poor_medea: (Charles/Erik)
[personal profile] poor_medea
Title: Imaginary
Fandom: X-Men: First Class
Rating: PG-13

Chapter One: Age Five

Erik is five the first time he sees Charles.

His foster father’s drunk again, and even as young as he is, he knows to get himself out of his house when Shaw starts cursing at everything that moves, eyes glazed and smelling like an overturned bucket of paint thinner.

Erik kicks at the dirt under his feet, walking in the street just because he knows his foster parents don’t care.

He’s been living with them for six months, and sometimes his foster mother still forgets his name. He wants to like Emma—she’s so pretty—but every time he looks at her she looks away, cold and uncaring.

Shaw pays attention, sometimes. Erik frowns. But not the kind of attention he wants.

Erik wishes he had real parents, like the other kids in school. They look at him funny. They don’t quite know what being a ‘foster kid’ means, but they know he lives in the poor part of town, and they know he doesn’t have any parents.

They don’t know that the Shaws could kick him out whenever they get tired of him, booting him back into the system. But Erik knows. Shaw reminds him of it nearly every day. Reminds him how ‘lucky’ he is, to have a roof over his head and food on the table.

Erik doesn’t feel lucky.

He sighs, scuffing his shoes in the dirt and knowing it doesn’t matter. His clothes are dirty, too.

He wishes he had a brother or sister. Someone to talk to, to hide with when things got bad.

But it’s just Erik; there aren’t even any other kids in the neighborhood.

Then he sees him. Sitting on the broken down fence that separates the road from the cow pasture at its side, there’s a little kid.

Some one just Erik’s age.

His steps speed up as he squints at the little boy. It’s not someone he recognizes from kindergarten, and thank goodness for that.

Erik is normally pretty reserved with other children. He’s been moved around a lot—three foster homes, and he’s only five. He had siblings at the second one, and now they’re gone. He’s had other kids in the neighborhood, or in his class. They’re gone too. Erik figures it’s best not to get attached.

But this kid looks just as sad as he feels, shoulders slumped and little feet kicking at the splintered wood he sits on.

“Hi,” Erik says, coming to a stop right in front of him. The kid doesn’t look up, just keeps kicking, his heels drumming on the wood with a steady thump thump.

“Hey!” Erik says, louder. Is the kid deaf, or something?

The boy looks up, eyes widening in surprise. They’re very big, and very blue, Erik notes. “Hi?” he responds tentatively.

Erik nods, satisfied. “I’m Erik,” he pronounces, dropping down on the fence beside the kid, looking him over.

He’s small, a lot smaller than Erik, even though he looks like he must be five or six. His wavy brown hair falls into his eyes, and a burst of freckles partially covers his nose and cheeks. The boy’s clothes are nice—much nicer than Erik’s. His trousers are clean and pressed, his shirt glaringly white and neatly tucked in. The boy still looks surprised to see Erik, but after a moment, he holds out a small hand. “I’m Charles.”

“Do you live around here?” Erik asks eagerly.

The boy just shrugs. “Do you?”

“Just down the road.” Erik makes a face. “With the Shaws.”

“That’s what you call your mom and dad?” Charles wonders.

Erik bites his lip. He hadn’t meant to tell Charles that he was a loser foster kid so soon. Maybe now Charles wouldn’t want to play with him. “My mom and dad are dead,” Erik says after a long moment, looking away. “Now I live with the Shaws.”

“Oh.” One of Charles small, smooth hands lands on Erik’s arm. “I’m sorry.”

When Erik looks up, Charles is looking back at him with those big blue eyes, not a hint of mockery in them. Erik offers him a small smile. “Do you want to play a game?”

“Sure. What game?”

“Hide and seek?”

Alarm crosses Charles face. “No, not when I just found you!”

“Oh.” Erik is puzzled. “We could go exploring?” he suggests instead. He wishes he had a ball or a Frisbee or something, but Charles’ eyes light up anyway.


“Great.” Erik clambers down off the fence, his eyes widening as Charles hops down beside him and take his hand. His hand is soft and his fingernails are clean, and Erik wants to pull his own hand away and shove it in his pocket, to hide the dirt and calluses.

Charles doesn’t seem to notice, however, just swings their joined hands between their bodies. “Let’s go see what’s in the woods over there,” he suggests, pointing across the road.

Erik knows what’s over there—a tiny stream and a lot of junk—but he’s happy to follow his new friend, marvelling at how pleased Charles looks to be walking beside him.

“Do you go to school around here?”

“No.” Charles shrugs.

“Oh.” Erik sighs. Too bad. He would have liked to have Charles in his class. Charles who doesn’t seem to care at all that Erik doesn’t have parents, or nice clothes, or fancy toys.

Charles who tightens his grip on Erik’s hand as they clamber down the bank to the little stream, who exclaims joyfully over the shallow splash of water.


An hour or two later the sun starts to set, and Erik reluctantly stands from where he and Charles have been poking tadpoles in the muddy stream. He doesn’t want to leave, but Shaw gets mad if he stays out late, yelling that he’ll get in trouble if Erik gets lost, that he’ll lose his check if Erik winds up dead.

“I have to go home.”

A pout forms on Charles’ small face.

“Won’t your parents be worried about you?” Erik asks.

Charles just shrugs.

“Can you come out to play tomorrow?”

At that, Charles brightens, nodding eagerly. “Sure!”

“Great? In the morning? I don’t have anything to do all day, do you?”

“No, the morning is fine,” Charles stands up as well, but Erik still has to look down on him. It’s okay. Erik likes being the big one. Charles can’t always reach things, and when they crossed the stream, he needed Erik’s hand to help him jump over.

It makes Erik feel important.

Charles brushes awkwardly at the mud on his knees, succeeding only in smearing it around, dirtying his fingers further. He’s not nearly as clean as when Erik found him.

“Will your parents be mad that you got so messy?” Erik worries. Most of the time the Shaws don’t notice what he looks like, but sometimes Emma yells at him when he brings dirt in the house, or when she has to do extra laundry so he has something clean to wear to school.

“No,” Charles shakes his head, his curls flopping into his eyes. Erik laughs.

“Do you want me to walk you home?”

“No. I can find my way. You’ll come find me again tomorrow? Same place?”

“Sure!” Erik agrees enthusiastically. It’s been so long since he had someone to play with.

They part ways at the road, and Erik’s steps back to the Shaws’ house are much lighter than when he left.

Shaw is passed out on the sofa when he comes in, snoring loudly. Emma frowns at him from the kitchen. “Where have you been?”

“Playing with Charles.”


“He lives in the neighborhood.”

“Oh,” Emma frowns, her pretty brow creasing. “I didn’t know there were any other kids around.”

Erik shrugs, plopping down at the kitchen table in the hopes that Emma will remember to feed him. “Maybe he’s new.”

“I suppose he must be,” she sighs, her eyes darting across the room to her husband’s sleeping form. “Ugh,” she groans. “Can you find your own dinner? I want to go out.”

“I guess?”

“Good.” Emma’s already grabbing her purse and heading for the door. Shaw doesn’t let her take the car a lot—they have a lot of fights about it—so Erik guesses she wants to take the chance while she has it. He eyes the kitchen cabinets dubiously.

There are a lot of things in cans, but he can’t open them by himself, so he snags a bag of potato chips and heads to his room, determined to be out of sight when Shaw wakes up and realizes the car—and Emma—are gone.


The next day Erik leaves the house early, grateful once again that his foster parents don’t keep up the sham of weekly church attendance. Erik knows that he is Jewish—Shaw tends to remind him—but he doesn’t precisely know what that means. Only that his foster parents use it as an excuse to sleep late on Sundays, when other children are being wrestled out of bed and into uncomfortable dress clothes.

Despite the early hour, Charles is sitting on the fence, just where Erik found him the day before. His little face brightens when he spots Erik walking up the road.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come!” he exclaims, hopping off the fence.

“Why not?”

Charles gives one of his dismissive shrugs, a gesture with which Erik is already familiar. “I thought you might forget.”

“No way,” Erik denies hotly, in the flush of having his first friend. Charles’ answering grin is just as effusive.

Today they tramp across the large cow pasture, skirting patties as they walk. Erik notices that Charles is in an outfit just like the day before—as unsuited as it is to outdoor play. In fact, Erik would swear he was wearing the same shirt and trousers, except that was impossible, given how muddy the boy had been when Erik sent him home the day before. Erik figures he must just have a lot of the same kind of nice clothes.

Erik doesn’t have a lot of anything, and what he does have certainly wasn’t nice. But he doesn’t mind that Charles has more than him—and besides, his ripped jeans and t-shirts are better for climbing over fences and shimmying under branches than the shirt and trousers Charles has on.

“So, what do you do most days?” Erik asks as they trudge through overgrown grass.

Charles blinks and looks surprised. “I dunno,” he shrugs.

Erik returns the gesture. He doesn’t do a lot of interesting things, either. “Where do you go to school?”

“I don’t.”

“Don’t what?” he hops over a fallen log.

“Go to school,” Charles offers as Erik helps the other boy scramble after him.

“Really?” Erik stops to gape. “That’s awesome!”

Charles gives him a little smile. “I guess.”

Erik finds a rabbit’s nest and calls Charles to his side. He picks up a nearby stick and pokes down into the burrow, prodding at the mass of fur curled up inside.

“Don’t hurt them!” Charles says, dropping to his knees. His blue eyes go wide as he pushes Erik’s stick away from the tiny rabbits.

Erik frowns, but drops the stick and joins Charles in the grass.

“Oh, look,” Charles coos, pointing down at the just-visible balls of fluff, gently quivering where they press together. “They’re so cute.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Erik says sceptically. He peers down into the burrow with Charles. HE guesses they are sort of cute, in a small and furry way. He likes how happy Charles looks, though, so he smiles down at the little baby rabbits.

He reaches down, intending to pick one of the little creatures up, so Charles will smile and laugh.

“No, don’t!” Charles exclaims, catching his wrist.

“Why not?” Erik pouts.

“If you touch them, the mommy bunny won’t want them anymore.”

Erik’s frown deepens, but his heart clenches a little at the thought. He thinks of the way Shaw and Emma look at him, and slowly withdraws his hand.

Charles smiles, sliding his hand down from Erik’s wrist to join their hands. Erik smiles back. He likes playing rough, hitting things with sticks and if Charles hadn’t been there he would have stirred up the nest just to see what would happen.

But he was happy to have Charles as a friend, so he held himself back, content to just look at the little rabbits, seeing how they snuffle into each other, curling up close in their little nest.

It is pretty cute, he guesses.


Erik runs through the Shaws’ door just as the sun dips below the horizon, out of breath from having sprinted the whole way.

He lost track of time, ambling in the woods with Charles. The other boy was smart, smarter than any kid Erik knew, and was quick to tell Erik facts about everything they saw on their walk.

He thought it might have been annoying, if Charles wasn’t so excited about every piece of information he shared.

He knew the names of all the trees, and the birds, and their flight patterns, and what they ate.

When Erik asked, he gave his familiar shrug, and said he liked books.

Erik could read, but only just.

There weren’t a lot of books in the Shaws’ house, and only two with pictures—both ones he had brought with him from his last foster home. He had the Velveteen Rabbit and Goodnight Moon memorized back to front.

But it didn’t give him a lot of room to practice.

Maybe Charles could help? he thinks, skidding to halt in the kitchen.

Emma stands in front of the oven, looking frazzled.

From the smell of it, another dinner had burnt.

“Where have you been?” she huffs.

“Playing with Charles.”

Emma frowns. “I ran into Mrs. Cassidy at the shop today,” she says, eyeing Erik critically. Erik wrinkles his nose. Sean Cassidy was in his class. Erik didn’t like him, though; he was much too loud. “And I asked her about new kids in the neighborhood. She said she hasn’t heard of anyone named Charles.”

Erik frowns. “So? She doesn’t know everyone,” he says, even though he knows that isn’t true. All of Emma’s gossip came from Mrs. Cassidy. The woman seemed to know everyone’s business, and feel like it was her job to relay it to every one else in the world.

Emma sighs. “I know you’ve wanted a kid to play with in the neighborhood. And god knows it’s good to get you out of the house. But you shouldn’t tell lies.”

Erik’s brow creases. “I’m not!” he denies hotly.

Emma gives him a pitying look. “Having an imaginary friend is like telling a lie. You said you were with someone called ‘Charles’ today, but you weren’t. You were by yourself, like always.”

Erik doesn’t understand. He stomps his foot, annoyed. “I wasn’t. I was with Charles. He’s my best friend.”

Emma rubs her temple, the way she does when she’s getting a headache. “You need to make real friends to play with. You should spend tomorrow with Sean Cassidy.”

“I don’t like him!” Erik says angrily. “He’s stupid and loud. Charles is quiet and nice and he knows everything.”

“I’m sure he does,” Emma rolls her eyes. “When you make someone up, they can be perfect, if you want them to be.”

“I didn’t make him up!” Erik yells.

“What did he make up?” Shaw asks, coming in through the front door in his ratty coveralls.

“Erik’s telling lies,” Emma says harshly.

Probably to distract from the burnt dinner, Erik thinks, unforgiving.

Shaw raises an eyebrow.

“I’m not!”

“He has an imaginary friend.”

“Charles is real!” Erik insists, eyes stinging with hot, frustrated tears.

“No, honey, he’s not.”

Shaw gives him a strange look. “He’s what—seeing people?”

“He’s just lonely,” Emma says dismissively, turning back to the oven, removing a smoking casserole dish from its midst.

But Shaw’s still looking at him funny. Erik sniffles, trying to hold back the tears. He wishes Charles were here, so he could point to him and say ‘look, he’s real and he’s better than all the stupid kids in my class combined.’

“If he’s crazy, do we have to send him back?” Shaw asks after a long moment.

Erik freezes.

Emma gives him a sharp look. “You know we can’t afford to send him back. It could be months before we got another one. Who would pay the electricity and gas in the meantime? Not to mention the groceries?”

But Shaw’s still giving Erik a mean, considering look. “I don’t want a crazy kid in the house.”

“Your paycheck barely covers our mortgage,” Emma narrows her eyes at her husband. “He’s fine. Kids have imaginary friends sometimes. I’m pretty sure it’s normal.”

Shaw snorts. “Yeah, because you’re such an expert on kids.”

Erik looks between them, his stomach turning nervously. He doesn’t like living with them, but he doesn’t want to go back into the system. For all he knows, he’ll end up somewhere worse. At least he knows how to deal with Shaw and Emma. At least he’s found Charles.

“Please don’t send me away,” he says a little desperately.

Emma sighs. “We’re not going to, sugar. But you have to stop telling lies. No more talk of ‘Charles’ in this house.”

Erik frantically nods, even as his mind rebels. He knows Charles is real—he just spent the whole day playing with him!

But he doesn’t want to be sent away. He’ll just bring Charles round the next day, and then Emma will see that he’s telling the truth.

For now, he’ll keep his mouth shut.

“Fine,” Shaw snaps, sitting down heavily at the table. “But I don’t want a crazy kid in the house.”

After dinner, Erik skulks off back to his room. He wonders why Mrs. Cassidy didn’t know who Charles is, when he lives right in the neighborhood. He thinks about it, and realizes he doesn’t know exactly where Charles lives, or with who. The boy doesn’t go to his school and hasn’t mentioned any family.

Erik frowns, crawling into bed. All he knows about his friend, it seems, is that he’s called ‘Charles.’

But that doesn’t seem to be enough.


At school the next day, Erik walks up to Sean Cassidy, frowning at the kid’s bright red hair and flushed face. “There’s a new kid in the neighborhood,” he says.


“His name is Charles. Have you seen him around?”

Sean laughs. “Oh, that. My mamma told me you had an imaginary friend.”

The kids around them look over, interested. “My mamma said we’re too old for that kind of thing.”

Erik glares. “He’s real!”

Alex steps up beside Sean, laughing meanly. “Erik’s a baby! Erik’s a baby!” he taunts.

Erik balls his hands into fists, wanting to lash out, to hit the blond boy right in the face.

But he’s outnumbered, and he knows how mad Shaw would be if he had to be called into Erik’s school.

He turns away from their laughing faces, sulking until class starts. He can’t wait until school is over and he can see Charles, and can prove once and for all that his friend is real.

At the end of the day Erik practically runs to the cow field, eyes eagerly seeking out the small form of his only friend.

For a moment he thinks Charles isn’t there, that maybe he isn’t coming, and his heart sinks. His eyes skim across the open field as Emma and Shaw and Sean and Alex’s harsh words replay in his mind.

Finally, though, he sees him, crouched behind the broken down fence, poking at something on the ground.

“Charles!” he calls, relief washing over him as his friend looks up, giving him a sunny grin.

“Erik, I found a frog,” he smiles.

Erik hurries over as fast as his little legs can carry him. “Charles, you have to come back to my house.”

“Oh.” The other boy rocks back on his heels, his gaze dropping away from Erik’s. “I don’t think I can.”

“Why not?”

“I wanted to go back to the stream today,” he says instead. “Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“No, I need you to come to my house. My foster mother thinks I made you up just because Mrs. Busybody Cassidy doesn’t know who you are, like that matters, and I’m in trouble for telling lies, and all the kids laughed at me in school today and called me a baby,” Erik says in a rush.

Charles bites his lip, looking away.

“You have to come to my house so I can prove to Emma that you’re real.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Charles says quietly.

Erik huffs. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t think she’ll be able to see me.”

Erik freezes, replaying his friend’s words in his head. “—What?”

Charles picks at the grass beneath him. “You’re the only one who can see me. Everyone else acts like I’m not there at all.”

Erik drops heavily down onto the fence, his gaze fixed on his friend. He can see Charles. He’s right in front of him, kneeling in the grass and looking miserable. “So you really are imaginary?”

Charles looks up. “I don’t feel imaginary.”

Erik frowns, thinking of all the kids teasing him, calling him a baby. “Well, you wouldn’t, would you? Not if I made you up. I guess you’d feel however I say you feel.”

Charles worries at his lip. “Do you think you made me up?”

Erik crosses his arms, looks away. “I guess I must have.” A thought strikes him. “I guess I must be crazy.” He gulps. “They’re going to send me back, and then no one will want me.”

Suddenly Charles is standing at his side, putting a soft hand on his arm. “I want you.”

“Who cares? You’re not real.”

Charles’ wide blue eyes fill with hurt, a pout quivering on his lips. “Does this mean you’re not going to play with me anymore?”

Erik’s stomach sinks. He had been having such fun with Charles. But he doesn’t want to be crazy, and he doesn’t want the Shaws to send him away. “I can’t play with you if you’re not real.” He stands, determined to go home and never mention Charles again.

Tears well up in Charles’ eyes. “But I was so lonely before I found you.”

Erik pauses. He was lonely too.

So lonely, Emma said, that he had made up a best friend.

And yet, he could see Charles crying, looking at him pleadingly.

“I can’t tell anyone else about you,” he says finally.

Charles sniffles. “You’re—you’re going to stay?”

“Yes,” Erik decides.

Charles gasps, flinging himself forward, wrapping his arms around Erik’s neck. “Thank you! You’re my best friend, Erik.”

Charles is Erik’s best friend, too. He only wishes he were real.


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