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The third who walks always beside you

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Now that he had promised Gaby that he would act as her doctor, Charles had to resolve the problem of instruments. Had he been in the mansion, it would not have been any trouble, but now, he could not call Hank and ask him to bring one down to New York. It would not count as resting, so Hank was bound to disapprove of it. Besides, Charles was not keen to divulge any information about his patient. He would rather that the boys thought he was spending his time with some fictional acquaintance from Oxford than learn about his infatuation with a human, and renewed friendship with a mutant terrorist.

In the end, Charles settled on reading the mind of the hotel doctor. As he had suspected, he had two fully equipped bags, and after convincing himself that he was just borrowing the bag, it was easy to make the hotel doctor conveniently forget one just outside the suite. Before, Charles had found his living-quarters overly big for him, but now he was glad that he had two rooms. It would not do to conduct an examination in the room where he slept, so the living-area would serve that purpose.

The day they had settled on Charles spent in anticipation of her arrival, checking and rechecking the contents of the appropriated supplies and rehearsing his training in his head. Ten past five, there was a tentative knock which drew him from his thoughts.

‘Come in!’ he called. The door opened only enough for Gaby to slip in. ‘Hello, Gaby.’

‘Hello.’ Her nervousness was evident, and Charles smiled encouragingly at her, where she lingered at the door.

‘Come - sit down,’ he said and cocked his head. She approached and sat down on the sofa, legs crossed and arms lightly wrapped around herself, as if trying to protect herself.

‘So,’ she said uncertainly. Charles wheeled himself a little closer and said kindly:

‘There’s no need to be nervous, Gaby, but if you’d like to postpone this...’ She straightened up a little and shook her head.

‘No,’ she said and stood. ‘Let’s get it over with. I know it’s important.’

‘It’s nothing that needs to be done today,’ he assured her.

‘No, it’s alright,’ she said, sounding like her mind was made up. Then some of the hectic determination fell away, and her voice softened. ‘I’m glad it’s you, and not anyone else.’ She started unbuttoning her jacket and asked: ‘How much should I...?’

‘Just the blouse will be fine. Keep your bra on,’ he said, struggling a little with the second-to-last word. He tried not to think about it, but concentrated on the contents of the bag, giving her some little privacy as she undressed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw how she folded her blouse and put it on a nearby chair.

‘Where do you want me?’ she asked. Now he looked over at her, and took in her half-dressed form. The pearl necklace and the bra only drew his attention to the sections which were uncovered. She looked oddly vulnerable, with her hair arranged and her heels still on. He swallowed and tried to find his voice.

‘On the sofa will be fine.’

She looked quite self-conscious as she sat down, but the smile she offered him was entertained, as if she saw something ironically funny about the situation. Charles smiled back - he felt as awkward as she did. When he reached out and started the examination, it felt like he was watching himself act. At first it was not very daunting. Tonsils and glands were not very intimate. However, when he picked up the stethoscope, he realised that he had been dreading this. When he put the bell of the stethoscope to her chest, he was aware of how close her breasts were, and even if they were mostly covered, it was distracting. The movement of her chest as it rose and fell was bad enough. Mentally reprimanding himself, he concentrated and listened, moved the resonator and repeated the procedure. Asking her to turn her back towards him felt like a welcome pause in the suddenly daunting task. After having listened to her lungs, he put the stethoscope around his neck.

‘Would you lie down for me, please?’ She complied as best she could on the sofa which was too short for her body. When Charles adjusted his chair, she smiled up at him. He tried to smile back, hiding his apprehensiveness. Then he put the earpieces of the stethoscope in his ears again and found her heartbeat. This time, her breast was much closer. When looking down at her like this, it was difficult not to look at them. He had considered in retrospect how beautiful they were, and that thought came back now. Of course that was completely inappropriate for a doctor to think of his patient, Charles reminded himself. That position was so easy to abuse, so he had to watch his step...

And yet the temptation to use the authority he had for his own ends was huge. He could easily ask her to take off her bra for him. All it would take was a simple, polite command. Indeed, he could find a reason to touch them. It would be simple to claim that he saw it as a necessary for the examination. His telepathy gave him a sense of incredible power at times, but somehow the knowledge that he could ask her to undress for him simply because he wanted to was intoxicating in an entirely different way. But he withstood the temptation. Gaby had suffered enough because of the lusts of men. He did not wish to be yet another hateful face in her nightmares.

So he restrained himself and forced all those licentious thoughts out of his mind, until she was merely an object to be evaluated. But everything from the warmth of her stomach as he palpated it to the dry skin of her elbow when he held it steady to measure her blood-pressure affected him. When he finally withdrew and told her that she could put her blouse on again, a mixture of relief and disappointment set in. To distract himself, he started putting the instruments back into his bag.

‘You’re in remarkably good health, my dear. Absolutely fine. All I could complain about is that your blood-pressure’s a tad bit high, but it’s very little. Nothing to worry about.’ Gaby, who was dressing behind his back, asked:

‘So it’s alright, then?’

‘Oh, yes. Absolutely. I’d like to do some blood-work too, but I’m not altogether certain where I could get them checked.’ There was a moral limit to how much he could manipulate the hotel doctor. Thinking that she was probably dressed by now, he turned around again. She was just putting her jacket on. ‘It might just be easier if you went elsewhere for it.’ She did not look too happy about that. ‘A friend of a friend works in a lab - I could ask him. It’d cancel out the need for a doctor’s office.’ That was a plan that would work as long as the chap, whom Charles had never actually met but heard plenty about from Hank, would not tell Beast about it. It was risky, but probably worth it.

‘Yes, perhaps that’d be better,’ she said and smiled wanly. They looked at each other for a long moment. She was the first to look away.

‘I wish you’d consider the question of medication,’ he said. She kept her eyes on the floor.

‘I’ve told you. I don’t want to.’ Charles sighed.

‘Gaby, considering how close you came to having a relapse, trying neuroleptics would probably be helpful...’ He broke off. ‘But if you’ve made up your mind, it’s none of my business.’ It sounded dispirited rather than bitter. He had never reflected that he was really not used to his advice not being listened to. At the school, people took his advice without even hesitating. Still, it did not annoy him as much as he imagined it would. It was sobering.

Also, Gaby did not seem annoyed at him, because now she smiled.

‘I know you mean well,’ she said, ‘but you’re not the one who’d have to take them.’ He chuckled.

‘True.’ Once again, they looked at each other. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘If there’s anything at all...’ She nodded.

‘I’ll be in touch.’ She took her hat and bag and then said: ‘I’ll be in touch anyway.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ he said and extended a hand. She shook it and then, with a final smile, left. Charles remained as he had been, straight-backed and smiling, until the door closed behind her. Then, he slumped and sighed at himself.

‘Idiot,’ he muttered and slapped his forehead. ‘You daft, juvenile idiot.’ Evidently he still had the mind of a teenager. He should be able to see a lady with her blouse off without his first thought being about her breasts. Surely he should be more professional than that. He looked towards the sofa where Gaby had stood not long ago, and realised suddenly that there was something lying across the armrest. When he wheeled himself closer, he saw that he was correct. Slung across the sofa lay Gaby’s green silk scarf. She must have put it there, under her jacket, when she arrived, and not noticed that she had not put it on when she dressed. Guiltily, Charles reached out and ran his fingers over the fabric. At least it gave him a reason to see her again, he concluded as he picked it up. The impulse was as strong as it felt theatrical, but he could not stop himself from raising the scarf to his face and drawing it over his cheek. It smelt like she did, of jasmine and cigarettes. He cherished the feeling of the soft fabric against his skin, but his imagination was far away...

A harsh knock on the door interrupted him. As if it had burned him, he threw the scarf away.

 

‘Come in!’ he called, turning to face the door. It opened, and Gaby stepped in. She looked flustered, and Charles felt a stab of embarrassment at what he had been thinking. ‘Hello,’ he said, trying to not sound affected. ‘You forgot your scarf.’ Gaby’s eyes wandered from him to the scarf.

‘Oh,’ she said, and it sounded almost like she had not realised. ‘Yes.’ She put her bag down by the door and crossed to the sofa; Charles wheeled himself back to let her pass. He could not stop himself watching her pick it up and run it through her hands, much like he had just done. Realising that he was staring, he tried to think of something to say, and then blurted the set phrase:

‘Would you like some tea?’ Gaby shook her head.

‘No, thank you.’ Then she sighed deeply and sat down on the sofa with a thud. Something was wrong.

‘Whatever’s the matter?’ Charles asked, alarmed. She looked at him sadly.

‘Don’t you know?’

‘How possibly could I?’ he said kindly, glad she could not give the obvious answer. ‘What’s on your mind?’

‘Just how silly it all is,’ she explained matter-of-factly. ‘You’re so kind and chivalrous, but...’ She looked away. He felt himself go cold inside. He had never thought it was obvious, he had imagined he kept his unprofessional thoughts hidden...

‘Gaby, I... If I have somehow overstepped...’ She shook her head violently.

‘No, not like that,’ she said and looked at him. ‘Not like that at all.’ She rose and took a step towards him. ‘You’ve been a perfect gentleman.’ He tilted his head back to look at her, unwilling to think that she meant what he thought she did.

‘I don’t see what you mean,’ he choked. She smiled suddenly, as if his ignorance was entertaining.

‘You must have noticed,’ she said. ‘I never know if it’s right, but every time I’m with you, I wish I could...’ She stopped and swallowed. Then she reached out her hand, and traced the curve of his cheek.

‘Gaby...’ he stuttered and leaned back, breaking the contact. A look of hurt was on her face. ‘I... I couldn’t.’ I can’t.

‘Why not?’ she asked and leaned down, putting her hands on the armrests, so that they faced each other.

‘It’s not right. I feel responsible for you,’ he blurted. ‘You’re my patient, Gaby!’

‘Not in any official sense,’ she said, equally fervently. ‘You’ve taken care of me, yes, but are you not my friend too?’

‘Gaby, it’s not that simple,’ Charles said and turned his face away from her. ‘I couldn’t...’ Once again, she touched his cheek. He closed his eyes, cherishing the sensation. This was what he wanted, what he had imagined just moments ago, so why was he resisting? Because he knew he had to. Nevertheless, it took immense will-power to reach up and grab her wrist. He forced her hand away and looked her in the eyes. ‘Gaby, you don’t owe me anything,’ he said. Gaby frowned at him and then, realising what he meant, gaped.

‘I wasn’t offering a payment!’ she exclaimed. She looked like she was considering slapping him; Charles half wished she would. ‘I want this of my own will, not because I think you require it.’

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate,’ he said. ‘You’re not well, Gaby, it seems wrong to...’

‘You wouldn’t be taking advantage of me!’ she pressed. ‘I may be mad, but I’m not stupid - I know what I feel.’ Her face softened suddenly. ‘I don’t care what others might say or think. Every time I see you, I just want to kiss you. Even when you turned up that night when I was so scared, I still wanted it. Don’t you want that too?’ Charles swallowed noisily.

‘That, and more besides,’ he admitted. Gaby’s eyes grew.

‘Do you...?’ Her finger traced his cheek again. Her breath against his face trembled with excitement. Charles looked at her. Why? he wondered. How could she possibly prefer him, who was broken in two? Why would she ever look to him, a cripple, when she had the attentions of a strong, handsome man such as Erik? He felt like he should turn away and point out this fact to her, perhaps even tell her the ways he was not a real man, but she leaned in, silencing him. Her face hovered only an inch from his, and his resolve broke.

It was not the tender peck he had expected, but a hungry, deep kiss which forced his head back. He grabbed desperately at her, hands on her back as she cradled his head in her grip, standing over him. She was imagining the things they might do, half of them impossible, but it only sparked his arousal and gave him the courage to press on. He kissed her as fiercely as she did him, and his hands wandered down her back and over her buttocks, around her legs and up her body. Their lips unlocked, and Charles, pulling her closer, kissed her neck. In turn, Gaby caught the lobe of his ear between her teeth and bit at it. An undignified moan escaped him. The way her tongue traced the skin just behind his jaw and down the artery of his neck made him gasp. She struggled out of her jacket and threw it to the side, and with clumsy fingers, she started unbuttoning her blouse. It was only half open when he could not wait any longer, and thrust his hand into it. First he simply held it there, but then finally he dared move and fumbled for the fastenings on the front of her bra. The garment parted and hung from the shoulder-straps.

She kissed him again, then drew away a little, and he caught sight of her, lipstick kissed away and blouse half unbuttoned, the delicate breasts exposed and heaving. Charles cupped one of them and squeezed it, cherishing the softness. Her skin was warm against his, warmer than it had been before, he imagined, and his cold fingers made her gasp. Her erect nipple lay between two of his fingers, and instead he took it between his fingertips. One of his fingernails grazed the tender skin, and she grimaced. He apologised in a whisper, and instead put his hands on her shoulder-blades to press her close. As he pressed his face against her, the silk of her half-open blouse stroked against his cheek, and Gaby pushed her fingers into his hair as he kissed her nipples. The contact of his lips made her moan, and answering the unspoken prompt, he opened his mouth further. Feeling her in his mouth woke a sexual hunger in him, and he imagined licking her. He moved and kissed her collar bone, trying to gather the courage to suggest it, but Gaby withdrew a little.

‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked and traced her hands down his chest. ‘Tell me what I can do.’ He caught her hand just as it reached his waist, before he stopped feeling her touch, and kissed her palm forcefully.

‘Let me,’ he whispered and moved his hands over her legs until he reached the hem of her skirt. Without hesitating, she straddled his lap, one knee on either side of his thighs. She leaned down and kissed his throat again. The sensation almost distracted Charles completely from his hands on her knees. He pushed them up, until he got to the end of her stockings. When his fingers met her naked skin, she gasped, and she shivered as he pushed up her skirt, tracing upwards. One hand slipped down and touched her inner thigh. She stuttered his name, and her fingers brushed his lips. It was so tempting to tease her, but he was too eager to put it off any longer. Pushing between her thighs, he cupped her through her knickers. The delicate cloth was damp, and through it he felt the outline of her genitals. First she pressed into his hand, but then she whispered, ‘wait,’ and scrambled up.

Her fingers growing clumsy with excitement, she hiked her skirt up and slipped off her underwear, leaving it on the floor. Before she straddled him again, Charles caught a brief glimpse of the dark triangle of hair set on the pale, thin skin. When she settled again, they kissed, and as they did so she took his hand and pushed it between her legs. The sensation of matted hair and wet folds, swollen with arousal, met his fingers. He pushed his fingers from front to back, tracing her labia. He tried to postpone the moment when he slipped between them, which seemed so tempting, and cupped her again. She rose a little, arching her back so that her breasts were on the level of his chin. The sensation of all this closeness made him tremble, and despite himself, he pushed at his mind to make her kiss his neck again. As she once more licked his ear and ran a hand down his chest, he slid his fingers over her yet again and pushed past the folds. The doctorly part of his brain, which had been fighting for domination before, was spelling out the proper Latin terms for every little part, but to the part that truly mattered now, there was only carefully puckered skin and smooth surfaces, recesses which he longed to press into, and a wetness he wanted to smear his fingers in.

‘A little bit forward,’ she whispered, her lips close to his ear.

‘Where?’ He shifted, and she adjusted his hand a little. She held his fingers steady as she pushed against them, and when she was certain he had found the right spot, she let go of them. Her hips rocked downwards, and the smoothness of her clitoris rubbed against his fingers.

She had imagined this encounter many times, Charles sensed now, but it had never looked like this, with them both dressed, with her straddling him and moving against his hand. The fantasies had always been vague about details, because she did not know what was wrong with him, and she did not want to disappoint herself with her daydreams. The truly explicit ones usually featured Erik, which did not mean that she did not imagine sex with Charles. Those fantasies were rather more like the implied lovemaking in a film, a convenient fade-to-black after a theatrical embrace. Now, when it was happening, it was incredibly vivid, and surprisingly different from touching herself. Even if that was pleasurable, there was always a residual shame in it. At the hospital, all those years ago, they had claimed that it would make her condition worse, which never stopped her wandering hands once they were not restrained. Her new body had terrified her, and at first she had wondered if these impulses were only symptoms of damage. It was only through reading she started to realise that that was not the case, but no-one, not even the kindest nurses, would dream of telling her that. After a long time, she decided that she would not believe that she could drive herself insane by masturbating, but it did not change that she felt that in reality, she should not seek pleasure. Pleasure was a man’s reward - a woman... She was not certain what women were supposed to get out of it, except possibly pain and babies.

But Charles had picked away her hands, and any time she tried to shift closer to his groin, he gently averted any contact. He was not taking any pleasure, she reasoned, only giving it - surely that was not what a man was supposed to do. Perhaps it had to do with whatever was wrong with him, or perhaps British manners dictated being a gentleman even in a situation like this.

Gaby’s thoughts made Charles lose the rhythm, and as if it would distract her from it, he tilted his head back to face her. She leaned down, even if the angle was awkward, and kissed him. Once again he found the point he had been stroking. Feeling her like this made him long for her touch, but he dared not. The fact that it would require explanation might scare her off, and even the thought of having to pause to undress made him reluctant. When the kiss broke, Gaby put her arm around his neck and pushed him close, bringing his face against her breasts. His heart leapt - he had thought that this kind of thing was lost to him altogether. Reluctant to let old bitterness catch up, he rested his head against her breasts as one hand rested against her back and the other stroked her fervently. Prompted by her hitched breathing, he changed his grip and slipped his hand further between her legs, so that his thumb rubbed her clitoris and his index finger could push towards her opening.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Yes, please...’

Slipping his finger into her took next to no effort. The wetness let it slide between the taut walls until it was buried almost to his knuckle. He moved his other hand from her back to replace his thumb. She shifted, hands on the armrests, pelvis pushed back and chest pushed forward. Her cheek rested against the top of his head, and as she bucked against him, he heard every pant and moan. His eyes slid shut, leaning his face against her bosom and followed her pace as it sped up. He felt her climax building around his fingers and in his mind, but the assault of what she felt was almost enough to drive him into the same state, even if he had barely been touched. The muscles clenched around his fingers and under his grip. Her broken groan lasted for seconds, as every nerve-ending fired. There was a moment of perfect stillness, as if it had shaken the life out of her, but then she drew breath. The sensation of when Charles drew out his finger made her gasp. Slowly, she climbed off him, and for want of anywhere else, sat down in his lap instead, her head rested in the crook of his neck. He kissed her brow and pushed a hand into her blouse again. They did not speak, but Charles was aware of how she had closed her eyes, intent on the way he was fondling her breasts. He imagined that the hand which rested on his shoulder would slide down and undo his shirt-buttons to touch him, and that she would kiss his neck as she had before, but the moment was too tranquil to ask for anything. He sensed in her an uncanny peace, and regardless of the fact that he had not been touched more than in passing, he felt a similar kind of tranquility. Charles did not want to disturb that calm in her, and did not speak or move until she shifted.

‘I should go,’ she said quietly, sounding uncharacteristically husky. He considered asking her to stay for a little while, either for more of this or something more mundane, but when she rose from his lap, he felt that it was probably for the best. It would be difficult to make conversation after this - it had been such an intense experience, even if it had only lasted a matter of minutes. Besides, if she left, he would have a little time to himself, to take care of his own needs which he had not dared to admit to her. His fingers, he realised now, were still sticky. He wiped the worst of it off on his handkerchief as he watched Gaby fasten up her bra and button her blouse. She picked her knickers off the floor, but, after having looked at them, balled them up and put them in her handbag with a helpless shrug. The thought of her walking home without any underwear on because he had aroused her so was quite exciting. When she put her jacket and scarf on, she moved slower, obviously wanting to postpone the farewell for as long as possible. Finally, she stepped up and they looked at each other, she looking down and he looking up.

‘Well,’ he said, trying to sound as if nothing had happened. ‘Good-bye, then.’ She laughed and leaned down. The kiss was deep and long, and he felt the last remnants of her lipstick smudging over his face. When he reached up to hold her neck, he wondered if he had transferred any of the lubrication from his fingers onto her skin. After a long while, they drew back and looked at each other.

‘I’ll see you again,’ she said, making it sound almost like a question.

‘Of course,’ Charles said quickly. ‘Very soon.’ She nodded.

‘Thank you.’

‘Pleasure’s all mine,’ he answered lamely, but as she straightened up and left with a final smile, he felt like shouting thank you - thank you for at last making me feel again, after her. He stayed silent.

***

At dinner that evening, Charles was afraid at first that he had been found out. He had never known that sexual frustration and its resolution could be seen in a face, but when he had looked himself in the mirror before coming down to dinner, he had thought he somehow looked different. This did not escape Erik.

‘You’re glowing,’ he said severely and looked at him as if he knew that Charles had had his fingers up the cunt of their mutual lady friend in a most unprofessional capacity only a few hours ago, something he was not going to admit to.

‘Oh, tosh,’ Charles said. ‘I’m a good mood, that’s all.’ Erik looked unconvinced, but shrugged

‘What did you do today?’ he asked instead.

‘Oh, I started reading a novel which seems quite good, I talked to the school, and I saw Gaby.’ Erik looked at him now.

‘How is she?’

‘Much better than last time I saw her,’ Charles said, trying to sound casual. Erik waited for him to elaborate, but when he did not, he said:

‘I’m still surprised that you’re not at your school. I can’t imagine even Beast standing in as headmaster.’

‘Oh, Hank seems to be doing a decent job,’ Charles said. ‘The mansion is still standing. And they can spare me - it’s probably good for them to learn how to deal with the place on their own.’ Then he said: ‘I’m still surprised at how very... human you seem.’

‘You think I decide to fight oppression and therefore lose all my manners?’ Erik scoffed.

‘Well, in the case of taste, I find your usual outfit lacking,’ Charles admitted. ‘What you’re wearing now looks much better on you than that cape.’

‘I couldn’t fight for mutant freedom in clothes which symbolise the oppressive power,’ he said, but did not look the least uncomfortable in his suit.

‘Sometimes you do sound like a communist, you know, Erik.’ The would-be communist shrugged.

‘I have my moments of sympathising.’

‘Let me guess,’ Charles said. ‘You would be a communist, but you’re too much of a creature of comfort to fully approve of everyone living in the same wretched way.’

Erik laughed, and the sound of it made Charles smile. It was incredibly pleasing to make his friend so comfortable that he would laugh. Mentally he rewarded himself the round. Then his thoughts caught up with him and he realised that without considering it, he had thought of Erik as “friend”. A few days ago, he would probably have added some adjective, “tentative” or even “former”. When he looked up, he saw Erik watching him. They smiled at each other, and for a moment Charles wondered if he would reach over the table to take his hand, like he had that first dinner. He flattened his hand against the surface, well within his reach but not too obviously close. Erik simply went back to his food. Charles curled his fingers against his palm, feeling foolish. He wished that he could be a little more rational around Erik - he did not seem to be able to make up his mind. It felt particularly silly to worry about these things after what had happened earlier. Surely that should have driven away his worries...

‘Charles?’ He looked up; he had let his mind wander.

‘Yes?’ Erik put down his cutlery and clasped his hands, looking somehow disturbed.

‘You know Gaby better than I do...’

‘Yes,’ Charles said hesitantly and felt a twinge of guilt at what he had done. Even if she had asked it of him, he had violated her confidence by accepting. Erik noticed none of these inner thoughts, but continued.

‘As with everyone, you have better insight in her than I do.’ He unclasped his hands and picked up his wine-glass. Fretting was not in his nature, but something was making him anxious. ‘Do you think that it’d upset her if I suggested a, eum, social meeting?’

Charles stared, wondering if he had misheard. It sounded almost like Erik was asking him for dating tips.

‘No, no, not at all,’ he stammered. ‘It’d be good for her, she’d be delighted...’ Confusion made his heart beat faster - after what had happened between him and Gaby, should he say that? But Erik had kissed her first... And on the other hand, he and Erik had been together even before that. Love was evidently not a game where one could call first dibs.

‘I thought I might take her dancing,’ Erik explained, looking relieved at Charles’ encouragements.

Dancing! That’s the kind of thing you do with a girl - one of the things I can’t do with a girl...

‘Charles?’ Erik shook him from his thoughts again.

‘Sorry - my mind wandered.’

‘Your mind wanders a lot,’ Erik observed.

‘Just thinking...’ He shrugged. ‘She’s human.’

‘And?’

‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ Charles asked. ‘Considering your usual take on humans...’

‘She’s an individual,’ Erik reminded him.

‘And the rest of them aren’t?’ He rolled his eyes at him.

‘Don’t get smart. That I am not homo sapiens does not mean that I am not “human”.’ He stopped to think about it for a moment. ‘There is no separate adjective for it in English,’ he said, possibly for himself. ‘There’s no word for menschlich. Frustrating.’ Then he returned to the matter at hand. ‘If it does not bother me, why does it bother you? Or does it just bother you that it doesn’t bother me?’

‘Never mind,’ Charles said and waved his hand, as if hoping to fan away the unwanted subject. ‘It’s not important.’ Erik eyed him suspiciously, but let it drop. They concentrated on their food, until Erik asked him about something in the papers, and the conversation set off again, without drifting into the territory of complicated emotions. Charles tried to banish it completely from his mind, and told himself that there was nothing relevant about the way Erik’s hand lay palm-down on the table.

***

Something, whether it was the conversation with Erik or just the longing itself, spurred Charles on, and he and Gaby decided to meet already the following day. It was colder than it had been the past week, and as he waited in the park, close to where they had met by chance shortly before hers and Erik’s kiss, he tried to blow warmth into his hands. The occasional passer-by tried not to stare; one wondered if the poor man had been abandoned there, with no way of getting anywhere. As he thrust his hands into his pockets instead, Charles wished that people’s passing thoughts did not thrust themselves upon him. He could try working on his shielding again, but he did not know whether it would help. Before Cuba, he had been able to shut out all thoughts, but with all the medication he was on now, he was not quite sharp enough to shield himself off completely. In a way, he found this reminder of the presence of other people’s minds comforting. Hearing their prejudices against him was perhaps a small price to pay.

‘Charles!’ He looked up, woken from his thoughts, and saw Gaby running towards him. She must have come through the far gate, and instead of following the snaking paths, she ran over the damp grass. He waved, and smiled at how her neck-scarf flared and her handbag jumped against her hip. She stopped abruptly, narrowly avoiding running into him, and threw her arms around him. He buried his nose in her shoulder and cherished the embrace. Momentarily, his worries felt very far away.

Then she let go and sat down on the park bench, close to him. They looked at each other, as if expecting something spectacular to happen. Gaby was the first to start laughing, and Charles laughed with her.

‘I’m glad to see you,’ he said. She smiled, still laughing a little.

‘It hasn’t felt like just a day.’

‘No.’ He took her hand, and she jumped, startled.

‘Your hand is so cold,’ she said by way of explanation, and pressed it between both her hands.

‘Just poor circulation,’ Charles said apologetically. ‘It’s cold.’ Gaby attempted to rub some warmth into it. She did a much better job than he had.

‘You should be wearing gloves.’

‘Yes, mother.’ She threw him a look, but there was a smile in her eyes. As she made him give her his other hand and she repeated the procedure, she admitted:

‘I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.’ She glanced up briefly. ‘Or your hands.’

‘You’ve been on my mind too,’ he said truthfully. ‘I... I can’t really believe my luck.’ Now she looked at him properly.

‘What do you mean?’ He shrugged, feeling awkward. He did not want to have this conversation yet, even if he knew that he was postponing the inevitable.

‘Just... I didn’t think that it’d ever happen,’ he said vaguely. Then one of the many things he had pondered since she left presented itself again. ‘Gaby, you should be aware...’

‘What?’ she asked, anxious at his tone.

‘It’s not the kind of thing a doctor is supposed to do with a patient.’ Gaby smiled ruefully and let go of his hand, only to touch his cheek. Then she pressed her finger to his lips.

‘Please,’ she whispered, ‘don’t ruin this just because you’ve been told that it isn’t appropriate.’ He took her hand away from his face.

‘Is it, though?’ he challenged. ‘A doctor’s ethical code is there for a reason, Gaby, it’s not just... convention.’ She looked at him in that direct way of hers, but he could not name her emotion.

‘Do you... feel for me?’ she asked.

‘Of course I do!’

‘Then where is the harm?’ she said and leaned closer. ‘Who would we hurt?’

‘Each other,’ Charles said. ‘Ourselves.’ For the first time since the conversation began, something reminiscent of distress presented itself on her face.

‘And if we do, can’t we worry about that then?’ she asked. ‘Charles, I want this. I...’ He covered her hand with his.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know what you’re trying to say.’

‘Do you?’ He smiled.

‘Believe me, I do,’ he assured her. She nodded and put her hand on top of his. He had seen the words she was trying to say, and felt that he was not ready to hear them. It was too early, and he was not certain if he could reciprocate. Was he in love with her? What did it mean anyway, being in love? He cared for her, yes, and he wanted her, but they had only known each other for a few short weeks. He did not dare to say anything he might then realise was not true. Besides, did she know the meaning of love? Her misfortunes had shielded her from the world. When had she ever had the chance of understanding such things? But she was lonely, and so was he. Besides, in comparison to some things, this was a small thing to overstep. Had he had actually been employed in the capacity as her doctor, then it would have cost him his job, but there were no such restrictions put upon them. However, his relationship with Erik could have given him a prison sentence, which was the worse punishment. Of course, whatever happened between him and Gaby would also affect Erik. But could he protect Erik’s interests as well as his own? Should he? He was not even certain if he felt bad about the fact that he might be stepping into something. Remembering how Erik had played the courteous gentleman at the restaurant to spite him, he felt a corresponding need to spite him. He considered asking Gaby what was actually going on, and what she felt, but he felt it was better to pretend to know nothing about it.

Instead, he leaned closer, and she came to meet him. They kissed carefully, almost experimentally.

‘I just wanted to be certain,’ he explained, their faces still close. She smiled, as though she wished that he would not feel any kind of uncertainty about them. To quench that feeling of vague disappointment, she kissed him again.

When they withdrew, Gaby looked out over the park. Charles watched her profile, and reached out to stroke the hair around her ear.

‘How was work?’ he asked. She shrugged.

‘Dull,’ she admitted. ‘I got to do some shorthand, though. Usually it’s just typing.’

‘It can’t be all that bad,’ he attempted. She threw him a look.

‘You’ve not been a typist.’

‘I spent a term as a research assistant,’ he said, but she looked unimpressed.

‘I’m not even a secretary, Charles,’ Gaby explained. ‘I’m lowest in the picking order. I’m the person the secretaries take out their aggressions on when the men are giving them a hard time.’

‘But you’ve worked there for years. Don’t they believe in promotions?’ She looked suddenly embarrassed.

‘I’m not a very good typist,’ she said apologetically. Charles thought of all the books on her kitchen table, and imagined her having her dinner alone, reading up on international law. For a moment, he indulged himself in imagining making that dream come true. He had money - he could pay her fees. The idea of having Gaby in his debt was equally pleasing and guilty. Still, he knew that he could not simply step in and do that for a woman he had known for only a month, and she would not want to be a charity case. As if knowing what he imagined, she looked at him and said: ‘Please don’t tell me, “do something else”. I know I should... but I can’t. Not as things are. I complain, but typing is much better than working in a factory or being on the dole. At least it lets me get out of my own head.’

He smiled at her answer, and Gaby looked perplexed.

‘What’s so funny?’

‘Gaby,’ he laughed. ‘You’re incredible.’ She watched him in astonishment.

‘What do you mean?’ Her bewilderment worried him, but he still smiled.

‘Perhaps you don’t realise it, but you’re so strong,’ he explained. ‘You’ve experienced horrible things, but you don’t let it daunt you. Every day, you get out of bed, get dressed and get to work.’ He could not say the same thing of himself after the incidents on Cuba. Had it not been for the boys, he might still have spent his days as an apathetic puppet.

Gaby looked down, worried at what he said.

‘But I do sometimes,’ she said. ‘I let it overpower me only a few days ago.’ Charles reached out and took her hand.

‘Gaby, listen to me. There have been days when you have wished to be back in that hospital, or have wished simply to disappear, because it would be so much easier. But not once have you let it happen again. Even the times when it was so close, you’ve fought it. Even the days when you felt that you would rather be dead, you have always resisted.’ Gaby’s gaze remained turned away, but tears gleamed on her cheeks.

‘And the days I can’t be strong?’ she whispered.

‘You can always press on,’ he assured her. ‘If you wait, the minutes will pass. In a few hours, the day will get to the end. And what if your typing isn’t that good? You can retype it. They can make someone else do it. They won’t fire you for a few mistakes. When it feels too much, then just let it pass over you. Then come to see me, and we’ll sort it out. Even when you feel like there’s nothing to sort out. I’ll keep you company.’

Gaby gave something half-way between a sniffle and a laugh, and pressed the back of her hand against her mouth.

‘It’s so odd,’ she said. ‘It’s like you know just what I’m thinking, and just what I need to hear.’

‘It comes with the trade, my dear,’ he said.

‘It must be awful, to work with people who are insane,’ Gaby said. ‘It must be oppressive.’

‘I never see people who are insane,’ Charles replied and touched her cheek. ‘Only extraordinary human beings.’ She smiled ruefully, but there was irony in her voice when she said:

‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’

‘There are no other girls.’ A truth, in its own twisted way.

She watched him, her thoughts evidently back at what he had said before.

‘I grow sick of being strong sometimes,’ she admitted. ‘Sometimes I almost envy my parents.’

‘Why?’ Charles had not reflected before on the fact that Gaby had never mentioned her parents before, and they had not been in the memory he had read the first time they met.

‘They gave up,’ she explained and yet again looked out over the park. ‘They do not have to remember anything.’

‘But there is so much joy in life,’ Charles said.

‘Yes, and suffering. My parents never realised that, before it was too late.’

Charles reached out and took her hand. It took a moment before she returned the grip.

‘Why did they not realise it?’ She shrugged.

‘My father was an art-dealer, my mother was an artist. The whole house was filled with paintings - not just the ones by my mother which she was too happy with to sell, but also Dutch masters, French impressionist... There was even art in my room. I had a beautiful painting of a little dog climbing over a bowl of fruit. My father thought it was good for the nursery.’ She paused and smiled at the memory, and through her mind’s eye, Charles could see that huge house in Amsterdam, and the portraits which were familiar enough to be aunts and uncles. ‘They lived for art. I don’t mean that they neglected me - they never did that. They were very loving parents. But they never gave the rest of the world a thought. They never cared about politics. They had friends who had fled from Germany, but they never seemed to think twice about it. Even when the Germans invaded, even when they took all the refugees away, they did nothing. My grandmother wanted us to go into hiding, but they kept saying that it was not that bad. They could not do anything to us. Even when they made us register, my parents said that it would blow over. Finally, my grandmother took me with her. I don’t know if she persuaded my parents, or took me more or less by force. There wasn’t really a goodbye, not a real one. I remember hugging my father, and kissing my mother, and leaving, but it was just like going out for a walk. I didn’t realise what was happening.’ She swallowed. ‘They took them away next week. My grandmother and I hid in a cellar for months, until they found us, and took us to a transit camp. She found someone who had met my parents. They were well-known, after all. People had noticed them. They said that they had been taken away on one of the trains which came every Tuesday. And then one day, our turn came. My grandmother died on the train. I found out later, after I woke up, that my parents had been taken to Auschwitz and gassed to death just after arriving. Sometimes I think about all the time they were dead, and I did not mourn.’

Charles pressed her hand, lost for words.

‘I’m so sorry, Gaby.’ It sounded pathetic in the context, but there was little else to say. They sat quietly, and slowly the subject grew more distant. They spoke of other things and entwined their hands. They kissed coyly, and both thought of suggesting going somewhere for more but did not.

As they sat there, Charles tried to find a way to communicate his admiration at her bravery to speak, and his gratitude at the trust she placed in him. There was something about information freely given which should be treasured. This was not like his knowledge of Erik’s life, which he had picked from his head because of necessity. Neither was it like the memories he had experienced the first time he met Gaby. This was the way normal people communicated and showed confidence. To them, the only way to be insincere was to gossip or to rifle through personal belongings. They never felt the constant tug of minds, asking to be read, screaming to be noticed. How Charles envied them.