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The King Of Second Chances

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oh won’t you let me twist your faith
it’s getting kind of late but I don’t want to wait no more
oh may I have this dance of days
locked in your embrace

Erik had always thought, when he’d bothered to think about it at all, that Arizona would be dry and hot and sunbaked, a state in shades of red and orange and brown. And it was hot, and the rocks were red, outside the window of their motel room; all of that was true. But the darkened sky was also pouring down rain with all the ferocity of a late-summer monsoon, determined to sneak in early before winter and surprise everyone.
The water billowed against the glass of the window in great sideways gusts. Erik, sitting on the edge of his bed, watched it splash and trickle downward, idly. He was alone in the hotel room, for the moment; Charles had gone out in search of ice, a minute ago, and had taken a surprising measure of the room’s warmth with him.
He studied the rain, as it pooled and ran off of the windowpane. He’d never minded getting wet, had never thought about rain as anything other than an occasional natural inconvenience. Sometimes the world rained. He’d never let it interfere with his life, with his mission, and never cared about it one way or the other.
Charles liked rain, though. Erik had learned this earlier, when they’d stopped for lunch in a tiny little diner somewhere east of Sedona. The morning had been overcast, but the clouds had waited until they’d parked the car—on the street, of course, with no nearby shelter—and made it two steps inside the door, before releasing a deluge of epic proportions.
Erik had stared out the window and wondered whether he could construct an umbrella for Charles out of their utensils and the tablecloth; Charles had started laughing, hearing that thought, and then had said, cheerfully, “Actually, I enjoy thunderstorms, don’t you?” and Erik had looked at him, surprised, because thunderstorms were just a fact of life, weren’t they?
“Oh, no, they’re not! Well, maybe they are. But I find them exciting.” Charles put his chin on his hands, and gazed out the window. The sparkling blue of his eyes stood out like happy sapphires against the greyness outside. “There’s something very elemental about the noise, and the lightning, and the sound of rain, I think. Very…alive, somehow. Passionate. You don’t think so?”
Watching Charles watch the rain, he’d wanted to say yes. Wanted to say, I do now. “I…really haven’t thought much about the passionate nature of the weather, Charles.”
“Oh, you’re no fun at all.” But Charles had smiled at him, effectively taking any sting out of the words. “I think I saw a hotel a few blocks away, if you don’t want to drive in this. Or I could drive, if you’d like.”
“The hotel is probably a good idea, yes. And no, you can’t.”
“Oh, why not? You’re not still holding the incident in Montana against me, are you? Because that deer was very stealthy. And it was absolutely fine, in any case, you know.”
“I know it was. I was there. You’re still not allowed to drive.” There were other, more complicated reasons as well. One of them was simply that he liked the car; all that American steel and metal felt comfortable to his touch, and he imagined—or maybe it was real—that the car anticipated his requests, and responded happily.
Another reason, one he couldn’t say out loud, involved Charles himself. He’d watched blue eyes for days now, across the distances. He could tell when Charles had a headache, after spending time in bustling cities filled to the brim with noisy shouting minds; could tell when, after empty miles of open road, Charles started growing tense from lonely silence. He didn’t mind driving, if that meant that those eyes had one weight less to deal with.
He refused to think of himself as being protective. It was just logical for him to do the driving, and let Charles rest. Really.
He was pretty sure he’d kept Charles from picking up on those thoughts; he’d been burying them under his affection for the car, and his very real doubts about Charles’s driving abilities after the deer encounter. So far, this seemed to have worked.
Charles had sighed, and said, “Hotel, then?” and then ordered chili with pineapple on it, which Erik regarded with absolute horror, which had made Charles laugh again, bright and silvery as the beat of raindrops on the window outside.
And now he was sitting in a garishly Old-Western styled hotel room, still listening to the rain, and alone because Charles was taking far too long to go find ice. They’d left a chess match in progress—Charles, somewhere along the East Coast, had vanished into a hotel gift shop and come back, grinning, with a travel-sized set, and Erik had promptly defeated him in their first game, which he’d felt was an appropriate way of breaking in the new purchase—and it was Charles’s turn, and had been for several minutes.
Charles had beaten him rather spectacularly in Alabama, but Erik had been distracted, because the night had been humid and muggy and Charles had been playing without a shirt on.
Maybe he should go find out what was taking so long.
No. Too needy. Erik glared at the rain, which went splat against the glass in answer. Maybe he should find something to read. He’d brought books. He’d gone through most of them, but he could always read the T.S. Eliot again. He wondered whether Charles liked Eliot; he’d never asked. If he managed to locate Charles, he could inquire.
And then he heard, in his head, Erik? and found himself off the bed and halfway across the room before his brain caught up and realized that he had moved. Charles had sounded startled. Surprised, even. What, in a shabby hotel in the middle of the Arizona desert, could happen to surprise a telepath?
Actually, he could think of a lot of things. Scorpions. Snakes. Crazed gunmen turning up in the lobby, which was probably unlikely, but still, he took some comfort in the fact that, should Charles ever be threatened by an insane homicidal gunman, he, Erik, had the skills to effect an efficient rescue.
Charles, are you all right?
Oh—I’m fine, yes, I didn’t mean to worry you. Could you come here, for a minute, though?
Of course. He didn’t pause to put shoes on; Charles did sound perfectly fine, even slightly amused, but still. Charles needed him.
He ran down the hall and found Charles, sitting on the vivid orange carpet in front of a vending machine, and staring at it thoughtfully, which was so far from anything he’d been expecting that he wasn’t sure whether to be angry or concerned.
“Charles, what—”
Charles glanced up at him. “Oh, good! You can help. There’s a kitten in the vending machine.”
The vending machine went meep! at them. Erik stared at it, and, yes, in between the artificially colored snack products of dubious origin, there was, indeed, a kitten. Bedraggled, no longer fluffy, very dirty, and very irritated.
“I don’t know! She’s terribly scared, though. And hungry.” Charles looked up at him. “So…”
“You want me to…rescue a kitten. From a vending machine.”
“Yes. I can try to help, but I thought your specific abilities might be more useful in this particular instance.”
“Fine. All right.” Charles was still looking at him expectantly, and there was really no other answer, not to that hopeful blue gaze. “How do you want me to do this?”
“Well…I hadn’t really come up with a plan, to be honest. Any ideas?”
“Oh, that’s very helpful, Charles, thank you.” He studied the vending machine for a minute. Maybe if he held this bit open, and then pushed that piece over there…
“Charles, you’re apologizing to a cat!”
“She’s frightened!”
“Do you want me to get her out of there, or not? Hold on…” He gave up on keeping the machine’s innards intact, and just bent everything out of the way. The kitten hissed as metal shifted around her, and a small avalanche of theoretical foodstuffs tumbled out onto the carpet.
“Here, catch.”
The kitten, with a tiny wail of protest, landed safely in Charles’s hands, and then tried to bite him. Erik tried not to laugh. “Are we done now?”
“No.” Charles cuddled the kitten, which shivered pathetically, and then settled down in warm hands as if realizing it had found a champion. “She’s hungry. We should feed her.”
“Charles, we’re driving across the country recruiting mutants for the CIA. You cannot have a kitten.”
Charles looked up at him, and Erik said, “No. Really. Absolutely not,” and then, as Charles tried to get to his feet without dropping the kitten, leaned over to put an arm around his shoulders for assistance anyway. The kitten turned malevolent green eyes on Erik, and went mrow! again.
“Oh, she likes you!”
“I don’t care. How do you know it’s a she, anyway?” The kitten was still watching him suspiciously. Erik considered this a mark in her favor; she wasn’t intimidated by him, just prepared in case he might attempt to pounce. And she hadn’t been afraid to try to bite Charles. He could, perhaps, respect this kitten, he decided.
“I don’t know how other people know—and I’m not going to find out—but I can tell. She’s still hungry.”
“Charles, we’re not feeding her,” Erik said, desperately, and the kitten whimpered sadly, and, ten minutes later, Erik found himself at the nearest convenience store buying milk, because Charles wasn’t sure that their kitten was old enough for solid cat food yet.
By the time he got back, dripping with rain and trying hard not to be annoyed about this turn of events, Charles had managed to give the kitten a bath in the sink, and had wrapped her up in one of his multitude of fingerless gloves, which fortuitously proved to be perfectly kitten-sized. They were sitting together on Charles’s twin bed, all the books and notepapers and general detritus shoved to one side, and when Erik walked in Charles looked up and said Thank you in his head and smiled, happily, and that smile went straight through the layers of wet clothing and warmed him from the inside out.
Suddenly, he couldn’t be annoyed with Charles anymore. He wanted to be. But he just couldn’t manage it.
He sat down on the bed next to Charles and the kitten. Warm and dry, the rescued ball of fluff had stopped protesting and started purring instead. She was still cuddled in Charles’s left glove, but from what Erik could see, she had grey fur, the color of smoke, or ashes, or the rain still falling softly outside.
“We still can’t keep her, you know.”
“I know.” Charles sighed. “I’ve been looking for someone who might take her in…” Erik knew he meant looking telepathically, and wondered how difficult a search that specific was; Charles looked a little tired. “…and I think I’ve found someone, but we can wait until the rain stops. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“I don’t mind.” He put out one finger, and touched the top of a fluffy kitten head, gently. “She seems happy.”
“Yes, she approves of my gloves. Good fashion sense.”
“I don’t think the approval of a kitten is a good argument for you having any sort of fashion sense.” The kitten purred more loudly when Erik petted her, tentatively.
“She does like you. Do you want to hold her?”
He’d never had pets. His mother had been allergic, and afterwards…well. He’d never wanted to be responsible for another fragile life. But abruptly there was a purring kitten in his hands.
Erik held her as gently as he could. His hands, accustomed to cold metal and harsh objects and sharp edges, felt too big, and clumsy, but the kitten didn’t seem to mind.
He looked up, and saw Charles watching him, smiling, and the end of a not-quite-controlled thought, slipping around the cracks in Charles’s tired mental walls, whispered at him, amazing, Erik, lovely like this, just being happy, wish I could—and a breath of sensation that might’ve been, if physical, the feeling of a first kiss.
Erik froze in the middle of scratching the soft chin, and stared at Charles, who was looking at the kitten and didn’t seem at all aware that he’d just turned Erik’s world inside out with a thought.
The thunderstorm, returning, rattled the window outside, and the kitten bumped her head against his fingers, demanding more attention, and when that didn’t work, proclaimed, mrow! at them again.
“Oh,” Charles said, “she’s still hungry, we should feed her,” and started looking for the milk, and in the ensuing messiness Erik found himself too busy to think about what he might’ve said, if Charles had spoken those words out loud, if he’d admitted to hearing them.
But the sensation of sweetness, of wonder, of the wistfully imagined feeling of Charles’s lips against his, stayed with him. That desire might never go away, he thought. And he might not mind.
Several hours later, after the rain had stopped and they’d finished the chess game—Charles had won, but only barely, and Erik had played the entire game one-handed after the kitten, stomach finally full and no longer complaining, had decided that his right hand would be an excellent headrest—Charles sighed, and said, “We should probably go find her a home.”
“Probably…” She was happy, and he didn’t want to move her. But Charles was right. And they’d have to be on the road in the morning.
“Can I drive?”
“But I know where we’re going. And you don’t.”
“You can navigate. And hold Greta.”
“You named our kitten after your grandmother?”
He didn’t bother to ask how Charles knew that. He’d gotten used to Charles knowing random bits of trivia about him, esoteric knowledge that he’d picked up from dreams or stray thoughts or that first turbulent oceanic encounter. Sometimes Charles remembered things that Erik himself had forgotten, that surprised him when said aloud. He didn’t mind that, either, even though he’d never been fond of even suggestions of intimacy with anyone; he’d never had much in the way of possessions or attachments, only himself, and so he’d never been comfortable giving bits of that self away to others.
But with Charles, somehow, that was different. With Charles, he knew that the pieces he’d let out or shared inadvertently or, rarely, offered, would be kept safe. Accepted. Treasured, even. Which, now that he thought about it, was probably a pretty good indicator about his feelings for Charles.
Feelings, he thought. Yes. He definitely did have feelings for Charles. He wished he could find the words, in English, to explain what those feelings were; they ranged from I’d really like to see you smile at me again to you rescue everyone, even kittens, even me to please walk around shirtless some more. For now, though, he should probably answer Charles’s question.
“My grandmother liked cats.”
“Oh, I’m not quibbling about your choice. I think Greta is a lovely name for her.” Charles grinned at him. “I never had pets, growing up, either. My stepfather was, shall we say, not a friend to animals. Or people, for that matter.”
There was, despite the cheerful tone, an shade of darkness to that comment, monsters hiding under the calm water, and Erik realized suddenly that, while Charles knew almost everything about him, he didn’t know that much, really, about Charles.
But, he thought, he wanted to. He knew that Charles liked the sweet taste of pineapple and the electric danger of thunderstorms and, somehow, astonishingly, Erik himself. And he wanted to know more. He wanted to know whatever Charles felt safe enough, away from the monsters, to share.
He said, out loud, “I’m sorry,” because it seemed like the only appropriate thing to say, and Charles raised an eyebrow at him. “Why? You weren’t there.”
“Still,” Erik said, and Charles answered, softly, in his thoughts, It’s all right, really. But thank you. And when Erik met his gaze, Charles leaned against him, letting their shoulders touch, and smiled.
They headed out, into the chilly evening. The wind played merrily with soft kitten fur, and Charles’s hair stood up on end in every conceivable direction. Erik tried, unsuccessfully, not to be amused by this. Charles just sighed, with the expression of someone besieged by the universe, and got in the car.
“You said that you enjoy the weather, as I recall. That it was passionate.”
“I’m also passionate about my hair.”
“I like your hair.” He’d almost said I love your hair. Thank god he was driving; if his fingers weren’t occupied, he’d probably have ended up reaching out to hold Charles’s hand, because apparently he had no self-control anymore.
Charles looked at him curiously. “Thank you, I think. Turn left here.”
“That’s a one-way street, Charles. There is no left.”
“I’m sorry, people’s thoughts don’t generally come with driving directions. Go…that way.”
“This is why you’re not allowed to drive.”
After a few more unplanned detours, they found the house Charles was looking for. It looked small, and comfortable, but a little neglected, as if the inhabitant had once happily cared about such details as regular maintenance, but couldn’t manage any such enthusiasm anymore.
“She works as a veterinary technician,” Charles said quietly, “but I picked her because she’s terribly lonely, you see. She lost her husband to cancer last year. Quite young. And they’d not been able to have children. And she wants company, but she’s not sure she can afford a cat.”
“I take it you’re planning to help with the expense, then?”
“I think we should, don’t you?” Charles got out of the car—Greta squeaked at him in protest—and headed up the worn front steps. After a second, Erik followed, still processing the idea that Charles could so casually dispose of money. He just wasn’t used to that; he’d always managed to have enough for his own needs, but Charles happily took care of others’ needs, as well.
The woman who answered Charles’s knock might’ve been pretty, once, and still was, underneath everything, but grief and loneliness had worn her down, even though she was probably younger than Charles. Erik found himself liking her, unexpectedly. She had been through pain, and loss, and rage, and he recognized that as something familiar, but she smiled at them, despite puzzlement at their appearance, and Erik found himself impressed by that.
“Hello,” Charles offered. “My friend and I have a dilemma, and we thought you might be able to help. Would you like a kitten?”
Really, Charles? Not very subtle.
Would you rather do the talking?
Me? No, thank you. I’d rather not terrify her any more.
Then be quiet.
Charles smiled. It was his best smile, the one that, reflected with perfect sincerity in blue eyes, melted every heart in the vicinity and got people to agree to whatever he wanted. To his mild disgust, Erik had discovered that it worked on him as well, even though he tried to ignore it whenever possible.
And it seemed to be working now, or maybe Charles was leaning on her telepathically, because she reached out to take the kitten, even while saying, “No, I can’t, really…”
“Oh, of course you can. She needs you, you see.”
“We can’t keep her, and you can, and she needs you,” Charles said, as if that was all that mattered, and Erik watched him tuck a piece of folded paper into one unprotesting hand.
How much was that?
Enough. Don’t worry, we can afford it.
Why do you keep saying we?
Charles hesitated, and then, very clearly, chose not to answer that question. “Her name is Greta, by the way.”
He got a nod, and a quiet “Thank you,” which nevertheless contained all the happiness in the world, and they headed back to the car as the rain started to sprinkle down again from above, splashing through the trees along the sidewalk and into Charles’s hair.
“Well, I think they’ll be good for each other…”
“Trying to fix the world, are you, Charles?” Erik slid into the driver’s seat, but didn’t start the car right away.
“Not the world. Not yet, anyway.” Charles sounded a little wistful, but also content with the outcome. “But maybe one person at a time.”
“Or one kitten?”
“Or one kitten. I think I’ll miss her. Silly, I know. We couldn’t’ve kept her.” The rain blew back in full force, around the car; thunder crackled overhead. Charles peeked out of the window. “Oh, look, lightning! How far away do you think that is?”
“Charles,” Erik said, and when Charles turned around to look at him, eyes wide with delight, Erik leaned across the space between them and brought their lips together, under the pounding drumbeats of the rain on the metal roof of the car.
Erik—Charles was laughing, in their heads, not protesting at all, just thrilled and amazed and brilliantly, joyfully, excited—Erik, you—when did you—I didn’t know you wanted—
I want you, Erik told him. You challenge me in chess matches and you’re a terrible driver and you save kittens and you turn me into someone who saves kittens as well, and you know me like no one ever has, and if you want to let me then I want to know you, too, all of the thunderstorms that you’ve seen, ever, everything.
And Charles kissed him back, just the two of them in the car beneath the distant echo of thunder, the rain falling through the yellow glow of the streetlight overhead, and said Yes.