Café Kafka was always empty in the afternoons, save for the odd solitary student mumbling feverishly over their attempt at an essay, or a few tourists seeking respite from the hot Riverside sun, fanning themselves with their dog-eared maps. Charles liked the solitude, though, and made his way down every Monday and Thursday like clockwork, always arriving just after lunchtime. By then the lunch crowd would have fizzled out, and Sean would be wiping down the tables. "Sup?" he would say when he saw Charles, who would grin back and sit at his favourite table, the slightly cracked marble one behind the pillar.
Then, he would order his favourite drink, a triple white chocolate mocha, and Sean would always make sure there were three butter cookies on the side.
Then, looking around furtively, Charles would take out his favourite book of the moment - the titles varied, but the author rarely changed - and lose himself for the next few hours in a world he never wanted to leave.
This routine worked perfectly well with his part-time hours at the university, although Stryker had practically been begging him to come back as a full-time member of the faculty. The shorter hours suited him and gave him time to do more of what he wanted, which was to read, basically. Being a English literature professor, one would have expected him to cling to the canonised classics such as Dickens, Austen and Steinbeck. But years and years of over-analysis and grinding the joy out of the English language – because surely, that was the purpose of academia – and Charles just ended up wanting something fun and brainless to read.
It had been pure coincidence, perhaps, that on the day of the accident, Charles had been preparing to fly home and he had stopped at the airport bookstore, wanting something dumb and written in the last 50 years to take his mind off the grief and the pain. The cover of 'Judas' by one E.M. Lehnsherr had caught his eye, and he had been debating whether to buy it when he heard the boarding call for his gate, so he had quickly paid and ran off.
Maybe he had been expecting the book to be bad and trashy, and maybe he had been in a particularly vulnerable point in his life where his estranged mother had just died and he had been grappling with a strange, terrible mixture of grief, guilt and relief. Whatever it was, Charles had been unexpectedly swept away, hijacked by the masterful language and gripping plot of two brothers, one of whom grows up to be a leading politician and the other a hitman, their lives culminating in an unexpected betrayal.
So Charles had gone to Amazon to stock up on E. M. Lehnsherr's entire back catalogue. It had cost him a pretty penny and a lot of cursing from his overloaded mailman, but he had devoured the books – all fifteen of them – like a man drowning of thirst in the desert. Some had flaws, of course, and Charles didn't particularly care for 'The Last Hunter', a book also panned by most of the other fans on the official forum, but even in the worst book, the language was still lyrical, colourful, gripping.
Ever the academic, Charles dove into research about the elusive E. M. Lehnsherr, who seemed to be a Salinger-like literary recluse. There were barely any interviews, and there were no pictures except for a blurry, hazy fan photo taken of the back of the man at a book expo. One of Charles' fellow enthusiasts, HankMC1306, had dubbed the picture the Sasquatch photo, and the name had stuck. Charles looked at it more often than he would like to admit to, his eyes lingering over that nice arse in chinos before shaking his head at himself.
Indeed, Charles Xavier, a specialist in 18th and 19th century English literature, was slightly obsessed with a mainstream author who had literally saved his sanity, and if anyone had anything derisive to say about E. M. Lehnsherr, they were in for a hearty debate (and sometimes, argument, as Raven unfortunately found out) with Charles.
So when the man in the turtleneck sat down opposite Charles at Café Kafka and made a soft, derogatory snort when he spotted the cover of Charles' book, Charles understandably felt his hackles rise. "I'm sorry?"
The man in the turtleneck simply smiled, shaking his head. "Nothing."
Charles raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I do apologise. I thought you were making fun of my book."
"I was." The man's smirk deepened. "Why would you want to read that? Was Stephanie Meyers out of stock?"
Charles was so taken aback that he could only laugh. "You're serious?"
"Very much so." The smirk had now disappeared. "I'm not a fan of populist fiction."
"Populist?" Charles was intrigued enough to lay down his battered copy of 'Judas', the one with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon on the cover from the movie adaptation, because his first copy was far too precious to bring outside. "How is E. M. Lehnsherr populist? The themes he has written about hardly have mass appeal."
"It's obvious in the language," Turtleneck said airily, stirring his cappuccino – and Charles' burgeoning irritation. "Sometimes I feel like he's writing to impress someone. And that's not good. You should have your own style, like the great masters."
Charles didn't know whether to laugh or not. It was like arguing with a version of himself from five years ago, at the height of his literary snobbery before the accident, and hence, the discovery of E. M. Lehnsherr. "So what you're saying is that anyone published in the last 50 years has no literary merit."
"Not at all." Turtleneck sipped his cappuccino. His accent sat oddly in Charles' ears, the consonants particularly hard-hitting. "There are plenty of good living authors today. Sadly, E. M. Lehnsherr is not one of them."
Charles shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose and aching to get back online where he could complain to HankMC1306 about this impertinent fellow. "Fine, then we'll have to agree to disagree, my friend."
"Fine." Turtleneck nodded at him rather amusedly before taking out his laptop and setting it up. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
They fell silent for the rest of the hour, Turtleneck's fingers clattering on the keyboard and irritating Charles even more, and finally Charles folded his book and called for the bill, not bothering to explain to a puzzled Sean why he was leaving earlier than usual.
Turtleneck's smirk followed him out of the café.
The encounter with the rather condescending man in the turtleneck soon proved to be only the first of many blots in Charles' week. The Northanger Abbey essay that he had set for the UZS2101 undergrads turned out to be a nightmare, as several of the students seemed convinced that Charles had never heard of Sparknotes (and never would, forever and ever, amen) and they had gleefully lifted chunks of text from the McAnalyses that Sparknotes was famous for, and Charles had spent Tuesday and Wednesday crossly slashing at the damning essays with an angry red pen.
Stryker had somehow also suckered him into covering Moira's classes while she recovered from a bout of chicken pox (Charles was torn between teasing her for catching a child's disease and begging her on his knees to come back, and never mind if the undergrads ran screaming when they saw her spots.) Understandably, Charles was very much looking forward to a quiet Thursday at Cafe Kafka and a much-anticipated re-reading of 'Magnetic Fields', his very favourite E. M. Lehnsherr novel, and arguably the man's magnum opus.
On Thursday, it rained.
It was still raining after lunchtime, and Charles decided to risk the 15-minute walk from his flat to Cafe Kafka without an umbrella. It turned out to be a decision he would regret, because when he finally arrived, he was perplexed to see a few customers standing outside in the rain, looking just as confused as he was at the 'CLOSED' sign still displayed on the door.
Charles checked his watch. It was already past two, so where was everyone? Rain dripped down his neck and seeped into his clothes, and he ignored the stab of irritation when he saw Turtleneck standing nearby, smirking under a large luxurious umbrella.
"What happened?" Charles asked Alex, another regular who did nothing but play games on his iPad at the cafe.
Alex shrugged. "I don't know, I came by this morning and they were closed, so I thought I'd come back after lunch." Unlike Charles, Alex didn't seem to mind being wet, merely pulling his up his hoodie. "Maybe Sean's sick. I saw him looking pretty weird yesterday."
"Ah." Charles didn't know what else to say; this was frankly the longest conversation he had ever had with Alex. He nodded in thanks and wandered off, shielding his eyes from the rain. He would wait fifteen minutes, and if it still wasn't open, he would head over to the X Factor, an annoyingly loud cafe nearby that seemed to take delight in playing the entire discography of Maroon 5.
He stiffened when he realised he was no longer alone, and rain was no longer seeping into his clothes. Turning around, he fought back a sigh when he realised Turtleneck was now standing next to him, sharing his umbrella. "Are you always this masochistic?" Turtleneck said, the corner of his lips crooking up in a slight smile.
"Pardon me?" Charles decided his best refuge was pretended ignorance.
"Well, first you insist on subjecting yourself to crappy authors. Then you deliberately walk about in the rain with no umbrella, getting wet." Turtleneck shrugged. "Seems to me you're a glutton for punishment."
"Must be true, because here I am, talking to you," Charles said cheerfully, and to his surprise, Turtleneck was ducking his head in laughter. Still, shelter was shelter, and Charles wasn't foolhardy enough to refuse, even if Turtleneck was standing a little too close, close enough that Charles could smell a hint of the clean, earthy cologne he was wearing.
"Do you come here every day?" Turtleneck asked when he was done laughing, and Charles raised his eyebrows at him. Considering that they hadn't even introduced themselves properly yet, Turtleneck seemed genuinely interested in the answer, and Charles wondered if it would just give him fodder to poke more fun at E. M. Lehnsherr.
"Just a few times a week," Charles said, deciding that there was no harm in being friendly. Which he would have been with this chap, if he hadn't called E. M. Lehnsherr a talentless hack for no good reason other than to rile up a complete stranger. "It's nice and quiet here."
"It is," Turtleneck said reasonably. Now he was tilting his head a little at Charles, that generous mouth widening into a proper smile this time. "I'm Erik."
"Charles." No last names, then. Charles wondered if that was because Erik didn't want him rounding up all the other E. M. Lehnsherr fans and forming a lynch mob to hunt him down. Thankfully, Charles could see Darwin hurrying to the entrance of the cafe, soliciting a 'Thank fuck!' from a relieved Alex.
Erik and Charles huddled closer, all the customers watching a harassed Darwin trying the different keys. "What happened, Armando?" Charles asked. "Woke up late and discovered you had turned into a giant cockroach?"
Darwin only looked confused, but there was a quiet snort of laughter from Erik behind him, his breath warming the nape of Charles' neck. Now Darwin was nodding in realisation. "Oh, I get it, very funny." He shot Charles an even look. "Sean was sick this morning, too sick to tell me he wasn't coming in."
"Ah, poor chap." Now the customers were all scurrying into the dim cafe, and Alex and Charles helped Darwin to take the upturned chairs down from the tables. Erik was shaking out his umbrella to dry it, then taking the table opposite Charles' favourite spot. Again. Charles decided against sitting somewhere else; if he did, it would call Darwin's attention to it and then Erik would spend the entire afternoon smirking at him again. No, Charles Xavier would meet his adversary head on.
As Erik plugged in his laptop's power adapter, Charles very casually strolled over to his favourite table, very casually sat down and very casually pulled out his copy of 'Magnetic Fields' while waiting for his triple white chocolate mocha to arrive.
It took all of five seconds for Erik to groan, "Oh no, not again," and when Charles looked up, Erik was shaking his head like a dispirited old metronome.
"Something wrong?" Charles said smoothly, flicking over the page with more relish than necessary.
"There are thousands of good authors out there, Charles," Erik said, a little more seriously than the situation called for. "Why would you want to keep reading him?"
Charles just stared at Erik with amazement. "And why not? I enjoy him, he's good and he can weave an absolute devil of a tale. Believe me, after years of wading through 'Bleak House' and 'War and Peace' and other books thicker than your head, this is really quite refreshing."
Now Darwin was bringing over Charles' coffee, setting it on the table. His face lit up when he saw the cover of 'Magnetic Fields'. "Oh man, I love this book. I read it during my senior year and I fell in love with the girl who lent it to me."
"See?" Charles said to Erik, gesturing vaguely at a rather confused Darwin. "Lehnsherr inspires people. Just because a lot of people read him and his language is very accessible doesn't mean that his writing isn't up there with the best."
Erik only shrugged as his fingers clattered on the keyboard. "A lot of people read the Archie comic books too, does that mean they're on par with 'Moby Dick'?"
"You're impossible," Charles said with an exasperated laugh, because he had never met anyone so vehemently opposed to E. M. Lehnsherr's work before. "I wonder whether you'll say the same thing if you're standing face to face with him."
A muscle twitched in Erik's right cheek, but he continued typing steadily on the keyboard, his face impassive. "I can't imagine I'd have very much to say to him."
They fell silent after that, and this time it was Erik who left early, but not before giving Charles a nod. Charles nodded back, then lost himself in the rest of 'Magnetic Fields'. When he finally got up to pay, he was informed by Darwin that Erik had settled both their bills, then left a generous tip for Darwin. "I hope he comes back," a happy Darwin said as he wiped down the espresso bar, and Charles looked down at his book, wondering why he was wishing for the same.
Erik had actually stumbled across Café Kafka entirely by accident. He had been looking for a suit boutique that Azazel had directed him to – if anyone knew his suits, it was his agent – but he had gone down the wrong street, and he had been standing there at the corner of Monroe and 5th, thirsty and tired and grumbling mildly about Azazel's disastrous directions. Erik had been in Riverside for only a week, and it was a big enough town that he still got lost sometimes.
Then the name of the café had caught his attention, and his curiosity was piqued enough that he had to step in for a while, even if it was just to pay homage to his favourite writer.
His initial impression of the café had been rather disappointing. It was old and a little musty, the air barely affected by the ceiling fans spinning above lazily, caked with dust. However, there was an odd, warm sense of cosiness about the place, which reminded Erik of the cafés he missed in Europe, and the old marble tables lent the café a touch of class. In the States, a lot of these coffee joints were usually spanking new and shiny and a little pretentious, but this place had character.
Best of all, there were barely any people in the café for a Friday, which endeared it to Erik already.
He had tentatively walked to the counter and ordered a cappuccino. The redheaded barista was hilarious – he seemed unable to stand up straight, reminding Erik of a beanstalk bent over by a strong wind. But his coffee was undeniably fantastic, and before Erik knew it, he had slurped down the entire cup. He came back over the weekend with his laptop in tow. He wrote five pages. He came back again. Twelve pages this time.
Then on Monday, something different happened.
Erik was already sitting down at his favourite table when he saw the cover of his book opposite him, his skin prickling with recognition even as he groaned inwardly. A fan, then. Erik had gone to great lengths over the years to avoid meeting fans, because it was weird and awkward having to deal with people who gushed and flailed a lot and thought they knew him simply because they had read his fiction. He already had enough of the nutters on his official message board, particularly one fanboy with the moniker Hank-something who seemed to make Emma and Azazel crack up with his lengthy gushing and meticulous theories over the themes of the books.
Thankfully, due to Erik's strict no-photo and no-publicity policy (which often had Azazel ranting, begging, sobbing, threatening and then bribing him to try and change his mind) only a handful of people knew what E. M. Lehnsherr looked like. This bought him a bit of anonymity, at least.
He eyed the guy reading the book; there was a wondrous look of rapt attention on his face, bright blue eyes devouring the text like a madman, and for the hundredth time Erik really wondered why people loved his books so much. While he knew he was competent and, occasionally, even good, he thought the reaction to his books was extremely out of proportion to his abilities.
Just for the hell of it, he had tried to get a rise out of the guy – Charles, he would later find out – who looked like an easy target, someone naive who was susceptible to disillusion. But Charles had been a perfect gentleman – annoyed, but not mindlessly outraged – and he had not taken the bait, and Erik was more intrigued than ever.
After Charles had left, Erik had asked Sean as he was wiping the tables, "Is that guy coming in again?"
Sean had blinked at him. "Who?"
Erik had gestured vaguely at Charles' table. "You know, the one with elbow patches who was dressed like Mr. Bean."
"Oh, you mean the Prof. Yeah, he comes in every Monday and Thursday."
Erik had checked his schedule, then smiled when he saw Thursday was free.
The following Thursday when he had 'accidentally run into' Charles again had been interesting, but Erik had felt bad enough to buy Charles his coffee, at least. Charles had refused to take the bait, again, but Erik wasn't blind to the distress in the faint lines around Charles' mouth. In the end, it was Charles' words that had made him think. Did his books really inspire people on that level? He was no J. K. Rowling or Kurt Vonnegut, and he highly suspected that schools wouldn't be studying 'Judas' a hundred years from now.
He continued to brood throughout dinner, and it must have shown even in his voice because when he was on the phone with Emma, she asked, "What's the matter with you?"
"Hmmm?" He pecked at his laptop, glancing over the editing changes they were currently discussing. "Nothing, you were talking about page 84--"
"No, no, before that you already sounded like a Gloomy Gus."
Erik winced over the phone. "That's terrible. 'Gloomy Gus'? Is that really the best you can come up with? I think I might have to find a new editor, you know."
"Of course, sugar." Emma didn't seem fazed as Erik had been saying the same thing for years. "Anyway, don't change the subject. What's wrong with you? You don't like Riverside?"
"What? Oh, no, I actually like it." Erik knew Emma must be grinning, because Riverside had been her suggestion. "I've gotten a lot written while I'm here, at least."
"See? I told you it was a good, quiet town, but not boring. I know it's not your usual New York hangout but I thought this was a nice change. I don't think Riverside has changed much since I graduated."
"Yes Emma, they have cars now."
"Shut up, Erik." She didn't sound miffed, though, used to his nonsense. "Is it the apartment? Azazel said he got you a nice place."
"It's all right, I guess." Azazel had gotten him an apartment in a co-op that Erik suspected was run by Russian mobsters. "It's nothing, it's just that I had a run in with a fan a few days ago."
"How did he recognise you?"
"He didn't know it was me."
"Let me guess." Emma's tone was flat. "You gave him the whole spiel about how your books are crap and your writing is crap and he should just lie down on the floor and die."
"Not exactly," Erik said defensively. "Anyway, it's true. But he gave me food for thought, I guess."
"Ah well, as long as those thoughts translate into more books, we're fine," Emma said briskly, her tone businesslike again. "Ready to continue?"
Erik put aside all thoughts of Charles, irritated by how much he was letting just one fan affect him so much. "Yes, let's go on."
The following Monday, Charles was already at the café when Erik came in, and he hesitated before going to sit at his usual table opposite Charles. The man was wearing a blue shirt and a cardigan today – how old was he, 80? – and he was so deeply engrossed in his battered copy of 'Magnetic Fields' that he didn't even realise Erik was there until he was plugging in his laptop, and the ensuing smile tugged at something in Erik's chest.
"Ah, I was hoping I'd see you today." Charles' grin was infectious. "Thank you so much for the coffee, my friend."
"Not a problem," Erik replied, deliberately avoiding that intense X-ray stare. "It's the least I could do after ripping your favourite author to shreds."
Charles lifted his shoulder in a shrug. "Not everyone likes E. M. Lehnsherr, and I can't force my opinions on everyone. Anyway, let me return the favour today and get you a cappuccino."
"No, it's all right--" However, it was too late as Sean was already setting down a mug in front of Erik, and the aroma of coffee was too much to resist. "Really, Charles."
"Really, Erik." Charles only seemed amused before diving right back into his book, an absurd little smile on his face that was both maddening and endearing, in an odd way.
"Is it really that good?" Erik said as he sipped at the foam, licking the froth off his lips, and Charles' gaze dipped down for a fraction of a second before meeting his again. "I thought the plot was a little contrived for this one."
Now Charles seemed stunned. "You're having me on, right? This is the writer's best work. Have you even read this?"
Enough times to want to stab myself in the eyes, Erik thought. Aloud he said, "Actually yes I have. I happen to be familiar with this book."
"So what's your problem with it?" To Erik's surprise, Charles was getting up and heading over to his table, taking the seat opposite as though he didn't think Erik would mind at all. Which was infuriatingly true, actually.
"I thought the language was a little stilted," Erik said as he keyed in his laptop password, ignoring Charles' gaze. "The pacing was too fast at times, and at others there was too much exposition--"
"But I thought that was what made the novel different from the others," Charles interrupted out of excitement, and Erik was frankly amazed that he could get such a passionate reaction out of someone who seemed to be an intelligent and discerning reader. "The reader is more privy to Wesley's thoughts and why he became the man he was. There was so much rich backstory, particularly in that chapter that was set in Argentina. It made me want to book a plane ticket to Buenos Aires right there and then."
Erik was astonished. "Really?" He had wrestled with the Buenos Aires chapter forever, driving Emma and Azazel up the wall with his constant revisions and self-doubting. "If you've ever been, you'd know that Lehnsherr's descriptions failed to convey just how...alive Buenos Aires is."
Charles was shaking his head with a grin. "I've never been, but I felt like I was there. That's how good his writing is."
Erik was about to pick on another flaw of the book when they were interrupted by a polite cough, and he looked up to see a blond boy who was apparently one of the other regulars. "Hey guys, sorry to interrupt." He apologetically held up his iPad. "But this is running low on battery, and I need to pop into work for a while. Could I plug this into your laptop to charge it?"
"Sure, Alex," Charles replied, even though it wasn't his laptop. "But aren't you afraid we'd run off with it?"
Alex snorted. "Sean knows you and has your number. I highly doubt I'd find you hawking this out of the back of your car."
Erik made a show of sighing laboriously. "Give it here."
"Thanks!" Alex beamed at him as he gingerly handed it over. "I'll be back in an hour or so. In the meantime, feel free to play with any of the games you see there."
"Sure," Erik said as the boy sped off, and he plugged the white iPad cable into an available USB port. "They seem to know you here, Charles."
"I come here whenever I don't have classes at the university." Charles was already browsing through the games on the iPad, looking a little distracted.
"What do you teach?"
Here, Charles laughed before sitting up and grinning at Erik. "English literature."
"You're joking." Erik was stunned. "You're a literature professor and you love E. M. Lehnsherr? It's like a Michelin chef choosing to eat at McDonald's."
Charles shot him a fond look of amusement. "In each of us, two natures are at war."
"Robert Louis Stevenson," Erik countered quickly, earning him a brilliant smile. "So we're pinning our awful literary tastes on Stevenson, are we?"
Charles only laughed, the low, pleasant tenor sending an unexplained thrill through Erik. However, Charles sat up when something caught his notice on Alex's iPad. "Oh look, there's a chess game here." He glanced at Erik. "Do you know how to play?"
Chess. Of course. Charles was starting to find more and more of Erik's buttons to push each day. But Erik kept his expression blandly bored, lifting his shoulder in a disinterested shrug. "I've played a few times."
"Great. Let's start a game." Charles turned the iPad so that the black pieces were facing Erik, and his finger dragged a white pawn forward.
Erik realised he was glad to continue. After all, it beat another afternoon of arguing over the merits of good writing.
Charles always liked staying back after classes to chat with the students, even though his TA was more than capable of fielding any questions. And the students seemed just as eager to chat with him, talking about everything from the assignment at hand to the finer points of the Bright Eyes gig on campus last week. Moira's students were no exception, and Charles found himself hitting it off in particular with one of her brightest students, a lanky, nervous senior named Henry McCoy who always made his way to the front to talk to Charles after each lecture.
"You see, the original Eyre text did not provide a voice for Bertha Mason at all. She was seen as the Other, since she was portrayed as foreign and barbaric, even animal-like," Henry said, gesticulating wildly and almost hitting a passing student in the face as Charles started packing up his briefcase. "In a 19th-century Gothic text, this makes sense, but 'Wide Sargasso Sea' was published in the sixties, and the text was anything but Gothic."
"Yes, then you can expand on that in your essay," Charles said, turning off the computer and projector. It was strange, how Henry's rambling seemed to remind him of someone. "Don't forget to mention what a period of change the sixties was, and how this would have affected Jean Rhys's feminist portrayal of Rochester."
Henry almost stumbled over a cable, but Charles caught his arm just in time. "Whoa, thanks Professor. Anyway, I'm going to mention how Rochester was not given a name in 'Sargasso', hence diminishing his voice..."
Here Henry trailed off, and Charles wondered if Henry had somehow managed to electrocute himself when he realised the student was staring at his open briefcase. "What is it, Mr McCoy?"
Henry pointed at the copy of 'Magnetic Fields' sitting there. "You read E. M. Lehnsherr?"
Charles bit his lip, trying to figure out if Henry was mocking or accusing him, then he decided to just come out and say it. "I believe he's one of the best authors of our generation."
"Oh, Professor." The look on Henry' face had melted into pure bliss. "You have no idea how much I admire his work."
Charles grinned. This was going to be a good friendship.
Moira was back by Wednesday. She looked thinner and tired, complaining that she had been up most nights, sick, but Charles suspected her lack of sleep had more to do with the stack of 'Grey's Anatomy' DVD box-sets and the McSteamy poster he had seen in her office. However, now that Moira was back, Charles finally had more time, which was going to be spent devouring the rest of his reading list at his beloved Cafe Kafka.
But first, he stopped at Best Buy on his Thursday off and after some deliberation with an odd salesman who breathed heavily and almost sweated all over Charles, he purchased his own iPad. He hadn't expected to have as much fun as he did with Alex's, and he was seduced by the idea that he could read e-books on this device as well.
When he got to the cafe, he beamed when he saw that Erik was already at his usual table, fingers clattering away on the keyboard. At times he wondered if Erik was an aspiring novelist, what with all the writing he did, and maybe that was why he disliked popular writers like E. M. Lehnsherr. Charles had seen cases of professional jealousy with some of his colleagues who had no idea why authors like Dan Brown and Stephen King continued to sell millions of books. However, something instinctively told him that Erik wasn't envious. The man seemed genuinely perplexed about E. M. Lehnsherr's popularity.
"Look at what I bought," he said when he reached Erik's table, taking out the iPad from his cardboard box. The thoughtful furrow creasing Erik's brow cleared as he looked up at Charles, breaking into a full-out grin when he saw the iPad.
"It doesn't matter if you get an entirely new one, Charles. I will still beat you." Erik looked entirely smug as he closed his laptop. "Let me just say it was embarrassing to see a grown man cry."
Charles waved him away with a laugh. "Ah, that first time was a fluke, my friend." They sat there in companionable silence as Charles patiently went through the set-up, and at some point Alex couldn't contain himself and came over from the next table to help him, obviously pleased that Charles had become a recent convert. Sean brought over Charles' coffee, watching over Alex's shoulder and getting so engrossed that he jumped when he realised customers were hollering at the counter.
As Sean scuttled off, Charles took this opportunity to sip his coffee and observe Erik, who had opened his laptop again so they could charge the battery for Charles' iPad. It was strangely how they had eased into this somewhat easy acquaintanceship despite their differences, but Charles did feel oddly comfortable around him.
Erik must have caught Charles staring, for he seemed a little amused and curious. "Is there something on my face?"
"Oh, no." Charles felt his cheeks burn and he casually looked away. "I was just wondering what you were doing in Riverside. You don't seem to know your way around, and I haven't seen you on campus."
"Just taking a little break from New York," Erik said as he sipped his cappuccino. "I'm a freelance writer." Here, he shot Charles a rather sly look. "And sometimes I review books."
"Ahhh, I see." That explained so many things for Charles. Erik must be one of the those hoity-toity East Coast book reviewers who slobbered over the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Thomas Pynchon. Still, he had never actually seen Erik read anything, but then again, he had only met Erik on a grand total of four occasions, including this one, and their first two had not been entirely...smooth. "So I'm guessing you've never given E. M. Lehnsherr five-star ratings."
Erik was now giving him a withering look that was starting to be familiar. "I think you know the answer to that."
"Not even 'Magnetic Fields'? Or 'Judas'?" Charles asked, genuinely curious.
"I'll grant that those were acceptable," Erik admitted, even as Charles grinned rather triumphantly. "But no, not five-star material. You want five-star material? 'A Visit From The Goon Squad', that's a modern classic right there."
Alex's bored voice startled them both, "Do you guys ever talk about anything other than books? I mean, geez." Charles had forgotten that he was even there, fixing up the iPad for him. "This kind of snorefest would drive away chicks, you know."
Now the full force of Erik's withering gaze was turned on Alex. "First of all, why are you eavesdropping? And secondly, are you saying you're a 'chick'?"
"What?" Alex spluttered. "No, that's not--"
"Because that was sort of what you were insinuating, Alex," Charles said, completely enjoying the look of horror on Alex's reddening face.
"Never mind," he muttered, leaning forward and studying Charles' iPad with far more interest than necessary.
"Anyway, since we're not allowed to talk about books anymore--" Here, Charles shot Alex an amused look, "--I was going to ask if you had Friday evening free, Erik."
Erik's eyebrows jumped up. "Tomorrow? I think so, why?"
"One of my students, Henry, plays for the university's soccer team, and they're going up in a friendly against Ithaca." Charles wondered if it sounded too much like he was asking Erik on a date, and judging from the smirk on Alex's face, maybe it did, so he added, "My sister and colleague are coming too, and I thought it would be a good way to assimilate yourself and participate in Riverside culture."
There was an agonizingly slow wait as Erik checked his planner, then he nodded. "It sounds fantastic."
"Good, that's good." Charles leaned back in his seat, pleased, then he tried not to laugh when he saw the slightly crestfallen look on Alex's face. "Alex, you should come too."
"If you insist," Alex said dully, but there was the tiniest of smiles on his face, and it was completely worth it for the secretive grin Charles exchanged with Erik over the top of Alex's head.
They met outside Cafe Kafka in the evening, and although they asked the staff to come, Darwin apologised, saying Friday evenings were very busy and everyone had to work. Thus they began the leisurely trek to campus. Charles, along with Raven and Moira, was wearing the team colours of blue and gold, while Erik was dressed in a tight-fitting black polo t-shirt and jeans and Alex wore a shirt that said, 'I'm A Virgin (This Is An Old T-shirt)' which Raven had snorted at. Still, everyone seemed to be getting along; Alex was flanked by the girls, chatting animatedly about what sounded like Project Runway, if Charles' ears were to be believed. Charles and Erik lagged behind, not arguing about books, for once.
"I didn't peg you for the sort who liked to watch football," Erik confessed, oblivious to Charles' delight that the proper term was being used, not 'soccer'. "Or anything sport-like, actually."
Charles laughed. "Oh? What, did you think I sit in a dreary library all day and smoke my pipe and dust my monocle?"
Erik let out a little chuckle. "Pretty high-class for a E. M. Lehnsherr fan."
"Oh, shut it," Charles said good-naturedly as they joined the crowd swarming in the direction of the stadium, which was looming up before them. The university had just rebuilt its sports complex, and Charles was very much looking forward to seeing the new facilities. Most of all, he was excited for Erik to see the campus, to see where he worked and why UCR was so special. "I thought it would be nice for us not to argue for just one day."
Now Erik was turning to look at him, seeming genuinely curious. "Were we arguing?"
"Well, no, not really." Charles considered this. "Squabbling, perhaps."
Erik was about to answer when his mobile phone rang, and he flipped it open. "Yes, Emma?"
As they continued walking, Erik chatting on the phone with the mysterious Emma, Charles tried not to eavesdrop but it was quite a feat. He wondered if Emma was a girlfriend, or a wife, but judging from the rather brisk tone of Erik's voice, maybe it had something to do with business. Still, why would a colleague be calling Erik on a Friday night? And most of all, why should Charles care?
By the time Erik hung up, Charles was a little worried about this new revelation. He remained silent as Erik took over the conversational wheel instead, talking about how he had been born in Germany, but his Jewish parents had migrated to New York when he was ten. After graduating Erik had travelled a lot, both domestically and internationally, which explained his freelance travel writing. He didn't mention how long he was in Riverside for, and Charles didn't ask.
They huddled with the masses of people teeming outside the stadium entrance, and this meant Erik was squashed behind him as they waited in line to get in. Ordinarily Charles wouldn't mind, but he was irritated with himself for thinking that Erik smelled rather nice, his cologne mellow and rather woodsy, or how firm Erik's chest was, pressed against his back. Raven hadn't helped matters either, throwing Charles a curious look and asking, "Why do you look so constipated? Are you okay?" And of course everyone turned to look at him, and Erik chuckled, his breath hot and intimate against the nape of Charles' neck.
The match had gotten off to an exhilarating start, and forty minutes in, the Riverside Bears had scored two goals, one of which was assisted by Henry. If the boy was clumsy and awkward in day-to-day life, he was a force to be reckoned with on the field, swift and fast and extremely cunning in anticipating where the ball was going to be. Everyone except Alex ("I'm too cool to cheer," he had said, and Raven, who was fooling no one with her really obvious soft spot for Henry, had 'accidentally' spilled a little of her soda on his Virgin shirt in retaliation) had shouted and cheered until their throats were hoarse, and at one point, Erik had stood up and yelled something rude in German at the referee that sounded like, "Dummkopf!"
Half-time came and went, and the second half was a lot slower and dragged for a little bit. It was easy to see that the players were getting tired, and Charles seriously envied their stamina. How did one run around for ninety minutes straight?
He tried to keep his focus on the game, ignoring how Erik was sitting closely beside him, their thighs pressed together, his blasted cologne showing no signs of dissipating. By the end of the match, Charles would have been able to identify Erik's cologne from a line-up that included a plate of blue cheese and that disgusting, smelly mess Sean had scraped out from under the espresso machine that one time.
Thankfully, Ithaca had failed to equalise, and when the final whistle blew, the players started to walk over to each other and shake hands, then pull off their shirts to exchange them. "This is my favourite part," Moira said dreamily, Raven nodding happily beside her as they watched the shirtless action on the field.
"I think I'm going to be sick," Alex muttered, ducking Raven's elbow just in time.
"So what is next on the agenda?" Erik asked, looking over at Charles. Although the match was over and the people beside them had already left, he hadn't scooted over to give Charles more space, seemingly content for the two of them to remain squished together. "Are we going for dinner? Because I'm starving."
"That actually sounds like a good idea," Charles said, eyeing Moira and Raven. "Although I think the girls have already eaten."
"Let's go for dinner, I know a good Mexican place," Alex said, jumping up and clasping his hands together. "Darwin loves their enchiladas, they're really good."
"Sounds good," Erik said as he finally got up to stretch, and Charles forcibly looked away, not wanting to stare.
After collecting a happy, freshly-showered Henry, they followed Alex to the restaurant he had been talking about, and although it was rather crowded with players and spectators celebrating Riverside's success, Alex seemed to know the owner, a gruff, plaid-wearing Canadian named Logan who barked at his staff like a drill sergeant. They got a good table, and Charles forgot all about his earlier perceived discomfort, laughing and enjoying the great food and company.
"I don't get it," Moira said at one point, taking a swig of her beer. "Why is a Canadian guy running a Mexican restaurant?"
"Well, rumour is that Logan first started off selling regular diner food, but he couldn't cook for shit," Raven explained. Having worked in Riverside longer than Charles, she was a walking encyclopaedia of the town's history. "So he hired this Mexican chef, but he couldn't speak English, and Logan's Spanish was as bad as his cooking, so he had no choice but to let the guy cook whatever he wanted to cook."
Alex was amazed. "I didn't know that. Logan never said a damn thing."
"You don't seem to know a lot of things, hon," Raven said sweetly, which made the table laugh. "Ah, that's the chef, Alonso." She pointed at a tall, rather pudgy man walking past their table.
To everyone's surprise, Erik caught the man by the wrist, telling him something in fluent Spanish as he gestured towards their scattered empty plates, and from Charles' own faint grasp of the language, he could tell that Erik was praising the food. The chef was beaming as he nodded, conversing in rapid-fire Espanol with Erik, and to be honest, Charles was disturbed by how sensual Erik made the language sound.
"That was...interesting," Moira said with a wide smile after the chef had left. "How many languages do you speak, Erik?"
Erik took a long gulp of beer, his eyes smouldering over the rim of his glass as he, for some reason, looked at Charles. "Oh, I get by."
Although they were long done with food and dessert, they kept the alcohol coming, and Charles was already feeling tipsy by his third pint. Erik, on the other hand, seemed to knock back his beers as though they were Mountain Dews, and Charles quite admired his alcohol tolerance. Erik also insisted on picking up the check, despite everyone's loud protests, but he merely said, "Next time, you guys can pick up the bill, okay?" and it gave Charles a warm fuzzy feeling in his stomach, knowing there was a next time.
As their little group poured out into the street, discussing how to get home, it was decided that since Raven and Moira lived on campus, they could share a cab with Henry, dropping him off at the dorms. Since Raven looked spectacularly happy with that, Charles decided to say nothing, saving all the merciless teasing for tomorrow. Alex opted to wait for Logan and get a ride from him, so Charles and Erik agreed to walk back together towards Cafe Kafka, then part ways from there.
The night was a little nippy, so Charles wound his blue and gold scarf tighter around his neck. Erik seemed fine with the cold, though, and there was a rather contemplative look on his face, as though he was trying to figure something out. "Everything all right, my friend?" Charles asked, concerned.
"Oh, no. Just thinking I had a really great evening," Erik said, and he sounded sincere enough. "I was just wondering why you've been so nice to me when all I've done is make fun of your literary tastes."
Charles grinned. "Just trying to be hospitable," he mumbled, his mind a little hazy. Surely the beer couldn't have been that strong. "We're hospital- I mean, hospitable, right?"
Erik had that little knowing smirk again. Maybe Erik was the only baby ever who had been born with a smirk. "You certainly were. But all the wooing won't change my mind about E. M. Lehnsherr, Charles."
Wooing? Charles shook his head. "I still don't understand what you have against him, you know."
Erik was now walking with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the ground as he frowned a little. "Would you believe me if I said it was a personal thing?" he said a little tentatively.
"Oh." Maybe Charles had been on the money about the professional jealousy theory after all. "All right, then, if it's personal."
They continued walking in the direction of the cafe, and Charles could see it further up the street, the lights already switched off, Sean's bicycle already gone from where he usually chained it outside the shop. Maybe Darwin would still be inside, counting the day's sales, but Charles highly doubted it.
"So, if it's personal," Charles continued, despite the surprise on Erik's face as they had stopped talking about this ten minutes ago, "would you still keep giving me a hard time about enjoying an author, who, quite frankly, is really dear to my heart because his books have carried me through some really unpleasant times?"
Erik kept silent for a long time, and Charles was beginning to wonder if he had offended his new friend when Erik finally spoke, his voice low and gravelly, "No, I wouldn't." But now he was shooting Charles a rather sheepish look. "But I enjoy our literary conversations. I'd hate for that to stop."
"Me too," Charles admitted immediately, and flushed when Erik grinned broadly at him. Erik had a strange way of grinning, as though he was baring his teeth. "Looks like we are at an impasse, friend."
"That we are," Erik said. They were now standing outside the cafe. Charles would have to continue up 5th Street to his place, while Erik was going down Monroe. Charles tugged uselessly at his scarf, again, and Erik's eyes were on his hands, making Charles feel clumsy. "See you Monday?"
Charles nodded. "I'll be looking forward to the mockery."
Erik threw back his head with a laugh, and Charles tried not to stare at that prominent Adam's apple. "You're hilarious, Charles." They were standing quite close now, and Charles found himself wondering what a passer-by might have thought if they saw the two men now, leaning in quite close towards each other, even if it was just in quiet conversation.
He couldn't quite explain the surge of disappointment in his stomach when Erik stepped away, turning towards Monroe. "Have a good weekend, Charles."
Charles was convinced that the reason his legs felt a little wobbly on the walk home was because of the alcohol.
Erik had not managed to write much over the weekend, and his usual tricks to get over the block failed him this time. He had different playlists on his iPod for different books, but the music was curiously just not helping. For the new novel, he had been submerging himself in a rather odd mix of Bowie, NIN and The National, but even repeated listens of the foolproof 'Aladdin Sane' failed to produce anything more than a page of stilted, awkward paragraphs that simply didn't satisfy him.
Later, he had gone to a nearby gym for an intense workout in an effort to wrench the words from himself, but although he came back sweaty and exhausted, that was fruitless as well. The words still refused to budge.
Erik did have a suspicion as to why he wasn't able to write, even if he was reluctant to examine the cause too closely. Charles. What he had said on Friday night, about feeling an emotional connection with an author, with him, had duly silenced Erik's inner critic. After all, Erik could poke at his own writing until the cows came home and point out all sorts of technical faults: long-windedness, too much description, unrealistic dialogue and so on. But maddening Charles had maddeningly boiled it all down to a visceral, emotional viewpoint that rendered all of Erik's points invalid. This book – this author – means a lot to me.
How could Erik argue with that? He could definitely identify with what Charles had said. A few of his favourite books had never even seen the bestsellers lists, but he loved them all the same. For a moment he couldn't help wondering what personal heartbreak his books had carried Charles through.
Tired of stewing in the apartment, Erik found himself back at Café Kafka, although it was substantially more crowded on Saturdays than he would have preferred. His usual table was already taken, but considering that the people at the opposite table were a giggly group of undergrads watching loud, tinny videos on their phones, he didn't mind sitting outside. There was the quickest, fleeting whisper of curiosity regarding where Charles could be at this moment on a breezy Saturday evening. Erik decided the man had a life with friends and interests outside of this café, and he quickly squashed the flicker of curiosity as abruptly as it had appeared.
Choosing a table outside, Erik opened his laptop, wincing at the excited shrieks of the girls who were occupying Charles' table. Trying to hold back a smile, Erik wondered when it was exactly that he had started assigning tables to their respective regulars. The one in the corner would be Alex's, where he would slouch back with his feet on the chair in front of him while he squinted at his iPad, and the table in front of the speakers belonged to the Hispanic girl who wore too much eye make-up, her head perpetually bowed over a copy of 'The Bell Jar' except when she was surreptitiously stealing glances at Erik and Charles.
And of course, by default the table opposite Erik's belonged to--
Erik sat up suddenly when he thought he spotted what looked like Charles and Henry jogging down the pavement of 5th Street, and it turned out he wasn't imagining things. It was them, their faces flushed and laughing, both dressed in grey Riverside tracksuits which were darkened with sweat on the chests and underarms. As they ran past the café, Charles' face brightened up when he spotted Erik sitting outside and he slowed down to a breathless stop near his table, spots of colour high on his cheeks. "Erik! What a pleasant surprise."
"Gentlemen. Don't stop on my account," Erik said with a grin as Henry almost tripped over someone's dog, and the Pomeranian started yipping fiercely at him. "Training for the next match already, Henry?"
Henry was blinking, still a little frazzled even though the owner had already tugged the dog away. "Just working on increasing my current level of cardiovascular activity." With those odd sports goggles he was wearing, Henry reminded Erik very much of a human fly. "Charles wants to help me build up my stamina."
"I see," Erik said. He was beginning to get the idea that Charles had an irrational habit of wanting to help people all the time. Erik remembered Sean mentioning something about Charles encouraging him to return to college. And now, Charles seemed to have taken Henry under his wing.
Grinning, self-satisfied Charles, who now appeared much too glad to see Erik, that pale skin flushed a healthy pink and gleaming with sweat, those eyes a startling cornflower blue. Erik could almost hear Azazel's sardonic voice in his head: stop being such a damn writer, Lehnsherr.
Henry's voice snapped him out of his reverie. "Have you told Erik about the book drive?" he said to Charles who was wiping sweat off his brow with the back of his hand.
"Oh no, not yet. Thank you for reminding me, Henry." Now Charles was squatting in front of Erik. "The university is having a book donation drive for its libraries. Any secondhand books you're interested in palming off on some poor chap?"
"No, unfortunately." And it was true, because Erik had only brought two suitcases to Riverside. "I didn't bring many books when I came here."
Charles' mouth dipped down in a genuine show of regret. "What a shame. I have the opposite problem, I'm afraid."
"Too many books? What a surprise." Erik could only imagine Charles' apartment, bursting at the seams with books, papers and adopted cats. "Need some help?"
Now that pinkish mouth – Erik really was trying not to stare – quirked up in a boyish little smile. "Are you offering? Because I could do with a spare hand."
A spare hand. It was a perfectly innocent remark, Erik knew, but Charles seemed to have this ability of making even the most innocuous things sound flirtatious. "Yeah, I'd love to give you a hand, Charles," Erik said, enjoying the sight of Charles' flush deepening.
"Splendid." Maybe Charles hadn't counted on Erik playing along with their little flirtation, which had been brewing quietly ever since the soccer game. "Shall we say tomorrow at noon, and we meet here? My flat is just fifteen minutes away."
"Sounds good." And suddenly Erik's weekend was already looking brighter. He could see Henry was antsy to get going again, so he nodded at them, opening his laptop again. "Have a good run, you two. Don't run over any more dogs, Henry."
"Um." Henry just flushed while Charles laughed, and they waved goodbye as they continued down the street, talking about something but already out of earshot.
Erik pretended that his eyes weren't following that rather plush posterior clothed in stretchy grey fabric down the rest of 5th Street.
Sundays were usually reserved for catching up on movies and TV shows Erik may have recorded, as well as settling any outstanding correspondence, but apart from Emma and a few friends he regularly kept in touch with, there was nothing urgent that needed Erik's attention. The DVD of 'A Single Man' was lying on his coffee table, but that could wait, despite Azazel's insistence that Erik had to watch it right now. The prospect of rifling through Charles' books – and admittedly, seeing where he lived – was far more enticing, and Erik didn't think anyone who wasn't a fellow bibliophile would understand.
He debated for longer than usual on what to wear. First, his usual black turtleneck. But he hesitated while staring at the mirror. They were most likely going to be moving boxes of books around, and he didn't want to get all hot and sweaty in the stuffy turtleneck. Peeling it off, he tried on a cream polo tee, but that wasn't exactly loose and comfortable either. Feeling ridiculously like some high-school girl getting ready for her prom, Erik whipped off the tee with a grunt and finally settled on a grey tank top. His shoulders, when exposed, seemed more pronounced and sharply angular, so he threw on a white shirt over the tank top. He could always take it off later in Charles' apartment if it got too hot.
It didn't take him long to get to Cafe Kafka, and Charles was already waiting outside, laughing on the phone. From the warm, affectionate tone of his voice, Erik hazarded a guess that it was probably his sister. Sure enough, Charles smiled at Erik as he walked up and said, "All right Raven, have fun on the hike, I'll call you later," before hanging up. Erik wouldn't have minded if Charles wanted to continue talking, but Charles seemed to possess the mentality of old school politeness where it was considered rude to chat on the phone with company. Now he was beaming at Erik, his eyes squinting in the sun. "Thank God you showed up, I was getting lured by the sight of everyone tucking into brunch."
"Oh?" Erik took his eyes off Charles for the first time since he arrived, and looked around the outside of the cafe. Customers were happily digging into plates of eggs benedicte and smoked salmon and plates of fresh fruit, and Erik felt his stomach rumble. "Oh dammit Charles, I wasn't hungry until you had to go tempt me."
Charles' laugh rang clear in his ears. "I'm so sorry, my friend," he said, his hand resting on Erik's bicep. "I did check with Sean, but they've stopped serving brunch. How about we take away some sandwiches? And I think there might be a few pastries left."
"Sounds great." They ordered some coffee and toasted chicken paninis to go, and Sean threw in a few chocolate danishes on the house. Erik couldn't remember the last time he felt this content and relaxed, walking alongside a chattering Charles up 5th Street, the warm, buttery scent of the danishes as comforting as the soothing, prim English inflection of Charles' speech.
Charles lived on the third floor of a rather respectable apartment building beside a laundromat, but the building was old enough to not have an elevator. It reminded Erik of his own apartment in the Upper East Side, and for a moment he was homesick for his home library, for the dark blue armchair he liked to curl up in and read sometimes.
All feelings of homesickness were forgotten when Charles pushed open his door, and Erik literally felt dizzy at the sight of so many books. He had once visited Neil Gaiman's private library, a wondrous, cosy place that looked like the home of Bilbo Baggins stuffed entirely with books. Charles' apartment was pretty much the same, except there were subtle signs of a person living amidst the detritus; a dried coffee mug sitting on top of a pile of Discworld books, a stack of half-marked essays scattered over the floor, last Friday's blue and gold football scarf curled up on a shelf like a sleeping cat. Erik greedily took all this in, his fingers already itching to run down the spines of all the books.
"I apologise for the mess," Charles says a little absently, but he couldn't have thought that Erik would be bothered by it, because he would have at least tried to clean up a little. And Erik really wasn't, because he was far more fascinated by the rows and rows of shelves sagging under the weight of so many books. "Now you see what I mean when I say I need to cull my collection a little."
"It's beautiful," Erik said without really thinking, and it only dawned on him what he said when he spotted Charles raising an eyebrow at him over his shoulder, and that he may have unintentionally sounded sarcastic. "I mean, this was my childhood dream when I was growing up. My parents were too poor to buy me the toys and books I wanted, but my mother would save up a little extra from her dishwashing job and each Sunday, she would take me to this little second hand bookstore, and I would get to pick out what I wanted." He didn't know why he was telling Charles all this, but judging from the soft look on Charles' face, Erik realised he may have said too much.
"Erik." Now Charles was stepping over a pile of books to get to him, and the way he was looking at Erik, with his head tilted to the side, those unreal eyes all soft and understanding, was a little unnerving. "That was a very beautiful memory."
"It is." Erik had to look away. He was in the house of a bona fide fan, for God's sake, he needed to keep his guard up even if Charles was one of the most insanely likeable people he had ever known. "Anyway, where do I put the food?"
Charles seemed a little thrown off by this, as though he had been mulling over whether to tell Erik something, but to his credit, he recovered quickly. "Just put it in the kitchen, I'll get us plates."
The kitchen was no less chaotic, and there was something orange and sticky splattered on the walls that Erik didn't dare to ask about. He set the bags on the counter, grinning when he spotted a jar of marmalade. Maybe Charles was taking this English professor thing a little too far.
Charles joined him only moments later, looking far more comfortable in a faded blue Riverside t-shirt and jeans. Erik told him not to bother with the plates, and they ate standing up, leaning against the kitchen table, Erik teasing him about the marmalade and the mysterious stain and Charles turning a nice flushed pink. Once they were done, Erik cleared up the mess while Charles went to pull several storage boxes from his dinky little storeroom.
Apparently, Charles' organisational system made sense only in his head, and Erik stared at the rows of books, baffled on where to start. Charles handed him a box, saying, "I usually keep two or more copies of most books. One for reading, and one for keeping. Yes, I know I'm odd like that."
"You're weird, Xavier." Erik turned away to hide his smile, not giving away that he was guilty of the same habit.
There was a strange little silence, and Charles' voice was a little tentative. "You know, we've come to know each other so much better, and yet I still don't know your last name."
Dread prickled the skin on the back of Erik's neck, making him wince a little. "It's Eisenhardt."
"Eisenhardt." Erik didn't know why he hated lying to Charles. He used this pseudonym all the time when checking into hotels and making restaurant reservations, and it should have rolled off his tongue with the ease of a well-oiled lie. But here, it sat in his mouth like a lump of clay, weighing down his words.
"Erik Eisenhardt," Charles was repeating, a little thoughtful. At least he seemed to have bought it. "Has an alliterative charm to it, don't you think?"
"Maybe I should add 'cummings' as a last name," Erik said to deflect any attention from his uneasiness, and to his relief, Charles laughed.
The afternoon passed by pleasantly enough, and if they were slow at getting any work done, it was only because they kept stopping to discuss –and sometimes, argue over –various books they kept coming across. Charles had an extremely varied collection, and it made Erik long for his own library back home, and there was the strange urge to want to let Charles see his own library.
Still, despite the various distractions, they managed to fill up at least ten boxes. By now Charles' t-shirt was a little damp with sweat, and Erik was feeling stuffy enough to take off his top shirt. He tossed it aside carelessly, and when he looked up at Charles, he was standing with a hand on one hip, those intense blue eyes trained on Erik as he took a long drink of water. His eyes darted away, and Erik had that strange, surreal feeling again where he felt like he was standing on uneven ground.
That odd moment of tension was thankfully forgotten as Erik shoved all the boxes to the space beside the door, and he spotted a copy of 'Flowers For Algernon' that they had somehow left out. He couldn't help the fond smile as he leafed through the pages, remembering how it had been one of the few books to make him cry. "Did you still want this, Charles?"
Charles came over, wiping the back of his mouth with a handkerchief –still ever so proper, Erik thought – and his eyes were clouded with fond nostalgia as he took the book from Erik's hands. "My God, I can't remember the last time I read this."
"It was the book that made me--" want to write, Erik was on the verge of saying, but he bit back his words in time, "--that cemented my love affair with reading."
"Don't we all have those books," Charles said a little dreamily, and he bit his lip as he looked down at the pink cover. "Why don't you take this, Erik? It obviously means a lot more to you than it does to me."
"I couldn't," Erik said, even though the temptation to re-read it that very night was overwhelming. "Someone else might have some use for it."
"I think I have another copy somewhere," Charles said, throwing a speculative look at his now less crowded shelves. "I'll throw that one in. Here you go, Erik. I insist."
Charles had taken Erik's hand and placed it over the breadth of the book, and Erik stared down at where Charles' hand was pressing down on his, warm and inviting. Then Charles took his hand away, and Erik was staring down at the lurid pink cover again. "It's a good thing I'm too cheap to turn down a free book, then."
Charles' low, quiet chuckle sat well in his ears. "I can't really respond fairly to that, seeing how I'm using you as free labour."
"Use me all you like, then." Erik flashed a smile at him, almost entirely teeth, which only served to make Charles roll his eyes, but Erik could see the tips of his ears were red.
They continued packing, and finally they came to the last shelf, which was a lot neater and far more organised than anything else in the apartment. Erik should have seen this coming, should have expected to see the rows of books with his own name engraved in silver print on the spines. Despite the obvious amount of painstaking effort Charles had put into maintaining this particular shelf, at least it wasn't the bizarre shrine that Erik had envisioned whenever he thought of his craziest fans, bearing his discarded grocery lists and various locks of hair.
"I know, I know." Charles must have mistaken the look of discomfort on his face for disgust. "You should have been expecting this. Anyway, we're not going to give away anything from this lot so you won't have to sully your hands."
"We're not?" Erik didn't really want to continue looking; it was akin to watching himself masturbate. "Your collection is a lot...bigger than I anticipated."
"I have almost everything, including a very rare first edition of 'Judas' and 'The Last Hunter'." The pride in Charles' voice was obvious. "The only thing missing is a signed copy. I've tried so hard to track those down, but the man is such a recluse. So far I've only found fakes, and once I found a real one on eBay, but that was a few hundred quid above my price range."
"A few hundred?" Erik was still stunned. He thought the only things people sold on eBay were old G.I. Joes, their kidneys or possibly their children. Why on earth would anyone pay so much for his signature? "Any luck anywhere else?"
"I'm afraid not." Charles looked resigned though, and he gave Erik a little smile. "You must think I'm mad."
Erik was about to open his mouth when he remembered how he had reacted when he first met Stephen King and got him to autograph his copy of 'The Stand', and how he had been unable to shut up on the phone to his mother for hours afterwards. "Actually, I might know someone at Simon & Schuster who may try to get a copy for you." The delight on Charles' face was a sight to behold. "But no promises, though," he added. "I'm just a lowly book reviewer, after all."
"Of course, my friend. Thank you." And Charles was drawing him into a one-armed hug, and Erik couldn't bring himself to pull away.
Erik had fully intended to leave once the packing was done, but Charles had brought out a few bottles of Bitburger and they were lazing on his balcony while sharing the last remnants of a pizza, Charles' iPad attached to some speakers and playing songs on shuffle. Erik had his legs comfortably folded in an old rattan chair, while Charles was snugly ensconced in a beanbag, which struck Erik as hilarious. A tenured professor in a beanbag.
"What?" Charles asked, shooting him a rather mischievous look. "Don't think I don't realise you're laughing at me. You do it often enough that I've gotten lots of practice."
"You wound me, Charles." Erik's mock expression of doe-eyed hurt sent Charles into further fits. "Is this how you repay me for a day of backbreaking labour?"
Charles managed to recover enough to say, "I-if by 'backbreaking labour', you mean 'snarking at my choice in books all day', then yes, this is exactly how I'm going to repay you."
Erik reached out with his socked foot to kick feebly at Charles, but he only succeeded in knocking down a tower of books that Charles had changed his mind about donating, saying they were too precious for him to let go of. Erik picked up a dog-eared copy of 'The Little Prince', which he also secretly loved so he couldn't mock Charles for it. Still, earlier on, he had already gotten his fix when he had stumbled across a lurid romance novel with a picture of Fabio on the cover, and he had laughed at a mortified Charles until his eyes had been filled with tears.
"Ah." Charles nodded when he saw that Erik was holding 'The Little Prince'. "If 'Flowers For Algernon' is your kryptonite, then 'The Little Prince' surely is mine."
"What do you mean?"
Charles seemed to mull over this for a while, taking a long swig of his beer before he replied, his voice lost and hazy. "My mother wasn't particularly an affectionate woman. I don't know whether it was her upbringing, or her personality. Whatever it was, she seemed to treat me and Raven like little adults. I don't really remember playing with her, or having her buy me toys." But now, Charles' tone was warm and a little higher-pitched, as though reverting to his boyhood brought that effect naturally. "But there was one time when she must have been happy, happy enough to read to this book from me. It was a magical afternoon."
Charles didn't say anything after that, but Erik saw the way his head tipped to the side as a thumb discreetly brushed away a tear. Now the balcony was filled only with the haunted strains of Cat Power, singing about how she wanted to be the greatest.
"Charles." Erik's voice sounded rough, hoarse with disuse. At least, that was what he told himself. "You mentioned, I mean, you know, books carrying us through a difficult time. Was that how--" At a loss for words, Erik feebly gestured towards a copy of 'Magnetic Fields' lying on the table, and he tried not to think about Charles sitting at the cafe, reading it with his mouth subconsciously curved up in a little smile.
Thankfully, Charles seemed to understand what he was saying. "I discovered E. M. Lehnsherr around the time my mother died." His eyes were still a little too bright, and he got up, excusing himself quietly as he made his way to the bathroom.
Erik leaned back and stared at the night sky, wondering whether the conflicted mess of chaos in his head had anything to do with the way his heart was skittering against his ribs.
Charles had been hesitating for at least ten minutes, and although Erik's face was carefully impassive as always, he could see Erik's left leg jiggling up and down with controlled impatience. If they were playing on a real chessboard, Charles would normally let his fingers stroke the pieces a little, as it always helped him to think. Unfortunately they were playing on his iPad, and he felt a little silly dragging his phantom rook back and forth with his index finger. Such were the drawbacks of technology, he supposed.
"Take your time, Charles," Erik said in his usual dry, droll tone, reaching for his cappuccino mug. "Any time before next Christmas is fine."
"Patience, my friend." Charles speculatively licked his lips, but was suddenly startled by the sharp 'clink' as Erik banged his mug against the table, cursing to himself. "My apologies, is the speed of the game really bothering you that much?"
"No," Erik said shortly, his eyebrows knitted together in irritation as he mopped up the small splash of spilt coffee. "It's just-- the coffee is not hot enough."
"Ask Sean to pour in more steamed milk, then," Charles suggested, wondering why Erik was easily getting distracted for no reason whatsoever. He had already offered to cut today's game short, but Erik had insisted on continuing despite his odd behaviour.
After hemming and hawing a bit, Charles finally slid his rook back, but he realised it was a mistake when Erik leaned forward, a growing smile instantly transforming that stern countenance into something quite mesmerising, making his eyes light up. Erik had a very shrewd, commanding gaze that sometimes made Charles feel as though he were pinned to the wall, and Erik seemed able to look through people, then make up his mind about them all at once.
Normally Charles stayed far away from this type of person, finding them antisocial and judgmental, but he soon came to realise that Erik was simply just good at studying people and sizing them up. A good example was when he had made a comment about Raven during the football game – saying how she didn't seem comfortable in her own skin, despite her beauty – and Charles had been taken aback at first. It was something a family member or good friend would notice over time, not a stranger, and he found himself wondering how Erik had arrived at that conclusion.
To be fair, now Erik could no longer be considered a stranger, not since Charles had let him into his home and his precious library over a week ago, and not when they had shared so much, bonding over the books that had carved a place in their hearts. No, they were at least friends, no matter how Charles might fancy himself a little more than that.
"Sean, I'll be back in a jiff." Darwin's voice interrupted Charles' train of thought, and he turned to see Darwin hopping over the counter, clutching the little canvas bag that held the weekend's takings as he headed to the bank. Erik barely looked up, still concentrating on the match, his confident smirk probably an indication of the slaughter yet to come.
However, they were both surprised when Sean slinked over to their table, eyes secretively narrowed. "Hey, guys." He paused, craning his neck to make sure Darwin was really gone before continuing, "Tonight, after we close the store, we're going to celebrate Darwin's birthday right here. Maybe some cake, some beer--"
"Beer? How old are you?" Erik asked suspiciously, but Sean only flapped a hand dismissively at him.
"Old enough." He looked at both of them questioningly. "So are you guys in? Prof, you can ask your sister and that hot brunette you're always with."
"That 'hot brunette' is my colleague Moira." Charles wondered what she would have to say about this, and realised he couldn't wait to find out.
"Yeah, yeah." Sean sniffed disdainfully. "Don't pretend you wouldn't tap that."
The surprised laugh was out before Charles could stop it, and even Erik was grinning from ear to ear. "Not that I was interested..." Charles trailed off.
"Whatever." Sean pointed a long, bony finger at Erik. "You would, right?"
Erik was now stroking his chin contemplatively, his gaze flicking over to Charles. "I like brunettes."
"That's not a yes or a no." Charles didn't like the way his tone came out a little sharp, and he also wasn't sure why there was a flare of heat in his gut. Maybe the idea of Erik and Moira simply didn't sit well with him. They had hit it off at Logan's restaurant the other night, after all.
He was aware that Sean and Erik were now staring at him, so he cleared his throat. "Anyway, can we go back to the topic of the surprise party, please?"
"Touchy." But apparently Sean decided not to risk Charles' wrath. "So yeah, Alex and Angel already said yes. You guys in?"
Charles supposed Angel was the pretty regular who sat in front of the speakers and seemed a little obsessed with Plath. He exchanged a glance with Erik, who only shrugged. "Sure, why not?" Charles smiled. "I'll cancel my plans tonight." And by that, he meant he was going to have to remember to record 'Masterchef'.
"I'm in too, I guess." Erik sounded faintly disinterested as he usually did. "Someone has to be here to make sure you don't burn down the place. I've grown rather inexplicably fond of it." Now he was smiling as well, his eyes glittering with amusement as they rested on Charles.
"You're making us sound like a couple of old farts," Charles complained, throwing Erik an admonishingly look.
"Which you are," Sean said far too quickly.
"You'll pay for that." Charles spotted Darwin returning from the bank behind Sean. "Hey Darwin, we've got a wonderful secret to tell you--"
"Oh? What is it?" An unsuspecting Darwin came over to their table while Sean's face turned as red as his hair, eyes widening at Charles. "Sean, there's a customer at the pastry case."
"Yessum." Sean made an abortive gesture behind Darwin's back before loping over to the counter again to serve the customer, shooting Charles a death glare.
"Nothing, it was just a joke," Erik assured the confused Darwin. "Charles is getting senile."
Darwin nodded with a laugh. "Man, tell me something I don't know," he called over his shoulder before heading back into the office.
"Very charming, Erik, thank you," Charles said evenly, but the corners of his mouth were reluctantly tugging up into a hint of a smile.
"You're welcome." Erik pretended to bow. "And speaking of being senile..." He pressed down on the iPad's screen and slid his knight forward, then grinned wolfishly at Charles. "Checkmate."
The cafe was already closed by the time Charles arrived with Moira and Raven, bearing gifts and a bottle of Riesling, and the three of them were entirely in good spirits. Henry had an essay due so he couldn't join them, and even then Charles realised Henry wasn't really close to the cafe staff, so maybe it was just as well.
The entrance to Cafe Kafka was already locked and the 'CLOSED' sign was facing outwards, but as Charles peered through the glass, he could see Sean and Alex getting the place ready, dragging tables together and putting out boxes of pizza. Erik was already inside, putting up a dartboard on a nearby wall. Sean hurried over to let them in, shushing them when Charles told Moira a little too loudly to watch out for an awkward step. "Darwin's in the back counting the sales, he doesn't know you guys are here," Sean whispered, gesturing towards the staff entrance to the office which was ajar.
"Got it." Raven handed over their assortment of gifts. "How can I help?"
"Here, you can put the candles on the cake." Angel had retrieved it from the pastry case and was walking over, smiling shyly at everyone. "Anyway hi, I'm Angel."
After whispered introductions and instructions given by Sean, everyone was soon busy setting up for the impromptu party. When a wide-eyed Darwin finally emerged from the manager's office, everyone yelled, 'SURPRISE!' and took turns hugging the birthday boy. Visibly touched by the effort, Darwin blew out the candles, and Erik asked him whether he made a birthday wish.
"Yes, for Sean to be able to wake up on time," Darwin said solemnly to loud laughter, even as he was tackled by a grinning Sean.
Alex hooked up his iPad to the store's sound system, and soon something noisy and fast was playing, making Charles' heartbeat race. And Erik, of course, looked exceptionally good in a black button-down shirt, his teeth gleaming in the light as he laughed over something with Moira and Raven. Charles found his gaze wandering down that broad chest and tapered waist, and Erik was actually a lot thinner than he thought. At least, thin enough for Charles to wrap his arms around with room to spare.
He blinked. Why was he thinking about this?
"You need a drink, Charles." Now Erik was pushing a cold, opened bottle of Erdinger into his hands, and Charles wrapped his lips around the neck and drank gratefully. Erik didn't look away for a while.
They ate and chatted and drank, occasionally booing Alex for his choice of music especially when something appalling by Creed or Nickelback came up. "My brother must have downloaded those, not me," he explained, red-faced as he frantically changed the tracks, and Sean would cackle while Darwin shouted, "Bullshit!"
Charles was enjoying himself immensely, even though he remembered to pace himself with the alcohol. A quick check in the mirror at the loo earlier had shown him his face was already a little flushed, and he felt like Erik was secretly laughing at him every time he looked at Charles and saw how ruddy his cheeks were. He listened intently to Erik's hilarious story about the time he went backpacking in Cambodia and stayed at a hostel where someone's chicken had broken into his room, and how it had squawked all over the place as Erik and the frantic owner tried to recapture it. "I should have known something was wrong when I woke up and heard 'puck puck puck' under my bed," he said mournfully, to much laughter.
"So did you guys manage to catch it?" Moira asked, fascinated as she slung an arm around the back of Raven's chair.
"No, it outsmarted two grown men and a very excited dog. A very smart chicken." Erik pretended to sigh dramatically. "I expect it's running the hotel by now."
"I would love to go to Cambodia," Raven said, brushing her hair back over one shoulder. "Or just South-east Asia, really. You've been to so many places, Erik. And you tell your stories so well." The envy was obvious in her voice.
Erik shrugged, and Charles could see him cautiously retreating into himself again like he seemed to do every time someone paid him a compliment. "Travel really opens up your eyes," he said, his eyes a little distant. "The more you see, the less you realise you know."
"Hear, hear." Darwin raised his glass for a toast. "Here's hoping I get to Cambodia some day."
They drank to that, and Sean got up to excuse himself to the bathroom. As Charles turned to make way for him, he spotted the forgotten dartboard and wondered when was the last time he had played. Probably at the Hog's Head in Oxford, no doubt. He got up, walking over and picking up the darts that Erik had piled on top of the table earlier.
His first few throws showed him just how out of practice he was, and he grimaced as the fourth one bounced off the wall and tumbled onto the floor. "Bloody hell." He stooped down to pick it up, and when he straightened his back, he found Erik standing there with his hands in his pockets, gazing appreciatively at Charles. "What is it, Erik?"
"Nothing." Now Erik broke into a wide grin. "You're really shit at darts, Xavier."
"Just rusty, I'll get the hang of it." Charles assumed his stance again, but it was really difficult when he felt so self-conscious with Erik standing there, eyes studying him. The next few throws were equally dismal, and Charles huffed out a grunt of frustration as he retrieved the darts for another round.
"You're doing it all wrong." By all accounts the words should have sounded mocking, but instead Erik's voice was laced with warm affection. "Here, I'll show you."
"Oh." Charles' eyebrows shot up as Erik stood behind him, hands trailing down the back of Charles' arms. Their slight height difference meant that Erik had to bend down a little to talk in Charles' ear, not that this was a hardship. "Is my posture wrong?" Charles asked feebly, trying not to shiver at the way the dry pads of Erik's fingers were sliding down to his elbow.
"Very much so." Erik's voice was low and clear in his left ear. Somewhere at the other end of the shop, Charles heard Angel's surprised peal of laughter, and the boys roaring in disgust over something. He wasn't even faintly curious, and Erik's attention seemed entirely trained on him as well. "Keep your feet planted, and your back straight." Now his hands were planted on Charles' hips, tilting him backwards. Charles didn't even realise he had been leaning forward this whole time.
"All right." He took a deep breath, which meant he only got a stronger whiff of Erik's cologne, and it made his nerves sing. Charles exhaled, slowly. "Is this correct?"
"Yes." Erik's voice made his chest rumble against Charles' back, and it made him fight to keep a tight rein on his concentration. "I noticed you were lunging forward every time you threw a dart. Don't do that, please."
And don't breathe into my ear like that, please. "Got it." Charles hated the way he sounded a little strangled.
"Now show me how you would hold the dart before throwing it," Erik said, his voice a little louder now that Sean had taken over the stereo and was blasting the Beatles. Charles took a deep, shaky breath, then held up the dart like he would a pencil. "Charles, that's wrong."
You know what's wrong? You pressing against my back like that. Charles turned his head slightly, and it only had the effect of brushing the curve of his ear against Erik's nose. "Oh, sorry."
Now Erik was the one who seemed a little unsettled, but he blinked quickly. "It's all right." Now he was taking Charles' hand in both his palms, showing him the proper way to hold the dart. "Use three fingers. You know how to use three fingers, don't you?"
Charles was incredulous. Erik's voice was practically dripping with innuendo. "I beg your pardon?"
"Three fingers," Erik repeated, sounding very much like he was biting back laughter. He placed Charles' fingers along the barrel, much like a flute player. "There we go. Hold it parallel to the ground."
"Like this?" Charles eyed the floor, then tried to get it as parallel as he could, but Erik was already tsk-ing.
"No, bring it back to your ear in a level position, then throw it." Erik's fingers brushed the curve of Charles' ear again, and this time Charles couldn't stop the stuttered sigh, involuntarily arching his neck up a little as though asking for a kiss, and this time Erik's voice came out sounding a lot rougher. "Mmm, that's right. Now, throw."
Charles did, and it landed squarely in the outer bull, which was a marked improvement. "Oh!" Charles' delight temporarily overrode how hot and bothered he had been earlier, but the way Erik was laughing in his ear, low and a little dirty, only served to bring it all back with a vengeance, and Charles was a little startled to realise that he was already more than half-hard.
"Aw, I'm going to kick your asses in this," Alex exclaimed as he strode over, a beaming Sean in tow. "If I can make my brother cry, you guys are small change."
"Good luck against Erik, then, he's really good," Charles said, looking at everywhere but Erik. "I'm going to the bathroom, start without me."
He felt Erik's gaze boring into his profile as he made his way to the restroom.
Charles was wiping his hands dry when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket, and at first he irrationally thought it would be Erik, demanding an explanation for the way Charles had rubbed up against him while he was simply trying to teach a friend how to play darts. To his relief – and strangely enough, disappointment – it wasn't Erik, but actually a Twitter notification from HankMC1306 asking Charles if he was online. Charles replied immediately, asking, 'What's can I help you with?'
Hank's reply came seconds later. What if you like a friend's sister?
Charles frowned at his screen, then tweeted back: Nothing wrong with it, provided your friend is all right with the two of you dating.
Hank: How do I even ask? What if I upset him?
Charles smiled to himself. Hank sounded so young. Then do what Wesley did in 'Magnetic Fields'. Test the waters first.
There was no reply, and after a few minutes Charles slipped his phone back into his pocket again. It had been a while since he heard from HankMC1306, even though he was just as active on the message boards. There were rumours that a movie adaptation for 'Magnetic Fields' was in the works, and that JJ Abrams was being considered for the director's chair. Charles thought it was a good idea, even though Hank was rather against it.
He almost bumped into Raven on the way out, and she steadied him. "Had one too many?"
"I'm fine." Alcohol wasn't his problem, but even then, he couldn't look her squarely in the eye. "Has Armando opened his presents yet?"
"Not yet." Raven perked up. "Oh, but Erik left something for you, it's on the counter."
"Erik?" The phrasing of Raven's sentence just hit him. "Wait, Erik left already?"
"Yeah, he said he had something very early in the morning and he had to run." Raven grabbed his shoulders and pitched him forward, out of the doorway. "Come on, move out of the way, I need to pee!"
Charles stumbled out, a little dazed as he approached the counter, and sure enough there was a small paper bag there. He peeked inside, and there was a copy of 'Electric Fences', which was one of the earlier E. M. Lehnsherr novels. With his heart thumping in his throat, Charles fished it out and flipped open the cover.
Inside, under the title on the second page, the following words were written in a messy, loopy scrawl: Dear Charles, thank you for being a true fan. Yours, E. M. Lehnsherr.
Erik had, somehow, wielded his magic at Simon & Schuster, and kept his word.
Most writers, as a rule, did not get up at 6 in the morning so they could drive to the train station and pick up their grouchy Russian agents. Then again, most writers did not have a relationship with their agents like the one Erik had with Azazel, who had rescued him from the slush pile – and certain obscurity - fourteen years ago.
It had been a rocky start, but over the years the two men had grudgingly forged a strong, mutual respect and, to Erik's surprise, a close and deep friendship that especially came into play after E. M. Lehnsherr became famous and several literary agencies came knocking. These were the same agencies who had sent him polite form rejection letters for years when he was a struggling writer. Now, they were falling over themselves to lure him away from Azazel and the Hellfire Literary Agency. Erik was promised better royalties, better advances, even an opportunity to sign with Simon & Schuster, his dream publisher since he had been writing as a teen.
Erik had told all of them to go to hell, of course. And two years later, Azazel had worked his usual miracles and gotten him into Simon & Schuster anyway, on his own terms. Their own terms. Erik suspected that the menacing scar over Azazel's left eye helped a long way in making negotiations always lean in their favour.
Pulling into the Amtrak parking lot, Erik picked up the copy of 'Flowers For Algernon' that Charles had given him, settling in for a wait. He was early, and he also had no idea if the train would be on time. Still, it wouldn't make an iota of difference to Azazel's mood. He hated slow modes of transport, pointedly preferring the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B. Erik was the opposite, of course. He loved slow train journeys that gave him time to dream and write and read and stare out of the window, letting his story ideas percolate.
He was already into the third chapter when the train finally pulled up to the platform. Placing the book carefully on the passenger's seat, Erik checked his watch. Just a little off schedule, then. Getting out of the rental car, he lit a cigarette and watched the people streaming out of the station, all rumpled and travel-weary.
It wasn't long before he spotted Azazel, dressed in an impeccable mandarin suit as always, rolling his luggage behind him and cursing under his breath in Russian. He scowled when he saw Erik, who grinned widely as he put out his cigarette. "Good morning, my dear Azazel."
Azazel shoved the handle of his luggage at Erik. "Did you have to come out and stay in the middle of BFE, Lehnsherr?"
Erik shook a finger at him. "You'd better not let Emma catch you calling her old college town that."
"She can kiss my big red Russian ass." Azazel stretched his arms above his head, then cricked his neck. "Next time, stay somewhere with an airport, horosho?"
"Yeah, yeah." Erik threw the suitcase into the trunk, closing it before he hopped into the car. He was just in time to see Azazel climbing into the passenger's seat and picking up Charles' copy of 'Algernon', barely sparing it a glance before nonchalantly tossing it into the backseat.
"Hey!" Erik shot a glare at Azazel as he retrieved the book and smoothed down the cover. "Be careful with that."
"Why?" Azazel's frown suddenly cleared, and a sly smile was growing on his face, making his scar even more pronounced. "Ah, some devushka gave you that book."
"You have a pretty healthy imagination." Erik refused to look at him as they slowly backed out of the parking lot. "Besides, not everything has to do with a girl, you know."
Azazel raised a cynical eyebrow at him, a typical Azazel expression which Emma called his bitch-please look. Many hapless publishing execs had been on the receiving end of it, and now it was Erik's turn. "So you're telling me there's absolutely no devushka?"
Inexplicably, Erik thought of Charles, that curved bow of a mouth always a heartbeat away from a laugh, those strong and clever hands that had a natural way of holding books so reverently. "There's no girl," Erik said, although he knew he had been too slow in answering, because Azazel was merely shaking his head, unconvinced that Erik was telling the truth.
Which, technically, he was.
Whenever Erik moved to a new city to try and gain some inspiration to write, Azazel would usually visit whenever he was in the thick of a new novel. Still, they had their routine. Azazel would stay only one night at Erik's place, two at the most, before finding a suitable hotel. As close as they were, Erik usually felt odd about having someone encroach on his living space for an extended period of time whenever he was in the midst of writing, and it wouldn't be long before he would get restless (Azazel preferred the term 'batshit-crazy'.) The only exception so far had been Magda, of course, but that was when he had been writing 'The Last Hunter', and that book had famously turned out to be a disaster.
This was why, after Azazel rolled his luggage into the spare bedroom of Erik's sparse apartment, he didn't bother to unpack much. "Did you remember what I asked? About hotel reservations? I haven't been here in a long time," he said, squinting up at Erik as he unfolded an undershirt.
Erik handed him a slip of paper. "That's the name of the best hotel in town, according to the locals. The second one should be all right as well."
"Wait, 'the locals'?" Azazel's eyebrows shot up. "You've been talking to people?"
"I've made friends here," Erik said, thoroughly savouring the comical expression of disbelief on Azazel's face. "Yes, and before you ask, I didn't have to pay them."
Azazel laughed. "You constantly surprise me, Lehnsherr." He frowned down at the slip of paper that Erik had given him. "What is the name of this hotel? 'Fission Inn'? Is that right?"
"It's 'Mission Inn', you can't be that blind. Did someone try to take your other eye out?"
Azazel just kept squinting at the piece of paper. "Don't pin this on me, it's your terrible handwriting. It's ironic how you writers have the worst handwriting. Yours tops the lot, especially your capital 'M'. See? It looks like a muppet's unibrow."
"It does not." Erik snatched back the piece of paper, rolling his eyes as he started heading for the door. "Anyway, if you're done bitching, I'll make a reservation for you. The faster you get out of here, the better."
"What? And miss the pleasure of your company?" Azazel yelled after him before Erik dissolved into laughter, shutting the door behind him.
After making the reservation for Azazel, he opened up his laptop and decided to check his emails before getting a bit of writing in. The words had been coming a bit too slowly for him recently, and even when they did, he didn't much like them. The supposed title for the new novel also didn't sit well with him. 'Deus Ex Machina' sounded a little too pretentious, even though Azazel thought it was fantastic. Then again, Azazel also thought 'Eat, Pray, Love' was 'magnificent', which proved that his judgement might be a little suspect.
However, all thoughts of the new novel immediately vanished when Erik saw he had new email from Charles. He clicked a little too quickly on his inbox, devouring the words. Charles was thanking him profusely for the autographed copy of 'Electric Fences', and Erik felt his cheeks burn as Charles went on and on about how much this meant to him and how he'd never dreamt of holding a actual signed copy in his hands. How would you like to hold the actual author in your hands? a sly little voice whispered in the back of Erik's mind, and he shushed it as fiercely as his mother had shushed him when he was a young boy pitching a fit.
When he was done, he read the whole thing again. Even over email, Charles' words were heartrendingly sincere, and Erik felt a warm, accomplished glow in his chest, usually reserved for when he had finished a first draft he was proud of.
He was about to reply when he remembered why he had left Darwin's party early. The alcohol and festive mood had emboldened him, and he had stood in such close proximity to Charles under the pretext of teaching him how to throw darts. The temptation had been too much for Erik, and thankfully Charles had fled to the bathroom before Erik had done something foolish. He could still remember, up close, how pale Charles' skin had been, especially at the smooth curve where his neck met his shoulder. Erik remembered breathing in the clean, comforting scent of Charles' fabric softener mixed with his aftershave, leaving Erik dizzy on the spot, blood pounding in his ears. He couldn't remember desperately wanting someone so much before, and when Charles' ear had grazed his nose, his lips had only been a kiss away from that pale, pink curve of his ear. If only he had leaned in just a little bit more...
He took a deep breath, rubbing his face. This was madness.
"Did you get my email a few days ago?"
Erik tried not to stiffen at the cultured, now familiar voice behind him, and he forced on a smile which he hoped didn't look predatory or like it belonged to a prehistoric carnivore. However, Charles seemed happy and excited and not at all as though he were looking for something to bludgeon Erik over the head with for feeling him up during their darts game. He was also wearing one of his 'professory' suits today which could only mean that he was going to drop by his office later, and Erik's fake smile slipped, not really wanting to examine exactly how he knew all this. "Yeah I did, Charles. Sorry, I forgot to reply."
"Oh." The way Charles' face fell was strange, but before Erik could even process this, he was already smiling again. "That's all right, then. Besides, how could I ever get angry with you? I will always be in your debt for that signed copy."
"It was nothing." Erik wished Charles would stop thanking him, because it could only mean that he was imagining the great lengths Erik had gone to, to procure it for him. It had been as simple as taking down one of the copies Erik usually carried with him while travelling and merely signing his name in it. Yet, if he wanted to be honest, it had not been as straightforward as that. He had agonised for ages over what to write in the inscription, then settled for something sincere, but not too familiar.
"It's not nothing, especially when I know how you dislike that particular writer." At least Charles was still grinning. "Have you ever met him before?"
Fuck. Erik wanted to just smash his head through the screen of his laptop. "I've seen him around."
"What does he look like?" Charles was now letting a thumb brush thoughtfully against that lush bottom lip, and now Erik wanted to put his head through the laptop instead. "I've only ever seen the back of him in a photo."
"Oh." Erik made up his mind on the spot to always, always walk behind Charles from that moment on. "He looks normal, I guess."
Charles didn't seem satisfied, but he thankfully dropped the subject, pointing instead at the children's book lying on top of Erik's satchel. "What's that?"
"Ah, yes." Grinning, Erik picked up the grubby Dora The Explorer book and handed it to him. "Here, it's for you. Some woman was reading to her child earlier, and she left it behind. I thought since you liked E. M. Lehnsherr, this might be right up your alley."
Charles let out a short, sharp laugh. "Don't be a prat, Erik." He flipped through the book meaningfully. "Still, I might keep it if the mother doesn't come back."
"You will?" Erik suddenly became very, very still. Charles had never mentioned whether he was married or had kids. "That's...interesting."
Charles must have correctly interpreted the look on Erik's face, because he was laughing quite heartily, his cheeks flushed pink. "Oh no, that's not what I meant. I don't have children. Raven works at the paediatrics department at the uni hospital, the children might like this."
"Ah, I see." The tight unease in his chest was starting to dissipate. "How nice of you to think of helping the children."
"Thank you, my friend." Charles checked his watch. "Speaking of helping, I should get going in a bit. I have to go over to the Rivera to help Mrs Hutchins with the books we donated for the book drive."
You mean the books that you donated, Erik thought. But that was Charles all over, ever generous and eager to share the credit. "What is the Rivera?" he asked instead.
"Oh, my apologies. I'm referring to the Tomas Rivera Library on campus. It hosts the Eaton collection." Charles' lips curved up into a knowing smile. "Want to take a peek at it?"
Of course Erik wasn't insane enough to turn down an invitation to look at the world's largest collection of sci-fi, horror and fantasy books. "Does a bear shit in the woods?"
Charles only laughed.
The Eaton collection was even more magnificent than Erik had ever imagined. He had heard stories, of course, and it had been part of the reason why he had leaned towards Riverside instead of Orange County. He had visited the library during his first week at Riverside, and he wondered if he might have even wandered past Charles at some point.
Mrs Hutchins had shown both of them to the sorting area, which was an employees-only section, but Charles seemed to possess a kind of charm that worked on little old ladies, and of course Mrs Hutchins had been powerless against that winning smile and those ridiculously beseeching blue eyes and the warm hand on her elbow, Erik thought bitterly. It seemed that not many people were immune to the Xavier magic.
The sorting area was a claustrophobic little room lined with wall to wall shelves that came up to slightly above Erik's head. Mrs Hutchins was a little on the plump side, and Erik found himself wondering how she managed to squeeze in and out of the shelves when there was barely enough room for either Charles or himself to manoeuvre themselves around the place. Charles was already taking off his tweed jacket and rolling up the sleeves of his blue shirt, assessing the task at hand. "Erik, you take Horror and Sci Fi, I'll take Fantasy?" he suggested.
"Sounds good." They got to work demolishing the several cartons of books Charles had donated, and Erik was surprised at how well they worked as a team. They seemed to instinctively know where the other was most of the time, and Erik was pleased to see that Charles had quickly picked up – without having to ask - on the organisational system Erik had devised, wordlessly handing him books that were going into his pile. It was pleasant, enjoyable work, and the only thing Erik would have changed was having some music in the background.
However, the silence – and repetitive motion of shelving and alphabetising books – greatly helped him to think over the next few chapters he had planned for the new novel. It also helped that they were also left undisturbed. Mrs Hutchins, clearly having placed a great deal of trust in her beloved Professor Xavier, had left them alone the entire time.
Erik was almost done with his boxes when he heard Charles muttering, "Bloody hell," and grunting as he strained for something. Curious, Erik walked over to the last row where Charles was, and realised his friend was struggling to place a book on the top shelf, which was just out of his reach.
"Oh Charles, you could have called." Erik was fighting not to grin as he edged his way over piles of books into the last row.
"I can do it, thanks." And there it was, that indomitable fierce pride that Charles could do things for himself, which was strange considering how insistent he was in helping others, and how often he had asked Erik for help otherwise. "Are you done yet with yours?"
"Just about." Erik felt bad for him and managed to slide in behind Charles, taking the book from his hand and placing it on the top shelf. It was only then that he realised the position they were currently in, a repeat of the darts game, and his body was a breath away from pressing up fully against Charles'.
Erik knew he should move away, but he closed his eyes instead, taking in a deep lungful of Charles' sweat and faint aftershave and the tea tree shampoo he used. Shampoo should never smell this erotic, he thought, and he let his head dip down, his breath warming the back of Charles' neck. He could see the soft, fine baby hairs there, dark and damp with sweat, the skin reddening under his gaze. Erik's left hand was already balanced on the shelf, brushing against Charles' arm, and if his right hand were to grip the ledge as well, he would effectively be trapping Charles between the shelf and his body.
"Erik." Charles didn't sound frightened, or scared. Instead he sounded like he was breathing very deeply, drunk on air.
Erik took in a shaky beath, then placed his right hand on the shelf.
Charles was now trapped.
He then leaned forward, nuzzling the nape of Charles' neck. "Oh God, Erik.." Now Erik could see Charles was gripping the shelf as well, his knuckles white as paper. And good God, yes, Charles was pressing back against him and closing that inch of a distance between them, a full body shiver sparking through Erik like an electric shock when their bodies were finally touching from head to toe, the hard curve of Charles' backside sliding into place against Erik's hips. This made Erik hiss with pleasure, and this in turn made Charles arch back against him.
There was no way Erik could resist the siren call of that pale, pink skin of Charles' neck, exposed by his loosened collar. He tugged down the collar even further and pressed his lips to the crook of Charles' neck, kissing his pulse while Charles writhed under him, his breath hitching as he leaned up into Erik's hot mouth. "I don't think I can stop myself," Erik murmured against that sweet, slick skin, letting a hand drop and tugging Charles' shirt out of his trousers, then sliding his hand underneath, running his fingers over the warm softness of Charles' stomach.
"Don't you dare," Charles said through his teeth, and then he was twisting around and dragging Erik's head down for a kiss, urgent and intent. It was all lips at first, because Erik was over-thinking it and trying to figure out how he should tilt his head, and then their mouths slid into place and Charles did something obscene with his tongue as it slid into Erik's mouth, and it was purely instinctive from there onwards, Erik slamming Charles up against the shelf (and not caring when it rattled) and sucking on the tip of that errant tongue, not letting Charles have it back just to hear him make those helpless little noises in the back of his throat.
"Mmmh." Charles was tangling his fingers in Erik's hair and tugging on it, just teetering on the right side of painful, and Erik moaned into Charles' waiting mouth and he could feel the bastard wanting to smile into the kiss, which was so hot and so good and so intoxicating that Erik forgave him at all once. His hands slid down to palm that beautiful ass and he experimentally hitched Charles up, lifting him slightly to balance him on the third shelf before sliding a hand between Charles' legs, palming the hard bulge already there. Charles broke off the kiss with a strained groan, hips arching up into Erik's rough touch. "Erik, oh my God."
Erik pressed their foreheads together, and he could see Charles' eyes, a dark tumultuous blue, and they fluttered shut when Erik began dragging the heel of his hand up and down the hard line of Charles' fabric-encased erection, catching his hitching gasps with kisses, unable to keep his lips away from that reddened mouth. Charles threw his head back, banging against the selected works of HP Lovecraft, and Erik accepted the unspoken invitation to kiss that pale, exposed neck. The thought that he had Charles here, pinned under his body, hips arching up frantically into the heel of Erik's hand, the damp spot on his trousers spreading the more Erik stroked him through the fabric. He wanted Charles in his bed, he wanted Charles in his life, he wanted Charles reading through his first drafts and telling him what went wrong (and more touchingly, what went right) and it scared him to no end, realising how deeply he had fallen since the day Charles had told him about 'The Little Prince'.
He withdrew his hands with a start, causing Charles to open his heavy-lidded, drugged eyes. "E-Erik?" Those cheeks were flushed red like Erik had always imagined they would be. "Erik, wait, don't--"
"I need to--" Erik needed to leave, that was what. Charles was a fucking fan, and never mind if he still wanted Erik although he had no idea who he was, Charles was never going to understand once he found out, and then--
Oh holy fuck. Erik's worried thoughts scattered like frightened jellyfish once Charles palmed the clear outline of his erection, running his tongue over his lip and Erik was assaulted with images of Charles on his knees, sucking Erik off in the middle of the damn library, his hands tangled in Charles' dark wavy hair, showing him just how to move that wicked mouth. "Oh fuck, Charles, driving me insane--" he gasped out. Now he was the one being trapped against the shelf, thrusting up against Charles' burning, persistent palm.
"Erik." And Charles was claiming his mouth in another kiss, standing on his tip toes to do so and this meant he had to balance against Erik, their hips finally lined up against each other's, and Charles removed his hand so they could thrust against each other, Erik letting out a raspy moan as the shelves rattled with every movement. He came with a surprised groan when Charles rubbed his thumb against the damp head of his cock, already leaking fluid through the fabric, and the surprised, innocent, "Oh," that Charles emitted when he felt the burst of slick warmth.
When Erik regained his senses, he bent down and claimed those soft lips again, letting Charles ride his thigh until he broke away with a gasp, groaning Erik's name against his chest as he came in his trousers with a grimace. Erik held him through the aftershocks, greedily taking in the flushed pink of Charles' cheeks, imagining that dark, floppy hair fanned out on his pillow.
He slowly let Charles down onto his feet again as they both fought to regain their breath, and Charles was grinning like an idiot, resting his forehead against Erik's shoulder. This tender little gesture went a long way in ensuring the part of Erik's brain that wasn't in a post-orgasmic haze wasn't about to freak out. "So what now?" he dared to ask, stroking the damp auburn strands. Fuck, he really did love brunettes.
"We finish the books." Charles sounded a little sleepy. "Then..."
"Then what?" Erik closed his eyes, burying his nose in Charles' hair. He was such a fucking goner.
"Come home with me."
There were quite a few things that Charles was very good at, and one of them was cooking breakfast. His specialty was scrambled eggs, and he always made them just this side of creamy (which he liked) and with a dollop of green salsa on the side (which Raven liked.) However, as Charles stood in the kitchen now in his boxers and a faded blue Riverside t-shirt, whisking the eggy mixture in a plastic bowl, he realised he didn't know how Erik liked his eggs.
Well, he could always ask.
It was embarrassing how giddy it made him, the idea that Erik was currently asleep in his bed, completely knocked out after last night's strenuous, well, activities. After finishing up at the library last night, they had stumbled back to Charles' apartment, not even making it inside before Erik had slammed him up against the door, his mouth planting kisses along Charles' neck while his hand suggestively ran up the inside of Charles' thigh, the heat of his palm filtering even through the thick cotton. Charles had been scrambling for his keys, of course, because he hadn't wanted to give his neighbours a free show, but Erik had murmured against his neck, "Shall I just fuck you against this door here?" and Charles had been seized by a full-body shudder, gulping in much needed air. "Oh yeah, Charles, you'd like that. Here, let me help you find your keys."
"Erik, for god's sake." Charles had never been so grateful to finally fish out his keys, although Erik's hands had stubbornly remained in his pockets.
They had made it to the bed. Eventually. As Charles now retraced their frantic path of destruction leading to the bedroom, he eyed the discarded turtleneck hanging from the lamp, then went over to retrieve it before almost tripping over Erik's belt. It was hard not to smile as he picked that up too, his mouth a wry twist of amusement.
As he slipped into the bedroom, the sight of Erik in his sheets - lean and lithe like a sleeping panther - made Charles completely forget what he wanted to ask in the first place. On the floor were three haphazardly ripped foil packets, and Charles poked at one woefully at his toe. One condom had gone to waste because they had been too bloody eager last night and Erik had torn it in his haste to roll it on, and their twin looks of dismay had slowly dissolved into laughter, Erik bent over in his mirth, cradled between Charles' waiting legs as they both laughed and laughed. Charles had never had a partner whom he could laugh with in bed just as easily as he could fuck, and it had felt so warm and easy with Erik last night, so uncomplicated.
Erik stirred at that point, the sheets rustling against his bare skin, and he sleepily cracked open an eye at Charles in the doorway. "Whu?"
"Nothing." Charles put down Erik's bundle of discarded clothes and knelt by the bed, just running his fingers through the flattened, sleep-mussed spikes of Erik's hair. "How do you like your eggs? I'm making breakfast."
Erik stretched a little indecently, then leaned up into his touch like a lazy cat asking to be fed. "Fuck the eggs." Now both his eyes were open, and there was a gleam of mischief in them. "Come back to bed."
"I shouldn't," Charles said, although he was struggling to remember why when Erik slid the back of his knuckles down Charles' bare arm, setting his skin alight. Oh right, Henry. "I'm meeting Henry in less than half an hour."
"Fuck Henry," Erik said, then winced as Charles started to laugh. "Okay wait, scratch that. I'll let your sister do that."
"What? You know you were thinking the same. Can't you see she's sweet on him?" Erik didn't seem very interested in talking about this though, at least not from the way that large, warm hand was trying to slide under the hem of Charles' boxers. Those straight eyebrows knitted together when Charles batted his hand away. "What, you're punishing me now?"
"No." Charles bit down on his bottom lip as Erik's persistent hand finally slid inside and those long, elegant fingers brushed against his already half-hard cock. "I- God, Erik, I really can't, I need to shower and eat."
"Then shower with me." The way Erik was looking at him, with that indecent and filthy smile slowly dawning on his face, made Charles so tempted to crawl back into his warm sheets and straddle those narrow hips and ride Erik again until his knees gave way. It was so tempting, especially with the way Erik looked in his bed, warm and rumpled and tangled in his sheets, smelling of sex. "Come on, Charles, give in to me."
Erik's face was so close, their noses brushing together, and he kept trying to claim a kiss that Charles persisted on denying him, turning his face away with a huff of laughter. "Erik, I promise, tonight, all right? Let's meet for dinner."
Erik's wide mouth curled downwards. "You're no fun."
Charles was more than tempted to climb back into bed and prove just how 'fun' he could be, but a quick glance at the clock showed he really was running out of time. "I'd make you pay for that, but fortunately for you I have to go. Help yourself to whatever you want in the kitchen, right?" Charles gave him an apologetic peck on the lips, trying not to laugh at the petulant frown Erik was giving him as he summoned every ounce of willpower to make himself back away from the bed.
"Charles." Even though his hands were now under the covers, it was obvious what Erik was doing. "Oh God, Charles--" he moaned, his head tipping back to rest against the headboard as he started to stroke himself.
Charles remembered to close his mouth before he leapt back into bed. Henry could wait.
Henry was already outside his office, glancing quizzically at his watch as Charles hurried to the door. "I am so sorry I'm late," he said as he unlocked his office, but Henry's gaze was transfixed on the angry-looking hickey just below his chin, and Charles could feel the heat suffusing his face as he prayed Henry would not say anything.
"I, uh." Then Henry blinked, looking away. "It's all right, I didn't wait long."
Thankyouthankyouthankyou, my dear chap. Charles led him inside, more than relieved as he switched on the lights. His office was a little messier than most of the other professors', books strewn everywhere in towering piles just like his apartment, but Charles pretty much knew where everything was. His students were also used to his mess, as they didn't seem to mind. He liked to think his office was at least comfortable; there was a long, brown leather sofa he had rescued from a flea market a while back, and he had paid out of his own pocket to install a Bose stereo system. He would play music while reading or grading essays, and it was a good thing Moira was his neighbour, for she never complained about the music, be it Telemann or TV On The Radio.
He drew open his curtains, and he heard Henry's intake of breath at the spectacular view of the Box Springs mountains. "Beautiful, isn't it?"
Henry nodded, making himself comfortable on the sofa as it creaked under his weight. "Professor?"
"Ah yes, your thesis." Charles put down his satchel and shrugged off his jacket. "Actually, I was wondering why you didn't go straight to Dr. MacTaggert--"
"Is Raven seeing anyone?" Henry blurted out all too quickly, his eyes fixed on the floor as a dull red flush pinked his cheeks. "I mean, I'm sorry, I didn't--"
"Oh." Charles was unable to stop himself from smiling so hard. So Erik had been right after all. He ignored the little flip in his stomach at the mere thought of Erik's name. "Henry, are you asking for my blessing?"
By now Henry's face was a deep beetroot red. He nodded, once, sheepishly.
Charles took pity on the poor boy. "As far as I know, she's very much single at the moment," he said with a mischievous grin, thinking that Raven owed him not only a nice dinner, but possibly tickets to the theatre as well. "You're free to ask her. In fact, I think you should."
The look of sheer joy on Henry's face made Charles laugh. "Thank you, Professor."
"No need to thank me." Charles hooked up his iPad to the Bose and selected a Beta Band song. "You're a good student and a nice person. You'll be good for Raven."
A brief shadow of guilt flitted across Henry's expression. "I'm not so sure about nice."
"What do you mean?"
"Professor, you participate in the message boards at E. M. Lehnsherr's website, right?"
"That's right, how do you--" Charles stared at him. Suddenly, Henry's guilty countenance made complete sense. "You're HankMC1306. Henry. Hank."
Henry's hands were twisted in a tight knot. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before. I mean, I figured out it was you because what is the likelihood of another fan having the nickname 'ProfessorX', right? And when you said you got that autographed copy of 'Electric Fences', then I knew it was you."
Charles wasn't quite sure how to feel as he allowed it all to sink in first. "You could have told me earlier." All right, so maybe he was a little caught off-guard, and he was trying to remember if he had said anything suspect to Henry – Hank – in his tweets or messages. "It is rather surprising."
"I know, I sincerely apologise." Now Henry (Hank, Charles reminded himself, trying to reconcile the two personalities together) finally dared to glance up at Charles again. "Can I still ask Raven out?"
Charles kept his tone deadpan. "Over my dead body."
He couldn't hold back his laughter at Hank's goggled-eyed shock as he almost fell off the sofa, and it took only a few moments for Hank to join in the laughter, looking far more relieved than anything else.
The day's lectures (and one seminar) passed by relatively normally, provided Charles was able to not think about how sore he felt, and why. Unbidden images of Erik fucking him long and slow last night, Charles' knees sliding forward on the sheets with every hard thrust, Erik's mouth on his shoulders, down his back...he suddenly sat up as he realised he was still in class, his students finishing up their quiz. He crossed his legs immediately, then cleared his throat, hoping that he didn't look too flushed and his students hadn't noticed.
No such luck. As John and Bobby came up to the front to hand in their quiz, Bobby was smirking far too widely while John gave him a mock salute. "Have a good weekend, Professor."
"Er, thank you." It was easy to tell himself they were snickering about something else as they left the seminar room, but he doubted the giant angry love bite below his chin was helping things.
Once the class was over, he collected the stack of quizzes and placed them in his satchel before heading back to his office. Maybe Moira might be free to have a quick cup of tea after he tallied the students' quiz scores, and then he could meet Erik for dinner.
Warmth bloomed in his midsection at the thought, and when Charles turned around the corner and saw Erik in the corridor, waiting outside his office, that warmth sparked into white hot heat, making Charles beam with sheer delight. "Erik! I thought we were meeting later?"
Erik straightened up when he saw Charles, an identical grin growing on his face. "I got bored of tormenting the staff at Cafe Kafka, so naturally I thought I'd come here and torment you instead."
"How heart-warming." Charles' lips pursed in amusement as he started to unlock his office, and he could feel Erik's heated gaze falling to rest on his mouth. "I suppose you could come in for a cup of tea before I call campus security."
As they both stepped into the office, he could hear Erik's intake of breath at the view of the mountains from his window. "Beautiful," he heard Erik say as he bent down to retrieve a crumpled Kleenex on the floor.
"I know," Charles said, tossing it into the rubbish bin before turning around and realising Erik's eyes were fixed on his backside. "You were talking about the mountains, right?"
The laughter in Erik's eyes was hard to miss. "I can't remember." Now that the door was closed, he was stepping closer to Charles, backing him up against the heavy oak desk, their faces within kissing distance. "I'm not disturbing your class schedule or anything, am I?" His breath, scented with mint, warmed Charles' lips.
"No." And then Erik was leaning now to claim Charles' mouth, teasing his lips open for a slow, wicked kiss that made Charles drop his satchel, his arms sliding around Erik's neck instead. And then Erik was biting gently into the kiss, and Charles could hear someone moaning softly, and maybe it was him. The moan was broken off with a gasp when Erik palmed him through his trousers, and yes, it was him.
"Sorry, I couldn't wait," Erik whispered as they broke off the kiss, and Charles only smiled, sifting his fingers through the soft strands of Erik's slicked back hair, remembering how it had fallen out of its hold during this one particular hard thrust last night, curtaining Erik's face. Erik had pushed back his hair with one hand, while stroking off Charles with the other. Charles didn't think that particular memory would leave him anytime soon.
"I've to look through this quiz that my students just handed up," he said apologetically, when Erik moved as though to kiss him again. He chuckled as Erik's brow furrowed in disappointment, giving him an apologetic peck. "I could ask Hank to take you around a tour of the campus first--"
"Hank?" Now Erik just looked confused, even though he wasn't moving anywhere, still pressed flush against Charles and stubbornly pinning him to the desk. "Don't you mean 'Henry'?"
"Oh no, I meant to tell you. It turns out that all along, Henry is that online chap I've been talking to on the E. M. Lehnsherr message boards." His thumb brushed across Erik's sharp cheekbone. "That was completely unexpected."
To his surprise, Erik's frown only deepened. "That does sound odd." Now he was shooting Charles a rather wary look. "How do you feel about that?"
"I'm not too sure," Charles admitted, although he was rather nonplussed to realise Erik had eased the pressure against him, was even stepping back a little, much to his disappointment. "I just wish Henry – I mean, Hank had told me earlier. I didn't like the unnecessary secrecy, I guess. But maybe it was because he was interested in Raven. I have no idea why, really."
Erik nodded a little absently, and he was now stepping away, running a hand through his hair. "Maybe he didn't know how to tell you." Erik sounded lost, a little troubled as he went to sit on the sofa.
"Maybe." Now Charles pushed himself away from the desk, going over to sit beside a brooding Erik. "Did I say something?"
"No." Erik simply shook his head. "I was just...thinking."
Charles nodded. If Erik didn't want to tell him what was bothering him, he could hardly force it out of the man. "Stay here a while? I'll be done with the tests in a bit. I'll switch on some music, and you could help yourself to any of the books."
"Sounds great." Erik was now staring off into the distance, worrying at a thumbnail. Charles was still concerned, but he figured that if Erik wanted to stay, he would eventually talk about it. Charles moved over to the Bose stereo, popping in the live recording of the Bright Eyes gig that Raven had passed to him. Once the bootleg started playing, Charles collected his quizzes and went back to the sofa, motioning for Erik to move over. He did, making room for Charles between his legs, and Charles nestled himself comfortably between Erik's thighs before starting work.
He could feel Erik reaching for the nearest book behind him, and time passed by very pleasantly indeed, the earlier tension forgotten. At some point, Charles sat up when his favourite Bright Eyes song started playing, and he could hear Erik humming along to 'First Day Of My Life' as well, his chest vibrating against Charles' back.
"All right?" Charles asked, turning his head a little, pleased to see that Erik was at least back to normal.
"Never better." Erik's voice was low and pleasant, and Charles could feel him pressing his lips against Charles' temple, then holding them there, which made Charles have absolutely no reservations about taking Erik's free hand and linking their fingers together, dropping a kiss on Erik's knuckles.
Brandon knew that he had to do something. No one else knew about the machine for now, but it wasn't long before someone in the lab would start asking questions. Or maybe that woman from the McArthur Foundation would show up, wanting to know how the grant money was being spent. And he wasn't prepared to answer questions about how a simple black machine the size of a toaster was able to foresee one's death. Brandon was only an engineer, after all, and maybe if he had the backing of a bona fide scientist, someone influential might actually listen to him.
It was a good thing, then, that Brandon had found the theoretical physics professor almost by accident. Professor Chris Javier was--
Erik cursed and swore under his breath as he jabbed at his Backspace key. The name was far too obvious; he might as well point bright, flashing neon signs directly at Charles that screamed, 'YES THIS IS THE GUY WHO I BASED ONE OF MY CHARCTERS ON'. Erik stared glumly at his screen, and the blinking cursor stared right back at him, seemingly mocking his inability to get any useful words down on the page.
Falling back on a tried and tested method, Erik mentally ran through his list of favourite names, then began hesitantly typing again:
Professor Francis Xander was a--
Erik rubbed his face in exasperation. He was hopeless.
"Who is this new professor character?"
Azazel's gravelly voice behind Erik made him bolt upright immediately, and it was a good thing Azazel's quick reflexes had him jerking away before Erik would have accidentally head-butted him and given him a bloody nose. "I told you to stop reading over my shoulder!" Erik snapped, feeling as though he had been caught watching a Justin Bieber video.
Azazel only looked amused. "Touchy, are we? And I wouldn't have to read over your shoulder if you'd actually let me read the damn thing."
"Fine, here." Erik forced himself to hand his laptop over to a smirking Azazel. "And I thought you were going to the hotel? Why are you still here?"
Now Azazel's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Wow, for the first time in fourteen years, I'm actually believing that you genuinely want me to - how you Americans so elegantly say it - 'fuck off'?"
"Sorry." Despite himself, Erik actually felt a little bad for being so short with Azazel. "And for the record, I've always felt more European than American."
"You've lived here long enough," Azazel muttered a little distractedly, plonking down on the couch and balancing the laptop on top of his thighs. "And you definitely pay enough taxes to be considered one."
"Just giving back to the good old IRS." Erik rolled his eyes as he got up, heading to the fridge for a beer, then tossing Azazel one too.
Azazel caught it deftly. "Speaking of giving back, I know you don't normally do these publicity events--"
"Forget it." Erik popped open the tab of his beer can and took a long swig. It was strange, how writing made him thirsty and hungry sometimes. "I still have that scar from the time I tried to flee from those crazed fans at that Chicago thing."
"Oh, yeah." Azazel was grinning from ear to ear as Erik bent down, yanking up his trouser leg to display the fading scar. "I don't know which is funnier: the fact that you thought you could escape in a stolen golf cart, or that you almost knocked down Jeffrey Deaver."
"He still won't return my calls." But Erik was smiling fondly as he lowered his trouser leg.
"No big loss," Azazel said airily, giving him a dismissive wave. "Anyway, about the charity thing, I really hoped you would relent for once, because it's for Morgan Stanley."
Erik paused in the midst of taking another swig. "The children's hospital at Columbia?"
Azazel nodded. "A couple of the teen patients there are huge fans of yours, so they'd like you to come in and read a few pages, sign some autographs and – here's the most difficult part – be nice to them."
"I can be nice, asshole."
"Prove it, then." Azazel grinned at him like a lean, mean Cheshire cat. The bastard was baiting him, for God's sake. "Besides, you'll be back in New York in two weeks, so the timing is perfect."
Taking a pause to actually consider this, Erik knew it wasn't about the timing at all. It was more about giving up his hard-won privacy, although if he were to give it up for anything, there was no better cause. Erik remembered how Charles had talked about volunteering at the paediatric ward, eyes soft and aglow with that strange, serene compassion Erik had come to associate mainly with Charles.
I think I love him, Erik realised, and instead of the familiar tendrils of panic, he felt like someone had lit a lamp deep inside his chest, spreading a warm and bright glow.
"Lehnsherr?" Azazel looked curious, and possibly, a little worried.
Erik hid his smile behind his beer can. Here he was, having a major epiphany, and his oldest friend probably thought he was having a stroke. "I'll do it."
Azazel blinked in surprise. "You sure? There'll probably be photographers there. We cannot back out, y'know."
I will be sure to tell Charles by then. And convince him to follow me. Erik nodded again, this time with more certainty. "Yeah, go ahead and set it up. It's for a good cause."
Azazel simply grinned knowingly at him. "I don't know who changed your mind, but I'm buying them coffee. Or a small house."
At that moment an unbidden image rose to the surface, one of Charles smiling beneath him that morning, his mouth hot and sweet on Erik's neck. It made Erik's skin tingle with yearning. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Azazel made a soft, incredulous snort that insinuated Erik knew exactly what he was talking about.
"Erik! Hey, Erik!"
It was a woman's voice, high in pitch and somewhat familiar, but it was still strange because Erik hadn't expected to bump into anyone he knew on campus. Looking up from his screen, he was pleasantly surprised to see Raven and Henry (Hank, he reminded himself, the same overzealous troll from the E. M. Lehnsherr forums) and they were walking towards him, not hand in hand but close. Erik saved his manuscript and closed his laptop, not wanting Hank to accidentally get an eyeful of his novel-in-progress and then run shrieking all over UCR.
"This is such a great coincidence," Raven said, standing in front of Erik as she bunched up her hair, tucking it over one shoulder. "I was just thinking of a way to try and weasel your number out of Charles, but now I don't have to. I didn't expect to find you here."
Erik looked around the tiny little cafe which was filled with students hunched over their laptops. "Well, I normally prefer Cafe Kafka, of course, but I'm meeting Charles here later. It's easier to meet on campus." He began to pull up a chair. "Why don't you join me?"
Erik didn't miss the black look of thunder on Hank's face behind an oblivious Raven. Ah, they must have been en route to a lunch date or something, and Erik of all people understood. Thankfully, Raven shook her head. "Oh no it's okay, we're on our way to lunch. I just wanted to ask if Charles has told you about the faculty party on Friday night?"
"No, he hasn't." Then again, Charles had been trying to tell him something that morning before Erik had dropped to his knees and reduced him to an incoherent babbling mess, so maybe it wasn't exactly the man's fault that it had slipped his mind. Quelling the sudden urge to smile like a lunatic, Erik instead asked, "What about it?"
"The English department is having a 'Come As Your Favourite Literary Character' party," Raven explained. "At least, that's what Charles thinks it is. It's actually a surprise birthday party for him. Secretly organised by Moira and yours truly, of course." Raven took a small, playful bow.
Erik sat up in surprise. "It is? His birthday is this Friday? He didn't say anything."
Raven rolled her eyes. "That's Charles all over for you. And his birthday is on Saturday, actually, but we're celebrating early. Anyway, you coming?"
"Of course, if he asks me," Erik said, and the way Hank and Raven exchanged a knowing, yeah-right glance made him wonder just how obvious he and Charles were.
"Um, who do you think you'll be going as?" Hank asked, and Erik could recognise that he was at least making an effort to be more sociable around Raven. Which was working, really, because Raven was now beaming at Hank, and Erik couldn't help wondering if he looked just as idiotic around Charles.
"I'll have to think about a costume. Maybe Edward Cullen? Or that other guy, the werewolf who seems allergic to shirts," Erik said, grinning at the sheer disgust on Hank's face, which wasn't helped by Raven's peals of laughter.
"I'm sorry I asked. Now I feel so dirty," Hank said, but at least he was finally smiling.
"We should get going," Raven told Erik, tugging at Hank's sleeve as she began heading towards the exit. "I like dirty boys," she added as they left, making Hank almost trip over someone's laptop cable, his face beetroot red.
"I'll see you at the party," Erik called out to them as Raven waved farewell, and he couldn't help wondering if the propensity to blurt out such outrageously flirty remarks ran in the Xavier bloodline.
Apparently, it did.
"Oh, aren't you a sight for sore eyes? I could just eat you up with a spoon." Charles was loud enough to raise a few eyebrows at the tables surrounding them, but he looked so deliciously rumpled - cuffs undone and vest unbuttoned after a long day of teaching - that Erik couldn't bring himself to care.
"I don't think the people at the other end of campus heard you, Charles," Erik said dryly, even as Charles merely chuckled. He just plopped down in the seat opposite Erik's, swinging his satchel onto an empty chair and massaging his temples.
"Long day?" Erik tried to sound as sympathetic as he could. Even though he had spent the whole day wrestling with the new manuscript, it was still probably a treat compared to trying to teach a group of bored, cynical undergrads about the finer nuances of 'Persuasion'.
"The longest." Charles jerked his chin towards Erik's laptop. "Got a lot of writing done?"
Erik was momentarily startled - how did he find out? - until he remembered that he had lied to Charles and said he was trying his hand at writing a thriller set in Southeast Asia. "Not really," he said, forcing himself to relax. Why couldn't he just tell Charles now, in the middle of this cramped campus cafe?
"I think you're over-thinking it." Charles' voice was warm, understanding as his fingers curled around Erik's left wrist in a subconscious show of support. "Maybe for me it's different, because academic writing hardly engages the imagination and creative processes--"
"Don't say that," Erik interjected, even as Charles waved him away.
"No Erik, it's true, non-fiction writing and creative writing are completely different beasts to be tamed in different ways. In your case, you have to follow the advice of my namesake, the great Charles Bukowski."
Erik's lips quirked in a wry smile. "Is the advice, 'Don't try'?"
The ensuing smile on Charles' face made Erik want to lean in and kiss him silly. "That's right. You're a very intense man, my friend. I've seen you in the process of writing, and you chase after the words with the tenacity of a bulldog. I would advise you to relax, but you can't get too lax either, lest the words completely slip out of your grasp. So my best advice would be to find the point between tenacity and complete indifference."
Erik just sat there, blinking at Charles and letting his words sink in. Charles was right. He had been wrestling with the words this whole time, forcing the process and setting goals to complete at least 5000 words a day, but what was the point when it all felt forced? He knew he loved writing most when the words flowed out of him with minimum effort, easy and smooth. It had felt that way when he had been writing 'Magnetic Fields', and he had been deliberately chasing that feeling ever since. "You're right, Charles."
"Of course I'm right." Anyone else would have thought Charles smug and arrogant, but Erik could see the tender, teasing affection in those clear eyes the colour of dawn. "And you can thank me by being my date to a silly faculty party."
Erik smirked, thinking it wouldn't hurt to play dumb. "I'm all ears."
"What about Wooster and Jeeves?"
Erik looked up from the book he was reading. They had embarked on a nice habit of reading together in bed on the days Charles' classes started late, not that Erik could concentrate much with Charles cocooned beside him like this, warm and snug. "I'm sorry?"
"You know, for the faculty party tonight," Charles said patiently, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Erik's gaze kept dropping down to his mouth. "I thought we could go as a famous literary duo."
Oh. Erik considered the idea for a while. "All right. Bertie and Jeeves...not a bad suggestion, but people might think we were just dressed really smartly. They might not know it's a costume."
"True." Charles now looked deep in thought. "Well, what about Vimes and Vetinari?"
"Tempting," Erik admitted. "Although there is no clear description of what Vimes really looks like, don't you think? And they're not instantly recognisable too. I think your colleagues are more used to Dickens than the Discworld series." He slid in a bookmark, putting down his copy of 'Middlemarch'. "How about Crowley and Aziraphale?"
"Brilliant idea, but Moira might already be doing something with that," Charles said regretfully. "Oh wait, I got it! How about Holmes and Watson?"
Erik sat up, intrigued. "You know, that might actually work. Will we have time to get costumes, though?"
Charles had that rather impish grin again that made Erik want to just tackle him to the bed. "We could always cheat and go as the new BBC version of Sherlock and John." He got up from bed, much to Erik's dismay, and started rifling through Erik's closet. "I knew I saw you had this black pea coat. You could wear that, and a scarf."
Erik was beginning to grin. "And you're going to wear a beige sweater and a constant pained expression?"
"Smartarse." A hint of a smile over Charles' shoulder before a scarf sailed over, hitting Erik in the face.
The faculty party was to be held as a private function at Logan's restaurant, which had closed its doors just for the occasion. Erik wondered if Charles would find anything amiss about the faculty party being held at a restaurant off-campus, but Moira had assured him it wasn't uncommon. "Just make sure he shows up," she had sternly reminded him, and he wondered if everyone took it for granted now that they were – sort of – seeing each other. No one had asked him anything, but Erik wasn't blind to the sly glances the others would exchange whenever he was at Cafe Kafka with Charles.
He found himself wondering what Azazel would say as well. He had invited his agent to the party tonight (after checking with Raven and Moira, of course) and he knew Azazel was dying to meet the mysterious 'devochka' in Erik's life. It would be pretty funny to see Azazel's reaction once he realised the supposed 'devochka' was an absent-minded literature professor. Still, it wasn't as though Azazel hadn't known that Erik batted for both teams. Erik simply hadn't had any serious relationships with men before.
Throwing Charles a fond sideways glance, he couldn't help smiling. Maybe that would change.
"What?" Charles looked so, well, adorable with his beige cable-knit sweater and carefully side-swept fringe which he kept fingering every now and then. "Stop laughing at me."
"I'm not." Erik bumped him playfully with his shoulder, eliciting that coy half-grin Charles did sometimes, his bottom lip tucked under the white crescent of his teeth.
They both had to laugh when they arrived at Logan's, which bore a sign on the door, scrawled with the words, 'CLOSED. GO AWAY.' As Logan let them in, Erik steeled himself for an evening of social niceties, plastering on a smile as Charles said hi to some of his colleagues and introduced Erik to them.
It wasn't long before they spotted Moira in the corner, wearing angel wings and a tartan coat, while Levine was in an entirely black outfit, complete with sunglasses and fake devil horns. "Oh my God," she said, the delight on her face obvious when she saw Charles and Erik. "You guys came as Sherlock and John! Fantastic costumes!"
"See?" Charles was smug as he elbowed Erik, ignoring Erik's eye-roll. "Told you it would work."
"You look great, Moira," Erik said, acknowledging her little homage to Aziraphale as she beamed. He then raised an eyebrow at Levine. "Who are you supposed to be? Fonzie?"
Levine scowled at him. "Very funny."
"Erik, be nice," Charles whispered in his ear. "Could you get us something to drink?"
"All right." In fact, Erik decided to be extra nice, since Charles' birthday was tomorrow.
After getting them some wine, Erik looked around while Charles chatted with his colleagues about work. He quickly realised that the rest of the English department didn't seem to have bothered with the literary costumes, although he spotted someone impressively dressed as one of the droogs from 'A Clockwork Orange'.
Erik didn't mind admitting he looked quite good himself, even though it was a little too warm to be wearing the long black pea coat and thick blue scarf. He adjusted it a little as he sat down, carefully placing the paper bag which contained Charles' birthday present right beside his leg. He had gone to great lengths to find it, forking out an astronomical amount for both the hefty price tag and overnight shipping, but it was worth it to make Charles happy.
The rest of the evening seemed to crawl by, although Erik was given a quick reprieve when he was drawn into an interesting discussion about Balzac with Jean and Ororo, two of Charles' colleagues. They were in the thick of it when Raven emerged with the candlelit cake from the kitchen, serenading a stunned, touched Charles with 'Happy Birthday' as everyone else started joining in.
Charles closed his eyes, silently made a wish, then blew out the candles. Thanking his gaggle of colleagues, his eye fell on Erik, and the soft, ensuing smile made Erik forget all about Balzac, Holmes and whatever else.
He had to tell Charles. Maybe not on his birthday, but at least right after.
Thankfully, the party really got going once most of Charles' colleagues left and the staff from Cafe Kafka turned up after the closing shift was over, along with Hank and Alex. "Now that the squares are gone, this is finally a real party," Logan said with a grin as he cleanly lifted a beer bottle from an unknowing Alex's stash, while Hank wandered off to find Raven.
"Are you saying I am a 'square', then?" Charles was probably trying to look indignant, which curiously made him resemble Martin Freeman's tired Watson all the more.
Logan - who didn't seem to recognise any of the literary costumes and didn't care - let an eye rake over Charles' costume before turning to Moira. "Is this a trick question?"
"Be nice for an evening," Moira said soothingly.
Shrugging, Logan retired to the kitchen before emerging again with a few plates of quesadillas, which the boys fell upon like a pack of starved hyenas. "Oh God, something to eat!" Sean's voice was muffled with food.
Darwin jabbed at him with a bony elbow. "Can you make it not sound like I starve you guys or something?"
Sean sniffed. "Okay, I won't talk about the forced starvation. Or the beatings."
"You're such a drama queen," Alex said, waving the pointed end of a quesadilla slice at him before turning to Erik, who was watching them with wry amusement. "Erik, you've been to Mexico before, right? Is the food here authentic?"
Erik nodded readily. "One of the best I've tried."
"You're lucky," Alex said, a touch of envy in his voice. "I can't wait to go to Tijuana or something and try Mexican food."
"Or as they call it there, 'food'," Sean interjected, ignoring Alex's death glare.
"Erik, there's someone at the door looking for you," Logan called out, and Erik jumped up, just in time to spot Azazel making his way in, bearing two bottles of wine and wearing a black captain's hat.
"Who are you supposed to be?" Erik gestured towards the hat before taking the wine off Azazel.
"Captain Ahab, of course." Azazel's stare was focused on somewhere over Erik's shoulder. "Who is that?"
"Huh?" Erik turned to see Raven making her way over. "Ah Raven, this is the friend I was telling you I wanted to invite."
Raven nodded, mouth quirking up in an amused smile. "Nice hat."
"Call me Azazel." The way he shook Raven's hand, slow and deliberate with a wicked smile dawning on his face, made Erik sigh inwardly. He could recognise the signs of Azazel putting the moves on some poor hapless woman anytime. Fortunately, Raven didn't really seem to be falling for it, withdrawing her hand politely.
Charles, however, was far less reserved when it was his turn later. "Any friend of Erik's is a friend of mine," he said, shaking a suspicious Azazel's hand with the biggest smile. "It's so nice of you to visit him here. How do you like Riverside?"
Azazel shot Erik a quick, skeptical is-this-guy-for-real look before replying, "I do like the desert. I've actually been here before, but the last time I was here was at least five years ago."
"Brilliant," Charles said. "Erik and I should take you out sight-seeing sometime."
"Uh, sure." Azazel's expression was slightly pained but polite as he sipped his wine. "So, what do you do here?"
"I'm a literature professor," Charles replied, and Erik was relieved Azazel was in enough control of his faculties to not spit out his merlot all over the both of them. Thankfully, Moira was calling Charles over, so he excused himself, leaving Azazel to claw at Erik's arm.
"That is no devochka!" Azazel hissed at him.
"No shit, Sherlock." Erik felt weird saying that, seeing as to how he was Sherlock. "Be nice to him, all right? I really like him."
Azazel must have seen that he was serious, for his features were softening. "Does he know? About who you are?"
Erik shook his head, even as Azazel smacked his forehead with his palm. "You're kidding. You put him into your book, don't you think he'll find out?"
Erik ran a hand haphazardly through his hair. "I'm getting to it, right after his birthday."
Azazel shrugged, his eyes skittering over to where Raven was standing, talking to Hank. "This is all going to blow up in your face. And all for what? Birthday sex?"
Erik didn't know how to answer him.
They were walking home, back to Charles' place because it was nearer, and also because Charles needed to deposit all the gifts he had received from his colleagues and friends. It reminded Erik of the first walk back together after the football game, only that they were walking much closer now and there was promise in the air that the night was not over yet, not by a long shot. Charles looked giddy and happy, and every other look he had thrown in Erik's direction suggested that he wanted to climb Erik like a tree.
Erik hadn't given his gift yet, though. He had planned to after the kids from Cafe Kafka had presented Charles with theirs, which were an iTunes gift card and a fancy leather cover for his new iPad. Even Logan had gruffly given Charles some gift vouchers for the restaurant. But the more Erik thought about it, the more he realised he wanted to give his present to Charles in private and selfishly savour his reaction entirely for himself.
"Poor old Hank," Charles was saying as he balanced a box against his hip, fishing out his keys. "He certainly didn't seem to enjoy himself tonight."
"Yeah, I know." Erik had never wanted to thwap Azazel over the head more badly than he had earlier tonight. Azazel had persisted in flirting with Raven, the two of them unexpectedly bonding over 'Eat Pray Love', and Erik had thought he could hear Hank grinding his teeth in jealousy over the din in the restaurant. "I'm so sorry about my friend."
Charles shook his head. "You don't need to apologise. Raven is a big girl, she knows what she's doing."
Erik followed him up the stairs, careful not to knock Charles' gifts against the walls, and he waited as Charles unlocked the door, feeling the first signs of exhaustion starting to settle in his bones. Once they were in and had finished putting away Charles' gifts, Erik took out his own present and handed it to Charles. "This is from me. I know it's a day early, but happy birthday, Charles."
"Really?" Charles' mouth was an open 'O' of surprise, and Erik fought the urge to bend down and claim those red lips in a slow kiss. Not yet, anyway. "You didn't have to, my friend."
"I wanted to." Erik tucked an errant curl behind Charles' ear. "Go on, open it."
The expression on Charles' face brightened when he saw it was a copy of 'The Once And Future King', but his mouth fell open when he realised the book was an antique. Then he very gently flipped over to the inside cover. "Oh my word, a first edition copy."
"Do you like it? Erik asked anxiously, because Charles was being very quiet now. He continued to say nothing, blinking rapidly, chewing on his lip and pointedly not looking at Erik as he carefully put the book aside. "Charles?"
"This is--" Now Charles was finally gazing up at him, his eyes a little reddened. "How can I even thank you?"
"I just--whoa!" Erik was literally dragged forward for a kiss, Charles' fists tightening in his scarf as his mouth attacked Erik, repeatedly, and Erik could only laugh into the kiss as Charles manhandled them towards the bedroom, then kicked the door shut behind him.
Charles had never really put much stock in birthdays. It was better not to revisit the cold, sullen birthdays of his childhood with a physically absent father and emotionally absent mother, improved only when Raven had been adopted and familial warmth had finally seeped into his life. By the time Oxford had rolled around, Charles had amassed a nice collection of friends and acquaintances, but they hadn't done much for his birthdays apart from taking him out and getting him sloshed. There had been no memorable celebrations with either of his exes as well, so by now Charles didn't really have that many expectations. These days, with work being what it was, he was grateful if he managed to stay awake past 11.
Erik, however, had changed all that.
Not only had he gotten Charles the best birthday present ever, but they had ushered in his birthday at midnight with Erik taking him up against the wall, after which they had collapsed in bed, worn out and aching in the best way possible. Then in the morning, Charles had been lulled awake by the glorious sensation of Erik's warm, wet mouth wrapped around his cock, and if there was any better start to a birthday than coming down Erik's throat with his hands tangled in Erik's hair, Charles wasn't interested.
He squirmed a little in his chair at that still fresh memory, his mouth curving up into a smile. Opposite him at their usual table in Cafe Kafka, Erik remained absorbed in the New York Times, his half-eaten sandwich forgotten and growing cold. Charles observed his profile, wondering what else Erik had planned out for the rest of the day. To be honest, Charles would have been content to spend the day just sitting here at the cafe with Erik, reading, talking, laughing, drinking coffee and then dragging him home and riding him silly.
Erik's eyes flickered up from the newspaper and caught his gaze. "Why are you grinning like that?"
"Like what?" Charles calmly sipped his white mocha, but he could feel his cheeks burning as Erik's hot gaze raked over him.
"When you're smiling at me like that, it usually means you're about to jump on me." Erik's smile was languid, almost smug as he casually licked his thumb, then flipped to the next page. "I would have thought this morning would have left you...satisfied. Apparently not, it seems."
Setting down his mug, Charles raked his hair back with one hand while the other, unseen, slid under the table to caress Erik's knee. "Too bad we're surrounded by people, then."
"We are?" Erik pretended to look around the cafe. It was quiet for a Saturday morning, quiet enough for Sean to take a break from making coffee. He was now hovering at Alex's table, both of them frowning down at Alex's iPad while Sean flipped an exposed Oreo over and over like a coin, too engrossed in the game to finish his snack. Behind the counter, Darwin was counting bags of coffee beans, and at the table in front of him, Angel sat talking and giggling on the phone. Just the regulars then, none of whom would even bat an eyelid if Charles and Erik were to kiss in public.
Erik must have been reading his mind, for he was getting up from his seat and bending down to plant a kiss on Charles' lips, but Charles chased after his mouth, turning the mere chaste peck into a proper kiss, deep and probing, slipping in a little tongue. They were both rather breathless when Erik pulled away, licking his lips, and Charles felt a hot curl of lust blooming in his belly. "Couldn't resist a birthday kiss," Erik said, his voice a little hoarse, and Charles cupped the side of his cheek, letting his thumb graze Erik's faint sideburns.
"You're spoiling me to a ridiculous extent." Charles leaned up and kissed him one last time before finally releasing him, and as Erik returned to his seat opposite the table, Charles spotted Alex and Sean making gagging motions at him before dissolving into raucous laughter and yelling, 'Get a room!'. Charles rolled his eyes at them, muttering, "Oh bother, now we've attracted the attention of the peanut gallery."
Erik didn't seem to be listening to him, though. He was gazing out of the window, deep in thought, and just as Charles was about to tease him for having the attention span of a gnat, Erik suddenly looked at him and said, "Come to New York with me."
This was so unexpected that Charles just blinked at him. "What?"
Erik took a deep, determined breath. "I mean it, come to New York with me. I have to go back there in two weeks for, uh, work purposes." Now he was placing his hand on top of Charles, those long, elegant fingers tracing the line of Charles's knuckles. "There's so much I want to show you."
"Erik." Charles didn't even know where to start. "I'd love to, but the finals--"
"Not even for a quick weekend?"
It pained Charles to shake his head. "Not right now, no."
"Oh." Erik's eyes were now dull with disappointment, his smile quickly fading as he started to withdraw his hand. "I understand."
"No, wait. I didn't mean I couldn't go, ever." Charles gripped Erik's hand so it couldn't go anywhere, holding it tight. "I could go after we're done marking and grading. What do you reckon?"
Erik was staring down at their clasped hands, but Charles was pleased to see the corners of Erik's thin mouth were turning up in a secretive, fond smile. "I suppose it is acceptable," he said with a sigh, pretending to sound disappointed, but the way his large hand folded over Charles's own and squeezed it said so much more.
The rest of the day passed by like a dream, a very good dream where they walked a lot and talked a lot and spouted quotes from 'The Ancient Mariner' at each other and raided some excellent second-hand bookstores in town, and at some point they sat on a bench with their purchases and took in the beautiful view of Box Springs Mountain, and when Charles was talking about a dog-eared copy of Aphra Behn's 'The Rover' that he had managed to dig out earlier, Erik leaned in and kissed him midway, sweet and sincere, and Charles thought that he would never have a better birthday than this, and he hoped Erik would be around next year to prove him wrong.
They then had a romantic dinner at an upscale French restaurant, and on the way back to Charles' flat, Erik stopped by an aromatherapy shop, then emerged with a paper bag and a mysterious smile. "What did you get?" Charles kept asking, but Erik simply tugged his scarf tighter around himself and shot Charles an affectionate look. They held hands as they walked up 5th Street, clutching their bags of books, and Charles thought about how it should be illegal to be this happy.
Once they got home, Charles took off his cardigan, then started putting away the books he had bought earlier, slotting them into his bookshelf. He was almost done when he felt Erik's arms wrapping around his waist from behind, the cold tip of his nose nuzzling against the crook of Charles's neck. "Do these later," Erik murmured, referring to the books.
"I just wanted to do it now in case I forget later--aah!" Charles dropped the last few books, eyes fluttering shut and biting his lip as Erik's hot mouth began planting kisses along the line of his neck, tilting his head to give him access. "Oh God, Erik."
"Happy birthday." Erik's voice had dropped down to that low, husky tone he had whenever he was inside Charles. "Come on, I have one last present for you."
"You r-really do spoil me," Charles stuttered out, his breath hitching when Erik's large, warm hand slid under the waistband of his slacks and into his boxers, cupping him roughly. "Yes, Erik, yes--"
"Then come." And just like that Erik's hand and mouth had disappeared, leaving Charles panting hotly against the bookshelf and blinking. Bastard.
Stumbling to the bedroom, Charles found Erik already shedding his clothes, and he motioned for Charles to do the same. Charles would have, except that he was mesmerised by the inherent grace with which Erik slid off his trousers, then peeled off his turtleneck, revealing the long, lean, narrow lines of his body. Charles drank in the sight, feeling his mouth water with sheer lust.
Then he looked up, catching Erik's intent gaze. There was a frank wonder in his eyes, lips slightly parted, as though he couldn't believe Charles was real, standing right here in front of him. Then Charles found himself being tugged closer, and they stood like this, Erik bending down slightly so he could press their foreheads together, as though he wanted to share his mind with Charles. A fanciful notion, Charles knew, but the way Erik's hand trembled before twining their fingers together sent a jolt of surprise through him and made him realise he wasn't that far off the mark after all.
"Charles." Erik pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth, before dragging a thumb down Charles's jaw. He took a deep breath, then he recited the next few lines quietly, reverently:
"your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose."
Charles went very, very still. He knew this poem like the back of his hand. Erik only smiled, his eyes searching Charles's own for any objection – there was none, of course - before he continued:
"i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses."
Erik punctuated the line with a soft, chaste kiss, his lips doing little more than nuzzling Charles's parted mouth. "I've waited my whole life to say that to someone," Erik murmured against his lips. "And I knew it would be you."
Blinking rapidly, Charles fought back the heat burning behind his eyes, threatening to well up. Erik's words hung in the air around them like suspended light particles, illuminated by a sudden ray of sun. Charles knew he was falling for Erik, he had been fighting – and then, ignoring – it for weeks, and it had still crept in, unseen, making its home somewhere deep inside him at some point after the football match.
He took a long, shuddery breath, his throat suddenly dry, palming Erik's cheek as he let the words sink in. What a long way they had come, from Erik mocking his favourite author to falling in love with him, and if Charles wanted to be honest, the depth of his feelings for Erik scared him as well. Statistically, someone like Erik should not exist, and Charles wondered how he had ever managed to stumble upon such a great cache of good luck in finding someone so compatible with him, but not exactly like him. One of Raven's favourite phrases – 'bookends of the same soul' – now rang in his head, making him smile as he stared at an increasingly nervous Erik who seemed to be waiting for an answer.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel the same," Charles admitted. "But forgive me if I'm too incoherent to think of an equally beautiful poem to reciprocate."
Erik's brilliant grin made his heart leap into his throat as they kissed again, this time long and deep and lingering. And then Erik was unbuttoning his shirt and sliding it off him, and Charles impatiently helped with his trousers and underwear, letting them pool at his feet and trying not to let his knees buckle when Erik started sucking on the tip of his tongue, their kisses wet and messy. He later realised it was a clever ploy to distract him while Erik backed him up against the bed, and Charles now felt the back of his knees hit the cool cotton.
"Lie down," Erik said as he bent down to pick up the paper bag from the aromatherapy store, and Charles laughed when Erik fished out a bottle of scented massage oil.
"Here, give me that." Charles neatly lifted it out of Erik's hands, making him frown. "You lie down, and let me make you feel good."
Charles leaned up on his toes. "Didn't you say it's my birthday?" he whispered against the seam of Erik's lips, before teasing them open for yet another deep, searching kiss. Erik now looked very dazed as Charles pulled away, patting his cheek. "Go on. If you want to make me happy, go lie down."
Shooting Charles a rather dirty – but amused – look, Erik stepped forward and climbed onto the bed, laying face down and bracing his arms on the pillow. Charles hungrily drank in the sight of Erik's taut, lean body sprawled across his bed like this, ready and waiting for his touch, all his. The mattress dipped as Charles clambered onto it, lifting a leg and straddling Erik just above his lovely firm arse.
"Charles," he moaned softly, his fists tightening in the pillowcase and leaving creases. Charles simply smiled, tipping massage oil onto his hands, then rubbing them together to warm it up, recognising the warm, sweet notes of vanilla. Erik had good taste.
He placed his hands on Erik's shoulder blades first, rubbing them in slow circles and hearing Erik sigh. Charles spent a few minutes doing this, letting Erik get good and relaxed before moving his hands along Erik's spine, admiring the smooth, golden skin marred only by the red marks Charles had scratched down his back last night. And the night before. Charles traced them all lovingly, wanting to grasp the concept that Erik was here - permanently here.
The thought sent another thrill through him, his cock already filling out and nudging against Erik's flank. "Mmmh." Erik clutched tighter at the pillow, arching up although he was safely pinned down by Charles' body weight. This made Charles lock his knees around Erik's hips, grinning as he began massaging in earnest, working out the knots in Erik's shoulders and back, hearing him groan in pleasure.
"Oh dammit Charles, feels so good..." Erik was definitely squirming under him now, grinding his pelvis against the mattress, panting softly. It made Charles wish he was under Erik, but no matter. Charles's fingers felt tired so he paused for a while, enjoying the feeling of Erik writhing between his legs. Charles was allowed to look all he wanted, so look he did, running a gentle hand down the back of Erik's thigh. He was so hard that he was already dripping onto Erik's back, and he allowed a thumb to rub at the pool of moisture, smearing it into Erik's skin and marking him as his.
Erik must have known what he did, for he was trying to twist around, and Charles could see his eyes were dark, pupils blown. "Lift your hips, let me turn around."
Charles balanced himself on his knees, smirking as Erik rolled over, his erection already hard and leaking, bobbing against his stomach. Charles straddled him again, bending down to steal another kiss, and Erik wouldn't let him go this time.
They both gasped when the tip of Charles's cock nudged between Erik's sweat-slick thighs, and Erik blinked at him. "Do that again," he pleaded, and Charles thrust harder this time, groaning at the delicious friction of his erection sliding between Erik's lean, muscular thighs. This time, Erik's plea was more frantic, slightly desperate. "Charles, the massage oil--"
"Oh." Charles instantly understood what Erik was trying to do, and he grabbed at the bottle of oil, rubbing a liberal amount onto his hands, then he started slicking the tight valley between Erik's thighs, both of them grinning as they started kissing again, hot and urgent, Erik nipping at Charles's lips and worrying the bottom one gently between his teeth. This made Charles moan into his mouth, his hands careless now, and almost all of Erik's thighs were slick with oil.
"Do it," Erik demanded, his long, elegant fingers wrapping around Charles's cock and stroking him insanely slowly, just the way Charles loved. He leaned up, whispering in Charles's ear, "I want to feel you come all over the sheets and my thighs."
"Yes, Erik, God yes," Charles gasped out, guiding himself into that tight space and it was so slick, so hot, just like he would imagine Erik would feel like, and his hips thrust forward of their own volition, making Erik groan brokenly, and Charles could feel the head of his cock sliding against Erik's balls with every long, steady thrust. The scent of the massage oil seemed to have grown stronger with their combined body heat, and Charles was heady with the sweet, fragrant scent of vanilla around them.
The feel of Erik's hand clutching in his hair helped to ground him a little even as he felt dizzy with lust. Erik grinned up at him as he yanked Charles forward for yet more kisses, his own cock curved up against his belly where a pool of pre-come had gathered. Charles dabbed his fingers in the moisture before his hand wrapped around Erik's long, long cock, finally stroking him and making him cry out in sheer pleasure. "Oh fuck, Charles, so good--"
Charles didn't know why he was laughing breathlessly against Erik's mouth. "Want you -- inside me -- at the same time..." He was light with joy, chest bursting with everything he felt for Erik, and his thrusts became erratic when he felt Erik spurting between the both of them, eyes squeezed shut, head tipping down as he moaned his release into the crook of Charles's neck. It was hot and wet and messy and sexy, and Charles started thrusting even harder between Erik's thighs, the pleasure coiling at the base of his spine a telltale sign of imminent orgasm.
When Erik lifted his head, eyes dazed and smile wide, Charles managed an off-aim, trembling kiss before one last hard thrust, then Erik's thighs were slick with his come. He was panting, delirious, unable to take his eyes off the wondrous affection of Erik's expression as he collapsed on top of Erik, resting his body weight entirely on him. Not that Erik seemed to mind, thankfully.
"That was an inspired...improvisation." Erik was smiling sleepily at him now, seemingly not at all bothered about the mess drying on his stomach and thighs.
"Well, you've created a monster," Charles said, fondly brushing Erik's hair back with his clean hand. "Now I'm going to want to get creative all the time. How do you feel about upside down sex?"
Erik's low, dirty chuckle in his ear was entirely worth it. "When you find out how to defy gravity, send me a memo."
Charles usually got up well before Erik, who was in the habit of sleeping in due to his late hours spent writing his articles. However, when Charles cracked open an eye that morning, he was surprised to find Erik's side of the bed empty. Letting out a deep yawn as he stretched mightily, Charles vaguely wondered where Erik could be. He listened for sounds of tinkering in the kitchen or Erik's low voice on the phone, but there was only silence. Maybe Erik had stepped out for a while, or popped back to his own flat to get something.
Charles finally sat up, leaning back against the headboard with a lazy smile. Yesterday was definitely his most memorable birthday yet, thanks to Erik being with him from start to finish. There was the briefest, quickest flutter in his chest when he remembered what Erik had told him yesterday, reciting those e. e. cummings lines to him from memory, and Charles's smile broadened even more. A small, cynical voice in his brain –unsurprisingly sounding a lot like Raven – scoffed at how cheesy this was, but Charles didn't care. He was happy.
Swinging his legs out of bed, he then spotted the handwritten note that Erik had left for him on the bedside table. 'GONE TO KAFKA'S TO TRY AND GET BRUNCH BEFORE THEY SELL OUT. MAYBE WE'LL BE LUCKY THIS TIME. CALL IF YOU WANT ANYTHING ELSE. E.' and underneath it, Erik had drawn a giant X, which made Charles grin.
Something about the handwriting was familiar, though.
Charles rubbed at his eyes, yawning again before tossing aside the note and shuffling to the bathroom. He felt considerably more awake after brushing his teeth and washing his face, but some aspect of the note was still niggling at him. He paused by the bed, then bent down to retrieve the note, staring at it carefully. His eyebrows knitted together in a frown. In all his years of experience, he had come across several different kinds of handwriting from all sorts of students, and he had grown a special sensitivity to unusual quirks in people's handwriting styles, which was useful for detecting plagiarism and collusion, and his eye kept getting drawn to the loopy, weird 'M' in the 'Maybe' of Erik's note.
His frown deepened, and he told himself that he was crazy. But he did not put down the note, and this time, the Raven-voice in his head was telling him to look more carefully. Where had he seen this unusual quirk before?
Taking it with him to the kitchen, he started up the coffeemaker, chewing his lip as he thought it over. The answer hit him only when the coffee had finished brewing, and his heart was thudding in his ears as he made his way to the most treasured part of his bookshelf, skipping over the first edition of 'The Once And Future King' before his finger landed on the signed copy of 'Electric Fences'. Charles stared down at the cover, then his shaking hand flipped to the inside page where E. M. Lehnsherr's inscription was.
Charles broke into a cold sweat as he found himself staring at the exact same handwriting.
When Erik finally came home, he was on the phone, his tone warm and affectionate with whoever was on the line with him. The paper bags with the Cafe Kafka logo promised brunch, but Charles was not at all hungry, remaining seated on the couch with the damning book and note beside him. He just stared at Erik who was laughing on the phone, depositing the bags on Charles's dining table, then taking off his watch. Despite the cold, confused anger sitting at the bottom of his stomach, Charles still felt a flare of want and heat at the mere sight of Erik, teeth bared in his unusual grin, hair slicked back in his normally neat style. Of course it was all too good to be true. Erik had been too perfect for him, and Charles knew he should have heeded his instincts.
Erik finally caught sight of Charles's expression, and his grin faded. "Emma, I'll have to call you back," he said, not even waiting for a response before he clapped his phone shut and made his way to the sofa. "Charles, what's wrong?"
Charles's jaw felt stiff and unyielding as Erik strode over, and all his suspicions were confirmed when he saw the shadow of guilt sliding into place on Erik's face when he spotted the book and the note side by side. That guilty look was as good as an admission, but Charles forced the words out anyway. "Did you sign this?"
Erik let out a heavy sigh. "I was going to tell you," he eventually said.
"Why did you do it?" Charles said. "I wasn't that desperate for a signed copy."
Erik's eyebrows shot up. "Wait, so you think I forged this?"
"I don't really care about the signed copy," Charles said very firmly. "I care more about the fact that you lied to me."
"But I didn't!"
"So, wait, are you saying you are E. M. Lehnsherr?" Now Charles was beginning to get genuinely angry. "Do you even know how ridiculous it sounds?"
Erik made as though to reach for his wallet. "I can show you ID, although I have to say your lack of trust in me is fairly disconcerting."
"Why would it be disconcerting?" Charles shot back at him. "First you lied to me, and now you're persisting with this...this delusion that you're a famous author. And you insist on backing this up with some bloody fake ID that anyone can order off the internet. Can you blame me?"
"Charles, you need to listen to me--"
"No, I can't trust anything you say anymore," Charles said in a very quiet, very dangerous voice. "All that bloody crap about how you loved me last night. Was that a lie too, just like the book?"
There was a spark of anger in Erik's intense eyes that caused just the tiniest flicker of self-doubt in Charles's mind. "What the hell would I trick you for?"
"God knows, to get me to sleep with you?" Charles held up the fake signed copy with a shaking hand. "The fact is that you've been mocking me about E. M. Lehnsherr since day one. Is this some extension of your mockery?"
"Fine." Erik's mouth was now a thin, angry line. "There, I was the one who signed it, is that what you wanted to hear?"
The admission sliced through the struggling remnants of Charles's composure, and he turned away so Erik wouldn't see his eyes were wet. "There was never any doubt that you signed this. Didn't you think I'd find out?"
"I can't fucking believe this," Erik was saying behind him, and he could hear Erik gathering his keys and snapping on his watch again. "You always think you're right, don't you Charles?"
Charles was far too furious – and hurt – to think straight. Erik had basically admitted to lying to him, and he wasn't even the least bit remorseful that he had been found out. Worse still, he had practically insisted on continuing the lie. How stupid did he think Charles was? "Close the door behind you," Charles said, flat and emotionless.
Erik slammed the door so hard that the book fell off the sofa and onto the floor, which was just as well as Charles couldn't bear to look at it anymore, slumping into the seat with his head in his hands.
There were times, Erik realised, when he felt as though he were oscillating between two separate identities, two different men who led very different lives. E. M. Lehnsherr was the jetsetting author who could be depended upon to produce a bestseller every other year or so, and it was the name on the royalty cheques that allowed for an extremely comfortable lifestyle for himself and his parents. E. M. Lehnsherr was also friends with Neil Gaiman and Steve Buscemi, and he was also the name praised - and reviled - by critics in the literary sections of newspapers everywhere. The Boston Globe in particular seemed to take a special delight in skewering his books to pieces, bemoaning all the trees that had been felled to print his novels.
Plain old Erik, however, couldn't be further on the other end of the spectrum. Erik had to wait in line at restaurants and ATMs like everyone else, and he struggled with deadlines just like any other writer. The most popular and misleading myth he had encountered (and believed, once upon a time) was that writing would get easier once he got published. In the few rare interviews he had allowed, he had been very happy to dispel that particular myth. It never got easier. In fact, the added pressure of professional deadlines simply meant he was forced to send in his work by a certain date regardless of whether it matched up to his own rigid standards or not.
And of course, being plain old Erik also meant he was susceptible to getting his heart stomped on like everyone else.
The whole thing with Charles had been mainly his own fault, Erik knew that now. After the initial hurt had faded, something else had slowly slid into place, inch by inch. It was the terrifying realisation that Erik could have very well lost the one person who was capable of accepting both his identities with equal measure, and not giving a damn otherwise.
This fear compelled Erik to try and talk to Charles a few more times. A few days after the horrific argument, Erik went down to Cafe Kafka on three separate occasions to look for Charles. And waited all three times, like a fool. He had toyed with the idea of waiting outside Charles' apartment just for a chance to explain, but this technically amounted to stalking (which was not only creepy, but also possibly a felony.) So Erik had to be content with waiting at the cafe, alternating between staring blankly at his laptop and staring blankly at the book he was reading.
All three days, Charles didn't show.
On the last day and at the last hour, Erik managed to haul himself out of his self-induced misery to notice that it was Darwin's fifth time wiping down the table next to his, even though no one had sat there all day. Darwin's face was carefully blank, although he edged closer when Erik sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Erik was the only customer left in the cafe, after a bunch of students had fled earlier when Sean started serving a peach pie he had personally made.
"Hey buddy," Darwin said, drawing out the last word in some vague stab at consolation. Erik gave up his attempt at nonchalance, (which was as half baked as Sean's pie) and closed his book, pretending not to notice the sympathetic twist of Darwin's mouth. "Any last orders?"
"It's okay." Erik checked his watchn He still hadn't packed, and Azazel had booked their flights for the morning. "I should get going."
"I don't think he'll be in today," Darwin said, his tone unnecessarily kind. "Why don't you come back tomorrow?"
Erik didn't bother to clarify who Darwin was referring to, and Darwin didn't either. "I'm going back to New York tomorrow." Erik did his best to keep his tone calm and casual, but he didn't miss the slight flinch on Darwin's face.
"Oh, that's a shame," he said, troubled. "Did you tell..." Here, Darwin trailed off, waving his tablecloth in the direction of Charles' regular table.
"No, I haven't had the chance." Erik frowned dow. at his table. There was another way he could see Charles that had less possibility of a restraining order, and it seemed Erik had no other choice. It was his last resort.
Darwin's brow was furrowed. "Well, safe travels," he finally said, although he did not extend his hand, and Erik found himself wondering what the rest had heard about the whole fiasco, and whether anyone would truly believe him.
The campus was unusually quiet for this time of morning. Erik was used to seeing students running around to make it in time for their 8am lecture, but he belatedly remembered Charles mentioning something about reading week. He hung around in the corridor outside Charles' office, checking his watch every now and then. He needed to go and pick up Azazel from the Mission in about half an hour before heading to Ontario Airport, and he wasn't quite looking forward to a grumpy Azazel first thing in the morning.
Hearing footsteps and chatter, Erik looked up just in time to see Charles and Moira turning around the corner, Moira hugging a stack of books to her chest while Charles had his hands deep in his pockets. Charles looked completely like shit, the lines around his eyes and mouth visible even from a distance, the bags under his eyes darker than ever. He stopped talking when he spotted Erik, his lips thinning to a firm line. Following Charles' gaze, Moira's eyebrows shot up in surprise but she didn't say anything, and Erik could feel her watchful gaze burning into him.
"What are you doing here?" Charles' eyes were dark and bloodshot, yet still that impossible shade of blue that made Erik's skin prickle with yearning. His tone was listless and tired, but Erik didn't miss the thin thread of anger underneath all that exhaustion. In a sick way, he was glad that Charles was suffering too, that it would be just as hard for him to get over Erik.
"We need to talk." It was a clichéd line that Erik would have never use in any of his books, but at this moment, it seemed direct honesty was the best tack. "Please, Charles."
"Charles, I could--" Moira began, gesturing towards her own office, but Charles reached out and gripped her wrist, as though willing her to stay.
"No, Moira, it's fine." Charles looked steadily at Erik. "Erik and I have nothing to discuss."
Erik wanted to kick the nearby water fountain. Stubborn, stubborn Charles. Instead he began rummaging in his carry-on bag for his passport and a copy of the recent contract he had signed for the new book. "If you looked at these, you'd believe me--"
"Are you still keeping up this ridiculous E. M. Lehnsherr charade?" Charles' cheeks were flushed a dull, brick red colour, and Erik tried not to think about the last time he had seen Charles like this, pinned between Erik and a mattress, pink from happiness and exertion instead of anger. "For God's sake, Erik, don't you think I know how easy it is to forge documents?"
"These are not forged," Erik almost yelled, but it was too late as Charles was grimly unlocking the door to his office, then yanking a stunned Moira in.
"Goodbye," he said curtly, before shutting the door in Erik's face.
When they were grabbing coffee before their flight, Azazel was looking around in confusion. "Hey, that professor guy isn't seeing you off?" he asked, tearing open a packet of Splenda and shaking it into his latte.
Erik fought to keep a tight rein on his expression. "No, he's not coming."
Azazel had his mouth open, ready with one of his trademark quips, no doubt. But something in Erik's closed-off expression must have tipped him off, because Azazel simply sipped his coffee and stared down at it, cupped in both hands. "I thought you were really happy with him."
Erik stirred his cappuccino listlessly. "I thought so too."
New York was colder than he remembered, although Erik attributed his dissonance with the weather to the extended amount of time he had spent away in California. Compared to the dry, clean desert air of Riverside, Manhattan was a crisp swirl of a hundred different smells, a sharp assault on the senses. As the driver dropped him at his apartment on 71st and Park Avenue, Erik nodded at the doorman who tipped his hat in recognition, then held the door open for him.
Home was just as he had left it, save for the little professional touches left by the weekly cleaners he had hired. Erik dumped his luggage by the door, then sank into his favourite armchair by the window.
He had meant to bring Charles here.
The tedious practice of unpacking helped a bit in settling his thoughts and distracting him from what he might have lost, and it was even more disconcerting when his phone chimed with concerned messages from Azazel. Most of them were along the lines of, 'Hey u ok? I dont wanna get a call from your neighbors next week saying there's a smell coming from your apartment' and 'Shaw's already asking for the MS but I told him to fuck off, he's giving us a few weeks grace'. There was no 'I told you so' or 'ur better off, she was a bitch' (Erik had received such a text following Magda's departure) and for that Erik was profoundly grateful. Azazel going easy on him was a testament to their friendship, really, and he was glad he had caved and told Azazel the whole sordid story on the plane.
However, Erik had no such luck with Emma. They had a business meeting scheduled for the day after Erik's return, and they met at Emma's new favourite cafe, the Coffee Inn. It w!s tiny and cramped, compared to the spacious seating at Cafe Kafka, but Erik jammed the brakes on that thought, not wanting to dwell too much on what he had left behind. Instead he pulled out his laptop and went over the manuscript with Emma, doggedly pointing out areas he was having problems with.
Instead of nodding along in agreement, she was staring at him quite thoughtfully. "What?" he asked at last, irritated.
"Oh, Erik." She propped up her chin on her well-manicured hand, giving him her patented you-poor-thing head tilt. "Azazel told me what happened."
Erik let out a laborious sigh. "Azazel is on drugs," he said as seriously as he could, although Emma rolled her eyes. "Don't believe a word he says."
Emma ignored that. "What I don't understand is, why didn't you tell that Charles guy earlier who you were?" she asked.
"Don't you think I wanted to?" Erik dragged a hand through his hair, distracted by the nearby hiss of a barista steaming milk. "By the time I figured out he was the real deal, it was already too late. He would have been angry no matter what."
"Then this is your fault," Emma declared. "For you underestimated him, and when he got angry - which was very understandable from his viewpoint, by the way - you threw a hissy fit."
It didn't help that Emma was right, not that Erik was going to admit that to her. "I told him I loved him," Erik said, leaning back in his chair and sulkily picking at the skin around his fingernails. "And it felt like-- I don't know, it felt like he threw that back in my face and refused to believe me."
"Because he thought you were a grifter," Emma said plainly. "It's hard enough falling for someone without all this soap-opera crap you just pulled on him, you know."
Erik's mouth was open to protest, but Emma had that determined, expectant look where she fully intended to get her way, be it cutting down 80 pages off his latest MS or admitting he may have just screwed up a genuine, decent chance at a genuine, decent relationship. Deflated, he just stared at her. "So what should I do?"
Emma primly stirred her Earl Grey. "Once you're done with your self-pity party, call him."
Erik's scathing reply was censored by the loud, mechanical grinding of the espresso machine.
The week passed by in a frantic rush, and Erik made sure to try and call Charles whenever he managed to work up the nerve to do so. His calls and texts went unanswered, and Erik cursed his luck for having a meddlesome editor and agent who seemed fully intent on doubling as his life coaches as well.
Worse yet was the fact that Erik was still obligated to make that public appearance at Morgan Stanley, but at least it provided a welcome distraction. Erik decided to read an excerpt from 'Magnetic Fields' for the older teen patients, and for the younger kids, he would bring along 'The Missing Piece Meets The Big O', one of his favourit% books by Shel Silverstein.
Azazel drove him to the hospital, and they introduced themselves to the administrative staff, as well as a young paediatrician who kept smiling at Erik and overtly touching his arm. They gave him a quick tour around one of the wards, then ushered him downstairs to the Wintergarden plaza, an indoor auditorium in the hospital lobby with a semicircular wooden stage. About a hundred chairs had been set up, and Erik was not exactly surprised to see most of them were already filled. Some of them were patients, of course, but there were many others who definitely weren't. It was easy to guess who they were: they had media passes clipped to their pockets, toting professional DSLR cameras with long, extended lenses and compulsively checking their Blackberries.
"Some of them have been here since morning." The paediatrician - Anna or Anne something - actually blushed. "Everyone's really excited to see you, Mr. Lehnsherr."
"Call me Erik, please." Better to get this done and over with, he thought. He nodded at Azazel, who tugged the administrator aside and whispered something in her ear. She quickly brought Erik 'backstage' to a bright green dressing room where a bottle of water and and some saltines had been laid out for him.
"We'll cue you after Anna has made the introduction," someone said, and Azazel gave them a thumbs-up.
Erik was going over the passages he had highlighted for the sixth time when there was a knock on the door, and one of the staff poked her head in. "Mr. Lehnsherr? We're ready to start."
"Thanks." Erik got up, fighting to ignore the tangle of knots in his stomach. Azazel thumped him on the back in encouragement, and Erik took a deep breath before stepping out into the auditorium.
There was a lone chair placed in the middle of the stage, accompanied by a small cheap side-table of the IKEA variety and another bottle of water. A long, thin mic was propped up nearby on a mic stand. As Erik emerged on stage and walked towards the chair, there was a surprised hush at first, but it quickly ascended into applause and wolf-whistles. Erik had to shield his eyes, because camera flashes were going off like lightning around the auditorium. He reminded himself to focus on the kids in the front row who were waiting patiently for him, long plastic wires running up their arms and into nearby IV drips. Smiling at them, Erik sat down in the chair.
The audience was still murmuring, and the hushed babble only died down when Erik cleared his throat and spoke into the mic. "Hi everyone, thank you for coming. My name is Erik Lehnsherr."
"Take it off!" someone shouted in the audience, prompting nervous laughter. Somewhere behind him, Erik could hear Azazel's low, gravelly chuckle. The bastard.
"Anyway, I shall be reading from two books. One is from 'Magnetic Fields'--" Erik had to pause here, a little stunned at the thunderous applause, "and um, the other is from a book by Shel Silverstein." More applause, although it was a little scattered this time, and Erik flipped his own book open first to the page he had marked. And began to read.
He was halfway through the 'Magnetic Fields' passage when he heard someone's loud heels clacking throughout the auditorium. He dismissed it as a latecomer, who was walking in to join the other stragglers standing behind the chairs because there was no more room. When he risked a glance, he stopped reading when he saw that the loud heels belonged to Raven, who was excusing herself after bumping someone.
Hank was with her as well. And beside Hank, looking almost diminutive thanks to Hank's tow%ring stature, Charles stood wearing his smartest tweed suit, staring at Erik with an expression he couldn't quite describe.
Erik blinked down at his book again. Deep breaths, deep breaths. He continued reading, hating the telltale tremor in his voice.
When he was done, the packed auditorium erupted in applause, and even the younger children were joyfully joining in, although Erik highly doubted they had understood a lot of what he was reading. He raked his hair back and his own hands felt cold on his clammy forehead. He just couldn't stop sweating.
"The next piece I am going to read is from 'The Missing Piece Meets The Big O' by Shel Silverstein." Erik was pleased to see some of the children beaming in recognition. "This was one of my favourite books when I was a kid, so I hope you like it too."
Some of the young patients in the front row huddled forward in anticipation. Erik did not dare to let his gaze float over to the back of the auditorium, keeping his eyes fixed on the book.
"And then one day, one came along who looked different.
"What do you want of me?" asked the missing piece.
"What do you need from me?"
"Who are you?" asked the missing piece.
"I am the Big O," said the Big O.
The auditorium was so quiet that he could hear a pin drop. Erik finally allowed himself to meet Charles' steady gaze, then he continued reading.
"I think you are the one I have been waiting for," said the missing piece. "Maybe I am your missing piece."
He could barely remember soldiering through the rest of the passage. The overhead lights felt too hot and bright, and his hands were trembling a little. When he was done, there was more applause, but he wasn't able to enjoy it because when he looked up at the audience again, Charles was gone. So were Raven and Hank.
The reading session had been scheduled to last for an hour, but it lasted far beyond that as an impromptu Q & A session had popped up, and Azazel had persuaded him to go through with it as it was good publicity for the upcoming novel. Erik answered most of the questions as brusquely and honestly as he could, determined to distract himself from the gaping hole of disappointment in his gut. He excused himself before the Q & A could turn into a signing session as well, following Anna and some of the other staff backstage. He could always sign a few books for some of the patients later on, in private.
"Just give us a minute to clear the auditorium," Anna said with a too-bright smile, flushed with excitement. Erik only nodded, wanting to be alone, and he sat down in front of the dressing room mirror, wondering why Charles hadn't stayed. After all, surely Erik's identity had been validated now?
The quiet knock on the door made Erik sit up. He remained very still, even though his heart was thumping violently in his ears. "Come in."
The door swung open, and disappointment slowly sank its claws into his chest when it was Azazel who poked his head in. Erik's mouth flattened into a thin line. "What is it?"
"I want a new car," Azazel declared. "The new BMW 335i in fire-engine red. Oh, and I want time off to take that Bora Bora diving trip I've always wanted. Which you are paying for, of course."
Erik stared at Azazel as though he were a monkey who had stood up and started reciting Shakespeare. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I also want tickets to watch 'The Book Of Mormon'," Azazel continued without skipping a beat. "I know tickets are impossible to get now, but I'm sure you can pull some strings."
"Orchestra tickets, okay, don't pull the cheap mezzanine crap on me," Azazel warned him, and just as Erik was seriously contemplating taking off his shoe and throwing it at him, Azazel stepped aside, beckoning for someone behind him to step forward, and Erik found himself staring at a subdued Charles.
"Oh." Erik didn't even realise he had risen to his feet, trying to remember how to work his mouth. "Come in."
Once Charles hesitantly stepped in, Azazel quickly made himself scarce, closing the door behind him. Erik just stared at Charles, greedily taking in the gentle slope of his shoulders and the galaxy of freckles scattered across his nose. After almost two weeks of being deprived, Erik felt licensed to drink in the long-missed sight of Charles standing before him.
It was Charles who spoke first. "You should have told me."
"In the beginning," Charles corrected him. "You know I wouldn't have cared."
"Would you?" Erik said. "Would we have gotten to know each other like we did?"
Charles conceded this point with a sigh. "Look, I don't know. But I'd like to think we would have still found a way."
When Erik risked a glance at him, Charles looked as though he was working something particularly sour around in his mouth. "I don't want you to think I'm here for the wrong reasons, Erik," he said, a tiny frown of distress deepening between his eyebrows.
"You're here." Erik took a step closer, brushing the back of his fingers against Charles' downy cheek, and that frown cleared. "And that's good enough for me."
The smile Charles gave him made Erik feel drunk, and the slow kiss that followed afterwards didn't help either.
'The Missing Piece Meets The Big O' is by Shel Silverstein, you can buy it here.
(Just skip ahead if you don't care for a long, rambling A/N.)
I must give my heartfelt thanks to the lovely arcapelago for her help in beta-ing this chapter and making it much more readable and less clunky. Also, many thanks to afrocurl and kaydeefalls for weighing in on the ending and making it so much better.
I can't get over these awesome drawings by these generous artists as well:
1) Amazing rendition of the darts scene by the equally amazing VelvetCat,
2) Some sketches of Cafe Kafka and Charles realising Erik's signature is familiar, by the wonderful Rae (whom I was lucky to get as my RBB artist), and
3) This amazing drawing of Charles and Erik dressing up as John and Sherlock by the very awesome strangingsuperstar.
Also, thanks to everyone who has left comments or kudos, recced this, translated this or emailed me. I'm terrible at responding (going to try and catch up now) but I mean it when I say every little bit means so much to me, and this fic is meaningful to me because of your kind, generous responses. THANK YOU.
When Charles had first started teaching, he had found it necessary to keep a few tricks up his sleeve for combating stage fright and nervousness. Upon Moira's advice, he would search out friendly faces, prep himself as much as possible and use deep breathing exercises (although he had gotten it wrong at first and spent an entire lecture breathing heavily into his mic like a pervert running a marathon). Over time, he started judging his success rate based on how many students fell asleep during the drier lectures. As he grew more confident - and more charming, he liked to think - the number of undergrads nodding off quickly dwindled.
Charles passed on these tips whenever he could, but he was ready to admit that the last person he ever expected to share them with was now standing in front of him, nervously adjusting his tie. "I look like a prat," Erik grumbled before tugging it loose again.
"Oh hush, Erik." Charles couldn't stop his lips from curving up as he redid Erik's tie, and his amusement spiked when he noticed Erik's gaze dropping to his mouth. "You'll do brilliantly, I assure you."
Erik arched an eyebrow. "You're only saying that because you want to sleep with me," he said, deadpan.
Charles only grinned at him before tightening the Windsor knot, letting his hand trail down Erik's warm, warm chest. "Just remember the first time you went to a book signing for an author you loved," he advised, straightening Erik's shirt. "I'm sure Stephen King didn't look like a rabbit caught in the headlights, did he?"
Erik shook his head before casting an apprehensive glance towards the little glass window. They were waiting in the store manager's office, while the staff of Booknotes were on the shopfloor, trying to control the chaos outside. Erik clearly looked as though he was regretting his decision to agree to his first public book signing in years, a bracket on either side of his lips. Charles cupped Erik's face, his thumbs smoothing out the frown lines. He could see the tight line of Erik's shoulders relaxing as Erik leaned forward, pressing his forehead against Charles'.
"All those people out there came all this way to see you," Charles said gently. Erik was so close that his eyes were almost a blue-green blur. "You'll do splendidly."
Erik was smiling now. "You seem to believe in me more than I do in myself."
Charles only grinned back. "Unreservedly," he said, before Erik tipped his head down and kissed him soundly.
Two hours had passed since the book signing had started, but the mob in the bookstore still showed no signs of abating. To whittle down the crowd, the poor, frazzled store manager was stopping more people from joining the signing queue, which was now already snaking around the counter and out past the door. Charles felt bad for the fans who had to wait outside in the sun, clutching their copies of 'Magnetic Fields' and 'Judas' and hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite author in the flesh. He knew from the official E.M. Lehnsherr forum that some fellow fans had driven a long way just to be here, and one lady from Osaka had even flown in just to meet Erik.
Charles had to mask a smile of disbelief with his hand. Erik. He still had trouble adjusting to the idea that the author he idolised and the man he loved were the very same person. Until recently, Charles had kept E. M. Lehnsherr and Erik in very separate, very different categories. Now they were an overlapping Venn diagram, and Charles wasn't sure what to do with the awkward, bizarre urge to shove his literary hero down onto a bed and rip all his clothes off.
He checked his Twitter feed again. So far, in the past hour, twenty fellow fans had posted a stream of tweets (most of them entirely in caps with a migraine-inducing abundance of exclamation marks) screeching about how they had just met E. M. Lehnsherr and gotten their books autographed. And these were just the people that Charles followed. If he clicked on the #EMLehnsherr hashtag, he was sure his phone would break from the sheer tsunami of tweets.
"Bored?" Azazel sauntered up to him, sipping from a Starbucks cup. "He won't mind if you wander off. There's this great Russian cafe in the East Village."
Charles shook his head with a smile. He owed Azazel a lot. "I'm fine, I like seeing Erik in his element."
He was alarmed when Azazel started coughing, and Charles pounded him on the back, asking if he was all right. But Azazel waved away his concern, now slightly red in the face. "Sorry, that was just too funny," he said, wiping his mouth.
Charles was puzzled. "What was?"
"What you said. About Erik, being in his element?" Azazel snorted. "Let me tell you, anything with people is not Erik's element."
Huffing out a laugh, Charles gestured at the masses of people in the bookstore. "Then why--" And then he stopped, remembering a casual comment he had thrown over his shoulder two weeks ago, cooking Erik breakfast in his Park Avenue apartment. You know, you should do a book signing. For fans like me. After that Erik had been thoughtfully quiet, but Charles had already moved on to something else, the remark forgotten.
"You mean you didn't know?" The way Azazel was eyeballing him now suggested that he had no clue how Charles was in possession of a PhD. "At this point, I think if you told him to do signings at children's parties, he'd ask where and what time."
"Oh Azazel, don't be silly," Charles said, looking over to where Erik was posing for a picture with a fan. Erik's smile was entirely teeth. "I wouldn't do that to the children."
Charles liked New York well enough, but he was only in the habit of visiting every Christmas, when he would drive down from Westchester after a brief inspection of the house. He and Raven had a tradition of visiting the Rockefeller Center tree and watching people skating on the ice rink, then taking in the gaudy holiday decorations and window displays at the various department stores. If time allowed, they sometimes stayed long enough to watch the ball drop at Times Square, but then he usually had to be back in time for the new term. Otherwise, nothing else seemed to be worth braving the 6-hour flight back and forth from California, excluding the long drive out to Riverside.
Now, with Erik in New York, Charles was so much more torn.
He understood that this was Erik's home, and he was based here for work as well. Charles didn't think Erik's millions of fans all over the world would appreciate him getting in the way of E. M. Lehnsherr's next manuscript, so he didn't ask if Erik would follow him back to Riverside once the new academic year was starting. Raven and Hank had already flown back to California, and Charles himself only had a few days left.
He made himself comfortable in Erik's favourite armchair by the window, looking down at a steady stream of people walking their dogs along Park Avenue. Erik was at a meeting with the publishers, but would be back soon. Charles was just thinking of texting him to bring back some bagels when he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket, and he was pleased when he saw the name on the caller-ID. "Moira!"
Her voice sounded warm on the phone. "You sound like you miss me."
"Of course I do, you're my oldest friend," he said, indignant when he heard her skeptical huff of laughter. "What? It's true, you can scoff all you like."
"Well, I'd imagine you'd have friends in higher places now," she said dryly, but the implication was not lost on Charles. Moira was still unhappy with how Erik had kept his identity a secret from Charles for such a long time, and although Charles could now understand why Erik had done what he did, Moira still made it obvious that she felt Erik wasn't to be trusted, famous author or not.
"We talked about this." Charles kept his tone calm, gentle. "Erik has apologised, we've gone through the whole sordid story--"
Moira made a faintly distressed sound. "So everything's okay now? Just like that?"
Charles was surprised at the way his throat immediately tightened, his jaw clenching. Part of his anger felt misdirected; what Moira was saying was indeed true, and he did indeed have some lingering issues to work through with Erik. Most of it was residual anger from the feeling of being lied to, of not being found trustworthy. It still smarted.
But a part of him, larger than he would like to admit, would always wonder if things would be different had he known who Erik was from the start. It was tempting to believe that he and Erik would have fallen for each other anyway, regardless of Erik's true identity, but deep down, Charles doubted that Erik would have opened up to him - and their circle of friends - the way he had ended up doing, had Charles behaved like a proper fan.
"Charles? Are you still there?" Now Moira sounded worried. He sighed, loosening his suddenly tight grip on the phone.
"I'm sorry, my dear." Charles pinched the bridge of his nose. Better to change the topic now and avoid a quarrel, at least. "How's things over there? Tell me whether Stryker agreed on including Mansfield for next semester."
They talked about work for a while longer, although nothing could be further away from Charles' mind at the moment. Riverside seemed like an entire world away, a stark contrast to crowded, bustling New York. He found it hard to believe that it had only been three weeks since Hank had sat him down and told him, very seriously, to consider the very real possibility that Erik was E. M. Lehnsherr.
Charles had been aghast at first, and had refused to consider it, still bitter and heartbroken. But Hank, ever meticulous and inquisitive, had laid out a series of damning clues. Erik's puzzling and too-good-to-be-true job history, which had allowed him to travel the world. The reports from a fortunate handful of fans who had met E. M. Lehnsherr in person, and how their varying descriptions had somehow matched up ('PurpleRose34' had described Lehnsherr's eyes as blue, while 'mag-neato' had insisted that they were green. Charles was wont to admit that in different lighting, they were both right).
Most damning of all, of course, was the Sasquatch photo taken at the Chicago con many years ago. Back then, Charles wouldn't have been able to recognise it. But now, with fresh eyes, there had been no mistaking the familiar line of that lean, muscled back, as well as the relaxed yet purposeful sprawl of Erik's thighs, frozen mid-stride.
"Look, E. M. Lehnsherr is going to make a rare appearance at a children's hospital in Manhattan," Hank had said, and Charles had vague echoes of a conversation with Erik about volunteering at the paediatrics ward. "We'll know once the photos of the event emerge."
"Why don't we go in person?" Raven had suggested, and Hank's eyes had lit up in excitement. It had taken a week of hemming and hawing for Charles, but by the time he had agreed to go, Raven had taken care of everything: flight tickets, directions from Azazel, a boutique hotel in midtown.
He supposed he owed her and Hank a lot, dragging him across the country to find out the truth. And Azazel too, of course, for spotting him in the crowd at the hospital and running out to catch him in time, taking him backstage to see Erik. Otherwise, Charles would have been too mortified to stay, his cheeks burning with shame as he had stood at the back of the auditorium, watching Erik on stage. He had said some unkind things to Erik on the morning he had left.
It had felt far too bizarre, the shame warring with awe and the incredible realisation that he had met - and slept - with one of his literary heroes. And then Erik had seen him and recited that lovely line from the children's book while looking straight at him, and Charles had felt a tight, burning ache in his throat, as though he had drunk too much sweet wine.
"Anyway, I should get going," Moira's brisk tone roused him from his thoughts, and Charles wondered if he had missed anything important. "You're coming back this weekend, right?"
"Yes, Sunday afternoon." Charles didn't want to think about that flight, for now. "I'll text you when I land."
In the dark, Charles shifted in bed to lie on his back, careful not to dislodge Erik's arm which was sprawled possessively across his chest. Erik's breathing was slow and even, every exhalation a brief flare of warmth against Charles' right shoulder. Every now and then, Charles could hear the piercing wail of a siren speeding along Park Avenue, and it never failed to send a jolt through him every time. He was too used to the quiet stillness of the desert, he supposed.
He could feel Erik stirring awake, his breath catching before he yawned. "Whuh time issit?"
"Just past two." Charles threaded his fingers through Erik's fringe, which was long enough now to have a bit of a wave in it. "Go back to bed."
"Mmmh." Erik tugged Charles closer to him in response, burrowing against him with a contented sigh. Charles thought he had fallen asleep, which was why he was surprised when Erik asked, "When'r we flyin' back?"
Charles wasn't sure if he had heard correctly, so he cautiously ventured, "Where do you mean?"
Erik snuffled against his shoulder with a huff. "Hogwarts," he said sarcastically. "Where d'you think? Riverside."
"Oh." Charles hoped Erik wouldn't be able to hear his heart thumping against his ribs like a tribal drum. He smiled down at the dark brown head against his shoulder. "You're coming home with me?"
Another scoff, but Charles could feel the warm weight of Erik's hand on his belly, rubbing slow circles. "Mm, you're stuck with me now," he said, sounding a little more awake. "Sorry."
"Erik." Because they needed to talk about this, they did. "I'm still a little angry with you, to be honest."
Charles felt Erik's hand pause for a few long moments, before resuming the slow circles. "Let me make it up to you," Erik said quietly, and the way he said it, like a hushed prayer, greatly helped to ease the silent weight in Charles' chest.
It took Charles only a day or two to readjust back to life in Riverside, and after a few weeks, Erik had sent for more of his belongings to be shipped from New York. Charles found himself wrestling with the belief that a living legend was in his flat, working on his new novel at the rickety table beside his living room window. Neither of them had mentioned anything about Erik going back to his own apartment at the co-op, and where he himself was concerned, Charles secretly hoped the topic wouldn't come up. Even amidst his books and his mess and the quietly controlled chaos of his work, he had more than enough space for Erik.
He was getting used to Erik's methods of madness as well. Erik liked to equip himself with coffee, a certain brand of European aniseed biscuit and an obscenely long playlist, then lose himself in hours and hours of writing, scowling at his laptop as he pecked at the keyboard. Charles knew not to disturb him then, even if Erik's mobile rang. At irregular intervals Erik would resurface, taking off his headphones and seeking out Charles, wrapping an arm around his waist and nuzzling the curve of Charles' shoulder. If Charles was on campus, then Erik would send him a stream of texts, talking about a turn in the plot that had stumped him or a character with an unclear motivation. Charles would then reply whenever he could, smiling to himself and getting odd looks from his undergrads.
Seeing how secretive and reserved Erik was, Charles knew it must have been a massive leap of faith for Erik to show him his partially completed manuscript one lazy Sunday afternoon. "Just let me know if anything doesn't work," Erik said, his face impassive, but it didn't escape Charles' notice how Erik was nervously picking at his fingernails. He gave Erik a quick peck on the lips, then settled down to read the draft.
Once he had successfully quieted his inner sycophantic fanboy, Charles allowed himself to get lost in the world Erik had created, a Victorian thriller about a man who could talk to the dead. Anyone who had never seen Erik scowling at his laptop would think that he had written this effortlessly, because Erik's style was deceptively simple. Only Charles knew about the hours Erik could spend on just a few choice paragraphs, writing and rewriting until they sounded right in his head. A large part of Charles was intimidated, largely in awe of the brilliant prose. Erik had been doing this for years, he didn't need the input of some unknown literature professor.
Of course, now was the time when that Raven-voice popped up in his head, reminding him: he obviously trusts you because he asked for your opinion, so be honest with him.
Charles took a deep breath and started reading again. This time, he highlighted awkward sentences, stray punctuation marks and frowned at an entire paragraph where one character's actions greatly puzzled him. Then he told all of this to Erik.
"Oh." Erik dragged up a chair to sit beside Charles, both of them hunched over the laptop as he listened to Charles' comments and suggestions. He didn't look angry, just thoughtful. "So you think I should cut this whole paragraph?"
"It is a little self-indulgent," Charles admitted, trying not to think too hard about the fact that he was saying this to someone he had long admired. "Don't ever put in anything that reminds the reader that someone wrote this. Let them get lost in the story."
Erik sighed, and Charles could see the faint, unhappy line deepening between his eyebrows. "I really liked that paragraph."
Charles leaned forward to offer a consoling kiss. "I'm sure Emma has already given you several speeches about killing your darlings," he said with a grin, and Erik chuckled.
"She has, but it's quite different when it comes from such an enticing package." Erik's gaze was darting between Charles' eyes and mouth, as though he couldn't decide which to fixate on. His voice had a low, sombre quality to it now. "Thank you for being honest with me."
Charles offered him a sincere smile, dragging his fingers through Erik's hair, slow and proprietary. "Considering how we started, I reckon honesty is the best tack for us now."
Erik's smile only widened in response. "You're exceptional."
There were more than a few customers who knocked on the door of the cafe, disappointed when Sean pointed out the 'CLOSED FOR PRIVATE FUNCTION' sign that he had tacked onto the glass window. Charles imagined that it wasn't often that Darwin allowed Cafe Kafka to be closed for an entire evening for a private celebration, which easily meant a substantial loss in revenue. He had offered to pay more than the nominal fee that Darwin had quoted him, but Darwin had only waved him away with an easy grin. "Just make sure Erik takes me and Sean to the premiere of 'Magnetic Fields' or whichever book gets made into a movie next," he said airily, rolling his eyes as Alex obnoxiously cleared his throat. "Oh, and Alex too, of course."
Alex sidled up to Charles, his expression uncharacteristically serious. "Any chance that Erik knows Megan Fox?" he asked, before Darwin punched him in the arm. "Ow, that hurt, asshole!"
"Erik is a writer, not a movie producer," Charles reminded him, helping Raven to uncork the wine. "Darwin, where is the beer?"
"Erik brought it to the back, I'll go see if he got lost in the walk-in freezer," Darwin said, dragging Alex with him towards the back kitchen. Behind the counter, Sean and Angel were cooing over the cupcakes that Raven had baked specially for Erik, with the words 'Congrats on ur new book!' spelled on top in shaky icing. Hank was helping Raven to carry in a few trays of tacos, specifically ordered from Logan's restaurant. Logan hadn't seemed particularly impressed upon finding out who Erik was, but he had given them a ridiculous discount anyway.
Once Charles was done, he set aside the wine to let it breathe. Erik was now emerging from the kitchen with the beer, wearing a familiar expression of faintly amused exasperation as Darwin and Alex trailed after him, slightly starstruck and asking a slew of questions. Sean was now putting on some music, and Charles found himself swaying to the easy croon of Bright Eyes.
It was oddly fitting, he realised, that they were now celebrating the publication of Erik's new book in the very place they had met for the first time. Erik had come up with the idea after receiving his author's copy of 'Deus Ex Machina' in an inconspicuous white FedEx box, accompanied with a snarky note that could have only come from Emma: 'Maybe your best one yet. Don't forget, you owe me your next manuscript in six months, and don't think I won't come down there and hassle you for it. There's not a fortress in the world that can keep me out, sugar. Treat your professor friend well, he's improved your disposition greatly. E. F.' Erik had snorted at the note, but Charles liked the fact that Emma had a good opinion of him.
He smiled when Raven walked up to him with a tray of wine glasses, tilting her head at him. "Look at you! You look so ridiculously happy that you'd think it was your book being published."
Charles only shook his head at her. "Of course I'm happy, Erik's new book is wonderful. And he has opened himself up to so many people."
Raven's smile was rather indulgent as she sloshed some white wine into her glass. "You do know it's because of you, right? He even said so."
Despite himself, his curiosity won out. "Where?"
She only gave him a secretive smile before swanning away to where Hank was chatting with Erik, sipping her wine. It was clear that Charles seemed to be the topic of conversation, judging from the way Hank was nodding at whatever Erik was saying, then glancing over at Charles repeatedly. He shrugged it off, checking his phone to see if Moira would be joining them. Her stance against Erik had somewhat softened after Erik had followed Charles back to Riverside, a clear declaration of his priorities which had obviously soothed her. Charles was glad.
Much later, when most of the wine bottles were empty and the cupcakes demolished, Charles felt a hand snaking around his waist from behind, and he turned to smile at Erik, resting his chin on Charles' shoulder. "Thank you for putting this party together for me," he said quietly.
"My pleasure." Charles couldn't hold back the smirk. "Too bad the dartboard isn't here anymore."
He could feel Erik shaking with laughter. "We could always get one in the apartment."
"Or the bedroom." Charles turned around to press himself up entirely against Erik, but he looked down when he felt something rectangular against his chest. It was the copy of Erik's new book, and Charles took it, puzzled. He hadn't had a chance to look at it earlier, since Erik had been mysteriously hoarding it all day, but now Erik was nodding towards it. "Flip to the third page."
Charles quickly scanned the cover - a dark, shadowy picture of a man hunched over a sinister black machine with red numbers - and turned to the third page. His breath caught in his throat when he saw his name in print, his grip tightening on the book:
Thank you for the first day of my life.
"Oh Erik, you sap." Charles had to pause, because the words were swimming before him. He wiped his eyes briefly, then took a shuddery breath. "I can imagine Emma fought you over this."
Erik folded his hands over Charles, ducking his head in gruff embarrassment. "Actually, she helped me pick out the line."
"You needn't use anyone else's words, your own would have sufficed." Charles tipped up Erik's chin, meeting his eyes. "But thank you, all the same."
The kiss was chaste, Charles' free hand now fisting in Erik's shirt, ignoring the catcalls and cheers from the other side of the cafe. Now Erik was smiling a little as he pulled away. In the background, Charles could hear Cat Power's ethereal voice on the speakers, reminding him of a night Erik had sat next to him amidst a pile of books on his balcony and listened to him talk about his mother. How unexpected, Charles thought, remembering flashes of Erik sharing his umbrella with him, playing chess over an iPad with him, sharing his life and his work with him. Charles realised he would never lose his awe of Erik's talent with prose; if he had to describe this amount of happiness with mere words, he would have been found sorely lacking.
"Let's go home," Erik whispered against the curve of his ear, his warm breath making Charles shiver. "I feel like thanking you properly, in private."
Placing his hand over the copy of 'Deus Ex Machina' and tracing the lines of the dedication with his fingertips, Charles was smiling so hard that his cheeks ached. When he looked up, Erik was gazing at him, his smile so brilliant and wide that it crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Ah Erik," Charles said, tracing those fine lines with his thumb, "but you already have."