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Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter One

‘So bittersweet, this tragedy won’t ask for absolution; this melody inside of me still searches for solution.’

 

The bath water had long since bled cold, a frigid chill that bit deep into Charles’ submerged hands and the bare flesh of his waist. Goosebumps prickled his abdomen, blazed paths up both forearms to scatter over his shoulders and neck, mingling amongst red-brown freckles already painted there.

Below that, where most of his lower body vanished beneath the still surface of the water --

there was nothing.

A numb void where his legs were hidden from view by a cloud of slowly dissolving bubbles.

Charles stared blankly at the patterned wall tiles framing the faucets, their ceramic surface damp with condensation. Somewhere outside the bathroom he could hear Raven pacing anxiously up and down the corridor, her fluffy slippers doing little to muffle each scuffing footstep. The nervous murmur of her thoughts played a constant background hum;

‘-been in there ages-’
‘-maybe I should check on him-’
‘-the water must be freezing by now-’

Charles sighed softly, blowing the tips from a few foam icebergs. Raven wasn’t used to him spending so long in the bath these days. His usual routine consisted of little more than a quick scrub-down that only passed the ten minute marker when he needed to wash his hair, in and out before most of the bubbles had even burst.

Today was different. An anniversary of sorts. He’d been sat in the tub for a good forty-five minutes, listening to the quiet fizz of foam mixing with the muted drone of Raven’s TV turned low next door.

Before all of this - before the ‘accident’ - Charles had spent hours at a time in the bathtub, soaking in near-boiling water with a good book held above the surface and a cup of tea or scotch balanced on the thickest part of the porcelain. Morning, noon or night --it didn’t matter which-- routinely topping up the hot water whenever goosebumps threatened to rise. Raven remained ever thankful that they’d been smart enough to buy an apartment with two bathrooms.

That all seemed so far away now.

Funny to think that exactly six months ago it would have been so easy to lean over and fiddle with the faucets for the comforting gush of hot water, or simply turn the metal tap with his foot and wriggle back into mounds of fluffy bubbles, neck flush with the lip of the tub.

Now - now there was only the uncomfortable press of a plastic bath-chair keeping his back straight, the jarring and terrifying reminder that he could never again climb in or out of this god forsaken bathtub without some kind of assistance.

Charles finally tore his eyes from the dripping wall tiles, gazing slowly around the room as if taking it all in for the first time. It didn’t look like his bathroom anymore, the perfect bathroom in the perfect apartment he’d bought with Raven six years previously.

They’d had to make some adjustments: double handrails beside the toilet; a sink installed low down on the wall. The mechanical arm of the hoist loomed over the side of the tub, holding Charles neatly in place on a plastic chair half submerged beneath the water. Flick a switch and it would automatically lift him free without need of a second pair of hands, water dripping from convenient holes in its seat.

Then there was the chair, of course. His chair. The chair he was going to be sitting in for the rest of his life. Parked obediently by the side of the tub like an overgrown, metallic puppy, sleek and silver with a padded rest for his neck and electronic controls to get through tight spots without catching his fingers on the wheels.

Choosing the right wheelchair had been one of the most surreal moments of Charles’ young life so far, barring the accident itself. Sat awkwardly in a chair rented from the hospital’s physiotherapy department, forcing himself to smile and ask the salesman enthusiastic questions about the pros and cons of electric vs. manual, when all the while he’d felt like he was watching himself from the outside in, screaming at the top of his lungs behind sheets of splintered glass.

A small knock on the door jerked Charles from his thoughts with a small start. He must have been deep in daydreams not to hear Raven’s approach. “Yes?”

“Are you alright?” His sister’s voice was carefully veiled, “You’ve been in there ages. I’m-”

‘-worried about you-’

“-making some tea, if you want some?”

Charles tipped his head back as far as the chair would allow, dragging a wet hand through his hair. “Yes, please. I won’t be much longer.”

Raven cleared her throat, careful nonchalance no match for the flutter of anxiety in her tone, “…Do you need a hand?”

“No, thank you.” Charles’ voice remained calm, though his teeth were gritted as he replied, “I’ve got it.”

The whole point of getting the bath hoist had been to give Charles that little snatch of independence he so sorely needed at this point. The first few weeks after getting home from hospital had been pure hell; stiff and cumbersome in his chair, not quite knowing how to correctly manipulate the wheels or reverse through doorways. Moving from chair to couch or chair to bed quickly stole the breath from him, the wiry strength he‘d accumulated in his legs from years of morning jogs useless to him now. Such taken-for-granted movements became an exhausting daily struggle.

It was so infuriating to need Raven to reach things down for him. Teabags and cups were moved to a lower shelf where he didn’t need to interrupt his sister every ten minutes for a caffeine fix. In fact, everything seemed to be kept lower nowadays: plates and bowls were stored in an allocated cupboard by the sink; most of the food in the refrigerator had somehow gravitated to the last two shelves; his favourite books were carefully arranged on the bottom of the bookcase. He couldn’t remember if these things were his own subconscious doing, or if Raven was silently rearranging the house when he wasn‘t looking.

But getting in and out of the bathtub… now that had been a special hell all of its own.

Raven had spent hours with him, stripping him of socks and trousers and rolling her golden eyes when he steadfastly refused to take off his boxers in her presence. Carefully draping his legs over the side of the tub, Raven would then guide him into the water by wrapping her arms around his midsection and lifting him. She was strong, remarkably so, chatting constantly in an attempt to distract him as she arranged him in the centimetre deep water and rubbed his legs with a soapy cloth. Charles could only stare in dumb disbelief, her words not quite sinking in.

His legs. God. So pale, so useless, hanging from the ends of his soaked boxer shorts like two loose pieces of string.

It wasn’t long before a mountain of view-obscuring bubbles became a bath-time necessity.

Wrenching his thoughts back to the present, Charles reached for the hoist controls and flicked the ‘up’ command, letting his lashes flicker shut as the chair trembled and slowly and began to lift free of the water. The damn thing rumbled like a beast, shattering the illusion of quiet.

Manoeuvring the hoist’s arm over the side of the tub, Charles lowered it to the same level as his chair and dried himself off as best he could, bending against the pull of the safety restraints to pat his legs with a towel until they no longer shone with water. Impossible to tell whether they were really dry.

With the security of the straps it was easier to struggle into the pair of clean boxers and slacks waiting for him on the seat of his wheelchair. Transferring from hoist to chair was still a tricky affair no matter how many times he did it: using the newly gained strength in his arms and shoulders to pivot himself across, gripping an arm of the chair and a metal bar on the underbelly of the hoist. At least that was one plus to all of this: the muscles of his arms were stronger now than they ever had been, stretching the elastic sleeves of his undershirt.

Rubbing away condensation with a clean swipe of his palm, Charles squinted into the mirror over the sink. At least a budding sense of pride in his appearance had reappeared recently. For weeks after his injury, he’d slummed around the house in sweats and pyjamas, letting the scratch of stubble turn to a beard spiked with reddish brown and the early onset of grey. It wasn’t until Raven told him he looked like a depressed, ginger Santa Claus that he decided to shave, forcing himself back into the routine of proper dress and daily vanity.

Today, a soft blue button-down and grey sweater vest, damp hair finger-tousled until it pushed back from his forehead in light waves. No need to shave, leaving the shadow of day-old scruff to darken his jaw and neck. To tie or not to tie? He was only going for lunch with Moira -- not that she was ‘only’ anything, of course -- but a tie would probably be a bit much for mid-afternoon sandwiches at a coffee shop.

Raven was hovering outside the bathroom door again, her anxious sigh audible even through the grain of wood and plaster separating them. Charles settled his legs on the chair’s footrests and bent across to tug the bathplug free, calling over the gurgle of draining water, “I hope my tea is waiting for me out there.”

A smile softened the sharp edges of Raven’s mind, her answering tone more than a little relieved. “What did your last maid die of?”

 

---

 

Moira was late.

And not just fashionably so. Charles had been waiting a full half hour for her to show face, absently sipping at his second cup of Chai tea and flicking his eyes between the door and the book currently laid open across the table. Their usual haunt, a tiny bookstore-cum-coffee shop on a quiet side-street only a couple of blocks from Charles‘ apartment. Armchairs and cushy sofas were scattered across rustic wooden flooring, the tall bookshelves framing all four walls stuffed with fiction and fact, travel and cookery, even a few erotic novellas wrapped in nondescript leather binding over in the top corner. The owners didn’t mind customers reading the books whilst they sat, so long as they obeyed the iron rule of ‘you stain it, you bought it’.

Charles had grown accustomed to transferring himself into a favourite armchair by the café’s curving bay window, the waitress pushing his wheelchair neatly behind it out of the way. No special treatment, no ‘do you need a hand, sir’, just friendly consideration for both Charles and the other customers. Not that he didn’t appreciate offers of help, but it made a welcome change to be simply left to his own devices.

It wasn’t like Moira to be so late. That was more Charles’ job, a man easily distracted by second hand bookstalls and news reports, forgetting the time in favour of following a particularly interesting bird with his Polaroid camera. Newly-made Detective Moira was used to being firmly punctual, a trait drilled into her through years of police training and early morning meetings. She’d given up trying to time-train Charles the zenith time she’d called by his apartment only to find him sprawled over the couch, hungover to the point of incoherency.

Really, there was just no saving some people.

But where the heck was she now, hm? Charles drummed his fingers on the pages of his novel and inwardly practised the speech he was going to good-naturedly rub in Moira’s face.

Windchime tinkle of the bell over the door. Charles looked up, expecting Moira -

and felt his lips part on a silent gasp.

The man that walked into the coffee shop was, in a word, stunning. All tall, sleek lines and butterscotch skin, hair the colour of the Autumn leaves that swirled by his feet. Ruggedly handsome, his strong jaw cleanly shaven, beads of perspiration slowly drying on his forehead. Charles’ eyes wandered lower, drinking in the man’s grey running clothes stained with grass and sweat. Lean and powerful in his stride to the counter, panting slightly as though he’d just finished a long run. He turned toward the waitress - Charles subconsciously licked his lips: even through the baggy material of his sweatpants, the man had the sort of backside that could make Michelangelo’s David crumble with jealousy.

Ripping his gaze back to the unseen pages of his book, Charles pricked his ears to hear past the murmur of chattering customers and clinking china. There, the deep rumble of the man’s voice, a little hoarse with exertion, the sharp catch of an accent shaping each vowel. Bottle of water and some kind of latte - Charles heard the rattle of change hitting the counter top, a scuff of running shoes on wood. He lifted his eyes just in time to lock them with blue - grey - green -- the colour of Manhattan rain during a heavy storm.

Charles faltered. His usual reaction when making eye contact with a particularly gorgeous specimen of man or woman would have been to smile and quirk a pleasing eyebrow, perhaps flash them a seductive look that Moira often referred to as his ‘creeper face’. Well, creeper face or not, it had gotten the job done on many occasions in the past, notching the marks on his bedpost that much higher. There had been a handful of relationships over the years, though none of them had ever passed that elusive twelve month marker. Not many lovers could handle the pressure of his telepathy, growing suspicious whenever Charles showed the barest sign of having read their minds, though usually he was simply picking up on the whisper of their surface thoughts. Blocking surface thoughts was akin to going simultaneously deaf and blind - Charles found it harder to focus, to really listen to verbal words without the glow of his power picking out the kaleidoscopic colours of a person’s mind. The telepathy was an integral part of him, impossible to switch off completely without leaving him punch-drunk and sluggish, oblivious to body language and facial expression.

This man’s mind was vast, its colours a river of spilled inks. The darker recesses held sharpened edges that pricked his fingers when Charles drew too close, reams of barbed wire coiled tight around guarded memory. Charles politely refrained from pushing further inside despite the burn of curiosity, the surface levels alone enough to set a skip to his heart. Different, this mind, vibrant. Clearly a mutant, though Charles couldn’t quite tell what that encompassed without digging deeper.

Instead he smiled and tipped his teacup to the stranger, a much more reserved approach than his normal cheesy chat-up lines and indecent looks.

A beat, then the man smiled back, a slow tug at the corners of thin lips. Those oddly coloured eyes swept Charles’ face, blazed a path down his chest and arms to linger on the teacup.

“Have you tried the latte version?” The man paused by Charles’ table, that enigmatic little smile still in place.

Charles blinked. “Excuse me?”

The man nodded down at the latte in his hand, the bottle of water tucked neatly under his arm. His voice was soft, deep, just a little withdrawn. “Chai lattes. If you enjoy the tea, you should try this.”

“I’m not too fond of coffee.” Charles shook his head apologetically. “I’m afraid it’d be lost on me.”

The man’s lips stretched a little further. “It’s not coffee. Chai tea spices and hot milk, basically.”

“Is that so? Well, that does sound pretty delicious.” Better to leave out the part about how much more delicious the latte would no doubt taste when licked out of this gorgeous man’s mouth. “Thanks for the tip.”

Charles waved at the seat opposite him, a tall, wing-backed chair with overstuffed pillows. “Would you like to join me?”

What are you doing? An irritating little voice hissed from a dark corner of Charles’ mind, burrowing its sharp, self-conscious claws into his skin. Inviting a stranger for an innocent drink in his local coffee shop was the most flirtatious thing he’d done for almost seven months. The man was bloody gorgeous, and clearly highly athletic from the look of his running clothes and the glimpse of strong tendons in the stretch of his neck. What on earth could Charles gain from this other than rejection and embarrassment?

Still, it felt nice - exciting - to talk to someone new. Charles had never been such a recluse in his life, barely drifting outside the routine of his apartment, his office at the library, and this coffee shop. Erik was attractive and the curious press of his mind was wickedly intoxicating. One drink couldn’t hurt.

Erik’s eyes slid from the offered chair to Charles and back, contemplative, before he shrugged a broad shoulder and folded gracefully into the plush pillows.

Charles extended his hand. “Charles Xavier.”

“Erik Lehnsherr.” Ah, so the accent was German. Barely noticeable, hinting that he’d lived away for quite some time, but still lingering. His palm was warm and broad, long fingers curling around Charles’ hand. Charles shivered.

“Do you live around these parts, Erik? I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.”

Erik nodded, those long fingers of his unscrewing the water bottle’s plastic cap. Charles could barely tear his eyes away from them. “I just moved from further upstate. Still getting my bearings.” He brought the bottle to his lips, throat shifting in a deep swallow while he gazed around at the book-covered walls. “How about you; do you come here often?”

Charles smiled behind the rim of his teacup. Erik’s eyes were carefully averted, supposedly taking in the café, though the gentle flow of interest curling from his mind certainly wasn’t aimed toward the décor. “More than I’d care to admit, really. I think I’ve read nearly every book on these shelves.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. From travel guides of Indonesia to Agatha Christie novels and Harry Potter, he‘d flicked through them all at least once in the five or so years that he‘d been visiting the café. He’d even peeked at the steamier stuff, sometimes hiding them in the pages of larger, less conspicuous books. The only ones he actively avoided were the sports compendiums - though looking at Erik now, with his sweatpants and sports brand sneakers, Charles wished he’d at least brushed up on some football team stats.

“Even the Fifty Shades trilogy I can see over there?” Erik’s smile became playfully teasing. Charles shrugged coolly, returning the grin.

“I may or may not have browsed them to see what all the fuss was about. I found them rather tame, to be honest.”

Erik laughed, more a deep huff of breath through his nose, and took a sip of his latte. Milk froth left a little white moustache across his top lip.


Trying not to stare when Erik‘s tongue slid out to lick the froth away, Charles cupped both hands around his lukewarm teacup and cleared his throat. “I work admin at mid-Manhattan library, so I admit I’m addicted to books. There should be some kind of AA meeting for it. It‘s a time and money draining affliction, I assure you.”

Erik slapped the table lightly with his fingertips, narrowing his eyes in recognition. “I knew you looked familiar. I took out some reference books there a while back. You helped me.”

Charles swallowed on a sandpaper throat. He’d only recently gone back to work after four months of sick leave and hadn’t left the sanctity of his office since, neglecting his duties on the front desks. If he had met Erik briefly in the past - and from the snapshot memory developing in Erik’s mind, he was telling the truth - then there was no way he’d have been in his wheelchair at that point. It must have been at least half a year ago.

Yes, he could remember the moment himself now: Darwin had actually been Erik’s server, Charles looking up from his stack of papers to lean in beside the younger apprentice and offer some information on a book that Erik had asked about. A flirty smile, a thank you, and Charles had handed the spotlight back to Darwin, too snowed under with work to spend much time ogling attractive customers.

Changing the subject quickly, Charles shut the book he‘d been studying and folded his hands across the leather cover. “So, have you been running, Erik, or do you play some kind of sports?”

“Running. I’m not really a team-sport kind of person.” Erik snorted softly, and Charles caught the watery memory of what looked like Erik as a young child, unusually tall for his age and clearly uncomfortable in his own skin, standing alone on the side of a schoolyard football pitch. “Good way to scout out new neighbourhoods, find places to haunt. You have no idea how hard it is to find a decent coffee shop, even around here.”

He paused, fingering the dark ring of sweat staining the neck of his sweatshirt. “I apologise for looking like something that’s been dragged through a hedge. I was only going to stop by the coffee shop for some water, but when I saw they sold Chai lattes, I couldn’t resist.” Erik glanced down at the tall glass before nudging it gently toward Charles with a finger. “Want to try it?”

Charles blinked, surprised by the generous offer. “Really? Are you sure?”

Erik nodded again, his expression encouraging. Charles breathed a pleased laugh and pulled the glass toward him, leaning forward to inhale the enticing scent of spice-laced milk. A small dent in the foam indicated the spot where Erik’s lips had touched the glass. Charles carefully avoided it, sipping from the opposite side.

Delicious, hot and a little sweet, the familiar and much loved taste of Chai bursting across his tongue. Spicier than the tea, though more about flavour than heat. Not like those horrendous curries Raven kept trying to force-feed him.

Swallowing with a hum of approval, Charles slid the glass back across the table. “Thank you, that really is gorgeous. I’m very tempted to steal it.”

Erik’s grin became mock challenging as he curled a protective arm around the drink. “You can try.”

Charles dropped his eyes to his own - now unappreciated - teacup, lips wavering on an almost shy smile. This all felt so… unreal. Detached. Sitting here flirting over Chai with a man that could have been spat from his wet dreams; it all seemed too good to be true, the colours just a little too bright. Erik’s mind was gentle, so beautifully warm, a melancholic darkness seeping between cracks of light.

Most notably: unless buried deep within his psyche, Erik hadn’t spared a single thought toward the wheelchair. Its curved handles were surely visible at the back of Charles’ seat, yet Erik’s surface thoughts remained solely fixed upon -- and Charles felt his cheeks flush a little at this -- his bright blue eyes and the scatter of red-brown freckles across his nose.

Charles’ stomach tightened. Had Erik even noticed the wheelchair? If he remembered Charles from the library before his accident, it was entirely possible that Erik hadn’t put two and two together, or simply hadn’t seen it there.

Charles didn’t have time to panic, for Erik was suddenly pulling back his sleeve and grimacing at the displayed time. “Damn. I’m sorry, Charles, but I’m going to have to get going. I didn’t realise how late it was.” His lips twisted apologetically. “I have an appointment at midday, I’ll need to run home and change first.”

He pushed the latte across the table until it nudged the edge of Charles’ closed book. “I surrender the latte to you. May you cherish and drink it.”

Charles attempted a smile, disappointment thick in his throat. “Thank you, Erik. It was nice to meet you. Again. However briefly.”

Erik, for his part, truly did look reluctant to leave, sorrow tainting his mind a cold shade of blue. The legs of his armchair scraped over wooden flooring as he stood to leave. Charles opened his mouth to say his goodbye, when the sudden determination setting Erik’s jaw stopped him.

“I don’t usually do this kind of thing, but --” Erik dug a hand into the pocket of his sweatpants, drawing out a thin card of eggshell white. Charles could just make out a printed phone number. “-- would you like to meet me for drinks later? Maybe some dinner?”

Charles blanched, heart freezing in his chest. Adrenaline surged thick and fast and cold through his bloodstream, and before he knew it he was -

- he was -

- he was standing up.

Standing up out of his armchair, extending a hand to take the card from Erik’s offering fingers.

A projection. An Illusion. Nothing more than an image invented by Charles’ overactive mind, a consequence of fear and excitement and a desperate, yearning need to be accepted.

Erik hadn’t noticed the chair. He couldn’t have. There wasn’t a single thought dedicated to it nor Charles’ physical state in the man’s surface thoughts. Erik was fit, an athlete, a quick glance at the card revealing him to be a damn personal trainer of all things. Surely there was no way Erik would have asked Charles out had he known about the wheelchair. Charles’ brain simply refused to believe it.

In reality, he had merely leaned as far forward as he could to pluck the card from Erik’s hand. The projection grinned, looked up into Erik’s face. He hadn’t bothered to tweak his height, and Erik towered at least half a foot over him. His voice shook as he answered, “I’d love to.”

“Okay.” Erik seemed flushed, excitement a shimmer of orange-gold. “There’s a decent restaurant about two blocks from here, just newly opened. The Chessboard. Have you heard of it? I could meet you there around 8?”

Charles nodded, the projection nodding in tandem. “Sounds wonderful. I’ll see you there, Erik.”

Erik shook his - the projection’s - hand once more before turning and slipping out through the café’s door, overhead bell jingling merrily.

Heart hammering, Charles broke the illusion with a swift whoosh of breath, head slamming back against his chair.

Fuck.