Recruiting teenage Mexican girls was not standard C.I.A. practice. Then again, compiling unanticipated resources could be viewed as the backbone of its success. Or that's what Erik told himself to justify the detour to Baja California. Moreover, he couldn't begrudge Charles the trip when the three sisters all being mutants had such obvious research implications.
The hard, dry August woke the senses. From the train, they made a two-mile, twilight walk to the yurt (of all things) Charles had arranged to rent. Erik felt at home in its simplicity: a kerosene stove and kerosene lamp, straw bed only big enough for one but plenty of floor space for a sleeping bag. A hand pump for water stood a few meters away. No outhouse, but out in this isolated woodland scrub, one didn't need one.
Charles flopped his backpack on the floor. "I feel like I'm at summer camp."
That night a mosquito got in, and they were powerless against it.
"Can't you swat it with the frying pan?" asked Charles.
Erik glared. "Why don't you just instruct it to go outside?"
The next day, the girls' parents and brother received them with polite and understandable suspicion. But they warmed up a little once Charles--to Erik's consternation--offered the brother a job in the States.
"What's he going to be good for?" he asked later.
"I don't know. US-Mexican relations? I'll find him something."
It was evident from the first afternoon, however, that the village offered more than just three girls with low-grade powers to affect the atmosphere. It had numerous tales of people with unusual gifts, mostly in oral history but some written up in church records: worth investigation.
Un sueño, thought Erik vaguely, though what dream he referred to Charles couldn't pin down. Spanish ticked through both their brains after hours of conversing with Mexicans. Neither of them was very fluent, and in the evening, the day's work of making coherent conversation burst apart like a dandelion into fragments of remembered sound.
In the tepid night, Charles shifted on the mattress to watch Erik's shadowed form, dozing in his half-unzipped sleeping bag. In deference to Erik's privacy, he pulled back from the deep thoughts and only skimmed the surface.
His surface thoughts as he fell toward sleep were linguistically fascinating. Erik was one of those European polyglots Charles had always envied. Charles's Anglo-American upbringing had restricted foreign language mostly to the classroom, and while telepathy helped with comprehension, it sabotaged output. Because he'd hear the feeling, he'd be deaf to the word; he'd understand what his French teacher was saying, but if asked to reproduce it, hardly knew where to begin. Though he'd emerged functional in a handful of languages, he'd never had the living facility Erik swam in.
In the day, Erik's thoughts mostly ran in English--or Spanish when were speaking to the locals--though left to his own devices, he would often slip toward German, weaving language into language according to some in inner pattern.
But when he was sleepy, his grip loosened into a swirl of tongues. Often, his mind descended from English through German into Yiddish. The Yiddish sounded so like German that Charles had initially thought he was miscomprehending German. Sometimes a long string of French would erupt, a Russian expression, bits of Hebrew, something Charles suspected was Polish. The Yiddish often came in a woman's voice, his mother's almost certainly: full of common sense and reassurance. Charles could seldom trace a coherent thought: sleepy minds skipped and broke their avenues. There was a mood, a phrase: "It's over there, the potato spoon. But the conclusion of the movement is--" The content didn't matter; it wasn't what it stood for.
But Charles could track precisely moment Erik's thoughts dipped from peace into fear, the frantic patter of Yiddish-German. It was too common; in their brief time recruiting together, Charles had come to recognize the turn instinctively. Not for the first time, he raised a finger to his temple and blanketed Erik's mind. No words: just rest, just comfort, that security all mammals crave as a memory of the womb. He wanted to take him in his arms to make it solid. But that would have wakened him.
On their third evening, the girls' brother invited Erik and Charles to a party at the plaza. Erik appreciated the music and plentiful beer, as well as the girls--some extremely attractive--spinning vigorously in flowing skirts.
He watched them and watched Charles watch them. The more the beer softened his edges, the less substantial the girls appeared and the sharper the lines around Charles. At one dizzy moment, he felt like he was in West Side Story at the moment Tony and Maria first spot each other and the dance hall starts to echo.
To judge from Charles's gleeful expression, Erik guessed that, if he'd been in the States, he would have happily scored with one of the girls. In Mexico, however, the rules were different, and even buzzing, neither of them was ready to wear out his welcome. Or that was the official version. In truth, though Erik enjoyed the dancing, he had no particular desire to fraternize, and from the way Charles hung close by his side, he suspected the sentiment was mutual.
They made their farewells around 10 p.m. and ambled back toward the yurt in the dappled half-moon light. As the music gave way to crickets, Charles took Erik's beer and swigged it, then burst into the middle of a song:
The mariachis would serenade,
And they would not shut up till they were paid.
We ate, we drank, and we were merry,
And we caught typhoid and dysentery.
Erik seized his beer back, laughing too hard. Charles grabbed his arm and continued in a conspiratorial tone:
Rover was killed by a Pontiac,
And it was done with such grace and artistry
That the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail.
But I digress...
"You know, your accent goes American when you sing American songs."
"Does it?" Charles giggled. He was a heavier drinker than Erik and leaned against him now with quite a fraction of his weight.
Back at the yurt, one or the other of them tripped on the threshold and they took an awkward tumble but somehow successfully landed on the mattress. They came to rest in a heap, Charles half on top of Erik. He propped himself up on his elbow and observed:
Now it's fiesta time in Akron, Ohio,
But it's back to Guadalajara I'm longing to go...
He broke into a yawn and settled his head on Erik's shoulder.
Far away from the strikes of the A.F. of L. and C.I.O....
Erik put an arm around his back and held him in the cricket-scattered quiet for a while. A song came to him too; he couldn't remember where he'd learned it. The radio? His singing voice was every bit as unimpressive as Charles's, but he didn't suppose that mattered. Gently, he murmured:
Aye, Torero, she is here. Aye, matador.
I see her smile and I see there the reason she came.
Toro, come closer. Come here and I'll whisper her name.
The words were a prop for a lullaby. He could only remember bits, but by the time they ran out, Charles was snoring. The press of their bodies in the balmy night made Erik sweat. He wished he could disentangle himself, but he couldn't without spilling Charles onto the floor, so he lay there, sweating till he drifted off.
They awoke in the predawn to Charles thumping onto the floorboards. He ran a groggy hand through his hair and said, "Oh. Coffee."
Erik leaned his head in his hand. "Impressive dancers, these Mexican girls."
"Yes," said Charles, groping for the coffee pot. "Yes, aren't they?"
They had their coffee on the doorstep, the morning already warm and air still as they looked out over the sparsely treed hillside.
"It's going to be scorcher," remarked Erik.
"Mm. Good day for hiding--I mean researching--in the old church."
Charles went ahead to water pump to wash while Erik lingered over his coffee. At his leisure, he threw his polo shirt around his neck, grabbed the coffee pot and his cup, and followed.
He found Charles, dripping, crouched over the little pool that accumulated underneath the pump, dipping a feathered grass stalk in it.
Charles didn't look up as he approached. "Have you ever tried to rescue a bug that absolutely refuses to be rescued?"
Erik had the uncomfortable feeling he was the bug. The thought annoyed him, though he understood Charles hadn't meant it that way.
If Charles read his reaction, he gave no sign, just went on fishing with his blade of grass. Erik found himself studying the side of his head, trying to make out the gray hairs, water-darkened, while Charles mumbled over his bug: "There... no. Yes...? No... Ah... there we go." Triumphantly, he held up the dripping tuft of seeds, to which some drenched black thing clung. He set it well away from the water.
The easterly sun beat on Erik's shoulders, and his blood seemed to answer, beating hot into his head. The whole performance bothered him.
"Why?" he asked Charles, knowing he wouldn't get a satisfactory answer.
Charles gave him that penetrating look, then clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Why not?"
"That's about what I thought you'd say." Erik tossed his shirt on the ground and pumped a cool cascade over his head and torso. He felt better for it.
As he pitched his arms wetly into his shirt, he saw Charles sitting back a little way, gazing at him.
Charles shook his head, quirking a smile.
Erik washed the coffee pot, joined by Charles, rinsing Erik's cup. Their heads were close together, and the warm-cool of the sun and water lent a weight to the air, as if a million spider threads connected them. Erik glanced at Charles in profile and his open, unwatching face--
A surge of desire hit him like a blow to the head. It was sexual, yes, or at least sex was swept up in it, but it wasn't the kind of desire he'd feel for a girl he'd chat up in a bar. It wasn't aimed at the body, or if it was, it was the face that drew him. It's essence was awakening to a sort of second self. He knew this the instant it struck him and passed.
It struck Charles, too, so hard he started and shot him an uncharacteristically shy glance. Erik ought to feel embarrassed, exposed--but he didn't. That always intrigued him about Charles. The massive disadvantage of being completely known (as Charles claimed) by a stranger of whom one knew next to nothing ought to have made them instant enemies. But it hadn't--in fact, the reverse. From the first, Erik had understood that with Charles he was safe. Having begun their acquaintance with nothing hidden, he had nothing to hide.
Charles met his eyes again, this time with his usual candor. After a moment, he leaned in and kissed him softly, at the corner of his mouth. If they had been in Eastern Europe and meeting at a train, it might have passed as innocent greeting.
Once again, Charles gripped his shoulder. "Let's head for the church." He smiled a touch wryly.
Charles pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. "Oh, look, a giant hill."
As they gazed up the dirt road to the old church, Charles felt Erik join him in doubtful guesstimation of patches of shade. They started up the incline with a slow and steady gait.
"If everyone had to hike this to get to church, no wonder they built a new one." Charles turned and walked backwards a ways, trying out different muscles. After a couple of minutes of puffing, he said, "I'm terribly out of condition."
Erik looked him up and down. "Yes."
About fifteen minutes later, they came to low oak that cast a broad shadow. "That's it. I'm taking a break." Charles plonked himself on road, and Erik followed. They passed the canteen.
"I think we started up the long way," said Erik because he hadn't screwed himself up to say what he wanted to. Charles waited a little impatiently, fanning himself with his hat, and after a minute or so, Erik got to the point: "Since you can see inside my mind, I assume you know I'm a heterosexual."
"I know." Charles found this conversation perturbing, in part because he had already had it in his mind for both of them. That nuisance came with being telepathic: it involved a lot of waiting for other people to catch up. "I am too."
"I never thought you weren't."
That pleased Charles probably more than it should. Having felt so much of others' suffering, he'd always counted himself lucky not to be homosexual, in the same way he counted himself lucky to be white, male, rich, Anglo-American, able to hide his mutation. To risk that fortunate status, to paint that bull's eye on oneself, troubled him and Erik both. And yet next to the heart, it was a small thing.
"I'm not disingenuous about homosexuality." Erik unnecessarily assured him. "I know that homosexuals are everywhere, the vast majority indistinguishable from everybody else. And I have nothing but contempt for people who sermonize, psychoanalyze, legislate, lynch people over something as trivial as what people get up to in bed."
Erik himself had pulled a couple of men in his teenage years when it had served his purpose to win their trust and dredge them for information. He hadn't yet been so adept at using intimidation to achieve the same aim with more pleasure and less personal inconvenience.
Charles could see that part quite articulately worked out in his head, but Erik skipped it and went straight to: "The fact remains I'm a heterosexual."
Charles nodded. "And that means?"
Erik abruptly ran out of words.
"That whatever we feel is just about us?" Charles prompted.
Erik gave him a searching look. "Isn't it?"
The question was so sincere it made Charles want to hug him, like he hugged Raven when she cried. "Yes. You and I are like no one else." His words elicited crush of emotions: arousal again and also something heavy, afraid, relieved. Erik quickly clamped it down.
He stood. "I'll go onto the church. Why don't you head back to town and go to work on the girls' brother again."
Charles got up and donned his hat. "I think you're just saying that so you can mock me as you sit reading inside nice, shady adobe walls."
"Or you can climb the rest of the hill."
Charles chuckled. "I'll see you this evening." He started back down toward the village.
They had dinner in the village, then went back to the yurt and reviewed Erik's notes by the kerosene lamp.
"Well, C.I.A. or no C.I.A.," said Charles, "this will be an invaluable area of study. It's a clear demonstration of mutation persisting through founding factors in a relatively genetically isolated community."
Erik was leaning his head on his hand. "Genealogy's your area, of course. That was sloppy planning: you should have gone to the church."
"Your notes are fine. I'll go look at the originals before we leave." He yawned. "Anyway, José thinks Imelda might be persuaded to go."
"I'm trying to imagine what good the C.I.A. is going to get out of someone whose chief talent is turning the air blue."
Charles smiled. "You never know."
"It's diversionary, I suppose." He rubbed a hand over his face. "I'm going to bed. It feels like it's been a long day."
They stripped down with a new self-consciousness, each feeling naked in his underwear yet unable to justify covering up more given the weather. Erik settled on his sleeping bag and Charles under the light blanket on the mattress, and both proceeded to feel ridiculous.
"Erik, come here," said Charles after some minutes.
"You really think we should fuck."
That was a sledgehammer defense, and Charles treated it as such: "This is not a chess game, Erik. Stop sparring and come here; there's room for two."
"Hardly." But with a sigh, he got in beside Charles.
He was right, of course: it was a squeeze. Hot. An immense emotional release. Charles wrapped an arm around him, the way he'd wanted to all day--except his arm somehow got in the wrong position. They shuffled around till they found a balance, face to face on their sides, arms loose around each other, knees abutting.
Though they'd washed (rinsed off) after dinner, they were both still somewhat sweaty; that discomfited Charles. On a basic physical level, another man's sweat repulsed him more than it attracted. He had to take a few moments to accommodate to the chemical impingement, to teach himself he could let it in. It helped that Erik didn't mind it, probably because he had grown up in close quarters.
His skin felt like a woman's, that is to say, like anyone's. Human. Like Charles's own. There was a primal comfort in flesh on flesh. Charles kneaded his hand into Erik's shoulder, felt a hand press his ear, Erik's lips on his lips, tongue light on his tongue. He could feel Erik marvel at him, as a man after twenty years in prison might marvel at the sunset, with a faint disbelief in its reality. Charles understood the feeling; he, too, had difficulty believing that Erik existed, that they had met.
"I love you." Charles pulled away just enough to see the outline of his face in the moonlight. He hadn't thought it through till now, and now the words poured out: "I'm in love with you, completely and utterly in love. I thought I knew what it meant to be in love. I thought I was in love with Amy Parker my junior year in high school; I thought I was in love with Betty Harrington in the genetics lab. All that was nothing, just a mild infatuation. But this... I have felt this in other people's minds, and I always assumed it was some strange species of passion I just wasn't wired for. And it doesn't have much to do with sex, except that sex is the only way we have to symbolically--to represent the union of the two pieces--like a cracked eggshell winding back through time, this Aristophanic..." He sputtered out, hand clinging to Erik's neck.
His words built a tightness in Erik's chest, part of him exactly on Charles's wavelength, part warning him to get away because he'd had no one to protect him but himself for so long.
"Vereint," he said quietly: united, but the German improved it: a one-ing of things, a strained, cornered, and yet somehow unambivalent admission.
Charles kissed him hard, and Erik pulled Charles down on top of him. That surprised Charles; it seemed to run counter to his "I'm a heterosexual" discursus. But it also held something of the I've-been-here-before-this-is-not-where-my-pride's-located. The whole damn room was very hot, the too-small blanket kicked off and forgotten in a heap with their underwear.
Their bodies were full of misfitting, and Erik, though he had marginally more experience than Charles, fought a negative association with being fucked. But all of that faded next to the feel of each other's skin, belly to belly, arms sliding past arms, Charles's forehead steaming against Erik's neck. Erik's penis was sleek against his hand, a different creature from his own; he shifted his grip until body and mind told him he had it right. Erik fumbled with him too, but it was all right; Charles simply took a moment to guide him.
It was Charles's natural state to coast on the thoughts of others. It took more conscious effort to share himself with someone else. But he did so now so they could feel each other, felt Erik gasp, their pleasures mirrored in infinite regression, each sensing what the other sensed, and what he sensed he sensed and what...
They came quickly and hard, and almost at the same moment, minds and bodies synced. Afterward, they lay piled together as if floating within an amniotic sea.
"That was--" Erik's voice stirred Charles from a half-sleep. He was groping for a word. "Astigmatic."
Charles got up on his elbow. "You mean making love to me is rather like needing eyeglasses?"
Erik barely laughed, still grasping after something. "It's like having dual vision, seeing--feeling--two outlines of the same thing, or that's how my uncle used to describe it."
Charles kissed him. "Two converging into one."
In the afternoon, they strolled back from town via a dusty trail. Under a stand of spindly oaks, a water trough lay in the shade, and, hot from the sun, they paused to contemplate it: three-fourths full and furred with algae. Pinpricks broke its surface with tempo of a bell choir. Squatting to look deeper, Charles could see they were caused by insect larvae, tails thrashing up to the surface--pop--down again. An old stone slab stood up-tilted in one corner, half in, half out of the water.
"I wonder what the brick's for," mused Charles.
"To stop mice from drowning in it," said Erik, crouching beside him.
Together, they watched the water, shining a black reflection of gray-weathered wood and, if you looked in closely with the eye of Escher, the oval of oak leaves patterned from above.
Erik's mind felt quiet and warm, like the day; on the whole, it had been since they'd arrived. It may be we carry our demons within, but at the same time, it seemed to Charles that a change of scene was sometimes all healing required.
A moment like this makes me wish I could always take you away. He refrained from pushing the thought through to Erik, unwilling to ripple his surface.
Instead, he reached for Erik's hand, slack, wrist resting against his knee. He picked it up and placed it on his own knee so that Erik's palm lay flat and Charles's hand over Erik's. Erik watched this with a certain bemusement--and slight amusement--and a kind of hesitant delicacy, like a big dog determining to let a stranger scratch its nose.
Almost unconsciously, Charles swept his mind around the area, relieved to find no other presence near and irked by his own hair-triggered drive to secrecy. He'd learned it a very long time ago: to disguise his own gifts and the trickier matter of Raven, making sure no one was walking by when she slipped into her true form.
In this particular moment, of course, it had nothing to do with being a mutant. He didn't want to be seen holding hands with a man, and that irked him too. Erik cared less, and Charles admired him for that.
Safe for the present, Charles let his cheek rest on his knee, or rather let it press into his hand, which pressed Erik's hand, and which lay on his knee. He felt his jawbone against his knuckles, and Erik's flesh hot against his own, and his right foot falling asleep, and the sun stirring warm currents under the oaks.
After a minute or so, Erik started to feel awkward, both physically and emotionally, so Charles stirred, raised Erik's hand to his lips and kissed, once, twice, and then again, on the back, at the thumb, the index finger, tasting a trace of sweat. More amusement from Erik, and underneath it a satisfying quiver. Charles held his hand a moment longer; it lay in his almost limp, letting itself be held, a lean, strong hand, the lightning rod for such an immense power. (Charles knew, of course, that Erik's power had nothing in particular to do with his hands; they were just a modus for focusing his thoughts. Still the symbol remained potent.)
At length, Charles stood and, head rushing, leaned into a tree branch until his baroreceptors corrected the pressure. Erik, beside him, head rushed too but pretended not to, standing like a mountain till the blackness receded from his vision. Then, they resumed their way up the trail.
Charles fluttered awake to the softness of cotton on cotton. When had they put their shirts on? Ah yes, a fog had rolled in in the night, and chilled half out of sleep, they'd shuffled together shirts and blankets. An early morning cool pricked Charles's fingers, but the rest of him lay snug in a crook of Erik's arm.
At a squeeze from Erik, he kissed his cheek, saw Erik smile. When he smiled, he looked like Charlton Heston; the realization jarred Charles a bit. It made him think back to watching Ben Hur and reflecting that Heston made a rather implausible Jew. But it seemed he'd been mistaken. He broke into a long, low laugh.
Erik echoed his laughter. "What?"
Charles shook his head. "Nothing."
Slight as it was, his holding back annoyed Erik. It was true it was unequal, and always would be, no matter how faithfully Charles promised to not to spy on his mind. For Charles, reading minds was as normal as seeing, and completely blocking out others' thoughts was much like closing his eyes: fairly effortless at first but fruitless in the long run.
Erik got up and dressed. "We need to wrap things up today. The girls aren't coming with us; they wouldn't be much use if they did."
Charles sat up. "I still have notes to go through."
"Well, go through them. Or just gather them up and go through them on the train. Our time would be better spent tracking down that guy who hangs out in Canada."
"What's prompting this?"
Erik's safety razor flew into his hand; he perched hand mirror above his knee and set to shaving, creamless. "Don't you know these things?"
"I'd rather you told me. You'd rather you told me."
Erik stopped shaving and let his mirror fall halfway to the ground, where it hung like a yo-yo. He did things like that when he was angry. "This won't last, Charles, this idyll we're playing at. You realize that, don't you? Back in the real world, it's a dream."
Charles got up and threw on his pants and sweater. He sat beside Erik, who was shaving again with a saw-like scraping. "It depends on what you mean. Back at HQ, we'll be busier; we'll have less privacy, of course. But we'll find time. We'll make time."
Erik scoffed. "Do you have any idea how trivial you sound?"
"You think this is trivial next to your quest for Shaw. It isn't. Both are expressions of the human heart."
Erik gave him a long look, and Charles saw that his point had been more complex. He set aside his mirror and razor (the conventional way) and gripped Charles's hand. "Life doesn't have mercy on things like this. You have to choose what you'll take with you to survive, and it won't be this."
Charles laid his other hand over Erik's. "Time will change it; everything changes. But you and I will be part of each other until the day we die. My certainty is as immutable as my need for oxygen."
Erik smiled briefly and looked away.
Charles squeezed his hand and answered the unspoken thought. "It is not grandiose. It's a fact."
After a moment, Erik wrapped him close, forehead to forehead. "Yes," he said, doubt and belief simultaneous. "Yes, I think it must be."