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The Long Pause

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It’s blustering outside today, the cold wind rattling the trash and fallen leaves that litter the sidewalk, old newspaper rustling across the concrete like it’s scuttling for shelter. In late fall New York City is already hunkering down for the long icy winter, even if the first snow hasn’t fallen yet; Charles’ gloves only barely keep his fingers from freezing, even with his hands tucked into his armpits as he walks, hunched in on himself to try and preserve what little body heat he has.

It helps, too, to keep the packet of food he took from the diner from sliding around under his shirt. The hot grease has soaked through the thin paper already, burning his chest where it presses against his skin, and he’d rather it not scald more of him. It’s better for the food to still be hot, though, and it’s not like Erik is going to see the blisters it leaves. Charles can afford to be a little less than perfect under his layers, if it means bringing a free meal home.

Their building is a tall and narrow tenement in the Lower East Side, riddled with drafts and cracked windows and stuffed to the rafters with other people living as precariously above the bread line as Charles does. He’s very lucky just to have a tiny apartment to himself, given the way everyone is packed in like sardines. Even the stairs are crowded today, kids playing and people smoking and talking in English and Russian and Polish and Yiddish, and Charles nods to most of them as he passes, getting snorts and knowing looks in return. Everyone knows him here, and they all know him well enough to know where he’s going. Even as they nod and say hello he hears them thinking, that Lehnsherr boy still has him dangling on a string.

Charles doesn’t mind. He’s used to it by now.

He reaches Erik’s floor with a spring in his step, already rehearsing what he’s going to say in his head -- but then he registers the pounding in Erik’s head, the chill and unhappiness, and stops. Ah. Perhaps he’s best not to knock, on a day like today. Changing direction, Charles goes back downstairs one floor to his own apartment, which is situated directly under Erik’s; once inside he doesn’t pause to take off his jacket, hat or boots, but instead walks straight across the shabby single room to the window, slides it open, and climbs out onto the fire escape.

It’s freezing to be back outside, made the worse for having been out of the wind. The metal clangs and groans under his steel-toed boots as he climbs to the next floor; he’s climbed it many times before without collapsing, though, and and so Charles pays it no mind, just keeps heading upwards until he reaches the next landing and knocks gently on Erik’s window from the outside, squatting down in the lee of the building and breathing on his freezing fingers to try and warm them up.

He feels the momentary confusion blossom in Erik’s thoughts, but it quickly turns to resignation when he crosses into view of the fire escape and registers Charles’ presence. No surprise, though -- no one else, apparently, is crazy enough to hover on the fire escape outside Erik’s window in weather like this. After a brief hesitation, the metal latch grinds against the sill and Charles pushes the window up, and ducks his head inside, then swings his feet down onto the floorboards, straightening up -- though he tries not to knock any snow in with him some of it does anyway, drifting down around his boots.

“Thanks,” he says. But when he meets Erik’s eye -- perhaps a mistake, maybe Erik takes it as a challenge -- Erik folds his arms over his chest and frowns, moving a half-step back. There’s uncertainty there, fear too, curling between them like a dark cloud. The open window, Charles realizes belatedly; the wind is blowing his scent right into Erik’s face. Reaching back Charles pulls it shut, latching it after himself and drawing the curtains for good measure. That done, he moves away from Erik and toward the kitchen, putting distance between them. It must be the right thing to do, because Erik’s expression softens, the tension unspooling like wire thread.

“Hi,” Charles says after another moment, once Erik’s arms have dropped back down to his sides. “I felt your headache so I figured I’d come in the back way. I can do something about that if you want?” He takes off his hat and holds it politely in his hands in front of him, knowing Erik probably won’t appreciate the gentlemanly gesture but wanting to make it all the same. “I brought leftovers from the diner, too.”

He says nothing about Erik’s fear of knocks at the door, nor of his certainty that on a day like today Erik wouldn’t have answered it, even to Charles. Some things are better unsaid, if he doesn’t want Erik to shut him out.

Erik opens his mouth to reply, but whatever he might have said is drowned out by the sudden rising wail from behind him. It’s piercing enough that even Charles winces, and the pain in Erik’s head reverberates through him and into Charles, throbbing in his own temples as Erik turns, tense with pain as he heads over to the bed to pick up a tiny brown bundle from the pillow. The bundle reaches up with both arms, helplessly screeching louder even as Erik tucks him in against his shoulder, bouncing on his heels.

“We don’t need your charity,” Erik says. His face is turned away from Charles and toward the child, just the nape of his neck and the curve of his ear visible from where Charles stands.

Charles sighs, too used by now to being rebuffed even to flinch anymore, and reaches down to unbutton his jacket, then his shirt, drawing out the food packet and laying it on the table. It’s just chicken and fries, nothing fancy, but it’s still warm and free and good, and he hides the way it’s burned him as he says, “Can’t I just look after you as a friend?” It’s not, after all, as if he hasn’t heard all this from Erik before. As if they don’t have this argument every damn time. And yet, idiot that he is, he keeps coming back. “It’s not charity. I’m sorry if you don’t want my help, but you’re getting it anyway, at least until you tell me to fuck off for good. I don’t expect anything in return, so stop being such a stubborn ass about it all.”

Erik keeps his back to Charles, bouncing the baby gently in his arms; his thoughts are bitter and snappish, warning Charles away, but it’s only to try and hide the shame that’s bubbling away underneath it, a sallow and lingering unhappiness at being unable to take care of David on his own. It’s something Charles longs to soothe -- he wishes Erik would believe him that it’s no imposition, that nobody judges him for taking what little help Charles can offer him, but Erik is too proud for that. He’d tell Charles to go to hell, and throw the food out rather than let Charles comfort him.

Finally, Erik says, “If you truly don’t want anything in return -- well, maybe that’s worse. I’m not your pet project, Charles.”

“Maybe I just care about you,” Charles replies, rather more sharply than he means to; he’s tired from the long afternoon at the diner, preceded by the longer morning on the construction site, and it’s hard to remain calm and understanding when all he wants to do is go to sleep once he knows at least Erik will have something to eat tonight. “If you think that me caring about you ought to be some sort of transaction, then -- no, I won’t say that, that’s unkind.” He takes a breath, in and out, trying to press down his reaction into something softer. “If you don’t want it then just throw it away. By the way, David’s teething. That’s why he’s crying so much. I have some whisky downstairs you can rub on his gums.” Charles buttons his jacket back up over his half-buttoned shirt, his mouth tight.

He can hear Erik rationalizing, it’s not like he paid for it, then the voice Erik imagines to punish himself responding with, of course Charles already thinks you’re cheap; you’re a Jew.

Just when Charles is about to turn to leave, Erik lets out a strange noise somewhere between a sigh and a cough and half-turns, looking at Charles from the corner of his eye, wary and ready to attack at the first sign of aggression. “What are you going to eat, then?” he says.

“I’ll manage,” Charles says stiffly, not wanting to admit that he had been going to take his own share but not willing, either, to ask for it back if Erik doesn’t want him here. He rubs at his sore chest with his knuckles, wrapping his mind up inside itself so that he doesn’t have to feel Erik’s disdain. “It’s yours, I brought it for you and David. Take it or leave it, I suppose it’s none of my business.” He puts his hands in his pockets, and then he remembers, tugging out a little napkin-wrapped lump. “They had some raisin cake left over, too. Here.” He puts it next to the first package; his tone is firm but his hand when he sets it down is gentle.

Erik sniffs, and it takes Charles a second to realize that isn’t contempt. Erik’s cheeks are flushed, his eyes a little bloodshot; there’s been something going around the building, mostly respiratory but some fever, too, traveling like wildfire through the thin walls and the cracks beneath doorways, breathed out in the airtight rooms where the alphas bend over the Talmud and choking the kitchens of omegas crushed two families a room. But Erik’s not thinking about that. He’s thinking about David, about the fact that his milk dried up two weeks ago from lack of food. David’s been surviving fine off porridge so far, but even that’s gruel made from soaking wheat bran in hot water, thin and sticky. They advertise Wheaties and puffed rice on the radio, but no one who lives here can afford either.

“This is the last time,” Erik says finally, his hand cupping the back of David’s brunet head, cradling it. “I mean it, Charles. I can take care of myself.”

Charles puts his hands back in his now-empty pockets, his finger poking through a hole in the bottom of the right one -- damn, he’ll have to fix that. He shrugs, giving Erik a small, wry smile. Disappointment runs through him from head to toe, despite knowing that Erik isn’t interested, probably never will be interested in him. At least this was something he had to offer. Something to show Erik that Charles would be good for him.

“All right,” he says, reaching up to put his hat back on, tugging it down around the tops of his ears. “Well, if you change your mind, I’m just downstairs. I’ll get out of your hair.” He turns to push aside the drapes, and undoes the catch on the window, sliding it up and letting in the cold wind. A little more snow falls inside, and Charles winces, wishes he could clear it up. “Let me know if you want that whisky for David.”

“Wait.”

When Charles looks around, Erik is bouncing David in his arms again, more anxious tic than calming mechanism. He hasn’t drawn any closer, still safely on his own side of the room, but his free hand curls into a fist against David’s back even as the other points to the packages Charles left on the table.

“This is your food,” Erik says. “You have to eat half of it.” Charles catches the unspoken words running through Erik’s mind a beat later: Erik thinking he’ll be damned if Charles goes and starves himself on Erik’s behalf, pathetic alpha mating display.

“Minus a little bit, for David,” Charles says, but he lets the window slide closed again, latching it shut. “But okay. It should still be warm, I think.” He takes his hat back off and folds it so he can put it in his pocket. “I can take mine downstairs with me, if you’d prefer that, but it would be nice to eat with company. I can still take care of that headache, too, if you’d let me.”

Erik wavers briefly, but then, finally, he nods. David sniffles against Erik’s chest, his thoughts all cold and hungry and discomfort, his nose wet and dribbling, seeking comfort from his mother. Charles soothes him with his mind as best he can without being too intrusive; the food should help with the hunger at least, and so Charles moves back into the kitchen, making sure to leave the table between himself and Erik as he reaches to unwrap the paper, thick with grease. The chicken and fries are still warm if not baking hot, and he looks up at Erik. “Shall I grab some plates? I figure we can shred some of this for the baby, or mash the fries.”

Erik just shrugs one shoulder and sits down; David reaches up with one damp hand and grabs at Erik’s scarf, tugging at one end and stuffing a handful of it into his mouth. “Ir kenen nisht esn vos,” Erik chides him, tugging back, only to have David lurch forward, reaching again.

The plates are where they always are, in the cabinet to one side of the sink. They’re worn now, with little chips in places at the edges -- they were lovely, once, but they haven’t been for a long time, their floral pattern faded and the glaze cracked. Charles sets them down on the table, then gets to work dividing up the food, splitting it into three portions, two of equal size and one smaller. He hands two of them to Erik and takes one for himself, knowing Erik wouldn’t respond well to Charles trying to cut up David’s food for him.

“How was your day?” Charles asks as he cuts off a bit of chicken, putting it in his mouth and nearly swooning from just the taste of real, good meat, food in his mouth that makes his belly rumble loudly.

“Fine,” Erik lies, the falsehood palpable in his mind.

He picks up a fry, tearing off a small corner piece and placing it on David’s lower lip, waiting for him to open his mouth before he prods it the rest of the way in. David stares at Erik with big pale eyes as he chews, swallows, opens his mouth again for more, his stomach rumbling loudly now that it has a little in it to wake it after a long starvation. Rather than taking any for himself Erik keeps feeding the baby, David’s hands on either side of Erik’s wrist, not quite grabbing, just close enough that if Erik tried to stop feeding him David feels reassured that he could try and force him to.

Charles wishes Erik wouldn’t lie to him, but he doesn’t call Erik on it, just hums around his mouthful of chicken, making sure to chew it thoroughly before allowing himself to swallow, to get the full flavour of it. If only Erik trusted Charles enough as a friend, even, to want to tell him the truth. Instead, Charles can’t help but feel like he’s imposing on Erik with something Erik can’t refuse, that he’s taking advantage of Erik’s need, of David.

“Well, a piece of advice for you, don’t do construction work in the winter,” Charles says, with an exaggerated shiver and a small smile. “It was pretty hellish out there today. The supervisor won’t listen to reason about the snow, and he still has us up on the i-beams four stories up no matter how slippery it gets. I’m thinking I might try and find something else to fill that time. Diner was okay today, though.” He rubs at his chest again, absently, while he reaches for a fry.

“There’s the factory down on seventh,” Erik says. “They don’t hire mutants, but you could always,” he gestures at his temple with one hand. “You know.”

Charles pulls a face. “You know I hate doing that. It never works out well in the long run, and it makes me feel pretty … well. Mutants get a bad reputation because of those of us who do use our powers that way, and I don’t want to be one of the ones that makes it worse for everyone else. I’ll find something. Even if it means more time in the ring down at the Caspartina for the time being, though of course the problem with that is when I get all banged up it’s hard to show face at the diner and be presentable.”

David makes a bereft noise and Erik feeds him the rest of the french fry. He’s watching Charles rubbing his chest out of the corner of his eye, though, earmarking it in his mind in case it becomes a habit; why he doesn’t want Charles in particular falling sick with whatever’s going around, he doesn’t spare much thought on, turning away from it as if lingering on the idea might draw more attention to it, as if Charles hasn’t already heard. Charles doesn’t pursue it, anyway. He’s not particularly keen to find out whether it’s because Erik would regret the absence of the food Charles brings them.

He can’t help but watch Erik with David and feel wistful, because Erik is so good with the baby, loves him so much, and Charles -- Charles doesn’t even care who the father was. He just wishes he could be the other pillar of David’s little firmament, have the right to get up and go embrace Erik and David together, kiss Erik’s temple, David’s crown. He watches Erik feed David another piece of fry and David lean against Erik’s chest, snuggling closer to the center of warmth, and feels something clench in his belly.

“Mutants are going to have that reputation whether you use your power in that way or not,” Erik says bluntly, interrupting Charles’ musings with his usual bluntness. “It’s people like those factory bosses who keep mutants in the tenements and whoring themselves on the streets. They don’t deserve the right of mental privacy. Besides, if you weren’t meant to use that aspect of your power, you wouldn’t have been given it.”

“Just because people think you might do a bad thing doesn’t mean you should prove them right,” Charles says. He’s thinking of Erik, of course -- when isn’t he thinking of Erik? -- and his perception of Charles’ actions and motivations, the way he thinks surely Charles must want something from him in return, can’t really just be slowly wooing him, hoping that one day Erik’s feelings will change. It’s foolish, he knows that. Things might have been leading there once, before David, but now --?

Erik passes David a bit of chicken and takes another bite himself, chewing slowly, and swallowing; his voice sounds too careful even when he says: “Eventually you’ll find you don’t have the luxury of such scruples. I lost my job today because some human customer saw my tattoo.”

Oh, no.

“Shit,” Charles says, dismayed; he’d caught the fact that Erik was lying earlier, but not why, and never thought it might be as bad as this. “That’s terrible, Erik, I’m really sorry. Did Mr Goldberg give you anything to get by on?”

There’s no way Erik’s going to be able to survive without a job, no way at all -- Charles knows enough to know Erik has barely been scraping by as it is, even with Charles’ food parcels.

Erik looks down, not really able to hold Charles’ gaze, disguised under the pretense of picking another fry into small bits for David. “He gave me a severance,” he says, giving David the last few pieces of David’s food. “Ten dollars. It should last me a while.”

Long enough for Erik to discover exactly how fucked he is, Charles thinks. They both know Erik won’t find better than Mr. Goldberg; no business is willing to hire mutants on the books and risk public outrage, so it’s all done under the table. Mr. Goldberg had been gracious enough to pay Erik five dollars a week, the equivalent of what any unskilled laborer might hope to receive. No one else is going to be so kind, if they even consent to hire Erik in the first place with that M tattooed in stark black ink on the skin between his thumb and forefinger.

“Erik … ” Charles starts, then stops, because he knows that as much as he wants to, has to offer, Erik will just see it as more charity, or as a ploy on Charles’ part to get him to finally give in to Charles’ feelings for him. “Erik … we both know that won’t last you more than three weeks at most, if you scrimp and save. And, well, I hope you know … how I feel about you, and that I would never ever do anything to hurt you or David. So. Look. You need to cover rent, but unless you find something else that won’t happen, and you can’t get kicked out at this time of year, you’d die. The two of you are more than welcome to come and stay with me, for a while, downstairs.”

He stops, biting his lip as his stomach clenches and his pulse races with nervous hope, wishing he had his hat to hold. “It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. And I won’t touch you unless you ask me to, I’ll swear to that. I’ll sleep on the floor, even. But please think about it.”

Erik’s ears go red, and he grips his fork tighter, his chin lowering stubbornly -- his mind is whirling, trying to find another way, another choice, but -- well. They both know there isn’t one, not really.

“It won’t work,” Erik says. “You think you can wear me down, that keeping me in close quarters means I’ll warm up to you. I’m telling you now: it won’t work.”

“For God’s sake, Erik,” Charles says, exasperated, and puts his fork down with a loud clatter of metal on wood. “I’m not going to offer to sleep out on the fire escape in the middle of winter just to make you feel better. I’m just trying to make sure you have a bloody roof over your bloody heads. If I was going to take advantage of you I’d have done it by now.”

Erik looks like he’s thinking about throwing the cast iron skillet at Charles’ head; thankfully, he resists that urge, and maybe Charles swearing at him is what he needed to convince him, because finally he says, “Fine. Six weeks,” his voice tight and begrudging, as if Charles had offered him a grenade and not a place for him and his child to live. “Only if I can’t find a job by then. And only until I do.”

Charles just nods, and looks down at his plate to keep from meeting Erik’s gaze, picking at his fries and tearing them apart. “Okay,” he says. “Rent’s due again Monday, do you want to move everything downstairs before that so you can keep as much of your ten dollars as possible?”

The thought of Erik living with him is … he feels a warmth inside that he can’t suppress even by telling himself it’s temporary, that Erik will move out again as soon as he can and maybe will move away from Charles, out of his reach. That thought cools him off, and he feels his heart shrivel a little at the idea.

“Remember, I said six weeks,” Erik tells him.

“I know,” Charles says to his plate, prodding his fries around before concluding that he’s best to eat them whether or not he still has an appetite. “I’m sorry, Erik. I know you wouldn’t choose this of your own free will, but I honestly want to help. And, well … I have the space, downstairs. I don’t begrudge it to you and David, and even if you … well, even if you never feel anything for me at all that will still be the case.” He shrugs, mouth twisting ruefully.

David sighs where he’s curled against against Erik’s shoulder, his lips smacking together, so Erik picks him up and carries him over to the crib. It’s freezing now; Erik takes another blanket from his own bed, laying it over the baby and tucking it in with hands far gentler than his demeanor would suggest he could be.

When Erik comes back across the room, he sits back down in the chair on the opposite side of the table from Charles, picking up his fork again and stabbing at another piece of chicken. “I believe you,” he says, only to revise, “Well. I believe you believe you, in any case.”

“I wouldn’t take anything from you if you offered it out of -- to pay a debt,” Charles says, looking back up at Erik, voice a little fierce. Erik is so beautiful, strong and strong-willed and handsome, and Charles loves him with the sort of enduring, hard-wearing emotion he could never give to anyone else ever again, but Charles could never stomach having what he craves while knowing all the while that Erik only gave it out of duty. “I want you to want me, not to end up the unrequited lover in a marriage of convenience. Besides, there is no debt. Everything I’ve given you has been a gift, not a loan.”

“But I don’t have any gifts to give you,” Erik points out, setting his fork back down on his plate and lifting an eyebrow. “Sounds like a very one-sided friendship to me.”

“A poor friend I’d be,” Charles says, “if I counted out tit for tat every time I did something for you.”

Erik doesn’t have a good response to that. “How’s school?” he asks at last.

“It’s fine, I assume,” Charles says, and takes a bite out of his remaining chicken to avoid elaborating -- he hasn’t lied, but it’s not really the truth, either, or not the full truth. He hasn’t been to a class in over a month, or picked up a book. No time, not with three or four jobs going at any one time to get enough money and food for all three of them.

“You assume?” Erik doesn’t miss the choice of words.

Charles just keeps eating, trying to look innocent as he works the rest of the meat from the bone.

Erik frowns and reaches across the table, tugging Charles’ plate out of reach. “Haven’t you been going to school?” he demands. “How do you expect to make anything of yourself if you don’t get an education? You have the right to one. You can’t just throw that away.”

“I don’t have the time to study,” Charles says finally, putting down the chicken bone with a sigh, and giving Erik a rueful look. “I’m exhausted by the time I get home from work, and I don’t get any good thinking done then anyway. I’ll pick it back up when times are less lean -- Grandmother didn’t specify when I had to use the money, just what it was for.” He knows Erik isn’t going to be happy with him anyway, but he’s not going to give up the work if it means less food for them, regardless of Erik’s feelings about Charles trying to provide for them.

“No. You’ll pick it back up now,” Erik says. “I won’t have you abandoning your education for my sake. Like I said, I can take care of myself, and of David. Do you have any idea, what I’d give to be allowed to go to college? And then you just give it up, just like that. I won’t allow it.”

“I’ll make you a deal, then,” Charles says, sitting up straighter at the table. “I’ll go back to college if you’ll be practical about staying with me while you need to. If we’re sharing there’ll be more money to go around without the second rent to pay, and I won’t need to work so much. It makes practical sense, Erik, especially if you get another job lined up. We can just be roommates.”

Erik makes a face. “Very well,” he says. “Be aware, however, of the limits of practicality. If I can stay on my own --”

“If you can stay on your own, you will. I know. That’s fine,” Charles says, and reaches over for his plate, setting two fingers on the rim. “Can I finish my dinner now, then? Or am I still on the naughty step?”

“Go on, then.” Erik pushes the plate into Charles’ waiting hand and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

David makes a noise from over in his crib and they both glance over, wondering if he’s about to start crying again, but only silence follows. Charles works his way through the rest of his now-cold supper, unselfconscious of eating in front of Erik by now; he’s shared enough meals with Erik that it’s no longer a big deal, and he indulges himself, ravenous, eats everything in front of him but the bones.

“That was good,” he says finally, and gets up to wash his hands off instead of licking his fingers. He considers then discards the idea of asking again when Erik would like to move his things. “Want me to fetch that whisky up? You can hold onto it until he’s feeling better.”

“All right.” Erik pushes back his own chair with a scrape of the wooden legs against the floor and reaches to pick up Charles’ dishes, stacking them on top of his own, though he still hovers on his own side of the kitchen -- and doesn’t move to the sink to wash them until after Charles has stepped away, toward the door.

“I’ll be right back,” Charles says, attempting what he hopes is a reassuring smile. This time he uses the front door like a regular person, leaving it on the latch so he can get back in when he gets upstairs without having to depend on Erik letting him back inside.

The whisky is right where he left it, under the bed on the far side between the frame and the wall -- no one’s ever searched his apartment for contraband, but never say never -- and he pours just a little into a cup, then reconsiders and pours an extra couple of fingers before putting the cap back on the bottle and the bottle back where it came from.

When he gets back upstairs Erik’s over by the bed, having picked up the baby again and tucked him against his shoulder; David’s making soft sobbing noises against Erik’s shirt, and even from across the room Charles can tell Erik’s bone-weary, the effort of navigating around Charles being in his room nearly as difficult as caring for his child.

“I thought a little of this might help warm you up, too,” Charles says, offering the cup to Erik.

Erik takes the cup carefully, turning his hand so that his fingers don’t brush against Charles’. He sets the cup on the table and dips a finger in, then pries David’s mouth open enough to rub it on his gums -- the teeth won’t break for months yet, but some babies, like David, clearly feel the pain early. “Itst. Beser?”

“I’ll go, then,” Charles says, backing away and giving Erik his space, tipping an imaginary hat. “See you tomorrow?”

Erik nods, and pokes at David’s stomach. “Zogn bey,” he says, and lifts up David’s arm by the wrist; David complies, waving bye at Charles.

“Bye, sweetheart,” Charles says softly, waving back at David, but when Erik isn’t looking it’s Erik Charles is looking at as he says it.


*

Erik might not like what he’s doing, but he’s practical enough to accept that it’s a necessity for now, and so he’s not up for long the next morning before he starts to pack up their meager belongings. He rolls up his shirtsleeves and moves around the familiar old apartment, fetching their things from the shabby dressers and his few treasures from under the floorboard where he’d hidden them, wrapped in one of his mother’s old tichels. After all, he no longer has a job to go to. He may as well use his day efficiently.

He ignores the pangs he feels at leaving this place -- he’s lived here a very long time, but given, too, what else has happened here, he can’t help but feel it’s lost its right to his sentimentality.

Every so often he glances at the bed where David is lying on his back, burbling away to himself; he’s started trying to roll onto his stomach lately, wriggling and squirming, and Erik has a secret fear that he’ll work out how to do it and roll all the way off the bed onto the floor and hurt himself before Erik can stop him. It’s so -- it’s so hard, managing all of this by himself without Mama here to help, to give advice. Some days Erik feels ancient, old long before his time. Other days he feels far younger than his sixteen years, like a child trying to take care of a baby hardly any younger than himself, and those are the days he snaps at Charles the most, warning him away before he can see how much Erik needs help.

Charles. Even thinking his name makes Erik’s heart thump hollowly, the feeling that used to be there when he thought of Charles torn out of him and replaced with this shuddering suspicion, always waiting for Charles to do or say something to prove himself to be just like every other alpha. That all these months he’s just been waiting for the right time to just take what he wants and have done with Erik once and for all.

If he is, of course, he hides it well. No matter, it’s too late to do anything about it now. Erik shakes his head and goes back to piling his clothes together on top of a blanket, his two spare shirts and his spare trousers folded neatly. He’ll pack everything up and be ready for when Charles gets home from work, and then he can make Charles help him lug it downstairs. They may as well get used to the new arrangement.

He’s halfway through when the knock at the door nearly makes him drop the chanukiyah, halfway between the hiding place and the bed with its suitcase. The sick lurch in his stomach is pathetic, after so long -- Erik knows that. But it doesn’t stop his power from grasping all the metal within reach, his hand tightening around the stem of the chanukiyah, brandishing it like a weapon.

The feeling passes after a moment, leaving Erik cold in its wake, palms clammy as they relax out of their fists. He fits the chanukiyah into the suitcase alongside the candlesticks and goes to kick the floorboard back into place. It requires an extra-hard jab with his heel to go in, the wood worn away over the years, but when Erik puts his weight into it it falls flat, and he can answer the door without looking like a crazy person, or like he has something to hide.

At the door, he checks through the peephole first. It’s a strange confluence of emotions to feel when he realizes who’s out there: relief and trepidation all at once, what does he want? followed immediately by, same thing he wants from everybody. Erik had forgotten it’s November 1.

He turns the latch and pulls open the door, bringing himself face to face with the two alphas waiting outside. Neither appears particularly threatening, to the uneducated eye, but they both have that black letter tattooed on the web between their fingers, and what they can do is undoubtedly far more painfull than anything accomplishable with human fists.

“Mr Lehnsherr,” St John says, giving Erik a terse nod. Beside him Mortimer Toynbee, better known to most in the Lower East Side as ‘Toad’, looks past Erik into the apartment, his bulging, glossy eyes flicking from side to side.

“Moving?” he asks, turning his gaze to Erik.

A sick feeling of incipient humiliation settles in the base of Erik’s throat. “Just downstairs,” he says, trying to make it sound as if it’s no big thing. “Rooming with Charles Xavier.”

“Rooming?” Toad lets out a dirty chuckle. “Is that what they call it now?”

Somewhere behind Erik David lets out a testing sort of wail, as if he’s gearing up for a tantrum.

“Let’s get this over with, I have your money,” Erik snaps, and he reaches into his pocket for his wallet, pulling it out and carefully shielding it from the two alphas so they won’t see his ten dollars in there. He pulls out two notes slowly, reluctantly, and hands them to St John. “There. One for me and one for Mr Xavier since he’s out at work.”

“He keeping you in the style to which you wish you could become accustomed?” St John folds the bills away into his collection bag and tips his imaginary hat, giving Erik another nod. “Good for him. Well, okay, Mr Lehnsherr. See you downstairs next month.”

“Goodbye,” Erik says, and closes the door between himself and them with a sharp sense of relief to be done with it for another month; his skin prickles all over, his power threatening to come out and wreak havoc, and only pacing across the room to pick up David and hug him tight to his chest makes Erik settle at all.

Charles returns later that evening, bringing with him a fresh wave of chill into the apartment as he tumbles in through Erik’s window -- the man will never, clearly, learn how to use the door like a regular person, something Erik has resigned himself to -- with the handles of a paper bag looped over one elbow and snow caught on the lip of his hat.

“Hey,” Charles says, then, “sorry,” as Erik slams the window shut behind him and turns the latch.

“What’s this?” Erik asks, nodding down at the bag as Charles dumps it onto the kitchen table.

“Not much,” Charles admits. “I hope you like grilled cheese.”

David is asleep in his crib, thankfully, and the apartment is strangely soft and quiet without his little baby-noises to add texture to the air. Too quiet -- Erik can practically hear Charles looking at him, as if focus had a sound.

“Everything’s packed and ready,” Erik says, stating the obvious; Charles can see quite well for himself that the counters are empty, everything boxed away except for the furniture itself. “I offered Sean ten cents to hold onto the furniture for me for the next six weeks. He’ll be by to get it later tonight.”

They’re filler words. Erik is watching Charles’ face, tracking the shift of Charles’ gaze about the apartment, settling again on Erik once it’s seen what it meant to see. If Charles weren’t a telepath, would his eyes still feel like they can see past the wrapping of Erik’s skin and into the bloody red muscle underneath? Erik looks away.

“Shaw’s people came by, too,” he says.

There’s a pause. “Oh,” Charles says finally, and Erik can see Charles’ hands flex, curling around the back of the chair in front of him. His voice is very careful and steady. “For the protection money?”

“Yes.” Erik makes himself turn away to fill the only two glasses he left out with water, though it makes a tingle of fear run down his spine. “I gave them yours for this month too -- I expect you to put the difference toward my portion of the rent.”

“Of course,” Charles says, with a sound of ripping paper. “Thanks. Did you … tell them, that you’re moving in down here?”

When Erik looks back again Charles is focused on the grilled cheese sandwiches he’s liberated from their paper wrappings, pulling them apart and breaking the strands of gooey, half-congealed cheese between them. Erik still sees, though, the tension in Charles’ shoulders and arms, the way he’s holding himself like he might have to hit something, all alpha territorialness and something Erik doesn’t want at all in relation to himself, wants nothing to do with. This was exactly what he was afraid of, he tells himself, back teeth grinding together.

“Of course I told them,” he says, a little sharply. “They’d find out soon enough when they came knocking next month, wouldn’t they?”

Another long pause. “Mmm. I guess.”

Erik is sick of this game already. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Charles says, and looks up at Erik with that ever-present ruefulness in his eyes and on his mouth, not at all attractive and certainly not disarming the way Charles seems to think it is, never mind the way it makes Erik wish he could just trust Charles again the way he used to. “I just wondered if … well, if that was smart, I guess. Given the circumstances.”

What circumstances?”

Charles’ nerve must give out, because he flinches a little bit at that and says, “I only meant -- never mind. You’re right, they’d have figured it out one way or another, I suppose.”

Erik’s not wholly satisfied with this response, but it’s not worth arguing with Charles over, not when Erik can admit to himself that it would only bring up things he doesn’t want to talk about. Charles pulls out a chair and settles himself down at Erik’s table, and Erik has to follow or take the risk of hovering there awkwardly while Charles eats, reaching to pull one of the sandwiches closer to himself.

“I’ve started keeping a ledger,” Erik says after he’s taken a bite of grilled cheese, chewed it and swallowed. “Once I get a new job, I’ll start paying you back for all this.”

“Erik, that’s not -- “

“With interest, naturally,” Erik continues doggedly on, chasing the sandwich with a sip of lukewarm tap water.

Charles gives him a pointed look. “I don’t need your money.”

“Well you certainly aren’t getting anything else for it,” Erik says archly, which effectively puts an end to the conversation.

After they’ve eaten and the trash has been cleared away, Erik settles in on the bed to try and persuade David to take his bottle while Charles begins carrying the luggage downstairs. It’s something of a show, Erik thinks privately, watching Charles’ well-defined muscles straining against the fabric of his shirt, veins swollen beneath his skin. Erik would never admit it to Charles out loud, but he does appreciate looking at him sometimes. That much hasn’t changed since before.

While Charles is on the stairs -- Erik feels his cheap wristwatch moving down past the other apartments, the copper pipes to either side of him -- Erik looks down at his child, David’s tiny hands pressed against the bottle. He’s too young yet to hold it for himself, and most of the time it still surprises Erik when David successfully figures out where it is, but there’s an uncanniness to the act all the same. Like a reminder that David is an actual person, with wants and forming thoughts, that eventually he’ll grow up and he won’t fit in Erik’s arms anymore. He’ll be a young man, an alpha. He could grow up to be like … like anything. Like his father. Or like Charles.

David blinks up at him, and when their gazes meet Erik closes his eyes and leans down to press a kiss to David’s hot brow instead.

Charles comes back upstairs a minute or two later, hovering in the doorway like he’s unsure if he can come inside. “It’s all moved,” he says quietly, watching the two of them without coming closer. “Do you need a minute?”

In his chest Erik’s heart beats a hard fast rhythm, pounding against his ribs. “No,” he says, and gets to his feet. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

He shuts the apartment door behind himself with a click.

Downstairs Charles’ apartment is just as frigid as Erik’s own, the radiator rattling but seeming to produce no heat; Erik’s things are piled to one side, where they’ll stay until he’s got another job and he’s ready to move out again. Charles has moved over to the stove where the kettle is boiling, its loud whistle piercing the awkward silence. “Do you want a cup of tea?” he asks, glancing over at Erik. “Take a seat, it’ll only be a second.”

Erik draws out one of the chairs at Charles’ rickety table and sits down, adjusting David in his arms so he can see. He’s looking around at everything, fascinated by the change in scenery even though the apartment is all but identical to their own -- Charles has more books than Erik does, that’s one thing, and he has an old globe sitting on top of his dresser as if seeing the world in miniature could ever make up for not seeing it in person. Then again, Charles has been on an airplane, unlike Erik. Maybe he uses it to remember places he went with his family before the telepathy came.

“It’s not much, but it’s warm,” Charles says, bringing the mugs over and setting one in front of Erik. “Help yourself, by the way, to whatever’s in the kitchen. It’ll be cheaper to share.”

The tea’s thin and bitter, like everything these days. Erik drinks it anyway. Across the table, Charles has settled in with a thick book written in English and loses himself to the world. It’s odd, Erik thinks, to be here alone with Charles and not speak. He has before, of course, during Shabbos and when he was sitting shiva for his mother, but not in a long time.

When he’s satisfied Charles won’t be getting up again Erik goes over to the kitchen and assembles a sandwich from the wilting vegetables in Charles’ icebox and the jar of mustard, ingredients piled between thin slices of white bread. He slices it in half and carries each to the table, setting Charles’ down near his mug -- Charles casts a brief smile upward before returning to his book, barely missing a beat.

Evening falls, the shadows swelling in Charles’ apartment until they have to turn on a lamp to see by. Privately hoping Charles hasn’t forgotten his promise, Erik reassembles David’s crib near the bed and settles David down within, tucked under a ratty old blanket. He’ll need to buy David something better eventually, he thinks, or perhaps sew it out of an old shirt. David shifts minutely and then stills, blissfully ignorant of Erik’s trepidation as he goes to sit on the edge of the bed, toeing off his shoes one after the next.

“I’ll need to grab one of the quilts,” Charles says without looking up, but he’s sitting very still, holding himself precisely where he is. “If you’d prefer, you could take yours out to use on the bed, and I could use mine? Since they’ll smell like me already.”

Of course -- Erik hadn’t even thought about that, about lying down in a nest of alpha scent and trying to sleep, surrounded by it and coated in it as if he really were whoring himself out to Charles for a place to stay, no better than he ought to be. He gets to his feet immediately and pulls out his suitcase from where it’s propped between his kitchen things, unzipping it to drag out his own blankets and sheets. He strips the bed with ruthless efficiency, folding Charles’ bedclothes neatly before he sets them aside, though there is a sharp pang in his stomach at so thoroughly colonizing Charles’ space, evicting him from his own bed.

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered,” Charles says, and stands, coming to take his blankets without even a moment’s sign that he resents Erik for it crossing his face, all patience and kindness, and Erik hates him for it a little.

“Thank you,” he says, grudgingly, and goes out into the hall to use the communal bathroom. When he gets back Charles is already rolled up in his sheets and blankets on the floor by the stove, eyes closed, and if Erik can’t tell whether Charles is asleep or not, he doesn’t check to find out, either. He gets into the bed and resolves to find a new job tomorrow, before he can get too used to this.

The pillow still smells like Charles.


*