Charles is twenty-seven when he reads Romeo and Juliet on Raven’s urging, because she wants someone to discuss it with and there’s no-one but him. He finds it tedious for the most part, but strangely satisfying; Romeo and Juliet and all their nevers, all their would-have-beens and never-could-have-beens.
All their deaths.
All their dying.
Romeo and Juliet must end in tragedy. Always. Forever. A dagger. Poison. Charles has always been fascinated by poison.
But the question he, as a scientist of man, asks is: If the experiment were to be repeated, would the results be the same?
Raven smacks him for being insensitive and says, “Of course they’d do it all over again. That’s how love works, Charles.”
Fifty miles away a man beats his wife, his fist the size of her face. Charles flinches as phantom bruises bloom along one side of his face and thinks of things that end.
“You’re beautiful,” Erik says, sitting in the shade, Charles next to him.
Charles, who blushes, turns his head away even though his eyes are closed.
You’re looking through my eyes, aren’t you? Erik thinks and knows he’s right from the feeling of shifting warmth in the back of his mind as Charles withdraws, like a scared child, caught red-handed.
Then why don’t you see?
Charles hits the icy, dark water with a splash and immediately feels himself starting to die. Cold. Deep.
His brain provides the numbers, how cold is too cold, how deep it too deep, how long can he hold his breath, how long until brain damage, how long until the man –
Erik, Erik Lensherr, his mother’s name was Edie and she died, oh God, she died so horribly, so senselessly and Erik is so scared, so angry, so full of hate and rage and panic and fear and there are shadows and skeletons inside his head and he’s drowning and still holding on, clinging to the metal hull of the ship that holds the devil because he’d rather die than let go and
He wraps his arms around the other man, the other mutant, Erik, and feels vaguely surprised at how solid he is.
You’re not alone, he says and pulls. Erik’s mind unravels. Bubbles rise.
Raven eats her apple with big, sloppy bites, licks juice off her fingers. When she moves to throw the core into the trash, he stops her, holds out his hand.
She rolls her eyes and hands it over, smacking it into his palm intentionally hard, staining his shirt cuff.
“You’re obsessed,” she informs him, a jaunty angle to her hip, sass in her expression. Young and free and beautiful.
“Go away,” he returns, good naturedly.
She laughs and heads for the door, throwing back over her shoulder, “As long as the obsession stays theoretical…”
He pretends not to hear the question in her mind and goes about digging up the seeds.
“Have you read it?” Erik wants to know, dropping the slim volume of Shakespeare’s most famous play back onto the table.
Charles looks up from his desk, nods distractedly. That’s a lie. Charles is never distracted. Erik is beginning to learn that. “Of course. Have you?”
Erik nods, flings himself into an empty armchair with the dangerous, poised grace of a deadly weapon. “Unfortunately. It’s grating, isn’t it?”
“Raven finds it romantic.”
“Everyone dies,” he answers, not answering at all.
Erik watches him work for the longest time. His parting words, when he finally stands to take his leave are, “They’re too different.”
Hank repeats formulas over and over in his head. Sean is high, dreaming of purple trees and too many feet. Alex is scared. He is so often scared and most of the time it’s of himself. Moira thinks of home, a big family, her mother’s embrace.
Raven’s dreams are hued in blues and reds, a stain of herself and Charles often walks through the mirrored hallways of her nighttime hours and finds himself reflected in distortion.
In town, a little boy is dreaming of the monster under his bed and another thirty miles out, a man is dreaming up a gun to shoot his superior in the face. The recoil makes Charles’s arm twitch as he pulls away, back into himself.
There is darkness and oblivion waiting close by, a mind like the ocean he found it in. Erik is comfort, despite the monsters that lurk in all his corners. Smiling, Charles sinks into him. In return for the respite, he’ll keep the nightmares at bay.
“Harder,” he pants, twisting against the sheets, trying to pull Erik closer, to push him away. To crawl into him and lock the door behind himself.
Erik looks down at him with eyes that should be blue but aren’t and says, in the rhythm of his snapping hips. “Speak. Out. Loud. Charles.”
There is goodness in everyone, light. Charles knows that better than anyone else on the planet. For every man dreaming of killing his employer, there is another one who dreams of holding his wife close, of kissing his kids goodnight.
For every murder there is a birth.
But happiness is fleeting and Charles knows that, too, better than anyone else.
Happiness is like a hint of lemon on the tongue, bright and sharp and washed away with the next swallow.
Grief and hate and anger and envy, they are like a lump of coal in your mouth, solid and impossible to swallow down.
Charles feels phantom bruises far longer than phantom kisses.
He tries to balance the difference with real kisses, but the people who give them are strangers and the sentiments behind their touches hollow. Every time someone tells Charles that he’s beautiful he wants to shoot himself in the head so he can’t hear what lies underneath the words.
“Why do you insist on making Raven hide herself?”
Because she can. Charles does not have the option, does not have a switch to make himself normal. His only escape from his power, glorious and maddening, is death.
There is a gun in the study, locked away in the bottom drawer of his father’s old writing desk. Charles did not find it there by accident.
Erik must catch some of that, must hear what Charles is unconsciously projecting because he tenses, jaw clenching. He looks red-hot angry.
Charles smiles at him, blinding and guileless.
“Kiss me,” he says, under the shade of the tree, still lying on his back, watching himself through Erik’s eyes, feeling the other man’s chest swell with want. Desire is the taste of wine, deep and rich with an aftertaste like wasted summer days.
Erik takes it as an order, bends down, presses his lips to Charles’s, unaware that the words were simply permission.
That’s a lie. Charles wants Erik.
He wants his silence and his darkness and the memory of metal in his hands.
He wants Erik because Erik looks at him and actually does see beauty, even if it’s only imagined. Erik lets Charles look through his eyes and doesn’t feel an ounce of fear.
“This can never last,” Erik whispers in his ear, low and raspy. He’s wound around Charles’s back, skin to skin. They’re sticking together like their sweat is glue, like they’ll never be parted.
Erik’s arm is wrapped around Charles’s shoulders, pulling him closer still. His chin, far too pointy, is hooked into the nape of his neck.
This, Charles knows from a lifetime of living other people’s lives and fantasies, is what being in love feels like.
Almost. Except that there’s war at the door, an ocean beneath the floorboards and a gun in the bottom drawer.
I know, he answers and he says it in Erik’s head because he can.
The arm around him tightens minutely and he imagines that the weight settling over them with the blankets is regret.
He doesn’t know whose.
Charles believes, firmly and absolutely, in the goodness of people. In their capacity to earn redemption.
Raven calls it a pathological desire to be accepted, to be loved. Erik thinks Charles naïve, stupid. A blind idealist.
Charles lets them believe what they will.
The truth, however, is this:
There is darkness like ivy winding through every human being and there is light, lemon bright and he can either believe in one, or the other. He can believe in the good and have hope, trust that a man who imagines killing another man will not actually go through with it. Or he can believe in evil and expect every thought curse to turn into a real fist. He can believe that every imagined gun will lead to real murder and what is this world worth then?
If it’s all death, if it’s all rotten darkness, what stops him from spreading his mind as far as it will reach and making all those people stop?
Charles believes in the goodness of people because he does not want to be their judge, their jury, their executioner.
“We’re no gods,” he tells Erik, somewhere on the long stretch of road between Chicago and New York.
Erik hums agreement with his lips and screams denial with his thoughts.
“You don’t understand!” Erik yells, his voice reverberating in the metal around them.
They’re fighting. Something, mutant rights again, the need to hide. Raven, probably. Erik wants Raven proud and blue. Charles just wants her alive.
Charles, who is steeped in Erik’s anger, doesn’t think before he shoots back, “I understand too much!”
Erik deflates, demands flatly, “Explain.”
Charles, for no reason he understands, does. “You say ‘hate’ and I understand every nuance of it. Everything you associate with the word, and Raven, and Sean and Moira and everyone else within a hundred miles. I understand everything, Erik.”
Stunned, Erik stands in the middle of the room, staring. He did not know, Charles realizes, just how deep his telepathy goes. When Charles said he knew everything about Erik, he meant it.
He has lived Erik’s life as certainly as he has lived his own and ten thousand others.
“Then how, in Gottes Namen, can you still be so naïve?”
He kisses Erik just to shut him up.
Raven kisses him, once, just once. She’s sixteen and alone and scared and she keeps thinking that no-one will ever love her. She’s not choosing Charles, which he might accept, she’s settling because she’s scared of being alone.
Being a lonely freak is worse than being a freak, he learns in her mind.
He lets her kiss him, waits until she’s done and then gently moves away from her. She breaks down crying and he holds her until she’s done, until she settles on one form instead of flickering.
Then he says, “You’re beautiful.”
She laughs and laughs and laughs.
Sorry, Erik thinks, brushing callused fingers over the bruises he left on Charles’s skin.
Charles catches the hand, holds it in his. “Don’t,” he says, out loud because Erik forbid him from silence once. Sometimes, he obeys. “Something to remember you by.”
The fight is drawing ever nearer and he knows, without being psychic, without seeing the future, that Erik will be gone before the bruises fade.
“What is that supposed to mean, ‘everyone dies’? That’s hardly an assessment of the play.”
Charles is sipping brandy, watching Erik watch him across a chess board. “I thought you disliked the play anyway?”
“I do. It’s your opinion I’m interested in.”
Swirling his drink in his glass, Charles contemplates his next move. They’ve stopped playing for the night, won’t continue until tomorrow, but he stares at the board. A convenient excuse. But Erik’s impatience nags at him and so he says, “It’s a proper ending. If they survived, it wouldn’t end, would it? There’s something to be said for real endings.”
Erik slouches in his seat, legs spread almost indecently, studying Charles like a Jackson Pollock. “Things end all the time, Charles.”
There’s an undercurrent of bitterregrethatefearpleasepleaseplease and don’tleavemeno that Charles intentionally tunes out.
“Things end, yes, but they’re not really over are they? Not as long as-“ He taps two fingers to his temple in lieu of finishing his sentence. Death is the only true end, the only true silence.
“I think the point of the whole thing is that they’re not supposed to end. Their love lasts forever, even beyond the grave.” The curl of his lip, the narrowing of his eyes tells the story of how ridiculous Erik finds the sentiment.
“God,” Charles says, “please no. If anything lasted beyond death we would surely all go mad.” And because he is the mind reader, not Erik, he thinks, I haven’t known silence since I was two years old and sometimes I look forward to it.
Raven would call him a pretentious old fart again, if she heard his words. But Raven is long asleep. Charles thinks of it as a confession.
Erik finds the gun in the bottom drawer, of course he does. He can hear it sing its song of metal and death for him.
And one day, he hands it to Charles and says, “Shoot me.”
Erik takes one last bite of his apple, moves to throw it into the shrubbery when Charles puts a hand on his arm, takes it from him, gingerly.
“Did you know?” he asks, conversationally, as he goes hunting through his pockets for a knife, “That there is poison in apple seeds?”
Erik looks surprised, at Charles’s handling of the knife – stolen from another boy’s mind at the age of seven – as well as at the tidbit of information. Charles flicks the knife open, starts digging through the apple core in long-practiced motions.
“Cyanide,” he continues, eyes on his task. “Absolutely deadly.”
“Should I be worried that you’re keeping the seeds then?” Erik laughs.
“No, my friend. I have no intention of murdering you, I assure you. It’s merely a habit I picked up as a boy. I read a book about poisons and started collecting apple seeds. I have a whole jar full at this point. Collecting them is automatic by now. Just ask my sister.”
He folds the seeds into a corner of his handkerchief, licks his fingers clean and then, without thinking about it, the blade of the knife. Erik’s hands tighten convulsively against his thighs and his eyes go glassy.
“You,” he says, with some strain to his voice, “are the strangest creature I have ever met.”
“I can’t,” Charles breathes, dropping the weapon to his side, putting the safety back on. He can’t shoot Erik. Never will, never could.
He has felt a thousand phantom recoils in his arm, has seen the patterns a thousand sprays of blood made as people’s heads blew up and he can’t…Not even in his mind could he take another one’s life. Not in this fashion. Not in any fashion.
But Erik wants to stop bullets and Charles has always been curious.
So very curious.
He raises the gun again, thumbs off the safety. Erik straightens in anticipation and then his eyes go wide as Charles turns the muzzle not toward his friend but himself. He places it against his temple, meets Erik’s gaze.
“Can you stop this bullet?” he asks, his voice even, calm.
Instead of answering, Erik lunges for him, plucking the gun out of his hands. “Fuck, Charles,” he snarls, “Fuck! How can you even…” He is panting like he’s run a mile, sweat beading on his forehead, heart beating like a scared rabbit in his chest.
He’s scared. Of Charles or for him. Charles doesn’t dig into his mind to find out.
“You shouldn’t trust me this much,” Erik says, coldly, as soon as he has himself back under control.
Charles doesn’t trust Erik at all. He is too good to be true, too temporary to hold onto, too beautiful to ever let go. Charles may love Erik but he doesn’t trust him.
That is the whole point.
Erik doesn’t return the gun.
“You are not alone,” Charles breathes into the cold sea, into Erik’s mind, into his mouth with a kiss like a brand.
You are not alone.
What he means is: I am not alone.
“Peace. Always talk of peace, Charles. There will never be peace!”
Charles shakes his head, turning a white pawn over and over in his hands. “The world will learn, Erik. Humanity is capable of great things.”
“Great and terrible,” Erik snarls, ridiculing Charles again. He stands in his agitation, starts pacing. Inevitably he passes the end table where Romeo and Juliet still lies, untouched but increasingly tattered from Erik’s flinging it around. Charles wonders, briefly, why he hasn’t burned the damn thing by now.
Erik picks it up, throws it at Charles in an entirely childish gesture. But Charles has no room to talk. Charles collects apple seeds in a jar and wonders what Cyanide would taste like.
“You are just like them. You believe that just because you will it so, there will be a fairy tale ending. They will hunt us!”
Charles smoothes the book against his thigh, sets it aside and puts his pawn down. “Perhaps,” he allows, feels Erik’s gratification down his spine. “Or perhaps they will not.” He taps the white pawn, then a black one. “Everything has two sides, my friend.”
Bullets do not, Erik screams mentally and Charles flinches away from the volume and the hate it is wrapped it, surges to his feet and presses two fingers to his friend’s temple.
Good. Evil. Murder. Birth. Black. White. A bullet for someone else, a bullet for yourself. Hit your wife and love your children. Cheat on your boyfriend and kiss your mother goodbye. Everything he hears, the river of voices of man, all for Erik to see, to feel and taste and smell and hear and live. Every life Charles lives right now, in this instant, spread across half the continent, all for Erik to see.
Each image with its opposite number, each horror countered with beauty. Human nature, as seen through a telepath’s eyes.
He screams. Falls. Clutches at his head like he wants to rip it off just to make the noise stop. Charles releases him, says, “You see, my friend? There is both, in everyone.”
But Erik stares up at him, tears streaming down his face from the pain, from the overload, he stares at Charles and thinks, You say we are not gods, Charles. But what are you if not that?
His mind tastes like awe and fear.
Charles raises his hand and pretends not to see Erik flinch as he smoothes down the other’s hair. I am many, he muses, chuckles at his own joke.
Chuckles, because there is no joke.
“I’m afraid I have no idea,” he confesses. “There has never been one like me before.”
Erik touches him alternately like he’s spun glass or solid rock. He leaves bruises and then covers them in kisses like butterflies’ wings. He treats Charles like a child and then a god and sometimes, in-between the hours of sleeping and waking, like a child god for his worship and his debauchery only.
Charles, spread eagle on white sheets, allows him.
I love you, he thinks, but Erik has forbidden him from speaking without words and so he keeps them to himself.
They echo in his head, tinny, like metal. He is not sure if he, himself, understands them.
If the experiment were to be repeated, would the results be the same?
If you could do it all over again, would you change anything?
Quietly and out of Raven’s earshot, Charles wonders what poison Romeo buys for his last meal, shakes his collection of apple seeds and muses on endings.
“This can never last,” Erik murmurs into bare skin, the night before the world ends.
“Kiss me,” Charles demands, his voice rough. This time, it’s a command.
The next morning, when they set out to war and new regrets, the gun is back in its place, the drawer unlocked. Charles smoothes his fingertips down the length of the barrel, imagines he can feel remembered warmth in the metal.
He relocks the drawer, painfully aware of the fact that this is Erik’s way of setting him free.
Charles smiles, smoothes his hands down Erik’s blue-and-yellow chest. Says, “This can never last.”
The breaking of Erik’s smile, the taste of sea water and coal and lost things, he muses, must be what love is like.
He stares at the sky, so very blue and bright, stares and blinks and cannot feel his legs and thinks, detached and angry, This is not a proper ending.
Nonsensically and possibly delirious from the pain, he whispers, “I need a dagger.”
The children do not understand.
It’s just as well.