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Erik’s hunched over his bed, a notebook spread over his lap, a pencil gripped between his teeth, hard enough to leave little indents in the wood.


He looks up, startled.

Charles’s pale face is at the window, a wide grin on his face.

“Oh,” Erik drops the pencil from his teeth, wrinkling his nose as it rolls to the bed, leaving a saliva trail in its wake.

“Are you going to let me in?” Charles teases, pressing his nose up against the glass. It’s cold out, but Erik knows that doesn’t’ really make a difference to his friend. He gets up anyway, and eases the window open, shooting a nervous glance at the door as he does so.

The window squeaks, and Shaw and Emma are right outside.

“I don’t know why you can’t just appear in my room,” he grumbles as Charles hauls himself inside, a tangle of flailing limbs.

“Oof,” he complains as he crumples to the floor. “I told you it doesn’t work like that. I don’t appear anywhere. I was outside, just like I’ve been all day, and I needed to get inside. Just like you.”

Erik huffs. It’s an argument they’ve had many times. If Charles is his imaginary friend, Erik doesn’t understand why he can’t make him appear and disappear at will. Shouldn’t he show up just when and where Erik wants him to?

Charles gives him the pout that means he knows Erik is thinking of him as imaginary and he doesn’t like it, and Erik sighs, offering him a hand up.

“What’re you doing, anyway?”

“Homework,” Erik grunts miserably.

“Oh. Is it interesting?” Charles stands on his tiptoes to peer over Erik’s shoulder to the open notebook.

“No. It’s homework.”

“Homework can be interesting. Remember that report you wrote in history last year? On ancient Egypt? That was great!”

Erik rolls his eyes at his friend’s enthusiasms.

“There were mummies!” Charles continues excitedly.

Well, Erik supposes the mummies were pretty cool.

Not to mention all the stuff about organs in jars.

“This isn’t like that,” he complains, dropping down on the bed and making his notebook bounce. “This is math.”

“Hmm.” Charles shoves his way onto the bed, too, pushing Erik over and up against the wall.

Erik can’t bring himself to mind.

“So what is this?”

“Long division,” Erik shudders.

“Oh.” Charles picks up the notebook and frowns at it, studying the columns of numbers carefully. “You know, if I went to school, I bet I’d be able to help you with this.”

Erik frowns. “Charles…” he says warningly.

“What?” Charles looks at him innocently. “I could learn all the same things you do, and then we could do your homework together!”

Erik thinks Charles must be imaginary, just because no real kids would sound so excited about math homework. “You already help with my homework,” he reminds him.

Charles loves to read, and apparently spends a lot of the time he isn’t with Erik at the library in town.

Or, that’s what he says. Erik still isn’t positive Charles should be able to exist when he isn’t around. But he can’t deny that the boy is full of information and facts, about a wide range of subjects.

“I can’t help you with this stuff, though,” Charles sighs. “There aren’t any books at the library on math. But if I came to class…”

“No.” Erik says shortly.


“Charles, you know why you can’t!” Erik hisses, always mindful of the Shaws right outside. “You’d want me to talk to you, and then someone would see, and then everyone would know I’m crazy.”

Charles drops his gaze, worrying at his lip. “I don’t think you’re crazy.”

“Of course you don’t,” Erik scoffs.

“I wish you wouldn’t say stuff like that,” Charles says in a small voice.

But Erik is annoyed. “Why not?” he growls, yanking his notebook out of Charles’ hands.

Charles gives a little sniff. “It’s mean. You’re just saying it to hurt my feelings.”

Erik looks at him, his small hunched shoulders and downcast eyes and wants to grumble and snarl and deny it.

But of course Charles is right.

“I’m sorry,” he says stiffly. “It’s just, people are only just starting to forget that I ever talked about you. I don’t want them to remember again. I don’t want Shaw and Emma to start talking about sending me away again.”

It’s unfair, but he knows just how to get Charles to stop pushing. “I don’t want that either!” the other boy says quickly, looking up.

“And that’s why you can’t come with me to school,” Erik says, feeling vicious in his words. But he knows he needs to say them. He knows he can’t have Charles hanging around, distracting him and pouting at him when Erik won’t talk to him.

“Okay,” Charles says miserably, dropping his eyes again. Erik hates making Charles sad, but he doesn’t know what else to do. “Maybe…maybe I could borrow your book tonight?” Charles suggests tentatively. “Maybe if I read it, I’ll understand and be able to help you, even without coming to class?

And that’s the worst of it, for Erik. Charles just wants to be near him, to help him when he needs it.

He pictures it, the two of them lying side by side on his bed, working through the problems and grousing over how hard they are, laughing at their own mistakes.

He wants that, too.

But not at the price he would have to pay.

“Sure, you can borrow my book.”

Charles brightens, just slightly. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, I’m done with math, anyway. You want to help me with my history homework?”

Erik smiles as the sadness passes from Charles’ eyes. “Yes! What are you working on? Is it interesting?”

Erik laughs. “You’ll probably think so.”


“Hey, Lehnsherr!” The voice rings out across the schoolyard.

Erik is staring out over the fence surrounding the school grounds, wondering what Charles is doing all day. Is he reading Erik’s math book, left behind with Charles this morning? Is he at the library, looking for a book he hadn’t yet absorbed? Or has he ceased to exist entirely, the moment Erik walked out the door?


Erik turns, startled. Sean stands behind him, a soccer ball tucked under one arm, a wide grin on his freckled face.

“We need another player. You any good?”

Erik narrows his eyes. “Better than you,” he snarls.

Sean just laughs. “Then come on.” He turns on his heels, jogging away, back over to the field where most of the boys in their class are gathered.

It takes Erik a moment to realize that he’s actually being invited to join the game, instead of just teased. Huh, he thinks.

“Come on!” Sean huffs, throwing the words over his shoulder. Erik hesitates for just a moment, then lopes after him.

He likes kicking balls around with Charles, but he’s never gotten to play a game with more than two people. It might be fun.

Erik’s pretty good, it turns out. His legs are longer than almost everyone in his class, and he runs pretty fast.

“Did you see that?” Alex crows, after Erik scores their makeshift team the winning goal, sinking the ball into the net just before the bell rang.

Erik resists the urge to roll his eyes. Of course he saw it, he was the one kicking the ball.

“You’re alright, man,” Sean says, coming up to flank him as they all walk back to the school building.

“Thanks?” Erik doesn’t really know what to say.

“Alex is coming over to my house after school,” Sean announces.

Erik frowns. “Great?”

Sean laughs. He does that a lot, Erik has noticed, as if Erik is constantly saying funny things. Erik thinks the kid might be a bit weird. “Well?” he says. “Do you want to come too?”

“Oh.” Alex is grinning at him in an open, friendly way—with none of the mockery or challenge Erik had come to expect over the years—and Sean looks slightly hopeful.

They actually want to hang out with him, Erik realizes.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Awesome. Sean’s mom makes these cookies,” Alex says with a dreamy smile.

“Yeah, and Alex always eats all of them,” Sean taunts.

“I do not!”

Erik is bemused by their playful bickering, which seems to somehow include him, as well. After a moment, he offers them a tentative smile, shoving lightly at Sean’s shoulder as the boy bumps into him, reaching across to smack at Alex. Sean grins, bumping him harder.

Erik grins back.


“Hello, Erik,” Mrs. Cassidy says, clearly surprised to see him, when the three boys pile noisily into the house. Erik shifts uncomfortably, wondering what Emma has told her about him in all their long chats. Probably nothing good. “I’m so glad the boys invited you over,” she continues.

“Really?” It slips out before Erik can stop himself.

But, just like her son, Mrs. Cassidy only laughs. “Of course! It’s great to see you joining in.”

“Oh. Um, thanks.”

She gives him a friendly pat on the shoulder and then directs the three of them to the plate of cookies on the kitchen table—which Alex had spotted the moment they walked in the door.

“These are so good,” Alex mumbles, a cookie jammed into his mouth, spraying crumbs everywhere.

“Gross!” Sean squeals, laughing, and Erik can’t help but join in. He’s seen boys playing around like this with each other from a distance, but he’s never been a part of it. It feels nice.

“I have a basketball hoop outside,” Sean tells him as they each help themselves to their second cookie.

Alex is right; they are good. Erik wishes Emma knew how to bake like this. Or, at all.

“Shouldn’t we do our homework first?”

Sean and Alex laugh uproariously. “Seriously?” Alex splutters. “I didn’t take you for a nerd.”

“I’m not!” Erik denies. And he isn’t, really. He normally hates doing his homework, but Charles likes it, and it actually is fun to do it together, bent over the book as Charles exclaims how interesting everything is.

“Does your mom make you do it right when you get home?” Sean asks sympathetically.

“She’s not my mom,” Erik says reflexively, and winces as the two boys share a look.

Why did he have to remind them how weird he was?

But all Sean says is, “Sorry.”

After a moment, Alex snickers. “She’s really pretty.” He arches his eyebrows. “I bet you’re glad she’s not related to you.”

“Ew, gross!” Sean laughs, shoving at him. But the tension has broken, and Erik finds he can laugh, too, although the idea of appreciating the way Emma looks is foreign to him.

“I wish she’d let me move in!” Alex continues gleefully, squirming away from Sean’s grappling hands.

“You could come over,” Erik offers before he loses his nerve. “I mean, tomorrow or something. She’s home all day.”

Alex and Sean both look up from their tussle. “Yeah, that sounds cool,” Alex agrees.

Erik grins.

Their schoolbags—and homework—lay forgotten as they tumble out of the house, heading for the basketball hoop affixed to the side of Sean’s house.

Erik finds he’s pretty good at this game, too, his height giving him a decided advantage. Alex and Sean keep up only because they play rougher than he does, never hesitating to charge him to try and take the ball, not minding when they go down in a pile of limbs, with everyone calling ‘foul!’

Erik’s used to being gentler when he plays, but it’s fun to throw his elbows and not worry about who he hits, to push and shove playfully and know it’ll only make the other boys laugh harder.

He’s surprised when the sky starts to darken.

“Aw, man,” Alex says. “My mom’ll be here to pick me up any minute.”

Erik can’t believe it’s gotten that late. He knows Shaw and Emma don’t really care what he does, but he’s expected to be home by nightfall. “I better get going, too.”

He darts inside the door to grab his bookbag, but stops as he comes face to face with Mrs. Cassidy. She smiles at him gently. “I really am glad to see you today, Erik,” she says warmly. “You should come over more often.”

“I’m going to go to Erik’s tomorrow,” Sean interjects, sticking his head in past the screen door. “Is that okay?”

“Of course, that’s wonderful,” she agrees eagerly. “Do you want some cookies for the road?”

Erik nods shyly, not used to having this much attention fixed on him, with no one yelling at him, or laughing at him, or telling he he’s not wanted. He accepts the little sandwich bag filled with cookies from Mrs. Cassidy, far more than he could eat on the walk home, with a small smile.

“See you tomorrow, Erik!” Sean calls as Erik sets off down the road, glancing over his shoulder to wave at his two new friends.


Erik’s in such a good mood that he doesn’t even mind coming home to the Shaws house.

That is, until he sees Charles sitting on his front stoop, legs drawn up and his head buried against his knees.

Erik glances around, making sure no one is nearby. “Charles?” he whispers, since he doesn’t know exactly where the Shaws are. Probably right inside the house.

Charles raises his head, revealing red eyes and wet cheeks. “Erik!” he stands quickly. “Where were you? I was worried.”

“Oh.” Erik frowns, guilt creeping up on him. He knew the Shaws didn’t care where he went after school, but he forgot that Charles did.

“Sean invited me over to his house.”

Charles brow furrows. “Sean Cassidy? The one you hate?”

Erik bites his lip. “I guess I don’t really hate him?” he offers. “I mean, he’s alright.”

Charles’ face falls. “Oh. So you’re, like, friends now?”

“I guess.” Erik toes at the dirt in front of him.

Charles’ eyes are very wide, the way they get when he’s holding back tears. But Erik doesn’t know why he’s so upset, or why guilt is gnawing at his own stomach.

“And you didn’t even think to tell me you weren’t going to come meet me today?” Charles asks in a rush, face suddenly defiant.

Erik frowns. “I didn’t know I had to. I haven’t ever before.”

“Because you’ve always come to meet me before!” Charles snaps. “I sat around waiting for you forever!”

“Did you?” Erik wonders. He can’t picture it. Can’t picture Charles doing anything when he isn’t there.

Charles’ brow contracts. “Why? Because I’m imaginary?”

“Well, yeah,” Erik says helplessly.

Anger clouds over the hurt on Charles’s face. “I guess it’s good you got yourself some real friends, then.”

“Maybe it is,” Erik counters, annoyed by Charles’ tone.

“Then I guess you’re going to spend all your time with Sean Cassidy now.”

“Why are you mad at me? It was one afternoon. Besides, kids are supposed to outgrow their imaginary friends.”

It’s something he heard a thousand times as he was growing up. From Emma, from other parents, from the teachers at school. That he’d eventually ‘outgrow’ Charles and stop talking about someone they all knew didn’t exist.

And Erik had stopped talking about him, but Charles was still here.

At his words, Charles’ face crumples in on itself, his anger seeming to rush out of him in a wave of utter betrayal and sadness.

“You’re outgrowing me?” he asks in a small voice, and Erik feels terrible. Charles’ shoulders shake as he seems to curl into himself, refusing to meet Erik’s eyes. “Well, that’s just great, isn’t it? You’re making new friends. I’m so happy for you. Too bad I can’t do the same. Since no one else can see me.”

“Charles—” Erik begins, but Charles is shaking his head.

“I guess I should just go. Since I don’t exist anymore.” He hurries down the steps, thrusting something towards Erik. “Here’s your math book. I stayed up all night reading it so I could help you, but I guess that doesn’t matter now.”

“Charles,” Erik repeats, but the boy is already breaking into a run, dashing away from the house and into the woods.

Erik frowns, looking down at the textbook in his hands.


Erik lays awake long after he’s turned out the light, thinking about Charles. He knows the boy better than anyone else in the world, but he doesn’t really know him, either. He doesn’t know his last name, or who his parents are, or where he comes from, or what he does when he’s not with Erik.

And the worst part is, he’s not really sure there’s anything to know. He doesn’t think Charles has a last name or parents. Charles tells him about the time he spends without Erik, but how can Erik be sure it’s real? No one else has ever seen Charles, after all, not at the library, or in the cow pasture, or down by the stream, or any of the other places that Charles seems to spend his time.

For the past year or so, Erik has been resigned to the fact that Charles doesn’t exist, that Erik must be crazy. He’s come to accept it, even if it still makes him uncomfortable, thinking about his own insanity.

He analyzes his own behaviour, and wonders what it is that makes him crazy. Was he born that way? Were his parents crazy too? He worries about how he looks to other people, how he sounds, how he acts, even though he’s been forced to accept it.

But then he thinks about Charles’s scrunched up face, tears wetting his freckled cheeks, as he cries over the fact that Erik doesn’t think he’s real.

It clearly hurt Charles, to know Erik thought that way.

But sometimes Erik wonders which is actually worse: if Charles is imaginary and Erik is crazy, or if he isn’t.

If he’s a real boy, who other people just can’t see.

Charles was right; Erik could go out and make a new friend every day. But Charles can’t. He can’t have friends, he can’t have family, he can’t have anyone except Erik, who can mysteriously see him.

That’s a terrible life, when Erik thinks about it.

Erik rolls over in bed, punching his pillow ruthlessly. He tries to remember what a good time he had with Alex and Sean—two boys who he knows are real. Who other people can see, and know that Erik does have friends.

It’s a nice thought, but as Erik drifts off to sleep, it’s Charles’ face in his head, eyes wounded.


When Erik arrives at school the next day, Alex and Sean are there to greet him, smiling and punching his shoulder. He grins back, seeing the approval in Emma’s eyes.

They pass notes during class, snickering behind their hands. Erik feels a little bad for not paying attention, when he knows there are some kids (okay, Charles) who would give anything to be in his place in the classroom.

But as Alex flicks a piece of paper into Sean’s shaggy hair, Erik stops caring. He’s having fun.

At recess, his new friends immediately bound over to him. “Wanna play soccer again?” Alex asks.

“I want to be on Erik’s team,” Sean announces, and Erik grins so hard it hurts.

He is pretty good at it, if he does say so himself.

It’s just as their heading over to the field that Erik thinks he catches sight of a familiar face, standing near the school door.

He stops, heart thudding in his chest as he realizes that it is a familiar face.

Charles is standing right by the school building, watching Erik.

“I, um, forgot something inside,” Erik mumbles distractedly.

“What?” Alex frowns. “Erik, man—”

“I’ll be right back,” Erik calls, already jogging back to the building.

“What are you doing?” he hisses, walking right by his friend and rounding the corner, trusting Charles to follow.

He does, trotting after Erik like he’s done for the last five years.

“What are you doing here?” Erik explodes.

Charles frowns. “Don’t yell at me.”

“I can yell if I want. I told you not to come to school with me.”

“You only get to tell me what to do if I really am imaginary,” Charles counters. “And then I’m not doing anything. You’re the one imagining me here.”

Erik frowns. “No, that’s not—“

“In fact, you must want me here, if you’re imagining it,” Charles taunts.

Erik doesn’t know what to say to that. “Why would you come here when I specifically told you not to?” he asks instead.

“I wanted to see you.”


Charles dropped his gaze. “I don’t like fighting with you.”

Erik didn’t, either. “You couldn’t have waited until after school?”

Charles frowns. “You don’t have plans after school?”


“Um, actually…”

“Really, Erik?” Charles asks, and his eyes are welling up again. “Do you even want to be my friend, anymore?”

“That’s not fair, Charles,” Erik complains, looking away from the sight of his friend’s tears. “Maybe I just want some real friends for a change.”

Charles sniffles. “I’m sorry I’m not real enough for you,” he says, and shuffles, rounding the corner of the building.

Erik thinks about chasing him and apologizing, but he can hear the raucous sounds of the playground just behind him. They’re going to start wondering where he’s gone. The last thing he wants is for anyone to catch him chasing after his crying imaginary friend.

He turns, intending to go back and join the soccer game, and comes face to face with Hank McCoy.

The boy stands awkwardly between him and the playground, his lanky figure held stiff as he eyes Erik speculatively.

Erik wants to cry.

He’s been so careful for the last few years, he’s had so many fights with Charles about coming to school to avoid just this, and now it’s happened anyway.

Someone’s heard him talking to Charles.

“Um,” Hank says, shifting nervously. The kid’s taller than anyone else in their class, but scrawny and clumsy, his hands and feet too big for his body. He wears thick eyeglasses and never joins in any of the playground games.

“Were you? Um, were you talking to someone?”

“Does it look like someone is here?” Erik shoots back, narrowing his eyes to hold back his tears. Maybe if he scares Hank enough, the kid will keep quiet.

“No. That was kind of my point?”

Hank looks over his shoulder, glancing back at the noisy playground, and then steps closer. “Look, I know no one talks to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hear stuff. I know about your imaginary friend.”

“I don’t have an imaginary friend,” Erik says instantly. “That’s baby stuff.”

Hank crosses his arms. “Don’t lie. I just heard you talking to someone called ‘Charles.’ That’s who you got in trouble for talking about when we were little.”

Erik balls his fists up. He wants to hit Hank, to hurt him, to make him stop talking. He wants to do something before the tears start to flow. They burn at his eyes, stinging with the reminder of how careless he’s been.

When Erik doesn’t say anything, Hank takes another hesitant step forward. “Have you been to a doctor?” he asks, concern written all over his face. “I read some stuff about mental illness, and hearing voices could be…serious,” he finishes lamely, taking a stumbling step away from Erik’s fierce face.

“I’m not crazy,” he snarls, lunging forward. “And who I talk to is none of your business.”

“So you admit you were talking to someone,” Hank says in a moment of bravado.

Erik blanches. “I—“ he falters.

“Look. I won’t tell anyone, okay? I know how the guys can be,” he looks over his shoulder again, back to the raucous play on the soccer field, that he is never included in. “But I could give you a book about schizophrenia, and things. In case you’re worried.”

Erik is worried and he has been for some time. “Yeah, okay.”

“Okay,” Hank says, giving him a hesitant smile. “And maybe you could be nicer to me in school? Now that you’re friends with the other guys?”

“Are you—blackmailing me?” Erik asks incredulously.

Hank blushes. “I guess I am.”

Erik almost has to laugh. “I didn’t know you had it in you, McCoy.”


The rest of the school day is hard. Erik keeps glancing over his shoulder, worried someone else had heard, that someone less understanding than Hank was going to realize he still is friends with an invisible boy.

He feels wrung-out by the time he gets home, having begged off seeing Alex and Sean, and the sight of Charles sitting forlornly on his front stoop is enough to set him off.

“What are you doing here?”

Charles looks up, eyes sad. “Waiting for you. What else am I going to do with my time?”

Erik deflates, just a little. He sinks down on the step next to his friend.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” he says after a moment. “But you can’t come to school with me. Someone heard me this afternoon.”

Charles’ eyes widen. “The teacher?”

“No, Hank McCoy. He promised not to tell,” Erik admits. “But he thinks I’m crazy. He gave me this book so I can see for myself.”

Charles takes the book and studies the cover. Understanding Mental Illness, it says. Erik doesn’t even like looking at the words.

“I’ll read it,” Charles volunteers. “And if it sounds like you, I’ll let you know.”

“That won’t do much good if you are imaginary,” Erik points out. “You’d just tell me what I want to hear.”

“A friend might do that, too,” Charles says quietly.


“I can’t help how I am, Erik. I wish other people could see me. I wish I was a normal kid like Sean Cassidy, with a house and a mother and other friends.”

Erik winces. Hearing Charles say he wants other friend stings. Erik is used to having the boy all to himself.

Despite that, Erik can’t help wanting other friends, too. Friends he can play with at school. Friends he can talk to in public. Friends his foster parents can see.

“I don’t want to outgrow you,” he says after a long moment. “But I don’t want to have to stop hanging out with Sean and Alex.”

“But you’re all I have,” Charles whispers, head hung low. “It’s not fair that you get to have as many friends as you want.”

Erik bites his lip. He wants to promise Charles’ the world, just to see his friend smile. But he likes having other friends.

“Maybe it’s not fair, but it’s also not my fault,” he points out.

Charles sighs.

“Do you want to go inside? You can help me with my homework.”

“Can’t Sean and Alex do that?” Charles asks a little meanly.

Erik gives him a hand up, anyway. “They’re not as good as you,” he promises.


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