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Appropriate Boundaries

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“Oh, come on, Moira, let it rest.”

Dr. Moira McTaggart, of the Columbia Presbyterian Spinal Cord Injury Clinic, folded her hands atop her desk. “What are you complaining about? I just told you you’re going to get back massages three days a week. Not seeing the problem here.”

“I’d just rather not.” Charles shifted in his wheelchair, trying to compensate for the twitching in his lower back that presaged cramps – then, too late, realized he was making Moira’s argument for her. “Maybe we could hold off and see?”

“You’ve been having problems for a while now, Charles. How much longer do you want to hold off?”

Charles leaned his head forward into his hand. “I’ve been having problems for eighteen months, to be precise. I don’t foresee an end to them. What’s one more?”

Moira rose from her chair to come around her desk and perch on the corner nearest him. It had been a long time since he’d called her Dr. McTaggart, or since she’d treated him like any other patient – but in some ways their friendship made her more formidable, not less. There was no hiding anything from her.  “I thought that fighting spirit of yours was back.”

She’d talked about his “fighting spirit” the first time they ever spoke – five days after the crash, in his initial hours of consciousness. Without that spirit, Moira said, Charles would never have survived long enough to be extracted from the wreckage of his car, much less made it through the eleven-hour surgery that followed. And even then – lying there with his eyes swollen shut and every rib broken – Charles had felt he was willing to keep up the fight.

What no one had told him then was that the fight lasted forever. It wasn’t just a matter of making it through the next three operations, or the two months of hospitalization, or that first grueling physical therapy session, or even the trial of the drunk driver who’d hit him. Charles was still coming to terms with the fact that every single day was a struggle.

Last winter – last winter had been hard. One day as he tried to maneuver his wheelchair along an ice-crusted street, the wheel of his chair had gotten lodged in a rut of frozen snow, and the New Yorkers around him steadfastly didn’t see him struggling – and Charles had, for a moment, wondered why he kept teaching at NYU, why he didn’t stay at home in Westchester with a private nurse and a cellar full of Malbec, even why he’d bothered fighting to stay alive at all.

He’d made the mistake of mentioning this moment of despair to Moira, who ever since had watched with hawklike intensity for any signs of clinical depression. Now he’d have to take the massage therapy, or else she’d summon a psychiatrist for him instead.

“I know you’re right,” he said carefully. “It’s just – one more thing, you know? Already there’s so much medicine, so much PT, at least one more surgery to get through … it never ends.”

“And it sucks. I get it. I honestly do. But the therapists who do this offer more than just back rubs, you know? You’ll get lessons in how to sit in the wheelchair better –”

“I need lessons in how to sit?”

Moira plowed on. “You’ll learn some different stretches and self-message therapies, too. So eventually you can be self-sufficient. It’s just a matter of learning.”

Learning. Self-sufficiency.  Moira knew just how to push his buttons. Charles sighed and surrendered with the best grace he could manage. “All right. You win. Again.”

She grinned. “I usually do.”

 

**

 

Charles tried not to think about the massage therapist beyond setting up an appointment time with the agency. Still, he couldn’t help forming a few guesses about what that person would be like. A chipper young blonde girl, sturdy as a little pony, who would refuse to be downbeat about anything, whether it be paralysis, pressure sores or heavy rain – that seemed most likely. Sometimes he thought physical therapy programs had a quota to fill of them, to ensure that at least half of all therapists would fit this mold.  But better another chipper blonde than one of the sages – one of the ones who felt like his job was less about providing exercise and encouragement and more about dispensing little nuggets of homespun wisdom about perseverance and optimism. In a just society, it would be legal to punch people who said such things to paraplegics. No, not just legal. Mandatory.

But when the therapist arrived, he didn’t fit into either category. Or any category Charles had ever conceptualized before.

Well, save one – the category known as “Smoking Hot.”

“I’m Erik Lehnsherr. MedMobile sent me.” His gray eyes took in the opulence of the mansion, but he didn’t remark on it the way most people did – either with fawning admiration or too-familiar humor. To him it seemed to be just another place. “We should go over a few things.”

“Oh, right. Yes. Of course.” Charles’ cheeks were warm with unexpected heat.  How stupid, to be in his thirties and still get flustered at the sight of an attractive man.

But, good God, what a man.

Erik was tall and muscular, with dark hair that stood in stark contrast to his pale, searching eyes. He wore the loose workout pants and logo-embroidered polo shirt of his tribe, and yet the perfection of his frame was obvious every time he moved. Even his skin smelled good.

Yet the most compelling thing about him was the way he addressed Charles – without pity, without false cheer, without any of the different canned reactions Charles had learned to loathe during the past year and a half. Erik talked to him like a rational human being.  That gift shouldn’t have been a rare one, but it was.

“We need to set up three home visits a week,” Erik said. “Monday and Friday afternoons work for your schedule?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Please try not to stare at the nice man’s abs. He has a face, you know. A beautiful one --  “The university schedules my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to minimize the travel back and forth.”

“And Wednesday mornings, then. If that’s all right.” Erik sat at the very edge of the sofa in the study, his posture as straight and disciplined as a military officer’s. But his voice remained pleasant, his tone unhurried. “How long since your spinal cord injury?”

“Eighteen months. Car accident.”

“Was alcohol involved?”

“Not on my part. Unfortunately, the other fellow drank enough for the both of us.”

Erik’s eyes lifted from his iPad to study Charles’ face – only for a moment, but so intently that Charles feared he’d get flushed again. “The notes Dr. McTaggart sent over said you had an L2 fracture with typical response, but I’d like to hear you describe your own situation, as you live it.”

She told him that but didn’t tell him how long since the accident? Charles sensed something else might be behind that first question – what, he didn’t know, but it hardly seemed to matter. “Right. Well, as she said, my spinal cord was damaged at the second lumbar vertebra. Low enough that they hoped I might even be able to walk again someday – not well, but a little – but the injury was too severe for that.” That had come out even and steady: Good. Charles found it harder to talk about that false hope than he did about the injury itself. “I retain some sensation below the injury. Some movement. Enough to help myself in and out of bed, that kind of thing. I can even use the toilet when and how I choose, which is one of those things you don’t think to be grateful for, until something like this.”

Should he have mentioned that?  Was that the kind of thing the hot massage therapist really needed to hear? But then, Charles had become used to total strangers poking, prodding and examining every square inch of his body. He suspected his idea of “appropriate boundaries” was sliding farther and farther from the norm.

Erik merely nodded, kept taking notes. “Sexual function?”

Just hearing a man this attractive say the word sexual was basically the high point of Charles’ love life since the accident – depressing but true. “Haven’t really tested it.”

That earned him another searching look. “Not even on your own?”

“Oh. Yes. Of course. It’s a bit … time-consuming, now, and not quite … but the basic, ah, concept – oh, bloody hell, it still works, all right?”

That made Erik smile, and suddenly the situation seemed less pathetic, more … well, just the way things were. Charles managed to relax, but even as he leaned back a bit in the wheelchair, one of his lower back muscles rippled into painful spasm.

Even as he winced, Erik rose. “Your back?”

“The spasms. They’ve been – I mean, they’ve always been there, since the beginning, but for some reason the past couple of months, they’ve gotten worse.”

“We’ll talk later and get started now.” Erik put his hands on the back of Charles’ wheelchair. Normally Charles insisted on pushing himself whenever possible, eschewing the use of the motorized chair for any but the worst weather or most unpredictable terrain, but with his back like this, he was willing to let someone else steer. “Where’s your bedroom?”

Charles was in too much pain to even enjoy the question. “Upstairs.”

“Upstairs?”

“I put in an elevator.” He had to suck in a sharp breath then; the pain lanced through the muscles of his back, locking them together in a way that made them seem more like metal parts than like flesh. “I’m lucky. I know. Most people can’t – people this happens to – they don’t have the option – ”

“Stop apologizing for your situation,” Erik said as he started pushing. “The money or the paralysis. Any of it. This way?”

Charles just nodded.

By the time they reached his bedroom, the pain was such that the world was starting to blacken around the edges. This was a moment that made Charles want to reach for the Vicodin. He didn’t, though. Despite all Moira’s assurances that his painkiller usage was well within appropriate limits for his situation, Charles hated even the illusion of dependence.

Instead, when Erik settled the wheelchair next to the bed, Charles pulled himself onto the mattress. He started to roll onto his back – force of habit – but Erik gently guided him to lie belly-down.  “Where is it worst?”

“The latissimus dorsi.” The words seemed to grind their way through his locked jaws. “The abdominal obliques.”

There was a time when he just would have gestured and said there, but by now Charles had learned the proper medical terms for almost every part of his body. A crash course, he thought to himself, the bleak joke not even close to funny.

“Shhh. Relax.”

The very idea of relaxing when he was in that much pain seemed ridiculous – until Erik’s hands slid beneath the hem of his shirt.

It was as if he already knew every single place that hurt. His palms smoothed along the curve of Charles’ back, almost startlingly warm – and then his fingertips pressed in, down, around, exactly where that touch was most needed. Charles turned his face more firmly into the coverlet to keep from moaning out loud. Although he wasn’t quite sure of the correct etiquette between masseuse and client, he was willing to bet “making porn star sounds” was definitely in the don’t column.

But oh, God, that was so good

“Normally, of course, we’ll work on my table,” Erik murmured as his thumbs began making circles in the hard ridges of muscle on either side of Charles’ spine. “But I didn’t want to make you wait while I set it up. Not while you were in pain.”

“Thank you,” Charles said. The words were muffled by the coverlet but hopefully Erik got the gist.

And that would help keep things professional, wouldn’t it? They wouldn’t normally be in his bedroom, with Erik leaning over him – one leg on either side of his thighs – no. They’d be in the front room on a folding table. A clinical table. Totally unsexy. Yes.

Then Erik added, “And, of course, on my next visit, we’ll have time to get you undressed.”

Help me, God.

 

**

 

That night, as Erik logged his visits, he heard a rap on the half-open MedMobile office door. “Hey, are you headed out?” said Sean. “Some of us were going to head over to Alphabet City, grab a couple drinks.”

“No, thanks.”

Sean sighed as he leaned against the doorjamb. “You know, it doesn’t have to be carrot juice and omega-3 supplements all the time.”

“How can I prescribe it if I don’t live it?”

“The same way everybody else does. Hypocrisy!”

Erik reminded himself that Sean meant well. That this was an attempt at congeniality – maybe even friendship. That most people could handle their alcohol reasonably well, and everyone would go home either on the subway or in a cab.

But that didn’t change the fact that he’d rather be strung up by his thumbs than spend the night with a bunch of rowdy guys in a bar.  “I appreciate the invitation. But no thanks. It was a long day.”

“Oh, yeah, you got that call way the hell upstate, right?”

“An hour’s ride on the train.” Erik shrugged. “MedMobile’s charging him for transit time. It rests my hands.”

“Not a bad gig. How did it go?”

For a moment he thought of Charles Xavier’s soft blue eyes, the dusting of freckles across his pale skin, the bashful way he’d laughed when he talked about sex …

“Fine,” he said, aware he was smiling for no reason. “Just fine.” 

Chapter Text

No greater love hath woman than to give up an apartment on Central Park (with a full view, no less) in favor of a place way the hell out on West End Avenue that is more wheelchair-accessible for her brother’s visits.

“It’s hardly the middle of nowhere,” Hank protested as he spooned ratatouille onto the plates – first Raven’s, then Charles’. “I mean, we can walk to Times Square in fifteen minutes.”

Neither of the Xavier siblings responded to this. Hank was from Dundee, Illinois; he’d never understand.

“It’s lovely, at least. You really get a window onto the whole skyline from here.” Charles patted his sister’s arm. “And you’re remarkably settled in for just three weeks.” Only a handful of boxes in one corner attested to the recent move. 

“That’s all Hank.” Raven gave Charles a sidelong look. “But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“… I might have guessed.” Given that Raven’s teenage junk was still strewn all over her room at the mansion, Charles figured the organizational zeal all had to come from her fiancé. “How you wound up with a neat freak, I’ll never know.”

“I must take exception to the moniker ‘neat freak,’” Hank said, in that precise-yet-friendly way he had. “I’m merely highly organized. You’ll find any amount of miscellanea in my home or office, simply stored in the appropriate place.”

“He alphabetized our sex toys,” Raven confided, which made both men choke on their food – Hank in horror, Charles with laughter.

“Okay,” Charles sputtered, “that’s overkill.”

“It’s also an overshare.” Hank’s cheeks were flushed. “Honestly, Raven. Boundaries.”

“What? Charles and I have always been open with each other, so, you know, better get used to it, honey.” She shrugged.

They were an odd couple, one Charles would never have dreamed would fall in love. And yet somehow they were both under the impression he was responsible for setting them up. In all honesty, on that evening three years earlier, he’d asked Raven to keep Hank company at the faculty party simply because he thought that, otherwise, there was a good chance Hank (then his research assistant) would hide in the corner all night, nursing a single drink, with no companion but the nearby potted fern. Now they both called him a “genius matchmaker,” and Charles had decided he liked the “genius” part well enough to let the “matchmaker” part slide.

Brightly Raven said, “Speaking of love lives, you’ve already mentioned a mysterious ‘Erik’ three times. Who might that be, hmmm?”

“Oh. Oh, no.” Oh, please let him not be that obvious, that pathetic. Please let him not be quite that far gone. “Erik’s not  -- he’s my massage therapist. That’s all.”

“This guy gives you rubdowns? Uh-huh, I get it.” Raven grinned. “Ever heard the phrase ‘sexual healing’?”

“No. Really. He’s a healthcare professional.” Who’s built like a Michelangelo, whose hands are nearly broad enough to span my back, who talks with me like I’m a human being instead of a patient, who even laughs at my stupid jokes. “He comes when MedMobile sends him, and he’s very good at his work. The fact that he’s enjoyable to talk to … that’s just a bonus.”

“’Enjoyable to talk to.’ That sounds a lot like, ‘extremely good to look at’.”

“Well, yes.”

Triumphant, she raised her hands over her head. “Called it! So, when are you going to ask him out?”

“I’m not.”

“Yes, you are!” Raven insisted. Hank ate quietly, his eyes going from brother to sister as though he were watching a tennis match. “Oh, wait. Is he straight?”

“I’m not sure.” Charles’ gaydar had thus far been frustratingly silent, pinging neither straight nor gay when it came to Erik. Maybe that had been damaged in the wreck too.

His sister smiled wickedly. “Well, then, I think you should learn. Don’t shake your head at me, Charles. Why not at least sound him out?”

“Because he’s one of my therapists. Because I rely on him for my health, and – I don’t want to presume.”

“Presume? Oh, come on!”

“It would only be awkward for Erik,” Charles said. Already the subject had gone from merely embarrassing to profoundly uncomfortable, but Raven – with her usual directness – either couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.

“What, is this because you’re in a wheelchair?” Raven tossed her tawny hair, pretending to be blithe. “Doesn’t mean you’re not still attractive.”

Charles turned to Hank. “Isn’t a sister telling her brother he’s attractive definitely beyond normal family boundaries?”

“Not in this context,” Hank said. “She’s merely stating her perception of your standing within the social strata.”

“Very attractive,” Raven insisted. “Extremely attractive, even, according to every straight girlfriend and gay guy friend I’ve ever had. You are, in fact, one hot piece of ass.”

“Okay, now it’s weird,” Hank said.

Raven ignored this, too. “You have to have some confidence, Charles. You have to put yourself back out there! You’re still an awesome guy – that hasn’t changed.”

Her support meant so much to him, but there came a point where it stopped being helpful and started being denial. “Not everything has changed,” Charles said quietly. “But a lot of things have, including love and sex. Especially love and sex. I don’t know if I’m ready to start dating yet. I don’t know how I’d even begin to handle it. But I’m not going to begin by sexually harassing one of my caregivers. Okay?”

After an awkward pause, Raven said, without looking up from her plate, “I just mean that anybody would be lucky to have you. That’s all.”

“I know.” Charles took her free hand and squeezed, and then they were all right again. Within a few moments, they’d resumed joking about the move, and Hank was insisting that it was entirely normal to shelve books at home according to the Dewey Decimal system, and the subject of Erik was obviously closed for the evening.

Charles drove home after dinner; using the hand controls for his car was one of the few aspects of his paraplegia to which he felt fully acclimated. With traffic lighter, this late at night, he could even let his mind wander a little bit …

… and, as it had for most of the past six weeks, it wandered straight to Erik.

Maybe, he thought, I wouldn’t be so wretchedly hung up on him now if I hadn’t been behaving so stupidly those last few months before the wreck. But no. It hadn’t been stupid to take a break from dating – to hope for a relationship with some substance, instead of just another pickup at a bar or the latest hot club. Charles had let himself fall into a pattern all too common for the Manhattan gay scene: Drifting between one-night stands, rarely getting hurt and rarely hurting anyone, winding up with dozens of casual friends he’d occasionally fuck and not one man he thought he could really love. Some of those friends had told him he was a fool to take himself off the market, asked him how he expected to meet anyone if he wasn’t going out … which was a decent question. But Charles had thought he needed some time to clear his head. Create different habits. Make a life where the right relationship, and the right guy, would belong.  

Instead, he’d met a guy doing 128 miles per hour on the FDR.

If I’d known those were the last four months my cock would work correctly, I wouldn’t have spent them celibate. I’d have fucked every guy who so much as glanced my way. And then maybe I wouldn’t be like this – so needy, so eager, every single time Erik touches me.

But it wasn’t just being touched. Not even being touched well – because Erik’s hands were so expert, so knowing, that it was impossible to stop wondering what else he could do wonderfully – okay, some of it was that.

Still, most of the reasons Charles found himself thinking constantly of Erik had less to do with sex and more to do with the man himself. With the whole reason Charles had taken months off from dating in the first place. They had to do with the possibility of love.

 

**

 

“This is still bothering you, isn’t it?” Erik’s fingers ghosted over an area just beneath Charles’ rib cage on the right side, as if he could sense the pain by touch alone.

“It’s better,” Charles said, lifting his head slightly from the soft padded U at the top of the massage table. “Honestly, you’ve made that much more flexible.”

“Are you trying to avoid working the area again? I know it’s bad when we have to get into scar tissue.”

“I’m not dodging it, honestly. I just didn’t want you to think I didn’t – you know – appreciate you. Appreciate it, I mean. What you’ve done. Which is what I appreciate.” Could I be any more obvious without presenting my haunches in the manner of a baboon? Why does the earth not swallow me whole?

But Erik said only, “No need to flatter me. I’m here to make you feel better.  And you’re still guarding when I touch you there.”

“It’s still sore,” Charles admitted.

“Okay. Hang on, all right? Let me know if this gets rough.”

One of the many special joys of Charles’ condition was the way scar tissue was now layered throughout his body --- everywhere from chin to ankles. The worst of it was in his back, which meant his muscles sometimes cramped worse because of the unnatural ways they folded around the damage. And the scar tissue never hurt on its own any more, but when somebody pressed down hard …

He winced and clung to the top of the table, stifling a cry of pain. This wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good ache of a firm massage; this felt like stabbing fire. When Erik was done, Charles knew, his back would be more flexible again, but until then, all he could do was endure.

“I’m sorry this hurts so much,” Erik said gently. “Let’s take your mind off it. Let’s talk.”

They’d talked about so many things the past few weeks – Charles’ work, politics, books they’d read – but one topic had been neatly dodged. Charles decided all this pain should be good for something, at least, and so he rolled the dice. “Let’s talk about you. What made you decide to go into massage therapy?”

There was a pause – only of silence, not of Erik’s constantly kneading hands – before Erik said, “I wanted to help people.”

Well, that wasn’t illuminating. Charles tried again. “Did you always want to do this?”

“Not when I was younger.”

“You didn’t train for this in college?”

“No. Actually – well, I left a master’s program to start PT training.”

“Master’s in what?”

Charles had no idea what he expected Erik to say, but it definitely wasn’t, “Metallurgical engineering.” 

“Really?”

“What, you didn’t think anybody who went into massage therapy had a brain?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” In truth, Charles had a bad habit of assuming a lack of intelligence in anyone who wasn’t – well, him or his friends. His saving grace, though, was his ability to be quickly convinced otherwise, and he’d realized Erik was extremely bright within their first couple of sessions. “It’s just such a – change, that’s all.”

“What do you mean?” Erik’s voice had the half-distant quality of someone who is not really listening; his attention was devoted to Charles’ back, and this conversation was meant only to distract Charles.

But Charles remained encouraged. This had to be a step in the right direction, didn’t it? “Metallurgical engineering seems like a chilly profession. You know? All that work in isolation. Only ever looking at raw metals and content analyses. The exact opposite of healing-hands stuff.”

“I suppose it was a bit chilly. But in some ways that came more naturally to me than this.” Erik paused, perhaps catching himself. “I liked the precision of it.”

“The money’s excellent too, isn’t it?”

“Can be.”

This led naturally to the question of why anyone would switch from a lucrative career to one that involved wearing logo-embroidered polo shirts, but that was the moment when Erik’s fingers dug into the knotted muscle just next to the scar tissue. The moment what Charles felt went from pain to agony, when tears sprang to his eyes.

“Charles? Charles, do you want me to stop?”

“Keep going,” Charles whispered. It would be better after, it had to be, it had to be –

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Erik continued his work, urging scar tissue and muscle to part. “If we do this often enough, we can make a real difference. Even break it up enough that it might not trouble you in the future.”

“I know.” It came out throaty and tight.  “That’s the worst place. The worst of all.”

“I would’ve thought – ” Erik caught himself.

“The spinal cord injury was the worst? At least it doesn’t hurt as much below it.” Charles’ hands gripped the edge of the massage table so tightly that his fingers ached, a sensation that distracted him slightly from the rippling pain in his middle back. “Where – where you’re working – that’s where they took out my right kidney.”

After a moment’s silence, Erik said, “I didn’t realize you’d lost a kidney, too.”

“The impact actually burst it, Moira said. Luckily – my other kidney – it’s fine. Otherwise – dialysis – don’t think I could do it.”

“Oh, Charles.” Erik’s voice – the compassion there, the genuine emotion – well, it would have been overwhelming to Charles at any moment when he wasn’t in so much pain he was wondering if he’d actually be sick. “Here. We’re done for now, okay? We’re done.”

The pain stopped, and Charles tried to wipe his teary cheeks on the padding of table. He heard water pouring into a glass and pushed himself up with his arms, the better to drink it. Erik held the glass to his mouth, even when Charles took hold of it himself; their fingers overlapped. After a couple of messy gulps, Charles was able to say, “Thank you.”

Erik’s face was drawn and pale, as though he had been the one in pain. “I hope the person who did this to you was put away for a very long time.”

“He got one year.” Charles shrugged. His back responded to the movement fluidly, without pain; Erik knew his business. “It was his first conviction. His last, he promised me. I guess we’ll see.”

“You talked to him?”

“He wrote me a letter of apology from jail. I think – I choose to believe it was sincere. I hope he pulls his life back together. It’s out of my hands.”

“You want him to have his life back?” Erik sounded incredulous; more than that, he sounded angry. “After what he did?”

“Of course I’m still angry – so angry sometimes I could scream – but I try to let it go. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don’t.” Usually, when he thought about the man who’d hit him, Charles felt neither forgiveness or rage, only what he felt now: a kind of exhaustion that went deeper than the body. Carrying that around just made him so damned tired. It wasn’t worth it. Someday, maybe, he could forgive for real, for good. “I don’t think being vindictive would make me feel better in the long run.”

“Caring about justice isn’t the same thing as being vindictive,” Erik snapped. Snapped was the right word. His eyes were blazing, and his anger seemed ready to spill over in every direction – including onto Charles himself.

Charles didn’t reply; it seemed safest not to. He simply drank some more of his water. The silence in the room stretched on for far too long afterward. 

They finished their session politely enough, but Charles kept turning the conversation over and over in his head for the rest of the day.  He had midterms to grade, a pile of bluebooks he’d hauled all the way out to New Salem in the hopes of getting done before the weekend, but he found himself pausing for long moments, replaying what Erik had said, imagining how he’d looked and wondering just where they’d gone so wrong. Then he’d focus on the exam in front of him once more and realize he’d read the same paragraph three times already.

Just as evening was turning to night, his phone rang. Charles took it up without looking at the screen; at this hour it was almost certainly Raven. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “You found that book in the very last box you unpacked, didn’t you?”

“… this is Erik.”

“Oh. Oh! Sorry. Thought you were my sister. Not a mistake I usually make. Ha ha.” The final stages of infatuation-induced brain death are blithering idiocy and stammering. I seem to have got there at last. “Hello. Good evening. How are you?” Charles cringed at his own reaction, but Erik didn’t seem to mind it.

“Right now, I’m very much aware that I didn’t behave well today. I made you feel awkward, and I thought I should apologize.”

“It’s all right. Really. You obviously, ah, feel strongly about the issue.”

“I do.” Erik hesitated long enough that Charles wondered whether he should accept the apology and let the call end. But then Erik said, “Today you were asking why I’d left metallurgy for physical therapy.”

Charles hadn’t quite worked around to that, but it wasn’t a point worth splitting. “I did wonder.”

Another long pause: Erik didn’t find this conversation easy, apparently. “When I was in my last semester of my master’s program, a drunk driver hit my parents’ car. My father was killed instantly. My mother became quadriplegic.”

“Christ. Erik, I’m so sorry.” Quadriplegic – without even the use of one’s arms, or even sometimes shoulders – the very idea filled Charles with terror, more than it ever could have before his accident. And to have lost one parent so tragically, while having to become caregiver to another and navigate the complicated roads of disability, therapy, insurance, hospitalization, all the stuff that went on and on … Erik had been a victim of that wreck too.

“I’ll never know if the driver would’ve been sorry, if she would’ve written my mother a letter. She died in the wreck too. And every time I remember that, I’m glad. I’m so fucking glad she died because of what she did.” Erik’s voice broke, but he had his calm back in only a moment. “To me, it feels like justice. Is it just hate? I don’t know.”

“You have a right to your own emotions.” He was parroting back what his analyst had said to him, but that didn’t make the words less true. “I get it. I do. There are times the anger gets the better of me, and – it’s like – Erik, it burns the world to ash. Everything around me is just ash.” Charles ran one hand through his hair, trying to keep his breathing steady. “But that’s not the world I want to live in, you know?”

“Yeah.”

He leaned forward, elbows propped on the open bluebook before him. “How is your mother doing?”

“She died three years ago. Pneumonia. I think she – I don’t think she fought.” Erik’s voice was hushed. Charles could see him in his mind’s eye so vividly that it was as though they sat in the same room, as if he could reach out and take Erik’s hand. “In my work, I see quadriplegics who find ways to go on. To enjoy their lives – sometimes more fully than the average person on the street. But my mother wasn’t one of them. She was so independent, too stubborn for her own good, and she just never accepted what had happened to her. She wouldn’t let herself. I took care of her for nearly seven years. It was a hard time.”

“That’s why you went into physical therapy,” Charles said. “To help people like your mother.”

“Do you know, it took me forever to realize I actually like this work for its own sake?”

“I’m glad that you do. That you found your way to a good place. You deserve it.”

“Well.” Erik didn’t seem to know what to do with praise.

Charles let him off the hook. Although the intensity of their conversation still circled them, warmed them together like a blanket folded around them both, they could talk more normally now. “Did you start your studies right away?”

“No. I worked my way through school, a class at a time, so I only got fully certified a couple of years ago. And I’m still getting licensed for specialized therapy. Working on water therapies right now, actually.”

“Water therapy? You mean, there’s something Moira hasn’t actually made me do?”

“Moira?”

“You know. Dr. McTaggart, my doctor. We’re friends.” Not my girlfriend, she’s delightful and beautiful and if I went that way I couldn’t do better, but I don’t go that way, oh please understand me.  “Are there more classes to take?”

“I’ve taken them. It’s mostly about logging practice hours now.”

“Do you need volunteers?”

Charles had been joking, but Erik sounded hopeful. “You’d give it a try?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“It would be a haul for you, coming all the way up from NYU, or all the way down from New Salem. Our facility’s on the Upper East Side.”

Although Charles felt this would be well worth the haul, he had a better idea. “Can we practice here? There’s a pool.”

“I guess – but the weather’s far too cool for you to swim in that yet.”

“I don’t mean the one outside. We’ve a heated pool in the basement, too.” Sometimes Charles looked around at the stupefying grandeur of his house and wished his mother had found other ways to fill her inner emptiness, ways that went beyond opulent interior design. Now he could only think, Thanks, Mom.

Erik hesitated another few moments before saying, “You’re sure?”

“Absolutely. Needed practice for you, free therapy for me.”

“Maybe after our massage session on Friday?”

“Friday night?” Charles very much hoped that had come out blithe and urbane instead of wild with hope. “That works.”

After they hung up, Charles pushed the exams to the side; he wouldn’t be getting any more grading done tonight. Instead he wheeled himself to the east windows and gazed up at the stars. Sometimes he saw Erik’s face among them, like a constellation. He wondered what Erik’s mother had been like, what she and Charles might have had to say to one another. He thought about the accidents that had smashed the lives they’d had before, turned them into the lives they had now. He held close to him the knowledge that Erik had wanted him to understand even something this intimate and painful – the knowledge that they really could talk about anything, that whatever wall of reserve Erik had drawn around himself had fallen.

And despite all that, every time Charles thought about Friday night, he smiled.

 

**

 

“Wait,” Sean panted. “You do this – every morning?”

“I do now.” Erik hadn’t taken such good care of himself before his mother’s accident had taught him how fragile the human body was, how it deserved to be protected.

“At five a.m.?”

They were jogging side-by-side in Central Park, surrounded only by the few other morning-run diehards, a handful of drowsy dog owners with jackets pulled on over their pajamas, and one woman who appeared to be birdwatching. “You don’t seem to be enjoying it.”

“Are you kidding?” Sean paused and bent over, hands on knees, to catch his breath. “A wise man once said, ‘I acknowledge one five o’clock a day, and this isn’t it.’”

“Then why did you say yes when I asked you?”

“Because you never want to do anything, with anybody –  ”  Sean coughed, wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, and stood up again; his face was almost as flushed as his hair. “So I figured you had something important to talk about. That’s why I got up at this ungodly hour. Spit it out already, would you?”

Erik hadn’t realized before now that Sean was concerned for him. The idea rankled a bit – Erik didn’t like others to feel as if they had to care for him – but he could appreciate the kindness behind it. “Have any of your relationships with patients become … well, gone past the professional?”

Sean gave Erik a look. “You can’t bang ‘em.”

“I know that.” Obviously, if things with Charles kept going – well, he could just have Charles reassigned to another therapist. Erik had double-checked the employee manual on this question the night before.

“Seriously, don’t go there. You’re not the type to take advantage. I know that. But it can get confusing.”

“Take advantage?”

“Come on, Erik. Every single one of us has about half-dozen clients in love with us at any given moment. You definitely included.”

“That’s not love,” Erik insisted. He began jogging again, forcing Sean to keep up. “That’s – it’s infatuation. Normal enough, given how much touching goes on. They all know it for what it is.” He had an elderly woman patient who always greeted him by waving, batting her lashes and calling out, Hello, loverboy! It made Erik laugh, as it was meant to.

“Most of the time, sure. But some of our patients are shut-ins. Some of them are lonely. There’s a lot of emotional vulnerability there.”

Erik glanced over at Sean. “When did you get so sensitive?”

“They had sensitivity on sale at Trader Joe’s last week. I stocked up. Listen, okay? These people have to let us into their lives. They have to let us touch their bodies. Sometimes they have to let us see them naked, in pain, all the other stuff they hide from most of the world. I’ve seen people get confused about that kind of intimacy and fool themselves into thinking it’s something more than it is. That goes for patients and therapists both. So watch yourself.”

“Got it,” Erik said.

He lengthened his strides so that he pulled ahead of Sean. His breath came in puffs, each cloudy in the cold morning air. And he thought about Charles lying beneath his hands, in pain, but trusting that whatever Erik put him through would be worth it. Trusting him completely.

 

Chapter Text

Erik stood near the edge of the pool, a few feet away. For once, Charles was greatly tempted to feign a little helplessness. If he were helpless, then Erik would have to assist him. Carry him. Erik, who stood there in swim trunks that exposed perfectly sculpted legs – that hugged, in a promising way, the area they covered – with a waist so narrow and tapered it hardly seemed likely to lead into that broad, muscular chest the way it did –

But helplessness wasn’t attractive. Despite all his scars, despite his stem-like legs, Charles badly wanted to be attractive right around now. 

“I think I can manage,” Charles said.  Transferring to the floor was always ungainly, but he could do it. Wheelchair brakes locked, hand on the pool ladder, right leg – he could move that one far enough on his own today! – but the left needed a little help, and then – not too fast – there. He sat at the pool’s edge, feeling almost ridiculously triumphant.

Of course, his legs were folded demurely to one side as though he were pretending to be the Little Mermaid, but he’d take it. 

Erik seemed almost as pleased as Charles. “Good? Ready to swim again?”

“Yes. Even if I’m – armored.”

“It’s hardly armor,” Erik said, coming to sit beside him. His feet broke the surface of the water; a soft splash echoed from the tiles around them. Ripples of reflected light shimmered on the vaulted ceiling above. “We just went with soft pads around your knees and shins, and of course the boots.”

“Go on. Call them booties. I can handle the truth.”

Erik’s smile seemed to contain more teeth than most people’s. “All right then. Booties.”

Dressed to seduce, Charles thought as he looked down at all that black padding. But in his condition, the same minor scrape that would only annoy most people could easily go unnoticed and untreated – and thus turn into a major infection. At least he didn’t have to wear a shirt. Using a manual wheelchair regularly had done more for his upper body than those stupid Pilates classes ever had, and most of the scars were on his back. It wasn’t vanity to think Erik might enjoy that part of the view.

As Charles used his hands to lower each foot into the water, Erik slipped in – a movement so smooth and streamlined the water hardly seemed to ripple around him. “All right, Charles. Jump.”

Charles raised an eyebrow.

Erik was unmoved. “I mean it. Jump.”

“Without my legs?”

“Use whatever else you’ve got going. Don’t hesitate. Plunge.”

Charles didn’t get much chance to act without hesitating any more. It was surprisingly refreshing to shove himself off the side of the pool – to splash into the water, feel it close over his head, and feel his body suddenly, beautifully, joyously light in a way it hadn’t been in far too long.

His arms swept outward, thrusting him upward through the water until he broke the surface. Erik’s hands caught his shoulders; he was grinning again. “There you go.”

Charles shook his damp hair as vigorously as a wet dog, the better to spray Erik’s smug face. It was all a laugh, until he realized –

--the slight weight of the booties was enough to tip his legs downward. His feet had just touched the bottom of the pool.

He was standing.

Slowly Charles straightened. Erik’s smile faded – no, changed, gentled – as Charles tested himself, discovered he had just enough remaining strength to balance. Erik pulled his hands back so that Charles stood on his own, and said, “How is that?”

“I’ve no words.” How did you describe what it felt like? You couldn’t. Charles himself could never have understood it before his accident.

Erik nodded, accepting this and understanding it. There was no need to hide his emotions, Charles realized – the wonder of it, or the pain either – the thunderclap of shock, the way this thing that had been thoughtless to him before was miraculous now –

And the exhilaration of standing in front of Erik, face to face, the way he wished they’d met, being able to look him in the eyes …

 

**

 

“Then?” Moira said, clutching her sandwich in front of her, half-eaten and forgotten. “What happened then?”

“Oh. Then he gave me a floatation device to hold onto, and I – I walked a bit.” Charles knew his face was flushed with joy from the memory – for a number of reasons – and he didn’t care.

Moira slumped back into the chair in his office at the university, which was usually reserved for students who had novel reasons for not turning in papers but was now her seat for lunch. The brown bags and white paper from the deli were strewn across their table, aka his desk. “That’s it?”

“I just told you I walked again and your only reaction is ‘that’s it’? I mean, yes, it was in a pool, but I say that counts.”

“No, no. That’s wonderful, of course it is, but I’m not surprised your recovery has reached that point. Honestly, I’m kind of angry with myself for not prescribing water therapy earlier. It’s just – “ Moira shrugged her shoulders. “The way you were describing the scene … describing Erik … I kind of thought you might be leading up to a kiss.”

Did he just have a neon sign above his head constantly blinking Has It Bad For Erik Lehnsherr in huge red letters? Charles groaned. “He’s my massage therapist. That’s all.”

She gave him a look.

With a sigh, he admitted, “Okay, okay. I admit to having a bit of a crush.”

“A bit?”

“I know I go on about him,” Charles said, eyes cast down toward his desk, “but it’s been a while since I met anyone new who wasn’t a student of mine. It’s invigorating, having – different conversations, new stories to tell. Sometimes I feel so shut in, so isolated – well, Erik changes that, at least a little, and I guess I respond to it. And we really do wind up talking about everything – arguing about a lot of things, really – politically, philosophically, we’re opposites in so many ways, but it’s a good kind of opposition, you know?” He smiled despite himself, unable to keep from picturing Erik’s. “I tend to oversimplify, but he always overcomplicates. I’m an optimist stuck in a hopeless situation, and he’s a pessimist who’s decided to spend his life fighting for the impossible. He’s quiet, and I blather on and on … which I seem to be doing right now. Sorry.” 

“Like hell you have a crush. Charles – you’re in love with him.”

He hadn’t admitted that to himself yet, but once the words had come out of Moira’s mouth, there was no denying it any longer. With a groan, he buried his face in one hand.

Obviously that was all the confirmation Moira needed. “And he likes you too, doesn’t he? I mean, he spent all this time on extra therapy – ”

Charles managed to look up and meet her eyes. “That’s just to help with his certification.”

“Oh, yeah?” Moira had a way of lifting her chin when she was feeling stubborn that was somehow both adorable and formidable at once. “It seems like he’s showing you a lot more attention than the average masseur shows his clients.”

“Erik’s never been anything less than professional. Or more than professional. Whichever way you’d put it.” He looked down at his sandwich, could muster no appetite for it, and pushed it aside. “Why are you carrying on this way? Surely you of all people must know there’s a – protocol between patients and caregivers. Lines you don’t cross.” 

She leaned back in the chair, almost lost in thought, for a long moment before she replied. “Charles, you and I crossed that line. Not as lovers, no, but as friends. Is it easy to switch from a professional relationship to a personal one? No. Do people sometimes get mixed up about it? Definitely yes. But it happens, and it’s possible to navigate that transition in a healthy way.”

Charles hadn’t looked at it in that light before. The idea that it was permissible to even think of Erik in that way was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.  There had to be elements of this Moira wasn’t considering. “He’s a massage therapist. He must get this all the time. Constantly.”

“Well – yeah, he probably deals with inappropriate attention more than I do,” she admitted. “I deal with people who are in the middle of massive physical trauma, while his specialty is something most of us associate more with foreplay than healthcare. But, that means he’s also used to fending that attention off. You’re pretty obviously enamored of him – ”

Big blinking neon sign = check.

“—so if he weren’t at least thinking about it, he’d probably back off. Put more space between you, be more formal, you know, the usual. Instead, he’s getting in the pool with you and having these in-depth conversations. So I think there’s something there.”

 “… really?”

“Yeah, really. So you have to feel him out. Metaphorically, I mean. Then you can get to feeling him out physically.”

Charles wadded up one of the sandwich bags and threw it at her; she dodged it easily. He said, “How am I supposed to do that? Before, if I fancied someone, I usually had a couple of drinks and threw myself at him.”

“Hmm. Subtle.”

“All right, maybe it wasn’t the most nuanced technique, but it got results. This is a lot more complicated.” Wait, was he actually asking for advice about how to romantically approach Erik? Was he actually going to do it? He still didn’t even know whether Erik was even gay. Or bi. Or open to suggestion.

Moira said, “There’s no set of hard and fast rules for this. But I think you could make your intentions clearer, and see how he reacts, take it from there.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “You said he stayed until evening on Friday?”

“Yes.”

“Did you offer him dinner?”

“—no. I didn’t think of it. There wasn’t anything in the house, either.”

“Hospitality fail!”

“Oh, God, you’re spending too much time on Twitter again.”

She ignored this. “Seriously, Charles, the guy gives you extra therapy and you send him home on the train for about an hour’s commute with no food? That would be a no-no even if you weren’t going to hit on him. This week – you are doing the water therapy again this week, right?”

He nodded. “I can have dinner ready. Wait. No, I can’t. But we can order in, maybe.”

“There you go!” Moira grinned, then suddenly became almost businesslike – Dr. McTaggart once more. “We had the sex talk way back when – ”

“Oh, God, not again.”

“No, not again, but maybe you should start reading up on the details of some of the options available to you. Just in case. I’ll put together some PDFs and links for you, send them your way later on this afternoon. All right?”

Just in case.

Finally Charles nodded. “All right.”

If and when the time was right, he could … check out the facts.

 

**

 

When water therapy ended on Friday, Charles hauled his body from the water – where it was weightless, where he could stand, where he felt like himself again – back to the realm of gravity. He panted at the pool’s edge for a moment; his heart pounded so hard he wondered whether Erik could see it. 

“Charles?” Erik said. “Do you need a boost back into your chair?”

“No. I mean, yes.” Sometimes Charles could manage floor-to-chair in his room, with soft carpet underneath, but it wasn’t worth the risk here. “But I – I wanted to ask – to say – it was rude of me to send you off so quickly last week.” 

“You weren’t rude last week.” Erik’s gray eyes looked wary.

“Well, it’s just that swimming always makes me hungry. Famished, really. And you have such a long trip home, that I thought I ought to have offered you dinner. Which is what I’m doing now. If you’d like.”

That had to have been the absolute worst dinner invitation ever offered – but Erik said, “Sure. Yeah, let’s. What did you have in mind?”

Marriage! Instead Charles said, “I thought we could order Chinese.”

“Chinese it is,” Erik said, with what had to be the most incredible smile Charles had ever seen.

Golden Phoenix delivered at speeds that made Charles wonder whether they had a TARDIS that could actually travel back in time to deliver the food faster than it could be cooked. He called in their order before he even dried himself off, which meant that by the time they met up on the first floor, the doorbell was already ringing.

“Steamed broccoli – that’s you,” Charles said, handing over the paper box. They were spreading out on the kitchen table, which he’d chosen as being warm and cozy – at least, more so than the one in the dining room, which could seat 42. “Shrimp with lobster sauce is me. Brown rice, you; white rice, me. Gosh, you’re healthy.”

“I’m not going to give you a guilt trip about it, so relax. Some people in my job turn into the health cops. I only police myself.”

“Will you at least let me tempt you into a fortune cookie?” Charles held up the two cellophane-wrapped cookies they’d been given.

Erik gave him that astonishing smile again. “You’re leading me down the path of sin.”

At that, Charles leaned onto his elbows, propping himself up so he wouldn’t actually melt down onto the floor. “Pick one.”

“We can’t open them until the end. It’s tradition.”

“Open at the end, but pick now.” He was teasing now – almost flirting, yes, this was what flirting felt like, wasn’t it?

Erik took a cookie, and they got started on their dinner. Thank God Golden Phoenix was so reliably delicious that Charles could be sure Erik would enjoy even a meal as Spartan as steamed broccoli. He contemplated offering Erik a glass of wine, but decided against it, even with neither of them driving tonight; he got the sense that, for Erik, alcohol could be a sensitive subject.

“You should be heading into finals, right?” Erik said. “Early next month?”

Charles nodded. “The students have begun to get that panicked look. That oh-god-my-paper-is-due look.”

“Flop sweat?”

“No, that kicks in around the first of May.”

Erik chuckled as he used his chopsticks to fish in the carton for another bite of broccoli. “Are you teaching summer school, or do you get some time off?”

“Neither, actually. I’ll be writing.”

“Writing?”

“I’m working on a book about advanced genetics, genetic engineering, the frontiers of that science, but for a popular audience. There’s so much legend and lore out there about what genetic engineering can do. So many science fiction movies, you know? I’m hoping to set the record straight. But it can be entertaining, I hope. Fascinating even to the layperson. That’s my goal, anyway.”

“I’d read it.”

“But you know me. You sort of have to read it. I’d badger you about it, and about posting a good Amazon review, too.”  

“No, I mean, a book like that – it’s something I’d pick up in a bookstore anyway. And I think you’d be someone who could make it – fascinating. Like you said.” 

Although Charles knew “modesty” was not one of his principal virtues, praise from Erik had the power to make him feel completely disarmed. He ducked his head as he smiled.  “Well. I’ve got help, thank goodness. My sister’s fiancé used to be one of my research assistants; he’s helping me check and double-check all my facts. These days, the science is evolving so quickly that keeping up is a full time job in itself.”

“You must like him, then. The man your sister’s marrying.”

“Hank’s wonderful. The last guy I ever thought she’d choose, but they’re good for each other. That’s another thing I’m doing this summer – attending the wedding. Late August, so it’s going to be blazing hot, and we’ve yet to figure out how I’m supposed to walk her down the aisle in my chair, but – we’ll think of something.”

“So they’re rushing to the altar?”

“No. Well, yes, Hank proposed after only four months, but they’ve been engaged for three years. They refused to set a date until gay marriage was recognized in New York. I think she was hoping we could have a double wedding.” Okay, that was very much not smooth.

But Erik didn’t seem to notice any awkwardness. “Do you know, that’s just about the only subject that could interest my mother, the last couple years of her life? She loved the idea of being able to finally see me married. If I’d been dating a guy seriously, I think she might have convinced herself to hold on. Just to see that.” 

“I wish she could have seen it,” Charles said, wholly sincerely, despite the fact that the words singing in his head were Gay! Gay gay gay gay gay! He’s gaaaaaaaaay!

“Me too.”

“So you haven’t – there wasn’t anyone serious in your life.” The horror-movie ending here, Charles knew, would be for Erik to announce he was now engaged or something like that. He felt as though he were holding his breath.

But Erik shook his head. “I was dating someone when the accident happened. The relationship – it was one of those on-again, off-again things, but it was on-again, and that time I really thought we were going to make it work. He saw me through Dad’s funeral and the first couple months with Mom, and then – ” Erik’s laugh was sharp enough to cut. “Then he told me that the situation was ‘too intense for him.’ He left me the same day I changed my mother’s catheter for the first time, and bungled it. We were both so humiliated, and I went to his place feeling so raw, and that’s when he lowered the boom. This man I loved, this person I thought I might spend my life with – now, every time I think about him, all I think about is the heat and the stench of piss.” He straightened. “Sorry. Oversharing. And that was hardly dinner conversation.”

“No, it’s okay.” Charles could still hardly wrap his mind about this. “He said your father’s death and your mother’s disability … were too intense for him?” 

“You caught that, huh? It gets worse. He had the nerve to call me two weeks after my mother’s funeral. He only wanted me without baggage. Which means he never wanted me at all.” 

The real pain in his voice – still, after all this time – pierced Charles through. When he put his hand on Erik’s forearm, he had no thoughts about an excuse to touch Erik, or how he might look; he could only think of providing comfort if he could. He didn’t think about the warmth of Erik’s skin beneath his until later. “He was an idiot. I’m sorry.”

Erik shrugged. “It was a while ago. The idea of it upsets me more than the reality, now. I mean – better I found out who he really was earlier rather than later.” His eyes sought Charles’. “I hope nothing like that happened to you.”

“No. There wasn’t anyone in my life then.” Charles leaned back, relinquishing the touch. “Hadn’t been for a while, actually.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Erik said. It was the same sort of generic pleasantry nearly anyone might have uttered. And yet it coursed through Charles like lightning in his veins.

The conversation rambled a bit after that – they were both eager to move on from such heavy topics, and Charles could hardly focus for the stupid happiness bubbling up inside him. He was still giddy when he cracked open his fortune cookie. “Let’s see. ‘There is a prospect of a thrilling time ahead for you.’ That’s promising.” 

Snapping open his cookie as well, Erik read, “All the water in the world cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside.”

“Oh, that’s one of the ones I hate. It’s not a fortune at all, is it?”

“At least one of us is going to have a good time. As for me, I guess this is saying – I shouldn’t sail on the Titanic?”

Charles pursed his lips, mock-serious. “Bad move. Definitely not.”

“Definitely.” There was that grin again.

Finally, Erik went on his way, no more or less businesslike than he’d been leaving any other time until he was already walking down the stoop to the waiting taxi. “This was fun,” he said.

“Yeah, it was.” Charles wished he’d said that just a couple steps before, when he might have dared to reach out his hand, tangle his fingers with Erik’s. “We should do it again sometime. Next week, maybe?”

“I’d like that,” Erik said.

No more doubt, no more denial: Next week would be a date. An actual date. They’d segue from the professional part of the day to the personal. They could manage it.

But then what?

Charles took a deep breath, then steered his chair toward his office. It was time to do something he’d been putting off the past few days.

It was time to read Moira’s email all about sex.

 

**

 

Charles' files all proclaimed: L2 incomplete spinal fracture, ASIA scale D. Back during the earlier months of his recovery, Moira had explained that this meant he could possibly still experience psychogenic erections. This meant getting hard just because he was turned on, because his cock and his brain were working together. 

(The alternative: reflex erections – those caused by physical stimulation to the penis, regardless of what was going on in your head. Those actually occurred more often than they had before, mostly because Charles could no longer sense the earliest stages and talk himself down if it happened at an inconvenient moment. Male paraplegics had to watch their own laps to make sure they weren’t inadvertently embarrassing the hell out of everyone else in the room.)

Well, as it turned out, Charles could still have psychogenic erections. He’d even been able to masturbate from there to orgasm.

Twice. 

Two times. Total. In eighteen months.

The few other times his body had gotten turned on along with his brain, his cock wouldn’t stay hard very long, no matter how eagerly Charles stroked himself, no matter how many dirty thoughts he paraded through his mind. It was as though his mind and body would only work together for a brief moment, enough to excite, but not enough to satisfy.

Charles had to believe he’d get it up for Erik. Just the thought of kissing him was enough to make him feel almost dizzy. But what if – in the moment (and it finally seemed like they might get this moment) – his body wouldn’t stay with him? It was horrifying to imagine going limp in Erik’s hand.

Erik would know your limitations. He’d understand, Charles thought. This helped a little, but only so much. Although Erik worked with paraplegics, he’d most likely never been to bed with one before. Could they even find ways to please each other? Charles couldn’t move the way he used to move – God, how he used to love to ride his partners, drive them crazy, giving it to them good until his thighs burned and his body was covered with sweat and he was totally fucked out –

He glanced down at his lap. Nope, nothing.

With determination, Charles took up his iPad and opened Moira’s email attachments. There in clinical black and white were his options. 

And option number one? He could inject certain drugs into his penis to make sure it stayed erect.

Inject. With a needle. Charles didn’t have full sensation down there any longer, but he was reasonably sure he’d feel that. No thanks.

He could use a medicated urethral suppository – a combination of words Charles had never even thought to put together. Wincing, he realized his hands had subconsciously moved down to cover his crotch. Still, it was better than the thought of an injection … barely.  

More encouraging was the news that for men with spinal injuries similar to his, Viagra was sometimes an option. That was all right, wasn’t it? Just a pill he could take, one among dozens. Yes, he’d ask Moira for a prescription; it would be worth the interrogation that would result.

You had to take Viagra about an hour before you hoped to have sex, though.  Wasn’t there any way to be spontaneous? He used to love giving in to the whim, to the moment.

It turned out there was such a thing as a “penile prosthesis.” Charles’ first thought was dildo, but this was a mechanism that could actually be implanted within the penis. An inflatable mechanism. How did that work? Hey, maybe it was manually inflatable. He could tell Erik, Put your lips together and blow – not bad. But some worked via remote control.

“O strange new world,” Charles murmured, staring at the illustrations of the screen.

However, prostheses had two big drawbacks. One, they could get infected – and in Charles’ life, even a mundane infection could be dire. And an infection there … not a pleasant prospect. And also, a prosthetic could malfunction. The sources Moira had sent were maddeningly vague as to exactly what “malfunction” meant, but in any case it was ominous. He imagined his erection popping up, then down, then up again, like the bar at a parking-garage exit. Not good. But worse was the idea of rapid deflation, air spurting out and sputtering like a fart. 

There was always a vacuum pump – sucking really did do wonders – but Charles crossed this off the list as soon as he read that these produced “bluish erections that are cold to the touch.” Christ on a pony. 

So. Viagra? Viagra.

Wearily Charles closed Moira’s email. But then he thought – Moira would only give him clinical information. The sort of things doctors could, with propriety, say to their patients. Mightn’t the internet offer a few more practical suggestions? Eagerly he started on a set of searches that he guessed would make his G-mail ads highly entertaining for a few weeks at least.

But the internet wasn’t all that much more helpful. There were many helpful, determinedly positive blogs telling him that paraplegics could be great lovers without bothering to tell them exactly how. There were plenty of pages touting the merits of all the options Moira had already provided for him, but no others. What illustrations and guides Charles could find were all heteronormative; this wasn’t a huge problem, since he could transpose easily enough, but it was a little alienating.

The only two main sex aids he found that Moira hadn’t suggested were wedges and slings. Wedges looked simple enough – pillows a paraplegic partner could lie across to tilt the pelvis upward. Charles figured regular pillows would work for that just as well. Still, it was nice to imagine lying splayed out like that for Erik –

--very nice. That he could do. Definitely.

What would it feel like now, to have another man inside him? Charles knew he’d be able to sense it – enough sensation remained for that – but could it be anything close to as good as it had been before?

Unwilling to think about that any longer, Charles decided to examine the slings in more detail. Then he wished he hadn’t.

Who the hell do they think I am? A member of Cirque de Soleil?

Yes, he had more upper body strength now, but could he really hold himself long enough for a sexual experience worth having? And the stark black straps, the way they held you open, used gravity to splay you out – well, it reminded him of bondage, a taste Charles had indulged for a couple of lovers but didn’t greatly enjoy. And if he’d found it intimidating before, the idea of being bound and helpless – as he would be, in that sling – now it was terrifying.

Charles leaned back in his chair and covered his face with his hands. How do I do this? How do I make this good for Erik and for me?  Is that even possible?

He wished he could return to the part of the evening when the energy coursing through him had been anticipation, instead of fear.

 

**

 

Erik lay across his bed, panting, naked. After a few moments, when he could focus again, he grabbed some Kleenex from the bedside table and cleaned up. His eyes sought the screen of his laptop, still glowing from where he’d left it on his pillow. The paraplegic lying across that wedge pillow, smiling luminously at the camera, was a woman, but it had been easy enough for Erik to imagine Charles lying there naked instead. It wasn’t that different from the view he had while he massaged Charles’ back – or that different from his thoughts while he did, lately –

He needed to tell Charles that he had to stop being his therapist. Really he should have done it tonight after dinner. Instead Erik had used up all his self-control by not bending down and kissing Charles goodbye as he left.

Charles would have kissed him back.

But Charles hadn’t had a man in his life for a long time, by his own admission. It sounded as if the only other male person he even spent time with any more was his sister’s fiancé.

Erik remembered Sean’s words about how vulnerable their patients were, physically and emotionally. Erik genuinely believed that he’d been careful with Charles, and the conversations they’d had were meaningful. Personal. Surely the connection between them was real, and worth exploring.

So why hadn’t he quit as Charles’ therapist today? That was the next step – the best step, both for his career and for whatever relationship he and Charles might build together. He could do it right now, even, just pick up the phone and call. It was late, but Charles had said he never went to bed before midnight.

He imagined Charles’ soft voice in his ear as he lay here in bed, heart still beating fast from the orgasm he’d had while imagining their bodies locked together. Erik closed his eyes; his cock twitched, unable to answer again so soon but still responding to the thought.

And still he didn’t call.

Maybe, Erik thought, he was just chickenshit. Not about getting turned down – he was pretty sure Charles wanted this as badly as he did – but about taking on the responsibility again. He’d spent years of his life caring for a quadriplegic during virtually every second he wasn’t at work or school. Was he scared of doing it again?

No. No, that wasn’t it. It was work sometimes, even grueling work, but Erik had never flinched from anything his mother needed. He wouldn’t flinch from Charles, either.

Erik thought – possibly – this was because he was half in love with Charles already.

So why didn’t he call? 

Chapter Text

The Monday afternoon appointment with Erik was wonderful.

Well, in the sense of “wonderful” that means “in torturous pain, both physically (via massage to very sore places) and emotionally (through unexpressed love), but pain you wouldn’t give up for the world.” Charles was hoping to switch to less complicated senses of “wonderful” starting Friday night, but for the time being he’d take what he could get. 

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Erik handed Charles a cup of water; he always did, right after the massage, but now they always brushed fingers, locked eyes. “I know we worked that lower area pretty hard again.”

“Honestly, it’s fine,” Charles said, as though he hadn’t been on the verge of tears moments before. “You’re making it so much better. I appreciate it.”

“You’re tough,” Erik replied. “Listen – I was thinking – ”

Charles’ heartbeat quickened. “Yeah?” 

“—you know, we can talk about it later. I’ll be here Wednesday morning. As usual. Okay?”

“Okay. Of course.”

They didn’t talk as much as they normally did after a massage; they were quieter with each other – shy, Charles thought.  Having made someone as powerful and stoic as Erik turn shy would have made him feel utterly irresistible at any time when he wasn’t so bashful himself, stumbling over his words, hardly able to hold Erik’s gaze. 

Friday night, he reminded himself, as he waved goodbye to Erik at the door. The taxi they always called for him waited halfway down the drive, so there was a little while to sit there and watch Erik go – hands in the pockets of his hoodie, the usual backward glance over one shoulder. He’ll want to talk Friday night. It’s finally time.

Charles had to start prepping students for finals the next day, so he managed to concentrate on his work most of the evening. More or less. Sort of. Every time his mind wandered at all, it went straight to Erik. The way Erik had ducked his head when they first smiled at each other that afternoon, or how his hands had lingered on Charles’ shoulders for a few moments after the massage had ended …

Stop it. Keep this up and your students are going to get a study sheet with discussion questions like, “Do you think Erik Lehnsherr considers himself primarily a top or a bottom? Diagram your work.”

So it wasn’t until Charles awoke the next morning, shortly before his alarm, that he really had a moment to daydream in earnest. As usual, he heaved himself over onto his back, rotating as Moira had decreed, the better to avoid pressure sores. But even as he did so, he imagined flopping over in bed next to Erik – what it might be like to wake up beside him –

--which was when Charles saw, for the first time in far, far, too long, a tell-tale swelling beneath his bedsheet, one that went along with the pleasant sense of arousal flowing within him.

He lifted it up, just to make totally sure.

“There you are,” he said to his erection. “Long time no see.”

The joke was his nervousness talking; Charles knew that. But this was encouraging, wasn’t it? If even the thought of Erik could get him hard, then he had a chance Friday night.

Lotion – bedside table. His hands fumbled it slightly, clumsy in the way people became when they were late, when they thought they’d miss their chance. But within a few moments he took himself into his fist. The sensation was so dim as to be almost absent … but not quite, not quite. It was enough, wasn’t it?

Charles thought it felt more like jerking off someone else, the tightness of a cock in his palm, the ridge of the head, the long shaft, all more like someone else’s that his own. But his heartbeat was going faster and faster – that had to be good, right? – and his breaths became shallow. He could do this. He could. If he could get himself off, then he could come for Erik. He wanted so, so badly to come for Erik. So he went for it.

And went.

And went.

“Come on,” Charles groaned. His face was flushed; his fingers starting to cramp. “Come on, please, please.” He envisioned Erik kissing him, atop him, naked. Instinctively he pictured the kind of sex he’d always had before, painting Erik into each image. Shoving Erik against the wall and fucking him where they both stood. Or pushing Erik to his knees, unfastening his jeans, letting Erik suck him off. Riding him. Taking him on the floor. None of it could ever happen. But that was okay, wasn’t it? This was fantasy, just fantasy, and it ought to have been more than enough to bring him over the edge.

But his cock softened within his grip, and though Charles tried frantically to recapture some hardness -- just a little, he could get it all back if he could only begin – nothing happened. He went completely limp; Charles had to let go. His arm muscles ached, and his body was covered with sweat, and he had nothing to show for his efforts except proof that Friday night was unlikely to go well.

“Dammit,” he whispered.

The only thing he succeeded at that morning was not crying.

 

**

 

“As I see it,” Hank said, “the passages on homologous recombination are perhaps not friendly to the lay reader.”

“In other words, they’re total technobabble."

“Precisely.”

The one free period Charles had in the afternoon was being spent in a private conference room at the university library. He and Hank could have reviewed edit notes for the book in his office, but Hank was deeply distressed by Charles’ filing system – i.e., “If it’s all on top of my desk, I can eventually locate whatever I’m looking for.” Better that they met here, where Hank could lay everything out in neat rows on a broad, pristine table.

“I’ve been thinking about your writing advice – about how we must always find a way to introduce core scientific principles through real-world uses for this knowledge that will engage reader interest.” Hank pushed his glasses up on his nose; as usual, Charles thought that anybody who didn’t know Hank well would assume the spectacles were a hipster affectation. Really, Hank was just the last man on earth unworldly enough to choose horn-rims just because he thought they were practical. “If you don’t think it’s too, well, sensationalistic, could we structure that chapter as the dark side versus the light side? Genetically modified foods versus potential breast cancer cures?”

That was exactly, precisely the kind of insight they needed – the sort of thing Charles usually came up with himself. It was a huge leap forward for Hank, in terms of understanding how to reach a popular audience. But instead of shouting “Eureka!” Charles simply nodded. “Worth a try.” 

“Professor – ”

“Hank, for the last time, we’ll be brothers-in-law before summer ends. Couldn’t you call me Charles?”

“Not in a university setting. Professor, it seems to me that you’re distracted today.”

With a sigh, Charles leaned back in his wheelchair. “I suppose I am.”

“Is something troubling you? Are you uncomfortable?”

“Yes, and no.” Could he talk to Hank about this? He badly needed to speak guy-to-guy … but guy-to-Hank was a different thing altogether. Any port in a storm, Charles decided. “I need you to keep this private from Raven, okay?”

Hank’s expression darkened. “I try not to keep secrets from her.”

“It’s not a secret secret. It’s about – well, my love life, and you know how she gets. It’s much too early for her to hear about it, because if she does, she won’t ask when we’re going out. She’ll ask when I’m buying Erik a ring.”

“I see your quandary. Discretion is indeed the better part of valor.” Hank pushed the notes slightly aside – even now, separating work and life. “I notice you said ‘Erik.’ This is the man you talked about over dinner that time, isn’t it?”

“One and the same. That’s been, um, progressing, and I think we’re about to – well, you know, cross the line. Become involved.”

“Cause enough for distraction, surely, but you seem more anxious than anticipatory.”

Charles hadn’t realized it was that obvious. What if Stay back was the signal he’d been subconsciously sending Erik all this time? “I haven’t been involved with anyone since my accident.”

“Are you primarily concerned with the sexual differences or the emotional ones?”

He’d been so obsessed with the sex that he hadn’t really considered the rest. “Emotional?”

Hank took this not as a question but as confirmation. “Although I have never been in your situation, the complications seem obvious. There would be a strong impulse toward greater dependence than is usually considered ideal between romantic partners, given the genuine difficulties you face on many different fronts. You at least have a strong independent streak to combat that, but you must assess whether Erik will understand this and accept you fully as an equal. Certain people are drawn to those with disabilities as a sort of fetish, and Erik may be one of them … which may or may not bother you, but no doubt you will wish to determine if this is the case, for clarity’s sake if for no other reason. Also, while you naturally – and, I should add, correctly – consider that you have much to offer as a potential boyfriend, you will have an equally natural impulse to overcompensate for any deficiencies you imagine he would feel. But by remaining conscious of these problematic tendencies, you will greatly increase your ability to combat them.”

Slowly Charles said, “Hank … why didn’t you go into psychology?”

“Not enough math.”

“Of course.” He breathed out, back in, trying to keep it slow and steady and not at all on the verge of panic. Sex wasn’t the end of it? Sex was just the beginning of his problems? Up until now, Charles had been counting on his past relationship experience to see him through, which was idiotic, because he sucked at relationships.

“Do you feel I have helped you with this advice? Raven says I sometimes fail to grasp certain emotional subtleties. Fortunately for me she’s rather straightforward in her needs and wants.”

“Feeling much better,” Charles lied. “Let’s get back to work, shall we?” Technobabble was the least of his problems, and the only one he felt sure he could handle.

 

**

 

Despite all this, Charles felt reasonably at ease when Erik arrived for their Wednesday morning session. Wednesdays were their least talkative, most businesslike day; the early hour was the main reason, though it was also the day of the week when Charles was most likely to be preoccupied with his university duties.

Nothing big ever happened on Wednesdays. They could just relax. Be together. It was nice.

“The weather’s dire out there,” Charles said. “We should call the cab for you a little earlier today. Even this far out of Manhattan, it’s a bitch getting a taxi in the rain.”

“They say it’s going to clear up.” This wasn’t entirely persuasive, in Charles’ opinion – the skies were low and grey. But Erik’s confidence meant he never took his hands from Charles’ back, which was lovely.

“We’ve never really discussed what your Wednesdays are like. I hear about Mondays and Fridays because I get you at the end. But Wednesdays? A complete mystery.”

“That’s the day I fight crime under my secret identity,” Erik said, so matter-of-factly that it doubled the effect of the joke. As Charles chuckled, Erik continued, “Nothing so dramatic. I go into our center for a few hours of in-house sessions, then take my water therapy certification class.”

“Just two more weeks to go, right?”

“Exactly. Thanks to you.”

 “Nonsense.” Once you’re certified, we should go out to celebrate. Dinner’s on me. The words hung there, waiting to be spoken, but Charles reminded himself that Friday night was the time for that. It was too good a line to waste, but – not now. Not yet.

When the session was over, the rain had stopped as per Erik’s prediction – but recently enough that Charles was proved correct about the taxis. Long after the car should have arrived, they still waited together in the living room. Charles thought perhaps they could just hang out, relax together, in a sort of rehearsal for the business-to-dating transition; however, Erik’s mind remained firmly in professional mode. 

“You said your hands sometimes bother you?” Erik looked down at Charles’ hands, which were folded in his lap. “That can happen, particularly when people are as stubborn about manual wheelchairs as you are.”

“If I use the powerchair all the time, I’ll lose upper body strength,” Charles insisted. “But – yes, sometimes, my hands get sore.”

“Let’s go over some self-massage techniques.” With that, Erik slid further down the leather couch, until he was sitting at the very end, only inches from Charles’ chair. “Show me what hurts, when it hurts.”

Charles turned over his hands, showing his palms. They were calloused now, rough as any day laborer’s. “They used to blister. That doesn’t happen any longer.”

“There’s this wonderful new invention called ‘gloves’ you could look into sometime.”

“I wear them occasionally. Not all the time. My hands needed to be tough, you know?” With one hand Charles pointed to the pads at the base of each finger on the other. “But here. This gets tender.”

“You realize carpal tunnel is a real risk for you, right? Really, Charles. You’ve got to take better care of yourself.”

He was being scolded. Charles didn’t know whether he found that a little overbearing or more heartening – since it was, after all, proof that Erik cared. Or that he was a conscientious professional. One or the other.

Erik took one of Charles’ hands into his own and began using his thumb to make deep circles against Charles’ skin. They remained like that for a few long seconds, hand in hand, touch on touch. It seemed very important to say something, and yet very difficult to speak. Charles swallowed hard. “That feels wonderful.”

“Good.” Was it his imagination, or was Erik’s voice a little – husky? “Rub in deep right here, just like this.”

Of course Charles knew that Erik meant for him to try this motion as self-massage. But he hadn’t actually been specific, which allowed for some … individual interpretation.

Charles turned his hand over, capturing Erik’s fingers in his own. With his other hand, he began massaging Erik’s hand just the way Erik had shown him. “Like this?”

“Hmmm.” Erik was clearly considering correcting Charles, making him work on his own hands alone. He didn’t. “Yeah.”

“Your hands must cramp too, sometimes.” Good God, Charles thought, could my voice get any squeakier without my inhaling helium? But he tried to sound suave, if Alvin and the Chipmunks could sound suave. “Using your hands all day, the way you do.”

Erik nodded. Charles didn’t see this – they were sitting very close, but both looking down at their joined hands. Instead he heard the movement, almost felt it. They were near enough that if Charles leaned over, just a little –

Don’t be stupid. Friday night’s the time for all that. This is just – flirtation. A preview of coming attractions.

“What do you guys do? To take care of your hands, I mean." 

“This, mostly.” Erik sounded distracted – the same way Charles knew he did himself – though surely they were both hotly focused on the touch of their hands. “But there are exercises, too. To get strong.”

“Like what?”

Charles turned to Erik as he said it, the exact same moment Erik turned toward him. He hadn’t been planning anything and felt sure Erik hadn’t either, and yet suddenly they were face to face, far closer than they’d ever been before – so close they were almost touching, so much that it was impossible to pull away.

So he kissed Erik. Once, quickly, as furtive as a boy at a middle-school dance: His mouth was dry, and their lips didn’t quite meet right, and Charles’ first thought was, Oh, God, that was awful.

But Erik didn’t pull back, and Charles kissed him again right away, as if to erase the memory of the first kiss with the second. At first Erik remained still against him, so much that uncertainty speared Charles’ heart – and yet at the moment when he would have stopped, Erik leaned into the touch. Now he was the one kissing Charles. Again. Once more.

And then the first real kiss captured them both, fusing them together. Charles’ doubts and nervousness vanished in the brilliant flash of that realization – He wants me, he actually wants me, just as much as I want him. This is really happening. I never thought it could, and here it is, here he is, at last.

It had been so long since he’d kissed anyone – two years and then some. Charles had almost forgotten the taste of it, the nearness of the curves of lips and chin and nose, the rasp of stubble against his cheeks, the way you could breathe in the scent of someone’s skin. He leaned into the kiss more, everything in him swaying toward Erik, turning toward him, seeking heat and light.

Erik opened his mouth a little – their tongues touched – and Erik groaned into it, a sound of such hunger and want that Charles flushed hot with desire.

Then he went utterly cold.

Oh, God. Oh, my God. He wants to have sex. I can’t have sex. I haven’t even asked Moira for the Viagra prescription yet – I was going to do that tonight! For Friday! What if the cab comes? Why am I worried about the goddamned cab? What am I supposed to do?

At that moment, Erik pulled out of the kiss. His voice breathy and fast, he said, “You realize I have to resign as your massage therapist now.”

“Oh. Oh, right. I should’ve realized.” But Charles hadn’t really thought about it, and his first reaction was that he felt abandoned. That was stupid of him – of course Erik wouldn’t be allowed to date a patient – and yet it felt like everything was changing far too fast.

“Of course I want you to be very sure this is all right with you.”

“All right with me?” Charles blinked. I just licked your tongue; was that not sufficiently enthusiastic?

Erik kept explaining, more like an employee in spin-control mode than a lover. “People in your situation are naturally more vulnerable – vulnerable to certain things, to emotions – which I would never want to take advantage of.”

“What? No. I mean – ‘my situation,’ what are you talking about?” He knew what Erik meant. Of course he knew. By this time Charles was very used to people seeing the wheelchair instead of the person. But he’d never dreamed Erik would do that.

Instead of responding to this, Erik kept on: “I have to make sure you’re taken care of, always.”

“Taken care of.” His temper sparked.

 

“Yes. Right. Exactly.”

“Like a patient,” Charles shot back.

“You are my patient. Or you were until about, ah, three minutes ago.”

“And you think that makes me, what, less capable of knowing my own mind? Too stupid to tell whether I want someone or not? Not able to take care of myself?” The anger boiled up so fast, so violently, that Charles couldn’t have held it back if he’d wanted to, which he didn’t. “Christ, Erik, I get that from almost everyone else in the world, but from you? About this?”

“It’s not okay for me to be doing this!” Erik’s face – was that anger or fear? Both, maybe. “Do you understand that?”

“It’s not okay if you see me as – as someone sick. Someone weak. That’s the only reason it’s not okay.”

“You don’t see that I have a responsibility here?”

“Don’t take responsibility for me! I can take responsibility for myself!”  He was being treated like a child again. Like an invalid. Just when he’d thought – when he’d tried – Charles couldn’t bear it.

It turned out that when Erik got upset, he turned cold. Almost forbidding. He drew himself up, more formal and less reachable than ever. “You’re not thinking about this rationally.”

“That I admit. I wasn’t thinking rationally. I wasn’t balancing everything on the scales of responsibility and logic when I kissed you. Mea culpa. You see, unlike you, I actually defrost once in a while.”

Something sparked deep within Erik’s gaze then – anger, perhaps, or pain. Had he just hurt Erik? Charles was too hurt himself to regret it, though he knew later he would. “Obviously neither of us understood what we were getting into.”

“This was a mistake.”

“I’ll go,” Erik said. “I’m sorry. I’ll – MedMobile will send someone new on Friday.”  He was off the couch in an instant, grabbing up his duffel and heading for the door. Charles didn’t even budge until he heard it shut.

Then he wheeled himself to the window and looked outside. There, Erik walked along the long drive that led away from the mansion; puddles still lined the path, which was dark from the early rain. Although the taxi still hadn’t arrived, Erik apparently intended to wait for it out on the street.

What just happened? Charles thought. His anger still wanted Erik to go, to walk away and never come back – and yet his heart bled lonely within. What did he say? What did I just do? Shit.

Charles watched Erik the whole time he walked away. Always, before, Erik had looked back once before he went. This time he didn’t.

 

**

 

It felt as though a thousand years had passed for Erik, before he finally got home that night.

Home. The apartment had never really felt like a home to him; he’d bought it in haste shortly after the accident, spending far more than he could afford, once he’d realized they’d need a fully wheelchair-accessible place. Every cent of the court settlement against the driver’s estate had gone to pay for it. That had left nothing for new furnishings, paint, art, any of the things that made a living space personal. The chairs and sofa had been shabby when they got here years ago, hauled over from both his old place and his parents’ home; now they were almost derelict, sharply at odds with the spic-and-span cleanliness, the bright white walls. Erik hadn’t ever cared, not while his mother was there to be nursed and tended to. He’d had more important things to worry about then.

But in the three years since? Why did this place still feel more like – a hotel, or a hospital, than the place where he lived?

Maybe it felt emptier than usual this evening because of what had happened with Charles.

I had to be certain, Erik repeated to himself for at least the hundredth time that day. If Charles was too emotionally fragile to enter into a relationship, then it was my duty to pull back. Obviously he was.

That should have felt reaffirming. Instead it felt like an excuse.

All day, Erik had dreaded a call from the MedMobile managers. In his heart he knew Charles wouldn’t report him – but he felt Charles would be well within his rights to. Maybe he’d almost been hoping for the call. If someone would take him to task, punish him for going down this path, it might erase some small fragment of this crushing guilt.

Even if he’d done the right thing, he’d hurt Charles. And he’d never, ever wanted to hurt Charles.

Another excuse bubbled up: He’s the one who kissed me.

But that wasn’t an excuse. It was the truth. Charles had kissed him. Charles – who hadn’t been with anyone since before his accident, who obviously felt vulnerable every time he undressed his scarred body or prepared himself for pain – Charles was the one who’d had the guts to make the first move. He’d been braver than Erik. And his reward? Being treated like a patient, at the very last moment he should ever have been made to feel that way.

Idiot, Erik thought. Coward. All this time you thought you held back because you were so good, so pure. Because you believed you wanted to protect Charles. You were only protecting yourself.

From the day of his parents’ accident, Erik had been sealing himself away from more pain, in smaller and smaller boxes, farther and farther from the life he’d once known. He didn’t decorate this home because that would mean taking joy in it, allowing it to matter to him. He ate and exercised as though healthy habits would bring immortality, even though he knew that to be an illusion. And since his last breakup, he’d never allowed another man to get close, not until Charles. Even Charles had to slip in under the radar, as a patient. Even Charles had been forced to make the first move.

And now he’d pushed Charles away, so far Erik didn’t see how to get back.

You fucking coward.

You’ve lost him.

The worst part is that you deserve it.  

Chapter Text

Another Monday.

Charles lay stomach-down on the massage table, trying very hard to be properly appreciative. After all, his new therapist – a younger man named Sean – was both skilled and polite, and his fingers were currently working some magic on Charles’s shoulders. His care had continued without so much as a pause since that awful morning two weeks before. Really, he was very lucky.

But all he could think about was the fact that Erik wasn’t here.

How stupid he’d been. Since that first day, he’d asked himself whether part of his crush on Erik wasn’t just part and parcel of the whole massage therapy experience – whether, in his loneliness, he hadn’t simply fallen for the first person to touch him in far too long. Now he knew better. Sean was fit and handsome – probably straight, but that wasn’t a turnoff, per se – and yet Charles felt nothing for him but abstract gratitude.

That electric anticipation before Erik’s visits – the way Charles had melted beneath Erik’s hands – that hadn’t been mere vulnerability. It had been chemistry, raw and wild and all too volatile.

See? He thought angrily to the Erik in his head, an ever-changing figure who was tantalizing and infuriating by turns. I’m not just some helpless patient. What I felt for you was real.

These things had to be said to the imaginary Erik, because the real one hadn’t bothered to call. Since Erik was the one who needed to apologize – profusely – his silence had first angered Charles, then bewildered him, and finally crushed him.  What a fool he’d been to hope.

Sean finished with a few smoothing strokes down Charles’ back. “How’s that feeling?”

“Much better, thank you.”

As Charles pushed himself upright, Sean set about packing up all his gear except the mobile massage table. He tossed Charles his clothes, which by now were easily enough wriggled into from a seated position. While Charles did this, Sean said, “Listen, I’m going to go to the doorway, okay?”

“… okay.”

Sean backed to the threshold of the door, and said, “See, while I’m in this room with you, I’m your massage therapist. Once I leave, I go back to being Sean, right?”

This was peculiar.“I guess.” 

With that, Sean half-jumped over the line of the door, and instantly his demeanor changed. “Dude, you have got to call Erik. Unless you hate him, I mean.” 

Charles could only stare for a long moment before saying, “Call him?”

“Yeah. He’s moping. Not like other people mope, either. Like – most people’s moping is Erik’s normal, you know? Erik’s moping is … ungood. To the extreme.”

And just like that, Charles was worried about Erik – hurting for him. And horribly, selfishly glad, because Erik’s pain was the mirror of his own, proof that something real had happened. Or nearly happened. Dammit. “I’d thought – he would call me. I mean, he should call me.”

Sean did that little leap again, over the doorjamb, until he was back in the bedroom. Instantly more businesslike, he said, “Any therapist who discontinues working with a patient due to interpersonal conflicts can no longer initiate contact with that patient.” Another leap, and he grinned. “I memorized that from the manual. But you get it, right? He can’t call you, or it would be like he was harassing you.” Then Sean became more serious again, without bothering to jump back into the room. “Which – if that’s how you feel, like if you want to file a complaint or something – Erik’s my friend, but you’re my patient, and – ”

“I don’t want to file a complaint. Erik didn’t do anything wrong.” 

“Okay. I didn’t figure. He’s not the type.”

“No, he’s not.” Erik tried so hard to walk the line. To discipline every moment of his life – even a first kiss.

“So, if you want to talk to the guy – the ball’s in your court.” Then Sean clapped his hands together and came back to Charles. “Let’s get you back in that chair.”

For the next couple of hours, Charles – fretted. Brooded. Lots of verbs, all of which could describe the experience of staring down at the Contacts list on his phone and watching Erik’s name glow back at him.

It wasn’t that he was wondering whether or not he’d call. Obviously he was going to call. But what was he going to say?

The first time in almost two years I’d felt like a complete man again, and you treated me like a child –

I dream about you kissing me, every single night, I dream about kissing your open mouth –  

You should have known better. You shouldn’t have let us go one step down this path.

I should have known better. I shouldn’t have put you in a position where you couldn’t win no matter what you did.

Finally, Charles sucked up his courage and hit CALL.

Erik answered on the second ring. “Hello?” The soft, cautious tone of his voice told Charles he’d looked at his phone’s screen and knew just who was on the line. 

“Hi. Erik. It’s me. I – “ He thought he’d decided what to say, but apparently not. So Charles bunted. “I probably should have called before.”

“Charles, I’m so, so sorry about the other day. I never meant for that to turn – hurtful, or weird. I hate that it went so badly.”

Over the past two weeks, Charles had composed any number of withering responses to various feeble apologies. But Erik’s words gentled him so quickly – God, it was like melting. “Same here.” 

“I shouldn’t have assumed you didn’t know what you wanted.”

“No. You shouldn’t have.” He swallowed hard. “But I overreacted. By, say, a power of fifty.”

There was an awkward pause, only a second or two long, but those seconds felt like they contained every single possibility for them, all jumbled in together. Then Erik said, “Could we talk about this? In person, I mean.”

“—yeah. I’d like that.”

“Tomorrow night?”

Erik sounded so eager, so hopeful. Which made it both pleasure and pain to reply, “I’ve got to meet with the TAs about exam week tomorrow evening.”

“Oh.” Did Erik think he was being brushed off? If so, he soldiered on, “Well, Thursday night, maybe? That way you wouldn’t have to make an extra trip into the city.”

I’m sorry, but I’m busy. I suppose I could work you in for lunch if we made it fast. No, no, on second thought, I really haven’t got an opening until August. Or could you come here now? As in right this second?

Charles cleared his throat. “Thursday night could work.”

 

**

 

Charles had known that Erik would choose a restaurant that was wheelchair-accessible, but beyond that his expectations were low. The menu was likely to be heavy on wheatgrass and soy, which was the kind of thing that didn’t set a great tone for an evening.

Instead, he rolled into a steakhouse, all leather and oak and deep green paneling on the walls. Jazz was playing and the lights were low, and Charles’s heart sang, because this was definitely a date.

It’s not a date, he told himself sternly. It is at best a – pre-date. Opening the possibility of a date. If that’s what you want, which it might not be, because you clearly both have some unpacked baggage, and oh God there he is and he looks amazing.

He’d never seen Erik wearing anything but the aqua MedMobile shirt or swim trunks – both of which were delightful to see. But there was something about the cut of his slacks that exaggerated the unreal taper of his waist, and the black turtleneck outlined him just right. “Hi,” Erik said. “They’ve got our table ready.”

Instead of a romantic back corner, they were fairly near the door; such were the demands of wheelchair accessibility. But they had enough privacy for it to feel intimate, and the waiter lit their candle as soon as Charles had himself adjusted.  The moment the waiter was gone, Erik said, “You look great.”

“Oh, this.” He shrugged dismissively, as though he hadn’t spent an hour matching jeans to blazer to shirt to tie. 

“I meant – well, that, but not just that. You’ve been doing well.” 

I’ve been lying around watching “Say Yes To The Dress” marathons and eating Cheetohs by the handful. “I’ve been okay, I guess. But you look terrific. The turtleneck is – it’s – very good.” Was he about to be ridiculous? Charles switched gears as fast as he could. “Hey, you had your certification exam, right? For the water therapy?” 

“Yeah.” Erik grinned. “I passed.”

“Of course you passed.” Charles felt himself grinning in return; he hadn’t realized he’d feel so happy on Erik’s behalf.  “I’m glad.”

“And I appreciate the help,” Erik said, then stopped himself. He almost visibly relaxed. “I meant to say – it was easy to concentrate when I was working with you. It wasn’t even work.”

Charles’ inner voice said, Would you drop the bullshit and admit this is a date?

Yet still, inside, he held something back.

Although deference to Erik’s feelings and his own drive back to Westchester County meant that they ordered sparkling water to drink, Charles chose his meal with abandon: a sirloin cooked medium rare, baked potato with butter, creamed spinach.  He fully expected Erik to get the most joyless offering on the menu, but instead Erik said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Charles raised an eyebrow. “You eat red meat? Dairy?”

“Once in a while. When I let my hair down.” Erik’s smile was too tight now, but he was trying. “Which I ought to do more often.”

“Hey. I didn’t mean – you can live your life how you want. You don’t have to apologize for being healthy.” That wasn’t quite what Charles meant, so he tried again, “You don’t have to change.”

“But I did change. I wasn’t always – I used to – ” Erik breathed out sharply, and that stiffness was creeping back into their conversation. “I don’t want to drag us down. Forget it.” 

At that moment one thing became very clear to Charles. Either he and Erik were going to keep tiptoeing around each other’s issues all night, and maybe they’d call it a date or maybe they wouldn’t, but they wouldn’t actually get any closer than they’d been as therapist and patient. Or – they could dig it all up, all his crazy and Erik’s too, and it would be just about the least sexy evening ever.

But he’d finally know who Erik was, and Erik would finally know him. Which probably meant Erik would run screaming for the hills, and yet –

“I’m sorry I reacted like that the other day – ” Euphemisms now, seriously? Charles tried again. “When we kissed. I hated that you still saw me as a patient – but I was still your patient.”

“I didn’t mean to make it seem like, like … I thought you didn’t know your own mind.”

“But you weren’t sure. I wasn’t either. That was part of why I lost it, you know?” Charles felt as though his face must be flushing, and he kept staring at the flickering candle between them, unable to meet Erik’s gaze. “I knew I cared about you, but I also knew you were – that you were the first person who’d kissed me in about two years.  And that’s – I guess it’s powerful. No. It is powerful.”

When he looked up, Erik had hardly moved, and yet his posture and expression no longer seemed forced. “You mean, you weren’t sure if you were genuinely interested or just … lonely.”

“No, I mean I was genuinely interested and I was lonely and it made me so scared about screwing things up that I screwed things up. It feels like I did it on purpose. I pushed you back so I wouldn’t have to be scared of you pushing me back.”

“Why did you think I’d push you back?”

Charles really, really didn’t want to admit this next, to Erik or to himself, but it was long past time to get it out. “Because I lied to you.”

“What?”

“When we met. That first day. You asked about, um, sexual function and I said – I said I was okay, and in paraplegic terms, I am okay, but that’s not the same. It’s so incredibly not the same. The whole time I’ve been getting to know you, I’ve been asking myself how I could make love to you, and I still don’t know the answer. We were kissing, and we both wanted more, and I had to face the fact that –“ Hold it together, hold it together, your voice shouldn’t shake, just try. “—that I was going to disappoint you.” 

“Hey.” Erik’s voice was soft. “Charles – you know I’m aware – ”

“You’ve studied, and you’re a professional, and all of that. I know. But it’s different when it’s in your bed.”

Erik leaned forward then; the candlelight softened the planes of his face. “You’re not the only one who’d been wondering how we’d make love. Okay? No matter what the situation is, we can find a way.”

Charles wanted to believe that so badly, but he couldn’t. “You say that now.”

“I mean it. Charles, I can handle it.”

Maybe it was true. Maybe. Neither of them could really know until they tried. Charles couldn’t bring himself to say that out loud, but he leaned forward a little too, trying to relax – to at least be open to the possibility. 

Their meals arrived, and for a moment Charles simply relished the relaxation of small talk and the sight of Erik eating something that was both delicious and not wholly good for him. But they needed to keep going. “Erik?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you become interested in me – was it – was it because you needed someone else to take care of?”

Because Erik could have anyone. Anyone. He was gorgeous, intelligent, articulate, compassionate, and a gay man in Manhattan with a body that seemed to have been sculpted by Praxiteles. In Charles’s experience, nobody like that was any more alone than he wanted to be.  Also in Charles’s experience, guys in wheelchairs might as well have been draped in sexual Invisibility Cloaks, as far as the rest of the world was concerned. They weren’t an obvious match. They weren’t even a stretch. They were … a cosmic accident, an unbelievable stroke of luck, and Charles didn’t really believe in luck.

Erik weighed that question for a long moment, then said, “At first, honestly, I think that was part of it. Maybe that’s how it began.”

That stung. But Charles had asked, and at least Erik had told him the truth.  Wasn’t that the most important thing?

Yet his brain kept replaying it, over and over. That’s how it began. How it began. Someone else to take care of.

Erik continued, “That’s not the whole reason I fell for you, though. I mean, I work with a lot of paraplegics, you know? Other people with other needs. Including other gay men. But I didn’t fall for any of them. Only you.”

The words fell for you flowed over Charles like sunlight. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t think, couldn’t even look away from Erik.

And yet they didn’t totally drown out the whisper of Someone else to take care of.

“In the beginning, I mostly liked your attitude. You were determined, and positive, but you were realistic, too. That was the balance I always wanted to find with Mom, before, and never did.”

Am I benefitting from a very odd turn of the Oedipus complex? Charles wondered. But he kept listening.

“But I also liked – you know, you’re funny.”

“Sometimes on purpose.”

“See? And you have these amazing blue eyes – seriously, amazing – and as much as I hate to sound like some guy cruising the clubs – your mouth is – ” Erik’s voice trailed off, and he was no longer meeting Charles’s eyes, but instead looking at his lips. “—distracting.”

Charles had, in fact, heard similar lines about his mouth many times. That did not make it unpleasant to hear it again.

“Then there was that time we talked about your accident, and the fact that the drunk driver wrote you, and we wound up talking about my mother, too, and you said – you said your anger could turn the world to ash, but that wasn’t the world you wanted to live in. Remember?” 

He would never have dreamed Erik recalled the exact words. “Yes, of course.” 

“That’s the world I live in.” Erik looked down suddenly, which was the first time Charles realized Erik was fighting equally as hard for control. “And I hate it. I fell in love how you see the world. Then I fell in love with you.” 

Charles reached across the table; Erik took his hand. For a few long moments they just sat there, holding hands and smiling at each other – and probably looking like idiots, Charles thought, but damned if he cared. When he finally spoke, the only thing he could say was, “You know I’m in love with you too, right?”

Erik’s fingers tightened around his. “I’m glad, but – ”

Why did there always have to be a but?

“I want to be good for you, and my life is so – fucked up, and empty.” That confession had cost him, Charles could see. “You said I didn’t have to change, but I want to. You deserve that. You need that.”

Still trying to take care of him. Someone else to take care of.  And yet they were in love, and that had to matter more, didn’t it? Charles felt like too many things were going on at once, like he had so many emotions his heart had no chance of holding them all.  He didn’t know whether to be happy or to despair. He didn’t know if they should go for it or back away from each other’s issues, slowly and carefully, before alerting the bomb squad. 

Their steaks were getting cold.

“What were you like?” Charles blurted out.

“What?”

“You said you weren’t always so serious. Before your parents’ accident. What were you like?” 

Erik shrugged. Still they hadn’t let go of each other’s hands. “I was never one of those club guys. Well. Maybe in undergrad. Okay, definitely in undergrad, at least the first couple of years.”

Charles had to smile a little. “I can’t really see you in glitter.”

“Never. I did go through a brief eyeliner phase, though.”

Okay, that was a very, very good mental picture.  “Wild and crazy.”

“More like, crazy about the wrong guy. He liked the clubs. I tried to like the clubs. It was never really my scene, but – I used to enjoy dancing. God. What else? I was in a gay running group, and I used to like to go upstate on the weekends to hike, maybe once or twice a month. And I really, really wanted to do some traveling when I finished with my master’s. Everywhere, really, but Japan – that was first on my list. My boyfriend hated traveling, and especially didn’t see the point of Japan, but I was working on him. Well. All that fell by the wayside, after the accident.”

Jealousy swelled within Charles so fast and so sharply that it took him aback. “Wait, this guy you’ve mentioned – it’s different guys, right?”

“No. Just the one. I mean, I dated other men, but he was the only one who … the only one I’ve mentioned.”  

“But the clubs – that was undergrad.” Erik had to be in his mid-thirties, and he’d only split from this man a few years ago. “You went that far back?”  

“Farther.” Erik sighed. “I was in high school when we met. He was a grad student doing tutoring on the side. My parents thought he was doing me so much good. Later on, of course, they figured it out.”

A grad student would have to have been at least 22 or 23. Charles frowned – and Erik laughed.

“You just did the math, didn’t you, Charles? Listen. I was 17. I knew what I wanted. He was a hundred different problems rolled into one, but he wasn’t a predator.” Their hands disentangled as Erik flexed his shoulders, trying to release old, deep-rooted tension. “He did, however, get very used to making all the decisions. Used to me as someone with no – responsibilities. No life beyond him. And you know, sometimes I didn’t have any life beyond him. I let him get away with that for a really long time.  Which is my own fault, I guess.”

Erik’s ex had called all the shots. He’d never been someone Erik needed to take care of. It would have been the other way around.

Those thoughts flickered in Charles’ mind, small petty complaints about his own insecurity – bounced off his fears about sex, about everything. He gazed at Erik, this powerful, even polished man who was, in his own way, as vulnerable as Charles was himself.

“Okay,” Erik said. “Enough about him. I mean it. If you think – if you’re worried that I’m not over him. I am. Completely.”

“I know that. And I’m glad.” Charles turned his hand over, inviting Erik to take it again, which he did.

Their fingers laced, flexed, wove apart and together once more. First for reassurance, then for pleasure. Their gazes locked, and after a few long moments, they each began to smile. Charles felt as though he’d never flirted with anyone before, that he was more nervous now than he’d been since the first time he ever realized he was going to have sex.  

Erik murmured, “Am I forgiven?”

“Yeah. Am I?”

“Nothing to forgive.” Erik said. “So are we going to try this?”

Charles felt as though his grin should have lit up the entire restaurant. “Oh, yeah.” 

“Charles – if you want – ” Erik’s eagerness seemed to flow from him into Charles, electrifying their touch. “—I live not that far from here. A few blocks.” For a few moments they remained locked there, unable to look away, hardly able to move. Erik finally said, “Come home with me?”

Oh God oh God oh God. Charles took a deep breath. This was the scariest part of all.  But he knew now what he had to do. “On one condition.” 

“… okay. Yeah, okay, anything. What is it?”

Charles leaned even closer to Erik; they were now as near one another as they could be with the table in the way. He murmured, “When we go to bed together – you’re not going to try to make me come.”

That wasn’t what Erik had been expecting, obviously. It was the very last proposition Charles would ever have dreamed of making, once upon a time … but times had changed. Erik said, “But – there are things we could try – ”

“I know. But not tonight. I’m not ready – logistically, emotionally, any of it.” Charles squeezed Erik’s fingers. “Before we go there, I have to know I can satisfy you. That you can be happy with me just as I am. Because, Erik, we both have to face it. Most of the time we have sex, I’m not going to have an orgasm. That’s my reality. If you’re with me, it’s going to be your reality too.”

“You mean, I just – I let you – that feels selfish, Charles. I want to make love to you, completely. For both of us.”

“I want that too,” Charles whispered. “And I hope to God we get there. But tonight – tonight I need to know that you can handle this. That I can too. We have to be okay with it.”

Erik kept struggling. “I am. I just don’t see why we can’t try.” 

“I told you. I’m not ready.” Their eyes met, and Charles continued, “You have to let go, Erik. You have to stop trying to take care of me.”

“But – ” 

“You know what I think? I think, seven years ago, when you needed to be taken care of the most, your worthless ex walked out. And you haven’t trusted anyone to take care of you ever since. But I will, Erik. I can. I want to, because I love you.”

By now they were both almost completely overcome. Erik’s thumb brushed along Charles’ palm, sending delicious shivers throughout his body. “I love you too.”

“So take me home. Let me take care of you.”

For a long moment, Erik neither spoke nor moved, and Charles began to wonder if he’d gotten this wrong after all. But then Erik raised his hand, motioning for the check.

 

**

 

Between the crowds on the sidewalk and the occasional sprinkle of rain threatening a future cloudburst, Erik and Charles were mostly concerned with getting to Erik’s place as soon as possible. Only when the elevator doors slid shut around them did Erik finally lean down for a kiss. 

Oh, God, the taste of Erik’s mouth. Charles reached up, clutched at Erik’s shoulders, trying to drag him down. The angle of the kiss was difficult – slanted, almost upside-down, and yet that only made it more tantalizing, the way their lips wouldn’t quite meet, the way their tongues didn’t exactly fit. Panting into each other’s mouths, Erik’s hands working at the knot in Charles’ tie, the sound of their breathing filling the elevator –

Ding! And they tried to pull themselves together, in case anyone else was in the hallway. But nobody was.

Erik’s apartment was as sparsely furnished as Charles had imagined it would be, but as he steered his way toward the back, he could see a bed, which was the only thing that mattered. Within a few moments, he was by the bedside, capable of pulling up onto it by himself – though this was one thing he didn’t mind getting help with.

“Here,” Erik murmured. His hands went to the rails of Charles’s chair, and with one flick, he had them down.

Competency kink: Check.

But even better was Erik slinging one leg over him so that he straddled Charles in the chair, and then Erik was in his lap, and they were in each other’s arms, and they couldn’t quit kissing long enough to do anything else.

Charles’ hands tugged up Erik’s shirt, and they disentangled just long enough to pull the turtleneck away, exposing his muscular chest. And it wasn’t like Charles hadn’t seen this before, not like he hadn’t daydreamed about him countless times, and yet being able to touch Erik, to run his hands along those ripples and planes, to brush his fingertips against a nipple – no dreams matched that.

Erik got Charles’ tie off, his shirt open. Charles fumbled at Erik’s belt, then swore. “Getting naked takes too damned long.”

Instead of replying, Erik rose from Charles’ lap, pulling back no doubt to remove his pants, but Charles hooked his fingers in Erik’s belt loops, refusing to let him pull that far away just yet. Now that Erik was standing, Charles could easily bring his face to Erik’s crotch, to see the long hard outline beneath the fabric. He nuzzled Erik, running his cheek against his erection, then opening his mouth to scrape his teeth along it. Erik groaned as he tugged gently at Charles’ hair, keeping him there as Charles got the pants open – took Erik out of his shorts, lips parting just at the sight of his cock – 

“Wait,” Erik said. He pulled back and hurriedly began removing his clothes. Charles had wanted to keep going – but maybe it made more sense to be in bed. Or maybe Erik still wasn’t totally at ease with doing all the taking while Charles did all the giving.

This doesn’t have to be perfect, Charles told himself as he hoisted his body onto the bed. He had to lift his calves up to slip off his shoes, and it was hard to concentrate on that with Erik stripping in front of him. Just try.

But as he struggled to get undressed, his attention shifted from Erik to himself. It had seemed like such an accomplishment back when he’d first figured out how to wriggle out of his slacks and boxers at the same time; now it seemed graceless, the opposite of erotic – particularly when he contrasted it with the sight of Erik finally naked before him. Erik was beautiful, so beautiful that for a moment Charles could only think that this man couldn’t possibly want him, that there was no way he could keep him.

Yet Erik only stooped down for a kiss, then smoothly helped Charles out of his pants – not like an assistant, but like any lover eager for the touch of skin on skin.  

Charles still felt shaky, and Erik picked up on it. “Are you all right?”

“This is – scary. Letting you see me like this. I love you, and I want this, and it scares the shit out of me.” It felt so good to admit it – to be with someone who could let him admit it.

“It’s okay. Trust me. Let it go.” Erik tossed the pants into a chair on the corner – even now, in the heat of the moment, keeping their discarded clothing off the floor where it might impede Charles’ wheelchair later on. He sat on the bed and drew Charles into his arms, across his lap, kissing fervently like Rodin’s lovers.

Then they were lying together in Erik’s bed, Erik’s body covering his, kissing and caressing Charles’ fears away. It had been a long time since he’d been so aware of the highly muted quality of all sensation below his hips; how he wanted to feel more of Erik than a vague sense of weight and warmth. But Erik’s mouth on his, the muscles of his back beneath Charles’ hands – that was real, that was unchanged, and it was wonderful.

“What feels good?” Erik whispered. “Tell me.”

“My nipples have become especially – oh!” Charles arched his back as Erik sucked at him eagerly. For a few long moments, all he could do was hang on and try to keep breathing. Only when he felt as though the pleasure might turn to pain did he speak again. “Earlobes. Also good.”  Now Erik’s mouth was at his ear, his chin against his throat, and the sound of his tongue against Charles’ was almost as sweet as the pleasure.

But he was ready to take care of Erik.

He reached for Erik’s cock, tightened his fist gently around the head. Erik groaned. Charles whispered, “Come here.”

As Erik crawled along the length of Charles’ body, Charles used the opportunity to lick his way down Erik’s throat, to bite at a nipple, to push his tongue into the dip of his navel.  Erik slid onto his knees, grabbing the headboard and bringing his cock to Charles’ mouth at last. Charles opened his lips and greedily took him in.

Oh, God, I missed this, he thought. Just the taste of it. But better yet was hearing Erik moan in satisfaction as he ran his tongue along the ridge, then began to suck. Charles knew he was giving Erik exactly what he wanted, what he needed, and it made him feel more powerful than he had ever imagined.

He fondled Erik’s balls, relishing their tightness against his palm, then slipped one finger into him, more teasing him at the rim than opening him up. Did Erik like fisting? Charles hoped so. It would be amazing, to just fuck him out that way and hear what Erik sounded like then – but it couldn’t be better than now. Because Erik was pumping into Charles’ mouth now, surrendering to what he wanted, moans almost turning into cries. He panted, “I – I’m coming – “

Charles clamped his hand tighter around Erik’s hipbone, refusing to let him pull back. With one final shout, Erik came, and Charles couldn’t swallow and lick and take it in fast enough. Within moments, Erik had slumped next to him, and he kissed Charles’ open mouth for a very long time. He put one palm against Erik’s chest to feel the quickness of his heartbeat and the hard rise and fall of his breath.

I did this. I can be a lover to him. I really can. 

When their lips parted, Erik whispered, “That was incredible.”

“Uh-huh.”

He paused for one moment, then said, “Charles – are you sure – ?”

“Yes. I’m sure. Not tonight.” After this, Charles felt much more sure that he and Erik could play around – experiment – but as arousing as all this had been, his cock had remained limp and unmoved throughout. When they tried to make this mutual, he definitely wanted Viagra on his side. “We will. I promise. Soon. But tonight – this is perfect. It really is.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Charles had to laugh. “You know, I always heard women saying that they didn’t have to have an orgasm to enjoy sex, and I always thought that had to be total bullshit – ”

Erik started laughing too.

“—but you know, they were right. They really were.” Not that he wouldn’t have given a lot to suddenly respond to Erik, right this moment. But he wasn’t going to think about what he couldn’t do; instead he was going to enjoy what he could. “It’s enough to be with you. To be this close.”

“I love you,” Erik said, resting his head against Charles’s shoulder, and in that moment Charles wouldn’t have wished for anything else.

 

**

 

Erik woke in the middle of the night. Even in sleep he had been aware of Charles’ presence, his warmth, but waking to the conscious knowledge of Charles next to him made him grin even before he’d opened his eyes.

He spread his hand along Charles’ bare chest and was rewarded with a sleepy groan. “Mmm. Not a dream.”

“Nope.” More realistic concerns crept in then, and Erik hesitated – if he asked, would Charles think he was treating him as a patient? But no, they had to find a way to talk about Charles’ needs in a practical way. “Need anything?”

“I should turn over.” Charles hesitated. “Actually, I should go to the bathroom and then turn over.”

“Do you want me to –” Erik caught himself. “I know you can handle it.”

But Charles didn’t immediately move toward his chair, which remained right by the edge of the bed. “I can handle it. Yes. But – you know, eventually, I’ll be sick, or we’ll be visiting friends with a bathroom I can’t get to on my own – and I really, really hate the idea of you having to take me to the toilet. So I think we’d better get past it now.”

“You want me to take you?”

Charles looked almost grimly determined. “Yes.”

Erik found Charles’ embarrassment almost baffling; compared to the intensely intimate care he’d given his mother, walking Charles into the bathroom seemed like nothing. But he was gentle about it, lifting Charles up, taking him in, settling him down. “How long do you need?”

“Usually only about 20 minutes. By paraplegic standards, I’m a champion.”

“OK. Call if you need me.”

“I will,” Charles said, somewhat faintly, but Erik felt sure Charles was already getting used to the idea.

He went to the kitchen and poured them both glasses of water. For a few moments he remained at the narrow kitchen window – at this hour, even in New York City, he was unlikely to be glimpsed naked by anyone on the street below. Erik had hardly noticed the view before, a sliver of the crosswalk shadowed with trees.

If he shopped around, he could probably find a table small enough to fit in here and leave enough room for Charles’ wheelchair. It was possible to imagine having coffee here, or running in with croissants from the bakery down the street. Erik had walked by that bakery hundreds of times and only gone in once, to pick up a birthday cake for a coworker that he hadn’t even taken a piece of himself. The croissants smelled amazing. 

Mental protests about gluten and carbs rose up, but that was silly. He wasn’t particularly sensitive to gluten, and as much as he ran, some carb loading wouldn’t be fatal. Besides, he liked the image of him and Charles breakfasting here together, sharing coffee.  

The thought of treating Charles led naturally to the thought of pleasing him, which took him back to the fact that he hadn’t brought Charles off tonight. While Erik understood Charles’ reasoning, it was still difficult to act this way without feeling selfish, even heartless.

But he also remembered the glow of happiness on Charles’ face as they’d embraced afterward. Maybe this was okay for now. Maybe – maybe Erik could stop worrying so much about what Charles needed and listen to Charles about what he wanted.

Eventually, they’d find their way. And maybe he could bring up the subject of those very interesting wedge pillows.

Erik remained in his reverie until Charles called for him; within a few moments they were back in the bed, Charles now sprawled on his stomach. Mirroring his posture, Erik lay beside him, tangling their fingers. Charles murmured, “What time do you usually get up in the morning?” 

“An hour usually referred to as ungodly.” Erik glanced at the clock. “Three hours from now, actually.”

“Oh, Lord. That’s going to take some getting used to.”

How wonderful, to think of getting used to each other. Erik rubbed his thumb along Charles’s wrist. “Tell you what. Tomorrow – just this once – I’ll sleep in.” He was in no hurry to leave his bed when Charles was in it. 

Chapter Text

August

 

“Erik ran into his ex, and you’re only telling me this now?” Raven appeared to have totally forgotten where she was and what she was doing; she leaned over Charles in his chair as though she might shake him by the shoulders. “Hello, that is major information!”

“You’re the one who asked why I was so tense – and for God’s sake, it’s hardly important at the moment!”

“We have a couple seconds, okay? Tell me exactly what went down.”

The phrase went down created unfortunate mental images for Charles, but he knew full well Erik hadn’t been unfaithful. He wouldn’t even have wanted to be with his ex again. And yet – “I only know what Erik told me this morning when he got here. He went to the bakery near his apartment for coffee, his ex was in there, more or less waiting for him, and Erik brushed him off. End of story.”

Raven crossed her arms. “That is SO not the end of the story.”

Charles felt sure of Erik’s fidelity – and equally sure there was more to the encounter than Erik had yet told him. Erik had told him about this right away, but there had been a certain hangdog quality to his expression, the way he got when he was feeling burdened or guilty. Oh, why hadn’t he stayed at Erik’s last night instead of the hotel? He’d worried so much about getting his powerchair here, but they could have managed it, and then he would have been with Erik and seen this infamous ex for himself at last – and known why Erik looked so tense and drawn this morning –

But he forced himself to focus on what was really most important. “As soon as I learn more, I’ll tell you, okay? For now, all I can say is – Raven, you look beautiful.”

She beamed at him. The music was swelling louder, heralding her arrival. Charles swiveled his chair into position as Raven smoothed the skirt of her white dress. “Okay,” she whispered, “Are we gonna do this thing?”

“Let’s.” Charles helped her straighten her veil and took a moment to just look up at his sister, the most radiantly happy bride he’d ever seen.

You can’t doubt love, he told himself. Not on a day like this.

Then the wedding march began to ring through the church, the ushers stepped out of the way and an entire roomful of people stood to welcome Raven walking down the aisle, her hand on Charles’ arm as he accompanied her to the altar. And oh, dear God, he was sap enough to tear up.

But his baby sister – going to marry someone as good and kind as Hank, who stood in front of them practically starry-eyed with happiness – the light filtering down through the stained glass – and their friends all around them, Moira right in the back somehow managing to wave and film them with her phone at the same time, and Sean looking a bit bored as he stood next to –

--Erik, who smiled at Charles with such adoration that Charles felt as though he might melt, right there, oozing down the chair and onto the church aisle as a puddle for Raven to step over on her way to matrimony.

I’m not worrying about his ex any longer. I don’t think I have to.

Then Charles was genuinely truly happy throughout the whole ceremony, and even read the poem Raven had asked him to read without messing up once, and didn’t worry one jot until the reception. Even then he might have done all right if he hadn’t immediately run into Moira, who immediately asked after Erik, which made him immediately start venting all over again.  

“Wait, Erik ran into his ex this morning?” She said as everyone crushed into the club. Deftly she took two glasses of champagne from one of the very first trays the cater waiters brought out. “Why wasn’t he with you?”

“I wanted to stay in the hotel because I was worried about getting my chair all the way uptown again, and Erik went home because he’s been painting and he’s anxious to show it to me, so he wanted to finish up last night.” Charles sighed. “Why couldn’t he have hired painters? Then none of this would have happened. Isn’t that the whole point of acting like an adult, going to work, getting a paycheck? Because then you’re able to hire people to do enormously annoying things, like painting? I always thought it was.”

“You look like you need this.” Moira held one of the champagne glasses out to Charles, but he shook his head.

“I don’t much, any longer. Erik doesn’t care for drinking. I don’t really even miss it.” This last was more aspirational than factual – Charles longed for just a taste of champagne – but sobriety was a small price to pay for Erik’s peace of mind. 

“More for me, then.” She took a sip from the glass in her right hand, then the one in her left. “Come on! The suspense is killing me. What happened?”

“The ex was drinking coffee. Erik bought his own coffee. They had a few words. Erik left. That’s it, I think.” Was it? Charles changed the subject as best he could.  “Where’s your date? You told me you were bringing the new guy.” 

She made a face. “Yeah, well, we went out to dinner a couple nights ago – and I thought, you know, this might be the night he stayed over. I wore matching underwear and everything. And then he leaned across the table and said he just had to know one thing up front, I was okay with sucking cock, right? Because he didn’t see the point of a relationship without oral sex." 

“He said that? At dinner?”

“Before the entrée!”

Charles had to laugh then, but fortunately Moira started giggling too. Her heart wasn’t broken. “Well. How very – sophisticated.”

“You know the part that gets to me?” Moira took a deep sip of her champagne before continuing. “I happen to love oral sex. I happen to be great at it. Like, if that’s ever an Olympic sport, I’m bringing home the gold for the USA. We’re talking me on the podium, on the Wheaties box, all of it. But I’m not giving it to anybody who’s more interested in my mouth than my brain. Or my heart. Oh, dammit, I said I wasn’t going to get sentimental about this disaster I call a love life.”

He held out one hand, and Moira put down one of her glasses of champagne to take it. For a moment the whole crush of the reception around them seemed very far away. “It can always, always turn around,” Charles whispered. “It can change faster than you’d ever imagine. It did for me.”  

She smiled softly. “You’re a wonderful man who got snapped up fast. I’m a bossy dame with issues who will probably wind up with multiple little foofy dogs I dress up in matching outfits.” But Moira’s wicked humor overcame her wistfulness. “Speaking of potential Olympic events, you seem to have run through those Viagra refills pretty quickly.”

Having your doctor as a personal friend had its problematic side. “I think you only phoned such a short supply so you’d have an excuse to ask how my sex life is going.”

“Guilty as charged. So, how is it?” Moira arched an eyebrow, and despite her smile and her flame-red cocktail dress, Charles knew she was asking less as a friend, and more as a physician.

“Okay. No. Better than okay. But I still haven’t – you know. Finished. With him.”

Her shoulders slumped, nearly as disappointed for him as she might have been for herself. “Not for lack of trying, I hope.”

“Definitely not for lack of trying.” Charles knew he was probably flushing. If only he could be as … brazen as Moira. “And I’m having the time of my life, with or without –” He glanced around the reception before whispering the last word: “orgasms.”

“Oh, honestly. Nobody is paying any attention to us. Watch.” Moira stood up straight and said, in a louder-than-usual conversational voice. “Fellatio. Fellatio fellatio fellatio!”

Charles cringed, but sure enough, nobody so much as turned around.

Satisfied with the demonstration, Moira said, “Time of your life, huh?”

“Yeah. Really. I never appreciated how amazing it is to just know you’ve given that to someone. How rewarding it can be to think about someone else instead of yourself. Maybe that sounds sappy – I suppose it is sappy – but it’s also true. I think I never understood that enough, before.”

“But sooner or later you’d like to get your rocks off.”

“Well. Of course. Not just for me, though. For Erik too. Our situation frustrates him tremendously; he’s too generous to be wholly satisfied with a one-way sexual relationship.”

Even with a friend as close as Moira, some things were too intimate to share.  He could confide how incredible he felt making Erik come – but not how difficult it was every time they tried to make the pleasure mutual. Erik was patience itself, willing to suck Charles’ cock longer than any other man ever had, or to massage him with oils and talk dirty in his ear. Erik would do all the work when the Viagra got Charles hard, riding him so that his entire beautiful body was on display for Charles’ appreciation.

And yet all Erik’s efforts, all Charles’ hopes, had come to nothing so far. Sometimes Charles felt as though he might be getting close, but so far the feeling had dissipated within only a minute or so. A few times Charles had been so disappointed he’d teared up; once Erik became so frustrated he wound up pacing around the bedroom for half an hour, cursing the driver who’d hit Charles so vehemently Charles had very nearly been unnerved.

But they were getting past the worst of it. Most of the time, being in bed together was a lot like it had been the first time – five percent awkward, ninety-five percent bliss, Charles decided.  And besides –

“Thankfully, sex doesn’t define our whole relationship,” he said to Moira. “We’ve had … God, just the most amazing summer. I’ve been staying at his place during the week, working on the book while he sees clients, and then he comes out to the mansion on weekends. It’s like I can’t be with him enough, and somehow he feels the same way. Our lives are so different – we’re so different – and yet we fit together like puzzle pieces. Every time I see him, I wonder how I found someone so wonderful.”

“Let’s get down to it. Does Erik have a drawer?”

Charles grinned as he nodded. “And so do I.”

“Oh, God, you’re going to make me believe in love again, aren’t you? It would be so much easier to give up.”

“No giving up allowed. I promise, there really are good men out there. Well-hidden, I grant you. But they exist.”

“Speak of the devil.” She pointed over Charles’ shoulder, and he turned to see Erik coming through the crowd toward them. Even amid a roomful of elegantly dressed young people, Erik was the most gorgeous man in sight. Charles just barely managed to keep from sighing out loud.

“There you are.” Erik stooped to kiss Charles softly on the mouth, then rose to buss Moira on her cheek. “And Moira. Good to see you again.”

“Same here. Wasn’t Charles wonderful? He has the best voice for poetry.” She grinned wickedly. “Make him read you some love sonnets sometime.”

To Charles’ surprise, Erik smiled back. “I might at that.”

Moira and Erik had only met twice before, and yet somehow they were already friendly – perhaps on the way to truly being friends. As happy as Charles was about this development, he would have been far happier to be alone with Erik, getting at the bottom of this whole ex-coffee-mysterious-encounter business –

Luckily Moira was perceptive about such things. “I think there’s a five-tier cake out there with my name on it.”

“Someone may be in line before you,” Erik said, nodding toward Sean, who stood staring at the cake with the avid, glazed focus of a true sugar addict.

Charles said, “That’s Sean – my new massage therapist, and Erik’s friend. Keep him company, would you, Moira? He doesn’t know anyone else here.”

“I’ll fight him for the first piece of cake. That’ll keep him company.” With that, Moira set off across the crowded reception, her brilliant red dress soon just one more band of color amid the whirl.

The DJ started the usual array of wedding-reception standards with “Unchained Melody,” which made Charles want to roll his eyes – but even sappy old love songs became beautiful when the man you loved kissed you again, in front of the whole world. 

“There, now,” Erik murmured. “More than that and we’ll distract from Hank and Raven.”

“Unlikely.” Charles glanced over Erik’s shoulder at his sister, who was hanging on her new husband almost indecently. He wondered if she intended to consummate the marriage in front of everyone, as sort of a grand finale for the reception.

Erik frowned as he took a seat in the chair nearest Charles. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Charles stopped himself. “Mostly. No, actually. Can you please tell me absolutely everything that happened with you and your ex this morning? Everything. What everybody said, and what you were wearing, and what he was wearing, and – and anything else you can think of.” 

“Charles. Has this been bothering you all morning? I only told you because I didn’t want you to feel I’d hidden it, even for a few hours.”  

“I know it’s stupid. I know it’s insecure of me. But – clearly something he said got to you, and if he got to you, then maybe he got to me too, you know?”

Erik responded by kissing Charles again, almost fiercely this time. Charles brought his hands up to brace himself against Erik’s shoulders; as much as he wanted to enjoy this, he couldn’t help wondering whether maybe Erik was kissing him like that to convince him, or because he felt guilty …

Then Erik said, “Okay. First things first. He will never, ever get to you. He doesn’t get through me to hurt you too. Never.”

It was as though Erik were standing in front of an attacker instead of turning down an ex. Charles felt like a swoon might be coming on. “Okay.”

“As for what he said – apparently he ran into one of my old friends from the running club the other day. Walt, from the party, remember? Sandy hair?”

Three weeks ago, Charles had gone to a party mostly populated by members of Erik’s former running club, past or present; it was the first time he’d ever been introduced as Erik’s boyfriend. On many levels it had been an awkward evening – nobody seemed to know what to make of the fact that Erik was dating a paraplegic, and each of the classic blunders was committed at least once, like someone talking about Charles to Erik as though Charles weren’t able to hear and respond like any other person. At first he had thought getting through that night sober was going to be hard going. In the end, though, most people got past their awkwardness and the others at least tried, and Erik was so devoted that Charles didn’t care how anybody else felt about it. “Right. The guy who hates tortilla chips.”

“How did you remember that? Anyway. Walt’s a good guy. I know he didn’t say it like this. But – ” Erik’s jaw worked in the way that Charles had learned meant he was forcing back his own anger.  “My ex said he didn’t think I would … lower myself to being ‘kept.’”

It took several seconds for Charles to get the word out: “Kept?”

“Exactly. But he insisted that was the only reason I would be dating a man in a wheelchair. For the money. He knew you had money as soon as Walt told him your name; that’s the kind of society thing he always cared so much about. And I hated that he could think such a thing. That’s what’s been weighing on me. I keep wondering if anybody else thinks that’s the only reason I’m with you.”

“That’s ridiculous. The other day you didn’t even let me buy the movie tickets.”

“Because I was the one who wanted to go.”

“You make forty-five thousand a year. My bank account looks like the GDP of a thriving first-world nation. You could let me get the movie tickets once in a while.”

“And let people think you pay for the pleasure of my company? No thanks. I’d rather go Dutch.”

Well, there went Charles’ ambitions to surprise Erik with something splashy on his birthday. He’d been thinking of a luxury trip to Japan – and they could still go, surely, but he’d have to lead up to it for a while. Maybe Hanukkah? “I know you’re not with me for my money, all right? You’re the least materialistic person I’ve ever met.”

Erik sighed. “I’m not that good. But I know you understand how much I love you. Don’t you?”

“Yeah.” Charles caressed the side of Erik’s face, a quick touch, but enough to bring back the shadow of a smile. “And everybody else will see the truth about you in time. So don’t let what he said bother you any longer.”

“You thought I was worried about what people think of me?”  Erik’s expression was incredulous. “I don’t give a damn about that. I never have. It just made me so furious that he thought that about you. That you didn’t give me anything, or I wouldn’t have any other reason to be with you. I told him that, too.”

“Defending my honor?” The impulse to swoon had returned.

Taking Charles’ hands in his, Erik leaned forward, so close their faces nearly touched.  “I only told him the truth. I said that you make me laugh. That you don’t bitch when I get up before dawn to run and that you always say thank you when I bring you tea. That you want to hear my opinions, even when you argue with me about them. That you want me to have joy in my life, even apart from the joy we have together, because you care about me as a person, not just as an accessory – which is the most he was ever able to offer me in ten years. I told him if I were the millionaire and you were the one drawing an hourly wage, we’d still be together. That you’re the lover I’ve always wanted.”

This was about four thousand times better than Charles had ever dared dream. For the longest time he could only smile stupidly at Erik, but he finally managed, “You really said all that?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s mean, but I have to know – what did his face look like?”

“Not entirely sure. He turned around and started walking off after the bit about him using me as an accessory. But I shouted the rest at his back. I think it still counts.”

“It definitely counts,” Charles agreed, and drew Erik into the most passionate kiss he could remember.

 

**

 

They left the reception not long after Hank and Raven, who went through the whole bouquet-and-decorated car routine even though they were just driving back to West End Avenue; their South American cruise wouldn’t start for another two days. There was a final toast to the couple, though, and as the waiters came through with fresh trays of champagne, Charles wondered plaintively when they’d bring around the club soda.

To his surprise, Erik snagged two flutes from the tray and held one out to Charles. The other he kept.

“Are you sure?” Charles said.

Erik’s expression looked more set than celebratory, but he nodded. “I’ll just toast the couple. But you should go ahead. Enjoy yours.”

Charles took a sip – oh sweet precious bubbly, lost for so long! His attention remained on Erik, however. “What brought this about?”

“I don’t miss alcohol, and I don’t ever intend to be drunk again. Still, I thought – I shouldn’t let the past get in the way of celebrating someone else’s happiness.”

Good to his word, Erik took perhaps two swallows of champagne after the toast before setting his glass aside, but he didn’t object to Charles finishing his own … particularly when Charles took the prescription bottle from the pocket of his coat and shook out one blue, diamond-shaped pill. A grin stealing across his face, Erik said, “You came prepared.”

“What can I say?” Charles washed down the Viagra with the last gulp of his champagne. “Weddings always get me in the mood.” 

As Barry White sang “My First, My Last, My Everything” over the loudspeakers, they sent for their pre-arranged van, then tried to find their friends to say goodbye. Instead they found their friends – specifically, Moira and Sean – dancing together. Slow dancing, even though the song was hardly appropriate. And their eyes were locked on each other as if they never wanted to look away.

At first Charles and Erik could only stare. Then Erik said, “Are they … glowing?”

“My God,” Charles whispered. “I actually am a genius matchmaker.”

Erik held his hands out in a sort of helpless shrug. “We can just – call them later.” 

“Text, I think. We’d better text. Calls interrupt.”

“Definitely text.”

 

**

 

By now they were fairly expert at making out in Erik’s elevator. There were several interesting variations on how they could fit together in such a small space, but Charles liked this one best – Erik draped across his lap, kissing him open-mouthed.

“Better get up,” Charles whispered against Erik’s lips. “Almost there.”

“Mmm. Not yet.” 

“Want to fuck me?” They’d invested in one of those wedge pillows, and it was by now one of Charles’ five favorite possessions of all time.

“Later.” Erik pushed one hand between them, down toward Charles’ crotch, where the distant pressure of Erik’s palm revealed that the Viagra was doing his job. “First I want to enjoy this.”

They got to Erik’s floor and hurried into the apartment. Charles took the corner back toward Erik’s bedroom as fast as the powerchair would allow – then stopped. “The bedroom!” 

“Oh, right! I forgot. What do you think?”

“You said you were painting it, but I never thought you’d paint it – purple.”

“My tie was supposed to be a hint. Do you like it?”

“I do.” That was what Charles would have said in any case, but in this case it was true.  He’d thought Erik would probably choose beige or tan, maybe gray if he were feeling especially daring, but instead the walls of his bedroom were now a dark purple – muted enough not to be overpowering but deep enough to be luscious. The shade set off the stark black-and-white furnishings, turning what had been an almost austere space into one that was – well, sexy. “I think you’re getting in touch with your sensual side.”

“What can I say? You bring it out in me.”

Then they were grappling with their suits, getting each other naked as fast as possible. By now Charles was thick and rigid, body and brain and drugs working together to make him rock-hard. Erik sucked at him while Charles massaged Erik open; though the blowjob only registered as vague waves of sensation and arousal, that was delightful in its own right.

Half the trick, Charles thought, is not comparing what I’ve got to what I used to have. Just accepting it for what it is. Which is awesome.

“Get up here,” Charles growled when he thought Erik was ready. “I want to watch you ride me.”

“Yes, sir.” Erik’s smile only faded as he lowered himself onto Charles; his jaw dropped open as the feel of it took him over. Charles braced one hand on Erik’s thigh, enjoying every moment of the show – his cock sliding into Erik’s beautifully muscled ass, the way Erik’s powerful chest heaved with each breath, and the sheer exhilaration on Erik’s face. He took hold of Erik’s cock with fingers still slick with lube and started massaging him, timing every squeeze and stroke to match the way Erik moved up and down. 

“I love watching you like this,” Charles murmured.

“Mmmmm.” Erik didn’t seem to be able to say much more than that. Good.

The buzz humming through Charles was familiar – the way his body now experienced arousal. While the signals coming from his cock were muted, the cocktail of hormones and adrenalin zipping through his bloodstream was doing its job, making him lightheaded and giddy. He arched his neck and back, an instinctive move, and Erik responded by rubbing his thumbs against Charles’ sensitive nipples. Every circle seemed to dizzy him further.

By now, Charles knew, he was close to orgasm … as close as he ever got, anyway. Before he’d always made the mistake of chasing his climax, becoming more and more frustrated as it slipped away. This time he simply enjoyed how delicious it felt, content to ride this wave as long as he could, concentrating as much on stroking Erik’s cock as anything else.

But as Erik continued to ride him, starting to groan as he neared the brink, Charles felt his own arousal deepening – the world starting to go dark and sparkly around the edges –

“Erik?” he whispered.  And then there was that feeling he’d almost forgotten – like falling, or flying. Charles cried out long and ragged as it surged through him, all the way up to the top of his skull.

Immediately Erik stilled. “Charles. You came.”

“Uh-huh.” Charles opened his eyes and smiled, knowing he probably looked almost ridiculously happy, and not giving a damn. “Oh, yeah.”

Erik bent down for a kiss, but even as he did, Charles resumed pumping Erik’s cock – and Erik was either already so close to the brink or so turned-on by finally getting Charles off that it took hardly any time. As Erik grunted, hot come squirted through Charles’ fingers, all across his chest, and that – that made it perfect.

Then Erik was beside him, kissing him long and wet. Charles hung onto him, a loose and messy embrace that nonetheless satisfied him completely. When they broke apart, he laughed out loud for sheer joy – but caught himself when he saw how moved Erik was. “Hey. Hey, it’s all right. Better than all right.”

Erik nodded and swallowed hard. “Yeah. I just – I wanted this for you.”

“I wanted it for you.” Then Charles laughed again. “And, okay, yes, for me too. God, Erik, that was wonderful.” 

“How did it feel?”

He wasn’t asking for more expressions of joy; Erik really wanted to understand the physical sensation. Charles had to think for a few moments, during which Erik ran his fingers through Charles’ sweaty hair. Finally he said, “Different. You don’t get that, you know, that unnnhhh in your cock and balls. But still, the surge comes over you, and even though it’s different – you know what it is.” 

“Good,” Erik said. Already he was calmer, settling into the deep, sleepy happiness that followed sex. It felt so nice to be right there with Erik this time, to know that same sensation cocooned them both together.

“I guess it’s like – like thunder instead of lightning,” Charles murmured. He shifted on the bed in a way that meant he wanted Erik to pillow his head on Charles’ shoulder, which Erik did. “But thunder can still rock your world.”

“What did we do different this time?”

Charles wanted to credit the way he’d relaxed and accepted his body’s response – but that alone wouldn’t guarantee that this could happen regularly from now on, or even ever again. So he said, “Nothing. It was as wonderful as it usually is, and then it got better.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all,” Charles said, brushing his lips against Erik’s hair. “And that’s enough.”

 

**

 

Another August

 

“The ‘traditional’ gift for the first anniversary is paper,” Raven groused as she and Erik rode the up escalator in Neiman Marcus. “When I told Hank that, he said he could use some new note cards. Note cards! I told him I did not want to unwrap any note cards at our anniversary dinner.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Erik said. Charles had already reported that Hank’s gift to Raven was a rare autographed copy of FRANNY AND ZOOEY. “But what are you going to get for him?”

“I have no idea. Which is why you’re here today. To help me shop!”

“Is that really why I’m here today? Because, let’s face it, I’m the world’s worst shopper.”

“Well, yeah, you are.” Raven gave him an up-and-down look. “We’re swinging by menswear later. We have got to find you some new shoes.”

Erik just laughed. After more than a year with Charles, their lives had become so intertwined that he no longer remembered what it was like not to spend weekends in Westchester County, relaxing with Charles in the pool – or listening to Charles rant about copyeditors who didn’t know anything about science while simply nodding and making a soothing cup of tea – or having Raven as a sort of adopted sister. And Raven was probably the equivalent of five or six normal sisters, he thought. She was forever in his business, always telling him what he should do or how he should do it – but always out of love, and Erik found he didn’t mind it.

The fact was, he didn’t let himself remember life before Charles, because it seemed to him there hadn’t been enough worth remembering.

Yes, Charles could be egotistical. He tended to overreact to emotional upset. His humor and affability disguised just how bullheaded he could be. And he kept putting things like ice cream and Sara Lee pound cake in the fridge, even when Erik specifically told him about refined sugar being a poison. With all that, Charles was still the only person Erik could imagine fitting so perfectly into his life.

“Here’s a thought,” he said as they wandered through the jewelry area. “I’ve been taking a literature class at the 92nd Street Y – and I saw a poster for an origami workshop. Origami’s all about angles, mathematical possibilities; it seems like exactly the kind of thing Hank would like.”

Raven turned, a huge smile appearing on her face. “Oh, my God. That’s a great idea. No, that’s perfect!”

“Really?”

“Yeah, absolutely!” She grabbed her smartphone out of her purse. “OK, gotta search for the Y, call, make sure there are still spots in the class – ”

Erik felt he had the right to be just a little smug.  “Not such a terrible shopper, am I?”

“At this moment, you’re wearing a brown belt with black shoes, so, yeah, you are,” Raven replied. As he looked down at his fashion faux pas, she continued, “Besides, I didn’t bring you here to help me shop. That was just the cover story.”

“Cover story? For what?” 

“For me to ask you whether your intentions toward my brother are honorable.” When Erik just stared at her, Raven rolled her eyes. “It’s been more than a year already. Are you even thinking about proposing?”

“Me?”

“Oh, God.” Her face paled. “You really haven’t been thinking about it. Shit. This was just supposed to be a nudge. I didn’t realize you didn’t want to. Wait. Why wouldn’t you want to marry Charles? He’s wonderful, and he adores you!”

Erik held his hands up, as though in surrender. “I didn’t say I didn’t want to. I’d never say that.”

“You mean, you do want to marry him?”

He’d never actually spoken the words before; it felt unlucky, like saying your birthday wish out loud. But now he said, “I can’t think of anything that would make me happier. Still, I always thought Charles would want to be the one who asked me.” 

“He thinks you’re the one who’d want to ask.” She sighed. “You know, defined gender roles are mostly incredibly annoying, but at least sometimes they can kind of be a tie-breaker, you know? I guess with two guys, you have to flip for it.”

“Hang on. Charles said he wants to marry me too?” Erik knew he sounded like a gossiping junior high student – Does Charles like me? Check yes or no – and didn’t give a damn.

“Not in so many words. He’s better at dodging my nosiness than you are. After all, he’s had a lifetime’s practice, and you’re only one year in,” Raven said. “But reading between the lines? Yeah. He does. So ask him already.”

“Why wouldn’t he ask me? If he wants to.”

For one moment, Raven almost looked serious. “It’s stupid, but I think it’s because he worries about, you know … weighing you down. Sometimes he talks about how you already spent a decade of your life looking after people in wheelchairs, and maybe you don’t want to do that forever.”

“He doesn’t talk about it to me!” Charles used to say things like that when he was in one of his darker moods, but Erik had always told him he was being ridiculous … and that hadn’t convinced Charles otherwise, just made him keep his worries for someone else. Erik sighed. “Charles still feels like that?”

“Not as much as he used to. Not nearly as much. But I think it’s enough to make him hesitate before proposing. And yeah, I know it’s stupid, and you know it, and really even Charles knows it, but there it is. So, what’s your excuse?”

Erik hated even saying this, but there was no dodging an interrogation by Raven. You would only delay it, and make it worse. He repeated, “I always thought he’d be the one to ask.”

“But why?”

“Hmm.” This wasn’t going to go over well. Having to explain this to Raven was mostly making Erik realize he was perfectly capable of being just as bullheaded and foolish as Charles. “Well, mostly – the money.” 

“Oh, please.” 

“I would hate it if anyone thought – ”

“Blah blah kept man blah blah blah. This is just that big argument you guys had about Japan all over again.”

It was the darkest three days of their relationship, a period Erik and Charles referred to as The Hanukkah Fight. Charles had surprised Erik with first-class tickets to Tokyo for them both, as well as a reservation in a five-star hotel. Erik had protested that it was too extravagant, which Charles thought was cute until Erik flat out refused to go. The bitter arguing had gone on to the point where it was becoming serious, until Erik realized that he was not actually making a noble stand but instead being a complete asshole about the nicest present anybody had ever given him. They went to Japan in March – Charles taking a week’s vacation on either side of spring break – and it had been everything Erik had ever dreamed. Better, really, because Charles was there, and had been good enough not to say “told you so” even once. 

“You’re right,” Erik said. “We’re both getting tripped up by the same old things.”

“But Auntie Raven is here to set things straight.” She looked inordinately pleased with herself.

They always had other people setting them straight – so much that Erik felt a sudden moment of real fear. What if that was a sign their relationship was seriously flawed? Shouldn’t they be able to share everything with each other, no matter what? Shouldn’t misunderstandings like this one be in the past for him and Charles by now?

And then he thought, No, of course not.

Yes, he and Charles were flawed. Sometimes they got each other wrong. They weren’t perfect. One of the things Erik had learned from Charles was to let go of the idea of perfection; he could accept the good things he was given, and the good things he had to give, and trust that they were enough.

Maybe the life he had to give Charles was enough.

Erik glanced from side to side. “We’re in the jewelry department. I take it this is by design?”

“Actually, I thought they had stationery on this floor. But, you know, as long as we’re here – ring shopping could be fun – ” Raven cocked her head, obviously hopeful.

“Not today. But … I’m thinking about it.”

“You are?” She started doing that thing where she somehow jumped up and down in place while clapping her hands together very fast. “You are!”

“Can you actually keep this a secret?” Erik liked the idea of surprising Charles. His birthday? No, that was too far away.

“I can! Definitely. Totally secret,” Raven swore.

Erik gave her a look.

“I’ll do my best. I swear.”

“Your best had better be pretty good,” he said. “Come on. Let’s get lunch.”

Maybe Erik’s own birthday would be the right time. That was only a couple of months from now. Charles saying yes would be the best gift imaginable. 

“Lunch is good.” Raven began leading them back toward the escalator. “But I’m not going to that probiotic place again, so forget it.” 

“You know, I think I’m in the mood for steak.” As they descended to street level, and the noise and din of the city, Erik glanced upward over his shoulder, stealing one last look at the rings.

 

 

THE END  

Chapter Text

October

“You like it?” Charles said.

“Which?” Erik grinned at him across the patio table where – thanks to a few days of summer warmth tucked into fall – they were dining al fresco by candlelight. “My dinner or my new bike?”

“Both.”

“The bike is exactly what I wanted; the dinner is what I didn’t even know I wanted.”

That was a pretty smooth way of getting around mentioning that the carrots hadn’t quite turned out as Charles had hoped – had in fact gotten rather scorched, though Charles thought he’d managed to scoop up the blacker ones himself. At least the salmon had turned out well.

Charles didn’t mind Erik being a bit tactful. The only thing he minded was the fact that, for some reason, Erik still seemed a little … tense. Preoccupied.

He’d tried to talk Erik into having a proper birthday party, or at least dinner out with Raven and Hank (which she was now namesmushing as “Haven”) and Moira and Sean (who had each threatened to make anyone who namesmushed them regret it). But Erik had insisted he wanted a quiet night in for just the two of them. Still, Charles had done his best to make the occasion festive. He’d secretly taken a cooking lesson, rationalizing that it was silly to have remodeled his kitchen to be wheelchair-friendly and then only use it to reheat things in the microwave. As tonight’s carrots a la scorch marks had proved, the results were … mixed, but Erik seemed to appreciate the effort. Earlier, Charles had spread a white linen tablecloth on the patio table, put out some tiger lilies, and lit as many candles as he could find, not counting those bizarre sparkler ones Raven had subjected him to on his own birthday months prior. The weather had cooperated, providing not only warmth but a spectacular sunset they’d enjoyed just as dinner was ready. Romantic stuff, at least in Charles’ opinion, and in Erik’s too, he would have thought.

So why did Erik keep losing the conversational thread? He didn’t seem angry in the slightest – if anything he was more affectionate than usual – but something else was on his mind, Charles was sure of it. Erik was a little tense, even fidgety. Highly unusual.

He should’ve known something was up when Erik suggested bringing up some champagne from the by-now-cobwebby wine cellar.

Especially when he’d drunk nearly a whole glass …

Step One: Keep trying to cheer Erik up.

“I’m glad I bought the right bicycle.” Charles had even tied a red bow on it, supposedly for kitsch factor but really because he thought it looked cheerful. “They were so confused at the bike store when I steered my powerchair in and started asking whether they had this one particular racing model – ” Erik laughed; that was encouraging. “Of course I could have explained, but that would have ruined the fun.”

“You never told them it was for me?”

“Kept a straight face the whole time. And of course they were too polite to ask.”

“It’s beautiful. Tomorrow, first thing, I’m taking her out.”

Charles had always enjoyed riding bikes – but he put aside his wistfulness after only a moment. “If you circle the entire grounds, I think that’s about, hmm, nine miles?”

“Something like that.” The look Erik gave Charles was unreadable. It was as though he was worried about something Charles might do, but what on earth could that be?

Step Two: Provide an opening.

“It’s good to unwind after a long day, isn’t it?” Charles tried to sound casual. “I graded papers today until I thought my eyes would cross permanently.”

“They haven’t.” Erik smiled. “Still the same beautiful blue as ever.”

Well, that was lovely. Also lovely: If Erik was upset about something, it wasn’t anything Charles had to do with.

But this wasn’t how Erik did “upset”. Erik’s version involved being moody, broody and ill-tempered in the extreme. This was something Charles had never seen in Erik before. Not necessarily bad, but definitely … not relaxed.

He tried again. “Your work was fine? I told you to call in. Everyone calls in on their birthday.”

“I wouldn’t want to let my clients down. But it was a good day anyway. Sean took me out for a lunch smoothie. He threatened to put a candle in the lid opening instead of a straw."

“Someday you’re going to let me bake you a cake.”

“Someday I’m going to buy my own birthday cake just so you can have a slice. I’d have more fun watching you eat it, anyway.”

Charles could believe this, coming from a man who thought banana chips were the height of decadence. And yet the same man, who apparently had experienced a perfectly pleasant workday, was even now three-fourths of the way through a glass of champagne.

Step Three: Actually talk about emotions like adult human beings.

Setting down his own glass of champagne, Charles said, “Erik, are you all right?”

“What?” Erik sat up straight, any pretense at relaxation gone. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve seemed a little on-edge this evening.” Charles ran his hand along Erik’s forearm, trying to make it clear he wasn’t taking offense, only concerned. “Did something happen, or – or are you worried? I’d hate to think your birthday wasn’t a good one.”

“Charles. No.” Erik sighed. Took the last sip of his champagne, as though for courage. Then he scooted his chair closer to Charles, and took one of Charles’ hands. “This has been wonderful; I mean it. But – it’s just – ” He hesitated, and then the next words came in a rush. “There was one more thing I was hoping for on my birthday.”

“Oh?” It was so unlike Erik to request anything – even persuading him to hint about a gift as reasonable as a bicycle had been a job of work. But that was all the more reason Charles hated the thought of not providing anything Erik wanted badly enough to ask for. Another trip, maybe? After the Hanukkah Fight, he could believe that Erik would hesitate before bringing up the idea of traveling again. Or – hmm. “Is this about the sex sling again? Like I said, honestly, for you I’ll try it, but I just think it’s going to be weird.”

Erik burst out laughing. “It’s not that.”

“Well, just tell me. What is it?”

Erik took a deep breath. “Okay.” Then he reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out a small silk handkerchief. Erik wanted – what, a suit to go with the pocket square?

But when Erik shook open the deep blue silk, Charles saw that wrapped within it was a ring.

A plain golden band. Like –

Charles gaped as he stared down at what he was pretty much one-hundred-percent positive was a men’s wedding ring. But he managed to say, “Oh, my God.”

“Yeah.” Erik was suddenly more bashful than Charles had known he could be.

“You mean, this is – you want – ” Charles ought to have felt overcome with love, and he was certain he would be very soon, but at the moment the combination of astonishment and delight felt more like he’d just won a game show, like balloons and confetti should be showering down from above while he screamed and carried on like a fool. Which was probably incredibly juvenile of him, but he was just so stupidly happy that he could only get out one more word: “Yes.”

Erik’s face – it was like being given a time machine, seeing how young he could look, how much of his pain and cares could be erased. “Yes?”

“Absolutely yes.”

He took Erik’s face in his hands and kissed him – too hard, really, but how could he control himself at a moment like this? To judge by the way Erik kissed him back, he didn’t mind.

When their lips parted, Erik was slightly short of breath. “I actually – there was this whole thing I was going to say – ”

“Oh, sorry! I jumped ahead.”

They were both laughing now, giddy and silly. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No, no! Say the thing.” Charles kissed Erik’s cheek, his chin, his nose. “I want you to say the thing.”

“Okay.” Erik paused, his face still in Charles’ hands, then laughed again. “You’d think this would be easier since you’ve already said yes, but it isn’t.”

So Charles took Erik’s hands in his own and held them close to his chest. “It’s all right,” he said softly. “I’m not going to change my answer. I don’t think there’s anything in this world that could make me change it.”

Erik’s expression gentled, and even though he must have rehearsed this, there was no mistaking how strongly he felt every word. “I knew from the day we met that something inside you spoke to the deepest part of me. It didn’t take very long for me to learn that I loved you, but it did take a while for me to believe that we could be good for each other. That we could make each other happy. You’re the one who made me believe it. That’s both the first joy you brought to my life, and the greatest. But it won’t be the last, if you’ll marry me, and let me spend the rest of our days trying to give you half of what you give me.”

Don’t cry, Charles thought. Don’t cry. You always think it’s so sappy when people cry at moments like this and oh fuck forget it. He wiped at his cheeks with the back of his hand. “Again, yes. Even more yes. If that’s possible. Oh, God, Erik, I love you so much.”

“Love you too.” Erik was tearing up a bit too, but he shook the silk square free of the ring and gave it to Charles. “This isn’t the part I thought I’d give you first,” he joked, holding the ring.

“Do you want me to wear it?” His mind was still wrapping itself around the proposal, around how incredibly lucky he was to have found Erik, all of it, turning his life into something rare and beautiful – like a sheet of paper becoming one of those origami swans Hank made all the time now. “But it’s a wedding ring, isn’t it? I wish men had engagement rings.”

“For now, just try it on.”

He took Charles’ hand and slid the gold band around his ring finger. At first Charles could only stare at it. He felt as though he’d still be staring at it in stupefied delight on their tenth anniversary.

They were going to have an anniversary. They were going to get married. Which meant – “You realize this means we’ve got to have a wedding.”

Erik shook his head. “Don’t even think about planning the ceremony tonight.”

“I won’t. Besides, we don’t have time.” As completely astonished as Charles had been by the proposal, a few signs were becoming clearer in the rear-view mirror. He’d thought it was a little odd that Raven hadn’t insisted on doing something for Erik’s birthday, whether Erik liked it or not… “How long did Raven give you before you called to let her know my answer?”

“Five minutes.”

“She won’t know any better if we make it ten,” Charles said, pulling Erik close for another kiss.

**

Within thirty minutes, they’d finished kissing, putting out the candles so that in their joy they didn’t accidentally burn down the mansion, done a little more kissing, gone inside to wash up together, gotten extremely into the kissing, and then phoned their friends. Raven’s response was mostly shrieking in the background while Hank shouted his congratulations over the din; Moira and Sean had to argue about which of them had seen this coming first. This was no reason for concern – Charles was pretty sure that, for Moira and Sean, bickering was foreplay.

As they rode upstairs in the elevator, Charles continued admiring his ring, which he fully intended to wear for at least the rest of the night. “How did you get such a perfect fit?”

Erik stood behind him, hands on Charles’ shoulders, rubbing in deeply. There were benefits to dating – scratch that, to being engaged to a massage therapist. “I matched it to your college class ring.”

Charles frowned. “But I haven’t even got that anymore. I gave it to Raven months ago for one of her mixed-media projects – wait, she gave it to you?”

“Actually, Hank found it partly embedded in cement, or rhinestones, I don’t remember which he said. But it was positioned so he could slide his finger into it, and it turns out you two have the exact same ring size, so I dragged him to the jewelry store with me.”

“I wish I could have seen that.” Charles laughed as the elevator doors opened and they went down the hallway toward their bedroom.

“You don’t know the half of it. Obviously the staff assumed he was my fiancé to be, and they kept congratulating us, and finally he said to one of the clerks that he was married to a woman. She gave him this look and said, ‘Honey, the time has come to make up your mind.’”

By the time Charles was done laughing about that, they were almost ready for bed. No need to bother with pajamas tonight, he thought, working to remove his pants and shorts together – there. Usually he undressed on the bed rather than in the wheelchair, but tonight he somehow thought it might be fun to just present himself naked to the groom.

Besides, being naked in the wheelchair always meant good things. It meant he and Erik were about to have sex someplace unexpected – difficult, in his situation, but as they’d learned, not impossible. Or it meant that they’d just had sex, that he was still sticky with sweat and spit and come and knew he’d have to wipe the chair down later, and relished the task, because it was proof of a life with enough love to get messy once in a while.

“I can’t believe you were so surprised,” Erik said. Promisingly, he, too, was going without sleepwear. “I thought for sure you had to suspect.”

“You mean, you thought Raven would give it away.”

“No. Well, yes, that too. But she seemed to think you might be on the verge of asking me.”

“I’d thought about it, but – ” Well. This had to come up sooner or later, didn’t it?

Erik nodded. “You were worried about your paralysis, what it might mean for us.”

“What? No.” Charles rewound in his head. “Wait, you thought I was holding back because I’m in a wheelchair?”

“Well – I – Raven said – no. I won’t blame her. That was what she thought, and I believed it, and I shouldn’t have.” He was on the way to full apology mode.

Charles hoisted himself into bed, then put one hand over Erik’s lips. “It’s okay.” Normally an assumption like that would have driven him crazy, but he was in too good a mood for it to be so swiftly brushed aside. Besides, Charles hadn’t spoken up, and Erik had been forced to fill in his own answers. This was how hurtful misunderstandings got started; someday, he’d finally realize that.

Erik still looked wary, but he took Charles’ wrist in his hand, kissed his palm. “Then, why did you hold back? You know you can tell me anything.”

“You might regret having said that.” Charles sighed. “I didn’t propose to you because there was a conversation I thought we needed to have first, and it’s a tricky one, so I kept putting that off, but I’d best not put it of any longer. Before I go on, I need you to know – this isn’t a dealbreaker for me.”

“We just got engaged. How did dealbreakers come into this?”

“Wait for it.” Deep breath. Into the breach. “Would you want to have children?”

The worst-case scenario, which was Erik going all cold and stiff and formal, didn’t happen. However, neither did the best-case scenario, which would’ve been Erik smiling and saying something like, You too? Instead Erik seemed completely nonplussed. He didn’t speak, didn’t even move.

Charles waited this out for a few seconds, then said, “I think I broke you.”

“No, no! I’m just – very, very surprised.”

Surprised was fair. But … “Would you call this good surprised or bad surprised?”

“Can’t tell yet.” Erik settled back against the headboard, gaze now somewhat turned inward. “I never thought about it. Not seriously. I mean, you realize you’re gay, you realize kids are a lot less likely – ”

“I know. It was like that for me too. But then, you know, over the past few years, friends of mine – totally normal guys who cruised Barney’s for sales like anyone else – they started getting hitched, moving to Connecticut and adopting from Vietnam. And I realized, if I ever found a relationship that I thought I could build a life on – well, that might be something I’d want. Kids.”

“I’ve seen it happen too. One guy I used to see performing Shakira in a drag revue just let me know last week that he and his husband are moving to Hastings-on-Hudson for the schools.”

Charles laughed, but it was important to be clear. “It’s not just a bandwagon, though, you know? I like children. I like spending time with them – I don’t even care if they’re crying or fussing. I like the way they see the world. Because of my work, I know that I even like them when they’re teenagers. The more I thought about the idea of being a dad, the more I liked it.”

Erik nodded, but he wasn’t warming to the idea. Not cooling to it either. Just – deep in thought. Better get it all out now, Charles decided; sometimes Erik had to retreat into himself for a while to make a decision, and he was probably about to do that soon.

“So, that was something I dreamed about up until the accident.” In those first months, Charles had thought of fatherhood as just one of countless dreams that had been shattered. “After that, at first, it just seemed impossible. Yes, I can afford help, nurses or nannies to do the things I can’t, but – I just didn’t know whether I could really be there for a child the way a father should be. But over this last year and a half with you … I guess now it seems like nothing’s impossible.”

“That’s always how I want you to feel.” Erik lifted Charles’ hand to his mouth again and kissed the ring. “But I need to think about this.”

“That’s good. Thinking is good.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Then Charles sighed. “I just set sex back at least half an hour, didn’t I?”

They both started laughing. “Afraid so,” Erik said.

“The wages of sin! Well, all right, come here and kiss me a while.”

**

As the sun rose the next morning, Erik was at the edge of the Xavier family grounds, pushing both his body and his new bike to the limit. The ride was so smooth, the gears so responsive, that it felt a little like flying.

If only Charles could experience something like this –

But he could, couldn’t he? There were racing wheelchairs for marathoners. It was grueling exercise, but Charles had considerable upper body strength; he could do it if he wanted. Maybe Erik could float the idea by him, and if it seemed to go over well, then he’d know what to get Charles for Christmas.

Charles always wanted more of life. He always pushed a little harder, looked over the next horizon, hoped for the best. It wasn’t how Erik lived his life – or at least, he hadn’t until Charles came along.

Now Charles was making the biggest push of all.

Hill. Erik bore down, leg muscles burning, as he started to ascend. Only when he was over the crest did he let himself think back to the conversation he and Charles had had last night, both before bed and in the middle of the night, when Charles turned over and they usually spoke for a little while. Those were never their clearest conversations, but sometimes they were important; when they were tucked up in bed together, lying in the dark, it was easier to be open, or to weigh the other’s words without feeling pressed to respond immediately.

“I suppose you want to adopt?”

“We could – but honestly, I like the idea of a little Erik running around.” Charles had run his fingers drowsily along Erik’s shoulder. “And it would have to be a little you.”

“Hmm.” Erik hadn’t thought about that. Although he and Charles had gotten better at bringing Charles to orgasm, it still only happened about once a month or so. “Tougher to get a sample, I guess.”

“And even if I were able to give one, it probably wouldn’t be any good.” Erik had half-lifted his head from the pillow at that, and Charles had sighed. “Many paraplegic men have lower sperm counts. Nobody’s exactly sure why.”

“So we’d need – a surrogate mother?"

“Also an egg donor. Both of which we’d have to find before Raven learned about this, because she’d want to do one or both, and I appreciate it, but – ”

“You have to have some boundaries.”

“And Raven’s terrible at those.”

Erik had been a little more awake by then. “You’ve thought about this a lot.”

“I guess.” But Charles had only snuggled into his pillow. “Shh. We can talk more later.”

The most surprising thing about all of this, to Erik, was that it was so utterly surprising. He ought to have expected Charles to raise the subject, or simply have thought of it on his own. Yes, when he was a teenager, being gay and being a parent were largely thought to be two wholly separate categories, but the world had changed a lot since then. He’d gone to christenings and the occasional bris for the children of gay friends. Why had he never once asked whether this was a path he wanted to go down himself?

Then again – up until his parents’ accident, he’d never imagined spending his life with any other guy besides his ex … who had always been scornful of leading a “heteronormative life.” They want to domesticate us, he used to say; he also used the epithet for straights that Erik had always loathed, breeders.

For all that Erik had worked to set himself free of that relationship baggage, he’d never worked around to reconsidering this one thing.

Having children would change their lives forever … and Erik liked their lives just as they were. If they had children, either he would have to move out to Westchester full time or they’d have to get a new place in the city; his Manhattan apartment might work for a couple and a baby, but not very far past infancy. Would he quit work to be a full-time parent? Erik fully intended to keep his job, not to be supported by Charles’ millions, and to bring up the subject of a prenup fairly soon; Charles ought to have one, any lawyer would say so, and Erik wouldn’t have anyone saying he was marrying him for the money.

But if they had a baby – could he justify paying a nanny nearly what he’d be making himself, turning his salary into nothing more than a token? Wouldn’t he want to be near their child as often as possible?

Erik realized that he would. He also realized how much he liked his mental image of the way Charles would look holding their baby.

And yet it was terrifying, too. He’d heard people say that being a parent meant your heart would always be outside your own body, beyond your control, unprotected, vulnerable to the world. Erik understood that, he thought. Seeing what the world had done to his mother was hard enough. Lives were destroyed by savagery, cruelty, ignorance and negligence; sometimes even when people lived through the worst, their souls didn’t. He was far beyond the idea that he could protect a child from anything. You did your best, but –

Charles was always the brave one, Erik thought.

**

When he got back to the house, Charles had already made coffee and was deep in the crossword puzzle. “Good morning, fiancé,” he said, lifting his face for a kiss.

“Good morning. By the way, the bike is wonderful. Had the best ride of my life out there.”

That got Charles to look up from the paper. “Oh, yeah?”

“Spectacular.” Erik poured himself a cup, ignoring Charles’ half-and-half and sugar to take it black. He turned to the iPad on the kitchen counter, where it had been left last night after Charles apparently googled fix burned carrots.

“So, this morning, I started making a list of everything we’d have to pull together for a wedding,” Charles said, as he inked a few new letters into their squares. “A venue, a caterer, a florist, tuxedoes, a band or DJ, so on and so forth, and it’s all just so complicated, so I’m just throwing this out for discussion – don’t you think eloping is romantic?”

Erik laughed out loud, but kept working on the tablet. “We could have a small ceremony. Just a few people at City Hall.”

“Not after Raven gets involved. God love her, but she can meddle. Besides – weddings take so much time to put together, and I’m impatient.” He looked up and smiled at Erik, once again as romantic as he’d been last night. “I want to make you my husband right away.”

“Okay. We’ll elope.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Charles drummed his pen on the arm of his chair, a little flourish of triumph. “I’m eloping. I’m eloping. I love this.”

“We have to figure out when and where.”

“New Year’s? Nobody will think much of it if we say we’re going someplace upstate. Plus, no forgetting our anniversary.” After a moment, Charles said, “What on earth are you searching for that’s more interesting than running off to get married?”

“Well, I started out looking for racing wheelchairs. Just in case someone wanted to come for morning rides with me.”

Initial reaction was – good! Charles didn’t look wholly certain about the idea, but he was starting to smile. “They say it’s like doing pushups. Nonstop pushups.”

“You’re strong enough. We could start on shorter rides, just a couple of miles.”

“Hmm. Let me think. So, you started looking for racing wheelchairs, but what are you looking for now?”

“I wasn’t sure it even existed, but it does.” Erik held out the tablet. “Take a look.”

He got to watch Charles’ face as he took in the image on the screen: a kind of stroller designed for paraplegic parents, one that hooked onto a wheelchair so father and baby could roll along together.

“Erik.” Charles couldn’t say much more than that at first. “That’s a yes?”

“I think we need a little while to get used to being married first. And we have a lot of questions to answer before we get started. But –” Erik couldn’t help but grin. “Yes.”

“Of course. Definitely. We’ll figure it out. Erik, thank you.”

He shook his head: No thanks were necessary. If anything he should be thanking Charles for always pushing him toward change, toward taking chances, toward hope. “Listen, there is one thing I want to bring up now.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Charles picked up on the warning note immediately. “Uhoh. I don’t like the sound of that.”

“It’s just – you know, the only time I ever had a conversation about being a parent before, I was talking to my mother. Right after the wreck, when we still thought she might die. I was humoring her, because she was so ill and the thought of having children was still completely foreign to me, but … I did say it.”

“Say what?”

Erik winced. “I said that if I ever had a child of my own, I would name it after one of her parents. She made me promise.”

Charles didn’t understand the problem. “What were her parents’ names?”

He took a deep breath. “Wanda and Pietro.”

“… oh, Christ, Erik.”

“I know! I know. They’re awful. But still."

“A promise is a promise.” Charles glanced up, looking hopeful. “Would middle names do?”

“Maybe. I have to think about it.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Charles said, and he lifted his hand, inviting Erik to bend down for another kiss. Erik couldn’t help noticing Charles was still wearing his ring and hoped he wouldn’t worry about the formalities any more than about the wedding – that he’d just wear it, from this day forward, and never take it off.

ABSOLUTELY THE END