutes and concludes with Charles leaning against the counter behind the cash register eyeing the machine with curiosity and Erik rearranging a candy display. Erik’s not likely to have very many more customers anyway, and there isn’t more than a handful in the last few minutes of business. It turns out that Charles is good at sales, too, and all four customers leave smiling.

Charles finally looks truly happy as well, full color restored to his cheeks and a real smile pulling at his lips. “I’ve never worked with people before,” he says softly, still staring after their last customer as Erik closes shop with a few decisive flicks of his wrist. Before he can ask what Charles means, Charles looks away, tugging hard at his telepath identification bracelet where his hands rest on the counter and Erik decides not to push this time.

“Thanks again for letting me stay,” Charles starts again, voice stronger than before.

Unable to stop himself this time, Erik asks, “Can you tell me what happened?”

The sigh that Charles lets out hisses slightly through his clenched teeth, and Erik worries that he’s somehow upset him. But Charles says, “Don’t be too alarmed, but I don’t live in the best neighborhood.” Erik smiles at that. “There was a police raid on the apartment above me and there were just too many minds, all loud with adrenaline and anger and fear. I had to get away.” After a short pause, Charles adds, “I could go now, if you wanted to get to bed.”

Erik does not say, “You shouldn’t ever go back,” like he wants and instead says, “You can stay as long as you need to.”

Charles, however, is already grabbing his coat up off a rarely used chair behind the counter. “Just being around your mind has already helped more than enough,” he says, picking his way cautiously around the puddles as he moves across the shop. “I couldn’t ask for more.”

Instead of telling Charles he could ask for anything, Erik finds himself opening the door for Charles and ushering him outside into the cold. “Be careful,” he says as Charles disappears into the snow. It’s only been forty minutes, and Erik hopes that Charles’ building is safe and empty by now.

There’s a light tug in Erik’s mind that feels almost like a hand lying gently on his shoulder, and Erik knows that neither of them will be truly alone for the rest of the night.

-

As far as Erik can tell, Charles never goes anywhere but school, his apartment, and Erik’s shop. So it’s a surprise when Charles asks him, “Have you ever been to The Wolverine before? It’s a bar just a few blocks west of here.”

Erik shakes his head as he hands Charles his change, because, if he’s honest, Erik doesn’t really get out much, either. “With all the booze I’ve got in here,” he says, gesturing towards the large refrigerators on the side wall, “I don’t go to bars that much.”

Instead of commenting on the real point of bars or socializing or something just as mundane, Charles just smiles and nods. “If you ever do get out, it’s not a bad place. The owner’s a great guy,” he says on his way out the door. Erik’s not sure if that really counts as an invitation and even if it does, it most definitely isn’t an invitation for a date, but Erik calls Alex to cover the rest of the evening shift so he can head over to The Wolverine.

The owner, Erik decides, is not a person anyone would ever call “a great guy,” a little on the growly, grungy side, but the beer selection is better than Erik remembers bars having so he can’t be all bad. And Charles does turn up, before Erik can even order, slipping behind the bar as soon as he enters to give the owner a hug that sets Erik’s teeth on edge. Except Charles is turning to face Erik with a bright smile and two pints in hand and Erik can’t remember why he would be upset around Charles at all.

On their third round, all of which, Erik has come to understand, are on the house, Charles places his hand on Erik’s on their table and says, very seriously, “I’m really very grateful to you for the other evening.”

Erik frowns and leans in. “You can come by whenever you need to,” he says again and wishes that Charles would have believed him the first time.

“I know, and thank you,” Charles says with a soft smile, “but I was talking about letting me work the counter.”

Erik’s eyes drop to the bracelet on Charles’ wrist immediately, remembering the way Charles had touched it that night. It’s shining in the dim light of the bar where it’s slipped out from under the sleeve of Charles’ cardigan, but the glare makes the words difficult to make out, even at close range. Charles tuts and pulls his hand back. “I’m sorry,” Erik says after a moment. “I didn’t think many people still worried about letting people like you work with, well, people.”

Charles dips his head slightly and his expression is unreadable; Erik doesn’t let himself consider that Charles is only making him think so. “The only job I’ve ever been able to get is in the university library, shelving books, and even under university policy they only have to let me work eight-to-ten hours a week. No contact with customers or money without suppressants,” Charles says. His voice is hard in a way Erik isn’t used to hearing it.

“That’s not enough to get by on,” Erik says, guilty that he hadn’t paid Charles for even the few minutes he’d worked in the shop.

Shaking his head, Charles throws back the rest of his beer and grimaces. “Sometimes I wish that I could take suppressants. It would make it so much easier. My parents would like it, too, I’m sure,” he says pensively.

Erik feels anger well up under his skin, burning on his tongue, but he feels Charles dismiss it telepathically before he can say anything. Biting back any other frustration, Erik asks, “You said you came from money?”

“Oh, yes,” Charles says in a sour tone. “I come from money and my parents have no problem paying my tuition, but they’re no more interested in having a telepath for a son than anyone else is in having one for an employee. After a small allowance, I have to make everything else myself. Food, books, clothing, rent. Somehow my stepfather thinks that if I can survive school like this, it proves that I can survive in the real world and then I can have access to my father’s money again. Or, I guess, he thinks it might drive me to go on suppressants permanently, in which case he would have no problem allowing me that access tomorrow.”

For a minute, Erik doesn’t even know what he thinks of this. It’s unfair and frustrating; even though Erik doesn’t really believe that Charles could possibly have escaped any privilege he’s had before, it’s Charles and he doesn’t deserve such radical punishment for being a mutant. Before he’s really thought it over, and mostly to lighten the mood, Erik says, “I could take care of him for you. Your stepfather.”

Charles’ laugh is short and surprised, but his smile is genuine. “No need to tarnish your record with that. Kurt Marko is in no way worth it.”

Erik tips his head in consent before tipping back the rest of his own drink. “You could work for me,” he says, trying to do the math in his head. “I don’t have much extra to pay you, but I could make it work.”

Charles gives him a tight smile and says, “Don’t worry about it. I’m doing just fine as it is. Just one more semester and Kurt won’t be able to convince my mother to wait any longer.”

Silence passes between them and Erik tries not to feel like a failure. He should be able to help Charles the way that he’s helping Alex and Darwin; he shouldn’t have to help kids like this because there should be something in the system for them, for mutants. But there’s not.

“Thank you, though,” Charles says eventually, “the offer is really very kind.”

-

As a matter of principle, Erik doesn’t allow fighting in his shop, whether it be verbal or physical. While he might occasionally allow himself a jibe or snipe at a customer in passing, he tries not to let it escalate within the shop itself. That would just be bad for business. But when it comes to Charles, it’s different, as it always is; Erik wants to fight for Charles, no matter where, and, more than that, he wants Charles to fight for himself.

It’s late and Erik isn’t quite sure that Charles is going to show up for his weekly ramen or not. The couple he’s ringing up, with the romantic items of condoms and a six-pack, is giggling over the latest episode of a sitcom Erik vaguely recalls being ironically pro-human in a way that really just made it human-supremacist bullshit where the put-upon sidekick mutant character was the butt of most of the jokes. Erik tries not to let his irritation show and is more than a little relieved when he sees Charles duck into the shop behind them.

Instead of running off to the dried goods aisle, Charles lingers near one of the central displays as Erik finishes his sale. Very slowly, Charles begins to unwind his scarf while reading the nutrition table on the back of a bag of Doritos and Erik hopes it means he’s planning on staying a while.

“Sorry,” Charles murmurs as the woman brushes shoulders with him on her way out of the shop.

“Hey, Tee,” the boyfriend snarls, grabbing Charles’ arm and shoving him to the side. Erik waits a heartbeat for Charles to respond, to neutralize the threat, but Charles does nothing but cover his tattoo with his free hand. So Erik jumps into action.

Stalking out from around the counter, Erik growls, “Let go of him.”

“Erik!” Charles snaps at the same time that the boyfriend says, “The tee was touching my girl!”

“Get out,” Erik says, waving his hand at the door to open it with a burst of power. He’s sure it’s not just the cold air that has the couple shivering.

The woman pulls her boyfriend towards the door after a tense second, shaking her head and muttering as they go. Erik, apparently feeling uncharacteristically generous, ignores the insults and threats the man continues to spit at them all the way out the door; he doesn’t want to.

Slamming the door and rounding on Charles as soon as the couple has disappeared, Erik says, “So you’ll use your powers to stop me, but not him?”

Charles rubs at his face. “It’s not like that,” he starts to say, but Erik cuts him off.

“I think it’s exactly like that!”

With an exasperated sigh, Charles says, “He had no intention of actually hurting me. You, on the other hand, were quite ready to hit someone.”

Erik only barely stops himself from rolling his eyes. “He was violent enough,” he grumbles.

Charles sighs again. “They just get scared when they see the tattoo,” Charles says, rubbing at his neck. Before Erik can say that, yes, they should be afraid, Charles almost whispers, “I hate it.”

“It’s just a tattoo,” Erik says, eyes glued to the red lines visible beneath Charles’ fingers. He hasn’t ever really noticed how much he likes looking at it before, but he can’t imagine Charles without it now.

The look Charles is giving him is entirely unimpressed. Tone flat, he says, “It’s more than that and you know it.”

Leveling Charles with an equally unmoved look, Erik says, “Fine then. It’s just another facet of your mutation.”

“But it’s not,” Charles says, voice raised in a way that Erik is unused to. “It wasn’t put there by nature, it was put there by society. By my parents.”

The last time Erik stomped his foot in frustration was with his mother, but he finds the motion reflexive in this moment. “I wish I had some sort of physical manifestation,” he growls, because Charles needs to understand. “I’m different and they should know it.”

Charles breathes in deep, holding Erik’s gaze for a long moment. “I know what it’s like to blend in, Erik,” he says, voice quiet once again. “I’ve always been able to read minds, as far back as I can remember, but they weren’t allowed to brand me until I hit puberty.” He stops, pursing his lips and Erik’s not sure if he’s finished or not. Before Erik can say anything, however, Charles starts again, “Not everyone wants to be recognized, and I know I’d rather not be. Especially not for a symbol with as much negative stigma as this.”

It makes sense, Erik realizes, perfect sense, but it still rubs him the wrong way. “But you shouldn’t have to hide,” he says, feeling it in every fiber. “It shouldn’t matter if people can tell you’re different.”

“No, of course not,” Charles says, a slight smile pulling at the corner of his lips, “but it does matter. That’s why your ink is so much better.”

Erik feels the blush rising up his neck at that. He hasn’t actually shown anyone his tattoo since university, where he’d been quite proud of that drunken decision. His father had hated it, but that only made it more exciting. Now, the stylized M hides beneath high collars on the back of his neck. “No one can even see it,” he gets out, throat tight with the knowledge that Charles knows something so intimate and with the latent shame at keeping it hidden in the first place. “It does nothing.”

Charles licks his lips and says, “I can see it. And it does something for me.”

There’s a spark in Erik’s chest, and he’s leaning forward and Charles is leaning into him, too, and the bell above the door sounds as another customer pushes their way inside. Charles coughs and turns away toward the dried goods aisle and Erik curses quietly, glaring at his feet before turning a tight smile to his new customer.

“How can I help you?” he asks, heart still pounding. Charles has already disappeared from sight.

-

There’s a fire blazing across the street, a fast food restaurant being gutted by flames. It hasn’t even been a week since Hellfire’s last statement, a shooting three blocks away, and now they’ve done it again. Erik doesn’t think there’s anyone inside the restaurant, doesn’t think anyone has been hurt, but this is somehow bigger. This target makes sense, is a statement; the fast food chain is notorious for its discriminatory hiring and firing policies, and it is much closer to Erik.

This time, Erik doesn’t hide behind his desk, but it’s still difficult to make his way to the door. His customers are all running, already outside, but Erik finds his journey more like walking through molasses. All the metal around him is ringing this time, vibrating with his anger and fear. This is wrong. This is something that shouldn’t happen, and yet it’s right outside.

As he reaches the door, there’s a voice in his mind, whispering softly enough to be almost indistinguishable from his racing thoughts, Hello, Erik. You have so much potential. All you have to do is— But Charles is pushing through the door then, running into Erik in his haste, and Erik knows the voice doesn’t belong to either of them or anyone Erik has ever met.

“Erik!” Charles says, out of breath. His hands are resting against Erik’s chest and Erik realizes absently that the metal around him has stopped ringing. “Are you okay? I came as soon as I heard. I should’ve noticed sooner—I could’ve—no, Erik—” he says, words getting more and more jumbled as he goes on, until Erik finally has enough presence of mind to take his hands.

“Charles, you shouldn’t be here,” he says, pulling Charles away from the door, away from the fire. It’s easier to move now, with someone else present.

There’s a flash of anger in Charles’ eyes, but he doesn’t pull his hands away. “Please, don’t,” Charles says, twisting his hands around to hold Erik’s more naturally. “There’s no one around with any bad intentions, and I’m here for you now. Please.”

Erik’s eyes drop down to Charles’ tattoo, where it sits red on his neck, visible under Charles’ hastily tied scarf. Telepath. It is possible that Charles is completely right, and Erik tries to make himself believe it. But he can’t stop his hands from shaking in Charles’ grip, either from anger or fear.

“You don’t understand, Charles,” Erik says, but stops when he finds his voice weak.

After one more squeeze, Charles pulls one of his hands away and runs it down Erik’s arm. It’s more comforting than Erik would’ve imagined. “I might,” Charles says into the silence of the shop. The sirens are blaring outside, and people are shouting, and the fire itself is roaring, but Erik’s shop has muted the noise, distanced it.

With a deep breath, Erik finally says, “It’s the Hellfire Club. They used to run this area of town. Five years ago they killed my parents.” Erik can’t look up from Charles’ hand in his own. He doesn’t want to see any pity or judgment the way he has from everyone else, so he doesn’t look. Instead, he continues, the words coming from somewhere deep in his chest, unarticulated for so long.

“They’re a mutant group that only targets humans. They started up around here. When I was a kid, I used to idolize them a bit, standing up for what they believed in. I used to collect all the newspaper articles about them and post them on my walls. Because of them, I went to school to become an activist or a lawyer or I don’t know what—I wanted to be someone who could make our voice heard where other people thought it mattered. I started by joining the campus branch of the Brotherhood. But then Hellfire killed my parents.” Erik pauses and swallows. “They went dark for a while after that. And now they’re back.”

There’s silence again, but Erik barely notices the din outside. He looks at Charles this time, because he needs to; he needs to know how Charles responds to this. And Charles is still there, looking up at him earnestly, free of anything but concern.

“What are you going to do?” Charles asks, not letting go of Erik.

“I’m not going anywhere, if that’s what you’re asking,” Erik grinds out. He probably should; he could actually do something if he left. It would be so easy to reapply to grad school and get out of here, but he can’t leave this behind. Charles lets out a small noise at that, and Erik realizes he doesn’t mind whether Charles is listening in on his thoughts or not.

Erik clears his throat and tightens his fingers around Charles’. “But I can’t lose anything else to them. Until now there wasn’t really anything to lose—not that they’ve been around, but…” he trails off and looks away. He isn’t good at this.

But Charles smiles at him gently. “Why, Mr. Lehnsherr, what are you saying?” he asks, tone light.

“Shut up,” Erik growls. “Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

Charles’ smile doesn’t lose any of its sincerity, but it fades around the edges as he glances between Erik and the fire-lit street outside. “Are you sure this is the right time to be asking? Tonight isn’t—”

“This is the only time!” Erik says, or perhaps shouts. Again: not good at this. “With the Hellfire Club around and your stubbornness—” Charles snorts at this and Erik gets the distinct impression that he’s thinking I’m not the only one—“there’s no better time.”

Charles hums softly and pats Erik’s arm gently. “You make a solid argument,” he says with a smile. “So, where are we going?”

Erik deflates, caught off guard. “What? Now?” he asks, taken aback. He hadn’t really expected Charles to say yes, let alone be so game for it.

“Of course not!” Charles says, glancing nervously at the fire. “That would be horribly insensitive.” Charles smiles back at Erik and grabs for his face, pushing him back against the coffee counter for a kiss, hot and deep and endless.

Minutes later, more than breathless, Erik pulls away and asks, “Dinner is insensitive, but making out is perfectly okay?”

Charles grins at him and plants a quick kiss on his cheek. No time like the present, remember.

-

Charles is looking over the menu with a troubling furrow in his brow. It’s been a long time since Erik has actually taken anyone out on a date, and even though they’ve agreed not to do anything too fancy, he hopes he hasn’t chosen venues too poorly. It’s a cozy family place, but Charles hasn’t looked comfortable once since sitting down. “You know I can’t really afford any of this, right?” Charles asks slowly, licking his lips and fidgeting with a bent corner of his menu absently.

“You don’t need to,” Erik mutters, momentarily relieved. Even if he doesn’t date (ever), he does know how these things should go. He’s older and he has a job; he can afford it so he can pay, at least this time. It’s only logical.

“That’s not fair, even if you think it’s logical, but I’ll let it slide,” Charles says, his expression smoothing out into a small smile. This time, he adds on silently, and Erik can’t help but shiver at the mental contact.

Charles’ food circumstance is still difficult for Erik to understand. At university, Erik was always able to get what he needed, even if he had to push at his school’s administration to get him a job. But Charles still only buys ramen, and now says he can’t afford a meal at a family diner. It’s been bothering Erik for months, even more so after their conversation in the bar, so he asks, “Do they really only work eight hours a week?”

The look this brings to Charles’ face is decidedly flat, even if he has his face angled down to the table. “I wouldn’t lie to you,” he says, fiddling with the shell of a piece of bread.

“That’s not what I—” Erik starts, dropping his menu down on the table. “That can’t count as a job!” He knows there are laws to stop job discrimination against mutants, and that has to be a violation.

Charles sighs softly, but there’s an angry glint in his eyes. “Of course it doesn’t make much of a difference to my finances,” he says, “but it’s technically a school-provided job and there’s no way for me to say they’re discriminating against me, since I’m the one who won’t take suppressants or find another job.” Or hire a lawyer goes unsaid between them.

Even if he knows that Charles, or any mutant, really, should be able to get a job through his university, Erik’s not unfamiliar with helping young mutants make enough money to scrape by. He’s helping Alex and Darwin for just that reason, and he’s sure Charles would get along with them well enough. “I meant what I said before,” Erik says, “you could work for me. I could use help in the evenings, anyway.”

Charles lets out a short laugh, his anger disappearing in an instant. “Erik, that’s very nice of you,” he says, “but this dinner can only be one thing.”

“What?” Erik asks, because really, this dinner has nothing to do with what he’s just offered.

Charles waits patiently as their waitress takes their orders. Or at least Erik thinks he’s being patient until he feels Charles’ foot pressing against the inside of his calf under the table. Erik glares, but doesn’t rise to the bait, even if it feels amazing to finally be this close to Charles, to be touching him at all.

“I’m serious, Charles,” Erik says when the waitress has left. “You can have a job with me and get more than eight hours a week.”

With a long sigh, Charles looks up at Erik tiredly and says, “This is either a job interview or a date. It can’t be both, because there is no way that I’m going to date my boss.”

“You can’t—” Erik starts to say, because it’s not fair that Charles is putting himself in that position, putting Erik in that position.

“No, Erik,” Charles cuts in sharply, his eyes hard again. “I can. I’d much rather have you as a date than as a boss.”

Erik has wanted nothing more than to kiss Charles for months, so it hurts, but Erik has to be responsible here. If Charles is going to deliver that sort of ultimatum, one of them has to make the right choice. So he tries again, “But—”

And Charles cuts him off a second time, “It’s very nice of you to want to take care of me, but I’m fine. And if I wasn’t fine, my mother wouldn’t let me starve, even if she doesn’t like me. Think of what her friends would say. Believe me, I’m much better off with a date as handsome and intelligent as you than with a job in a dodgy shop.”

Erik can feel his ears heat up at the insult and the compliment and he tries not to think of the kiss they’d shared last week after the fire. It’s still not fair, and Erik doesn’t think he can possibly continue on in a relationship with Charles now without feeling guilty the entire time. But Charles is giving him an unimpressed look and Erik raises an eyebrow in question, unable to find words.

“Look at this way,” Charles says, placing both of his hands down on the table, palms down, “you didn’t want me at the shop or even in the area anyway since it’s so dangerous now. Not that that’s a good reason for anything, mind you. And besides, I’m applying for another job on campus. One of my professors this semester doesn’t seem to mind that I’m a telepath, at least.”

“Fine,” Erik says eventually, folding his arms over his chest. “But this means you have to take a piece of fruit, free of charge, every time you buy your ramen at my shop.”

Charles levels him with a glare for a moment before his lips curl up into a smile. “Deal,” he says.

-

It’s been a few days since their date, and Erik is beginning to worry that Charles is regretting it altogether. That might just be Erik’s own doubt—he probably had been too hasty the night of the fire—but it sits heavily on his conscience. He holds on to a thin string of hope, peering down the street in both directions as he closes up his shop for the night, looking for any sign of Charles. Instead he feels the cold brush of an unfamiliar voice in his head.

Erik Lehnsherr, she says, and she suddenly appears before him in a cloud of smoke, her teleporter escort standing tall beside her. Erik manages to keep his head, feeling out the metal around him in the flickering light of the streetlamps in case he needs to defend himself.

“You’re with Hellfire,” Erik says, sure that it’s true. He remembers seeing the two of them around the neighborhood when he was young, the White Queen and Azazel, gorgeous and proud of their physical mutations. Even now, admiration is battling against Erik’s anger.

Azazel tips his hat in greeting, but the White Queen sighs and rolls her diamond eyes. “The Black King wants to offer you a deal,” she says, sounding as if she wants nothing to do with this deal at all.

Keeping an eye on the door to his shop, Erik takes a step toward the pair. It’s easier than he thought it would be, remaining calm in the face of his parents’ murderers, but despite his relative composure, Erik can feel his anger festering. As carefully as he can, Erik flexes his fingers, and the nearest lamppost leans in. “And what if I don’t want anything to do with his deal?” he asks.

“Sugar,” the White Queen laughs, “the Black King doesn’t play games like that. He likes you and he wants you to join us. We’re better than the world thinks, and I know you feel the same. And I know that you’d do anything to protect your little shop.”

Erik’s fingers curl into a fist, the lamppost groaning with the strain of it. “That doesn’t mean I want to join you,” he grinds out. He wants to fight, to show them just how much he appreciates their invitation, but he holds himself back, but he can’t win on his own, not as unprepared as he is.

With another tinkling laugh, the White Queen takes Azazel’s hand and says smugly, “We’ll see.” And the two of them disappear into the night.

It takes Erik longer than he likes to calm down enough to return the lamppost to its original state, and even once he’s managed it, he waits on the street for any other sign of movement for more than an hour. He locks the shop up as securely as he can, even though it won’t be any good against the Hellfire Club if they want in. Sleep eludes him and he spends most of the night staring out the front window into the street, looking for any sign of movement. No one’s going to do anything to him or his shop if he can help it.

It’s not until nearly nine o’clock that anyone comes near the shop, and Erik’s tired mind realizes slowly that it’s Charles, bundled up against the chilly morning. For a moment, Erik is frozen with dread, the stress of Hellfire’s threat compounding on his preexisting doubts about seeing Charles. Numbly, Erik makes his way down to the street, busying himself with unlocking the shop before really acknowledging that Charles is there.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been around,” Charles says quietly, after Erik does nothing in way of a greeting. “I’ve been very busy with school.”

Erik tsks and pulls Charles into the shop, locking the door behind them. “That’s not why I’m upset,” he says, although it’s only partially true.

Charles takes his hands and only then does Erik realize that he’s shaking. “I was wrong the night of the fire,” Erik says slowly. “We shouldn’t be seeing each other now. It’s too dangerous here. You should get out.”

“No,” Charles says, squeezing Erik’s fingers tightly. “You were absolutely right that night. You need me more than ever now and I’m not going anywhere.”

Slowly, Erik pulls Charles closer, twisting his hands free to wrap his arms around his shoulders. Charles hums contentedly into the hug. “You do realize what happened here last night?” Erik asks into Charles’ hair.

Nodding as much as he can, Charles says, “Of course.”

“And you realize it’s only going to get more dangerous?” Erik says, wishing it weren’t true.

Charles pulls back to hold Erik’s gaze. “And you realize,” he says, “that next time you don’t have to be alone?”

The words strike something warm in Erik’s chest and it almost hurts. “Are you sure?” Erik asks. He knows the answer, knows that Charles never says anything he’s not certain of, but he needs to hear it anyway.

“Of course,” Charles says, smiling. He pushes himself up on his toes to kiss Erik’s cheek, tracing kisses down Erik’s jaw, to his lips, and Erik forgets to even worry that he hasn’t showered yet.

Erik’s hands move from Charles’ shoulders to his hair, pulling him deeper. It’s been so long, and Charles is so perfect and, Erik realizes, he really does need Charles in more ways than this. Charles moans softly into the kiss, his fingers curling in the back of Erik’s shirt and a blossom of something that only registers as rich and red and warm springs up in the back of Erik’s mind.

“Sorry,” Charles says when he pulls away a moment later, running his fingers down Erik’s back. “I didn’t mean to bleed over like that.”

Erik tries not to moan at that, the idea of Charles using his telepathy like this, and he has to bury his face in Charles’ shoulder to hide his blush. “I’ve told you before,” he mumbles, knowing Charles will hear him anyway, “you don’t need to hold yourself back for my sake.”

With a low laugh, Charles pats him gently on the back. “Well, I might not need to do it for you, but I don’t think that the customers gathered outside your window would appreciate it quite as much,” he says.

Glancing over his shoulder to confirm Charles’ observation, Erik groans in frustration. “Fuck,” he grumbles. Of course Alex and Darwin are off for the day.

-

“Boss?” Alex calls from the door of the storeroom. “There’s someone asking for you at the counter.”

Erik grumbles and yells back, “Tell them your manager agrees with you completely and they can go suck it for all I care.”

“I always do,” Alex says happily, and Erik wonders why he hasn’t fired him yet. “But there’s a guy here asking for you specifically. By name.”

Grumbling, Erik drops his clipboard and pen onto a nearby box and follows Alex back to the main shop. Charles is there, standing next to the counter with a pack of gum in his hand, scrutinizing the tiny print of its label. He doesn’t look upset, and the worry that has been growing in Erik’s chest eases. Trying not to think about the gossip Alex will start up about this, Erik reaches out to Charles. “I wasn’t expecting you, Charles.”

Looking up, Charles grins and grabs onto Erik’s extended arm. “Happy Tuesday?” He says it like a question, and his coyness is more charming than it should be. “I thought you might, uh,” Charles pauses to glance around, lowering his voice. “I thought you might invite me up for a cup of tea.”

The spark of suggestion in Charles’ eyes has Erik’s throat going dry, and he barely has the presence of mind to call out a quick farewell to Alex before dragging Charles up to his apartment. Charles follows happily, humming lightly as they go, his fingers kneading gently into Erik’s arm; Erik has trouble getting his key to fit in the lock of his door and ends up flicking it open with his fingers instead, much to Charles’ delight.

Once inside, with Charles’ coat hanging on the nearly empty coatrack, Erik rubs at his neck to ease his nerves. “I don’t think I actually have any tea,” he says with a quick glance towards his kitchen.

Charles smirks, sliding closer and hooking his fingers into Erik’s belt loops. “I didn’t really want tea, anyway,” he says. With a few decisive tugs, Charles walks Erik backwards and pushes him down onto the couch, kneeling over him as he goes. “Can you think of anything else to give me?” Charles asks, voice low.

Fisting his hands in Charles’ shirt, Erik leans up for a kiss, wasting no time pretending to be interested in going slow. Everything is fast and hot and Erik feels almost like he’s drowning in the pleasure of it, better than he’s ever felt like this before. Charles is everywhere, burning hot against Erik’s thighs where he kneels over him, his arms braced wide against the couch behind Erik’s shoulders, and it’s almost as if he’s filling the entire apartment with his presence. It’s not until Erik bites down on Charles’ lip and feels the sting of it in his own that he realizes what’s happening.

Swallowing down a breathless moan, Erik asks, “Is that—”

“Sorry,” Charles murmurs against Erik’s lips, shifting himself away.

Erik tightens his hold on Charles’ shirt with one hand, bringing the other up to cup Charles’ cheek. “Don’t you dare,” Erik says, enjoying Charles’ answering shiver. “I want to feel all of it.”

A broken laugh catches in Charles’ throat and he turns to press a kiss into Erik’s palm. “Just give me a moment,” he says, eyes shut as his breath burns over Erik’s hand.

“We should move this to a bed,” Erik says, sliding his hands down Charles’s sides to rest on his hips. He looks down the hall to his room and it seems miles away.

Charles clicks his tongue and grinds down slowly and purposefully against Erik. “I’m fine right here,” he says into Erik’s ear.

Moaning, Erik digs his fingers into Charles’ hips and tries to direct his pace. “Are you really just like all those other horny college kids?” Erik gasps. “Willing to do it anywhere?”

“Yes,” Charles whines, pressing a wet kiss against Erik’s throat and jerking his hips. “That’s exactly what I am.”

Erik surges up for a kiss, one that leaves his mind burning with the echoed sensation of it from all angles. “Clothes,” he mumbles, reluctant to pull away, but needing to feel more.

With an exaggerated sigh, Charles pushes himself to his feet. He strips quickly and methodically, dropping his clothes onto another chair without looking. Erik is mesmerized by it, by each new inch of revealed skin, the way that the red T stands out against the pale expanse of his skin, his flushed cock catching on his briefs. By the time Charles drops back onto the couch, diving right back in for another kiss, Erik has only managed to rid himself of his shirt and push his jeans and boxers down to his knees; Charles doesn’t seem to mind.

You can look later, Charles’ voice echoes in his mind as his fingers wrap around their cocks between them. Count my freckles or some other nonsense.

The sensation is breathtaking, doubled and amplified, and Erik can’t stop himself from reaching down as well, curling his fingers around Charles’. Charles moans into the kiss, leaning into it as he braces his free hand against the couch again. “Fuck,” Erik pleads against Charles’ lips, his mind buckling under the weight of their combined pleasure, loving every second of it.

Neither of them lasts long, or maybe it’s that one of them drags the other over, and they come together in a wave more powerful than Erik has ever imagined possible. He’s not sure where one of them begins and the other ends; everything he feels oddly doubled. Slowly, he becomes aware that Charles is pressed against him, plastered to his chest and breathing into his neck. There are fingers tracing light patterns over his arm and somehow the world is beginning to even out again.

“Charles,” Erik tries to say, but it comes out nothing more than a garbled moan.

“Yes, I know,” Charles says, and Erik can feel his lips moving against the skin of his throat. “Are you sure you don’t have any tea?” Charles twists up to catch Erik’s eye. “I’m sure it would help.”

Erik laughs.

-

It’s almost midnight on Friday and Charles is standing in front of the counter in the empty shop with a banana in one hand, his ramen in the other, and his bottle of water tucked under his arm. There hasn’t been a sighting of Hellfire in a few weeks and Erik is allowing Charles to do his best to distract him from them entirely. Charles smiles slightly, and only now is Erik beginning to realize how dirty that slight upturn of his lips can be.

“When you’re done ringing these up,” Charles says, “it will be midnight and you’re going to leave them on the counter and we’re going to have a date.”

Erik sighs and tugs at the change in Charles’ pocket. “Only if that means I can buy you some real food,” he says, reaching forward to grab the ramen out of Charles’ hand.

Charles shakes his head, but hands over his purchases. “I’ve had enough today,” he murmurs, leaning over the counter. “I have something else in mind.”

Flicking his finger, Erik pulls teasingly at the metal of Charles’ belt. “I know you do,” he growls. “You’ve been projecting how horny you are for hours. I bet the whole city knows.”

“I think I like it when you talk that way,” Charles says with a laugh, leaning across the counter.

Erik rolls his eyes and drops Charles’ change into the cash register with an exaggerated arc of his hand. “Yes, well,” he says, placing his hand on top of Charles’ on the counter, enjoying the feel of Charles’ blunt nails against his palm and the steady pulse of his bracelet. “What’s gotten into you lately?”

“Oh!” Charles says excitedly, pulling his hand back. “I forgot to tell you the other day, didn’t I? My professor finally got me the job in her lab. It doesn’t pay much, but I can get as many hours as I want as long as I need. It will help a lot.”

It’s good news, great news, actually, but there’s still something wrong. “You still don’t get to work with people, though?” Erik asks. From what he can remember, science labs weren’t always the most people-friendly places.

Erik feels Charles’ exasperation before Charles even opens his mouth to speak. “Of course not,” Charles huffs, pushing away from the counter, “but this is what I want to do with my life.”

Charles lets that sink in for only a moment before turning back to smirk at Erik. “Now are you going to come over here and kiss me or do I have to do something drastic in full view of the camera?”

With a deep sigh and a smirk of his own, Erik steps around the counter and leans over Charles. “I thought we were going on a date,” he says, dodging Charles’ attempt to grab him.

“I thought you might buy me a drink,” Charles says, glancing pointedly toward the refrigerators.

Erik laughs. “That does not count as a date,” he says, as he stalks down the aisles, Charles in tow, “but I’ll do it anyway.”

“My hero.” Charles is beaming behind him, happy enough that Erik can feel it.

But then Charles grabs Erik’s arm and pulls him to a stop, his happiness draining from the air in an instant. “What’s wrong?” Erik asks, glancing around the shop and what he can see in the dark outside.

“Someone’s coming,” Charles says, keeping his voice low. He brings his fingers up to rest on his temple, a sign of concentration Erik has rarely seen him use, and a frown drags his eyebrows down. A moment later and he’s gasping in pain, clutching Erik’s arm with his free hand. “He’s powerful,” Charles says through grit teeth. “We should get out.”

The Black King. He’s finally here; Erik doesn’t even need confirmation from Charles to know he’s right. They wouldn’t be able to get away at this point if they tried. But Erik’s ready for the fight this time, as ready as he can ever be, with Charles by his side.

“We can do this,” Erik says, or maybe it’s Charles. It doesn’t matter who says it in the end, because there is a man standing on the other side of the door, smiling coolly at them through the glass. Erik hasn’t had time to lock up yet, but the man merely places his hand on the glass and it shatters before him.

Stepping through the door, the Black King smiles brightly at them and says, “Erik Lehnsherr, we finally meet.” His voice is firm, but sweet, tempting and powerful and Erik closes his eyes against it, squeezing Charles’ arm tightly to keep himself grounded.

“What do you want?” Erik asks when he’s able to open his eyes again, to watch as the Black King walks across his shop, his parents’ shop.

“I want you to join me, Erik, to help me conquer the lesser beings of this planet and raise up those of us who are worthy,” the Black King says, stopping only a few feet away.

Erik can feel the metal of the shelves vibrating, waiting for him to call, but he keeps it firmly in place. “I won’t join you,” he growls, “I already told your queen.”

Tilting his head and looking disappointed and pitying, the Black King says, “Yes, but I thought I’d see you for myself. To see if you really wanted to suffer the same fate as your pathetic parents.”

“Get out,” Erik says, taking a step forward, away from Charles. Rage is boiling under his skin at this point and he doesn’t know what will happen next.

The Black King glares at him, nostrils flaring with indignation. “You are either with me, or you are against me,” he says slowly, as if he thinks Erik might not understand. “It is your choice.”

-

The store erupts with noise and movement as Erik pulls one of the lights down from the ceiling to crash into the Black King’s head. It is almost completely ineffective, glancing off the Black King’s shoulder and barely even causing him to lose his footing. The air around him fluctuates visibly, and Erik suddenly recalls just exactly what the Black King’s mutation allows him to do. Instead of turning to Charles to regroup, Erik pulls down the next light into the Black King’s chest in frustration.

“I said get out!” Erik yells, rushing forward with his fist raised.

“Stop!” Charles yells behind him. “You’re only giving him more power by doing that!”

Erik doesn’t care, he just needs the Black King away from his shop. Preferably dead and gone. The Black King smiles at him sharply and grabs his fist from the air, twisting with enough force to send Erik to his knees at the pain. Not letting go of Erik’s fist, the Black King turns his gaze to Charles. “And who’s your friend?”

“Leave him out of this,” Erik growls, gasping when the Black King gives his fist a sharp tug.

Charles drops his fingers from his face and squares his shoulders to the Black King. Of all the times for him to be a pacifist, it hurts Erik that he chooses now. Not being a pacifist, Charles voice filters through Erik’s mind. Just buying some time.

Licking his lips, Charles asks, “Where are your friends?”

The Black King laughs at that, dropping Erik’s hand, which immediately begins to tingle painfully. “A telepath,” the Black King murmurs, his eyes trailing down Charles’ exposed throat slowly and then jumping back up to his face. “I don’t need my friends to do this, little telepath,” he says, tapping his finger against the nearest shelf and knocking the whole thing down with just that.

“I told you to leave,” Erik snarls, pulling down another light fixture, putting it between Charles and the Black King.

“Hush, now,” the Black King says, grabbing the offending light and tossing it aside with ease. “Who are you, little telepath? What can you do?”

Erik can’t see Charles anymore, not with the Black King in the way, but he can feel his discomfort in the air and wonders if the Black King can feel it, too.

Keeping his voice impressively steady, Charles says, “None of that concerns you.”

The Black King laughs again, this time softly. “I could give you everything you ever wanted,” he says, and Erik pulls himself to his feet in time to lunge across the aisle and into the Black King before he can lay a finger on Charles.

Erik’s blow does little damage, but the Black King turns to sneer at him where he’s sprawled on the floor. Erik’s heart sinks because there’s no way they can beat this man, not like this, and he’s not ready to lose.

“I’m with Erik,” Charles says, his voice still clear and strong. “That’s all you need to know.”

I’ll be able to hold him, maybe even control his mutation, but not for very long, Charles says to Erik silently. You’ll have to be quick about it.

That’s all the motivation Erik needs to scramble to his feet and rush to Charles’ side while the Black King is distracted. He’s already reaching into Charles’ pocket with his powers, feeling out a quarter to use as a makeshift bullet. For years, Erik has visualized all the ways through which he could get his revenge against the Black King, and it strikes him as odd that he’s never settled on one; he’s glad that it’s this.

The Black King just gives them a patronizing smile. “This show of loyalty is touching, but there is no room for the two of you in the future I am creating,” he says, losing his sugary façade. “It’s time to end this.”

And just as just as the Black King reaches out again, Charles shouts, “Now!

Erik is ready for it, ready to end it all as quickly as possible with a bullet to the brain, but as the Black King stares blankly, frozen mid-step by Charles, Erik feels his anger return in full. He wants to make this last, to make the Black King suffer the way that he has; it’s the only end that Erik can think of giving him, now.

The quarter hovers in front of the Black King’s face, and Erik wonders if he can see it; he wants him to know what’s coming. Charles says brokenly, chest heaving with exertion, “Please, Erik.”

Erik barely hears the words, his mind set on one thought: the Black King is going to die. Slowly. And then—

No.”

Suddenly, the metal in the shop becomes distant. It feels muffled in a way, and Erik can no longer keep his grip on the coin, can only watch as it falls to the floor. The world blurs around him, just as the metal had a moment before. He thinks he sees Charles move, hears the Black King speak, but it all feels far away and Erik can’t be sure of anything. He gets the vague feeling of move, move, move and then the world snaps back into focus, the chilly street outside his shop materializing around him.

There’s a crowd and flashing lights and, as he catches his breath, Erik watches a nondescript cop push the Black King into the back of a police cruiser. Anger is quick to replace Erik’s confusion because this has been stolen from him—stolen from him by Charles of all people. And Charles is nowhere to be seen.

“It’s alright, Sir,” a paramedic says to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. She looks genuinely concerned and Erik stops himself from pulling violently away. “The two hostile mutants have been taken into custody. Are you hurt?”

The information sinks in slowly over Erik’s cluttered thoughts, mostly because it barely makes sense. There was only the Black King and Charles and himself and who was the second hostile mutant, if not himself? Not Charles— “No,” Erik says, pushing himself to his feet.

The paramedic pushes him back down gently and says simply, “It’s alright. There’s blood on your shirt. Just tell me where you’re hurt.”

-

A week is enough time, Erik thinks. It must be, because he finds himself in Charles’ grungy building, knocking on his door. At first, he hadn’t thought he would be able to talk to Charles at all—at least after he was certain the police knew Charles was not another member of Hellfire. But now Erik wants to talk. He needs to hear from Charles what happened that night.

“Sorry,” Charles mumbles as he pulls the door open. He looks awful and Erik recognizes the signs of suppressants in the dullness of Charles’ eyes and the slump of his shoulders. “Erik,” Charles says, holding his gaze with tired but surprised eyes for a long moment before pushing the door all the way open to allow Erik entrance.

“Is the police department forcing you to drug yourself this time?” Erik asks once he’s inside, unable to control his anger. Before he’d been angry at Charles, but now he’s angry at everyone.

With a deep sigh, Charles sits down heavily on a rumpled futon that must serve as both couch and bed in his tiny apartment. “It’s standard policy,” he says. “I have to take the suppressants until they have the story absolutely straight.”

Biting down on his gut response against the system, Erik snaps, “And what is the story?”

Charles blinks up at him, obviously surprised, and Erik takes it as a small victory; Charles deserves to know how upset Erik is with him.

Holding Erik’s gaze, but looking pained, Charles says quietly, “I’m sorry, but I had to stop you.”

“No,” Erik says immediately, his hands curling into fists at his sides, “you didn’t. I could’ve stopped him myself and you just—”

“Stopped you becoming a murderer,” Charles cuts in. The word hangs in the air between them, and Erik knows Charles is right in this, but he still wants to kill the Black King. Slowly, Erik sinks down on the futon beside Charles, rubbing at his face but saying nothing.

“I really am sorry,” Charles says, placing a hand on Erik’s knee. “And it wasn’t entirely selfless. I couldn’t stand there and feel his death—feel you killing him.”

These words land heavier than murderer and Erik’s throat tightens at the thought of what that might feel like for Charles. Erik knows he is wrong and Charles is right, the same way he wishes he could be right, and he wants to make it better. “You won’t stop me testifying against him, will you?” he asks in an attempt to lighten the mood.

It works. “Of course not,” Charles says easily, his smile barely reaching his eyes. “I’ll even go with you.”

“Not if they make you do this to yourself, you won’t,” Erik says, because Charles is looking even worse, now, despite sitting down. The lines under Charles’ eyes have darkened since Erik’s arrival and Erik can feel the way Charles’ body shudders slightly with each breath.

Charles smiles at him, though, finally managing to look somewhat like himself. “Even if they make me do this,” he says. “You don’t have to be anywhere near that man alone.”

The silence between them is easy this time, as it normally is, and Erik feels guilt spark in his chest. “Charles,” he says, tilting his head to face Charles. “I’m sorry I didn’t come see you until now.”

“It’s fine,” Charles says, turning away and picking at a loose thread from a blanket. “I don’t really want you to see me like this anyway.”

Erik grabs at Charles’ hand and ignores that statement. It’s not that seeing Charles this way doesn’t make Erik at least a little upset, but that’s no reason not to see him. Squeezing Charles fingers gently, Erik says, “And I want to thank you. For being there when I needed you.”

Charles leans into Erik, resting his cheek on his shoulder and squeezing Erik’s hand in return. Slowly, his breathing begins to even out, and Erik worries he might be sleeping. “Whenever you need me,” Charles says into Erik’s shirt, and Erik can hear the words completely, reverberating from Charles body to his own and even echoing faintly in his mind—but maybe he imagines that part.

“Except now,” Charles says after a moment. “Now I need a nap.”

With a long, resigned sigh, Erik asks, “Do you want me to go?”

“No,” Charles says, pushing Erik to lie down on the open futon and following him down. It’s not the most comfortable bed, but Erik doesn’t want to leave. He’s perfectly content to wrap his arms around Charles and rest. It’s nice to watch Charles sleep, Erik thinks, as long as he doesn’t think too hard about why Charles is sleeping—that night in the shop, the police station’s mutant-proof walls, the drugs coursing through Charles’ system, the blackened T visible above the collar of his t-shirt—and Erik finds himself dozing off as well.

Erik wakes later to the glow of a streetlamp outside and the feel of Charles running his fingers lightly down Erik’s spine. As the fog of sleep lifts, Erik realizes that Charles is tracing out the rest of the slogan Mutant and Proud down from Erik’s tattoo, and he shivers. It’s not really a bad way to wake up, and Erik hums quietly in appreciation.

Charles places a kiss over Erik’s M and holds his lips there for a moment before asking, “What if I got Mutant and Proud tattooed on my forearm?”

That thought sends another shiver down Erik’s spine. He’d like to see that, the declaration of pride on Charles’ skin—something to focus on besides the government-mandated T. But Erik is beginning to realize that it’s more complicated than just that. “What would your parents think?” Erik asks, cracking his eye open to find that Charles still looks worn and sick, but happy beneath it.

“Soon it won’t matter what they think,” Charles says, licking his lips. “And I’d like to know what you think. Maybe I could give you a practice demonstration as soon as they let me off the suppressants.” He taps his forehead with a finger for emphasis and Erik feels his throat go dry.

“I’d like that,” Erik says. “I’d like that very much.”

-

“You can’t be serious,” Erik says, staring down at the water bottle and package of ramen Charles has just set down on the counter.

Charles smiles at him and grabs an apple from the fruit basket and places it on the counter as well. “I’m very serious,” he says, reaching for his pocket where Erik can feel the exact amount of change.

Frowning, Erik says, “But you graduated last weekend. I was there. Your parents were there…” He trails off and Charles continues to smile, toying with the change in his pocket distractingly. “Did your meeting with them not go well?” Erik asks, because it’s the only reason he can possibly think of that explains Charles purchasing this. He has money again, or he should, money enough to buy something better than ramen.

“Not everything has to do with money,” Charles says, holding his change out for Erik to take. “I just like coming to see you at work.”

Erik isn’t sure whether he should be suspicious or embarrassed as he takes the change and sorts it, feeling the heat of Charles’ fingers in each coin. Charles must be listening in, or maybe he’s just not paying attention at all, because he continues before Erik has a chance to respond, changing the subject. “Raven’s coming over tonight so we can get an early start looking for a new apartment for me in the morning,” he says, glancing back at the only other customer in the store, who’s currently on a mission to destroy any semblance of organization in the candy aisle.

“Sounds fun,” Erik grumbles, trying not to feel upset that Charles will be moving farther away.

“Yes,” Charles says. “Fun. But I wanted to ask you first about the apartment upstairs.”

Raising an eyebrow, Erik asks, “What?” He lives upstairs and he knows Charles knows.

Charles’ smile broadens and he leans close to Erik over the counter and says, “I was wondering if there might be room for me up there.”

Erik doesn’t know what to say. “Are you asking to move in with me?” he asks, numb with shock for only a moment. And then, “Why would you even consider living around this neighborhood if you could get out? What are you thinking?”

“Like I said,” Charles says, bouncing back on his heels, “not everything is about money.”

“I don’t—” Erik starts to say as Charles gathers up his food from the counter, but Charles cuts him off.

“Just think about it,” he says over his shoulder as he walks toward the door. “I’ll stop by in the morning for coffee and then you and Raven can both try to talk some sense into me together.”

He’s gone before Erik can answer, but Erik stays up late after closing shop to clean his already spotless apartment—he even makes sure he has tea this time.