To the Editor:
I write this letter because I am horrified at the state of accessibility in the city of New York […] Notwithstanding the specifics of the ADA and other federal and state legislation, it is the thoughtlessness of the average city shopkeeper and innkeeper that appals me. Just today I went past a bakery that had stacked outdoor tables and a ghastly, faux-chalkboard specials board on the sidewalk such that it was impossible for a wheelchair user to pass…
Charles Xavier, New York City, Sept. 2nd 2011
[The writer is a professor of molecular genetics at NYU]
It's been a bad day already. The grant of probate came through; Erik signed the documents the lawyers sent. And now there's this.
Erik has seen the kid in front of the bakery before. He's hard to miss, with the sleek wheelchair, made of aluminium and ferrous metals and an odd taint of something else overlaying it all. Erik tends to remember the shapes of metal, and even without that it's harder yet to forget the wide-eyed expression, the exasperation with a whole planet that's mostly in his way.
He's got that look now, half-getting up to push things out of the way with hands balled into fists. "Don't be a hero," Erik mutters to himself, and starts shoving tables out of his way, not quite daring hold out an arm to help the kid. The chairs are stacked up in rows outside the window glass.
"I heard that," the kid tells him, blowing out anger through gritted teeth, and wheeling through into the bakery, giving up on the chairs. He pauses a moment to look around, and Erik follows his gaze instinctively: looks at the old beams, the glass counter set back against more wood panelling, the shelves holding knick-knacks from the old country, the chessboard sitting in pride of place, takes them in as though he were seeing them for the first time.
Close-to, Erik realises he's not a kid, but maybe twenty, twenty-five. It's hard to tell how tall he is because he's halfway between sitting and standing, and his hair is all messy curls hiding his face. He has nice eyes. He looks a little familiar. Erik puts these details away into the neat filing cabinet of his mind and returns to the matter at hand.
The man looks directly at him. "And you might have noticed that I am not being a hero, I have a perfectly nice chair, which frankly is the cleanest item in your establishment that is capable of being sat upon, which I would be sitting in and making my way to work in if it weren't for, oh, that enormous stack of crap between me and the rest of 14th Street!"
"You're right," Erik says, which seems to discomfit him a little. "You're right, I'll clear it up right away and next time I'll keep the space clear."
"Thank you," says the man, but he's still sounding annoyed and Erik, guiltily, doesn't blame him. There's still that indefinable something, that air of familiarity about him.
"But nothing in here is dirty," Erik says, feeling oddly stung by this assault on his honour. Even given everything, he's proud of the bakery's old-world good looks. It reminds him that there's an ugly old dresser he needs to take apart, open up some more space for tables. "My staff and I scour the place every morning."
The man runs a finger down the back of the chair back closest to him. "Of course it's not," he says, conciliatory. "I apologise for my insult, it was quite at random."
"May I offer you a bagel?" Erik asks. "Best in town. Kosher."
"No, thank you," the man says, calmly. "Thank you for your time."
He wheels out. Erik is hyper-aware of the movement of metal, as usual, but there's still something else there, something about the man himself laid over the familiar slices of steel, aluminium and blood-iron.
Charles can get up for a few minutes at a time if he has to, but tends to regret it for hours later; he's grateful he didn’t give in to his first impulse to stand up and shout at the bakery-owner, mentally composing yet another letter to the newspaper as he goes home. He lets himself in to the apartment and rolls gently into the kitchen, thinking.
"Charles, is that you?" Raven bounces up on the kitchen counter and swings her legs. She's clearly halfway though making dinner; something smells good in the oven.
"No, it's the tooth fairy," he says, a little more snappily than he meant to, but she smiles at him, and takes his scarf and bag from him and goes through to throw them on a couch.
"Need anything done for you before I go?" she asks, cheerfully. "I'm going upstate to see friends over Labor Day weekend. You remember, don't you?"
"Vaguely," Charles mutters. He does remember, dimly; he's never been much of a morning person but he's sure she mentioned it over breakfast. "I'll be fine."
He picks up the morning plates, covered with sticky toast crumbs and tosses them in the sink. After a moment's thought he starts making a salad, slowly, chopping vegetables with great meticulousness.
"Plenty to do?" Raven asks, an edge of schadenfreude to her smile.
Charles groans and stabs a tomato. "I have at least six hundred papers to grade, all of which will be uniformly terrible."
"Be nice, Professor Xavier," she clucks, waving a finger at him. "I'm a freshman, that's me you're maligning that way."
"Raven, my darling," Charles tells her, wheeling across the kitchen and washing tomato seeds off his hands, "there is no way on this earth that you could ever write anything as terrible as these papers. Not even with your hands tied behind your back and your head in a lobster pot."
"Such a way with words," Raven says, affectionately, and leans down to kiss the top of his head. "Why have they got you on writing comp, anyway? You're a scientist. I think." This last is a dig at the impenetrability of Charles's thesis, he's sure; at the time sixteen-year-old Raven found all the stray commas that his sleep-deprived eyes skimmed over, something for which he remains grateful. Not that he'd tell her so in quite so many words.
"Flu," Charles says, resignedly. "Some sort of awful bug that whipped its way through the literature PhDs. Then, oh, Professor Xavier, oh, Charles, you went to Oxford, that must mean you can write a sentence and you're not that busy in the first month of the academic year oh of course not jolly good here grade these."
"Does you good to work for your living," Raven says. "But that said, I visited you in Oxford, you certainly didn't do any work there, for your living or not."
Charles spins and moves across the room to grab the paper on top of the pile. He winces, holding it at arm's length. "Even if the hastily-adjusted margins and enormous font weren't a dead giveaway," he complains, "it's nauseating to even handle it. The thoughts cling. It's all oh God oh help it's three am oh God why didn't I do it before. You know."
"Vividly." Raven grins. "I'm writing a paper in the car up so I can actually have some fun up there."
"Peering around it to look at the road occasionally?"
"Don't be an ass, Charles, I'm getting a ride."
"I don't know what's in upstate New York, anyway," Charles grumbles. "Fields. Creeks. No decent delicatessens or cell phone reception."
"Also, Cornell," Raven reminds him. "I'm seeing friends, I told you. Now will you be all right?"
"I'll be fine, don't fuss," Charles says absently, and then takes a deep breath and pays attention. "Sorry, I don't mean to be cranky. Really, Raven, I will be fine. You go, have a nice time, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Precious little chance of that," Raven notes, but she is smiling. She gets plates out of the cupboards and Charles rummages in the drawer for forks.
"Will you be back on Tuesday?" he asks, as they're settling down to dinner.
"Yeah," she says with her mouth full, "be good, will you?"
"Learn some manners, for heaven's sake," he says, and stares down at his plate of chicken tagine and tomato salad intently for a few moments before he feels Raven's gaze on him.
"What's eating you, Charles?" she says as he looks up. "What'd I do? Because if you're going to be this grumpy all weekend, then I'm glad I'm going tomorrow."
"Sorry," he says, and concentrates on getting the snappishness out of his voice. "Sorry, Raven. It's nothing to do with you, really. I had an encounter this afternoon with some people who run a bakery – on the corner with 14th Street, you know it? They'd piled a whole bunch of tables and chairs on the pavement, so I couldn't get past, and I had to go in to get them to move everything for me, and it's just left me in a bad mood. I'm sorry to take it out on you."
She reaches out and punches him lightly on the shoulder. "S'all right. Did you write one of your letters? Or are you going to?"
He nods. "It'll be a fun distraction from the several thousand bad papers."
"There's a silver lining to every cloud," she says, laughing, and Charles smiles in response, thinking he'll miss her while she's gone.
Raven disappears at the crack of dawn, her friends coming to the door to fetch her, seemingly convinced that whispering and giggling is just as good as being quiet. They could be perfectly silent and their presence would still wake him: they're happy, moving bundles of excitement, so Charles doesn't mind, and half-drowses until they're gone. He wakes up a few hours later, a little startled by the silence Raven leaves behind her.
He does try to grade the papers in the apartment. His first idea is to work at his desk by the window, but it's not enough for him suddenly, the sunlight not breaking through the essential claustrophobia in the small room. He toys with the idea of taking a train up to Westchester to the old family house, but the aggravation of getting himself there, especially without Raven, makes him feel tired. In the end he puts the papers in a bag, hangs it off the back of the chair, and heads out, aimlessly, into the afternoon.
It's an autumn day, bright and crisp, but oddly deserted. The weather forecast was wrong, it seems; the fresh-faced meteorologists on television predicted an Indian summer, a last hurrah of heat, which although it has failed to transpire, has failed to transpire too late to prevent the general exodus to Coney Island, the Hamptons and upstate. He spares a thought for Raven, probably wishing she'd taken more sweaters, and keeps on going, enjoying the unexpectedly quiet streets, the bracing air.
He's just thinking about buying a weekend New York Times, seeing if his latest letter was published, when he looks up and somehow or other he's made his way past the bakery from the day before. Perhaps because of what he said, or perhaps just in deference to the weather, the outdoor seating has been removed, and he's free to keep on going, perhaps towards the park – but he stops, thinks about it, and goes inside through the propped-open door.
Inside, it takes his eyes a moment to get used to the lack of light. "Can I help you?" asks the woman behind the counter, and suddenly she snaps into focus. Charles has an odd idea that she's snapped into focus in several levels, inside and outside of his mind. "You're," he begins, remembers his manners, and says, "Yes. Could I have some coffee and one of those pastries on the top, please?"
It seems to be a day for impulse decisions, but it's quiet in here, and he did bring the stack of papers and a red pen. The smell of baking is soothing, and so are the quiet surroundings, the varnished wooden splendour.
"I'll bring it to you, go and find a table," she says, waving him towards the edge of the window where the light's creeping in. Charles scrutinises her face for a moment, looking for traces of pity and condescension, and slowly turns himself around, and rolls across to the window.
It's been a while, he thinks, sighing a little to himself: nearly two years. Whether it cramps Raven's style – whether she would rather live in an NYU dorm room with three friends and cut-out pictures from magazines on the wall – is something he's never quite liked to ask. Their fondness for each other persists through everything, though. Charles is thankful.
"Coffee," says the woman, and Charles looks up.
"Ah – thank you. I wondered, is the proprietor here?" Charles asks. "Your colleague. We met the other day, I'd like to have a word."
"It's Saturday, he's not working," she says, as though this explains everything, and now Charles thinks about it, he supposes it does.
"Thanks," he says, and as she gets up her hand brushes his and he can't help himself. "You are" – and he reaches out, something in his mind resonating like a tuning fork – "a telepath?"
She raises her eyebrows for a moment, then sticks out her hand. Charles takes it automatically. "Emma Frost. Nice to meet you."
"Charles," he says, a little dazedly. "I’m sorry – you don't have to – I mean, not everyone wants to talk about it."
She smiles at him then, and sits in the chair opposite, and Charles smiles back, relaxing. "You seem surprised," she says.
"I am, a little," he confesses. "It's been a long time since I met another telepath. I'm told I'm… quite a strong one, myself. I've never given it as much thought as I ought to, perhaps. There were groups for people, ah, like us when I was at university, but I never did pursue them. Just never had the time."
She looks at him appraisingly, and there's a light touch in his mind, careful not to intrude. She whistles through her teeth. "Yes, you are," she says, thoughtfully. "If you ever want to" – and now she sounds unsure – "well. There are others nearby, if you live in the neighbourhood. That's all Erik, of course."
"E. Lehnsherr Kosher Bakery and De Facto Mutant Sanctuary," Emma tells him, and laughs. "Two applicants for a job, equally qualified, only one of them's a mutant – you know the permitted hiring policy?"
"Well, Erik was all over that like frosting on a cake. We've got mutants doing deliveries, mutants in the kitchen. Even Az who messengers baskets around town is a mutant. He's got a gorgeous tail."
Charles laughs, suddenly. "That sounds rather nice," he says.
"It is," Emma says. "Anyway, shall I leave you to it? You sound like you have a lot of work."
"Yes," Charles says, and smiles as she goes, realising belatedly that she knows it from the shape of his thoughts rather than anything he's said. He's still smiling as he looks down at the first paper, oddly buoyed by the notion of someone who sees the world like he does.
It's turned cold over the long weekend. On Tuesday morning Erik stands on the street outside the bakery, holding up his hands to lift the shutters and shivering a little in the wind. He goes back inside and Emma is shivering, too, closing the back door to keep the heat from the ovens in.
"Harder times coming," he tells her, surprising himself a little. He misses the crisp European winters of his childhood, their storybook prettiness and their predictability. There's a harshness to the cold here, a brittle, bitter edge.
"Chilly," Emma says shortly, pulling out a tray of flapjacks. She's keeping a tight lock on her thoughts today; ordinarily Erik has at least a vague idea of what she's thinking, like a low murmur at the edge of his awareness. It isn't alarming, but it's strange, and Erik wonders briefly what's changed.
At some point mid-morning, after the rush – before ten they have commuters coming in for a quick pastry for breakfast, and restaurants and cafés taking away daily wholesale orders, but it's quiet now – Erik sends Az out carrying a brownie order to a quirky wedding in the Bronx, and settles in to knead some dough. They can't hand-shape every loaf they make – demand is too high – but he takes pride in doing at least some.
That, of course, is when the front bell rings, and Erik, sitting on a stool behind the kitchen door, is aware of a slow-moving mass of metal. "One moment," he calls, but it's too late.
"Hello," says the man sitting in the wheelchair, rolling serenely behind the counter and through into the kitchen.
Erik gets up in a hurry. "You can't come in here! This is a food-preparation area…"
"Don't worry, I won't be here long." He smiles, infuriatingly. "I just wanted to thank you for what you did."
"Excuse me?" Erik snaps, glaring at him. There's still something achingly familiar about him. Something about his looks, something about the way he holds his head.
"Oh, I'm Charles Xavier, by the way," he says, as though Erik hadn't spoken. " I just wanted to say thank you for moving all the things from the front of your bakery. It's made things much easier."
"There's no need to thank me." Erik's not sure how to deal with this man, which automatically makes him inclined to snarl. "I said I'd do it and I did it. Now please get out of my kitchen."
"You seem to be a very angry man, Mr. Lehnsherr," says Xavier lightly, motioning to Erik's hands, busily pounding the dough with no conscious input from him. "Well, thank you again. I'll be going."
He spins around neatly and disappears. Despite himself, Erik gets up and looks through into the main space of the bakery, just in time to see Xavier say a few words to Emma. She smiles at him, waves her hands around animatedly, and then he goes out into the street.
Shaking himself, Erik goes back to his dough. The whole encounter has lifted from his mind by late that afternoon, when the first of the dark is drawing in and there are headlights rising on the cars outside. When the doorbell rings, he looks up briefly at the customer and lets Emma deal with it.
"Mr. Lehnsherr," says a high voice. "Are you Mr. Lehnsherr?"
"Yes," Erik says, carefully, and looks around for Emma and up at the girl. She's short and slight, with light-coloured hair drawn back from her face. An undergraduate, Erik thinks. She has the fresh look, the bouncy innocence. "Yes?" he says again, and he knows he sounds unwelcoming; he can't always help it. But Emma has disappeared out the back door, and Erik sighs.
"My name's Raven," she says easily, not seeming to mind his frowning. "I believe you know my brother."
Erik blinks at her for a moment.
"My brother, Charles, who talks like this, and probably spoke to you about wheelchair accessibility."
It's an uncanny impression. Erik's startled into saying, "You sound just like him."
"He's my brother," she says, patiently. "Anyway, you're his friend, aren't you?"
"Ms. Xavier," Erik says, formally, "your brother and I are not friends. We have met twice. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Baked goods," she says, as though this is obvious – and on second thoughts, Erik supposes, it is. "Some meringues, please, Charles likes them. And a couple of those nice-looking braidy things on the second shelf there."
"Challah," says Erik, pained.
"Challah," she agrees. "Do I get one of them free, because you're a friend of Charles?" Off his look, she grins. "Fine. Fine. Six bucks?"
He puts her bread into a paper bag and makes change without saying anything at all. She's not perturbed; she tucks away her wallet, picks up the package and calls, "See you round!" as she disappears into the dimness of the twilight.
"Cute kid," Emma says, and Erik jumps; he hadn't noticed her standing there, looking at the door.
"She's Xavier's sister," he says, a little helplessly. "She wanted challah."
"Well, she knew the place to come." Emma looks amused, and crosses the floor, pushing chairs in, closing the door properly against the autumnal air.
To the Metropolitan Transportation Authority:
To whoever it may concern,
I am writing to make a serious complaint about wheelchair accessibility on the subway on the morning of September 5th, 2011. Despite repeated assurances on the part of the relevant authorities at the MTA, the elevator at 14th Street – Union Square was out of order without warning to any regular patrons so they might make alternative arrangements…
Faculty of Biology, NYU
"Bring me the head of John the Baptist!" Charles yells, as he comes in through the door. "Alternatively, bring me some dough to knead!"
Erik is already heading out to tell him to stop making such an infernal noise, but Emma's there before him, and to Erik's annoyance, is sitting on the edge of his table, smiling. "What is it, Charles?"
"I am angry," Charles clarifies. "I am looking for a method to express it."
Despite the melodrama, he does look drawn, his fingers curled into loose claws on the edges of his chair. Erik finds himself asking, "What happened?"
"The MTA happened," Charles says, eyes lighting at the sight of him. "Apparently the MTA spends all of its time happening to me."
"Can't give you the dough to knead, it's not kosher," Emma says, and heads into the kitchen. "Let me get you that head."
Charles waves an impatient hand. "Most mornings, Raven and I head out together," he says, at a more acceptable volume this time. "We go and take the subway down at Union Square. Only, this morning, the elevator was out of order. I accept that sometimes an elevator is a fickle mistress. I accept that. But with all the conveniences of the modern world at hand – with cell phones, email addresses, which I know they have, I spend half my time writing to them, and also thrice-damned Twitter feeds, for heaven's sake – there was no way of letting me know this before I got myself all the way down there? I could have got a cab from home, in that case."
"Get a cab from here," Emma calls from behind the counter.
"That was the plan," Charles calls back, and smiles, dazzlingly, at Erik. "Erik, if it'll stop you looking growly at me, I'll order something while I wait. Coffee, perhaps, and one of those nice pastries."
Erik's wondering when they got to be on first-name terms. He goes to get the coffee.
"Where's Raven?" Emma asks, indicating their wide range of kosher pastries with one hand and reaching for the phone with the other.
"I told her to go on without me," Charles says, sighing. "No point in our both being late."
Emma's on the phone to the cab company on the speed dial. "Twenty minutes," she calls, and Erik isn't surprised. Looking at the density of the traffic beyond the window, he suspects it will be longer.
"Thank you," Charles says, seemingly resigned. He stretches upwards, hands clasped. Erik finds himself sitting in a chair opposite Charles, with the coffee between them. He considers getting up, going back to finish the batch of loaves that he was working on; he considers rearranging the stacks of clean dishes, or maybe wiping down some tables. Five minutes later, he's still sitting there. Charles is looking at him with gentle curiosity.
Erik has never had a great deal of practice making conversation. "I wondered," he says, carefully. "You and your sister…"
Charles looks at him and wheels slightly backwards. Again, it's very melodramatic. "You've met my sister?"
Erik nods with exaggerated deliberation. "Yes, I have. Raven, yes? She seemed a nice girl."
"So she seems," Charles says, darkly, but there's humour in the quirk of his lips.
Erik doesn't take that bait. "She's your sister, but you have different accents? She's American, and you're… not."
Charles actually smiles at that. "We're both dual citizens. I was born in the States and mostly raised in London; Raven was born in London and mostly raised in New York. My mother finds Raven's accent very tiresome; Raven and I both find her very tiresome."
Erik nods. It's more detail than he expected to get, somehow.
"And you?" Charles asks, curiosity animating his voice. "I can't place your accent."
"German," Erik says, and doesn't say anything more. But Charles doesn't seem to take offence; he has that British reserve, a cliché, Erik knows, but one he has found oddly accurate in his travels.
Charles has moved across and is looking at the pastries below the counter, a half-smile on his lips as he ponders which to ask for. That expression, soft, half-formed, for the benefit of no one but its owner but shaped in the same way by so many faces, is part of the reason Erik enjoys this job. "Try the meringues," he offers.
"Meringues are kosher?" Charles asks, but he's nodding, and Erik expertly bags a couple of them. It's one of yesterday's batch, but they improve with one day's keeping, Erik has always thought, turning luscious in the middle.
"Not Jewish, are you?" he asks, not needing the answer. "They're just sugar and egg whites. Nothing in them not to be kosher."
Charles smiles and pays for them, without saying anything else. He wheels himself to the table by the window, watching for the cab, and Erik removes the chair that's in his place, meaning to just remove it and stack it on a table in the back – it has a wobbly screw somewhere on the frame, and he'll need to concentrate to spin it back into place – but somehow he ends up standing there, just smiling at Charles, who's pulled a stack of papers from his bag and is reading the first, oblivious.
Erik puts the chair in the back and pours himself a large glass of cold water.
Charles finally gets into his office at nearly eleven, and stuffs the meringues in the bottom of his desk drawer for when the day gets really unbearable.
"Uh-oh," Moira says, when she sees his expression. As usual, she's doing several things at once, holding a bagel with one hand and typing slowly with the other while attempting to shoo a pigeon away from the window. "Don't tell me, freshman writing comp was the worst ever, how were these children ever admitted to a world-class university, things weren't the same in your day, et cetera, et cetera."
In what seems to be a burst of inspiration, she waves the bagel at the pigeon. It doesn't fly away but merely looks hopeful.
"It's nothing to do with the writing comp," Charles says, snippily, moving to his desk. "Although that was terrible, my God, how can you fail to make your verbs agree in your native language? Moira, have you not been in the slightest bit concerned with where I've been all morning?"
Moira inclines her head. "I'll admit I was a wee bit perturbed. But you could've been anywhere, Charles, you're an academic. You could have gone to a conference without telling me. You could've been sprawled in a gutter somewhere."
"Never without you, my dear," Charles says, gallantly. His good humour is returning. "Never without you."
"You're such a sweetheart." Moira grins at him. "What happened to you?"
"MTA." Charles waves a hand. "Never mind. How was your long weekend?"
"Miserable," Moira says. "I grew up in a teeny tiny town, Charles. Teeny tiny. You've been there, it was teeny tiny."
"Not that teeny tiny," Charles says, thoughtfully, still waiting for his ancient computer to boot up. "Are we ever going to have that IT overhaul the faculty are promising us? I mean, ever?"
"I dunno." Moira twirls her hair and takes a big bite of her bagel. "The original proposal was in cuneiform. Probably."
"It's not a tiny town, St Andrews," Charles says. "Perfectly nice, has a good ice-cream shop. I took Raven there once. What does this have to do with how your weekend went?"
"Tinier than New York City," Moira continues, indefatigably. "Much tinier. You would think I would have better luck with women in a city with millions of people. In fact, I'm done with women. No more women. Only men, from now on. Maybe then I'll have weekends to write home about. Don't you dare read my mind, you rotten voyeur."
"I wasn't!" Charles holds up his hands in defence. "You know I wasn't. Powers are not to be used on others without their permission."
Moira snorts. "Reading, writing, and consent of others to violation. I'm sometimes glad I didn't go to mutant kindergarten."
"Mutant extra classes," Charles says, primly. "I was the only one in my reception class, though, I had to stay after school. Moira, just two months ago you were telling me you'd had it with men, we are all crass and inconsiderate, women were much more sensitive and thoughtful and creative in bed."
Moira grins, walks over and kisses him delicately on the lips. "Such a pure, chaste mouth, Charles. I swear you gave up saying 'fuck' the day you got your DPhil."
"That is a lie," Charles says, licking off the taste of her lip balm. "A lie, I tell you."
"Really?" Moira raises her eyebrows. "And how's your sex life?"
"I'm trying to work, Moira," Charles says, peering at her over his computer monitor. He and Moira have had sex once, in the early 2000s, in a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. It didn't take.
"You are not, you're avoiding finishing those papers," she says, trenchantly. "I haven't heard a peep out of you on that front, lately. Don't tell me it's professorship-induced celibacy, I couldn't bear it."
"Moira," Charles says, and spins for her benefit. "Your legendary talent for self-absorption notwithstanding, even you can't have failed to notice the terribly sexy new accessory."
"Oh, really?" Moira raises her eyebrows. "That sounded scandalously uncharacteristic, Charles."
"And look at you saying that, sitting there with those big blue eyes and those artful curls and licking your lips. Yes, like that. There are millions of people in this city who would take positive pleasure in getting you naked."
"Who's getting Charles naked?" says the person who's just coming through the door, and Charles throws up his hands again.
"Raven, learn to knock, would you?" he complains.
"Why, what were you doing?" she asks, cheerfully. "Good morning, Dr. McTaggert."
"Good morning, Raven," Moira says.
They both sound like butter wouldn't melt. Charles rolls his eyes. "Raven, what do you want?"
"Coffee," Raven pleads. "Please, Charles. I've got Intro to Ecology in five minutes and the cafeteria line goes round the block."
Charles groans and waves at the corner of the room. "You know how the machine works, I trust."
"Thank you, thank you," she says, and scurries to it. "Did you make it here okay, in the end?"
"No, I'm still adrift at Union Square," Charles says, dryly, and relents. "I went down to Lehnsherr's bakery and called a cab from there. They were nice."
"He's nice," Raven says, looking for filters. "Bet he likes you too."
"Raven," Charles says warningly, just as Moira takes a deep draught of her own coffee and mutters something that sounds like "naked".
Charles opens his desk drawer and takes out the meringues.
To the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I appreciate the service provided by the Parks Department in maintaining a number of open-air chessboards at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. I would like to request, however, that one or more of these tables be set out without the bolted-down benches on either side of it. I am a wheelchair user and it is difficult for me to play chess side-on, as I am sure you will understand…
C. Xavier, c/o NYU
It's a good day for flying.
"I wouldn't know," Erik tells the girl at the counter, who chuckles infuriatingly and takes off within the bakery, fluttering up towards the ceiling. Her movements are honed to perfection – nothing on the shelves even rattles. "You can't fly in here! It's not kosher."
"That is entirely a lie," she says, landing nearly on her feet in front of him. Emma appears from the kitchen, carrying a tray of vegan brownies. Her amusement is palpable.
"Erik, stop being cranky," she orders. "Angel, hello, it is a pleasure to see you, as always."
"It's not a lie," he mutters. "Though maybe no one was actually planning to eat you."
Angel's wings are beautiful, Erik will admit, and shown off to their best against the bright morning sunlight. She tends to colour-coordinate her outfits around them, the same shades of iridescent pink on her cuffs, tights and New Rocks. "What do you want?" he asks, managing to sound almost hospitable.
"Cinnamon danish and a bagel, please," she says, briskly. "Did you hear the news, by the way? Edward Bell is running for the Eighth District this time around."
"Who's Edward Bell?" Erik asks, thinking he knows but wanting to make sure. Local mutant gossip tends to spread fast.
"Nice guy in the neighbourhood," Angel tells him, calmly. "Teaches high school, volunteers for the AFL-CIO, shoots flames out the tips of his fingers? You may have heard of him."
"Oh," Erik says, a little embarrassed; he tends to keep up with mutant politics, but here in New York the situation is complicated and what with all his own upheaval lately he's losing track. It's still the only state ever to have out and proud mutants representing it in Congress, but none has held a seat through two elections.
"You guys should come and help stuff envelopes," Angel says. "We're sending mailings to every mutant anyone on the campaign team has ever met, it takes a lot of envelopes."
"What's his position on mainstreaming?" Erik asks. It's automatic.
"Anti-," she says, thoughtfully. "He's all for mutant-only schools, at least at the elementary level. Mainstream education is appropriate and beneficial, for mutants to form part of and enrich the societies in which they live, but only after they've been taught how to control and use their gifts in a safe and supportive environment. Will you come stuff envelopes?"
Erik recognises a well-rehearsed speech when he hears one, but he agrees, mostly. "I'll think about it."
Angel nods, seemingly satisfied. "Also, I actually came in to ask if you would guys put one of these in your window."
Emma takes the poster before Erik can get at it, and reads out: "Flashes and Ginger Beer Time: Queering the Mutant Aesthetic.' Oh, one of your live shows, that's great. Leave us a few flyers, we can hand them out to people who are look interested."
"Thank you!" Angel says, enthusiastically. "It's at Le Petit Mort, two blocks down? It'll be a good gig, you should come."
"We will," Emma promises, and Angel takes her bagel and danish and flutters out, looking pleased. Erik takes the opportunity to inspect the poster, all neon pinks and lightning strikes and blackletter font.
"I know what all these words mean individually," he says, "but…"
"Oh, shut up." Emma shoves him lightly on the shoulder. "You're the one who's always babbling about mutant-specific culture. We should go."
Erik laughs despite himself. "I wouldn't know how to dress for it."
"Let me see," Emma says, with heavy irony. "Maybe you could find something in your wardrobe that's black."
"I don't want to," Erik begins. "I don't want to have to go and…"
"Also," Emma says, over him, "if you're going to be cranky every day that Charles Xavier doesn't come in…"
Erik blinks. "Excuse me?"
"I don't read people's minds without their permission," she says, looking thoughtful, "but that's the thing about sexual attraction. It's the mental equivalent of an elephant in the room, wearing a sparkly tutu."
"Oh," Erik says, a little uselessly, and stands there.
There are the definite beginnings of a snap in the air the day Erik receives a note, handwritten and hand-delivered and thrown carelessly onto the counter by Emma.
Do you play chess?
Erik takes a moment to think of Charles's arrogance, the way he assumes he is the only person in the world of Erik's acquaintance to have that first initial, then a moment to sigh for himself, predictable as magnetism and the turn of the earth, sure at once that it is Charles.
And then he writes back a single word, yes, and sends it care of the faculty of biology at NYU. Charles appears that evening, and he seems to pause outside when he sees the "closed" sign; Erik hurries out to invite him in, deliberately, eager to get out of the cold. Charles grins at him and rubs his hands. "Hello," he says, with that odd halfway British accent, and that way he has of looking at Erik as though this is the first time they've met.
Erik's missed him. "Chess," he says, in lieu of any other greeting. "How did you know?"
"Once, a long time ago, I used to like playing in Washington Square Park," Charles says. "You know, the outdoor tables?"
Erik nods. He played there as a child, new to the country, new to the language, but finding meaning in the movement of the pieces across the board. He remembers it well.
"Well, that's not so easy for me, now," Charles says. "And Raven hates it, I've given up even trying to persuade her. And then I noticed that" – he waves a hand towards the decorative racks on the wall, the ancient, precisely carved wooden chess set placed carefully in plain sight – "the very first time I came in here. And I thought, well."
"Yes," Erik says, pleased though he's not showing it. "That was my grandfather's, my mother's father – he taught me how to play."
"It's beautiful." Charles clearly means it; he's looking up at it with a keen, appraising eye.
"It's too delicate to play with," Erik says, realising he sounds apologetic. "My grandfather carved it himself, and age is getting to the pieces. I'm sorry. I do have another set" – and now he really does sound apologetic. Erik hasn't found someone else to play chess with. If he tells the truth to himself, it's that he never tried, never again hoping to find that family closeness with another opponent. He tries out defences, sometimes, playing black and white both, trying to understand every angle, every point of weakness. For that, though, he only needs a small travel set, with plastic pieces.
Charles smiles at it when Erik brings it out. "We'll manage fine with this."
Erik's embarrassed, nevertheless. But then they set up, and Charles plays white and sits looking at the board, head balanced on his hands, and Erik sits back and looks at the board, at the quiet intent on Charles's face, and feels comfortable in their shared silence.
"What are you thinking?" Charles asks, at length, and Erik realises that he wasn't thinking of very much. Just the turn of the season, the chess pieces, and Charles.
"Nothing," he says. They go on playing, and Erik notices that Charles talks less, when playing; he becomes reflective, with something in his gaze that suggests a mind roaming beyond the movements of pieces. In those moments Erik can imagine Charles as something beyond the superficially garrulous academic, something deeper.
Although, Erik thinks, if Charles were merely what he makes himself out to be, they wouldn't be here on this autumn afternoon with the leaves blowing past the window, content. When a delivery man comes in, there's a pause before he closes the door and the cold air comes in. Erik draws closer to Charles, keeping intact their warmth, this small space that's theirs.
Moira finds it all hilarious. "Only you," she says, "could be engineering a flirtation by means of games of chess. Strategy and kings and rooks or whatever the pointy ones are called. Then, wanton passion! Small ivory chips everywhere!"
"It's nothing like that," Charles says, checking he has his keys before rolling across to the door. "We play chess, that's all. Erik was looking for an opponent, and so was I."
Moira nods, very seriously. "Of course. It is totally a business arrangement."
Charles huffs, annoyed. "Moira, he doesn't know that I'm.."
"A great big queer? Well, is he one? You could ask around. I could ask around."
"Moira," Charles says, inhaling. "Unlike some people, I feel no need to stick little rainbow stickers to my person. Thank you for the little wheelchair-shaped ones, by the way, that was terribly subtle of you."
"You can get anything off the internet," Moira says. "Weren't you something or other notable when you were an undergrad? Chief Bisexual, or something?"
"That wasn't what the committee post was called, and you know it. Right. I am going. I am leaving my office to go somewhere where no one says ridiculous things to me."
"To the bakery?" Moira's eyes sparkle. "You're going there again tonight?"
"No," Charles says firmly. "No, I am not. I am going home and having a civilised dinner with my little sister, and then I am going to finish grading papers if it takes me until four in the morning."
"Enjoy," Moira says, and Charles sticks his tongue out at her before he leaves.
He's thinking, as he pauses in front of the apartment door looking for his keys, that although he wouldn't ever say it to Moira, it is strange to be coming straight home – and that in itself is strange, when he and Erik have played maybe five or six games of chess in total, certainly not enough to form a routine – and then he opens the door, goes inside and there's a strange man in his kitchen.
Whoever he is, he's standing on a footstool, getting something out of a cupboard. He turns around at the sound of Charles coming in, jumps down and stands still, holding a can of something in his hands. He doesn't say a word.
Charles rolls back a little. There's a pause while he holds himself and everything around him still – his thoughts, the shape of the world around him, hanging – and in his mind he tastes something familiar, a soft scent, vanilla and lemon and something else indefinable too, together something he's barely lived a day without, something he couldn't live without.
"Raven," he says very quietly. "What is it, dear?"
Slowly, her body shifts back to its usual form, the girl with the bright eyes and pale hair who looks nothing like her big brother, flickering through the usual shades of electric blue. He's seen this maybe half a dozen times in his life, maybe fewer. He stays perfectly still.
"Charles," she says, hoarsely, wholly back to herself, "may I?"
At first he doesn't understand. But there's an emotion in the air whether he's probing for it or not: it's love, Raven's affection for him, but tinged with something else harsh and fearful. "Yes," he says, and she sits on his lap, a little ungainly and awkward.
It doesn't hurt him. Perhaps, he thinks, if he had been using the wheelchair when he and Raven were children, they'd have grown up to shape themselves this way around each other; it would be natural. But Raven asks for permission, and Charles grants it, and she wraps her arms around his neck and says, softly into his ear: "Thank you for not freaking out."
And then she gets up all at once, fast enough for him to feel oddly bereft of the warmth of her, and runs to her room. Charles pushes himself forwards, then back, forwards, back, thinking, thinking. He makes tea, and still he doesn't understand.
For Rosh Hashanah, the bakery's closed. But the day after, Emma drizzles apples with honey, puts them out on the bakery counter with a smile at Erik. He doesn't mean to, but he finds himself taking a bite anyway, the sweetness an immediate, visceral memory of childhood.
"Thank you," Charles says, formally, when Emma offers him the bowl. He's come in at the end of the working day, loaded down with papers that he's steadfastly ignoring; Erik has closed the bakery with him still inside. He's getting alarmingly used to having Charles around.
The apples gleam under the light, rich gold and green. Charles takes a tentative bite, and smiles at Erik's frown.
"She does this on her own initiative, would you believe," he says. "For my part I would prefer it if people ate baked goods."
Charles is licking his lips. "It's good."
Erik nods. "It's the traditional thing to do. You see, the previous owner preferred solidly Jewish staff; I employ mutants; but Emma is in a class of her own."
Emma laughs and blows Erik a kiss. "As if I couldn't be a nice mutant Jewish girl, Erik. You should go to Angel's gig, have I reminded you of that today yet?"
"If I say yes, will you stop bugging me about it?" Erik demands.
She makes a cheerful face at him. "Have some more."
Erik doesn't, but Charles does, and then smiles ruefully as he looks down at the chessboard. "Sticky," he explains, holding out his fingers. Erik has a ridiculous desire to lick them clean.
"Tell me how you want to move," he says, sighing.
"Here," Charles indicates a pawn, "to here." After a pause: "Why do you make a point of employing mutants?"
Erik concentrates and it lifts up, neatly, and drops in the required position. Charles laughs, delightedly. "I thought you could only move metal?"
Erik nods. "They have metal in the bases, a little. They're very cheap. I should get a better one for use."
"You could," Charles says. "Why mutants?"
Erik doesn't have to think about that. "It's important," he says. "Mutants are different. We're different. We have different needs, different ways of thinking. If I employ mutants, I get mutant customers. People know that if they come here, they'll be among friends. No one laughs at Az's tail here, no one runs a mile shrieking about the end of times." Off Charles's look, he adds: "That's happened to him a few times. He likes working for me better, he says."
Charles nods. "I don't disagree, necessarily. I just wondered what your thinking was."
"Mutants should reach out to each other," Erik says, firmly. "Together we're stronger."
Charles nods. "I understand. Why honey?"
Erik blinks, left behind by the wandering of Charles's thoughts. "Honey?"
"On the apples," Charles says, and touches Erik's arm, leading his hands to the bowl.
"For a sweet new year," Erik explains, suddenly vividly reminded of his mother. "To start as you mean to go on."
"That's sensible." Charles smiles. "Forgive my ignorance."
They fall into silence again, after that. Erik's thinking, again, that superficial layers of Charles's personality fall away while they do this; that somehow they become more real to each other through the lens of the game. They've played an hour, mostly in silence, when Erik glances outside at the grey day and the wind picking up, and thinks sudden thoughts of hot coffee, cider, tea. "Want something to drink?" he asks Charles, with a lack of reserve he doesn't feel around many people.
Charles nods. "I'll go and see Emma."
As he moves around the table he kisses Erik very briefly on the cheek. It could be entirely innocent, Erik thinks dizzily; it could be the innocent gesture of a man with manners at right angles to Erik's. But from Charles's look, halfway between defiant and entreaty, Erik decides not. He sits still at the chessboard, looking at the king knocked neatly over as though it weren't expecting it, and feels a certain sympathy for it.
When Charles comes back, Erik doesn't look to see if Emma is following behind; he gets up and puts his hands on either side of Charles's face, tilting him up, and kisses his lips as though it were the only natural thing in the world to do, as though they do this all the time, as though chess games and autumn leaves have this as their only conclusion. As though he and Charles are a part of one another.
To the NYU Department of Facilities and Management [by email]:
Could you please find whichever blithering idiot left thirteen pots of paint in a tasteful shade of institutional magnolia OUTSIDE MY OFFICE DOOR and set them on fire, please?
After those evenings on which Charles doesn't appear, he drops in on his way to work in the morning. For all it's only been days, weeks, there's a celestial regularity to the pattern. Erik thinks the bakery is at its best at that hour, scrubbed clean and full of things rising, baking, cooling and sweetening. Charles buys his breakfast, gets crumbs on his fingers and sometimes Erik kisses him. He always tastes of whatever he chose, always warm sugar with a hint of yeast.
Each day, as Charles goes out, the blast of air that slips through the closing is colder.
"So, it's going well, is it?" Emma asks, wickedly, when she wanders into the kitchen to find Erik whistling.
Erik glares at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about." It's a few minutes before opening time, and the bakery smells richly of bread. Outside, the sun is filtering through the frost on the edges of leaves, the last traces of sunrise leaving the sky a pure, austere blue.
Erik opens the front door, flipping the sign over to "open", and steps back for Az to stagger out, weighed down by bread orders and cookie gift baskets. "Have a nice day, Mr. Lehnsherr!" he chirps. Despite two years working for Erik, he's incurably polite. In the clear space in front of the shop, he teleports away, leaving red sparks in Erik's vision.
Emma chuckles from behind him. "Be like that if you like," she says. "You can't lie to me."
"You're reading my mind?" Erik asks, raising his eyebrows at her. She never has before. He supposes he wouldn't know, really, but he trusts her.
"Not on purpose," she says, sweetly. "If you will radiate these enormous waves of peace and contentment…"
Erik scowls. She only chuckles again, drifting into the kitchen to check on the ovens.
Today's first task is to disassemble the chairs. Since removing them from the sidewalk outside the bakery, Erik has been planning to take out the screws and store them flat. Another project, half-formed in his mind, is adjusting some of the furniture inside the bakery for those mutants who would find something other than chairs comfortable to sit on – his mind is on Hank, who comes in sometimes and gets his fur stuck in the cracks of things. Emma's suggested they get in a barstool for his use, which Erik hasn't got around to yet.
Emma watches him working, the screws spinning wildly, flying up in the air, and laying themselves on a nearby table with surgical precision. "That's a useful gift," she says, approvingly.
"You've seen it lots of times before," Erik tells her, brusque because he's concentrating, controlling the lines of magnetic force from his hands. It's not quite a magnetic power, he supposes, as it works on non-ferrous metals, but it's a useful way to think.
"Even so." Emma smiles. "While you're at it, maybe you could do something about that old dresser you're always complaining about? With the screws out maybe we can persuade the garbage men to take it away."
"There are a few things in it," Erik says after a moment, knowing for a fact there are metal buttons, old metal cutlery and a pincushion full of pins inside. "Empty it out, see if there's anything we'd need, and then I'll take it apart."
"Sure." Emma goes off to do it, and Erik goes on removing screws, thinking of nothing very much in particular, soothed by the hypnotic rhythm of the work, the metal curving through his consciousness. He's still there a few minutes later, with all the chairs neatly flattened, but he's feeling no compulsion to move, just standing with the morning sunlight warm on his face.
"Erik." Emma's grinning, and there's a wickedness in her thoughts that Erik is fairly sure she's broadcasting on purpose. "Erik, you'll like this."
It's a sheet of newspaper. After a second Erik realises that it's come out of the old dresser – he dimly remembers putting newspaper in it to line the drawers, soon after they outgrew the old premises and moved kit and caboodle to 14th Street.
"What?" he asks, and moves to snatch it; she hangs on to it and clucks.
"Manners, Erik." She laughs. "Here, it's the society page. Top right."
Erik takes the paper, faded and dusty, and holds it up to the light. Most of it is taken up by a photograph. The colours have muted with age, the blurring ink is crossing the clear lines, but the two figures are clearly recognisable as Charles and Raven. He's standing against a blue sky, half-lifting her up, and they're looking at each other and laughing, seemingly unaware of the camera. They're beautiful.
Charles Xavier, says the caption, seen here with sister Raven, has recently returned from England. Enigmatic scion of the Xavier family, his mutant status has been a surprise to some…
Erik puts down the paper, very deliberately, and looks up at Emma, wandering around the bakery wiping tables with her head lifted up as though she's listening to a song only she can hear. Charles reminds him of someone. He knows who it is, now.
"You're a telepath."
Erik wanted to lead up to it. But Charles wheels in to the bakery the following evening, eyes bright and cheeks pink from the cold, and the way he moves, the expressive cast of his face is so obvious, suddenly, so like Emma and so much just Charles himself, all that curiosity and insouciance making such sense, that Erik wonders how he could not have known and gone on not knowing.
"Yes." Charles is fumbling for his wallet. "No time for chess tonight, I'm afraid, Raven has friends coming over and I'm here for baked goods. And to see you. But mostly for baked goods. Raven was very persuasive."
"Charles," Erik says, slowly, carefully, "you're a telepath. Were you going to tell me?"
"Didn't I?" Charles looks directly at him, a thoughtful expression passing briefly across his face. "I suppose I didn't. Well, then. Yes, I am a telepath. A few other things, too, there are certain nuances, but that's it for the most part."
"Charles," Erik says, and then doesn't say anything more for a long moment. "Were you planning to tell me about this?"
"I'm sure I would have done." Charles rolls back a little. "Erik, is this important?"
"Yes." Erik looks up and sees that there are forks sitting behind the counter, bending. He takes a deep breath, returns them to their former shape and looks at Charles. "Yes, it is important."
"All right, it is important." Charles doesn't sound convinced. "Did Raven tell you, then? Or Emma?"
Erik privately wonders why Emma didn't tell him, and for a crazed moment, if this is a conspiracy. Mutely, he picks up the old newspaper piece and hands it over.
Charles reads it, a slow smile spreading across his face. "I remember this," he says, quietly. "I was an undergrad. I came home for the Christmas vac, my first year. My parents were in the city at the same time that I was – Raven was furious, she'd wanted me to take her off somewhere, and I had no objection, but of course we had to stay and play high-society happy families. I remember the photographer, my mother wasn't pleased about it, but I never saw the picture."
"How hard your life has been," Erik says, voice dripping with sarcasm, and Charles puts the paper down and looks intently up at him.
"I didn't come to be sniped at," he says, crisply. "I came for some macaroons. I'm sorry if it upsets you that I'm a telepath, I'm sorry if my family background offends you, and if you'll give me the macaroons I will no longer contaminate your bakery with my presence."
"If it upsets me – it doesn't upset me that you're a telepath, Charles!" Erik snaps at him. He's nearly yelling, and angry with himself for it. "It's not that! It's that you came here, you let me – you let us… get closer, without telling me…"
Charles inclines his head. "So, you wanted veto power? So it would be all right if I had said, by the way, Erik, here's a piece of information about who I am, feel free to reject me on that basis?"
Erik feels an inarticulable frustration rising beneath the anger. "Charles, I did not say that!"
"What frightens you about me?" Charles asks, suddenly mild. "What's in your head that you don't want me to see?"
He doesn't wait for an answer, but turns himself around with precision and goes out, letting a burst of chilled air into the bakery in his wake.
Unlike most of the faculty, Moira tends to come back from teaching classes in a good mood. She dances into the office, her skirt fluttering up in a joyful ruffle. "Messenger RNA!" she says, delightedly. "Bless them all, the darlings, they understood it!"
Charles sighs. "Have they got rid of the paint?"
Moira looks down the corridor. "There's a cowed-looking individual wheeling away several white pots. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes. Good," Charles says, and goes back to trying to make sense of the graphs in the journal article sitting on his desk. Pigeons coo at the window; despite the fact this is a ground-floor office, the local birdlife seems to find their window ledge very attractive.
"Uh-oh," Moira says, without missing a beat. "What is it?"
"Mmm?" Charles flips the article over, wondering if it will make more sense with the axes the other way up. "What do you mean?"
Moira lands in her chair with a dramatic flump. "You're looking unhappy."
"I'm working." This morning he has organised his desk drawers, read all the administrative paperwork he's been meaning to get to in the two years he's been sharing this office with Moira, and made a significant start on a whole new filing system.
"Really?" She's sounding dubious, still twirling as she turns on her computer and it whirs disconsolately into life. "What have you learned about life on this planet this morning, then?"
"I've read our documents setting out the procedure in case of fire," Charles says. "I've discovered that there is absolutely no mention made of people with disabilities in case of an alarm."
"Really?" Moira darts across and picks the document off his desk. "Would that be because you're reading the 1989 edition, by any chance? I can print you off the current one if you really want to read all several hundred pages of it, or you can tell me what's bothering you."
"Nothing's bothering me," Charles tells her.
"Right, that's why you're reading the manual on health and safety rather than doing your work, which you love, or bitching about freshman comp, which let's face it, you also love."
Charles sighs. "Leave me alone, please."
"You're giving me a headache, Charles!" Moira says. "I mean, literally, you're broadcasting. And as I must needs share my office with a telepath…"
"Moira." Charles looks up, cutting her off very gently. "Do you mind that? That I'm a telepath?"
"Of course not." Moira seems genuinely surprised. "Of course not, sweetheart. It's you, it's who you are – wait. You're pissed off because Erik just found out you're a telepath and he can't deal with it?"
Charles blinks, and doesn't bother prevaricating. "Sure you're not one, too?"
"Don't try and distract me!" Moira slams her files down on her desk. "If that's it, then he's a prejudiced shit and you don't need him, and you should ditch him right now and come drinking with me tonight."
"That's not it," Charles says, thoughtfully, then takes a deep breath, then another, then another. The tension headache that was building starts to abate, and he smiles apologetically as Moira visibly relaxes, too. "That's not it. Erik is a mutant himself – his gifts centre on metal, as far as I know. Can work it, manipulate it, that sort of thing. I've known others."
"As far as you know?" Moira looks at him intently. "Charles, sweetheart. What exactly did he say to you?"
Charles thinks about that. "He said… he said I should have told him about it. I should have told him about it, before we got closer."
"Closer." Moira grins, wickedly, then turns abruptly serious. "And what did you say?"
"I'm afraid I asked him what he was hiding, and swept out." Charles does, honestly, feel guilty about that.
'Hmmm?" Charles leans back in the chair, feeling suddenly combative. He's been deliberately numbing his mind all morning, and the suppressed energy is rising back up.
Moira's looking contemplative. "Didn't you tell me once that Erik runs a mutant-centred business?"
"Well, I don't know if I'd put it like that." Charles thinks about it. "Actually, maybe I would. He prefers to employ mutants; he thinks they should build mutant-centered communities. I think he's probably on the other side of the mutant education debate from me."
"Right." Moira nods. "So you know that Erik is deeply invested in mutanthood, both his own and others'. From what he says it's clear he has definite ideas about mutant history, community, culture. Being a mutant is important to him. You know all of this, and yet you don't tell him you're a mutant."
"Because it's not important to me!" Charles snaps back, stung. "It's not! Does it have to be?"
"Well, no." Moira smiles at him. "But I think it would have been important to him to know."
"People look at me differently," Charles says, suddenly. "It's not like bending metal or teleportation or being able to look like whatever you want. People find out you're a telepath, then they look at you as though… as though you're dangerous. Don't try to tell me you didn't, when you first met me."
"When I first met you I was twenty-two and drunk," Moira says. "And when I sobered up, I don't deny I was worried. You've got a lot of power, Charles, and that is scary. But I got over it. I got over it and I love you and you shouldn't be having this conversation with me."
Charles sinks back, suddenly realising she's right.
"Hello," Charles says, wheeling into the bakery just before closing.
Erik's there, which Charles is grateful for; he doesn't know if he could have persuaded Emma to fetch him if he weren't. But his expression stills as he looks at Charles, and a tension rises in his limbs. "Can I help you?"
"Yes," Charles says, quietly. "We can sit, and we can talk."
Erik frowns at him. "Do we have anything to talk about?"
"I'd say so." Charles tips his head back and looks up. "I can stay here, until you talk to me. Forever, if necessary. I'll just sit here and pretend I'm invisible. Or a piece of furniture."
"You couldn't pretend to be invisible if you tried," Erik says, caustically. "You talk too much."
And then of course he is, despite his very best efforts, talking to Charles Xavier, so he pushes the front door closed and goes and sits down in the chair closest to him. They are both still for a moment, looking at each other. Charles is making an effort to keep his mind locked down. It's like talking through gritted teeth in that it can be done.
"First of all, I want to apologise." Charles is clear about this, at least. "I said one thing to you the other day that was unforgivable. The rest I'm here to argue about."
"This is a very idiosyncratic apology, Charles." For a moment Erik remembers what Emma said about sexual attraction, the elephant in the tutu. He's softening because of Charles's voice, the way he looks up, open and guileless – but perhaps it's more than that. Erik responds to Charles like metal, like a lodestar. It's an unnamed feeling. It's rising.
Charles smiles, ruefully. "I'm sorry for what I said, Erik. I really am."
"You asked me what I was hiding." The moment has a winter-sharp clarity in Erik's mind. "And you were hiding from me, all this time."
Charles nods. "I admit that. I want to say, also, that I never lied to you, and I never would have read your mind without your permission. And that it was my right to hide my ability."
Erik shakes his head. Perhaps with another person, this might become another shouting match, but there's something about the way Charles is holding out, not an olive branch but a metaphorical cap, asking for something. "It might be your right," he says. "But you've a right to sit outside my bakery and be an anti-Semite as loud as you can, too. It doesn't make it right."
Charles nods. "I accept that. And yet."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Erik takes a deep breath, tries again. "Why don't you tell people?"
Charles puts his hands on his face, takes them away, sighs. "For a great many reasons. But it's true, what I said the other day. It's not important. There's much more to me than my abilities. And my disabilities. I'm many things, Erik. I'm a human being."
"Some would contest that." Erik's voice is carefully neutral, and Charles sighs again.
"I have never liked the word 'mutant'," he says. "It always seemed too B-movie for my liking. As though I advance on people, dripping green slime."
Erik can't help but smile at that. "But, human being…"
"I am," Charles says, firmly. "It's not that easy, Erik! It's not, first there's us and then there's them. There's me. I'm the child of a human. If I'd ever had an unguarded moment and agreed to be Moira's sperm donor" – Erik raises his eyebrows – "the children we'd have would be viable. And you're about to call me a reductionist biologist…"
Erik blinks, not about to do any such thing. "Charles…"
"But it's not us and them," Charles goes on, waving his hands. "We are their brothers and fathers and sons and friends. We are who they are; they are us."
Erik has seen Charles like this before, hair falling into his eyes, all mess and eloquence. Getting slowly to his feet, he takes the keys from his pocket and locks the door. "I think you know I live above the shop," he says, carefully. "Perhaps we could continue this conversation elsewhere? Emma and Az are done for the day, I'll let them go a little early."
Charles stares at him, his expression unreadable. "I think you know that I have a longstanding habit of writing to establishments and public bodies who annoy me. I haven't yet written to a private residence."
"If that's your way of asking do I happen to have an elevator, the answer is no. But" – and now Erik's in a hurry, words falling out on top of one another so he says them, so at least he's said them – "I can lift you. There's metal in your chair." And in the ring on your finger, he doesn’t say; in the buckles on your boots, in your blood.
Charles looks at him. "I think I'll see myself out," he says, very quietly, and turns to go to the door. He can't open it.
It's a moment, hanging. With greater clarity than he's had about anything, Erik knows that what happens now will be what happens ever after.
The door unlocks.
Charles pauses before he goes out, gives Erik a sweet half-smile. And then he's gone, and Erik sits down hard on a wooden chair and is conscious only of breathing, breathing, and the shape and pressures of metal.
To the staff and patrons of Le Petit Mort:
I recently had reason to visit your establishment for an evening event, and was pleasantly surprised by the ease of accessibility for wheelchair users. I am writing to thank you […]
A day later Charles is wheeling into the bakery with a chessboard balanced on his knees, blowing steam and rubbing together hands in fingerless gloves. "I brought metal pieces," he says, and Erik hears, not an apology, but a conciliation.
"If I play chess with you," he says, carefully, "will you come out with me tonight?"
"Out?" Charles's expression turns wicked, the meanings of the word tangling together into a salacious jumble. "Somewhere accessible, I trust?"
"Believe me, it will be," Emma says, in passing, and both Charles and Erik watch her go, wondering.
They play two games of chess that afternoon, the first slow and controlled and the second with more recklessness in it, more gambles and lucky chances. Erik wins both games. He understands that again, Charles is trying to tell him something. There's snow coming, sleet hitting the window, casting shadows of the season to come.
"Sorry about this," Erik says, as he stands up, stretching to get rid of the knots from his back, and switching off the lights. "Emma insisted I go, and I really could use the company."
By nightfall, they're heading out of the bakery, with Erik carefully locking up behind them. They both look at the door as he does it, and the moment lasts longer, perhaps, than it ought, but neither of them says anything until they've hit the next block over, stopping so Charles can call Raven.
"I get her voicemail," he complains. "I'd leave her a message saying I'll be late home, but she never checks them." He shrugs. "I guess if she needs me she'll call me."
The bar is impossible to miss, the name set out above the door in neon-pink calligraphy. Erik knows it chiefly as a gay bar with psychedelic cocktails; tonight, though, there are more women than he ever remembers seeing there, and a greater range in age. Charles is looking around, trying to remember the last time he was in a cocktail bar, which is a long time ago, and without Moira, which is longer still.
"Hey, guys," says the woman at the door. "Welcome to Flashes and Ginger Beer, sorry about the wait. My colleague had to go deal with a costume emergency backstage. Tickets are five bucks – wait, you're Erik Lehnsherr, aren't you? "
Erik nods. "I was told..."
The woman nods her head briskly. "Yes, yes, you put up the posters and the flyers, you get comps. Are you mutants? Don't worry, you don't have to answer, it's just for our audience statistics."
"Yes," Erik says, firmly; after a moment, Charles nods.
"And what's your name?" she asks Charles. "We need to write down all the names of the people we give free tickets to."
"Charles Xavier," Charles says, amused.
The woman writes this down. "Xavier? With an X? That must be pretty cool, having X as your initial."
"Hardly," Charles says, dryly. "I'm a London railway station, my sister's a prescription."
"Your sister?" the woman is saying, looking curious, but then someone else comes bustling up, and Erik's momentarily surprised and then not surprised at all: it's Emma.
"Hi, guys," she says, very cheerfully. "Glad you're talking to each other again. Get in there."
They make their way in slowly, and Charles is pleased by how easy it is for him to get around. He isn't crowded, and doesn't have to get people to move out of the way. The bar is placed to one side, covered in glasses of what must be tonic water, quinine glowing under UV light, and at the front there's a tiny stage, lit from behind with warm pink and orange light. They get to the front with no trouble, find a place where Charles can see clearly, and Erik's had time to get them both drinks, beer for himself and hard cider for Charles, when suddenly everyone starts to get quiet.
Angel stands up on the tiny stage and taps a spoon on a wineglass. The lights are already dim, and her wings shine translucent pink. She rises, levitating a few inches from the ground, and there are cheers and whoops from the audience. "Ladies, gentlemen and others," she says, "Homo sapiens and the children of the atom…"
"Interbreeding makes us the same species," Charles whispers for Erik's ears, but he's grinning.
"…welcome to the show."
She flutters up to the ceiling and the music starts. Erik puts a hand on Charles's shoulder and is surprised to feel Charles reach up and cover it with his own. The noise level has fallen to a low buzz; the air smells of smoke and expectation.
It's mutant performance art, Erik thinks, a little dazedly. At first, there are no people on the stage, and then there are flowers, growing up out of nothingness, rich red roses, tulips, poppies and carnations, growing out of the boards and around the sides of the stage, from the ceiling, from the cracks, and as the noise level rises they flash-freeze, turn into frosted sculptures. Charles reaches out and plucks one of them. It crackles into powder into his hands.
Suddenly, rain, a brief crackle and smash of localised thunder, and the flowers run richly with water, disappear, and the three mutants come on stage, all women, all laughing, and bow deeply to applause.
Erik still feels dazed, as though he were present at the birth of something. "This is pretty cool, isn't it?" says the woman next to him, with pink hair and a wicked expression. "No spoken-word poetry at mutant events, thank God. I mean, it's not all bad, but I wouldn't be the third radical feminist poet on in a row for all the honey on Lesbos."
Erik laughs. On the stage a woman with dark brown skin and black hair piled thickly on top of her head is walking around the stage, touching each pillar and post and leaving light behind, small glowing globes, some soft yellow and others too brilliant to look at. "My name is Deepali," she says, as she moves. "Some of the more educated among you may know what that means." Low laughter from the edges of the audience. "But even those of you who don't might appreciate this."
She claps her hands. The globes of light fly back to her, becoming a glorious tiny sun, and she claps her hands again and each one flies to each individual audience member. Erik finds himself holding light. It doesn't burn; it's gentle like body heat.
Charles says, very quietly, "Fiat lux." He sounds entirely sincere, and a little transported. The light takes a long time to fade: through several other acts, it flickers gently, gently, until finally each globe is a single firefly spark winding down to dark.
At the interval, Angel announces that there will be a break for fifteen minutes, and flutters down to sit on the edge of the stage. "Enjoying yourselves?"
"Yes" – and Charles's smile is, as usual, dazzling.
Erik says, "I still don't know what any of the words mean."
"Queering the mutant aesthetic?" Angel grins. "Well, let me explain it to you."
Charles's expression is so readable that Erik has to check he didn't actually broadcast the thought. You walked right into that one.
"We don't all look the same," Angel says, simply. "We are not all the same. I mean, we are all mutants together…"
"Yes," Erik interrupts. "Yes, we are."
"But not always first and sometimes last and not all in the same ways. Me, I found out I could fly the day of my quinceañera. It was a good day. There's a girl over there, Lily, she can fly, but she found out in prep school when they pushed her out a tree."
Charles says, "I am a mutant. I am also an academic, a geneticist, a chess player, a brother, a son." His eyes are on Erik as he says, "And other things, to others. I'm English, I'm American, I talk too much."
"Yes, you do," Erik says, meaning to sound sardonic. He looks down at Charles and feels an inarticulable fondness. "But here we are, all together, in the same space, because we are mutants."
"Yes." Charles looks back up at him and smiles.
"Time to go," Angel says, and blows a kiss at Erik as she takes off backstage.
The final act of the evening is an abbreviated cabaret. "Our singer is nervous," Angel explains. "It's their very first time on stage in front of people, so there'll just be a couple of songs. But we know you'll be kind. You will be, won't you, lovely audience?"
The audience cheers, calling out affectionate encouragement. Then someone comes on stage and Charles's first impression is of a joyously perfect androgyny, their eyes bright and hair tied up, their body with mere suggestions of curves. Charles is reminded of a production of Cabaret he saw once at Oxford, done with enthusiasm and some sort of authenticity in a college bar, with the emcee draped over the tables with this same mixture of cool austerity and ambiguous sexuality.
The singer twirls a top hat and sings, slowly, "Never know how much I love you…"
There's a long awkward pause. Someone at the back of the audience cheers. The singer takes a step forwards and goes on: "Never know how much I care…"
There's more cheering. The singer takes a visible deep breath and sings the next line louder, with clear, rounded notes, and then the audience falls quiet as the song builds against the smoky silence in the bar, rough-edged, but with the seeds of something special. Charles is laughing a little, from pleasure and not mirth, as the singer reaches the end of the song, purrs, "What a lovely way to burn" – and throws off the top hat.
It lands, as if perfectly aimed, in Charles's lap. The singer reaches down to get it, and then they're inches apart, momentarily, close enough for him to breathe in and feel the touch of familiar thoughts, filling his mind with a scent like vanilla, and like lemon.
Charles looks up, says nothing, and smiles.
At the very end, it's dark. The performers have vanished backstage, the lights behind the stage are dimming, the mass of audience is splitting back up into individuals, milling towards the door, towards the bar. Charles reaches out and pulls Erik down, a little insistently, and kisses him, a small, chaste kiss becoming deeper and softer. Erik breaks away and glances around, as though he's worried they're being watched, as though he's worried Charles is doing this for effect, but people are heading out into the night, they're alone in a crowd. Erik kisses Charles and has such a powerful wish, suddenly, a wish for a flat surface, a bed with clean white sheets and a high thread count, that Charles rolls back slightly and laughs.
"You said," Erik begins, whispering, plaintive. "You said you can't hear thoughts, unless you try…"
"Sometimes you shout," Charles says, apologetically, and takes his hand and squeezes it tight.
It's a clear, cold night, only the brightest of stars visible in the city sky. Charles is pushing himself forwards with a dreamy intensity, and Erik feels that same quality of being only half there, part of his consciousness still alight with colour and sound.
"Thank you," Charles says, apropos of nothing, and Erik is brought back to himself.
"For bringing me," Charles says, still dreamy. "I would never have… I'd never – well, I enjoyed myself."
"So did I," Erik says, honestly. He should thank Emma, he thinks, and Angel. They go on through the quiet night. Erik's dimly aware of the low hum of traffic, a man at a bus stop humming "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". Somewhere far above an aircraft is heading out towards the ocean, deep and dense structures of metal under carefully calculated strain.
Somehow, it's the right moment to ask the question. "What do you mean, sometimes I shout?"
"Sometimes you shout," Charles repeats. He's moving slowly; he's tired. "I try not to read other people's minds without their permission. Sometimes I do, though, because the other person is so – well, passionate, I suppose. They have such depth of feeling, it's as though they were shouting in an empty room. I couldn't close my ears against them even if I tried."
"Depth of feeling," Erik repeats, a little startled.
"Sorry," Charles says, amusedly. "Sorry, but it is true. Sometimes I can't block my mind against you. I do try."
"Chess," Erik says, suddenly. "You… you play chess against me. And you lose."
Charles merely smiles at him, eyes bright in the low light. "Yes. And sometimes I win. Although the pieces are metal, sometimes I win."
Erik stops walking for a moment, and Charles lifts his hands and lets only his momentum carry him on, and there's an understanding between them in that small pause, that break in the continuity of their motion. For a second Erik thinks about them as stars revolving around one another at a great distance, bound across distance by another's centre of gravity.
"You were right," he says, the words drawn out of him by some inexplicable force. Although, he thinks, looking at Charles, perhaps not so inexplicable; perhaps this is just the force Charles has exerted on him all along, the pull towards truth, and if not that, at least honesty. "You were right, in what you said the other day."
"What?" Charles asks.
"You asked me what I was hiding. What was I afraid of you finding out."
"That was an inexcusable thing to say," Charles says, quietly.
"And yet." Erik takes a deep breath. "The bakery. E. Lehnsherr's Kosher Bakery."
"And De Facto Mutant Sanctuary, Emma calls it," Charles adds, and Erik smiles at that.
"The E doesn't stand for Erik," he says, while he has the force to keep on talking. "Edie, my mother. She started the bakery from scratch, after my father died. She charmed the bank into giving her a loan, baked them pastries to sweeten them. It was her project, her baby. And then she died."
"How did she die?" Charles asks, gently.
"A road accident," Erik says, with some bitterness. "After years of hard work, after making it through such hard times, when things were finally going so well – an accident. Senseless."
Charles says nothing, but there's a mute sympathy in his mind, a softness. Erik takes a moment to realise it's a deliberate sharing.
"So," he goes on, as briskly as he can, "I took over the business. It's what she would have wanted. I employed as many mutants as I could, I thought up new items for the menu occasionally, but for the most part it's still the way she ran it. "
Charles nods. "All right. But why would you want to hide that?"
"It's not what I wanted." Erik holds up his hands in some sort of defence. "I never wanted this. I'm a trained engineer. I attended NYU, in fact. And I had… ideas. Ideas about mutants like me, what we can do, what we become. And now Angel tells me that Edward Bell is running for Congress for this district and it's something – well, perhaps I wanted to do that."
"Edward Bell," Charles says, thoughtfully. "Without the support of the party he's unlikely to get very far, but it's good that he's trying. See, I do pay attention to the world around me occasionally."
"Charles," Erik says. "I'm not even religious. Of course, I was raised Jewish, but there's a difference between that and running a kosher bakery. Whoever heard of a kosher bakery that opens Saturdays?"
"But you don't work on them," Charles notes, remembering the first time he met Emma.
"Because…" Erik holds up his hands again, not able to say it.
"Because that's what your mother would have liked." Charles nods. "Erik, I don't think… well, okay. You may not want to do this, but you do this, and that – well, that says something about you."
"I'm not sure about that."
"There are things about the last two years of my life which I'm grateful for," Charles says. "Some things that are real and precious, even. There's Raven – I mean, we were fairly close growing up, but now I'm finding that she's my sister, but also a dear friend. And I've learned more about her just recently than I expect I would ever have known, if things were different. I live in a city I love, and share an office with my best friend, and my work is what I was born to do. But at the same time, no, this wasn't how I planned my life. And that's, well, that's okay."
He's looking up at Erik, with that familiar total lack of guile.
"Charles," Erik begins, and stops.
"You're going to talk about mutants, and how you're failing your fellow mutant," Charles goes on, suddenly merciless. "You employ mutants. You support mutant culture. You educate everyone you meet on the importance of mutant rights and identity. I think you're doing all right, Mr. Lehnsherr of New York."
"Charles," Erik says, softly, lovingly, "you talk too much."
They've reached the bakery.
Erik unlocks the door and switches on the lights without thinking. Charles is sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by stacked tables, looking at him. Erik looks back, then at the small internal door with the mezuzah, to Charles again and then to the sleet-slick street outside. "You don't have to…"
"I would like to stay," Charles says softly.
"I still don't have an elevator," Erik says, feeling a little unsure, a little ridiculous.
Charles reaches out and touches his arm, almost flirtatiously. "I hear you have certain talents."
"You said," Erik says, a little confusedly, "you didn't want to do this."
"I didn't want this just to happen to me," says Charles, suddenly incisive, not dreamy. "Now it's different. You let me out: now I choose to come back."
In his mind, Erik replays the simple motion of his hand, the unlocking door.
"Well," Charles says again, and then Erik feels something extraordinary, something inarticulable and dizzying, as though someone has opened a window in his mind, let in a gentle breeze.
Gentle, he thinks again, and realises it's just a touch. A touch: a request for permission.
"Yes," he says, out loud, and Charles enters quietly. Erik has noticed before that every person has a smell – he's visited friends after they've moved apartments, suffusing new spaces with parts of themselves. His mother's house in Brooklyn smelled like her house in Berlin. This is like that, a little: Charles's inimitable self, all books, dust, iron, the scent of him coming in through those metaphorical windows.
He's shaking a little as he steps back and makes the usual careful appraisal: there's loose change in Charles's pockets, and buckles on his belt and boots, but not enough. It will have to be the chair. Inside his mind Charles shifts, wary, but trusting.
Erik closes his eyes for a moment and lifts. The wheelchair leaves the ground by just a few inches, enough to clear the steps, enough to move smoothly upwards. Inside his mind, Charles thinks: this feels like flying, and his exhilaration makes Erik laugh.
"You are," he says out loud, still moving, still concentrating.
It's when they reach the top of the stairs that Erik turns and says, "You could stop me, couldn't you. You could have stopped me at any time."
Charles nods. He's choosing to speak, although he's still in Erik's mind, a quiet presence like a single reader in a library. "I could have. You could have damaged me; I could have damaged you."
There's nothing either of them can do then but breathe.
"You'll probably have to get me down again in a while," Charles says ruefully, after a moment. "I promise not to write you angry letters, but I probably can't manage here for too long."
Erik nods, understanding, and then as one they move on. The little apartment is nothing very special, but Erik likes it. Since his mother died, he's changed things around, getting rid of chintz and china ornaments and adding his own books and belongings, but keeping the essential shape of the place the way she left it. The living room is tidy and neat, a small television in one corner, a metal menorah on the window sill. Erik pauses, then goes through into his little bedroom, low and shadowed under the eaves. He turns on the lights and Charles follows him.
"Can you," Erik asks, floundering a little and patting the bed with one hand, "can you…"
"Yes," Charles says, calmly, stopping the wheelchair next to the bed. "Erik, it's all right to ask me these things. You can even say 'disability', if you feel up to it."
"I don't want to hurt you by mistake," Erik says, surprising himself with his own honesty. "I don't want to be a… a heel."
"A heel?" Charles stares at him. "Did you actually just use the word 'heel'?"
Erik glares at him." You're laughing at me."
"Yes," Charles says. "You actually just referred to yourself as a heel" – and he's giggling helplessly while moving onto the bed, still laughing as he steals Erik's pillows to prop under his knees.
"I hate you," Erik says.
"I hate you too," Charles replies, very seriously, and kisses him.
It takes time. Charles has taken some of that time already, relearning his own contours, but this is different. He takes time to pull Erik towards him, carefully, not letting either of them overbalance. Drawing back, he asks, "Do you want me to leave?"
"What?" Erik's staring at him, blankly, and then he feels something shift like a mass of water inside his head. He's forgotten, bedded down with Charles inside his mind as though he's been doing it all his life. "No."
"Good," Charles says, happily, and kisses him again, and Erik wonders what it must be like to kiss and be kissed at once, to know both sides of the story. To love and be loved, Charles thinks inside his mind. It's not that different.
Erik's looking confused. "Are there books on this?" he asks.
"Are there books on having sex with paraplegics," Charles says, and starts laughing again. "I'm sure there are, Erik, I can get some out of the public library for you."
"I meant, telepaths," Erik says indignantly, and then he throws off some of his caution and tries to pull Charles closer to him, wanting more, warmth, skin, something, more – and then he's reaching into Charles's mind without conscious intent, sliding inside as though this is where, after all, he's meant to be. What's it like? he asks desperately. What is it like to be inside my head?
"Imagine," Charles says, breathless, "that you spoke another language, that it was full of, oh" – this as Erik's hands slip under his shirt collar and start to attack the buttons – "beauty, and, and, poetry, and more than that – oh, God."
Erik's laughing to himself, pushing back Charles's sleeves, kissing him on the top of his head and on the tip of his nose, so he can keep talking.
"And more than that, you could say things you had no word for in any other language, that you could convey joy and sorrow and just, just, anything, and it was there and it was easy and oh."
"You," Erik says in his ear, "are beautiful, and what can you possibly have to say at a time like this..."
"But," Charles says, all in a hurry, "you can only speak when spoken to. In your entire lifetime, it shall always be thus."
"Very resonant," Erik murmurs, "very biblical."
"Always like this," Charles goes on, still hurried, "always a silence, because otherwise is a violation, and you do not want to be" – and he stops stock still and looks right up at Erik – "a monster."
Erik crushes him. It's a rough embrace, layers of protection and passion all mixed together, and for a moment Charles is fluently multilingual, all of Erik's thoughts crashing around him in layers, and then the two of them draw apart, looking at each other.
"Oh," Erik says after a while, as though he's just thought of it, "sex."
"We don't have to," Charles says. "I mean, we can work up to it. Or not, if you prefer. And" – now he sounds tentative, now, for the first time, he really is out of Erik's mind – "I'm not. Well. Me and sex, since the accident, is, well. something of a work in progress. You know?"
Charles is ineloquent and Erik is furious, suddenly, at a world where this is what does that. "Mind and body," he murmurs, breathing out anger, "I want you."
"Fetch me one of those," Charles whispers. On the windowsill, there are loops of solid, polished metal, piled haphazardly where Erik left them. He got them online; they're intended to be an unusual alternative for juggling. Which is what Erik does with them, in a way; manipulating them and combining them and raising them until it's all smooth, it's all control. He pulls one off the pile without even a twitch of his fingers, all thought, and lets it hang, motionless above them both.
Charles reaches for it, and pulls himself into a sitting position, and for a moment it's a test of their strength against one another, steady and balanced.
"Right," says Charles, still holding onto metal, eyes as bright as the first day Erik ever saw him, with passion, with that determination to be only himself. "Let's begin."
Charles discovered he was a telepath when he was five years old. He barely remembers what deep sleep is like; what it's like to wake up and not know where you are; what it's like to fall down into an all-consuming black. Other thoughts linger on the surface of his mind like the froth on the tide, and he's used to dreaming other people's dreams.
It turns out Erik dreams of him, sometimes, with the two of them living the life they do, here in New York at the start of a new century, playing chess and looking through the window at the turn of the seasons; it turns out he sleeps better with Erik next to him, curled around him like a question mark.
And when he wakes up and Erik goes home with him, the two of them in rhythm, melded mind to mind and mind to metal, it's not a formed thought between them, it's not articulated – but it's an answer.
To the Editor:
We are writing in connection with the Times crossword of Saturday, September 18th. Having discovered to our displeasure that the clue for three across featured the phrase "wheelchair bound" to refer to people with disabilities, we would like to complain about the hackneyed use of this unpleasant, unrealistic phrase. A wheelchair is a mobility device, like any other, and we expected better.
Furthermore, fourteen down suggests that "feared; unusual" is an appropriate clue for "mutant". Mutants and their loved ones form an integral, valuable part of any society, it is shameful that this narrow-minded stigma is being shamefully perpetuated by the paper of record.
Moira McTaggert, Emma Frost, Raven Xavier
(The writers are a professor of genetics at NYU, a waitress and mutant activist, and a freshman at Tisch.)
Moira calls at ten, which in Charles's opinion is far too early for anyone to be awake on a Saturday. "Hello, sweetness," she says, happily. "Hungover and shagged out? Jolly good. I dropped my office key down the toilet, can I come round and borrow yours? Thanks, I'll be over in a bit."
"How did you" – Charles begins, and she's gone.
Sighing, he goes into the kitchen to find out what he can scavenge for breakfast. "Look what the cat dragged in," Raven comments. She's reading the newspaper at the kitchen table and looks fresh-faced and well-scrubbed. "Who even knew you had that much hair to stand on end?"
Charles runs his fingers through it, distractedly, and rolls backwards by mistake. "Coffee," he says.
"In the pot." Raven turns a page. "You got back very late last night, Charles. Are you going to tell me about it?"
"There are some things I shouldn't tell my sister about, so no," Charles says, but can't stop the smile spreading over his face, and Raven takes on an expression that's partway between satisfaction and triumph, and leans back in her chair.
"Oh, shut up," Charles murmurs, and goes to the coffee pot. "Moira will be here in a while," he says, absently, and Raven says nothing.
He's poured the coffee out, peering down into the inky depths of the mug, and he's reaching for the sugar pot when the scent triggers a memory from the night before. He turns and there's Raven, looking at him with a steady gaze, as familiar as breathing.
Slowly, she changes.
His first impression is to think, through bleariness and lack of caffeine, that he's looking at another version of himself. The man in front of him has Charles's blue eyes and his curls, and some of his bone structure, and all of his height. But there are differences: he's stockier, with a little more definition to his features.
They look like siblings, Charles thinks.
"I've been thinking recently," Raven says, and it's Raven's voice but a little stilted, as though this little speech has been practiced, "that sometimes I want to look like I feel. And I don't always feel the same."
The doorbell rings. Charles wheels across to open it, saying nothing, eyes never leaving Raven.
Moira gives Charles a quick kiss on the cheek, and then does a momentary double-take. "Who's – oh. Raven." She smiles. "You're looking very like your brother today."
Raven nods, tentatively. "Thanks."
There's a moment of tension – and then it's gone. "Charles," Moira says, waving her hands about, "first of all, you clearly had sex last night so don't even bother to deny it, and also I need to borrow your key to get a copy cut. Be a darling and get it off the chain, would you?"
"Moira," Charles says, "could you not announce these things in front of my sister? In front of one of your students?"
"No," she says calmly. "I am all for your sex life, Charles, it makes me feel better for the lack of my own. The lovely baker, I presume? You kissed and made up?"
"Yes," Charles says, indignant. "Yes, Erik!"
She giggles, and winks at Raven, who actually smiles. "Just checking."
"Moira," Charles says, gives up, and wheels over to pick the keys off the table. He can't get the office key off the ring. "Let me," Raven says, and he looks up and she's in her own familiar form, using her long manicured nails to prise the metal apart.
"Thank you," Moira says, and then she's gone again. They hear her footsteps thudding down the stairs, and the distant sound of the door slamming.
Immediately, Charles goes over to sit next to Raven, close enough for him to reach out and push some of her hair away from her face. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asks, gently.
"You hide, Charles," she says, and she sounds a little like she might cry. "You hide your powers away. You've never thought – I mean, you're not comfortable…"
"Oh, God," Charles says, sincerely, takes a deep breath and begins again. He has an uneasy feeling that he's woken up to something bigger than this quiet Saturday morning; that part of how the world is going to be depends on what he says now. "Raven. I do hide my powers. I do. As I'm saying to a lot of people these days" – he puts a hand on her shoulder and tries not to accidentally project thoughts of Erik – "I have my reasons for that, and I don't think they're not good ones. But they're not yours, Raven. You…" – Charles takes another deep breath – "you, you're you. You're not me. You make your own choices."
"I thought you'd freak out," she says, suddenly sounding very young and teenage.
"Sometimes I need freaking out," he tells her.
"But," she says, head down, "but, even if I started walking around naked and blue…"
Charles raises his eyebrows. "Clothed and blue, Raven. Clothed and blue."
She laughs at that, and there are tears standing out in her eyes but she's looking right at him. "But blue? What if people laugh at me?"
"I'll run over their feet," Charles promises.
He means it. Looking at his keys sitting on the table, he makes a decision. "What's the betting Moira went to the ironmongery place next to the bakery? How about we go down there, find out how she dropped a key down the toilet and I buy you breakfast?"
"That sounds nice," she says, inhales and says, "Dr. McTaggert dropped a key down the toilet?"
"It is a wonderful world we live in," Charles says, "with many wondrous things in't. Moira is just one of them."
The kitchen is quiet and empty, with none of its usual warmth. The ovens are switched off. Erik is sitting on the edge of a table, doing nothing in particular. "Hi," Charles says, appearing without warning at the door. He wheels across and kisses Erik. "Good morning."
Erik looks at him. "That's it? Good morning?"
"It is a good morning," Charles says. "Moira apparently had an exciting Friday night, I got laid and it turns out Raven is one of the bravest people I've ever known. And here you are."
Erik abruptly realises that the reason Charles looks so happy – so bonelessly, helpless-grin happy – is because of him. "Oh," he says. "It is a good morning, isn't it. A very good morning. A wonderful morning, in fact."
"I knew you'd see it my way," Charles says, and kisses him again. They go back out into the main space of the bakery, and find Moira, Raven and Emma engaged in the Times crossword, eating vegan cupcakes and getting crumbs everywhere.
"Emma, they're customers, you could actually serve them," Erik complains, and she looks up and beams at him.
"They wanted cupcakes, I gave them cupcakes. Shut up, Erik. Go kiss your boyfriend."
"Leave her alone, it's the weekend," Charles says, easily. He's setting up the chess pieces as he speaks, wheeling around the table with more movement than is quite necessary. Erik recognises the energy in him as familiar: something that comes from the bracing quality of the winter air, the sunlight that makes everything looks polished.
"We could go to the park, the open-air tables," Erik says, suddenly. "I'm not supposed to be working today. Turns out I'm Jewish."
Charles laughs. "I'd heard rumours to that effect. Pick up the pieces for me?"
Erik does, raising them into a suspended constellation, and letting them fall in a cascade into the box. The sound is like a glockenspiel.
Washington Square Park, Charles thinks, and Erik jumps.
"Sorry," Charles says, quickly. "Sorry, I was relaxed – sorry. I really didn't mean to do that."
"No," Erik breathes, very quietly, and thinks, clearly: it's cold, but we could sit in the sun. We could play chess. We could do… what Emma said.
Charles laughs, gently. "Yes," he says, and rolls in the direction of the door.
"Don't mind us," Emma says, waving a hand, over the sound of Moira and Raven having a quiet disagreement about fourteen across. "We'll run your bakery."
"You'll do it magnificently, I'm sure," Erik says, with a bow, and waves at them through the window.
"Your bakery," Charles murmurs, and it sounds like there are many things he's not saying, and thoughts he's keeping to himself. Erik loves him.
He stops for a moment, describing a circle on the sidewalk, breathing, breathing. Raven has stood up to wave back at them through the glass, and it seems to Erik that she's taller.
"Raven," he says to Charles, looking back at her. "Is she one of us?"
"Queer?" Charles says blandly. "Ask her yourself."
Erik, surprising himself, chuckles. "Don't you ever give up?"
"No," Charles says serenely, "no, I don't." A little unsure, he adds: "Do you want me to?"
No, Erik thinks, remembering what it felt like to lift Charles, imagining living through days and weeks and years with that balancing weight. Never, never.
"Well, good," Charles says, and they go on together, across the frosted sidewalks, through the sparkling world.