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Paper Monsters

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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:

To Charles,
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."

 

THE END