Charles's chief memory of their last meeting was of Erik in his absurd getup, hollering that if Charles and his so-called X-Men hadn't interfered, the Representative from Wisconsin's wife would not be dead and the Representative's vote would be in their pockets.
Charles, likewise miserable about the woman's death, had attempted to remonstrate but got swamped in the stereo of Erik's shouting and Raven's accusations that he'd read their plans in her mind, which he had. He disliked using Cerebro on her, but he needed to monitor them somehow. The kidnapping of the Representative's wife was a perfect example.
"That's a disgusting thing to do to your own sister," Erik had snarled.
"I swear to God, Charles--" Raven had warned, furious at the thought that, if Charles made her a security risk, Erik would throw her out. Charles was pretty sure he wouldn't. But he would greatly restrict her information access, which she would also hate.
Eventually, Erik and Raven (and Riptide, who'd been gloweringly quiet) had got in the helicopter and thwacked away into the New Mexico sky.
Seven months later, Erik had phoned. "Would you like to get together sometime?"
"Let me check my calendar," Charles had said.
So he found himself here, in this cabin in the foothills of the Cascades in August, catching up on his grading as he waited for Erik.
Erik knocked and stepped in without waiting for a reply, to see Charles looking up from a stack of papers.
"Hello," said Charles. Dear God, he'd lost more hair just since Erik had last seen him. But he was wearing a button down shirt and slacks, refreshingly less priggish than his schoolmaster regalia.
"Hello." Erik deposited his suitcase on a chair. The cabin was large if a little rundown, a kitchenette, table, bed (one). Erik had been wondering if Charles would rent them one bed or two and approved the choice.
"Was your trip all right?" asked Charles.
"Yeah." Erik took a chair across the table from him. He was certainly not going to give any specifics about his logistics. "Yours?"
Charles smiled. "Actually, it's a pain getting across the country in a wheelchair. How's Raven?"
"She's fine. She sends her regards."
Charles's smile froze. "Is she still angry at me?"
"She's not so much angry at you, Charles, as she is afraid of you." He said it aware of how deep the barb pierced. "Afraid of how you're going to use what you see in her mind. She'd like to come visit you, but if you're going to play it that way..."
Charles nodded. "Yet you're here. You're not afraid?"
Was their entire visit going to be like this? He gave Charles a deep, direct look. "I'd be a fool not to be. Wouldn't I?"
"And yet you're here."
Erik gave a little shrug.
Charles's eyes warmed. "It's good to see you. You look good in jeans."
"Oh. Thanks." He nodded at the papers. "What are you working on?"
"Grading final essays."
"It's summer school."
"You're a glutton for punishment. What subject are you teaching?"
Charles patted the papers. "This class is literature."
"You're teaching literature? Couldn't you find a real English teacher?" He got up in search of a glass of water, carrying fondly into the kitchenette the image Charles's ironic smile.
"It's not entirely easy, you know, to recruit teachers for a mutant school."
Erik found a water-spotted glass and downed several swallows from the tap. The floor seemed to rock slightly, like a boat, an aftereffect of seven hours on the road. "What are you having them read?" He leaned against the counter.
"Don't be too avant-garde now, Charles."
"It's a very important play." He turned his chair to face Erik, a single, deft motion.
"It's an annoying play."
"I'll have you know Hamlet's very apt for teens. In addition to being foundational for any liberal education, it's excellent for studying language and narrative structure. Moreover, Hamlet has been a figure of identification for melancholy youth for centuries."
Erik chuckled. "Doesn't Fortinbras have some line at the end about how if Hamlet had been put on he would have proven most royal? I've always wondered how he on earth he arrived at that conclusion, unless by royal behavior, he meant sitting around accomplishing nothing all day."
"For someone who finds the whole play annoying, I'm surprised you're up on characters as minor as Fortinbras."
Erik considered that in all seriousness. "No, you're not." It would be a very small leap for Charles to discern that the character closest to Erik's heart would be the man action.
Charles fixed him with those blues he hadn't realized he forgotten till he met them now. "No, I'm not."
"I bet you identified with Hamlet as a teen."
"I did, I--" He hesitated. "From the time they got married to, oh, about the time they died, yeah, I identified a lot." He paused, looking back into his memory. "My step-father was... complicit in my father's death. Or maybe that's an unfair way to put it. I'd rather not go into it."
Erik had heard a little, from Charles and Mystique both, about their mother's unhappy second marriage, but-- "I had no idea. I'm sorry."
Charles didn't seem to hear him. "Most of all, though, I identified--I always really understood--his feelings about his mother. I loved my mother, and it kicked me in the teeth the way he treated her. But at the same time, I scarcely remember a time when I wasn't powerfully disappointed in her." He gave Erik a sheepish smile.
Erik set his chair next to Charles's and squeezed Charles's hand.
Charles clapped his other hand over Erik's. "This is not the conversation I imagined us having within five minutes of your showing up."
"There could be worse ones."
Charles laughed. "I take your point."
They attempted chess, but it didn't take Charles long to see Erik's focus slipping. He was tired, almost nodding where he sat. "It's like there's something in the air," he commented after his third yawn.
"Have you been busy?"
"Never mind how busy I've been." Though he said it lightly, the warning was real.
"I'm not," said Charles. "I'm not looking."
Erik leaned on his elbow. "You'll excuse me if I don't entirely believe you."
"I'm not saying I'm shutting out your thoughts. Of course, I'm not--well, except for the chess. I'm just not looking for anything that's not on the surface, and I must say, you're doing a bang-up job of not thinking about anything to do with your--work." He stopped himself short of "machinations."
"I've been practicing."
"But you've been busy. Long hours?"
Erik yawned again. "I suppose."
"So probably you're crashing because your body's just realized it's on vacation. Come on. Let's go to bed."
Yawn. "It's 2:00 in the afternoon."
"Actually, it's..." Charles's consulted his watch. "2:08." He wheeled to the bedside and got in, fully dressed but for his shoes.
Erik followed, settling in heap against Charles's shoulder. The temperature was in the 70s, hot for two fully dressed people pressed together under a blanket. The blanket got disposed of, and Erik sighed comfortably, an arm thrown across Charles's chest. "This is nice," he mumbled and let his consciousness float off.
Charles studied him, what he could see from his vantage: a leg thrown over his leg; black knit shirt, sleeves rolled up; hand lax across his ribs. Here they lay, two warm, recumbent apes.
Shaw had called them "children of the atom," evolution hyper-accelerated by the terrifying technological leaps of the 20th century. But they could just as readily be understood in the other direction: children of the dinosaurs' extinction, a billion year genealogy shared by every being.
Ever since his father had first introduced him to Darwin, Charles had adored the idea of being related to everything, perhaps because he'd already known he was different from everyone. He had never understood why some regarded the theory of evolution as demeaning, as if to say that Einstein was an ape were to cast aspersions on his genius. To Charles, it was a mark of splendor that a being not genetically dissimilar to a chimp should be able to describe the habits of time itself.
Erik was the single most magnificent work of creation Charles had ever seen. His brilliance, his complexity, the quirk of his smile, the power that radiated from his body: to think that all had emerged by the natural law that governed all Earth's children. The lungs that rose and fell against Charles's arm did likewise in a lizard. The way the heat building between their bodies expanded the veins in Erik's forearm was classic homeostatic biofeedback in an endotherm. The hand that lay across his chest was instantly recognizable as an ape's hand--unusually dextrous, to be sure, but clearly an intimate relation of the gorilla and the gibbon.
And the mother whose murder formed the fulcrum of his life had nursed him at her breast like any a mammal, and her murder had torn at the foundations of his brain because he came of what MacArthur and Wilson had recently termed a k-selective species, each offspring a tremendous parental investment and clinging to its parent for survival.
And that this hominid, this primate, this mammalian vertebrate, this multicellular eukaryote should command this man's conviction, his incisive eye, his will raise a submarine like a leviathan out of the deep--this was mutation.
Erik's stirring pulled Charles from sleep with no idea what time it was or what day it was or where he was or whether he had to get up to teach class in a minute. Daylight filtered through curtains, and the alarm clock, reading 4:45, clicked the world back in focus. He'd been asleep about an hour, Erik about two.
Erik's lips brushed his forehead. "I've missed you."
Charles put a hand to his face and found his mouth, rediscovering its shape and taste. "I've missed you too."
Erik frowned. "I wish you'd just bear with me." Interesting way to phrase it. "It's absurd for us to be divided. I'd come back to the mansion gladly--and Raven and everyone--if you'd just accept us. I'm sick of building defenses against you; I'm sick of calculating everything to beat back your invasions. Resisting you defines my whole damn life. I leave intervals between projects, Charles, just so I can see you without plans in my head for you to steal. It's ridiculous. Emma thinks it's ridiculous."
"Emma's right," said Charles curtly.
Erik pulled back to look at him. "Yet you insist on interfering. I don't ask that you agree with me; I'm not asking for your help. Just stay out of my way; is that so much to ask?"
"I'm prepared to stay out of your way for a very great deal. Gather up mutants, make alliances, stockpile resources, swindle funding--I'm not going to interfere with any of that, but I find it remarkable you can't understand that I draw the line at watching you do things calculated to get people hurt and killed."
"That Congressman's wife--"
"I'm not talking about her; we'll never agree about her. I'm talking about this mindset of yours that you can throw away people's lives in the name of mutant power."
Erik drew back further so they were no longer touching. "By 'throwing lives away' you mean I accept that killing can be necessary. Well, of course, it can be. Or are you going to tell me the Allies should never have gone to war?"
"The Second World War is an exception, Erik. Obviously, it needed to be fought. But for the pattern of war, look at the First World War: a muddy mess with no white hats or black hats, where young men killed each other because their leaders got sick of behaving like adults."
"You have it backwards, Charles. The First World War was the exception. Most wars are perfectly morally clear."
Charles laughed sharply. "Oh really? Like Vietnam?"
"Vietnam is clear; it's just hard to for you to see it because your country happens to be on the wrong side."
"Look, I don't think the Americans have any business in Vietnam. But if you're saying the NLF is in the right, Erik, you just tell that to their prisoners."
"War crimes happen in every war. The firebombing of Dresden was an atrocity, but it didn't mean the Allies were wrong to attack the Axis."
Charles grabbed the headboard and pulled himself upright. "And we're back to the Second World War, which is an exception."
Erik sat up beside him. "The American Revolution was a reasonable response to tyranny. The French Revolution--while it was badly managed--was a necessary response to tyranny too. The Civil War liberated America's slaves--"
"That's not why it started."
"But it's reason enough to justify it. Or do you beg to differ?" The silence drummed on the air, Erik's eyes unflinching. "Be careful, Charles."
Charles wet his lips and proceeded, indeed, with great caution. "I would like to believe that in most cases there is theoretically a way to resolve conflicts without mass destruction. You cite the American Revolution. Well, Canada--"
"The slaves, Charles."
"Obviously, slavery needed to be abolished, and it was abolished without war all over Europe. And if, at the cost of... a year or two, say, there had been a way to negotiate abolition without the deaths of one million people and the devastation of the South, which it has still not recovered from--"
Anger flared from Erik like a flame thrower. "The South was devastated because they lost their slaves. Slavery was the foundation of their economy; therefore, they would never have consented to give it up. It was a completely different situation in Europe, and I cannot believe I have actually just heard you say that slavery should have been allowed to continue. 'For just a year or two.' You might as well say two hundred. And as for the Second World War, you can pay all the lip service you want to the idea that you agree it needed to be fought. We both know you've just confessed that you'd be waving your paper like Chamberlain." He broke off, staring in surprise. "God, Charles, you're crying."
Charles gave a small laugh and wiped his eyes. "I am not a pacifist, Erik. If you recall, I was part of certain military operation to stop Shaw from--"
"Oh, so you wouldn't have signed the pact with Hitler?"
"If you're asking me to answer that as if I were in Chamberlain's place and without benefit of hindsight, everything depends on flow of information. You can't make decisions without fully understanding the situation, and if I have a dictum to govern my own decisions as to when and how to defend mutants from persecution, remaining as informed as possible is the groundwork on which any course of action must be built."
Erik cocked his head. "When did we start talking about mutants?"
"I don't know, Erik. I don't know if I would have signed it. My point is that to answer that question I would have to go back and review all the history and available intelligence of the time."
"All you'd need to do would be to talk to the refugees." Erik's anger had receded like a lamp turned low. It was the calm of someone who knew he had his opponent over one too many barrels.
"This isn't fair." The tears blurred Charles's eyes and crept into his voice. "It isn't fair to make me say these things to you. Or do you want me to lie and pretend I can see history before it happens? To say that because I love you I could have foreseen what would happen to you? Had I been Chamberlain, I hope I would have seen clearly enough to know military action was needed. But I cannot in all honesty say that I would have seen what I might not have seen." He sniffed and tried to settle himself. "I am not prescient, Erik, and neither are you."
Erik got up. For an instant, Charles thought he was walking out; an almost-panic gripped him: to hold him, not to lose him. But Erik just sat at the table, feeling hammered. He contemplated telling Charles how revolted he was but let it go. He stared at the tabletop while Charles transferred to his wheelchair.
"I'm going to go out for a bit," said Charles, desperate suddenly to be out on his own in the air brushed with autumn. He wheeled past Erik, who made no reply.
A few minutes past 7:00, Charles rolled back in, interrupting Erik's arithmetic. He'd debated with himself over bringing paperwork, leery as he was of giving Charles access to even his mundane affairs. But despite the twelve-hour days, the work had a way of piling up, so he'd packed the ledger on "legal revenue streams." He was glad he did. The numbers had helped him focus on something other than his bitter disappointment in Charles, who came in now with a paper bag in his lap.
"I picked up some groceries. Mrs. Koning fitted out the kitchen for us, so we can cook if we like." He set the bag on the table. "But I thought we might start with sandwiches."
Erik tapped his pencil, watching Charles pretend not to be interested in his calculations. Give it your best shot, Charles. See what kind of unacceptable activity you can make out of serving fillet mignon at the bistro.
Charles ignored him, spreading out his supplies. He frowned at the cabinets high above the sink. "Erik, would you grab us plates, please?"
Erik put away his ledger and found a couple of plates. They made ham sandwiches.
"There's wine in the fridge," said Charles.
"Wine and ham sandwiches?" Erik pulled out the bottle. He didn't sense a corkscrew, so he made one out of a fork, trying not to bask in Charles's smile as he did so. "You know," he said as he poured the wine, "one thing I genuinely like about America is that the filthy rich still eat sandwiches."
It seemed they should toast something, but it also seemed unwise to try. The sun, lowering through the window over the sink, struck Erik's cheek and made half his vision blaze golden. The room was stuffy and Erik's head heavy with war and summing figures; his legs itched for motion.
When they'd washed up, he said, "I need to get out and walk."
"May I join you?"
"I suppose so. But you just got back."
"But it looks to be a beautiful evening out there."
The cabin nestled on a side lane in the firs, just five houses back from a quiet, suburban street, not exactly a holiday resort. Erik wondered how Charles had lit upon it. Maybe he chose it, in part, for the ramp, which he now wheeled down. At the intersection, Erik lifted the wheelchair over the curb onto the sidewalk.
"How did you get up there when you went out before?" he asked.
"It's actually not that hard."
"It's not?" Erik gave the chair a light push down the walk, wondering if Charles would tell him not to.
But Charles just laid his hands in his lap and settled in. "I tell a lie; it's a little bit hard because the chair's a bit heavy. Hank's working on a lighter one, which I greatly look forward to. Where are we headed?"
"I passed a golf course on my way in."
The sun had set, and the town gentled into gray-blue. They reached the back entrance of the course in five minutes. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac, blocked by a guardrail. Erik lifted Charles over rail and set him on the path. The golfers had gone; at the far end of the course, a man threw a ball for a black lab. A sudden burst of chatting voices ambushed Erik; he didn't want to encounter other people. But after a moment, he realized they came from a nearby house: a couple on their patio.
"This is lovely," said Charles as Erik pushed him through a stand of cedars down the path that curved through the manicured grass. The moon, a day or two from full, was soaking up light in the east. "Do you know, I had a nanny once who was an incorrigible trespasser. She'd take me walking the dog sometimes, and we'd range all over the neighbors' fields, as bold as you please. But one day, we were walking in the golf course--which my family were members of, by the way--and when I started to cut across the green, she said, 'I don't think we should be walking on the grass.'"
"Did you convince her?"
"A little bit." He paused. "I'm a bit ashamed of it now." It wasn't the first time Charles had spoken of regretting what he considered childhood misuse of his telepathy. Trivial, thought Erik, compared to what he did today. He lifted the wheelchair a foot off the ground and struck off across the grass, past a sand trap, an otherworldly pool of white in the dusk, over a circle of close-cropped grass, and off across open lawn.
"Would you look at that?" Charles breathed. They were headed into the moon, over which a gold-lit thread of cloud cast a veil.
When they came to a second sand trap, Erik, on a whim, set down the chair and crouched over the sand's mysterious white, sheer as plastic. He picked up a handful. It felt like sand, fine to softness. He brushed off his hands and stood, lifting up the chair again.
Charles was watching in that way of his. "I envy you your awareness of the world, Erik. Mine's nothing like. Reading people's thoughts is so entangled; it's... like mush, like paste squeezing into different forms and temperatures. It's squishy, as living beings are. Like brains, I suppose."
"You make it sound charming." Erik angled them toward a grove of towering conifers with tall, bare trunks; he couldn't judge what kind from their silhouettes.
"It's all right; it's what I know. But your world is so different, seeing the metal in everything. How it tunes you to the physical and makes you understand the ground beneath your feet."
"There's not much metal out here," said Erik, "comparatively."
"What do you sense?"
"Right around here? Tees. Sprinklers. Golf clubs; you wouldn't think people would just leave their golf clubs. Trash can. Drinking fountain." Both were under the trees they were approaching. "Posts, poles. Fence. A square..." He focused on it, felt its contours. "It's a plaque, I think. Spare change. Buckles, zips--a backpack. Then, of course, there's the metals in the ground, in the rocks, kind of like a mist. A lot less here than most places though; they've really tilled up the earth."
"Can you feel the moon?"
Erik hesitated. "Is that a serious question?"
"No, of course not; it's too far away."
Charles bent his head back toward the blunted, glowing disk. "I don't know any 'of course' about it. We can see it though it's far away."
Erik focused on the moon, but it might as well have been an image on a movie screen. Maybe if he tried later, on his own, without Charles everywhere, seeing him.
"It's quiet here for me too," Charles said. They came to a pocket of cooler air, and Erik rolled his sleeves down. "All the minds are a good three acres away. If I don't concentrate, they're just buzz, like bees in the spring." He twisted to face Erik, who had to concentrate a moment on stabilizing the chair. "The effect is that you're looming hugely."
"It doesn't mean I'm scouring your thoughts," said Charles a little crossly. "Just that you're there, everywhere. I've missed it. I've missed you."
"You're looming big for me too; I mean, your chair is. It's not hard to manage, but it takes a certain maintenance, like dribbling a basketball."
"Good God," Charles laughed. "You're dribbling me."
They passed under the tall trees. Pines maybe? The trunks, column-like, went up fifteen feet before the first branches spread out of them. It gave a sense of openness, like walking through a temple.
"This is a fairyland," said Charles. "Set me down by the fountain, will you?" Erik set him on the path by the stone-based drinking fountain. Charles rolled up his sleeves and ran some water on his hands and over his forearms. There didn't seem to be any reason for it, any more than Erik had had a reason to pick up sand. Erik rolled his sleeves up too, finding the air warm again. "I'll push myself a while," said Charles, rolling off down the path, but after several feet, he stopped, laying a reverential hand on a hulk of metal.
"That's a trash can."
"Yes," said Charles with an air of surprise. "It is, isn't it?" He rolled on. "This is like Doré, the way the moonlight sets off everything in silver and sharp shadows. It's like his illustrations of Dante's Purgatorio."
"You're saying this feels like purgatory?"
"Well, the Garden of Earthly Delights? I never thought much of Doré's heaven. All angels and clouds; it looked like a dreadful place to be stuck."
"You're not the first to say that about heaven."
They went a ways in silence, ears tuned to the breeze in the woods that bordered the edge of the course. They'd gotten into a narrow rise that led up to the black mass of trees, dark and cool. Erik rolled his sleeves down, annoyed at himself as he did so. He didn't usually bother about details of temperature; it was silly.
"It's not," said Charles. "It's just that you're paying attention the nuances of this night."
Erik wanted to snap at him for pulling that out of his mind. He wanted to want to. But instead, his throat clenched with something like thanksgiving. "Let's head back."
As they came out once again from the column-like trees, Charles pointed at the sky. "It's Cassiopeia. It's been a long time since I've looked at the summer sky. I always knew the winter sky better."
"I used to know the summer sky well." Erik gazed at the few dim stars braving the moonlight.
"And there's the Big Dipper."
Erik gazed up at it. "The 'Big Dipper,'" he repeated thoughtfully. "My parents used to call it 'der Große Bär.'"
"That's much more elegant." They stared at it a while. "But you have to admit it looks more like a dipper than a bear. Shall we go back over the grass?"
Erik picked up the chair and cut away from the path.
"So, tell me," said Charles, "why is it that in German 'moon' is masculine and 'sun' is feminine, in contradiction to the entire European metaphorical system?"
"I have no idea. Why is 'sailor' feminine in Latin?"
"Good point. Actually, it's not though; it's just declined that way."
Every once in a while, it needled Erik to be shown up by Charles's education. It was pointless, of course, to compare them. Charles had spent almost all of his first thirty years in school, in prep schools, at Oxford, while Erik had worked 50 hours a week in a warehouse and taken night classes to get his high school diploma. No, there was no comparison.
The night fanned them, the moonlight silvering two or three scattered clouds.
"Is that--Wagner?" asked Charles.
Erik froze mentally, aware for the first time that he'd been humming under his breath. He replayed it in his mind. Yes, it had been Wagner:
Im Lenzesmond leuchtest du hell...
Siegmund singing of Sieglinde. In the spring's moon, you shine brightly. He decided to blame it on Charles for asking why "der Mond" was masculine. He made his brain be quiet and listen to the air.
After a time, Charles said, "I feel quite lazy being ferried about by you. I can make it through grass all right, you know; it's just a pain." They passed a cracked depression that must have roared with mud in winter and angled along the edge of the rough, jagged grasses white in the moonlight. "Still, I don't know how long it's been since I've been in the middle of a field like this. When I was a boy, I had hideouts all over my family's property: down gullies, under bushes, behind logs. As an adult, I could be an acre away and hadn't bothered to go back in fifteen, twenty years, but now-- When you realize you can't go back, I swear, that puts a different color on it. So thank you for taking me out here."
Erik wanted to touch him but didn't know how. There were so many things one couldn't go back to. "I'll take you back to your places, if you want. Hell, if we can't squeeze your chair down some gully, I'll carry you."
"Thank you," said Charles softly.
"For that matter, you don't need me; I'm sure Hank would be glad to carry you."
They reached the end of the course, and once again, Erik lifted the chair over the rail and set it down on the pavement, where Charles immediately started rolling it. "That's true. I thank you for your good counsel."
Erik laughed. "I have good counsel?"
"On occasion. But you're wrong on one point: I do need you."
Erik didn't know what to say to that.
Back in the cabin, Charles held out his hand, smiling when Erik took it. For a little while, Erik stood over him, feeling funny at the difference in their heights. Then, he got on his knees, and Charles sat forward eagerly to meet his lips, arms around his wide shoulders.
He could feel Erik thinking how irreplaceable he was (a sentiment Charles echoed exactly, and told him so with wordless, raw emotion). Irreplaceable, thought Erik, and at the same time unattainable--because the very characteristics that bound him to Charles ensured they could never exist together. He loved Charles's fingers inside his mind and hated them. He loved the indomitable confidence, intelligence, with which Charles challenged him, and yet their mutual indomitability precluded peace between them, like that Star Trek episode, he was thinking, where the two versions of same man end up locked in combat forever in some alternate dimension.
All this Charles read as he ran his hands along Erik's back and fell into the old, familiar patterns of his mouth. He could feel Erik's knees starting to ache on the linoleum.
"I want you inside me," he whispered, setting off apprehension in Erik.
"Are you sure?"
Before the accident, it had happened once--or twice--once Charles in Erik, once Erik in Charles, both times filed away under tipsiness, delirium, and getting carried away. Since the accident, they'd made love only one time, with a great deal of reserve.
"I'm sure." He kissed Erik's hand. "But it's fine if you'd rather not." He maneuvered past Erik to fish in one the kitchen drawers.
Erik stared with a lopsided grin. "'It's fine you'd rather not,' but you're getting out the--what is that--plain olive oil?"
Erik smirked. "I don't think it's actually a very good lubricant."
"No, I don't think it is; I confess I packed it as an afterthought. But if it was good enough for the Greeks--" He set it on the beside table and said seriously, "Just in case; we don't need to."
Erik watched as he got onto the bed and began undressing. His thoughts, delicate and a little sad, infused Charles too with a sense of mortal beauty, like a spider's web a moment away from tearing. Erik joined him and took over disrobing him. Charles, in turn, started in on Erik's clothes but didn't get far before Erik threw them off himself.
It had been a long time since Charles had seen him naked. He was thirty-five and starting to gray, but rock solid, proportioned like a work of art. Charles felt a stab of white hot envy at this own shrunken legs, his knobby knees. Didn't matter. He pulled Erik down on top of him, with a certain amount of wriggling as they arranged Charles's legs.
The last time they'd done it--Christ, two years ago already--Erik had been unable to look at Charles's body without guilt. And the guilt remained, even now. As for Charles, as ever, he was caught off-guard by how the body forgot what the mind thought it remembered: the shape of Erik, the weight of him, the cling of moist skin against Charles's skin--his smell, which instantly recalled those irretrievable days, when they'd existed at a pitch of jubilation so high they'd only understood it in its passing.
But if the consciousness could close like a fist around the moment, then in this moment they almost found that other time again. He put his hands in Erik's hair as Erik rubbed against him, and what his body couldn't feel he peeled back in Erik's mind--desire bright and jagged.
After a time, Erik broke his rhythm and readjusted, closed his hand on Charles's penis. "Should I?"
"If you want," said Charles.
Erik found that answer difficult to parse and responded by pressing his hands against Charles's ribs instead, kissing his neck, collarbone, his nipples. Charles arched his back and moaned, and dropped his hands momentarily from Erik's back to pull his thighs up around him.
"You still want me in you?" Erik was painfully hard, and it was starting to dissolve his misgivings.
Charles kissed him and told him with his mind.
"But you can't feel it. If I hurt you, would you even know?"
Charles took Erik's head between his hands. "You're not going to do me any serious hurt. You didn't before. I might bleed a little; that doesn't matter." But Erik remained filled with questions; he didn't have Charles's five years of experience with this paralysis. "My only concern at all is that it might upset my bowel movements, but I don't think it will. I'm on a regular morning schedule; what we do this evening shouldn't have much bearing."
"God, the things you have to think about." The guilt leapt up again.
"I don't think about them as much you'd think; it's just life."
Erik gave a little sigh and reached for the olive oil.
It was true Charles couldn't feel it--or only in distant, referred way, as a pressure in his belly. Or--it struck him sometimes that his awareness of his own sensations was less acute than others' with similar injuries because his ability to feel his lovers' sensations drowned out his own subtler arousal. He felt Erik encompassed by him, a strange inverse of his experience with women: all the times he'd felt them feel him inside. Strange to know yourself that way, as a physical impact on another. He wrapped his arms around Erik and sank under the sweep of his rhythm.
He groaned when Erik came, a frisson between them telling him he'd enjoyed it more than Erik, who fell against him, face slick and breathing hard, itching at the absence of their old, doubled pleasures. Charles, too, had felt half-deaf when he'd first had sex after the injury; there was a void his own ability to climax had fallen into. He was more used to it now.
Erik put a hand on Charles's half-hard penis. "Should I finish you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"What exactly does that mean?"
"It means--" He found no elegant way to put it. "My cock frustrates me; that's all. It sort of works; it sort of feels good, but I don't have very good control over it, and it often seems a waste of time."
Erik slumped next to him, arm through his arm. Their hands were very hot (and slippery), the room sultry. Charles nestled up till he fit against Erik's chest. They floated a while.
Then, Erik roused himself to ask, "Do you have lovers back at the mansion?"
"A couple, intermittently. Moira every once in a while when she's visiting from her doctoral studies." He yawned. "And Amelia."
"She's a nurse I met in hospital."
Erik smiled against his neck. "Why am I not surprised you came on to your nurse?"
"What about you? Are you involved with anyone besides Raven?"
Erik kissed his ear in deference to the irony of that statement. "Not really. It's not that Raven and I have any sort of monogamous commitment. There just isn't anyone who seems worth it to me. Actually, Raven's the one who likes to try out different people, but maybe I shouldn't say that in front of her brother."
"Well, who do you think she learned it from?" Charles thought a moment. "But I hope she's careful about V.D. Is she still on the Pill?"
Erik smiled drily. "Shall I pass on your concerns?"
Charles ignored him, lost in thought. Erik pressed his back like a hearth fire in the winter. And he thought about Raven with Erik. "Will you--?" he began. "I know you will but--Raven is in love with you, whoever else she may sleep with. I know you can't make her any promises, but you'll be gentle with her heart?"
A lick of anger from Erik. "She goes by Mystique now." You're the one who uses her private thoughts against her, he was thinking, and you're lecturing me on how to treat her heart?
"Yes, of course. Sorry." Charles twisted so he could see Erik's face. "It's just her life these past few years has been so transformed. It's wound up so different from everything she'd dreamed of. All her life, she really just wanted to get married and have kids and have a normal life."
"I wanted to get married and have kids and have a normal life. Life didn't afford us that option when it threw us down on this battlefield. You tell me: who would settle down with her and have a normal life with her the way she is? No one but a mutant, and mutants don't get to have normal lives."
Charles reached out and pulled him close, loving him for the distress behind his words, partly for himself--but also partly for Raven.
Gradually, he unclenched in Charles's arms. "And don't tell me it's self-fulfilling prophecy," he said quietly. "I'm not the one who ordained how civilization works."
"I know," said Charles and stroked his hair.
Erik swam awake pressed against Charles's skin, warm and sticky. It was already full morning--no, the overhead light was still on--no, it was morning; he craned his head at the cloudy, clean glow out the window. With a flick of his thoughts, he switched the light off, graying the room. Charles turned in to him with a sleepy purr, rubbed against his shoulder, his chin, found his mouth. They kissed until sleep submerged them again.
Around 8:30, they woke again and faced logistical difficulty. Erik wished he'd brought a robe; he didn't want to dress without showering, but Charles needed some time to negotiate the bathroom, which wasn't designed for a wheelchair.
"You shower first," said Charles, who had packed a robe. "Then you can get your coffee while I perform my ablutions."
So Erik showered quickly and put on a pot of coffee. As there was no toaster, he threw some bread in the oven and was just sitting down to his toast and jam when Charles called to him from the bathroom doorway.
"What is it?"
Charles looked disgruntled. "I wonder if you'd give me a hand into the bath. I did pay Mrs. Koning to get it remodeled, but she didn't, which I'm going to have to have a stiff word with her about. I've been sizing it up, and it just looks a bit treacherous."
"Sure." He followed Charles in; there was barely room for him and the wheelchair both.
"I could take a swing at it but--"
"It's fine, Charles." It struck him that Charles had developed a tendency to protest his independence. Sad that he felt the need to declare his obvious self-sufficiency. But in his place, Erik would do the same.
With a clumsiness both found embarrassing, they managed to get him in the tub and get it running.
"I've got it now. Go finish your breakfast," said Charles, clinging to the faucet.
Erik would have offered to stay, except Charles didn't want him to, so he went back to his toast.
Halfway through his first slice, he heard a loud splosh. "You all right, Charles?"
"Yep," came the clipped reply.
Erik poked his head in the doorway anyway to see Charles, hand still on the faucet, pulling himself up from a slide.
"Slippery," he said shortly. "There's nothing decent to get a hold on."
"Here." Erik threw a towel down over the puddle on the floor and sat beside him, holding out his arm.
Charles gave it a hard look before reaching for it, whereupon they floundered a little till Charles got into a stable sitting position. "I get so sick of this shit. You wouldn't think it would be so damn difficult to bank a curb or fit a wheelchair in a taxi. But every damn place you go--" He sponged himself one-handed, the wrapped through Erik's arm.
"Funding priorities?" Erik offered.
Charles scoffed. "Yeah, that's what they always say. It's not a priority to fund major renovations just to serve a handful of handicapped people."
"You could fund some renovations--as long as they're not being managed by Mrs. Koning."
Charles was silent a moment. "I could. I have done in some places I frequent--but I could do more. You're right." He soaped his neck thoughtfully. "There's a lot of good I could do with my money. I'm really very stingy, Erik. Most years, I don't even tithe. Probably comes to 8% most years, my charitable donations."
"Well, you're funding the school."
"That is what I tell myself. I'm funding the school; I'm funding R&D; I'm keeping significant capital in reserve against the possibility that there will be some sort of catastrophe, and I'll need to liquidate assets fast to move my students to safety--or other mutants."
"That's the most sensible thing I've ever heard you say."
"But it's not sensible. I could be giving hundreds of people food, shelter, basic necessities they need right now, today; instead, I'm stockpiling millions as some sort of insurance to protect mutants against hypothetical disasters."
"You're looking out for your own." Erik shifted against the uncomfortable damp of the linoleum. "You can't save everyone. There are millions facing drought and famine in Africa alone right now; you can't save them. The only way to solve these problems is for everybody to take care of their own chosen concerns. Let the Peace Corps volunteers who want to go to Africa help them drill wells. If I go to Africa, it will be because I've found a mutant."
Charles splashed water over his face as if to wash away a long sleep. "That's all right for you; you believe it. But me, I'm just full of excuses."
It was very much like Charles, thought Erik, to fault himself for his most useful practices. But he wouldn't change his spending habits. Down to the roots of that mansion of his, he was too in love with security.
Over his second cup of coffee, Charles remarked, "That's Wagner again."
Again, Erik stopped his breathy humming at once and washed dishes in silence.
It was a little cruel, Charles knew, to poke at him where a bruise lay. He had no justification for it, except that there was something there, deep and real, and he wanted to know it. Over the years, he'd exposed a lot of pain in Erik just because he'd wanted to understand. Erik finished washing his cup and plate and sat at the table again.
"I'm a little surprised you know him so well," said Charles.
"You're saying Jews don't have a right to?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying at all." Though he knew Erik didn't mean those words, they still took him aback, the anger behind them very real.
Erik took in his pained expression and cracked a smile. "I have mixed feelings about Wagner. It always seemed like a duty to hate him."
"You're not under any obligation to--"
"Would you shut up? For two minutes, please." Erik gave him a hard look. "It seemed appropriate, if it please you, to reject a body of work so filled with contempt for my people. It was a point of contention between my father and my uncle. My father was a modest Wagner fan, and my uncle was of the opinion that it was absurd to pollute the air with such refuse. I remember my mother saying once, 'If we stop our ears to everything that insults us, we'll be deaf.' And she winked at me. I thought that was very funny. At the time.
"But I never really paid much attention to the music--my father, when he played it, played it quietly, and I never paid much attention... until Shaw. He loved his Wagner, like any good Nazi. I listened to the Ring in his office a lot. In the Ring, the Jews are represented by the dwarfs: greedy, grasping, treacherous, lecherous, ugly, shrunken, and so on.
"But what drove it home to me was the death of Mime. Now, Mime had raised Siegfried from the time he was born. For fifteen, twenty years, Mime had given him room and board and brought him up. And let's grant he wasn't the best of parents; he was only using Siegfried, Siegfried had to learn about love from the animals, etc. It doesn't matter. Children bond to the people who raise them. Someone feeds you and shelters you and is the only other person you have ever met, and you are going to bond to them. So when Siegfried discovers that Mime is conspiring to kill him, he kills Mime first. Fair enough. But he never feels a qualm about it. Never. He never questions it, never remembers it, never reflects on the fact that he's killed the person without whom he would be dead. That's what Mime means. Nothing. And the moment I realized that, I understood exactly what my life was worth to Richard Wagner."
He sat back and gazed out the window. "But it's beautiful. Wagner had a command of sound I don't think anyone could match, not Mozart, no one. Do you know the first introduction of the full Siegfried leitmotif at the end of Die Walküre; it rises up like prophecy out of the Brünnhilde's enchanted fire? The coming of the Übermensch, the pure, Nietzschean soul who creates what is right because it is in his nature to do so, the man who will topple the gods. It's one of the most powerful things I've ever heard.
"And I came to believe that, in Shaw's mind, I was Siegfried. Of course, I have no doubt now that he saw Siegfried as himself. But I didn't know about his powers then; I just saw me. It was inspiring--" He laughed roughly. "Sick as that may be to say--in that place. But it was galling, too, to be cast in the mold of Siegfried--because Siegfried really was such a twerp."
Charles smiled. "Like Hamlet?"
"No, in an entirely different way. A stupid, blundering idiot. When I grew up, I identified more with his father. Now, Siegmund had a storyline: family destroyed, alone in the wilds, an outcast, despairing of finding anyone else--" He paused. "Anyone who understood his soul, till he found Sieglinde. I used to wonder if I'd ever meet a woman I'd feel that way about, and in my early twenties, for a moment--well, I guess you know. And then I met you." And I realized I'd only known strangers.
His words vibrated Charles like water in a glass above some deep, rumbling engine. And so, to still the trembling, he told a joke (partly). "So I am your Sieglinde? And together we will give birth to the superman... who is Shaw, if I'm following all this."
Erik grinned. "Don't over-read the metaphor."
"Tell me the lines, the ones that are in your head."
"I'm not singing Wagner for you."
"I didn't say you had to sing it."
Erik turned ruddy, and after a moment's hesitation, grasped Charles's hand with a flourish and recited, "Doch dich kannt' ich deutlich und klar. Als mein Auge dich sah warst du mein Eigen. Enough?"
Charles played it over to himself: But you I knew, clearly and... clearly. (He was pretty sure both words meant "clearly.") When my eye saw you, you were my own.
He started to laugh, and Erik laughed, the hot, hard laughter of a joke too near the mark. They laughed till they were both out of breath and wiping tears.
"It beat like a bell on my ear, Charles..." Erik started and stopped, embarrassed. But his thoughts finished up the paraphrase, the first time I beheld my Friend.
Charles looked at Erik and saw Erik see him, really see him with a fierce and total detail that made Charles wonder if he had forgotten who he was until reminded by the mirror of Erik's mind. But already he had changed, and he was changing.
"Oh Lord," he said, Ophelia still close to him, "we know what we are, but know not what we may be. We need to keep honest for each other, Erik. Because the times when we... disappoint each other are not going to get easier." Erik slipped on his blank face, the one he wore to pretend detachment, but he was listening. "Any other two people in our position would simply wind up hating, but not us. We need to a foster a place for our friendship."
"I do," said Erik, perturbed.
"Yes, you said so. You leave gaps between plans so you can see me. Every once in a while, you set the world aside for me. And may I do the same the for you." (Erik doubted it.) "Thank you," said Charles. He reached out and clasped Erik's hand once more. "Bless you. I love you."
Erik looked away and nodded. "Are you up for trying chess again?"
Charles smiled. "And again and again."