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The third who walks always beside you

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Charles had always been one for quick, even rash decisions. Collaborating evidence and visualising a problem to find a solution had always come easily to him, and he liked to think that his decisions were more well-informed than others’, as he could take his fellows’ wishes into account, sometimes without them knowing it.

All the way until Saturday, he was haunted by something very like a bad conscience. Rationally, he knew that he had made the right decision about Erik and Gaby, so why did he hesitate? His surroundings offered him no answer. His days were much as they had bee below, spent partly on his own in his room, and partly in the company of others, meeting Gaby for tea or playing chess with Erik. One especially bright day, he and Erik went for a walk around the harbour. The sight of the Statue of Liberty reminded him of the dream he had had a few days previously. Nothing reminiscent of the dream happened, however, but he thought Erik was more courteous than he had often been. Charles wondered if he had picked up on his unsettled mood and tried to cheer him up, or if he, like the boys in the mansion, thought he might break if upset. It did not seem likely, considering all the arguments they had had in the past, but now the thought manifested. It felt wrong that Erik should be so careful with anyone, and it almost made him grab and kiss him then and there. A sudden desperation was taking hold of Charles. He was throwing it all away - on Saturday, the almost inevitable outcome was that he and Gaby ended whatever it was that they had, which probably meant that Charles would have to leave New York, and that in turn would mean the termination of his new-found friendship with Erik. He would miss them both. He already missed them, in knowing that he was leaving. That feeling reached its peak one night when he sensed Gaby entering the hotel and climbing the stairs to Erik’s room. Erik had ordered up a bottle of Champagne - Charles felt oddly offended by that romantic gesture, although he could not tell why. They opened it and drank, but spoke very little, and half the bottle was left when they started stripping. Their lovemaking was frantic, and Charles could not tell if it was because Erik knew what Tuesday dinner was about, or if it was simply the lonely soul’s longing for intimacy.

Lying alone in his silent suite, Charles thought that there was no way that Gaby would choose him over Erik. Not that Erik was perfect either - their reluctance to actually speak was testament to that. Charles was certain that had it not been for her heritage, Erik would never have seen beyond her species. That detail had removed her from the persecuting masses and made her an individual. Their backgrounds were vastly different - the modest apartment on top of a jeweller’s shop was a far cry from the Haller residence with its vast rooms and famous paintings - but their childhoods were both lost, and were not to be mentioned, which made them irrelevant. It seemed paradoxical in a way that the things that brought them close were also those that sundered them. In that way, Charles’ stance as an outsider probably helped him, but his telepathy gave him an unwelcome insight into the things that he was gratefully excluded from. How could their relationship seem such a minefield while they still seemed so compatible? Often it struck Charles what a beautiful couple they were, both tall and handsome and sharp-featured. It was nothing like either of them together with him, towering over his constantly seated form, or covering his laid-out body, with its atrophic limbs and surgical scars. Whenever Gaby kissed him, he would be the one reaching up to meet her, while she had to lean down (and if he let Erik kiss him, so would he). That was not what a kiss between a man and a woman should be like. It should be like when Erik kissed her, and he leaned down slightly and her head fell back a little (and if Gaby was right that they were the same height, it must be the same angle he had tipped his head at all those years ago).

No, it could not be worth all this worry. It was better to let it all go and return to his petty life. It should not his problem if Gaby’s heart ended up broken (or for that matter Erik’s - his heart was more breakable than it might seem). It should be their concern, and yet it felt like his. He did not know if it was a protective impulse or a need for control, or even a manifestation of jealousy. Not wanting to linger on the reasons, Charles resolutely pushed it aside, determined to go through with his plan.

When the first knock on his door came five to eight on Tuesday, it still made his stomach jolt. Gaby entered; he had sensed the happiness and anticipation in her even before she had opened the door. Now, her worries for the two affairs felt far away, and instead her mind resonated with new love. His throat tightened at the thought of the way he was about to shatter those feelings. He did his best to answer her leisurely kiss without hesitation. When she was about to draw back, it suddenly occurred to him that this was probably one of their last kisses. Instead of letting her withdraw, he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her down into his lap. She shrieked in surprise, but then when she felt his intent embrace, she stilled.

‘Charles?’ He looked up and forced a smile.

‘I’m very happy to see you,’ he explained.

‘You saw me the day before yesterday,’ Gaby reminded him kindly.

‘Well, it was two days too long ago.’ She smiled.

‘You’re too sweet.’ They kissed again, and she rose.

‘Would you like a drink?’

‘Yes, please,’ she said. He rolled over to where he kept his spirits and retrieved a bottle of gin. As he poured the tonic, he said:

‘That’s a very pretty blouse. I don’t think I’ve seen it before.’ Gaby smiled, and tugged a little at the white blouse with small black dots on it.

‘I keep it for special occasions,’ she explained.

‘I’m very glad this is a special occasion.’ He handed her the glass, and she raised it in a toast.

‘To us?’ she suggested.

‘Yes,’ he said, and tried to keep his feelings from showing. ‘To us.’

They drank just as there was a knock on the door. Erik did not wait for an answer, but stepped in, smiling at them both. Gaby moved sharply towards him, but restrained herself, afraid of seeming overly affectionate to either of them when there was the three of them. Erik greeted her with a friendly kiss on the cheek, but for the brief moment his lips touched her skin, he looked up and his gaze fixed on Charles. There was a challenge in those eyes, but also a pleading look, asking him not to ruin this fragile content. He looked away, not daring to meet Erik’s eyes.

As Charles poured another drink, Gaby started talking to Erik about some novel he had lent her. Their discussion was eager; it seemed to be a relief to have some neutral ground to move in. Charles was content to listen to their conversation without joining in. Even when he realised that he knew the novel, he found that every time he tried to formulate a thought to add to the discussion, he could not put it into words. When they moved from the couch to the table, he was still mostly silent. When either of the others tried to engage him in the conversation, he would make an effort, but his success felt short-lived. The worry of the approaching serious conversation distracted him, and the others’ thoughts seemed particularly penetrating now. He knew all of Gaby’s ease, and how light her troubles felt, just as he knew Erik’s mind, caught between clear-cut affection and that diffuse anger that never left him.

How much easier it would be, Charles reflected after a while, if Gaby had not been in such a good mood, but had been guilt-ridden and worried. It would force a decision. If Erik had been less iron-willed and had listened to his concerns, it would be easier too. Considering that he had the power to change that, it was a horrible thing to wish for. He pushed it aside, and instead listened to Erik’s anecdotes and watched Gaby’s smiling eyes flicker between them. Once, when recounting an amusing but harmless story from their recruiting drive, Erik reached out and touched his arm in companionship, but the contact was too long, and Charles knew Gaby understood the implication. It made her pause, as she tried to repress a harmless form of jealousy, born out of being excluded from some part of other peoples’ life. Charles wished he did not have to sit quite so close to either of them.

Time seemed to pass at an impossibly slow pace, but suddenly dinner was finished, and Gaby and Erik rose. More drinks were mixed and when they moved to the sofa, they sat to one side.

‘Charles?’ Gaby said to call his attention. Probably because she did not know quite how to ask him in words, she patted the space beside her on the sofa. Charles hesitated for a moment, knowing that this was probably a bad idea, but then he wheeled closer and moved over. He was a little more drunk than he had preferred, but he noticed an inebriated blush on Gaby’s cheeks and the dulled sensation of Erik’s mind, so they were probably all in the same state. When he had settled, Gaby handed him his drink and crossed her legs.

‘You’ve been very quiet this evening,’ she observed. ‘Is anything the matter?’

‘Or is your mind just wandering again?’ Erik added with a smirk. Charles took a gulp of the drink, preparing the jump he had anticipated all evening.

‘I have things on my mind,’ he explained and put the glass aside. Gaby was half turned towards him, listening intently. Erik, who was leisurely leaning into the corner of the sofa, ankle resting on knee, watched him too, knowing what was to come. Charles looked down at his hands, trying to figure out how he should start. ‘Gaby, I... I feel some kind of responsibility for you, and I would be sorry if you were unhappy somehow.’ Gaby frowned. ‘It seems, because of... miscommunications between Erik and myself, as if we’ve trapped you in a rather difficult situation.’ Gaby looked over at Erik, who smiled morosely.

‘It is impossible to keep a secret from Charles,’ he explained, but sounded apologetic. Evidently, he truly believed that Charles had had no idea about his and Gaby’s involvement until a few days ago.

‘It’s alright,’ she said quietly to him and then turned back to Charles. Her concern for whatever he had to say was plainly written in her features. ‘Go on.’

Charles clasped his hands, realising now that he had spent more time worrying for this moment than preparing for it. He took a moment to gather his thoughts before he spoke.

‘I’m simply worried that you feel that there are... demands on your affections, and that you feel, well, coerced.’

‘I haven’t felt that,’ she said earnestly.

‘I’m glad,’ Charles said, without sounding it, ‘but you might, in the future. Besides, things are... hardly ideal.’

‘Do you mean the fact that you and Erik were once lovers?’ Her forthrightness startled him, but he nodded.

‘Yes, for example,’ he said. ‘But more than that a fact that I haven’t been able to ignore, that the situation is causing you distress, and it seems to me that it would be better for your own well-being, as well as in the interest of, say, public opinion, that we...’ His throat suddenly grew tight, and he swallowed to keep emotion from his voice. ‘... simplified things.’

Gaby looked at him for a long, silent moment, processing what he had said. He had expected a more obvious reaction - tears or perhaps anger - but instead, a line formed between her brows as she frowned at him.

‘Are you breaking up with me?’

‘No, that’s not what I mean,’ Charles said quickly, sounding a little too eager to negate it, he thought. ‘I think that you should think about what to do, and know that neither of us will judge you.’

Her eyes grew suddenly in disbelief.

‘You want me to choose!’ she exclaimed. He did not answer. It was not something to argue about, considering that it was true. ‘Is that it?’

‘I think that it would be better for you if you were not torn between us,’ he said, realising that he sounded defensive. ‘People will not look kindly on this, even if it is naturally not your fault...’

‘Not my “fault”?’ she repeated. ‘Do you think that you made me do this? I decided on this with both of you because I wanted it. If it’s anyone’s fault, it is mine.’

‘And there is no fault,’ Erik added.

‘That isn’t the point,’ Charles said sharply. ‘People will think there is.’

‘So we give in to their bigoted demands?’ Erik asked.

‘Erik, please, let me deal with this,’ he said and turned back to Gaby. ‘Of course people have no right to pass judgement, but it doesn’t mean that they do not, and there might be consequences.’ Gaby crossed her arms.

‘You make it sound like my choices are being a whore or a defiled maiden.’

Charles cleared his throat.

‘Gaby, “whore” is a rather vulgar word...’

‘I know that,’ she said, annoyed at his assumption that she did not know the word. ‘I’m not uneducated. I do know English.’ Charles waved it away and moved on.

‘General opinion aside, this is still not a good situation,’ he said. ‘It might be alright now, but sooner or later, there is bound to be jealousy. People aren’t meant to share these kinds of things. It’s bound to lead to someone being hurt, and forced out.’ Gaby’s lips formed a thin, defiant line.

‘You can’t ask this of me,’ she said. Then she turned to Erik and asked: ‘What do you think?’

Erik traced the edge of his glass with a finger and smiled crookedly.

‘Let’s just say that the good professor has a history of telling young women what to think and do.’

Erik!

Gaby looked back at Charles, obviously gripped by the suspicion that she might not be the first.

‘What does he mean, Charles?’

Rubbing his eyes and sighing, Charles answered:

‘Erik is referring to my sister. I... took issue with the fact that he put some rather inappropriate ideas in her head. But that has nothing to do with this. Gaby, the situation as it is now... Surely you see that it can’t go on.’

‘And I suppose you want me to choose you?’ she asked scathingly.

Charles swallowed. Simply because he knew he should not, he wanted to tell her to do so. How wonderful it would be to be loved, despite all his flaws. But it would be selfish. He did not want to trap Gaby together with someone who could not even walk. With all that prudish upbringing, he found it difficult to put in words that Erik would probably be able to satisfy her better than he ever could.

‘I’m not telling you what to do, but you should keep in mind that being with me might not be... simple.’

Erik scoffed.

‘“Simple”? And you think being with me would be?’

‘Erik, don’t make fun of it,’ Charles snapped. ‘This is serious. Gaby, what with how things are...’

‘But it’s not a problem,’ she objected, and suddenly her anger felt less palpable. In its place, fear that she might lose this, either of them or both, presented itself. Charles smiled laconically, reflecting that Gaby did not realise how inadequate it was possible to feel in the simplest of situations.

‘Gaby, please just think about it.’ She hung her head and then shifted so that she sat facing straight ahead. Charles did not read her thoughts, but could feel how her mind churned, taking facts and emotions into account. They sat silent for minutes, in anticipation and worry, and then finally Gaby drew a deep breath and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand.

With slow deliberation, she turned to Erik and moved to kiss him. Charles watched how Erik’s hand closed around her shoulder as they kissed, and his throat tightened. She had chosen, then. But sooner than he had thought, she broke the kiss. Now, Gaby turned to him and touched his cheek. She looked him in the eyes, and then she leaned closer and kissed him. He melted into her touch, confused and grateful at the same time. For once, he relied on spoken words alone, and it was an odd feeling not to know what she was about to say when she withdrew, even if he had hopes.

Gaby looked at them both, making sure she had their attention, and then spoke.

‘I’m not going to choose,’ she said firmly. ‘I couldn’t. It doesn’t have to be like you say it’d be, Charles, with it leading to jealousy and one of us being forced out. We’ll make sure that it doesn’t happen.’ She gave him a measuring look, and then turned her eyes to Erik. Charles followed her gaze, and realised suddenly that he was looking Erik straight in the eye, as though she had lead them together. Erik’s jaw tightened. The gaze seemed to shake him just as much. Charles felt Gaby’s hand against his cheek again, and heard her voice, which had softened to a whisper.

‘Whatever he did, Charles, won’t you forgive him? Can’t you see how he bleeds inside?’

Charles swallowed. His hand lay close to Gaby’s leg, and on her knee rested Erik’s hand. How easy it would be to move it those few inches to touch his, and still he knew that he should not. But why should he not? His only reason was his own decision of what he was allowed to feel. It took effort to disobey himself, but he raised his hand and slowly, moved it closer. Finally, he put it over Erik’s. Nothing startling happened. The touch did not harm him, and Gaby did not rush away in disgust. There was simply the feel of the tiny hairs on the back of his hand and the blood flowing through the veins - just skin touching skin, simple yet more remarkable than anything else.

Gaby’s hand slipped onto Charles’ shoulder, but the fingers rose to trace his jaw were not hers. Charles looked up from their hands and saw Erik’s expectant eyes, asking for permission. He nodded, not trusting his voice. A small, sorrowful smile formed and faded on Erik’s face. Then he took hold of his chin and leaned in.

For a moment, they simply sat there with dry lips together, not kissing so much as touching, as if they had forgotten what to do. Charles could feel Erik’s mind reeling, even more surprised at this than he was. By some form of mutual agreement, they moved their lips against each other, slowly remembering the shape of their old kisses. As they deepened, they grew more like the ones they had once shared. The rational part of him wanted to draw away - this was only supposed to be a gesture of reconciliation, nothing this erotic - but neither his mouth nor his libido was helping. In fact, Gaby was not helping either, as she leaned closer and licked at his cheek, at the same moment as Erik’s tongue touched his. Had he not been a telepath, he would almost have thought that they had planned this. Both of them were teasing him, and he was letting himself be teased. It struck him now that they should discuss this before going any further, seeing that they might simply be acting upon inebriation and emotional confusion... But a deep, primal part of his mind asked, is this not what you want?

It was, ever since the beginning. Already at their first meeting, he had felt the tension, not between them as pairs, but between the three of them. Here was the logical culmination of their relationships with Gaby and with each other. Here was the opportunity to be part of what he had previously only jealously watched through both their eyes. Here he could finally listen to that urge to touch Erik, and it would be seen only as a way to acknowledge what they shared through their mutual lover, not directly to one another.

The kiss broke and, without taking his eyes off him, Erik leaned close to Gaby and licked her neck. In turn, Gaby bit at Charles’ earlobe. The last of his reluctance faded, and instead he kissed Gaby, who now moved to straddle him. Erik edged closer and undid the buttons of her blouse. Charles could feel how Gaby’s breath trembled against his mouth; this excited her more than either of them on his own. He put his hand on her knee and then slid it upwards, under her skirt. She gasped and kissed him harder, even as Erik started slipping off her blouse. For a brief moment, Charles’ shields weakened, and he was drawn into both their minds, so that he felt each hand and each kiss between the three of them. He separated his and Gaby’s mouths, gasping for breath. Erik must have guessed what happened, because he grinned at him. Then Gaby recaptured the kiss. Erik moved closer and kissed the line of her jaw, and at the same time, he put his hand on the back of Charles’ neck, to create a circle of touch. It was a tangle of hands, at once confusing and arousing - Erik’s one hand on Charles’ neck, the other on Gaby’s hip, Gaby’s hands thrust under Charles’ shirt, Charles’ hands against her back and Erik’s wrist. Their lips roved over each other’s bodies, Erik’s and Charles’ mostly touching Gaby, but on occasion, planting a secret kiss on the other’s skin, as if they were ashamed to show that attraction in front of her. When Erik pushed down the shoulder-strap of Gaby’s bra, she asked:

‘Shouldn’t we...?’ They all looked at each other. Charles grinned, the last of his reservations long since dropped. The time for regrets could come later.

‘I think my bed could fit three.’

When he later looked back on that first encounter between the three of them, the part which was always missing was how they had moved from the sofa to the bedroom. All he was certain of was that he had been in control of his own wheels, while the others followed him. Moving over to the bed was such a habitual thing that he later on could not remember it, in the way that ordinary things do not feel necessary to memorise. Instead, he would recall how Gaby had crawled onto the bed, struggled him out of his shirt and vest, and kissed his chest, and how he had been able to see Erik pulling the turtleneck over his head. He would recall how Erik lay down on Gaby’s other side, the front of his body following the back of hers, how he reached out to trace the muscles on Charles’ upper arm, and how he took his hand and pulled it towards him. He would recall how their eyes met over Gaby’s shoulder as Erik kissed the callouses on his palm as he had said he would. Awed, Charles watched him, and when he let go of his hand, he kept it there and brushed it against his cheek. The touch was that of relief, and yet Charles felt the guilt between their skin, in the same way as Gaby lay between their bodies. For no more than a moment, she seemed like an obstacle between them - a mere woman, a mere human - but then she raised her head and looked at him, eyelids heavy and lips begging to be kissed, and once again she was a person whom he desired. The others scrambled to remove their clothes - Charles kept his trousers on, as it seemed like too much fuss to remove them. They did not stop to talk about what to do, but simply acted, guided by nudges and moans. Gaby’s hand on Charles’ chest and his fingers between her legs, Erik’s lips on Gaby’s shoulder, and his eyes flickering towards Charles. When Gaby wrapped one leg around Charles’ hip and Erik edged closer, his erection brushed against Charles’ fingers. He did not know whether to be embarrassed by it, or if it had been deliberate, but when he tried to withdraw his hand, Gaby grabbed it and guided it back.

Time blurred as they moved against each other. Charles rapidly lost track of how long since they went to bed. All he knew for sure was the way Gaby’s breasts pressed against his chest and how her deft fingers sought out erogenous zones on his body. Occasionally her own pleasure would distract her and her hand would stop its wanderings. Instead, she let her head fall back and pushed against Charles’ hand and Erik’s strokes. That prompted Charles to nibble at her throat, which in turn she would do to him. It was in that state, drunk on wine and touch and relief, that they at last drew apart and lay panting, side by side by side. Gaby was the first to start laughing. She laughed as if she had never been so happy, and had he asked, Charles knew, he might have learned that it was true. Then it spread to Erik, who gave a bark of a laugh and buried his nose in Gaby’s hair. Charles picked it up too, and did not realise until later that there were tears running down his cheeks. In the darkness, the others did not notice, and he brushed them away, happy that he did not have to assure his lovers that they were tears of joy. He pushed himself closer to Gaby and put an arm around her. Erik took hold around his wrist and ran a tender finger down it into his palm and then up. Charles had expected him to let go after that, but the grip remained, and he found that he did not mind.

Somewhere in his confused, sleepy mind, Charles reflected that this was not how he had imagined their evening to end. He had assumed he would get into a cold and empty bed and fall asleep with regrets running through his head. He had not expected his bed to be uncomfortably warm and comfortingly crowded. Least of all, he had expected himself to end up in bed with Erik in any way, not even with Gaby between them. It seemed strange, that only a fortnight ago he had been convinced that he would never have sex again, and now he was just catching his breath after a threeway. He wondered if this meant that they were a ménage à trois rather than two couples now. Somehow he had expected himself to feel morally scandalised by such things, but he did not. That did not mean that the thrill of Erik’s hand running up his arm did not have an undertone of confused guilt, but all the same he cherished it. He leaned in and kissed Gaby on the forehead.

‘Good night,’ he whispered. She hummed in agreement and pressed closer. He snaked his arm tighter around her, Erik not letting go.

‘Good night, Charles,’ Erik said through the darkness, speaking much more softly than usual.

‘Good night, Erik,’ he answered and closed his eyes. He would not let his worries prey on him tonight. For once, he wanted to fall asleep happy.