Alex wakes him up with a kiss and a gentle shake. “C’mon,” he whispers, right in Armando’s ear, his lips soft and tickly. “Let’s go to the beach.”
Armando tries to shoo him away with a flap of his hand. He hugs his pillow to his chest, mumbling that it’s still night, for crying out loud, and nobody in his right mind is up at this hour, not even superheroes so dumb they can’t spell their own names right. Alex just laughs and climbs on top of him, straddling his hips and pressing him deeper into the mattress.
“You’re asking for it,” Armando warns.
Alex nips his ear. “Havok is cooler with a k.”
“You asked for it.” Armando grabs his wrist and flips him over onto his back, pinning him against the rumpled sheets. Alex chokes on his laughter, then goes quiet and completely pliant as Armando crawls up his body, his lips and fingers seeking warm flesh. There’s disappointingly little of it available for claiming; Alex is dressed from head to foot in leather and denim.
“What the hell?”
“We should get going,” Alex says in a conversational manner, like he’s unaware of the fact that Armando’s hands are on his hips, tugging at his jeans. “It’s about a four-and-a-half-hour ride. If we leave now, it’ll only be about ten when we get there, and we’ll have all day.”
Armando does the math. “I hate you,” he mutters.
Alex pats his hair. “I’m all set. I have our sleeping bags and I made some sandwiches. The bike’s gassed up.”
Armando lifts his head and frowns down at Alex. He can’t see much of him in the pre-dawn darkness, but something about him seems oddly serene. “So, this is actually a camping trip. And you really wanna go. Right at this moment.”
Alex’s fingertips fumble along his hairline, then trace the curve of his ear. “Yeah.”
Armando drops his cheek against Alex’s taut belly. “I really hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
No, he really doesn’t.
“Fine,” he yawns. “Just gimme a minute.” Wrapping his arms around Alex’s waist, he closes his eyes – just for a second, he thinks. But then, the next thing he knows, Alex is poking him awake and saying, “Hey, hey, no beauty sleep,” and he has the fleeting memory of a dream, which might or might not have involved killing Alex Summers.
They head south, taking Route 30 through Vermont, and Armando watches the sunrise with his chin on Alex’s shoulder and his hands resting loosely on Alex’s hips. Not a bad way to start the morning, he concedes, as the eastern sky changes slowly from the darkest of blues to creamy lavender, and the stars – so bright without the competition of city lights – fade away. Wisps of rose-gold clouds, delicate as lace settle across the horizon, and Armando decides that he forgives Alex for dragging him out of bed so early.
Not that he tells him so right away. First, he makes Alex buy him breakfast at a diner just outside Brattleboro. Then he makes him wait until he’s finished with his eggs and toast and is on his third cup of coffee. When he starts to feel the caffeine working its magic, that’s when he says with a casual shrug, “It’s nice, I guess. Getting out of Westchester for a while.”
Alex looks up from his stack of blueberry pancakes and grins. There’s a spot of maple syrup at the corner of his lips, and Armando’s fingers twitch instinctively, but he resists the urge to reach across the table and wipe it away. They’re getting enough looks as it is from the wait staff and some of the other customers. Not threatening, just mildly curious. Armando raises his eyebrows, and they quickly become very interested in their food and their newspapers.
Alex, engrossed once more in his breakfast and in the AAA map that he has spread out in front of him, doesn’t appear to notice. Armando’s glad. In Alex’s mind, they’re having an adventure, the kind that guys their age are supposed to have. No government agents to evade, no Nazi-orchestrated nuclear wars to avert. Not at the moment, anyhow. There are other dangers that have nothing to do with being mutants, but those too are far from Alex’s thoughts, and Armando wants to keep it that way.
He does steal one of his pancakes, though. “Just testing your reflexes,” he says when Alex sticks his tongue out.
For that, he gets his ankles kicked.
Back on the highway, Armando wraps his arms around Alex’s chest and keeps them there. Now that he’s fully awake, he feels sort of protective and, yeah, a little possessive. Armando’s always been a physical guy, and he likes keeping Alex close. He doesn’t often get to touch him like this outside of Charles Xavier’s mansion, and when he does, it’s usually because they’re about to do something highly dangerous.
Armando can feel Alex’s heartbeats and the warmth of his skin, even through their jackets and tee shirts. He can feel the vibrations of Alex’s diaphragm as he sings to himself. The motorcycle’s engine rips his words apart, but it has to be some Johnny Cash number. Armando grins. Alex is kind of predictable, but in a good way.
They reach the shore at about eleven, but Alex drives around for a little while longer, looking for the perfect secluded stretch of beach. By the time he parks, Armando’s ass is practically numb, and he stumbles getting off the motorcycle.
Alex moves with more grace. He dismounts smoothly and scoops up the backpack, hoisting it to his shoulder as he starts to walk toward the waves. Armando follows at a small distance, curious. Considering the exuberance with which he was roused out of bed this morning, he’d expected a little more enthusiasm when they finally arrived at the beach.
Alex goes a little ways, and then tosses the backpack onto the sand. He’s already stripping when Armando reaches him, just pulling off his clothes and letting them fall in a pile. He’s had his navy blue swim trunks on under his jeans this whole time, apparently. Armando watches with appreciation. Alex is muscular but compact, and he tends to wear loose-fitting tracksuits that make him appear smaller than he really is. Now, as he lifts his arms to tug his tee shirt over his head, his muscles ripple under his tanned skin.
He starts when Armando touches his shoulder, then turns and grins boyishly, squinting in the bright sunlight. “Gonna go for a swim. You coming?”
“Later,” Armando says. “Don’t forget, you got me up at the ass-crack of dawn. I wanna relax.”
“So is lying in the sun, doing absolutely nothing.”
“Suit yourself, man.” Alex grabs his wrist and tugs him close for a kiss. This time it’s Armando who flinches in surprise at the contact. They don’t do public displays. They can’t; it’s much too dangerous. It was one thing when they were barreling down the highway on the motorcycle. This—
“Don’t worry, we’re alone.” There’s amusement in Alex’s tone, and a touch of annoyance too. Armando understands. This, after all, is the kid who requested solitary so he wouldn’t inadvertently hurt any of his fellow inmates; he likes to appear cocksure and dangerous, but he isn’t cavalier about other people’s safety.
“I know, dumb-ass.” Armando teases Alex’s lips with the tip of tongue, tasting salt.
Alex smirks. “You’re a dumb-ass if you don’t wanna come swimming.”
Armando swats his hip. “Later, I said. For now, I’m just gonna watch.”
With a roll of his eyes, Alex pulls away and lopes toward the water, leaping over clumps of dried brown seaweed and kicking up hot sand. As promised, Armando watches, slowly unzipping his own jacket and setting it down with just a little more care than Alex had. He starts adapting immediately. His skin begins to tingle and then shimmer, the harmful UV rays bouncing right off of it, and back into the atmosphere.
He isn’t sweating.
He doesn’t even feel hot.
Alex stops at the edge of the ocean and tentatively puts a toe in. Judging from his reaction, the water isn’t warm. Still, he hesitates for just a few seconds before plunging in. When the first big wave comes rolling toward shore, tossing foam and tiny fragments of shell, Alex meets it head on, flinging himself into its blue-green heart.
Armando frowns. Alex told him once that he’d lost his parents and his older brother in a plane crash off the coast of Honolulu when he was just a toddler. Alex said he didn’t remember how he escaped the wreckage, or who pulled him out of the ocean. All he remembered was thick smoke and burning metal, and wave after wave slapping him in the face, salt water filling his mouth and nostrils.
Another kid might have grown up afraid of the ocean. Alex said he never was but, watching him now, Armando isn’t too sure. Afraid might be the wrong word, but there’s definitely something confrontational about the way Alex swims, his body stabbing at the waves, like he wants to tear them apart from the inside. Pitted against all that water, he looks absurdly fragile, and Armando is half-tempted to strip down to his own swim trunks and join him.
He checks himself with the firm reminder that everyone seems fragile when you yourself can’t die, or even suffer permanent damage. Alex is a strong swimmer, and he’s smart. He knows his limits. He’ll cool down in another minute or two.
Armando toes off his shoes and socks, and sinks to his knees in the sand. He tugs Alex’s backpack to him and unzips the main compartment, pulling out a beach towel, two mostly crushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a canteen full of lukewarm water, a bottle of Coppertone, and his book. Armando has no memory of packing that last item, so Alex must have grabbed it while he was getting dressed. The smile returns to Armando’s lips. Alex Summers is a little messed up, but he’s a good kid.
Armando is in full relaxation mode when Alex comes stumbling back onto dry land. He’s lying supine on the towel, one arm curled under his head, the other thrown across his bare chest. His book rests facedown beside him. He tried reading, but he just couldn’t focus on Thomas Pynchon after his caffeine buzz wore off.
Alex drops to his knees on the towel, shaking his hair like a dog and flecking Armando with droplets of cold water.
“Hey, hey,” Armando protests, glaring and raising an arm to shield himself.
Alex touches Armando’s chest with a cold hand. “Groovy,” he says. “You shimmer, man.”
Armando swats at him. “You’re freezing.”
Alex shrugs. “I’m fine.”
“Good. I’m glad. You can still keep your freezing hands to yourself.”
Alex gives him a smirk before flopping back against the towel, his fingers threaded loosely over his belly. He seems to have gotten over whatever was eating at him earlier –or set it aside for the time being, anyway. With Alex, it seems like there’s always something simmering just below the surface.
Part of that has to do with his power, of course. His body is constantly absorbing and processing cosmic energy. He can’t stop, though he’s gotten a lot better at controlling his emanations. It’s actually kind of nice on cold winter mornings. Who needs eiderdown or anything like that, when he can wrap his arms around Alex Summers?
Remembering some of those mornings, Armando feels his drowsiness slip away. He pushes himself up onto one elbow and ghosts his knuckles over Alex’s clavicle, noting the fact that his skin is already dry and starting to warm up. “Hey.”
Alex cracks open one eye. “What happened to keeping your hands to yourself?”
“Put on some sunscreen if you’re going to lie there.”
Alex’s eyelid droops. He wrinkles his nose. “It’s fine.”
“Yeah, it won’t be fine when you’re red and peeling. I don’t wanna have to listen to you bitch and moan all the way back to the mansion.”
“Thought you liked the way I moan.”
There’s a lot that Armando could say in response to that. Instead, he just reaches for the backpack, dragging it to him so he can get at the bottle of Coppertone that Alex so thoughtfully brought along. He snaps the cap open with his thumb, turns the bottle upside down over Alex’s chest, and squeezes.
Alex chuckles deep in his throat and tilts his head back, arching to meet Armando’s palm as it comes down to rub the oily lotion into his skin. He’s so warm right now, almost fever-hot. It’s partly the bright sunlight, and partly his power. Still, he shivers when Armando deliberately brushes his nipples with the callused heel of his palm, and again when Armando’s fingertips skitter down over his ribs, trailing streaks of sunscreen.
“You like that, huh, baby?” Armando murmurs, stroking the taut skin of his belly, feeling the hard muscles jump beneath his hand. “Feels good?”
Alex squirms against the towel, but doesn’t answer and that’s okay; a quick look at the front of his swim trunks tells Armando exactly how good this is making him feel. A shame they can’t take things any further than this. They’re still the only ones here except for the gulls and the petrels, but they’d be stupid to assume nobody’s just going to wander by. They could get into so much trouble. Such a shame. Armando would like nothing better than to throw a leg over Alex’s narrow hips, hold him down with his hands and rock into him. Stoke that fire under his skin with the friction of their bodies.
So, do it, a small voice tells him. No one’s looking.
Alex doesn’t look as if he’d protest. He’s half-gone already, pale lashes shadowing flushed cheeks, bottom lip caught between even white teeth.
Armando traces the sparse trail of hair from Alex’s navel to where it disappears under the waistband of his swim trunks, and there he stops.
After a moment, Alex frowns. “Don’t tell me you’re done. You missed a bunch of spots.”
Armando licks his lips. “You’re gonna have to get those yourself.”
“Sorry.” And he is, truly. But he can’t betray that trust, can’t risk their getting caught. Oh, he doesn’t doubt they could escape with ease if it came to that, but it would be a shitty way to end their outing. He squeezes Alex’s hip and forces a smile. “Call it revenge for getting me up at ass o’clock this morning.”
“Oh, God.” Alex throws an arm across his eyes and groans. “I hate you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Just you wait.”
The threat – or maybe it’s a promise – hangs in the hot air between them. Then Armando swats Alex’s hip and rolls away from him, grabbing his book and thumbing it open to the last page he read. After a moment or two, during which Armando does nothing but stare blankly at the words in front of him, Alex heaves a sigh and pushes himself up. As Armando listens, and watches out of the corner of his eye, he picks up the Coppertone and squeezes a generous dollop into his palm.
Judging by the deliberate care with which Alex rubs the sunscreen into his skin, it’s clear he knows he has an audience. Brat. Still, Armando chokes out a reasonably intelligent response when Alex asks casually (long fingers moving slowly over rippling muscles), “Good book?”
“Yeah – it’s, uh, interesting.”
“Yeah, you seem really absorbed.”
It’s hard not to smile at the playful tone, though he makes an effort. He actually does pretty well, even manages to read and digest a sentence or two – before Alex drops the Coppertone onto Armando’s book and says matter-of-factly, “I need help with my back.”
Then he’s pretty much done for.
They spend a few more hours by the shore. Alex naps, curled up on his side, his cheek resting against the heel of his palm. Armando reads his book, stealing the occasional glance at Alex. Sometimes he reaches over and gently flicks his fingers at Alex’s soft bangs. The blond lashes twitch, and the smooth brow furrows for a moment, as if in deep thought, but otherwise he doesn’t stir. His reaction amuses Armando, and now and then, he’s inclined to smile.
The beach does get a little more traffic as the day wears on: a couple of joggers, and one young woman with an enormous Saint Bernard plodding along beside her. Armando watches them with his accustomed wariness. He considers reaching for his shirt, but the sun is slanting westward now, and his skin is beginning to revert to its normal dark brown shade. Any shimmers can be explained away as a sheen of sweat or a trick of the light.
Alex wakes up hungry, but insists on going for another swim before they seek out dinner, and this time Armando joins him, wading in slowly, picking his way carefully over slippery rocks. The water is warm near the surface, cooler around his calves and ankles.
When he’s gone about waist-deep, Alex turns, his hand patting the water gently, fingers splayed. His head is tipped slightly, and the sunlight in his face makes him squint, so his smile seems wry.
“You know I lived in Hawaii until I was two and a half, right?”
Armando nods. Of course he remembers.
“I wish I could remember what it was like. Sometimes I think I do, but I don’t know if I’m just confusing those memories with other beaches I’ve been to. You dig me?”
“Yeah, I dig you.”
They both know the professor could look into his mind and sort the real memories of his childhood from the ones he constructed after losing his family. He could do it easily, but they both know Alex will never ask him to.
“Anyway.” Alex’s gaze flicks away from Armando’s. He slaps lightly at the water. “Sometimes I wonder if they’d even like me. My parents, I mean, and my brother. If they’d be proud or…”
He trails off, but Armando knows what he can’t bring himself to say. Of course he knows. Armando’s father walked out on him when he was four, and his mother always treated him like some sort of burden, even in the last year or so of her life, when he was basically taking care of her. And that was just because he was a mutant. Imagine if either of them had ever found out he’s into guys.
When Armando reaches for Alex this time, he doesn’t bother to check and make sure they’re alone. He just clasps his face between his hands and tugs him close. Alex’s lips are warm and wind-chapped, and they taste like the sea spray.
Alex didn’t pack any food aside from the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are long gone. So they shake the sand off the towel and stuff it and everything else back into the backpack, get on the bike – which has been shaded by the lengthening shadows of the pine trees they parked near for the past hour or so – and ride off in search of dinner. They head north, not because Alex knows of anything in that direction, but because he wants to keep close to the ocean. Armando doesn’t mind. The waves are beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight, their crests flecked with gold and copper under the seashell-pink sky.
A few miles up the coast, they find a little town with Easter egg-colored houses, a couple of seafood restaurants, and a boardwalk. They’re both feeling too grimy for a restaurant, and anyway, they don’t have much money, so they walk along the boardwalk, their hands in their pockets, by unspoken accord, so they won’t inadvertently touch. Not that they’re the hand-holding sort of people, even in the relative privacy and safety of Professor X’s mansion. Today they just seem to want to brush up against each other, that’s all.
The air has cooled, and the breeze carries the scent of fried food to Armando’s nostrils. His stomach growls. Fortunately, it isn’t long before Alex spots a guy selling hotdogs and soda from a food cart.
Armando lets Alex buy him dinner. It seems only fair. As Alex is digging in his pockets for change, the hotdog guy slides a look at Armando, who’s standing a little to the side, his hands still shoved in his jacket pockets. Even without telepathy, the thought behind the look is pretty clear to him: What’s this guy doing here?
Not hostile, probably not even conscious, like the people in that diner outside Brattleboro, who couldn’t keep their eyes on their newspapers. And, for some reason, less easy to ignore.
He feels a sick, hot swirl in the pit of his stomach, even though he should have been expecting it. He’s used to these sort of looks; he got them all the time at that private boarding school his mother sent him to, or just about whenever his taxi job took him out of the city. At the same time, he wasn’t expecting it. He let his guard down, let himself get a little lost in this fantasy world of him and Alex alone, which was stupid. He’ll be kicking himself for that for a while.
He hopes that Alex missed the look. He thinks he probably did, since he appears engrossed in his change and the big bag of food – seriously, how much does Alex think the two of them can eat? – hugged between his ribs and the crook of his elbow.
It’s good that Alex missed the look. Armando doesn’t want a scene, and he doesn’t want the kid to start feeling bad about dragging him here. He shouldn’t feel bad about anything today.
As they’re walking away, however, Alex throws an arm across Armando’s shoulders. He does it casually, like it’s no big deal, and the sudden warm weight of his arm startles Armando, causing his step to falter slightly. Observed by no one, Alex’s fingers press briefly against the juncture of Armando’s neck and shoulder.
They don’t say anything to each other for a while, not until they’ve found a wooden picnic bench some ways away, and are studiously ripping open packets of mustard, ketchup, and sweet relish. His voice low and curiously thick, Alex says, “I’m glad we did this. Came here. Hope you are too. Know it was kind of spur of the moment.” The blue-gray eyes flick up from under the soft spill of his bangs, then down again.
Armando drops the packet of mustard he was trying to rip open with his thumbnail, and picks up his bottle of Coke. Reaching across the table, he clinks it against Alex’s. “Hey,” he says when the kid looks up again. He smiles. “I’m glad too, okay?”
Alex sounds unconvinced. Armando sips his Coke and considers. There was nothing spur of the moment about today, he thinks. Alex couldn’t have found that stretch of beach so easily by chance. He must have come out here well in advance and searched all along the coast for the perfect spot, where they’d have a good chance of remaining undisturbed. He must have been planning this for a while.
Alex’s thoughtfulness touches a tender spot deep in Armando. It makes him feel light as the puffy yellow clouds that are now strewn across the horizon. Again he reaches across the table, this time with the pretense of nabbing another mustard packet, but he lets the pad of his thumb brush across Alex’s smallest finger, and then his bony wrist.
Alex starts at the touch. Armando smiles. “I’m really glad you dragged me out of my nice warm bed and brought me here,” he says firmly. “Okay?”
Alex looks up at him again, and this time there are glints of sunlight – and mischief – in his eyes. He proceeds to give Armando what had better the hell be a preview of the next part of his master plan.
By the time he’s done, Armando is squirming in his seat, a bead of sweat rolling down his ribs. As a former New York City taxi driver, he’s seen a lot, but he’s never seen a hotdog consumed so obscenely.
There’s another tiny, secluded beach that Alex knows. To reach it, they have to climb over a dented guardrail and make their way carefully down a steep need-covered slope, watching out for rocks and roots. At the bottom of the slope, there’s a line of tall pine trees, and it’s against one of those pines that Alex pins Armando and proceeds to make good on the promise he gave him at supper.
As the night draws close around them, Armando tips his head back against the tree, his fingers sliding into Alex’s hair – grainy from the salt and the sand – and brushing it gently away from his forehead. Alex hums in response, and the vibrations make Armando’s knees tremble. He strokes Alex’s hair, tangling his fingers in it but trying not to grip too hard, even though he knows Alex likes it when he’s a little rough. Through the blur of his lashes, he can see the water, which glows in the gathering darkness with its own silvery light. He can taste the salt in the air, and the resin scent of the pines is strong in his nostrils. Alex’s hands hold his hips firmly, but he seems to be moving nonetheless. Sliding backward with each shallow intake of air, surging forward with each exhalation. He’s coming before he even knows he’s close, shuddering from head to foot, his fingers tightening involuntarily in Alex’s hair.
He starts to apologize as soon as he can speak again, but Alex’s laughter is warm and light. He rises, tugging Armando’s jeans back up to his waist, tucking him in, and zipping him up with deft fingers.
“I owe you,” Armando mutters.
“Yeah, you do,” Alex says brightly and kisses him.
They unroll their one sleeping bag over a bed of brown pine needles, far enough up the beach that they won’t get wet when the tide comes in. It’s a good quality sleeping bag, Armando can’t help noticing, which means it’s probably the professor’s, although it’s hard to imagine him sleeping outside, even as a kid. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the sleeping bag is big enough for the two of them to crawl in together and arrange their limbs comfortably.
The air has cooled considerably since the sun went down, but Alex is warm in Armando’s arms. Like the sea, his body seems to have captured some of the light from the day, and is now giving it back. He might even be glowing a little, but it’s more likely that’s just Armando’s imagination.
Armando has to smile. He really isn’t this romantic, not usually, but he feels so unselfconscious right now, so unrestrained. He’s everything he ever was, and yet he feels brand new. All the other people, mutant and non-mutant alike, with their expectations and their labels, might as well be as distant as the cold glitter of stars through the pine branches. Well, all but one of them.
God knows what he’s done to deserve this level of trust, he thinks as he looks down at Alex. Well, okay – unlike his parents and his brother, Erik, Raven, and his numerous foster parents, both good and bad, Armando came back. He came back, and he stayed.
There’s more to it, of course. In the past year, they’ve saved each other’s lives at least half a dozen times. They’ve spent long nights talking about politics (Alex might not know how to spell his own code name, but he’s far from dumb), long mornings rough-housing under the covers. But that’s the heart of it.
Alex shifts closer, hooking his ankle around Armando’s and draping an arm across his chest. Armando slides a hand under Alex’s sweatshirt and begins to stroke slow concentric circles into his back.
“You owe me,” Alex reminds him, his voice thick and gravelly, the way it always gets when he’s exhausted.
“Trust me, I am not going to forget. For what I have in mind, though, I want you good and awake.”
Alex smiles against his clavicle. “Gonna teach you to bodysurf.” He snuffles sleepily. “Tomorrow.”
There’s a beat. “Best waves are in the morning.”
“How early?” Armando asks warily.
This time Alex’s silence lasts for several beats, and Armando bites his lip because he knows he isn’t going to like what he’s about to hear.
“Like, five,” Alex finally says, and there’s amusement and chagrin in his voice.
Armando closes his eyes. “I really hate you a lot.” But his tone is light, and his hand keeps stroking Alex’s back, so there’s no question he means the exact opposite.