Charles is 75% certain that Erik is dead. Not because he saw him die or anything, that would be stupid. Charles is certain that Erik is dead because that's what Charles can do, he sees the dead amongst the living. For as long as Charles can remember, he's been able to see them, hundreds if not thousands of people only partly there watching despondently as the world moves on without them. As a child he'd thought he could help them all cross over, but over time he'd realized that was nothing but a pipe dream. There are far too many of them out there, he knows that now. Far too many for one man to save. Disillusioned but determined, Charles had moved on to pursue a joint degree at NYU in genetics and applied psychology, the one program that offered courses in thanatology. Granted, it was basically a crash course in grief counselling, but Charles had figured dealing with the bereaved couldn't be much different from the deceased. This assumption had held up well in helping various lost souls pass on to wherever they ended up afterwards (Charles prefers not to think about it). Apparently, however, Erik hasn't gotten the memo.
Charles is on perhaps his sixth beer by this point, maybe his seventh, when he spots the emaciated, sickly pale figure from across the room. He hides it well, underneath a charcoal grey pea coat and slate blue scarf tucked securely around his throat, but Charles knows the signs too well by now. His face is drawn, the skin stretched too thin over sharp, angular cheekbones, and he has that look in his eyes that Charles is all too familiar with. It's the look that manages to convey loss, confusion, loneliness, and despair all in one. It's the look that causes Charles' heart to fracture just a little every time he encounters the dead.
“Oh, for God's sake,” Charles mutters. He downs the last of his beer, waves away the blonde he's been failing miserably at flirting with, and stalks across the room, wobbling only slightly as he makes his way over. “One night, just one bloody night, that's all I wanted.” His voice is much louder than he intends, and he's caught the attention of a few nearby patrons. “One night without you people popping up everywhere I go. Is that too much to ask?”
The man stares at him in confusion. “I'm sorry?”
“Look, normally I'd be all for helping you pass on, but it's been a long day and I really just want to be left alone.”
“I think you accomplished that when you ditched Malibu Barbie over there,” the man replies. “In order, I might add, to talk to me. Your decision, not mine.”
Charles frowns. “You were watching me.”
“I didn't realize admiring an attractive young man such as yourself was a crime.”
Charles turns beet red at his comment. “I—you—what?”
“You heard me.” The man is taking far too much pleasure in watching Charles squirm.
“You can't just say things like that,” Charles splutters.
“And why not?”
“Because you're not even here. Not properly, anyway. You need to pass on.”
“Is passing on a euphemism for something? That's the second time you've mentioned it.”
“You really don't get it, do you?” Charles wobbles slightly, grabbing on to a nearby chair for support. “I don't have the energy for this right now.”
“Let me call you a cab,” the man offers.
“You can't!” Charles exclaims, exasperated. “I'm the only one who can see you.”
“That's a bit presumptuous of you,” he replies. “Fine then, call your own cab.”
Charles wobbles again – perhaps he has had a few more drinks than he thought – and slumps into the chair beside him. “Great,” he mumbles. “Can't feel my legs.”
The next thing Charles is aware of is someone bundling him into a cab, and of his new snarky ghost friend sliding into the back seat with him.
“Someone's got to make sure you get home alright,” the man shrugs in response to Charles' protests.
Great, Charles thinks, the dead guy's got my back. Next thing you know he'll be acting as my wing man. He slouches lower in his seat and stares adamantly out the window. Maybe if he ignores him long enough, he'll just disappear.
“The name's Erik, by the way,” the man says. “Just in case you wanted to know who's getting you home tonight.”
They lapse into silence again, until they arrive at Charles' apartment building and Erik moves to help Charles out of the cab.
“Don't!” Charles flinches away from him, causing Erik to back away as if he's been slapped.
“I'm not going to hurt you,” he says. “I'm just trying to help.”
“I know. I just...” Charles shivers as he slides out of the back of the cab. “I prefer not to be touched.” by the dead, Charles adds silently.
Erik only nods, almost as if he understands. “Alright.”
Charles is grateful, if anything, for his compliance, and he's barely aware of Erik there behind him as he stumbles up the stairs to his apartment on the fourth floor. He drops his keys before he can find the right one, and is only slightly surprised when they float back up of their own volition and the correct key is inserted into the door and clicks into place.
“How long have you been practising that trick?” Charles asks, shuffling inside.
Erik smirks. “Long enough.”
“I'm sure.” Charles doesn't bother to check if Erik comes in as well, because quite frankly he's exhausted, heavily intoxicated, and it's not like this is the first dead person he's had wandering around his home. Instead he reverts to his previous plan of ignoring Erik until he goes away, and is passed out almost before he flops down into the soft, inviting warmth of his bed.
Charles stumbles blearily into the kitchen the next morning, still fully clothed but somehow barefoot. He makes a beeline for the coffee machine and turns it on, only to realize it's still broken from the tantrum his last guest had thrown when Charles showed her the obits in the morning paper. Now he just snarls at the broken machine, as if threatening it to work will be of any use, and goes in search of the kettle instead.
He hears a soft chuckle from behind him, and he turns to find Erik seated at his kitchen table doing the New York Times crossword. Charles stares at him for a minute, gaze flicking from Erik to the paper, and back again.
“You're still here,” he says finally.
“Is that a problem?”
“No, I suppose not,” Charles sighs. “Just...try not to break anything. The last one decided that tossing my coffee machine across the room was a reasonable means of expressing her emotions.”
Erik raises an eyebrow. “The last what, exactly?”
“Well, for lack of a better word, the last ghost that graced my doorstep.”
“You still think I'm dead,” Erik says.
“Because you are.” Charles sits down across from him and grabs an apple from the bowl in the middle of the table. “I can help you, if you like.”
“So that all that talk about passing on. You were serious?”
Charles nods and takes a bite of his apple, trying to gauge Erik's reaction. Erik, for his part, doesn't get angry, or upset, or even slightly hysterical. He just keeps looking at Charles, brow furrowed as though trying to figure out if he's serious or not.
“Do you want to know what I think?” he asks after a moment.
“I think you're still drunk.”
Charles glares at him. “You've got two choices - either accept what I'm telling you, or find someone else to stalk. I have classes to teach and a great many more deceased wandering about and in need of my assistance.”
“You're quite arrogant, and a little bit psychotic,” Erik grinned widely at him. “It's oddly endearing.” He reached across the table, and Charles quickly snatched his hand away. “I don't bite, you know.”
“I'm not afraid of you,” Charles retorted angrily.
“I never said you were.”
“I don't let the dead touch me anymore. It feels like pure despair, and it's horrible. I won't go through it again.” Charles shudders unconsciously at the thought. When he'd first started seeing them, Charles had tried to provide the physical comfort that these people craved - a pat on the shoulder, or holding their hand as they cried over loved ones left behind – but the slightest contact had left Charles feeling unshakably cold and hopeless for days.
Erik leans back in the chair. “You really believe you can see the dead.”
“Because I can,” Charles replies. “I'm doing it right now.”
“Alright,” Erik stands and adjusts his coat collar.
“Alright,” he repeats. “I'll play your game, because I haven't cared about anything in a long time, and yet somehow you've caught my attention.”
Charles opens his mouth to interrupt, but Erik holds up his hand. “But,” he continues, “You have to give me the chance to prove I'm alive.”
“It won't change anything,” Charles says.
“Then what's the harm? If you're right, I'll 'pass on', as you call it, and I'll be out of your face just like all the others. Deal?”
Charles just smiles and shakes his head. “Deal.”
It's been three days since they made their deal, three days of taunting, flirting, and chess games that may well have fallen under both categories. Erik hasn't eaten or drank anything during that time, nor, to Charles' knowledge, has he slept or even left Charles' side. When Charles mentions his previous life, Erik carefully steers the conversation in a different direction while subtly implying that he has nowhere else to go. When this happens Charles only smiles knowingly, convinced that even if he won't admit it, Erik cannot fulfill these basic needs because he's no longer alive. Today, however, Charles isn't feeling his usual smug satisfaction.
“Check,” Erik says, taking Charles' knight with his rook. “You're slipping, darling.”
Charles ignores the endearment and moves his bishop to take Erik's rook. “I think not. You haven't beaten me yet.”
“There's a first time for everything,” Erik notes, moving his own bishop into place. “Check...mate.”
Charles scowls at the board as though it's wronged him personally, causing Erik to burst into laughter. “Come now, Charles, don't be such a sore loser. It was bound to happen eventually.”
“I've never lost a game before,” Charles says, his scowl evaporating into a friendly smile. “It's...a nice change of pace, actually.”
“And do you often play chess with ghosts?”
“Only the ones that don't murder my coffeemaker,” Charles quips, earning another chuckle from Erik. “You're the most well behaved tenant yet, my friend.”
“Why Charles, I'm touched. Whatever will you do if I really do pass on?”
Charles feels his heart leap into his throat. He'd almost forgotten about that. “What about your campaign for life?” he asks lightly.
“Don't tell me I'm actually starting to convince you,” Erik says. He reaches across the board for Charles' hand, which he instinctively pulls away. “Not quite there, though.”
“I can't,” Charles says simply. But you don't know how much I want to.
Erik leans back and starts setting up the chess board. “One more round?”
Charles nods, as always grateful for Erik's silence on the matter. “Always.”
Erik is already in the lecture hall when Charles arrives the next morning. He's sitting right in the middle of the fifth row, pale and gaunt against a sea of youth, warm and flush with life. Charles hides his smirk as he notes that the seats on either side of Erik are empty; the living do tend to avoid the dead, consciously or otherwise. Erik only gives him a slight nod, which Charles ignores as he searches for his flash drive. He can feel Erik's eyes on him as he rifles through his leather messenger bag and then starts on his suit pockets, only to find the device already sitting on top of his lecture notes. Charles frowns, but connects it to the computer and turns back to the class while the files load.
“Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you've all enjoyed your spring break, because now that we're in the home stretch things are--” he's cut off by a loud alert noise, signaling the flash drive has been disconnected. “That's odd,” Charles murmurs. He picks up the drive and inserts it again before continuing. “As I was saying, exams begin in less than two months, and your term papers are due--” the computer sounds off again, causing soft peals of laughter from the class. Charles stalks over and crams the drive back in place, keeping his thumb over it firmly as he speaks. “Your term papers are due in two weeks' time,” he finishes. “You're welcome to visit my office hours anytime before then to discuss any—any issues--” the drive nudges against his thumb, and Charles grits his teeth as it digs into his skin. “--that you may have.” I would kill you for this Erik, if you weren't dead already.
Erik just grins back at him, and the projector screen goes black. Charles just glares at him and attempts to reboot, without success. He checks the power cords, but they're all still connected, and everything seems to be perfectly functional.
“Hank, a little help here?” Charles nods to the T.A, who pushes his glasses up on his nose and come over. “Everything looks perfectly fine from the outside.”
“Must be an internal issue, then,” Hank replies. He pries open the hard drive and sucks a breath in through his teeth. “Oh, my.”
“What is it?”
Hank turns the machine for Charles to see inside. “It looks like the wires have somehow all melted into the motherboard.”
“Of course they have,” Charles throws up his hands in defeat. “Well, it looks like this is your lucky day. We'll continue this next week.”
There is a collective cheer and the class empties except for Erik, who is now doing his best to look innocent. “Finished so soon, Professor?” he asks.
“It's not uncommon for the dead to learn a few parlor tricks,” Charles replies calmly. “This little prank of yours has done nothing to help your case.”
“No, but it was fun. And you need to lighten up a bit. All this business with dead people is getting you down.” Erik stands and makes his way down to the podium as he speaks.
“I wonder why,” Charles replies dryly. He drops his flash drive back into his bag and exits the room without looking to see if Erik is following.
“Where to now, Professor?” Erik catches up to Charles and easily matches his pace.
“Please don't call me that. It's just Charles.”
“It looks like you've got some spare time, Just Charles.” Erik leans in close to whisper in his ear. “What say we go back to your office and I'll show you just how warm and alive I really am?”
Charles blushes fiercely, but refrains from commenting as Erik moves closer, his breath surprisingly warm on Charles' cheek. It's probably just his own cheeks getting hot, Charles tells himself, but he's starting to doubt his own logic.
“Don't tell me you haven't thought about it,” Erik murmurs. “And what better way is there to prove my existence to you? Just one touch, and we'll know--”
“No!” Charles flinches away before Erik can close the distance between them.
Erik holds up his hands in surrender. “Relax, I wouldn't have--”
“I told you I don't want to be touched!” Charles says angrily, eliciting stares from the few students still milling about in the hallway.
“Charles, it was just a bit of fun, no harm intended.” Erik takes a step back, as though to illustrate his point.
“I told you,” Charles repeats, and Erik catches a hint of fear in his eyes before Charles looks away. “Just leave me alone. I'm done playing this game with you.”
Erik's eyes narrow, but he nods and walks away, leaving Charles to fend off the shocked stares of his students.
“Oh, what are you looking at?” Charles snaps, and they quickly turn away, pretending nervous conversation. “Good riddance,” he mutters, but he's already regretting his words.
Erik is sitting on a park bench, feeding the pigeons, of all things. Some days it helped him think, but more often it allowed him to forget, which today felt like the best choice. He'd screwed up, letting bits and pieces of his old self seep through the cracks and take over. Charles had made him want to prove he was alive, or at the very least that he could be again. He'd made him feel hopeful, for the first time in who knew how long, and then crushed him just like that. Just like Shaw.
“No,” Erik says aloud. “Not like Shaw.” Shaw had ripped him apart, put him back together, and done it all over again just to watch him fall, and he'd done it with a smile on his face. But Charles...Charles was so much more. Charles had made him want to be whole again, and that was something new.
Erik is startled out of his thoughts by the sound of a familiar voice behind him. He stands and approaches the row of trees cautiously, the bag of bread crumbs left forgotten on the bench. He can't help but feel a bit like a stalker as he edges around the maple tree on the far left, hiding in it's shadow as he watches Charles conversing with what appears to be thin air.
“And I'm telling you, you really need to stop this,” Charles is saying. “You're not doing her any favours following her around like that.” He pauses, listening. “Believe me, I know how hard it is to let go, but you have to accept that she's moved on. It's been what, almost five years now? Don't you think she deserves to live her life?” Another pause, longer this time, and Erik can't help but smile as Charles chuckles softly. “Yes, I'll make sure. I promise. No, I can't, that light's just for you. Off you go, then.” the air seems to shimmer in front of him and Charles takes a reverent step back. After a moment, Charles affords himself a small smile before turning to the row of trees.
“You might as well come out. I know you've been watching.”
Erik reluctantly steps out from the shadow of the maple, looking sheepish. “I was just feeding the pigeons.” He fidgets with his scarf and offers Charles a tentative smile. “That was pretty impressive. What you did there.”
“If by impressive you mean 'arrogant and a little bit psychotic',” Charles replies, his expression unreadable.
Erik's shoulders sag. “Right. Sorry to bother you.” He turns to leave, but stops when he notices Charles' hand hovering over his shoulder, gone as quickly as it appeared.
“Are you...” Charles trails off and tries again. “Fancy a game of chess?”
A slow smile spreads across Erik's face. “Always.”
They sit across from each other in silence on the train to Charles' apartment. Erik is careful to keep his distance, keeping Charles at arms length so as not to scare him away. After the last couple exits the train, Erik speaks up for the first time since the park.
“Why do you think I'm dead?”
“We've been through this already.”
“Tell me again,” Erik says.
Charles sighs. “No one seems to register your presence except me. You don't eat, drink, change your clothes, or seem to have a home for that matter, and you can move metal objects without touching them. And then there's your eyes.”
“What about my eyes?” Erik presses.
“When we first met, you had that look in your eyes that the dead always have. Sadness, despair, and loneliness accompanied by a sort of confusion, because you don't know how you got that way but you can't bring yourself to be anything else.”
The naked truth in Charles' words churns Erik's stomach, but he swallows hard and forces himself to respond. “And what do you see now?”
Charles sucks in a breath. “Hope, my friend. I see hope.”
“And is that not proof enough for you that I'm alive?”
“Then what?” Erik demands. “I'm a solid human being. I breathe in oxygen just as you do. That look you talk about disappeared after I met you, because you gave me hope. You made my life worth living again, Charles. Why won't you accept that I'm alive?”
“Because you can't be.”
“Why, Charles? Because I'm too pale? Because you haven't seen me eat?”
“Because then I'd have to admit that I need you!” Charles shouts. He's on his feet now, fists clenched at his sides. “I'd have to admit that I never wanted you to pass on because my life before you barely even warranted living! Is that what you want to hear?” The train jolts around a corner, and he grabs on to the pole in the center of the aisle for support. “And do you want to know what the worst part is?” Charles giggles nervously, choking on the sobs welling up in his throat. “The very worst part is that I think I'm falling in love with you a little bit, which is so wrong on so many levels because you're not even alive!”
Charles stumbles again as the train comes to a stop, and this time Erik is there to catch him.
“Get off of me!” Charles struggles against him, but his protests are silenced by Erik's lips on his own, sweet and hot and demanding all at once. Charles hums contentedly against Erik's mouth and he deepens the kiss, ignoring thoughts of he's surprisingly warm, despite being dead, in favour of Erik's tongue, teasing and exploring and oh so perfect warm delicious why didn't I just let him touch me before?
“Is this alive enough for you?” Erik murmurs the words against his lips, sending tiny, quivering vibrations through Charles' entire body. Charles responds by catching Erik's lower lip in his teeth and sucking gently, eliciting a low moan from the other man.
When the train stops at their station, they nearly miss it but for the conductor announcing it overhead. Charles laughs and loops an arm around Erik's waist to lead him onto the platform.
“Is that a yes?” Erik teases. He leans down and for another kiss, chaste and brief this time.
“I don't think I can form a reasonable conclusion,” Charles says, sliding his hands underneath Erik's coat, “until I've thoroughly examined every inch of you.”
“Is that a promise?”
“Oh, most definitely.”