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Forget The Present Tense

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Less than an hour later, Erik is only narrowing restraining himself from attempting to put his fist through one of the fading wood-paneled walls.
'Here goes nothing'?
Nothing is exactly what he's found.

His heart had been pounding as he mounted the stone steps, dismissing the absurd feeling that he should have brought flowers, chocolate, or wine. (Spirits, rather-- Charles favors a great many liquors above wines.) The great oak doors were locked, but the knobs were old and tarnished, worn from decades of use. A quick look in the ample, old-fashioned keyhole revealed a simple tumbler mechanism of the kind Lehnsherr knows well. The composition was brass and, while it's a reasonable assumption, the fact he was dead certain is another one of those knacks he can't explain. In many ways, his early fascination with locks, auto parts and machinery is what led him to Explosive Ordinance Disposal. He jokes with Madga that he picked the MOS because it was one of the few legal ways to make a living blowing shit up, but that's not really true. First and foremost, the goal of any disposal tech is to avoid the incendiary event. And, while Erik enjoys the chemistry behind napalm, C4, and other less traditional catalysts, he's always been more interested in the apparatus itself. Even IEDs that use cellphones contain the the columbite-tantalite ubiquitous in mobile devices. That particular dark ore contains strong traces of niobium, which is capable of producing a vibrant magnetic field.

Brass, on the other hand, is zinc and copper. Non-magnetic, but it gets brittle with age. By now, Erik realizes he wasn't quite in his right mind as he stood there on the porch-- after all, you should at least knock before you start jiggling the door handle. Also, breaking and entering is generally frowned upon by the better class of people; the little Mama-voice in the back of his mind had strongly scolded that she knew he knew better.

He wasn't thinking about that, though. His mind's eye, the whole of his will, had been consumed by the lock; the way he visualized it, how he knew the tumbler wasn't pure brass. He twisted with abrupt strength once hard right, then back left. The catch blocked and held, but with the faintest of scrapings.

"Come on, sweetheart," Lehnsherr had murmured, "You're almost there. Give it up, baby--" Once more, and this time he held the pressure, envisioning the worn metal slipping just a little right…


Fighting back a ridiculous smile, he'd paused briefly to see if anyone had been drawn by the commotion. He hadn't quite been able to stop himself from running his free hand through his hair in a vain attempt to make himself look presentable. Now he's standing on the second floor landing of a completely vacant architectural monstrosity, with no one to judge his appearance but a few drifting motes of dust, and the clusters of flowers in the central stained glass window. They're red, these flat glass suggestions of blossoms, with distressingly watchful discs of black tile that look like the eyes of dead and un-dreaming gods. Morbid and florid- he's batting a thousand for sure today. Those same mute shards of color are also incongruously clean. From here, he has a good view of the intermediate landing where the undamaged 'Y' shaped staircases merge under a spotless chandelier.


The rage in him is expansive and overwhelming, exacerbated by every illogical detail. The emotion seems too big for his body, as if the force will burst his capillaries, loosening muscle and sinew from bone. The Doc blames the majority of his sudden, violent rage on PTSD and reintegration, but Lehnsherr knows he's always had a temper. He runs hot, like his father; it's amazing they didn't kill each other after Mama died. She had a team of stubborn mules, she'd said-- all she needed was a harness and carriage. Though Erik was twelve when he lost her

(allowed her to be killed-- useless, useless…)

he still owes a great deal of his self-control to Edie's patient intervention. With a temper like his, she said, you couldn't afford to have anything but a long fuse. Boys-- particularly adolescent boys fermenting in their own hormones-- got angry, and she understood that. 'But G-d put us here to work on our faults,' she'd say, bending to give him a kiss he was always quick to scrub at. She took him to football practice, wrestling, karate, and even let him try skateboarding. All of this to find something he liked that would channel the confusing, negative morass propelling him quickly out of prepubescence. Karate was alright (he switched to Tae Kwan Do in high school), but he loved lacrosse. Sport, strategy, and an excuse to run around clashing nets on big metal sticks? It was brilliant. He'd still been plenty pissed off at the world, especially after Mama died. But, for the most part, he was able to recognize that letting blind rage get its hooks in him more often resulted in most of the hurt landing on himself. The Army took care of the rest, and then made it worse. The absolute fury he feels now starts out red, like those stupid overly-stylized flowers, but it quickly descends into utter black.


("Kleiner Erik Lehnsherr, so that is the key to your power…"
Shut up, you phantom fuckwad, I don't even know who you are!)


He puts his fists to his ears, raking nails against the sides of his face. As if in response, his brain switches to and all-too-vivid sensory image of the marketplace. That day--

(The day is bright and dusty, but not 'hot' in the way most people imagine the Middle East. Oh no, this is heat beyond the implications of the English word. 'Smelting', 'stifling', you could try them all-- why not save time and stick your head in an oven? In college, Erik remembers reading that some Inuit languages have over fifty words for 'snow'. In this same way, someone could spend a lifetime organizing the gradations of temperature-induced misery in Iraq.

The village is just a cluster of buildings, a well, and a cross-roads. It's not even enough to merit an official name on the map, but it seems as if every damn person in town is out today. Women in hijabs and variations on traditional garb, men in western clothes, children in an odd mix of hand-me-downs and cartoony t-shirts. Old cars, older camels; the rhythm of sand and barter.

Newcomb says, "Where the fuck is the translator?"

But Erik is looking at the cellphone in its ludicrous panda case, LED screen flashing a count-down from where it's strapped to a parcel in the back of an ass-old GMC.
He says--)

"They're a luxury, not a requirement. If you follow the fucking protocol, we can do this without one."


Ah. That's out loud-- that's in the real world. To test this theory, Lehnsherr lets loose with an inarticulate scream of rage and frustration. Each ripple of sound makes his vocal chords ache, but it banishes the memories. Real, imagined, and everything in-between.

There's a crash nearby. Whirling around quickly, Erik glares suspiciously at the dim corridor beyond, which still echoes with the sound of his own voice. This house doesn't make sense, he keeps coming back to that. There's no furniture-- and oh, he went from room to room, knowing where things should properly be. He'd gone to the room his mind was sure belonged to Charles and then (after bitter disappointment) the one they'd nominally told the others Erik was sleeping in. And maybe the lack of habitable luxuries would make sense if the house really seemed as abandoned as it does on the outside. However, that same empty interior is clear not just of dust and cobwebs, but of vandalism and animal leavings. Not to mention the damage that can be caused by said critters, or even just the changing seasons themselves. The more absence he finds, the more presence is argued. He's primed now, to take on whatever hand keeps this place hollow and spotless. Hell, in this state he'd take on chain-rattling phantoms, relentlessly-organized ghosts, or demons from the very bowels of Gehenna. Possibly all three at once.

There must be something here

(oh, no-- nobody home. nobody at all but us chickens)

with Erik, because the sound he heard was cased by every single one of the wall-mounted candlesticks falling on the wood floor. All of the electric flambeaux, set at neat intervals in the paneled walls, have just disconnected from their mountings as if they'd all been simultaneously sliced with a laser. A wave of nausea hits Erik, rather than the expected fear. If it were just one, he could explain it away. In spite of the mysterious upkeep, maybe one of the fixtures had been dangling by a wire ages before he arrived. A little disturbance, and it gave up the ghost-- ha ha. He has what he considers a health capacity for rationalizing (after all, it's how most people navigate in the world), but there's not a damned sensible reason Erik can think of for all twelve faux-candle lights falling at once.

He stops himself from calling out a truly idiotic 'hello'. After all, he certainly has enough kitschy horror films on his Netflix account to know that never ends well. Bending towards the closest piece, Erik finds the metal is still faintly warm in his hand when he picks it up. It looks like the joint of the candelabra was yanked off by hot tongs.

(Or by a hand. Just a strong hand, a muscle, that can rip into metal the way most people shred paper. Barely any conscious effort at all.)


He decides to ignore this whispering under-thought, along with all twelve light fixtures, mostly because there is just too much weird shit in his life already. He's in a maximum overdrive of the unexplained and, if he looks down, he's going to drop every one of the plates he's spinning. It really is like spinning, too-- a spiral so large you think you're following a straight path, even as it draws you inevitably towards some center truth. You never realize you're dizzy and lost until it's too late. If he keeps following that deceptive slope, he's going to have to touch on some of the quirky little happenings that have followed him back into waking life. Like how he's had to buy ceramic knives, because somehow he'll wake up to find his good steel ones all over the floor in the kitchen, and the last thing he needs is the landlady getting on him about scratching up the good tile. He puts his car and motorcycle keys in the freezer at night, and not just because sleep-walking is a common side effect of Ambien. He's made pasta in his sleep (and boy wasn't _that_ an adventure), so he definitely wants to make sure the keys aren't somewhere within the reach of muscle-memory. But he's also had to replace one car and two house keys already, because he's found them melted on his dresser or, oddly enough, in his medicine cabinet. Prescription sleep aids are trippy enough on their own, and Erik knows he's being irresponsible by mixing them with alcohol, but sleep-deprivation can be its own special hell. That last factor at least explains away any rippling metal tools, hangers, and/or chair legs he thinks he sees at night.

Of course, it's the world behind his closed eye-lids that holds the especially irrational elements. Robots, fleets of missiles, submarines.
(Coins and barbed wire.)
Bullets, which he handles easily, and then THE BULLET-- the all-important bullet-- at which he failed.
'Shoot me, Charles. Point blank. You know I can stop it,' he'd said, so cocky before that abysmal misstep. The waking Erik doesn't know of any universe in which that makes sense.


Leaning against the wall, Lehnsherr tosses the fixture away in disgust. It strikes the floor of the hallway with a garish, jarring clatter. The oppressive silence of the house seems to swallow up the sound, making it an unsatisfactory outlet for the embers of Erik's fury. Who is he mad at, exactly? Charles, for being the kind of person who only exists in dreams, and then refusing to materialize in a world Lehnsherr knows is going to hell in the express lane? Is he mad at the Universe and its G-d, who may be dead, insane, or utterly disinterested-- anything but invested in answering the prayers of aimless wanderers like Edie Lehnsherr's little boy? Maybe all of the above, but his temper tantrum isn't accomplishing anything. It also comes with a nice little pang of guilt for scratching up what is clearly a very expensive wood floor. So much for the house not being vandalized.


He rakes a hand through his hair, feeling drained. He is no longer overwhelmed by the sense of
(his powers)
a presence, but the emptiness of the house does seem like a thin veneer. He goes back to the idea of a stage setting-- that sense of hushed expectancy when the house-lights go up and the narrative prepares to resume. The whole building seems like a nexus of potentiality, but Erik couldn't articulate it to save his life. Briefly, he tries to envision going home; crashing on his futon, getting up in time for his evening seminar on Basic Structural Design. There's a paper due tonight (he's finished it already, but he'll give it a final once-over), and he has left-over lasagna in the 'fridge. No work tomorrow, which means a whole day during which he will have to occupy himself. There's Netflix, the busted Camaro, his drawings. He has sketchbooks full of practice figure studies and portraiture, interspersed with the occasional still-life or building design. He has more stacks filled with careful representations of Magda or acquaintances at work-- painstaking practice. He's been rehearsing, working his way up, because what he wants to draw is Charles, and that has to be done right. So far, he's only managed rough sketches of Xavier from behind-- looking out the window, gazing into the fire, sitting in front of the Washington Monument. There's a pad of paper in his saddlebag right now, along with graphite pencils, erasers, and all the soft blue hues he likes to use for shading.

The thought of just going home is depressing, like having thrown a battle in the first five minutes when you're the one who had the high ground. All of those things-- drawing, striving for A's, mustering the control to be a good little worker bee-- seem impossible and far away. Somehow, he has failed Charles, he hasn't found the other man. If the house is here, why not the owner, the professor who dreamed of turing the maze of childhood loneliness into a haven and a school?

'One last sweep,' he tells himself. He shoulders the bag again, resisting the potent temptation to trying drawing here, as if the 'aura' of the place will help somehow. That's post-Victorian seance crap, right up there with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his fairies. He supposes he shouldn't knock it; people will believe whatever they need to in order to hold on.
"Still," he says ruefully, keeping his voice respectfully hushed, "I'd make a lousy Pygmalion."


He ends up back in Charles' room, of course. Even without the furniture, he still recognizes details that argue against delusion or mental illness. The walls are still pale blue above the mahogany wainscoting, and the room is at the corner of the house. In fact, it's the one he was looking at from the lawn, and the windows command an amazing view of the property. One of the portals has a nice little window-seat underneath, and a band of stained glass in the transom pane. Erik likes this one much better; just a series of smooth, organically curved sections in shades of blue and gold, hallmarks of by-gone art nouveau.

'I stood there at that window', he thinks. 'Charles and I shared this room-- we pretended I was at the other end of the hall, but we barely even turned down the bed. I'd slip down here to be with him, because Charles couldn't sneak to save his life. I couldn't surprise him, though. Somehow…' he struggles for the concept, but it evaporates from the train of thought. 'Somehow he knew, and he'd wait-- arrange himself. He was a sensualist of baudelairean order under those tweed vests and soft sweaters. I'd have to hunt him out under the blankets, kick him out of bed in the morning to go run with--'

It's like struggling for the quadratic equation years after you've gotten out of high school. I know I know this.
"Harry?" he tries aloud. "Horace… Henry…" There was a nickname, too. Was it Sulley? No, that was the hairy blue monster from that cutesy little movie Madga's nephew liked. He shakes his head, and then tilts it as if listening. In many ways, he wishes there _were_ a few artifacts in the room. The bed frame, maybe; that gothic monstrosity of pure black wood, so he could run his hand along it, in lieu of the far more tempting curve of Charles' ass. Not so much a bed as a black hole of quilts and linen, the sort of tall antique you needed a step-stool to reach. That first night, he'd turned up his nose and told Charles it was a very nice boat. Xavier had replied that his real criticism lie in the fact it had so few useful metal components.
They'd made do, never the less.


Despite the fact he's alone and in no way a stranger to sex, Erik finds himself blushing. Before all of this, he'd always considered himself accepting but over-all pretty vanilla in the bedroom. He and Madga certainly never did anything fancy. They'd tried once, when she'd found a pair of black thigh-high 'fuck me' boots, but it ended up seeming silly and they'd both laughed too hard to really get in the mood. In college, he'd known a couple of guys who wanted to try things; one wanted to tie Erik up (he obliged, but was unimpressed), and another wanted to be spanked. Take it or leave it, pretty much-- even Lehnsherr's porn was pretty tame.

That sex was a part of those dreams involving Charles seemed natural, and comforting in a lot of ways. Hell, the first time he'd woken up with a hard-on in the hospital, he'd just been thrilled that all the plumbing still worked. But, while nothing he did with Charles was gross or distressing, it definitely got a little kinky as time went on. Liberal sex values or no, the streak of possessiveness and dominance Charles inspired in him had come as a complete surprise to Erik. In particular, he remembers some decorative little accent from a hotel room-- maybe an ashtray, or a candlestick like the ones out in the hall. Physics forbade the easy loop he'd made of it, neatly but firmly capturing the wrists of his friend and lover, leaving Xavier trussed up on the bed in all his bare and blushing glory. Being tied up like that-- tied up by Erik, in things that intrinsically belonged to Erik-- did something to Charles. Blue eyes languorous, his kisses became erotically clinging, and his body arched into every touch like an instrument made for Lehnsherr's hand. It gave Erik all the time in the world to glut himself on that sweet and well-loved form. Not because the younger man had the patience for it, but because he had willingly given up the choice.


Presently, Erik clears his throat, readjusting and trying to segue before such thoughts find a physical manifestation. It seems kind of rude to be perv-ing in someone else's room, even if you seem to have once had an invitation inside. The thing he doesn't get is the over-all air of secrecy. In waking life, Erik's never really 'come out' to anyone. Even before the Army, he really didn't consider it anyone else's business. And, by the time such things became germane, Erik had no intention of trying that discussion with his father without a miracle or Mama to referee. He doesn't think there's any more of a moral aspect to it than there is with straight sex. If everyone is consenting, safe, and considerate, then what's the big deal? If G-d has time to worry about the goings-on in every bedroom on the planet, then humanity was seriously screwed. Cute, cheap pun.

The dreaming Erik doesn't seem to feel any shame over his proclivities, but there's definitely a clandestine pall that thickens at times. He has no respect for
laws written by men who, by the very nature of politicians, are very likely hypocrites in one way or another. Charles doesn't seem embarrassed or guilty; he just tends to depend on a tit-for-tat propriety. He certainly never hides his great regard for Erik, or takes steps to moderate his physicality. It's just not something the others really need to know.

He's never entirely clear on this larger group, in the dreams, even more so because he sometimes thinks of them as 'the children'. It's as if the data is there in the deeper reaches of his alter-ego's mind but, because they are not surface thoughts, he can't quite grab hold of them. Charles is the focus of all these strange night narratives. Lehnsherr has the impression that he cares about these others, but Charles is why he stays.


("Erik!" Charles smiling at him, reclining with easy grace in some rigorously generic office. "You decided to stay."

Has anyone ever smiled at Erik Lehnsherr, the little monster on a choke-chain, like that before? No, never-- a smile like that is divine, obscene. The kind of privilege people start wars over. Somehow, Erik manages to nod with curt insouciance, as if to say 'Well, I'm here. For now.' Does Charles smile at people, at everyone like that? Not right now, at least; the younger man's expression has become calm, politic. He's very firmly agreeing with something Lehnsherr himself just said ('no suits'?), handling the protests of the utterly forgettable man behind the desk with practiced elegance.

'He's used to getting what he wants,' Erik thinks, trying to muster resentment towards the young professor. He's well-bred, he's beautiful; flash that smile, flex that surprising will, and there can't be many blockades that stand for long. Xavier is exactly the sort of boy Erik should hate, but he can't quite make the feeling stick.

Charles continues to insist on smiling at him, on watching him as if he is someone to be valued rather than hated and feared. He *touches* Lehnsherr; a brief press at the elbow, a companionable bump of the shoulders, a friendly clap on the back. It's never invasive, but it makes the older man hyperaware. Each incident sends a wave of warmth through him more inexplicable and delicious than the most exotic drug. Xavier is open and inviting-- he asks for Erik's opinion and listens with genuine interest, even when he doesn't agree. And every morning-- in the dingy cafeteria, from his repose in the other twin bed, and eventually right in Lehnsherr's arms-- Charles always seems delighted that Erik has stayed.)

'Except that's a lie, and you know it,' Erik thinks at this other, sterner version of himself. He has no idea how much time has passed; he's seated on the widow-seat, and it's only the effort of not speaking that last accusation aloud that really startled him back to reality. His shoulders droop, hands coming to rest limply in his lap. Sunlight pours through the colored glass, filling his empty hands with a king's ransom in ephemeral jewels. Yes, Charles was always happy to see him. But no, Erik didn't stay, not really. Not when it counted.

('I want you by my side.')

He doesn't know exactly how he fucked it up. The 'Beach Dreams' are always a remorseless kaleidoscope of too-vibrant color, pain, rage, and a weird silence in his head that screams 'he's dead, you finally killed him, did I really manage to kill him, is he honestly and truly dead?'. Sometimes he thinks that must be some sort of weird subconscious expression, a fantasy in which he does get to kill the bastard who let his mother die.

(There was no 'let' about it. "Move the coin, or---")

"Or nothing. I don't know what the hell you're talking about." He rakes his nails along his scalp again, not sure which is worse-- the real memories of heat and screams and burning flesh, or the dream ones filled with cold and ash and gunfire.

He's all over the place today, fucked to hell and gone and talking to himself to boot. What's one more crazy person in a world full of lunatic assholes? That no longer even seems like a remote possibility, though. Even if he hasn't found anything definitive, Erik now knows Charles is real, the same way he knows the Earth revolves around the sun. You can't see it, of course, and in all likelihood you'll never experience it for yourself, but it's true all the same. However, if he accepts Charles as a cornerstone fact, there are a few corollary variables that must be accepted as well. Everything in life comes with a price.

Silence is even more imperative now than when it was just his mental health and relative liberty at risk. If his experiences at Landstuhl have taught him anything, it is that he's already on someone's radar. Oh, he's not so arrogant as to think he's a high priority. In fact, by now he may have been dismissed as uninteresting despite the fact his survival flew in the face of logic and blast theory. He'd been questioned intensely both during his recovery and prior to his official release from service, and the only high card he'd held was that he genuinely didn't know what had happened. That made him hard to trip up when it came to cross examination, but it didn't spare him from the seemingly millions of tests, samples, x-rays, and other analyses he'd been forced to patiently endure. Pee in this cup, yes we still need one more blood sample, turn you head and cough. The medical version of 'wham, bam, thank you Ma'am'. All healthy paranoia aside, he's probably no more monitored than anyone else is these days, but if he does start behaving oddly or snooping near some particular hornet's nest, he might draw attention again. One of his first concessions to this whole mess had been to Google 'Charles Francis Xavier'. There were a whole slew of hits-- eighteen pages worth, including some on Francis Xavier, the saint-- but nothing even remotely like what he was looking for. He's found the house, thus pretty much dedicating himself to this path, but where does he go from here?

He sighs, leaning against the window frame and tilting his head back, blowing a few stray strands of hair out of his face. Magda keeps threatening to cut it while he sleeps but, after years of regulation follicle length and policing of facial hair, Erik is willing to fight her off. The solidity of the house is all around him, enclosing, a piece of concrete fact. Reassured, but stymied-- that's him. Insert cliches about patience, steps forward and back, or building Rome in a day here.

Charles' voice doesn't come to him, much as he wishes it would. Whatever magic-tricks the house had been preforming with the light fixtures, the show is apparently over. No flies, dripping blood, or marbles forming an arrow to LOOK HERE. He tells himself he absolutely will not stoop to automatic writing, drawing, or Ouija boards. Banging his heals against the wooden baseboard in a childish display of boredom and frustration, he gets rather painfully to his feet and begins to stalk out of the room. He can feel the soreness seeping into his joints already, and can imagine the agony to come all too well.

At the door, he turns back over his shoulder, eyes narrowing. His mind replays the sound of his boot-heels against the wood, and he edges just a little ways back towards the window, as if the cushion-less seat is an animal he might startle. Erik may never be the carpenter his father was, but he learned enough during their better days in the little basement workshop to recognize when a section of paneling doesn't belong. Or, in this case, has been moved. It's the section to the far left thats bothering him. It's still the original wood, and the offender was very careful when he or she pried it loose, but the grecian tooth design along the bottom is ever so slightly off. Lehnsherr might not have noticed without the hollow knock, but he can definitely see it now.

Kneeling, he digs his swiss army knife out (don't need a concealed carry permit for _that_) out of his pocket, feeling along the wooden seam with his free hand. His hips and ankle register vehement protest, but he barely notices. No nails involved, it seems; just slats with runners for the wood to slide home. It's not meant for storage but, as hiding places go, it at least beats a box spring, portrait cubby, or underwear drawer. Maybe it's only a kid's stash spot, the way Erik used to sock things away behind the old wardrobe in his bedroom. He's careful-- mostly because he's not nearly so confident when dealing solely with wood-- but the last little bit of leverage still sends him teetering back considerably. He left ankle flares pain once more and then goes on strike, quickly landing his ass (and very unappreciative hips) on the hard wood floor.

At first, Erik is almost crestfallen again. Even before he sets the panel aside and reaches in, he can see the only treasure this little cavity has to yield up is some kind of lurid tin box. A few puffs of air over the lid, and his kid theory is gaining credence. It's an old Flash Gordon lunch box, all zig-zagging lines and cartoonish rocketships. Flash, of course, surrounded by brisk strokes to indicate speed, and Ming the Merciless. The latter is laughing maniacally, apparently enjoying his own genius. It was all way before Lehnsherr's time, but his mom loved old black-and-white movies, and the station would sometimes run serials to fill up between time-slots. Clark Gable and the pert-breasted Jean Harlow in… Red Earth? Red Dust? Something saucy enough that Mama covered his eyes at one point. Follow it up with toy space ships, men in tight jumpsuits and paper mache aliens, and you were good to go. Erik's tolerance for sci-fi is minimal, and he frowns at the comedic villain even as he sets to work freeing the lid. Ming was a putz anyway. He was always trying carting off that dame (Erik doesn't remember her name; 'the token girl', as Magda would say with a roll of her eyes) and trying to force her to marry him. Who in the hell thought kidnapping was a decent form of courtship?

When the lid is off, all stylistic narrative choices and would-be romance skills leave Erik's mind. While the tin is childish, he can see even before disturbing the arrangement that the contents are not. He remembers teasing Charles in the dreams; a vaunted academic, an Oxford graduate, with pulp science fiction novels stacked in his childhood room. Slan, The Chrysalids, More Than Human… Charles had them all, not to mention The Demolished Man and Stars My Destination. As often happened when Erik was spoiling for a fight (in earnest or just for play), Xavier did not respond as expected. Instead of a witty comeback, or even defensiveness, the only reply had been a soft murmur of, 'Well, I was lonely.'

'Telepaths', Erik thinks presently, his mind seizing on the word as though it has some sort of ravenous, cosmic significance. He hasn't read half those books but he does know that every last one of them centers around telepaths, lost and outnumbered in a world that was to them practically blind and mute.

That's important, somehow, but Lehnsherr isn't sure he wants to examine it just at the moment. Any feelings he retains from his dream-self in this regard are vague-- the trepidation of a predator who knows it may have found a worthy adversary, and the sort of alarmed awe as would be inspired by a nuclear sunrise. Arousal, too, which is what resonates with the waking Erik. He can't quite get a grip on it, but love-making with Charles often includes a sensation he can only describe as textural moonlight. Such silvery illumination should seem chill and bright, but this feels warm, like molten silver and diamond blush on leaves. A will that is foreign but loved (deceptively satin over its bedrock tenacity), twining with his own.

While he doesn't blush this time, Erik does shake his head and force his focus back to the discovery at hand. There are books in the tin-- two of them-- but those can wait as well. On top of the tomes are items that argue against this merely being a child's treasure box. There's a man's dark red silk tie

('More tea, Vicar?'
'Don't mind if I do.')

and a pair of gold cuff-links whose complicated knot design vaguely evokes the Magen David. A pair of very nice (if also very retro) sunglasses, and a red pocket square to match the tie. The latter is wrapped around a plain but venomously sharp straight razor, and its the only thing that keeps Erik from cutting himself on the slightly open edge. He gingerly presses the blade back into the wooden scale, holding it up in the afternoon light. It's the old fashioned kind men used to shave with-- a little too much temptation, in Erik's opinion. Yet he knows somehow that he didn't just use this on himself. Charles trusted him with it; let the other man gently nuzzle at his five o'clock shadow, and then lather that tempting jawline for a shave. Slowly, gently, deliberately possessive and erotic. That lovely but utterly masculine line of throat… dear hypothetical G-d in his metaphorical heaven!

Carefully, Erik lays this layer of artifacts aside. Underneath, there are more items that, while puzzling, are also clearly objects that might evoke memories for someone. A girl's pink barrette, bakelite in the shape of a bow, complete with requisite sparkles. What might be the world's oldest tube of lipstick, and a tiny almost empty bottle of Arpege. Supporting these is a handkerchief with a plain blue border, augmented by two elaborately embroidered birds in black thread. There's a silver bird pendant, too.

'Ravens.' Erik thinks, 'Those are ravens.' Because that was her name, or the name her mother gave her. Such an appellation should conjure images of a pale, dark-haired girl, but he knows this Raven was blond. All gold and peach, wholesome Dick-and-Jane good looks. For some reason that grates on his nerves, though sometimes her eyes were golden…
He can't hold onto that thought-- it's just too strange. Instead, he sets her strata of mementos next to
the man's things. That leaves the books, something loose underneath those, and what looks like a square of cardboard for lining.

He quickly discovers that the volumes are actually two copies of the same novel, and he reads the title with a completely inexplicable twist of dismay, fondness, and guilt in his gut. He has no idea why this should be, for the story can't possibly mean anything to him. He has never read The Once and Future King, though he seems to recall that it was on the list of summer reading options his freshman year of high school. Some of the other kids had dubbed it 'The Once and Future Fling' because, apparently, everyone in it was sleeping with everyone else. Odd to recall now, but his father had been surprised when Erik chose My Antonia instead-- for surely knights were far more interesting than a novel about life on the prairie? Erik had shrugged and said at least his choice was a lot shorter, but… he just really hadn't wanted to read that book.

'You're just projecting backwards, now,' Lehnsherr scolds himself sternly. 'That doesn't mean anything.' After all, he'd skipped over Frankenstein too, and that certainly isn't relevant.

The first copy isn't anything special, just the sort of old pulpy paperback you'd find in the two-dollar bin at Half Price Books. Erik thumbs through it quickly, without much interest, until he catches a glimpse of the back flyleaf. That sense of precarious dread and… doubleness, which he thought had surely reached its highest glass-shattering pitch already, ratchets to an improbable degree. All this before he truly reads the inscription, because the inscription is in his handwriting. There are some slight differences-- the cursive is elegant, more polished, and the loops at the bottom of the 'S's are tighter than he typically makes his own. It's close enough for government work, though. In fact, if it were brought to evidence in court, Erik would be seriously concerned about getting convicted.
It says simply this:

 'My Galahad,
  "My good blade carves the casques of men,
  My tough lance thrusteth sure,
  My strength is as the strength of ten,
  Because my heart is pure."

Lehnsherr tries to swallow, but his throat is as dry as the streets of Fallujah at high noon. Anyone else reading those words might think them an entirely romantic gesture. There is love there, that cannot be denied, but a great deal of the tenderness is grudging. A prying loose as painful paring away skin layer by minute layer. The pen that copied that stanza pressed hard into the paper, and so part of the inscription is declared by the act itself-- 'I was here, I was here, and you will not be rid of me so easily.' And Galahad? The youthful, virgin knight on his quest for the Holy Grail? Erik may never have read T.H. White's novel, but you don't get through an Art Appreciation course on the Pre-Raphaelites without developing a considerable background knowledge of Arthurian (not to mention Greek) legend. If he recalls correctly, Galahad had a reputation for being almost inhumanly perfect-- all the more so for being the pious son of the flawed Lancelot. An embodiment of moral virtue, and always portrayed as a beautiful young man, but those things made him hard to empathize with. Not to mention the fact that paragons of righteous living are no fun at parties. Whether you call them a mensch or a saint, they make people feel judged (whether they're actually engaged in doing so or not), and they sometimes come off as arrogant.

('Is it naiveté, Charles? Or is it arrogance?')

Embrace with one arm, twist the knife with the other. Resentful adoration, frustration, desire; conflicting drives in someone used to having clear and linear goals. Holy shit-- Erik is no expert on romance, but he's pretty sure this is a dick move.

Once, as a small child, Erik remembers his grandmother telling Mama that it was a bad idea to keep old love letters. Eventually, she said with a decisive wag of her finger, they grew teeth. He was very young when Bubbeh was alive, but he very clearly recalls his mother sitting calmly on the sofa, green eyes flashing as she lifted a small but defiant chin. Erik knows that jerky movement well, because he inherited it from her. 'Sweet as honeysuckle,' his father used to say of her, 'and every inch iron underneath.' He has no idea what the context for Bubbeh's unsolicited advice was, but he certainly gets the point now. This is not this sort of passage one writes with a gift.

(So he does it that last night, while Charles is asleep. Somehow, the novel has become a fulcrum for their philosophical arguments-- he's bought a copy in one of those endless-cornfield states when they started debating actual passages. Now it's laying on the nightstand on his side of the bed, beside Charles' fine watch and his far more practical timepiece. The professor himself is tucked up against Erik's side, having made himself a little nest between the wall and the older man's cradling arm. No easy rest tonight for this artisan's lightning-rod, for every tense and worried thought in the house must be gathering around him. Erik strokes the dark auburn hair rhythmically, occasionally brushing a light knuckle against cheek or jaw.

He doesn't plan to leave Charles, though tomorrow may bring all the hellfire it pleases. Whatever happens, he cannot leave his dear one unattended, not now that so much has been revealed. Anonymity is a weapon in and of itself but, thanks to Charles' 'connections', it is now also a luxury they have both lost. Lehnsherr won't wait for opportunistic wolves-- all neatly buttoned up in suits and lab coats-- to turn on Charles. His neshama will just have to come along, whether he likes it or not.

But there are too many pieces still left in play, and he cannot stand the thought that he might be easily erased from Charles' life, after the bruises and love bites have faded.
He knows exactly what he will write.

There's a coldness to those thoughts that makes the real-and-present Erik shiver, though it has nothing at all to do with temperature. No, it's the distance that bothers him, the sensation that these tender emotions themselves are odd, exotic fish darting in the crushing ocean depths. Almost shoving the book off his lap, Erik moves on quickly to the other copy. Slightly older, and much finer; bound in leather, with carefully reproduced color plates. He's not interested in the illustrations though, because this one has something written in it too. Very lightly, in pencil, at the top corner of the inside cover. A smoother, more rounded hand, with printer-style 'A's.

  Charles Xavier.

That's it, and that is all Erik needs. He's beyond needing proof-- talk about Galahad and impossible quests!-- but it's nice to have it all the same. Lehnsherr manfully resists the urge to hug the book to his chest. He does have standards, after all. Nevertheless, this belonged to Charles and Charles alone, was well-loved and read enough times to have a thumb-sized portion of the gold lining worn away. He lets a finger hover cautiously just over the inscription for fear of smudging the lead, knowing somehow that this book-- of so many hundreds of choices-- was one of the few that made trans-Atlantic trips with the Oxford hopeful, sitting comfortably on nightstands and the make-shift shelfs of windowsills in half a dozen cheap flats. Millions of miles away, metaphorically and physically-- from the chill luxury of childhood. A Charles who defined himself as student, scholar, brother and friend… but never as anyone's son.

Erik thinks of his own departure for college; leaving a house from which the traces of his mother's presence had long since been erased, the all-too-routine and stifling quiet of the car ride with his father. They'd stood awkwardly outside his dorm after the handful of boxes had been carted upstairs, the minimal trappings of bedsheets and curtains doing little to warm the cement-block walls. With Mama gone, it seemed he and his father had forgotten how to talk to each other. They'd spent the intervening seven years dangling predicates in a thick molasses of silence, stepping around all the empty spaces she used to fill. Did Charles feel at all as Erik had, unpacking the few treasures salvaged from the strange wilderness of adolescence? That terrifying weightlessness of being your own free agent, at once so foreign and thrilling? Lehnsherr had brought with him a copy of Beowulf marked with one or two superhero trading cards, and-- without the knowledge or permission of his father-- his mother's magen david, wrapped in one of her old silk scarves.

He's glad of this memory, because it is truly his own. Not some vague charcoal in the nightscape of his dreaming mind or the odd pirate transmission of some similar-yet-alien other, but something that makes him just Erik, the kid from White Plains. The guy who'd made a sure friend out of Magda when he leaned over in their anthropology survey and whispered, 'If I pass you a note about meeting me for coffee, are you going to deck me?' It's like coming up for a lungful of life-giving air in the middle of uncharted waters, and he takes a moment to appreciate it. To ground himself, as all his psychological and physical therapists seemed to agree was key. He's almost to the bottom of the tin.

It's not a piece of cardboard at the bottom of the inadvertent time-capsule, but an actual LP sleeve-- one of those two-sided little 45's. The origin of the term 'B-side', if you could but dig it. There's a creepy allegory, Erik and his not-quite-identical dream brother, two sides of record.
With dark humor, he thinks, 'Damn. No one wants to be the B track for someone else's life'.
The primary song on this record is, of course, 'Palisades Park'.

(She plays the song constantly that summer, partly because she really does like it, but also because it drives Charles up the wall. Sean, flushed on the day of his triumph, actually sings and 'boogies' with her. Raven cranks up the volume to unholy levels, and won't turn it off until every single one of them favors her with a dance.)

Too easy, all the little moments and their detailed shading flowing into his mind. If he tries a little harder, Erik thinks he might be able to get all of their names. He can't concentrate on that right now, though; has, in fact, not even bothered to remove the record from the tin. He'd sensed a few loose items forcing the record and books to an angle, and they are simply these:

A handful of hypodermic needles, and two vials of fluid labeled CFXrestr3.

Lehnsherr doesn't touch them, even though the needles are safely caped and the vials themselves clearly sealed. While he may not know what they contain, he definitely now knows what all of this is. These are not mementos, not a single damned one of them. This whole damned thing is a fucking loadstone. All of the things a person wanted to get rid of-- needed, maybe, to excise like a cancer-- but still couldn't bear to part with. Your very own Do-It-Yourself albatross kit. How could he have missed it, when he has one himself? That moment of empathy with Charles has heightened a thousandfold. Erik's is smaller, socked away in the back of his medicine cabinet, but it might be just as heavy. There's certainly not as much inside; just his dog-tags and his discharge papers folded into a thick paper sandwich, all on top of his final half-empty bottle of Oxy.

The glass vials click quietly, their rest disturbed by a shudder that seems to work its way outward from Erik's sternum into every extremity. The sound is not exactly like the sound of a new morphine drip being replaced, or of pills rattling their blue-yellow promise of painlessness, but it's close. If he does pluck one up, will he smell that bitter aroma of medicine? Most people find it unpleasant, but it can still make his mouth water.

Oh, he'd known he'd needed to quit-- had known for a lot longer than he'd allowed himself to understand. He's been to a few NA meetings (though he's never participated), listening to discordances of suffering that, while different from his own, are all in the same key. There's no doubting that he's been lucky; once he'd acknowledged the need to quit, he had. Not without a few stumbles, but he'd kept his job, his few remaining acquaintance/friends, and the only person who actually knew anything had happened was Magda. He has achieved, in terms of those tempting little capsules, the coveted state of recovery. Because you never recovered-- oh, the glories of the coveted past-tense!-- you were always recovering. One hour, one day, one week at a time. The bitch of it is, he still wants it sometimes. A day without thinking about it is a Very Good Day indeed, and he's well aware that Ambien and alcohol are just crutches that will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later. He's more strict rationing them,

('Because you're very controlled about being out-of-control, dear,' Magda will often sigh.)

but once you get a peek at the giant fucking pink elephant with its ass planted on your coffee table, you can't un-see it. The clichés are annoying and recursive because they're true. It took ten days for that shit to get out of his system, but it took weeks for him to stand his own smell or eat something without feeling queasy. Months before the weird yellow cast had left his perception. Hell, the first time he'd felt genuinely happy after about six months of funeral-march endurance, he almost hadn't recognized the emotion. Feeling anything other than grim determination in waking life had become foreign. That, perhaps just as much as his initial physical injury, had reinforced the notion that the continuing dreams were a sort of alternate existence. When he could fight past his own misery and actually sleep, it almost seemed more real than the confusion of physical and emotional detox. Dangerous, dangerous-- for many, as the poet said, are the deceivers.*

He'd thought of giving the pills to Magda for safekeeping, but she isn't his fucking nanny. Erik needs to know he can resist the temptation-- that he isn't clean just because an opportunity hasn't presented itself-- and…
(if the time comes when he does decide to deuce out, to take the houselights down and blow good ol' Willie's 'all the world's a stage'… well, he might need them.)
maybe someday he'll be able to get rid of them. For now, they are a weight he carries with him and, yes, he's heard all the crap about G-d not giving you more than you could shoulder.

"Oh, Charles," he says, uttering the syllables aloud for the first time. Despair and worry are like acid in his throat. "Charles." Lehnsherr tries to rationalize; it might not be what he thinks it is. No one will ever mistake these vials as having come from a legitimate pharmacy, but Charles is

(Oh G-d, was?)

a scientist. This might be some sort of supplement, like insulin. Or something. His gut tells him 'no', though. Call it what you will, but the contents might as well be marked with 'relief'-- the milky white anesthetic kind that becomes its own sticky web. Charles made this

(gave up so much… oh, my love, why would you hobble yourself so, and why right do I have to ask when it was I who authored the original destruction?)

so he could walk again. Is that what Erik did, what he's responsible for on top of all his other failures? He couldn't save his mother or the eight other people who died in the marketplace bombing. He couldn't save Newcomb, and he had been just as close to the IED as the young private had been. He still hates himself sometimes, for all the crap with the pills and the nagging feeling that he's somehow just not 'man enough' to put all these memories aside and get on with being a civilian. You're alive, aren't you? Pick it up, soldier-- suck it up, grow up, get 'er done. Now his merciless mind's eye presents him with the blinding beach and all the endless moments it took Charles to fall. Then the smoking ruins of struts, supports and wires; Charles pinned beneath the steel beam in the middle of what looked like an active war zone. Does it even matter which one of these horrible events caused the damage? Erik may be ultimate architect of Charles' suffering. The torturer of a man he loves but has never met. The thought that Xavier is dead will not be tolerated, and so Erik quashes it before it can even form. The wavering image of finding the other man, his dear professor of embattled optimism and obvious deep pain, becomes a mirage-oasis with something far more terrible lurking in the verdant shade.

For, even if he should find Charles and the warm-moonlight presence he shouldn't remember, how could Erik ever expect the other man to forgive him?