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The third who walks always beside you

Chapter Text

14 November 1980

Later, Charles felt that it should have been more dramatic. The news should have been delivered by a breathless messenger or at least a telephone call, but instead, the bearer of the news was the radio. Had he not been in Oxford that day, it would have taken even longer for him to find out. He was only there for a conference, and it was purely coincidental that they were within earshot when the news came on. Over the eighteen years he had been away from Oxford, much had changed, but his favourite pub still stood, and their beer was as good as it always had been.

His students were chatting excitedly around him, and it was only a stray thought from the publican that alerted him. He turned his head towards the radio, and took in what was being said. Outside the Israeli embassy in London. Masked men. Several casualties.

‘Oh God,’ he murmured. Hank, who sat beside him, hearing the interjection, turned to look at him.

‘What’s the matter, Professor?’

‘I need to get to London.’

‘What - why...?’ Charles raised a finger, indicating the radio. The rest of the group fell silent, and the sound carried through the empty pub. As they listened, their faces went solemn. Amidst the feelings of shock and worry, Charles felt a brief sense of gratitude that they, old students and new, were the ones to be with him now.

‘The police have only issued a brief statement, and advise against speculation on the motive of the attack. They have not given any information about the perpetrators, and it is not known whether they have been apprehended. However, the statement confirms that the ambassador, Gabrielle Haller, and members of her family are among the casualties.’

The vague phrase “members of her family” made Charles feel suddenly sick. David. It had to be - he was all the family she had. Worse than that was the term “casualty”. It could mean anything. Without saying anything, he unlocked the wheels of his chair and started maneuvering the cluttered room.

‘Professor...’ Ororo said timidly, getting to her feet. Charles did not heed her.

‘I need to get there.’ Scott (bless him) jumped to his feet.

‘I’ll drive you,’ he offered. Jean rose too, but by the look on her face, she was as apprehensive as Ororo was.

But Professor, why? Why is this important to you? Charles shielded his mind, and simply answered:

I’ll explain later. He knew that that was probably a lie. There were some things a man could never own up to.

Brief farewells were made, and within ten minutes they were in the car, heading towards London. It was obvious that Scott was itching to ask the same thing as Jean had, but he resisted it. Charles was grateful for that, and for so much else. Scott had always been almost like a son to him. Now the idea presented itself that all along, he had been a surrogate for another son - a son who might be dead, or close to it. And Gaby - Gaby! Surely it could not all end like this for her, after everything. Not as a victim of hate...

During the drive, Charles checked the city maps and found the hospital closest to the Israeli embassy. The driver took under two hours, but Charles wished it could be shorter still. Small delays annoyed him, and at every red light he would drum his fingers. He tried to guess when the attack had happened - if the police had had time to make a statement, it must have happened sometime during the morning. There was no way to say what might have changed since then.

When they stopped in front of the hospital and Scott retrieved the chair, Charles wished for the first time in years that he was not dependent on the thing, and that he could simply get out of the car and run inside to find her.

‘I’ll be alright from here,’ he told Scott once he had transferred into the chair. ‘I’ll make contact when I’m done.’

‘Sure,’ Scott said, trying to find a way to ask without blurting out the question. ‘Good luck,’ he said instead. Charles nodded gratefully, and set off towards the reception. The receptionist looked up at his approach.

‘How may I help you, sir?’

‘Has Gabrielle Haller been admitted here?’ he asked. ‘I’m a friend.’ The girl’s smile grew terse, evidently not believing him. She was just about to say that she could not tell him that or lie and say that she was not there, but a small push at her mind was enough to make the smile grow genuine again, and she turned to her files.

‘Yes, she’s here - I’ll take you.’

The receptionist called to one of her colleagues to take the reception, and showed him into the maze of corridors. As he followed her, he wondered what he would find. If she was badly hurt, he would happily stay at her side until she came around. But if it was only cuts and bruises and shock, should he turn up like this? They had not seen each other for fifteen years, and had not been in touch for well over fourteen. Charles might be the last person she wanted to see (or the first).

He had seen her photograph in the papers many times, so he knew how her face had lined, but now those pictures seemed elusive. It was not even the memory of her that presented herself, but one of the pictures which she had sent him with one of those few letters. He kept it in one of his desk drawers, along with a picture of him and Erik from when they first had met. Both were loves he could not admit to. In it, the Mediterranean, its turquoise turned a light grey in the photo, stretched out behind her where she stood at some look-out. She smiled as she pulled back her hair from her face, which the wind in turn caught and shaped into a black swell in the breeze. He remembered clearly that the sleeves of her dress were only three-quarter length, which she would never have worn in New York. Her large belly looked almost comical in contrast to her thin frame, and the weight of it made her lean back a little. He always wondered if she smiled because of the situation, or because she was already planning to send the photograph to him.

Haifa in the summer seemed a far cry from the sickly pink corridors of a London hospital. It seemed wrong that in one of the rooms here, she was being cared for, because someone had made an attempt on her life. Evidently the police thought someone might still try - they passed several plain-clothes police officers, whose loitering made their profession obvious even to non-telepaths. By the door where they stopped, a bobby stood on guard, probably more as a gesture than for any extra protection. A woman Charles gathered was the head nurse was passing the other direction, and the receptionist stopped her to explain that the gentleman here was a friend of the ambassador. Another telepathic push was all it took to get rid of the initial reluctance. The nurse smiled compassionately at him.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘She’s sedated, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.’ She was about to leave when she suddenly remembered something, and stopped. ‘Oh - David’s father is with her, but if you’re a friend of the family, I’m sure he won’t mind.’ Charles opened his mouth to protest - that he was here, in the corridor, not with her...

Then he remembered, and his heart froze. He did not understand how he could have forgotten for even a moment, but above all he wondered, how can he know?

‘Thank you,’ he said hollowly and approached the door. The bobby tipped his helmet at him and opened the door. He entered, as his heart beat alarmingly hard in his chest. The door closed, trapping him there.

Hospital rooms look much the same, regardless of what hospital or what country they are in, so the room was in many ways familiar to him. When the nurse had said that Gaby was sedated, he had been worried, but she was not intubated, and to an untrained eye, she might have seemed simply asleep. Still, there were tell-tale signs of what had happened. Her shoulder was bandaged and her arm was in a sling, and one side of her face bore cuts and scratches, presumably from when she had fallen. Her long hair was carefully combed over her un-bandaged shoulder, and spread over the hospital gown. Her free hand rested not on the mattress, but in the grip of the visitor, seated on the other side of the bed. There was no question of his identity even before Charles saw him, but something about seeing that sharp profile and the white mane of hair acknowledged the truth he was not certain whether to accept or not. He wondered how long he had been here; not long enough to think of taking off his coat, even if he had removed his fedora, which lay on the bedside table. When Charles entered, he did not look up, and did not even seem to have noticed the door open. The way he held Gaby’s hand was at once tender and unaccustomed, as if it were a kind of touch he had almost forgotten how to give.

‘Hello, Erik.’

Magneto looked up sharply, but as soon as he laid eyes on him, the aggression in his face melted into surprise.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, not unpleasantly. Charles rolled closer, to the side of the bed.

‘I was in Oxford, to give a paper. I came as soon as I heard.’ They were silent for a moment. ‘You?’

‘I was just passing through,’ Magneto said, and now Charles detected a hint of shock in his voice. ‘It was on the radio...’

‘Yes.’ They did not speak, and avoided looking at each other, concentrating instead on the patient. Charles tried to remember the last time he and Erik met on friendly terms. It was years in the past, but much more recent than the last time he heard from Gaby. After a while, Charles moved closer to the foot of the bed and picked the chart off the frame. He eyed through it, and exhaled with relief.

‘It doesn’t look too bad, under the circumstances,’ he said. ‘A bullet to the shoulder - nasty, but could have gone worse. Quite a few stitches, though.’ He eyed the bag of blood hanging along with the IV, and wondered if it was the wound itself or the surgery that had made her lose the blood. Charles put the chart back and returned to the bedside. ‘Have they told you anything else?’ Magneto shook his head. ‘How many were wounded?’

‘I don’t know much,’ he admitted. ‘Her aide was shot, but not badly. Another two diplomats were killed, as well as another Israeli. They assumed I knew him, as he was a friend of Gaby’s - Daniel Shomron.’

Charles looked at him in shock.

‘I knew him,’ he said. ‘We were at medical school together. I introduced them, when she emigrated.’ For a brief moment, he wondered what Dan had been doing there, when it struck him what the date was. It was David’s birthday, and Dan was his godfather. They must have been going somewhere to celebrate, when it happened.

‘Have you heard anything about who did this?’ Charles finally asked. Magneto sighed.

‘I sent Mystique to collect intel, but it seems like no-one knows anything. Palestinian terrorists, neo-Nazis.... It could be anything, but the motive seems fairly obvious.’

‘Yes,’ Charles agreed. For a moment he wanted to reach out to touch him, but he stopped his hand. Magneto was a difficult man to comfort. ‘So they got away?’ Now, a grim smile spread over his face.

‘There was nothing that could get away.’

‘What you do you mean?’ He turned to look at him. The spark in his eyes was suddenly the kind he had seen before in battle.

‘They were incinerated, Charles,’ he explained. ‘They found the melted guns, and the bones, and scraps of clothing, but the rest was burned away. There was no obvious source of the fire. No-one from the embassy was even scorched.’ Charles bit his lip. When he looked down, he realised his hands were shaking. Sudden unexpected phenomena were something he was used to, and it usually had a natural answer in the form of genetic mutation. This, however, was much more personal than any mutant manifestation he had dealt with in relation to the school.

‘David.’ The boy was fifteen, at just the age where powers started manifesting, and considering the traumatic impact of such an attack, it was not odd that his power would unleash. It still shook him that his first act with his powers was one of violence.

But Magneto’s thoughts were elsewhere, back in the past, as he reached out and touched Gaby’s cheek.

‘He probably saved her life,’ he observed, but there was regret in his voice, brought about by the memory of his own failure. Now he turned to look at Charles. ‘You knew?’ He nodded briefly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I promised her not to,’ Charles said, regret in his voice. Magneto’s eyes flared.

‘You kept my son from me.’

‘She was well within her rights to ask that of me,’ Charles said sharply, suddenly annoyed. ‘You know why she didn’t want you know. You can’t blame me or her for that.’

‘So I was to learn that I had a son through the radio?’ he hissed. ‘Lie my way to get to see him - learn his name from his hospital chart?’

Charles’ annoyance disappeared, and he swallowed to steady himself.

‘Is he alright?’ he asked. Magneto looked away, not answering. ‘Please, Erik,’ Charles begged. ‘Tell me how he is.’

With a sigh, he said:

‘Alive.’

‘But...?’

‘Not there,’ he continued. ‘He’s unharmed, but he’s retreated into a catatonic state. It might just be shock, it might be... something deeper.’ Charles fought to keep his despair from his face, but failed.

‘Good God,’ he murmured. ‘Why did all this happen?’ Magneto offered no answer. He seemed as shaken as he was angry. ‘Have you seen him?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘He just lay there, and stared. As if there were nothing inside him.’ The look he shot Charles was full of contempt, for what he had kept from him. ‘So the first time I saw my child, he was unreachable, and for all they know, he might stay that way.’

‘It’s not certain that he’s yours,’ Charles said. ‘And before you think that I have somehow taken part in his life, I have never seen him. All I’ve seen is one photo that Gaby sent me, just after he was born, but that was it.’ Erik exhaled and averted his eyes, ashamed at this privilege. Then, quickly, he rose. Charles could not tell if it was his usual restlessness or the emotional shock which was making him unable to sit still.

‘We were fools,’ he said, looking down at the woman in the bed.

‘We were young,’ Charles corrected him, but softly. ‘We didn’t feel it at the time - we thought we were so old - but we weren’t.’

Magneto sighed and crossed to the window. The silence that fell felt distinctly familiar, with Magneto brooding and Charles waiting. Sometimes, it seemed to be the defining acts of their lives.

‘You think we were wrong to do what we did,’ Charles observed after a long time. Once again, Magneto sighed.

‘It was all wrong.’

‘It wasn’t what you felt at the time,’ Charles reminded him.

‘As I said - we were fools.’

‘So you regret it?’ he asked and caught his eye. Magneto looked back, tensing.

‘I wish I did,’ he answered finally. Unwilling to meet his eye, he looked out of the window instead. ‘Do you think it’s all there, still? The places we went to then? The hotel, that fish restaurant, that awful café where we had breakfast once, the park with the lookout...’

‘I should think so,’ Charles said. He remembered them all well, but even if they were in New York, close to Westchester, he had never gone back. He had never had a real reason too, and he did not want to trespass into the past. ‘It’s strange,’ he said suddenly. ‘All meeting again once more.’ Magneto scoffed.

‘Meeting?’ he repeated. ‘We could be in better shape. I’m persona non grata in human society, she’s shot and unconscious, and you’re as naïve as ever.’

‘Not naïve,’ Charles said. ‘Simply hopeful.’

‘There’s a difference?’ Magneto said and snorted. ‘Hope. Hope is just a refuge.’

‘And hate isn’t?’ Something changed in his pale eyes. The animosity was gone. Slowly, he approached and reached out. Charles turned his hand palm-up, and let him intertwine their fingers.

‘Look at us, Charles,’ he said and traced a line down his palm. Charles could not remember the last time they touched. ‘It’s just like then. You and me, arguing, even when we wish we didn’t...’ He glanced down at Gaby. ‘And her, caught up in it all.’ Charles pressed his hand.

‘Do you ever think about it?’

‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘Sometimes I wish I could forget it all, but yes.’ He caught his eye. ‘Do you?’ Charles nodded, unable to lie. That cold spring of 1965, fifteen years ago, was often on his mind. He had thought he had felt old then, but he had imagined that pain meant age, and he had thought that he had been lonely, but he had not known the meaning of the word. Still now, the pain of that fierce love that had enveloped them all was vivid in his mind.

‘Often,’ he said and, pressing Erik’s hand, smiled at the memory. ‘Do you remember how it all started?’

Chapter Text

13 January 1965

Charles had wondered how far the conversation would proceed before Erik stated what they both thought.

‘We were lovers once.’

It had been a chance meeting, eyes accidentally locking over the hotel restaurant. When Erik had first entered the room, Charles had not recognised him. Dressed in ordinary, human clothes, he did not stand out in the crowd more than any handsome, well-groomed man would. It had not lasted long. As soon as they caught each other’s gaze, the rest of the room seemed to recede, and single-mindedly, Erik crossed to him. He looked wearier than Charles remembered him, his temples starting to go white. Terrorism was evidently as exhausting as running a school.

They had greeted each other, Erik hesitantly and Charles stiffly, and the ensuing silence had been broken by the obvious, glaring truth.

‘Yes,’ Charles said finally and folded his hands on the table. ‘But that was rather a long time ago.’ Erik looked at him, his face unreadable. He was not wearing Shaw’s helmet, so it would have been easy to reach out and read his mind, but neither did Charles want to violate his privacy, nor did he want to know his thoughts so plainly. He sensed that they would not be to his liking.

‘It does not seem long ago to me,’ he finally said. Charles forced a smile. How easy it would be to snap at him and point out that time probably moved at a different pace for those not confined to a hospital bed for months and months. He had expected to want to do that, and try to make him feel as guilty as was humanly possible, but he had no wish to shout at the man. In fact, now he realised that he was glad to see him, but, he was certain, not quite as happy as Erik was to see him. Erik was good at hiding his feelings, but it seemed like he had momentarily lost control of his body language, because the way he leaned slightly forward and looked straight at him made it plain that this was a reunion he had hoped for a long time.

‘A lot has happened,’ Charles said, and then added: ‘To both of us.’ Not wanting to lead this discussion further, as it would inevitably end with discussing the consequences of that deflected bullet on the day on Cuba, he instead said: ‘Please, join me for some wine.’ Before Erik had time to answer, he had gestured to the waiter, who fetched an extra glass and poured the wine. As the waiter left, Erik sat down oppose him and threw Charles an amused glance.

‘How much telepathy went into that order?’

‘Only enough that he would understand what I wanted,’ he answered, unable not to answer the smile. Then once again the silence was back, and for a moment he floundered. ‘Your health,’ he said at last and raised his glass.

‘And yours,’ Erik said and mirrored it. When they put their glasses down, he cleared his throat and spoke.

‘Erik, I can’t help but wonder...’

‘...Whether I sought you out?‘ Erik suggested. Charles nodded.

‘It’s a natural thing to wonder.’

‘I suppose so, but I didn’t,’ he assured him, fingers tracing the foot of the wineglass. ‘I had thought you’d be in Westchester. What are you doing in New York?’ Charles looked away, a little embarrassed.

‘An enforced holiday,’ he explained. All that time he had spent convalescing had made him restless, and since they had opened the school, he had not had as much as a day off. By the end of last year, it had been clear it was getting to him. He had been prone to nerves when he was younger, and however much he argued that the insomnia and the black moods were just part of it, Hank had told him that he would end up damaging either his mental balance or his heart if he did not take some time off. Not willing to give Erik all that information, he simply said:

‘The others thought I was getting a little overworked.’

‘So where are they?’ Erik asked, looking around as if expecting Beast to bound out from behind one of the pillars and try to choke him.

‘Oh, in Westchester,’ Charles said. ‘Alex drove me up, and the plan is that Sean will come up to join me after the weekend.’ Erik raised an entertained eyebrow at that.

‘Sean?’ he repeated. ‘Not the most stimulating company.’

‘Sean is very pleasant,’ Charles answered, and Erik chuckled at his defensive tone. ‘Well, Hank is in charge of the school while I’m gone, and Alex doesn’t like New York, so it had to be Sean. It had to be someone, they thought. They didn’t even like the idea of me being on my own even for these few days.’

‘I see,’ Erik said, still looking entertained. ‘They’re a protective bunch.’

‘Well, certainly,’ Charles said, suddenly imagining what they would say if they knew that he was having wine with someone who had been their enemy the past few years. ‘What are you doing here?’

Erik shifted in his chair, suddenly growing reserved.

‘Information-gathering.’

‘On your own?’ Charles asked. Now that he had stated his purpose, he wanted to hear Erik’s.

‘The others are in New York too, but at different hotels,’ he answered. ‘So as to not draw attention to ourselves. In fact, I’m just about to go and liaise with them.’ He emptied his glass and stood. ‘But we must...’ He paused, looking for the appropriate English phrase. The one he settled on sounded odd in his mouth. ‘...catch up. Are you free for dinner tomorrow?’

‘Yes,’ Charles said, failing to hide his surprise at the invitation.

‘Good,’ Erik said and grinned. ‘Eight o’clock, at Sibell’s - it’s just down the street. A rather nice fish restaurant. You’ll like it. Dress for dinner.’

For a moment, he hesitated. He knew he should decline, for so many reasons, but he wanted it, more than he had wanted anything for a long time.

‘Wonderful,’ he said and nodded in acknowledgement. Erik gave a nod and started turning away, but then paused and looked over his shoulder.

‘I’m very glad to see you again.’ Charles smiled.

‘And I you.’ He watched him leave, as a torrent of conflicting feelings rose within him.

***

The following day was spent waiting for the evening to come. Charles was glad that he had thought of packing his tuxedo. It had been brought up with the opera in mind, but this seemed like a good enough time to use it. As he started getting ready, anticipation turned into fearful excitement. Who was he going to meet - his enemy? his former lover? his old friend? There was no telling what facet of the man would dominate. The closest they had come to meeting since Cuba was when the team had faced off the Brotherhood. Charles had not been there, but had watched through the others’ eyes. He still remembered the terror he had felt the first time he had seen Magneto, crowned with the helmet of his mother’s murderer. What had happened to the man he had loved? It had made him assume that with the quest for Shaw ended, he had shed that part of himself and changed. But evidently, the man within the monster had not disappeared altogether, because he had met him only yesterday, or someone alike, to the point of confusion. As he tied his bow-tie, Charles looked himself admonishingly in the eye in the mirror, challenging his reflection to admit what he felt. Affection, yes. Anticipation, certainly. Attraction...?

No, Charles. Don’t forget what he did. Remember the pain and the grief and the long convalescence. Remember what he took from you.

The reminder did not make him feel strengthened, as he had hoped, but somewhat uneasy. He hoped it was not a sign that he had needed the reproach.

Charles decided to get to the restaurant before the agreed time, so that he was already at the table when Erik arrived. Even if it was something Erik knew about and would scarcely miss anyway, the less he noticed the wheelchair, the better, Charles felt. Besides, turning up early meant that he did not have to fidget in his room. Well at the table, he could not help glancing at this watch every few minutes. The long hand slowly passed the hour. Charles’ eyes travelled from his watch to the door, trying not to wonder whether Erik had decided not to come.

But no, suddenly he was aware of a very familiar mind close-by, and the next moment, Erik entered the restaurant. He handed his hat and coat to one of the waiters as he exchanged a few words. The waiter gestured towards Charles’ table, and Erik looked his way. When he caught sight of Charles, uncharacteristic relief lit up his face, and he grinned. Charles’ heart made an alarming somersault - perhaps his feelings did not stop at affection and anticipation after all. Erik crossed to him with long strides, and stopped just beside him. His smile gave way to a frown instead, and Charles realised that he was trying to figure out how to greet him. Seeing Erik flounder was as endearing as it was odd. Finally, they awkwardly shook hands. Erik kept his grip around Charles’ hand longer than what was appropriate, but then released him. He took his place opposite him and asked about his preferences in wine. The distraction of ordering was welcome, but it proved brief. As soon as the waiter had disappeared with their order, Charles found himself under that pale gaze, which seemed to pierce through him to his inner being.

‘So,’ he said.

‘So,’ Erik echoed.

‘How’s Mystique?’ Charles asked, for want of anything else. ‘I heard from the others that that’s how she’s referred to.’

‘She’s exceptionally well,’ was the answer.

‘And am I also to understand that she has become a nudist.’ The corner of Erik’s mouth curled.

‘She has embraced her true form completely,’ he simply answered. When Charles leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands together, Erik asked: ‘Do you not approve?’

‘Surprising as it may seem, I do not approve of my sister walking around with no clothes on,’ he said, trying to make light of it.

‘I can convey your wishes, if you like,’ Erik answered, sounding amused, ‘but it will only make her more inclined not to cover up.’ The waiter chose that moment to serve the wine, which gave Charles time to think of something less embarrassing to discuss. After tasting their wine, he asked:

‘What information-gathering are you doing in New York?’

For a moment, Erik looked taken aback at the question. Then his face took on a schooled thoughtful expression.

‘I see no reason to keep you in the dark,’ he said finally, steepled his fingers and collected his thoughts. Then he explained under his breath: ‘We are trying to learn as much as possible about a new anti-mutant initiative. It is sponsored by the US government - there might be more nations involved. We know that it is based in New York, probably behind a front of a company of some sort. We’re trying to find it.’ Charles leaned a little closer.

‘Where did you learn about this?’ he asked, shocked. Acknowledging for the first time that they were in public, Erik glanced around, silently indicating the other diners. ‘May I...?’ He raised two fingers. Erik hesitated, but then gave a curt nod. Charles raised his fingers to his temple and concentrated.

Mystique - the Pentagon - half a transcript of a meeting - three copied letters - a file which she just about manages to steal - eavesdropped conversations through locked doors - Sentinels.

He broke the connection and met Erik’s eyes.

‘“Sentinels”?’ he repeated quietly. ‘What does it mean?’

‘We don’t know yet, but their application is all too plain,’ Erik answered gravely.

‘Detection and elimination,’ Charles supplied. That had been obvious in the information he had found in his mind. They looked at each other. He could see the answering fear in Erik’s eyes. ‘Would you like me to call in the team?’

‘Your X-Men?’ Erik said, suddenly scornful. ‘What are you going to do - go in and rap them across the knuckles? Cut their allowance?’

‘You must have told me because you wanted my help,’ Charles said. Erik snorted.

‘I told you because I trust you, not so that you can go and lecture them.’

‘I don’t see the reason for this,’ he said reproachfully. ‘I know you do not agree with my methods...’

‘I do not only not agree with them - I actively despise them,’ Erik filled in. ‘You run a school, Charles, while we are facing extermination.’ Charles exhaled, trying to keep his calm.

‘You’ve seen the X-Men in the field. You know that they are no school-children,’ he answered, but could not mask his annoyance. ‘You have fought them, and they forced you to retreat more than once.’

‘True, but I don’t want your interference,’ Magneto (because Erik had momentarily faded) said.

‘So that you can go in with all guns blazing?’ Charles answered, loud enough to make the lady at the next table look at him oddly. Checking his voice, he continued. ‘Don’t you understand that that kind of reaction will only strengthen the prejudices against mutants? There will be consequences for us all...’

The waiter was back to ask if the wine was to their satisfaction. As Erik spoke to the man, Charles turned his gaze from him and looked at the restaurant guests standing by the bar, which was by the wall opposite him. To one side, a few business associates stood, and to the other, a couple arguing about things they had promised not to bring up that evening. Charles only gave them all the briefest of glances. Instead, he turned his attention to the only one standing alone - a young woman in a blue gown and white high gloves, standing with her back towards him. Her shoulder-blades stood out in stark relief under her skin and her spine was visible as a row of knots, running up her neck, finally obscured by a thick bun of black hair. As he sipped his wine, he reflected on how thin she was. He wondered briefly if she was an anorexic. Now she turned to look towards the door, as if hoping for someone to appear there, and Charles caught sight of her face. He had not expected her to be so beautiful. She had a strong mouth and an upturned nose, and her cheekbones were sharpened by her thinness. Even at this distance, he thought he could tell that her eyes were green. The girl looked away from the door, disappointed, and glanced around the restaurant. Her feeling of being out of place was obvious from her body language, and Charles could sense her unease. Then yet again, she glanced back at the entrance. By that, Charles gathered that she had been stood up. He was sure that he would have noticed her entering, so she must have been there when he arrived, almost half an hour ago now.

Now, the waiter appeared once again, this time with their food, and Charles tore his gaze off the intriguing sylph at the bar. When their food was served and the waiter had left, Erik spoke, sounding a little guilty.

‘You must understand why I oppose to your X-Men getting involved.’

‘As a matter of fact I don’t understand,’ he answered, sounding more annoyed than he actually was. The intermission in the conversation had calmed them both.

‘What source would you give them?’ Erik asked, surveying his dinner.

‘I’m a telepath, remember? I might have read it in some passerby’s mind.’

‘They would never accept that as an explanation. Also, it’s not something only one person would know,’ he supplied. ‘The little we know is scraps and pieces - some of them advanced, some of them simply... admin.’ He seemed to anticipate Charles’ next suggestion. He had expected him to snap at him, but instead his voice was hushed. ‘I think it’d be better if we did not let either of our contingents know that we are meeting.’

‘Yes, you’re right.’ They were silent for a while and ate. When Erik next caught his eye, he smiled. Charles found himself answering the smile, despite himself.

‘How is your sea bass?’ Erik asked.

‘Very good. Excellent choice of restaurant, if I might say so.’ He smiled at the approval.

‘I’m very glad that you accepted the invitation,’ he added.

‘Well, of course I would,’ Charles said. Erik put down his cutlery and stalled for a moment, then reached over the table. Their hands brushed together before Charles drew his away. The place where Erik’s fingers had touched his tingled.

‘Erik...’ Charles said, fighting for words. ‘I...’

‘I just...’

‘I thought I made it quite clear...’ Erik’s lost expression made him break off. ‘But apparently not clear enough,’ he sighed. ‘Erik. I’m sorry if you find that I have led you on, but we are not going to be what we were.’ Erik looked away.

‘I know we parted on bad terms...’ Charles laughed incredulously.

‘“Bad terms”?’ he exclaimed. ‘You turned against me! You injured me - you broke my back!’

‘I did not fire that bullet,’ Erik said through gritted teeth.

‘But you made sure it hit me!’

‘Do you honestly think I did it on purpose?’

Charles paused, regaining his self-control.

‘Of course you didn’t,’ he admitted. ‘But that doesn’t change anything.’ Erik still would not look at him. All his hope and disappointment was visible on his face. ‘For goodness’ sake, Erik, I know you don’t care about conventions, but... what would the others say? The Brotherhood - the X-Men? We’re...’

‘Please,’ Erik said, his tone sharp but his words pleading. ‘Do not say “enemies”.’

‘It’s true,’ Charles pointed out.

‘We fight a common enemy,’ Erik pressed on.

‘No, you have made the humans your enemy. They are not mine.’

He shook his head with a sigh.

‘Has everything changed so much?’ he asked quietly.

‘Yes, it has,’ Charles answered, but even as he did, he wished it had not. He remembered the dizzying joy of those few months. Before meeting Erik, he had not thought that love like that was possible. What they had shared had been an all-consuming, feral power. He should have understood that it would end with blood, but perhaps there had been a chance, however small, that it could have gone the other way. Their love was strong enough to crush oppression and create a new world. Now, as Charles looked at his old lover, he wondered if there was a way to turn it all around. Then reality seemed to intrude, and he saw both of them as they were - Erik, disillusioned and bitter, and himself, crippled and aging. It had been barely three years since they had first met, but they had been young then. The world had changed them more than they had changed the world. Sometimes, it was only by insisting on the contrary that he still believed that it was possible to change it.

He tried to find a way to voice his disappointment at the world and the people they had become, without betraying his own feelings, but he was interrupted. A sudden spike of emotion thrust itself into his mind, and for a moment, he felt someone else’s panic as if it were first-hand. Bewildered, he looked up just in time to see the woman he had watched earlier lean heavily against the bar and grab her chest.

‘Erik - the girl!’ he shouted. Erik looked around and caught sight of her. He jumped to his feet and hurried over to the bar. In the time it took him, she had started sliding down towards the floor.

‘Miss, what’s wrong?’ he asked and took hold of her shoulders to keep her upright. To Charles, who was wheeling himself over to them quickly, it was plain what it was. Her agitation was hitting against him in waves, and he could see how her hands shook and she struggled to breathe.

‘There, there, love, keep yourself together,’ he said softly and touched her arm. She looked at him, panic-stricken. Despite it, Charles registered that he had been right about the colour of her eyes. ‘I’m a doctor - I can help. Tell me, what’s your name?’ She swallowed and struggled to form sounds. Finally, she managed to say:

‘Gabrielle Haller.’

‘Alright, Miss Haller,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be fine. Just try to keep calm.’

Calm?’ she repeated incredulously between gasps. Before Charles had time to concede that it was a rather contradictory thing to say in the situation, the head waiter came bounding towards them, looking like he did not know whether to respond with concern and annoyance.

‘What is going on, sir?’ he said, turning to Erik. ‘What’s wrong with the girl?’

‘She’s ill,’ Charles cut in. The head waiter looked down at him, as if he had not really expected him there. The look in his face made it evident that he assumed that the appearance of a cripple meant even more problems. ‘Is there anywhere she can lie down?’ The head waiter opened and closed his mouth a few times, and finally said:

‘I think we should call for a doctor...’

‘I am a doctor,’ Charles said, losing his patience with the man’s suspicion. ‘I’ll be able to help her, but she needs somewhere quiet where she can rest.’ Erik, still propping the young woman up for fear that she might fall, pierced the waiter with his gaze and asked:

‘Surely there is somewhere like that?’

‘Of course, sir,’ he said quickly, apprehension turning into fear. ‘This way.’

‘Come on,’ Charles told the girl and touched her arm again. Erik adjusted his hold of her and held her steady as they walked, as Charles followed behind them. The head-waiter showed them to a small side-room, thankfully on the same floor-level as the main restaurant. Judging by the couch in it, it was kept for the eventuality of fainting ladies.

‘Shouldn’t we call someone else...?’ the head waiter asked from where he lingered in the doorway, reluctant to enter.

‘No need for that,’ Charles said. ‘Thank you!’ Scared into submission, the head waiter left them, and Charles looked over at the two others in the room. Erik was leading the girl to the couch, and the sight of it made Charles pause. He had never seen Erik looking so grimly tender. It gave him the feeling that something about the girl, perhaps the same thing that had caught his attention earlier, arrested him too. He held onto her as she lowered herself down, her skirts rustling around her. Suddenly, she gasped loudly and grabbed at her chest again.

‘Charles!’ Erik called out. Charles wheeled himself as close as he could and took her hand.

‘There, there, it’s alright,’ he told her. ‘Just lie back, try to breathe properly, relax...’ She reclined, but he could still see and sense the tenseness in her. Erik caught his eye, quietly communicating his concern. It’s not anything physical, it’s a panic attack, Charles explained. Not dangerous, just unpleasant. If she wants to be calmed, I can calm her down. ‘Go get a glass of water,’ he said aloud. This would be easier without an audience. Erik nodded his understanding and left. As he swept past him, Charles thought of how suddenly the discussion of their past relationship had been interrupted. Then he shook it off and turned to his patient.

She looked truly pitiful where she lay, one arm crossed over her chest and lips quivering. ‘Miss Haller? Does your chest hurt?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ she said weakly. ‘My heart...’ Charles hushed her.

‘There, there. Deep breaths.’ She tried, even if it was difficult by the way she hyperventilated. ‘Has this happened before?’ Miss Haller nodded. Charles looked at her where she lay, with her right hand pressed to her heart. Her left arm, which was closest to him, lay limply at her side. He would not be able to feel her pulse through the gloves, and it felt too intimate to feel it on her throat, so he took her left hand in his and started to pull at the fingers of the glove. Suddenly, her prone form sprung to life and sat up as she tried to pull back. Instinctively, Charles closed his grip around her hand.

‘Let go!’ the girl shouted, panic rising in her voice. In the midst of the commotion, he registered that she had an accent.

‘I need to check your pulse,’ Charles said. ‘I won’t hurt you...’

‘Please, don’t,’ she said, tears rising. He hesitated - causing her more agitation was counterproductive, but he did not see another way. Looking at the high gloves, he considered why his attempt at taking it off upset her so. She must be wearing them to cover something. Considering this was a young woman of a nervous disposition, his guess was self-inflicted cuts. With that in mind, he fixed her with his gaze.

‘Gabrielle, you have nothing to be ashamed about. I will not judge you. Please. I just need to feel your pulse.’

For a moment, her resistance remained. Then her eyes flooded with tears and she turned her face away, quenching her sobs with her free hand.

‘There, there, don’t agitate yourself,’ he said and clasped her hand, but she did not heed him. Instead, her sobs shook her body as her discordant breaths tore through it. With a sigh, he turned his attention from her, and pulled off her glove. Putting the glove aside, he found her pulse. As he had expected, it was perfectly normal - this was simply in her mind, as he had thought. He let go of her wrist, but as he did so, he tipped her arm and made it shift so that it lay with the inside up. He had not been looking at it, but something caught his eye. It took him a moment to realise that his eyes were not playing tricks on him. Then, he cursed under his breath.

He had expected to find something, but not this. Her arm bore no new cuts or burns, and there were no scars. Instead, on the pale inside of her arm was s a sequence of numbers, carved into her skin with a tattooing-needle. Charles stared at it in disbelief, remembering how Erik had removed his wetsuit when they came aboard the cutter and had uncovered his tattoo. Charles had touched it once, but Erik had taken away his hand and kissed him instead, as if he did not want that to taint what they shared. He had known by whom and why it had been made, and by implication that there were thousands of others with the same kind of tattoo. Despite all that, he had never imagined that he would ever meet another person with a number branded into their arm.

Charles stared down at the girl, as inexpressible pity formed. He did not know what to do to help her. The panic-attack was just a symptom; the rest was more deeply buried. His previous experience with concentration camp survivors would not be helpful in this case. It should not surprise him. Erik may be unhinged, but he had grown a thick hide against the world and it could not shake him. Had he honestly thought that everyone who survived that manmade hell could turn their experiences into strength? Cursing himself for his naivety, he set about putting her limp hand back into its glove and covering her arm again. That being done, he touched her forehead and plunged.

He promised and then he did not come and he left me there. Can none of them be trusted? Are all men brutes? (But he did not hurt you, Gaby, he only stood you up.) But he did hurt me! Whether he wanted to or not, and by God, I think he did want it. (But he did not hurt you.) ...No, he didn’t - so just as well that he did not come. Because I suppose he would have if he had.

Charles, moving disembodied through her thoughts, tried to instill calm into her conscious mind. He was swept with the current of her thoughts and glimpsed reflexions and memories on the way. Arriving to America, coat and one suitcase all she owns. The office where she works, breaking her fingernails on the typewriter. Before that, France. Cold hospital rooms. White walls closing in. Tables and restraints and the concerned doctors, who always ask the same question. How can she live? How can any of these poor souls still be alive? And she does not know the answer. Why live? What is keeping her that way? What did she do to be punished so? She must have been wicked, she must have insulted God, because He does not let her die. He does not even let her disappear again.

Charles wondered at the distinction between dying and disappearing, but before he could delve deeper, his astral form was flung against something. A psychic wall, he realised. It was not particularly thick, and he doubted that whatever was behind it was properly repressed, only made more distance. What it kept hidden from her might be important to understanding her psyche, but he could not risk flooding her mind with it; it would only cause her more pain. Instead, he circumvented it and found the mental current again, which landed him straight into an early memory, not as an onlooker but as Gaby, frightened and hungry and ten years old.

Her grandmother tells her not to worry and to be quiet. ‘Don’t cry’, she admonishes her, even as she swallows tears herself. The man walking in front of them is weeping - she has never seen a man cry before. The soldiers laugh at him and strike him, and when he tries to fight them off they pull him to the ground. Gaby buries her head in her grandmother’s side, and she puts an arm around her, pushing along. The beating has upset the stream of people, but they are soon there. They have covered the platform, and they join the surge of people climbing into the cattle wagons. Grandmother takes her under the arms and lifts her up. A man already on the train takes her and offers grandmother a hand. Soon they are huddled close, the weight of the crowd pressing them together. There is no place to sit, only the floor, but it is too crowded to sit down. In the middle of the wagon are two buckets, one filled with drinking water, one for waste. The crowd moves to give even more people rooms. Grandmother grabs her tightly and they are swallowed, until they are several rows of people, equivalent to an arms-length, from the far wall, far away from the buckets. ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Gaby asks as the doors are shut, leaving them in darkness. She hears the sound of a padlock clicking shut. ‘Don’t ask stupid questions,’ grandmother says, and Gaby knows that she has guessed the answer. She does not know it yet. The train shudders as the engine bursts into life, and they are on the way. Only the light through the planks of wood tells her how long they have been on the road. After a day, grandmother dies. They stand so close that she does not fall, but remains upright, her body pressed against Gaby’s for another full day. Then the train stops and they hear the doors being unlocked.

He could not bear it anymore. Fearing that he might be drawn into the occluded part if her mind, he rose, and returned to his body.

He found himself still with his hand on her forehead, but they were no longer alone. Erik was crouching beside him, hand on his shoulder.

‘Charles? What’s wrong?’ Charles raised his hand and touched his cheek. It was wet with tears. Instead of answering Erik, he found a handkerchief and dried them. Part of him wanted to tell him what he had learned and what he had seen (Erik would probably understand it better), but he knew it was wrong to do so. This was knowledge he had taken without being offered it, and he had no right to pass it on.

‘Nothing,’ he said and took a deep breath, grounding himself. On the couch, the girl (Gaby? Gabrielle? Miss Haller? he did not know what to call her) was stirring; his psychic escapades had put her into some state between waking and sleeping. Charles wondered if she had dreamed of what he had seen, and sincerely hoped not. At least she was breathing normally now, so his presence in her mind had done some good, but she still did not look recovered. She was shaking, as if with cold, and had wrapped her thin arms around herself to warm her.

‘How are you feeling?’ Charles asked. She shook her head, reluctant or unable to answer. Erik must have noticed her shivering, because he stood up and took off his dinner jacket.

‘Put this on,’ he told her. With some effort, she sat up and let him help her into it.

‘Thank you,’ she said weakly. Charles offered her the glass of water, which Erik had put on a nearby table. She took the glass and drained it greedily, then looked Charles in the eye. ‘I’m sorry about making a scene.’ The melody of the sentence was not quite right in her soft accent. Charles found it charming.

‘You have nothing to be sorry for, my dear,’ he said kindly. She held his gaze for another moment, and then she buried her face in her hands and started weeping. ‘There, there,’ he said. He hesitated, remembering what he had heard in her mind (are all men brutes?) but then decided that some paternal kindness would only do good. Therefore, he put an arm around her shoulders and hushed her. She did not pull away, but wept against his shoulder, one hand closing around his lapel. ‘Have a good cry, there’s a darling,’ he said and patted her hair. Finally he let her go - it did not seem right to touch her more than he already had. Miss Haller drew Erik’s jacket around her body and sat in silence, evidently trying to compose herself. After some considerable time, she moved and swung her legs over the edge of the couch, her skirts rustling. She looked quite pale, and her wide eyes shone almost feverishly.

‘Do you feel a little steadier, Miss Haller?’ Charles asked. She nodded, intertwining her fingers to push the gloves on better. Something about the self-conscious gesture caught his attention, and he let silence linger a little too long. ‘Are you waiting for someone to turn up?’ Miss Haller made a sigh halfway between a sigh and a dejected laugh.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not any more, I think.’

‘In that case, I think we should get you home,’ he said. ‘How does that sound?’ She nodded without looking at him.

‘Yes, I think I’d like that.’

Charles nodded and turned to Erik.

‘Would you go flag down a cab?’ With a nod, Erik left, and Charles turned back to the girl. Shyly, she met his eyes, and he smiled encouragingly. He found it difficult not to watch her. There was something very arresting about her, not only in her looks but in the way her mind felt. Even now, when she was shy and shaken up, he could glimpse more under the surface. The thoughts he had touched had intrigued him, but why he could not yet say.

‘You’re very kind, sir,’ she said quietly, as if not quite trusting her own voice yet.

‘I was happy to be able to help,’ he said. He considered whether to ask or not, and then settled that it was probably part of his duty as a doctor to pursue the question and his duty as a gentleman to do a good deed. ‘Have you spoken to anyone about this, Miss Haller?’ She shook her head and averted her gaze. Evidently, he had touched upon some sore spot. ‘In that case, may I possibly help you further?’ Miss Haller eyed him warily.

‘I don’t understand.’ Charles reached into his inner pocket and found his card. On the back, he scribbled the name of his hotel and the phone number, and handed it to her. She looked at what he had written, and then turned to read the print. ‘Professor Xavier,’ she said, as if in greeting.

‘Call me tomorrow, whenever is most convenient,’ he told her. She looked hesitant. Perhaps, Charles realised, she was misinterpreting his actions. Ideally, he would want to meet and talk with her, as that would be helpful to understand what precisely was ailing her, but he decided that downplaying that for now would be better. When she was not as much on edge as before, she would be more willing to trust him, he thought. ‘That way, I’ll know that you’re feeling better.’

At that, she nodded.

‘Thank you. I will.’ For a brief moment, he glimpsed a smile on her face. He smiled back. At that moment, the door opened and Erik stepped in.

‘There’s a taxi waiting outside.’

‘Thank you, Erik,’ Charles said and turned back to Miss Haller. ‘Do you live with someone, Miss Haller?’ She shook her head. He had expected that (had he hoped it?). It would have been better for her if she had someone to keep her company, but he was certain that she was in no danger. The panic attack had shaken her, but it was not worse than that. ‘Well, make sure to get plenty of rest. A proper night’s sleep will do you good.’ She nodded at the instructions and rose. Without thinking twice, Charles reached out and took hold of her elbow to steady her. Miss Haller looked down at him and smiled, for the first time genuinely. It made crow’s-feet appear by her eyes and lit up her face. Something about it caught him off guard, and smiling back felt instinctual. Then, embarrassed, he let go of her arm. Erik walked beside her, looking ready to spring into action if needed. Charles wheeled himself after them.

They followed her out onto the street, to where the cab waited. Miss Haller made an attempt to take the jacket off, but Erik raised a hand to stop her.

‘You can return it later,’ he said. ‘You must keep warm.’ She flushed and thanked him, and as Charles paid the driver, he opened the door for her. As soon as it closed, she opened the window and caught Charles’ eye. Beyond the shaken nerves and the exhaustion, he glimpsed another part of her, strong-willed and acute. He felt a sudden wish to get to know this woman, and hoped that she would call him as he had asked her to.

‘Thank you, Professor,’ she said, her voice steadier. Before he had time to answer, the cab started moving, so instead he waved after her. He could not see if she waved back.

Chapter Text

That night, Charles lay sleepless. He could not believe that Erik had had the audacity to proposition him - how could he have expected him to respond gladly to something like that, considering what the past held? But the fact remained that when Erik had taken his hand, he had not drawn away instinctively, but had had to put some effort into it. Under all that indignation, he had wished that he could respond kindly. He had hoped that the man he would meet was Magneto, but this was Erik, intense and mysterious and handsome. For some of the evening, it had felt as if nothing had happened between them. When a crisis had arisen, they had worked together well, on occasion not even having to communicate to know what to do.

And what a crisis... The appearance of Gabrielle Haller seemed like an odd quirk of fate. There was the coincidence of her past and Erik’s, and the turmoil of her mind, and her unexplainable beauty. Of course, he thought to himself, his interest was purely professional. She was a troubled soul, and it was his duty to alleviate her suffering. It did not mean that he could deny that she was beautiful - he had always had an eye for pretty girls (and for that matter, handsome men). There was something apart from her instability that intrigued him. When he had been inside her mind, he had sensed a thirst for knowledge, and an acute mind. He supposed that was a soft spot which lingered since he used to flirt with the girls at Oxford. No, she was intriguing, but he asserted that his interest was not (must not be) anything untoward.

Just thinking of these things made him feel uneasy. The past years had been lonely, but he had grown used to it. Without the distraction of love, he had achieved much. But what do I deny myself? Nothing which was not taken away from me. The bullet against his spine, and Erik’s boot against his heart, grinding it into the sand. As he lay awake, the ruptured nerves flared, and he quenched a shout with his fist. Gradually, he suppressed the sensation. Before this happened, he had never attempted self-hypnosis, but it had become a necessity, as no analgesics helped completely without knocking him out. And still when he thought of how Erik had tried to take his hand, even if he took into account how presumptuous and deluded he was, he felt his scarred heart warm to him. And then he thought of that last glance of Gaby in the cab, and it caused a similar flare. Putting it all down to confusion due to lack of sleep, he slipped off, leaving himself prey to fitful dreams.

The next day he let himself be lazy. He did not go downstairs to have breakfast, but had them send it up to his room. After yesterday’s events, solitude was welcome, but when the phone rang around eleven, he answered it eagerly.

‘Charles Xavier speaking.’

‘There’s a phone call for you, sir,’ said the disembodied hotel receptionist. ‘I’ll patch you through.’

‘Most kind.’ Silence, a click, and then the sound of an open line.

‘Hello?’ said the accented voice of a woman.

‘Good morning, Miss Haller,’ Charles said, smiling in the solitude of his room.

‘Professor Xavier - good morning,’ she answered.

‘Are you feeling better today?’

‘Yes - I’m at work.’ There was a pause, then her voice dropped. ‘I’m not supposed to call, but one of the secretaries let me use her phone.’

‘I’d hate for you to get in trouble,’ he said and was about to make a suggestion, but stopped himself. Would it be overly friendly to suggest a meeting? Last night had left him with the impression that, at least to some extent, the girl was not comfortable about being approached by men. But she had evidently accepted the dinner invitation from the man who had asked her to the restaurant - it had been his implicit rejection and the atmosphere that had triggered the panic attack. Besides, what threat did he look like he posed? He glanced down at the wheelchair - it was inconceivable that she thought of him even as a man. ‘Perhaps it’d be more convenient for you to meet after you finished.’ There was a pause, as if the suggestion surprised her.

‘Yes, that sounds... that sounds delightful,’ she said. Charles smiled at her choice of words, which sounded so conscious.

‘Where would be best, do you think?’ She hummed before saying:

‘There is a café close to where I work.’ She gave him the address. ‘That is, if it’s... alright for you.’

‘I’m sure it is.’

‘I finish at four.’

‘Ten past, then?’ Charles suggested.

‘Ten past four,’ she acknowledged.

‘I’ll see you then.’ They said their goodbyes and hung up. Charles looked at the address he had written down, and realised that perhaps he should have suggested somewhere closer. It was not undoable, but it would probably take him at least half an hour to get there. Taking a cab was not a workable option - most of the time, they would not stop if he tried to hail them, and trying to talk the cabbie through collapsing his chair was tedious. No, he would simply have to bite to bullet and do it himself.

Not wanting to be late, he set off earlier than necessary, and reached the café five past four. By then, his arms ached, but as he pulled himself up the single step by the doorframe, he told himself that he needed the exercise. Well inside, he reflected that Gabrielle had chosen well. The café was more or less abandoned, and would be a good place to talk. Besides, from the table he had settled by without waiting to be showed in, he could make out tins of tea-leaves behind the counter. The waitress, who was evidently very bored by the slow business, crossed to him. She made no attempt to hide the way she stared at him. Charles sensed her curiosity. To her, he looked wrong. He was too young to be in a wheelchair, and he was on his own, although the word she settled on in her head was “unattended”.

‘A pot of tea, please,’ he said, as she did not seem about to ask him about his order. ‘Darjeeling, if you have it. And two cups, please. I’m waiting for someone.’

‘Right,’ she said distractedly, and then added: ‘Sir.’ She returned to the counter, and Charles repressed a sigh. Unattended, indeed... Well, not for much longer. On Monday, Sean was going to come to join him, and he would push him around and talk happily to him about things Charles had no interest in and treat him like he was going to break. He meant well, of course - they all did - but he was not looking forward to it. Sighing again, he took out his pipe and started cleaning it. When he tapped it against the side of the table to get the last of the old leaves out, the waitress looked over at him, startled. Then she continued putting together the tray and crossed with it. He tried to say he could do it himself, but she nevertheless poured it himself. A stray thought from her pushed through his shields.

What a pity. He would have been really handsome if it weren’t for that...

Charles very almost shouted something along the lines of, for goodness’ sake, will you keep that to yourself? Of course, she was keeping it to herself - she had no way of knowing that he could read her thoughts. At the school, he would sometimes chastise the others for thoughts he happened to pick up on, usually with a wry, I heard that, you know, but here that was an impossibility. As he lit the pipe, he realised that he had not reflected on the fact that here, everyone thought he was human. At least in the mansion, people gave him the credit of being a powerful telepath. Here, all people saw was that he was crippled. Angrily, he puffed on his pipe. Then, the bell on the door tingled, and he looked up.

The girl who entered looked altogether different. In her day clothes, Miss Haller looked considerably more comfortable, and something about the style, probably the worn brown corduroy jacket and the green silk scarf, made her look more like a student than an office worker. That impression was helped by the fact that her bag was much bigger than an ordinary handbag, and he was fairly certain that she had at least one book in it. She took off her somewhat battered hat and looked around. She caught sight of him, and as she crossed to him, he sensed her reevaluating him. There was something apprehensive in her gaze, but he sensed none of the waitress’ morbid interest. Miss Haller did not really trust her own memory of the two men who had helped her, and she had half thought that she had made the wheelchair up. Also, she had not realised that he was handsome. Sensing that made Charles’ heart give a jolt. That was not what the waitress had thought.

‘Professor Xavier,’ she said in greeting.

‘Miss Haller,’ he answered and, smiling, extended a hand. She took it and shook it. ‘Please,’ he then said and indicated a chair. ‘I took the liberty of ordering some tea. May I?’

‘Yes, please,’ she said, looking a little surprised. As she sat down and took her scarf and jacket off, he noticed the remnants of yesterday’s panic. She seemed not so much uncomfortable as twitchy.

‘It’s a nice place, this,’ he said conversationally as he poured the tea, hoping it would put her at ease.

‘Yes,’ she said noncommittally. When he put the teapot down, she took the cup in both hands as if to warm them. Then, without tasting the tea, she put it down and reached into her bag to retrieve a cigarette. Charles had left his matchbox on the table, and struck a match for her. She leaned closer and kept the cigarette in the flame until the tip started glowing. As he shook out the match, Miss Haller leaned back in her chair and drew on the cigarette. The expectant silence stretched, and then suddenly she let her hand fall. With a deep sigh, she said:

‘You must think me such a fool.’

‘Not at all,’ Charles said softly. ‘What happened was not your fault.’

‘But you don’t know why I was there in the first place,’ she said bitterly. He did know - not all the details, but some of them - but she did not look at him, and did not notice his guilty mien.

‘Would you like to tell me?’ Miss Haller sighed and started playing with her spoon.

‘One of the executives asked me out for dinner,’ she explained. ‘He’s usually very harsh. I don’t think he’s ever said anything to me before.’ Charles sucked on his pipe, considering this.

‘So why did you accept?’ She shrugged. ‘Were you afraid to say no?’

‘I guess, but... I was glad it happened, not because it was him, but because it was someone.’ She looked away, embarrassed. ‘No-one has ever asked me out before. I suppose I acted on impulse, and wanted to make the most of it. Finally to wear that dress my aunt gave me years ago and everything. But...’

‘...He didn’t show up?’ Charles supplied. She shook her head.

‘No - I stood there like an idiot. It was better that way, of course, but... I thought that for once, a man actually looked at me without being... repulsed. Even if he did not seem lovable and I wasn’t certain what I wanted to happen, at least... it was some kind of attention.’ She put down her spoon and looked at him grimly. ‘Not only was I silly - I behaved like a slut.’

‘Don’t call yourself such a thing,‘ Charles said, alarmed. ‘There is no reason to be so harsh on yourself.’ Miss Haller hung her head.

‘I should have known better. He probably just wanted to make a mistress out of me. So I suppose that it is just as well that he did not show up.’

‘Well, the man is obviously an unpleasant piece of work,’ Charles said firmly. ‘You’re well shot of him.’ She looked up, not convinced but obviously hoping for forgiveness.

‘Do you not disapprove?’ she asked meekly.

‘The fault was all his, my dear,’ he assured her. ‘And I don’t see why you should not... pursue your own happiness.’ He gave it a moment’s thought, and then continued. ‘We live in a new world. Women are no longer confined to the home - and that is only right.’ Miss Haller sipped her tea.

‘It doesn’t mean that women can act like men,’ she then said. Charles was not certain how to answer; he had not thought about that. Now when she said it, he realised that it was true. Rather than pursuing the question of moral values, he turned to the matter at hand.

‘What agitated you so, yesterday?’ Miss Haller bit her lip as she tried to find the words.

‘I’m not sure. Everything, I suppose,’ she said finally. ‘The disappointment of it all, and that strange place, and all the people... I felt trapped.’

‘Do public places usually affect you like that?’

‘Sometimes,’ she said, not meeting his eye. ‘It used to be worse.’

‘What about at work? What do you do?’

‘I’m a typist,’ she explained, sounding unenthusiastic. ‘It’s a small company that deals in materials. Metals and plastics and things.’

‘Do you enjoy it?’ Charles asked.

‘It’s not really something to enjoy,’ she said. ‘But it’s a job. It keeps me occupied. It’s better than a lot of other things I could be doing.’

‘Do you ever feel anxious about going there?’ Charles pressed.

‘Occasionally,’ she admitted. ‘I’ve learned to bear it. I guess they would fire me if I went to pieces. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel like hiding under my desk on occasion...’ Charles smiled sympathetically. When he had been much younger, he had felt something similar, although for altogether different reason. Anywhere crowded was too noisy for him before he learned to block thoughts out properly.

‘It’s called agoraphobia - fear of public places,’ he explained. ‘It’s a quite common reason for panic attacks.’ She made no answer, but only sipped her tea. Charles watched her, fascinated at the way that despite his powers, he felt like he did not quite understand her. Hoping that it would not scare her away, he asked: ‘How far back have you had them?‘ She stared into her tea and said nothing. ‘Miss Haller?’

She closed her eyes, as if physically forcing herself to answer.

‘Ten years.’

Charles wondered if he had misheard, but still knew that he had not.

‘Ten years?’ he repeated. ‘Why on earth haven’t you talked to a doctor about this?’ At once, he wished he had not sounded so forceful. For a moment he thought she might start crying.

‘I don’t want to be insane any longer,’ she whispered.

‘My dear, you’re not insane,’ Charles said.

‘You don’t understand,’ she answered, her voice rising in pitch and her breathing growing shallow. ‘You have no idea.’ He reached out and touched her arm.

‘Don’t agitate yourself,’ he said gently. ‘Calm down. I’m here to help, but only if you want my help.’ She nodded, fighting to compose herself. After some time, she regained her self-control, but her hand still shook when she picked up her cup and took a gulp of tea. ‘There. That’s better,’ he said and smiled at her. She looked at him apologetically. The sight made his smile fade. ‘Miss Haller, keeping all this inside only makes it worse...’

‘I know that,’ she sighed, her smile gone. ‘I just couldn’t face it. I wouldn’t know where to start.’ Suddenly she raised her eyes and looked him straight in the face. Charles leaned back a little, startled by the directness of her gaze. ‘You saw it, didn’t you?’ she asked. He hesitated.

‘The tattoo, you mean?’ She nodded.

‘Do you know what it means?’

‘Yes,’ Charles said. ‘I do.’ In a way, he understood her reluctance to explain all that. All his life he had avoided explanations. To her, explaining her past must feel as insurmountable as it was for him to explain his mutation. ‘I am... terribly sorry for you, Miss Haller.’ Now she averted her gaze and yet again hung her head. Something pulled at the corners of her mouth, but it was not a smile.

‘I don’t think I’m meant to live a normal life,’ she said, and it sounded like a confession. ‘I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I seem never to be able to get it right. Everyone expect me to suddenly understand what normality is, but I still don’t know how the world works. It terrifies me.’ Charles bit his lip, not certain what to say. ‘Perhaps everyone is this lonely,’ she sighed, ‘but sometimes I doubt that the rest of the world exists. Perhaps they’re all just figments of my imagination.’

‘Everyone feels that kind of isolation at some point in their life,’ Charles said, and then added, so as not to sound too sure: ‘Or so they say.’ He hesitated, not knowing how to ask this in a sensitive way. ‘Do you have family over here?’

‘I have an aunt in Boston,’ Miss Haller said. ‘That’s all.’ The implication of that was clear. Charles wondered if he should offer his condolences, or if that would make it feel worse.

‘What about friends?’ She shrugged.

‘I never seem to be able to start a conversation, or keep one up,’ she said. ‘The only people who want to talk to me are the old ladies in my congregation, and they are not very good company. Half the time I think my aunt’s talked them into it.’

‘Well, you’re keeping this conversation up,’ Charles said encouragingly. She smiled sadly. ‘Although I suppose the topic of discussion could be happier.’ He looked at her as she put her chin in her hand and stirred her tea idly. Such a strange cross between fragility and strength - an odd balance between sickliness and beauty. It struck him now that what this girl needed was probably not therapy and medication, but simple human contact. In her, he sensed an unbearable loneliness. He thought of the past few years in his own life, and his willful rejection of friendship. Perhaps Fate is at work here, he thought. Perhaps we need each other.

But it was Miss Haller who spoke first.

‘I almost forgot,’ she said suddenly. ‘I have your friend’s jacket.’ Out of her bag she pulled Erik’s dinner jacket.

‘I’ll give it back to Mister Lehnsherr,’ Charles promised as he accepted it.

‘Give him my regards,’ she said earnestly.

‘Naturally.’ He considered it for another moment, and then asked: ‘How about giving it another try? Come for dinner with me and Mister Lehnsherr.’ He surprised himself by saying that - he had not thought to include Erik. But why not? It would probably make the situation less intimidating for Miss Haller, and it also gave him an excuse to see Erik in a situation where he could not bring up anything sensitive. ‘I was thinking, so as not to let it stick as a bad experience,’ he added quickly. ‘It’s like when you fall off a horse, you’re supposed to get up again so you don’t have the time to get frightened.’

It was obvious that the invitation took Miss Haller by surprise, but her cheeks flushed pleasantly. Charles’ heart gave a surprised jump at the sight.

‘I should love to,’ she said, and he glimpsed a genuine smile.

‘Good,’ he said and smiled back. ‘That’ll give us the opportunity to have a proper conversation.’

‘You say that as if you think I have anything interesting to say,’ she said, sounding embarrassed.

‘Oh, I think you have plenty of interesting things to say,’ Charles answered. ‘In fact, I’m sure of it.’ Suddenly, she looked very relieved. He wondered whether anyone had ever actually wanted to listen to what she had to say before.

‘Are you really a doctor?’ she said. It was not suspicious, like the waiter yesterday, but curious, as if it did not really add up. To her, it did not make sense that a doctor would suffer from poor health. Besides, he was not at his most professional. She had evidently expected something completely different from this meeting, a lecture rather than a conversation, and certainly not a dinner invitation. The question was harmless enough that he could smile at it.

‘Don’t I seem like one?’ he said teasingly. ‘I could tell you all the bones in the hand if that’d convince you.’

‘I wouldn’t know if you made it up,’ she pointed out, but she smiled back widely. He felt the impulse of reaching out and tracing his fingers over her hand as he gave the names: scaphoid, lunate, triquetral, pisiform, trapezium, trapezoid, capitate, hamate, metacarpals...proposition someone when you have a shared past.’ Charles sighed.

‘How about tomorrow?’ Now, Miss Haller looked a little uncomfortable.

‘I’m sorry, I can’t do Fridays,’ she said.

‘Oh,’ Charles said, embarrassed at his faux pas. ‘I’m terribly sorry...’

‘No, it’s alright,’ she assured him timidly. ‘They’re not your customs, you don’t have to keep track of it.’

‘Still, very careless to forget,’ he said. ‘What about Saturday evening?’

‘That’d work,’ she said and nodded, eager again.

‘Would you fancy giving that fish restaurant a try? I suppose they’ll have oysters and things in the kitchen...’

‘As long as they don’t try to serve me them, it’s fine.’

Charles nodded.

‘Wonderful. Shall we say eight, then?’ Miss Haller nodded back.

‘That sounds good.’ Then she glanced at her watch and bit her lip. ‘I should go.’

‘I’ll see you on Saturday, then,’ Charles said and watched how she collected her things. When she stood up, she looked at him and smiled, uncertainly but gratefully.

‘Thank you, Professor.’

‘Pleasure’s all mine.’ They shook hands. Her thin fingers were dry and warm against his palm. ‘Do take care of yourself,’ he added. Once again she nodded.

‘I’ll do my best.’ With a last look and smile over her shoulder, she ducked out of the café, handbag clutched in both hands. Charles stayed at his place, watching her until she was out of view. Then he relaxed a little and sighed to himself. He sincerely hoped that he was doing the right thing.

Instead of contemplating the ethics of his actions, he settled the bill and made his way back to the hotel, Erik’s dinner jacket folded in his lap. When he returned to the hotel, he had to pause in the foyer and rest, but in that time he decided that returning the jacket at once would be a good idea. He picked his room-number out of the mind of the receptionist and took the lift to the third floor. The right door was close-by. By it, he hesitated. He could just have left it in the reception, or make him come get it later.... But he was too exhausted to turn around and get back to his room at once, and however much he tried to deny it, it was not all about the jacket. Gathering his courage, he knocked.

There was a pause, but then there were footsteps from inside, and the door opened. Erik towered over him, his tall stature far more menacing when one sat down. At once when he saw who his guest was, his shoulders relaxed and he smiled.

‘Charles! I... didn’t expect you.’ He stepped aside, gesturing for him to come inside. For another moment, Charles battled with himself, but then he wheeled himself into the room. When Erik had closed the door and turned to face him, he offered him the dinner jacket. ‘Thank you. So you’ve seen her?’

‘Yes, just now.’ Erik found a hanger and prompted him with a look. ‘She’s better, but there are... underlying issues. I think she’s rather socially understimulated.’ Erik looked at him knowingly.

‘You look guilty,’ he observed with a grin. ‘What have you done?’

‘I have “done” nothing,’ Charles said, disgruntled. ‘I simply asked her to have dinner with the two of us. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘Not at all,’ Erik said and hung in the jacket in the wardrobe. ‘She seemed like a fascinating young woman.’

‘She’s not that much younger than us,’ Charles said. ‘She’s just over thirty.’

‘She looks younger,’ he simply observed, and then went still, as a question presented itself. ‘Charles, she’s not...?’

‘...A mutant?’ Charles suggested, and Erik nodded. ‘No, she’s human.’ An uncomfortable silence fell. ‘Would you still be up for it?’ Charles asked finally. To his surprise, Erik smiled.

‘If you can dine with the man who crippled you, I think I can dine with a human.’ Charles looked away.

‘Erik...’

‘I mean it,’ he said quietly, his voice sincere. ‘I... admire your forbearance. I would not be so magnanimous, in your stead.’ Charles decided not to answer; Erik’s reply had come oddly close to equating himself to his own Nazi tormentors. Seeming not to have noticed Charles’ uncertainty, Erik pressed on. ‘I realise too that I was thoughtless in some of my actions.’

‘Do you mean that you propositioned me?’ Erik weighed from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable.

‘I don’t know if you can proposition someone when you have a shared past.’ Charles sighed.

‘Semantics, my dear, semantics.’

‘I had simply hoped...’ Erik broke off and shook his head. ‘But obviously I was being foolish.’

‘I’m rather afraid you were.’ They looked in different directions, and Charles cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘I should leave. Would you please help me with the door?’

Erik obeyed, numb at the conversation. They did not say goodbye, but only shared a look of mutual regret. Charles’ progress back to his rooms was slow, and when he finally reached them, he lingered at the door, suddenly struck by regret. Perhaps he had been too curt - perhaps he should not have left so abruptly. After all, he was going to see him again, so there was no reason not to be civil. Indeed, he wanted to be more than civil - he wanted him as his friend. (And more than that? No, Charles. Don’t think about it.)

Thinking about Erik and the upcoming dinner with Miss Haller suddenly made his mind up. Before he had time to change his mind, he wheeled himself over to the telephone and dialed the number to the mansion. He imagined the phone in the kitchen ringing and the boys scrambling to get to it. When they picked up the phone, he could hear them all and Hank’s authoritative voice:

‘Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters - hello?’

‘Hello, Hank,’ Charles said as he started rolling the telephone cord around his finger.

‘Professor!’ he exclaimed, sounding worried. ‘Has something happened? Is everything alright?’

‘Hank, everything’s fine,’ he said, hoping to calm him down. ‘Couldn’t be better. I was wondering if Sean was there...’

‘I’m here!’ came a shout a little way away from the receiver.

‘He can hear you, alright,’ Hank said, relieved rather than worried now.

‘Splendid. About your coming down on Monday, Sean... I don’t think it’s necessary.’

There was a stunned pause.

What?’ Sean shouted.

‘Professor, that’s absurd...’ Hank said. Charles attempted to explain.

‘You’re one person short anyway - with Sean gone too...’

‘But you can’t be all alone in New York, Professor! Cooped up in that hotel...’ Charles bit his lip not to snap that he did not need someone to wheel him about the place. After all these years, they still imagined that he was completely dependent on them.

‘As a matter of fact, I’m not alone,’ he said. He could almost hear the others’ confusion over the open line as he grappled for a plausible explanation. ‘I bumped into an old friend from Oxford - I’ll be fine.’

‘Someone from Oxford?’ Hank repeated.

‘Yes - Pomfret,’ Charles added quickly. There had been a Pomfret at Pembroke, but they had not known each other very well. If Charles remembered correctly, he had gone into banking, so there was no way he would turn up and upset the plan of using his name.

‘That’s wonderful. In that case, I suppose you will be alright.’

‘But what about me? I wanted to go to New York,’ Sean whined.

‘Another time, Sean,’ Charles promised. They chatted about the children for a little while and Hank told him not to exert himself before they rang off. Charles remained with his hand on the receiver, relieved and frightened at the same time.

****

Saturday evening was cold and clear, and from where Charles sat, Erik on his side, he could see Orion. They were just outside Sibell’s, waiting for their guest. Charles’ hands were going cold and he was worrying that perhaps she would not show, when a shape appeared in the outskirts of the circle of light from the streetlamp. Miss Haller stepped closer, swathed in a large black shawl over the same dress she had worn the day they had first met. When she caught sight of them, her eyes shone expectantly. As if in answer, Charles’ heart gave a pleasant jolt. He approached her, and they stopped a little way away from each other, her looking down at him and him looking up at her. It took a moment to find his voice.

‘Good evening, Miss Haller,’ he said, extending a hand palm-up.

‘Good evening, Professor,’ Miss Haller answered and put her hand in his. He kissed her silk-covered knuckles, and could sense her blushing. When he let go of it, she grabbed it with her other hand, awed surprise on her face.

‘I trust you are well.’

‘Yes,’ she said quickly. ‘Very well. And you, Professor?’ The question was hesitant, as if she considered enquiring of his health was overstepping a line.

‘Never been better, my dear,’ he assured her. ‘You’ve met Erik Lehnsherr, of course.’ Erik, who had hung back during this exchange, stepped forward. Charles noticed how Miss Haller stared; she might have been flattered by his attentions, but just Erik’s appearance astonished her.

‘Worn his clothes, too,’ she said with a nervous laugh and extended her hand. He took it and kissed the place Charles had pressed his lips to only moments before.

‘A pleasure to be formally introduced,’ he said. Charles remembered that tone - it had surprised him how seductive a German accent could sound. Something shot through him, and for a moment he thought it was jealousy at seeing Erik flirt with Miss Haller. Then he realised that it was arousal. As Erik lead Miss Haller to the private dining-room he had arranged for them, Charles considered how right they looked together. They were both good-looking people, and Miss Haller’s fragile beauty went well with Erik’s grim handsomeness. He looked forward to seeing them interact.

But the idea of simply playing matchmaker felt very unsatisfactory. In a way, that was all he did - help people to accept themselves and others, while staying back, never integrating himself into anyone’s life. No man could happily sit there and watch his friend take the prize, especially not when so much tension - emotional, sexual, ideological - existed between them.

But Miss Haller was not simply a prize. No, she was something more - a connector between them, a no-man’s-land for negotiation. And a human being, he added. They had reached the room and Erik pulled out a chair for Miss Haller, and as she sat down, she turned her head to look at him. Her long neck arched and turned, forming a perfect line from chin to collar-bone. A human being - of course she is a human being. Nothing else. Charles glanced up at Erik, and watched the closed smile which he gave her. The thought took a new form. Human.

Why was Erik showing such obvious interest in a human? Was he simply acting as he thought she wanted him to, playing the role of the dark handsome stranger? Or was it genuine - did he see beyond her genetic makeup and glimpse something else? The worst suggestion was that he was acting, not for her sake, but in order to punish Charles for rejecting him. Perhaps he was taunting him, because Charles could not lead her by the arm or draw out the chair for her. She must have noticed Erik’s obvious advantage over him, and that stung. What if she would lose interest in him now, when Erik, who not only was able to walk but was also handsome rather than pretty, was present? But when Charles took a place beside Miss Haller, she turned and smiled at him expectantly. He smiled back, feeling reassured.

‘I’m very glad you suggested this,’ she said, and glanced at them both. ‘I’m so grateful.’

‘It was all Charles’ doing,’ Erik said. He then looked up, about to catch the waiter’s eye, but Charles, eager to show off his own feathers, tugged at the man’s mind and made him notice him first.

‘I think we’ll start with champagne.’ Beside him, he noticed Miss Haller giving him a half-impressed and half-terrified look. When he had settled on a vintage, the waiter left, and Charles turned back to her. Showing off wealth was not the most subtle way of making an impression, but he did not feel bad doing it - Erik could easily do the same (even if his funds came from more dubious sources than an inheritance). Still, he supposed that champagne seemed quite luxurious for a lady typist.

The waiter returned with the champagne, and Miss Haller watched the pale liquid foaming as it was poured into the flutes.

‘What shall we drink to?’ Erik asked.

‘Budding friendship,’ Charles suggested.

‘Yes,’ Miss Haller agreed and raised the glass. The men mirrored her, and they drank. When she put her glass down, she pouted her lips and looked up in the ceiling, trying to analyse the taste. ‘It’s sweeter than I’d expected,’ she observed.

‘Your first glass of champagne?’ Erik said and raised an eyebrow.

‘Yes,’ she said and tasted the champagne again. ‘It’s an odd taste... A little like apples.’

‘I’d never thought of that,’ Charles admitted. Miss Haller laughed at his nonplussed tone. ‘Must have ruined my palate with brandy,’ he added with a shrug.

‘How fortunate that Miss Haller can tell you what to taste,’ Erik said teasingly. Then he turned to her and asked: ‘Is that a Dutch accent?’

Miss Haller smiled, evidently impressed.

‘Yes - well spotted,’ she said. ‘I was born in Amsterdam.’ She raised her glass to watch the light through the liquid, and then put it down. ‘I’ve tried to get rid of it,’ she admitted. ‘It was awful at first.’

‘I think it’s charming,’ Charles said. At the way he lengthened the “a” of the adjective, she smiled.

‘At least you don’t sound like a movie villain, as I do,’ Erik said and made a gesture towards himself. Now her smile had faded.

‘You’re German?’ she asked. Her tone was guarded, but not unpleasant. Charles straightened up a little, worried that this might lead to something awkward. But Erik simply inclined his head and said:

‘I was born there. Now, I am rather a citizen of the world. At home everywhere, and a stranger in all lands.’

Miss Haller’s wariness melted, and instead, her eyes took on a compassionate light.

‘I don’t know if that is liberating or very sad.’ Erik smiled at her, a little melancholically.

‘It’s not a bad life,’ he said finally. She smiled back at him and then said:

‘So. Three Europeans in New York.’ They looked at each other, and suddenly Charles had the feeling that today was only the first of many evenings they would spend together.

The waiter returned to take their orders, and when he left, Miss Haller turned to Charles and asked:

‘What is it you are professor of, sir?’

‘Genetics,’ Charles explained. ‘It’s really an honorary title. They gave me it when it was clear I wasn’t going to come back to Oxford.’ Compassion flickered over her face; obviously she assumed that it was because of his injury, and rightly so.

‘Do you miss academia?’ she asked. Suddenly it struck him that she assumed that he was retired.

‘Oh, a bit, but I still have it as a hobby,’ he said. ‘Can’t go completely stale in the old head. And I’m sure it’s good, what with the teaching and all.’ She leaned closer, evidently intrigued.

‘Teaching?’ she repeated.

‘Yes. I run a school, just upstate from here,’ he explained.

‘Really?’ she asked, pleasantly surprised.

‘Yes. It’s still quite small, but it’s steadily growing. You could call it my life’s work, I suppose.’ That made her smile.

‘It must give you a wonderful sense of achievement,’ she observed.

‘Yes, it does,’ Charles answered. ‘There is nothing quite like feeling you’re helping the next generation.’

‘Do you have any children?’ she asked. There was something a little hesitant about the question, but Charles told himself not to read anything into it.

‘No,’ he admitted. ‘The school is my family. I’m very fond of all of them.’

‘Of course,’ Miss Haller said and rearranged the pearl-necklace she was wearing. It rested on her collarbones, and drew his gaze to her jugular notch, which dipped between them. Suddenly he realised that he was staring, and he looked away quickly.

‘What do you do, Mister Lehnsherr?’ Miss Haller asked, not seeming to register Charles’ embarrassment, even if he could not help thinking that it was impossible that she had not noticed his gaze. Now he looked over at Erik, genuinely interested what he might answer. Just not the truth, for goodness’ sake! But Erik, not missing a beat, answered:

‘I’m in business. Metal trade.’

Miss Haller rested his chin against the back of her fingers and looked at them both appraisingly.

‘How do a schoolmaster and a businessman become such fast friends?’ Erik and Charles exchanged looks. For a brief moment, what they had shared seemed a mutual amusement, instead of a weight between them. Then Charles reflected that Miss Haller had called them “fast friends”, despite not knowing them well at all. He supposed that it must be noticeable. That train of thought had distracted him from the question, and instead, Erik answered:

‘Charles saved my life.’

Charles stared at him, reeling at the truth of the statement. Erik had had the sense to lie just moments before, and he was good enough at it to think on his feet - why had he not come up with something a little less sensational?

Miss Haller’s hand fell and she stared at them, thunderstruck. It was evidently not what she had expected. Then she looked at Erik, and her face softened with worry. She watched him with new eyes, trying to figure out what he had suffered from that had been so bad that his life needed saving. She did not know whether to express her regret for hearing of his ill-health or her relief at his recovery. Charles decided to step in to save her and making a prompting gesture, glass in hand, said:

‘Erik, you can’t keep Miss Haller in suspense like this. You’ll have to tell her the whole story.’ Erik smiled almost maliciously, recognising that this was a challenge to find the correct story to tell. Then he turned to Miss Haller.

‘It was two, three years ago, in Florida,’ he explained. ‘I was on a....’ He hesitated for a moment and then found an appropriate word ‘...an acquaintance’s boat, and fell overboard. I came close to drowning - a current dragged me down - but Charles was on a nearby boat and jumped in, and pulled me out.’ She looked at them both, awed.

‘What an extraordinary way to meet for the first time,’ she said. ‘It must have been a very bonding experience.’ Charles could see Erik make a face as he thought about the way Charles had learned everything there was to know about him within seconds.

‘It certainly was,’ Charles agreed.

‘The beginning of a beautiful friendship,’ Erik said and made no attempt to hide the irony in his voice. Miss Haller raised an inquisitive eyebrow.

‘Don’t make fun of it, Mister Lehnsherr,’ she said, her reproach playful. ‘I’m sure you’re not the final scene of a film.’

As the waiter returned with their dinner, Charles asked:

‘Are you fond of the cinema, Miss Haller?’ She shrugged.

‘I go sometimes,’ she said. For a moment, Charles imagined her going to the movies on her own and sitting there in the dark, as the same film played over and over. ‘I always think of myself as more inclined towards theatre, but...’ She trailed off. Evidently they had stumbled upon the sensitive question of money. Apparently eager to sidestep that particular issue, Erik asked:

‘Is there some form of theatre you enjoy particularly?’ Miss Haller shone up at the question.

‘I’m very fond of Berthold Brecht.’ Charles raised his eyebrows in surprise.

‘Not what I’d have expected a young lady to enjoy,’ he said. ‘What I’ve seen by him is very... oppressive.’

‘Oh, it is,’ she agreed, ‘but should culture only entertain us? Shouldn’t it give us more than simple pleasure?’

‘Well, I agree with you at that,’ Charles conceded.

‘I find Brecht contrived,’ Erik said. ‘I’ve never liked him.’ Miss Haller looked at him; even if he was not the recipient of that gaze, Charles noticed how direct it was.

‘Why “contrived”?’

‘The whole idea of alienation,’ he explained. ‘It doesn’t work - Brecht himself is an illustration of that it doesn’t work. His way of telling stories is supposed not to engage the audience, but it does. And what is the point with a narrative which is not capturing?’

‘Reality isn’t capturing,’ Miss Haller argued. ‘It’s just one thing after the other. Narratives present us with an ideal, so we imagine that things always follow nicely on each other and that events form plot-lines and then all come together in a happy ending, but in reality, they never do. The whole idea of an ending is odd. In real life, the only ending is death, but only for the person who dies. There’ll be survivors, and for them, that isn’t the ending. But fiction can never capture that kind of thing. That’s the irony of the ending of The Threepenny Opera. The only way it could end in reality is that Macheath is hanged and the rest of the characters go back to their wretched lives, but there is no way to portray that on stage. The performance must end somewhere. That’s why Brecht introduces a missive from the king to save Macheath and give us a happy ending. The fact that we want it is part of the irony, particularly as all the characters are unsympathetic.’

‘But isn’t it part of the point that it is different from reality? Fiction fulfills some kind of need in people,’ Charles argued. ‘Especially in the case of happy endings. It’s something we all hope for, even if we all know that they are not going to happen.’

‘But is deluding ourselves really constructive?’ Miss Haller said. ‘It’s not that I don’t enjoy regular fiction - I do - but I find that Brecht’s commentary of it, which in itself is fictional, is... sobering.’

‘But if we already know it, why do we need someone to tell us it?’ Erik asked.

‘As a reminder.’

Charles chuckled.

‘I didn’t have you down as a cultural conservative, Erik.’

‘Usually there is no culture left to conserve,’ Erik answered. ‘But I wouldn’t describe myself like that. My problem with Brecht is that I can’t stand the cleverness of it.’

‘You’re looking at it the wrong way, Mister Lehnsherr,’ Miss Haller said and smiled.

‘I’m always sceptical to anything where the direct way of seeing at it is not the right one, but I defer to your judgement, Miss Haller,’ he said courteously.

The conversation moved on. Charles talked about Samuel Beckett, whose work Miss Haller had read but never seen. They discussed the medium of film and to what extent it was a form of art. Erik admitted his love for Italian cinema. They then turned to the subject of verse. Miss Haller explained her fascination with modern poetry. Charles agreed, and when Erik mentioned that he was unfamiliar with Eliot, Charles quoted the opening lines of Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to him:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table; 
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent,
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

As he recited it, Erik’s eyes drifted shut. Charles knew that all he could hear was his voice, and he knew that Miss Haller watched them, as if she could see something hovering between them. For the rest of the evening, the poetry lingered, its intoxicating rhythms strengthened by the wine. His perceptions grew incredibly acute. Across the table he could discern each individual eyelash belonging to his dinner companions. He saw a faint scar on Erik’s right temple, and a small birth-mark below Miss Haller’s left ear. He noticed every glance which passed between them, and every glance they gave him. In the midst of all this, part of him felt incredibly old, misplaced between these two people whose grip on him he could not explain.

And indeed there will be time
to wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’
He felt like Prufrock himself, balding and melancholic. But to him, it was not the dull everyday world which was weighing him down, but this prospect at something else, something more.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
Here was his chance to break the damned patterns of the last three years, to taste the things that he had once known but had forgotten the taste of. Perhaps it was even his last chance. But for what? Companionship? Love? A happy life? He was unable to choose or unable to name it. So for now he remained a coward, even if he obligingly gave Miss Haller a card and a pen, and she wrote her telephone number down in large numerals on it for him, even if he kissed her hand and watched Erik kiss it too, even if he let Erik push him back to the hotel.

Instead of saying good-bye in the foyer, Erik pushed him all the way to his door and then came around to face him.

‘Well,’ Charles said and looked up at him.

‘This was very enjoyable,’ Erik said, trying his best not to sound awkward.

‘A little less surprising than last time,’ Charles added. Erik laughed, but his heart was not in it. He stopped, hesitating, and Charles decided to cut the conversation short.

‘I should get to bed,’ he said. ‘Good night.’

Erik looked at him, saying nothing, and then acted. Quickly, he swooped down on him, and pressed his lips to his cheek. The contact only lasted a moment, and as quickly as it had started, it was gone. Erik withdrew and murmured:

‘I’m sorry.’

Without offering any other parting phrase, he walked off, raking his fingers through his hair, as if attempting to drag the regret out of his skull. Charles lingered by the door, watching him until he turned the corner and disappeared.

Chapter Text

Charles did not want to admit it to anyone, especially not to himself, but ever since the dinner date, he had been looking for another reason to see Gabrielle Haller. He imagined running into her on the street, and even considered to go back to the café where they had had tea, as if she was likely to turn up there. It was a week after their first meeting at the breakfast table when the obvious course of action suddenly presented itself. He was reading the morning paper and reached the theatre section. Why didn’t I think of that before? he thought. Bringing her to the theatre was just the kind of thing he should do. It would be an opportunity to see her, but would not be too pushy, and the play would give them something to discuss. He scanned the reviews. Finally he settled on a rather modern-looking production of Twelfth Night.

That evening, he retrieved the card with Miss Haller’s telephone number on and dialed it. Finally, she picked up the receiver.

‘Haller?’ She sounded apprehensive; perhaps the phone did not ring often, and she was afraid it meant that there was bad news.

‘Hello, this is Charles Xavier.’

He imagined that he could hear her worry disappear.

‘Professor - hello! I didn’t expect you to call...’

‘Oh, I thought I’d call and have a chat. How are you, Miss Haller?’

‘I’m well,’ she said. He had a feeling that it was not an outright lie, but not altogether true either. It was an overstatement, reluctance to tell the full truth but without the need to exaggerate much. It was as good as he had expected.

‘No more incidents, then?’

‘No, none at all.’ That he believed.

‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Then, plucking up his courage, he said: ‘I know you’re more for the experimental kind of theatre, but there’s a production of Twelfth Night that opened this week, which looks rather exciting...’

‘I saw about it in the paper,’ Miss Haller said. ‘It sounded interesting.’ She did not voice the question why he mentioned it, but even if he could not read her mind he sensed how hopeful she was.

‘Well, I’d love to go see it,’ he explained. ‘But there’s nothing as miserable as going to the theatre on one’s own. So I was wondering... would you like to come with me?’

‘Oh yes please. I’d... I’d be thrilled.’ Charles smiled to himself.

‘Wonderful. How about tomorrow? The play starts at eight.’

‘Yes, tomorrow sounds good.’

Charles gave her the address of the theatre and they settled on a time. Then they said good-bye and rang off. When he had put down the receiver, he had to fight the urge not to punch the air. This success felt like a great victory.

Next evening, he tickets safely in his inside pocket, Charles made the annoyed cab driver leave him on the other side of the block - he did not want Miss Haller to see him struggle out of the car. When he was in sight of the theatre, he saw her waiting on the pavement, looking nervous. By the way she looked around her, he surmised that she had been waiting for some time.

‘Miss Haller!’ She looked up, and when she caught sight of him, her face brightened. She hurried towards him through the pools of light of the street-lamps and the darkness in between. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ he said when she reached him and they had shaken hands. ‘Trouble with the cab.’

‘I haven’t been waiting long,’ she said, but nevertheless looked relieved that he was here. They started making their way towards the entrance. Charles noticed how she glanced at the wheelchair, considering asking whether she should push him, but to his relief she did not.

‘So, how well do you know your Shakespeare?’

‘Not as well as I should,’ she admitted. ‘I’ve read more than I’ve seen. I find the language a little difficult.’

‘Have you seen Twelfth Night before?’

‘No. It was years since I read it, and I don’t know how much I understood.’

‘Well, knowing the plot usually helps...’ He started explaining the intricate plot, and just when he reached the faked letter and Malvolio’s cross braced garters, they reached the entrance, and he fell silent. ‘Oh.’

‘What’s the matter?’ she asked and followed his glance. ‘Oh,’ she said too.

Charles silently cursed himself. How could he have been so stupid as to forget this? he wondered, but the question was far too easy. He had been so thrilled to bring a girl to the theatre that for once he had forgotten about his own limitations. Somehow, he had not expected stairs. He did his best to count the steps, and made it to at least fifteen. He might be able to make his way up a couple of steps on his own, and a few more with someone else’s help, but this was insurmountable.

‘Well,’ he said and swallowed awkwardly. ‘Not much to do about it.’ Miss Haller looked from the stairs to him, obviously not knowing what to say.

‘There must be stage entrance...’

‘Oh, they’re far too busy,’ he said, looking at his watch. ‘Curtains-up in twenty minutes. Besides, there’s probably no way of getting to the stalls from there.’ He sighed deeply, not trying to hide his disappointment. He had so been looking forward to this. ‘Well, we don’t seem to have much choice.’ He took the envelope from his pocket and picked out one of the tickets, offering it to her. She stared at it. ‘Come on, love, take it,’ he said. She did not move. ‘I’d hate to ruin the evening for you.’ Still she did not take it. Instead, her nostrils flared and she said:

‘Wait here.’ Then she turned and ran up the stairs. Charles watched her talking to the porter at the door, and saw her gesture down at him. The porter in turn disappeared inside, and then returned and nodded. What on earth is she doing? Charles wondered. Now, Miss Haller turned back and ran down the stairs.

‘What was that about?’ he asked suspiciously.

‘I decided to actually go ask them,’ she explained. ‘There’s no good entrance, but they’re sending out a stagehand.’

‘A stagehand?’ he repeated. ‘You can’t be serious...’ Miss Haller leaned down, her hands on her knees, and looked him in the eye.

‘You said you’d bring me to the theatre, not that you’d buy me a ticket and then leave me on my own,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘I want to watch it with you, professor.’ Something pleading entered her eyes, and suddenly, Charles wondered if she was about to kiss him. His throat constricted, and he found that he could not find it in himself to object. He heard footsteps coming down the stairs.

‘Well then,’ he said finally. This was not the time to explain how humiliating an idea this was. After all, he knew that Gaby meant no offense, but only wanted his company. Now she stepped back and exchanged a few words with the burly man who had descended the stairs. Without greeting Charles, he took hold of the frame of the chair and lifted him. Charles grabbed the armrests, feeling both terrified and humiliated. At least Gaby was walking ahead of them, and did not see him. Once the silent stagehand put him down, she turned to smile at him. He smiled back, and thought that the humiliation was almost worth it.

Fortunately, their seats were at the end of a row, so Gaby took the outer seat, and Charles stayed in the aisle. Her hand rested on her armrest, and Charles felt like taking it. Instead, he leaned over and whispered, ‘are you following?’ Mostly she did, but sometimes she would ask about some word or phrase she did not understand. They stayed in the stalls during the interval and discussed the play and the scenography. Charles found the modern costumes a little distracting, but Gaby evidently enjoyed the twist it gave the play.

When the play was over and the stairs once again dealt with, they hailed a cab and Gaby gave the driver her address. They sat in silence, but sometimes caught each other’s eyes and smiled. Charles did not quite know what to say. When they neared the right street, he forced himself to speak.

‘Have you enjoyed yourself?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It was wonderful. I thought it was quite funny.’

‘It’s one of my favourites,’ he admitted. The cab stopped, and Miss Haller threw a nervous glance out of the window.

‘Well,’ she said. ‘That’s my house.’ Charles nodded.

‘Of course. Good night, Miss Haller.’ Suddenly, her face split into a smile, making her eyes shine.

‘Please, won’t you call me by my first name?’

‘Gabrielle,’ he said. ‘Or Gaby?’

‘Gaby.’ He nodded.

‘In that case, you’ll have to stop calling me “professor”, and start calling me Charles.’ She nodded.

‘It’s a fair deal,’ she said and unclipped her seat-belt. ‘Well, good night, Charles.’

‘Good night, Gaby.’ She stayed where she was, looking at him, and instead of offering him her hand she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek in parting. Her lips brushed against his skin briefly, and then she was gone, waving at him when he drove away. On the way to the hotel, Charles wondered if that short contact had left a mark on his cheek. When he finally got to his room and looked in a mirror, he was disappointed to see that it had not.

He went through his evening routine without stopping to think, and it was not until he was in bed that it caught up with him. Where he lay watching the beam of a streetlamp struggled in between the curtains, he felt oddly disconcerted. Was it the play, with all its twists and turns, or the odd modern scenography? Being carried up the stairs by the stage-hand, or suddenly being on first-name terms with Gaby? No, it was the lipstick mark that had failed to appear on his cheek after they took leave of each other. It had not been an erotic parting, merely a friendly one, but now he felt lonely in the much too big bed. What did he want from her? Was the fact that a woman was taking some form of interest in him despite his disadvantages making him overinterpret the situation? Probably she meant nothing by it - she was simply glad to have a friend. Why was he so eager to sully that by bringing sex into it? Why ruin a perfectly decent friendship with something so trivial and so difficult?

Unbidden, his thoughts wandered to Erik. It would take very little to contact him. Even now when he was not trying, he could sense him, two floors up and several rooms away. All he had to do was to reach out and touch his mind, and he would come to him without question. He imagined Erik with him now. He would have to make him dismiss everything they had previously done, and help him learn this changed body. For a moment, he imagined it being Gaby instead. Both fantasies made him feel guilty, but in different ways, but both were arousing as well. Charles pushed aside the idea of alleviating his loneliness, and fell asleep thinking of Gaby’s painted lips and Erik’s long hands.

***

After two weeks in New York, Charles had grown used to the silence of his hotel suite. The mansion was always noisy, despite its size. When the students were not making noise, Alex or Sean or Hank were. In contrast, New York was a calm oasis, and not even the noise of traffic and the drum of all those minds changed that. Even if the other mutants were certain that he constantly needed someone to keep him company, he enjoyed the comparative solitude, even if as a telepath, he was never really alone.

Still, the knock that broke the silence startled him. It was a precise rap, of a kind the hotel staff would never announce their presence with, and the mind he sensed out in the corridor was unmistakable. When he opened the door, he was therefore not surprised to find Erik there, but the agitation written across his face and his breathing was heavy, as if he had run there.

‘What on earth is the matter, Erik?’ It took Erik a moment to answer, chest heaving.

‘One of our leads,’ he explained, sounding miserable. ‘It’s dry.’

‘I’m terribly sorry to hear that,’ Charles said earnestly. Erik looked up and down the corridor.

‘We shouldn’t talk here,’ he then said.

‘Come in,’ Charles offered and wheeled himself backwards to clear a path for him. Erik shook his head and gestured towards his ear. Understanding that he was afraid the room might be bugged, Charles nodded and gestured for him to wait. Erik stood in the door as he pulled on his jacket and spread his blanket over his knees. He stepped out of the way when he wheeled himself out and locked the door. When they made their way down the corridor, Erik looked at him and asked:

‘Is that heavy work?’ He gestured at the wheelchair.

‘It was at first,’ Charles admitted, ‘but it’s much easier now. You should see the muscles of my arms.’ Erik’s eyebrows shot up, and Charles realised that it had sounded almost like an offer to show them, and Erik’s imagination was trying to paint a picture of how he might look. He must have realised that he had sensed his thoughts, because Erik looked away awkwardly. When they came out into the street, he asked:

‘Where to?’

‘Let’s go to the park,’ Charles suggested. ‘The more public, the better, I should think.’ Erik did not move at once, and Charles raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘Would you like me to...?’ He made a vague gesture. Instinctively, Charles’ hands closed against the wheels, but then he relaxed and let go completely. Erik stepped closer hesitantly and took the handles. Charles put his hands on the armrests, trying not to fidget. Letting Erik push him felt like a kind of surrender. As they made their way towards the park, he considered the way he could not seem to find a balance between what he felt and what he found proper. He never knew whether to be rejective and angry or kind and understanding. To him, any kind of kindness felt equal to forgetting Erik’s guilt. Part of him wanted to rage against him, but another part wanted to leave all that behind and extend his forgiveness completely. He did not know which extreme he should let win. The consequences of either seemed undesirable. To let the anger win, he would have to reject the tentative friendship they had built up, but if he forgave him, he might end up giving in completely.

He pushed the worry aside, and looked around instead. It was April, and the spring sun was shining overhead.

‘All that time away from New York makes me forget how beautiful it is,’ he observed.

‘You see beauty, and I see decay,’ Erik said. ‘It seems like it is always like that.’ 

‘Oh, don’t be melodramatic, Erik,’ Charles said cheerfully. ‘You can’t fool me into thinking you don’t know beauty. The brooding might work on the Brotherhood, but I see right through you.’ They reached a park-bench, and Erik sat down on it.

‘You say that so casually,’ he said. ‘You don’t understand how unsettling it is.’ Charles shrugged.

‘All I mean is that I know you.’

‘It’s more than that,’ Erik reminded him. ‘You know everything.’

‘I don’t sieve through your memories on a regular basis, if that’s what you’re afraid of,’ Charles observed.

‘But it’s not just me,’ Erik said. ‘Everyone is an open book to you. Don’t you see how exposed it makes us feel?’

‘And how do you think knowing others’ thoughts feels?’ Charles answered back. ‘Even when I shield myself, things will still bleed through, especially things directed towards me. I hear even what passers-by think of me. Can you imagine how that feels?’ Erik looked away.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I guess more painful than when they shout it after you.’

‘People usually have the decency not to shout.’

‘They never have with me.’ Charles clasped his hands in his lap, eager to leave the subject behind.

‘So, your lead.’ Erik sighed and leaned back.

‘We’re investigating businesses which we suspect are fronts for the Sentinel project,’ he explained. ‘We’ve been doing it for months. Well, it turns out now that one of them, the one that Mystique has been investigating, is nothing of the kind. Emma Frost went in yesterday and confirmed it. No-one knows anything. We’ve wasted all that time and energy on nothing.’

‘But there are other leads, surely - other businesses,’ Charles said.

‘Yes, of course, but it shouldn’t have taken us so long to realise that we were off on a tangent. I’ve redistributed Mystique and put her on one of the more likely candidates, where she can do some proper difference, but...’ He kicked at the ground in frustration.

‘You feel that having made the wrong decisions weighs upon you,’ Charles surmised.

‘Yes.’

‘I’m sure that the Brotherhood doesn’t blame you for it.’

‘Perhaps they should,’ Erik said and shrugged.

‘How would you react to someone challenging you like that?’ Now Erik looked entertained.

‘There’s a reason why it’s called the Brotherhood of Mutants.’

‘You’re a democratic organisation, you mean?’ Charles scoffed. ‘I find that hard to believe.’

‘Just because the Brotherhood has an empowered leader does not mean that the voices of other members are ignored.’

‘That sounds a little much like the Soviet Communist Party to me,’ Charles said and looked at him disapprovingly. Erik gave him a toothy grin.

‘You really are trying to cast us as the villains at every opportunity.’

‘Well, it’s true,’ Charles said coldly. ‘Your methods are blunt and violent. You’re just escalating the situation. For every attack or raid the Brotherhood makes, more voices are raised in favour of mutant registration and detainment. You’re helping to create the situation you are working against.’

‘So we should just sit back and wait until they come and take us away?’ Erik snapped. ‘What would you do, Charles, if they took the children from your school? Tell me you wouldn’t fight to protect them. If worse comes to worst, you’ll agree with me.’ Charles met his eye, but did not answer. He wanted to be able to say that that was not the case, but he could not know what he would do. Momentarily, he felt a stab of worry for the school, before he reminded himself that they were by no means unprotected.

Erik was the first to look away. His shoulders slumped and he sighed.

‘We disagree on so many things,’ he said. ‘How then is it that I find it so easy to trust you?’

‘Because you know me,’ Charles answered. ‘You see beyond our different agendas.’

‘And that doesn’t bother you?’ Erik wondered. ‘That despite everything, we can still take a walk in the park and just talk?’

‘It is something I am grateful for.’ He had expected Erik to make a snide remark or at least smile, but instead, he looked away, looking suddenly unsettled. Charles unclasped his hands. ‘What is it, Erik?’

‘Nothing,’ he said, but when caught himself. ‘I... Sometimes, I find it difficult to be in your presence.’ He looked at him briefly, as if he did not really dare to linger. ‘Without being allowed to touch you.’ He swallowed and nodded towards his hand. ‘You didn’t have those callouses back then.’ Charles cleared his throat awkwardly.

‘I wasn’t in a wheelchair back then,’ he simply answered. Erik looked away resolutely.

‘Do you want me to apologise for kissing you the other night?’

‘When you put it like that, it sounds like it wouldn’t be a sincere apology,’ Charles observed.

‘Because I don’t regret it,’ Erik said. ‘I only regret if it offended you.’ There was no answer. ‘I don’t see how love can offend you, Charles.’

‘What do you expect?’ Charles snapped. ‘Have you claimed that I’m naïve so many times that you’ve convinced yourself that I’d simply let something like this go? It’s not your feelings that offend me, it’s your arrogant attitude.’

‘I never meant for this to happen,’ he said bitterly. Charles sighed.

‘Of course you didn’t,’ he said, his anger proving elusive. ‘I know that.’ Now Erik turned to face him properly.

‘It doesn’t change anything for me,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t make you any less lovable in my eyes.’

‘It’s changed things for me,’ Charles answered. ‘Not just between us.’ Erik still looked at him, and Charles realised that he probably needed to speak clearly. He wished he did not have to, but there seemed no way about it. ‘I suppose you have a right to know,’ he said and pushed his hand through his hair. The look Erik gave him was confused. Charles tried not to look at him. ‘The damage that bullet caused wasn’t just about movement, but sensation too.’ Erik frowned.

‘What are you implying?’

‘Let’s not go into gritty details. I’m lucky, all things considered - it could have been worse, but it’s bad enough.’

‘I don’t see what you mean,’ Erik admitted.

‘Yes, you do,’ Charles said, trying to keep exasperation out of his voice. He was not used to discussing these kinds of things, and he knew he was not being very clear. ‘Erik, I can’t...’ He struggled for some way of expressing it which was not too medical or vulgar, but failed. ‘I can’t,’ he repeated. Erik paled a little.

‘You mean...’

Yes,’ he said emphatically. ‘I’m not much good to anyone like this. We could not be lovers, Erik - I could be no-one’s lover. Not properly.’ Erik’s face turned a little whiter, and he leaned back. ‘If it is any comfort, this means that you will remain my last.’ Erik looked for words, and laughed weakly.

‘For such a good man, you are inexplicably cruel, Charles.’

‘I thought you needed to know,’ Charles said. ‘You’d not stop pushing the point until you did. Besides, I don’t enjoy lying to you.’ Suddenly Erik straightened up and turned towards him. A sudden agitation had lit up his eyes.

‘It doesn’t have to matter,’ he said. ‘There are ways around it.’ Charles snorted. Of course he knew that, but to him, it seemed a cheap trade-off. It did not change the fact that he felt unmanned. ‘Do you think you can scare me away by something like that?’ Erik asked, leaning in so that his hissed whisper could be heard. ‘I don’t care...’

‘Please, leave it.’

‘It doesn’t have to be about sex,’ Erik said urgently, but still under his breath. Charles shook his head with a sigh.

‘Erik, don’t you understand?’ he asked. ‘That’s not the problem. Even if I wasn’t stuck in this chair, I would still reject you. Besides, do you think that you can simply say “it doesn’t have to be about sex” and then suddenly it wouldn’t be? Do you imagine us just kissing and holding hands?’ Erik pressed his lips together, not even attempting to hide his disappointment. ‘You know it’d never work,’ Charles said, and despite himself there was regret in his voice. ‘We’d end up frustrated and resentful. We’d hate each other.’

‘I may despise you at times, but I could never hate you,’ Erik pointed out. ‘Some things do not change.’

‘But many things do,’ Charles answered. ‘Please, don’t make this difficult. I want us to be friends. Can’t that be enough?’

‘I think it’s a little late to ask me not to make it difficult now.’

‘I tried to tell you when we first met again,’ he reminded him sharply. ‘But you obviously don’t bother listening to me.’ Erik exhaled, and it half sounded like a laugh.

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll try.’ Then he looked him in the eye and said: ‘But to me, it doesn’t change a thing. I’ll still hope for it.’ His gaze fell as he took hold of his hand and turned it palm-up. ‘If only you’d let me, I’d kiss them,’ he said under his breath and ran his finger over the callouses. ‘You still have such beautiful hands.’ Charles drew his hand out of his grip.

‘See, that’s what I mean - making it difficult,’ he said, but could not muster the annoyance he had hoped for. The conversation had exhausted him. Instead, he added: ‘It’d be unfortunate if you got us arrested, although I suppose there would be a nice irony in it. A little like Al Capone being sent to prison for tax evasion.’

‘I don’t care about human law,’ Erik snorted, ‘especially not bigoted legislations like that.’

‘Doesn’t mean they can’t put you on trial for it,’ Charles said lightly. After all that talk of their relationship, this seemed almost like a joke.

An awkward silence fell between them, and they resolutely looked different ways. Charles was considering going back to the hotel, when Erik asked:

‘Charles, isn’t that Miss Haller?’ He followed Erik’s finger, and caught sight of a girl striding through the park. Erik had only seen her in evening wear, but Charles recognised the corduroy jacket. Glad at her timely appearance, he put his hands to his mouth like a funnel and shouted:

‘Gaby!’

The sound carried, and Gaby looked around. Erik stood up and waved, and she waved back. As she walked towards them, Erik looked down at Charles briefly and repeated:

‘“Gaby”?’

‘Yes, we decided that first-name basis was more appropriate,’ Charles explained. Erik looked unimpressed.

‘I thought you were her doctor.’

‘And her friend,’ he said. By then, Gaby had come within earshot, and they broke the gaze and turned to greet her.

‘Good afternoon, Miss Haller,’ Erik said courteously.

‘Good afternoon, Mister Lehnsherr - Charles,’ she answered and smiled at them both. ‘It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?’

‘Very fine,’ Charles agreed. ‘It’s starting to get warmer, I think.’

‘Almost enough to shake the cold out of the bones,’ Erik said.

‘Yes, indeed,’ Gaby said and rubbed her arms in illustration. ‘I’ve never liked the cold.’

‘I’m not certain if the spring can warm cold hearts, though,’ he added casually. Gaby’s gaze lingered on him, intrigued at this cryptic line.

‘I wouldn’t be so sure, Mister Lehnsherr,’ she said finally. ‘You shouldn’t underestimate the turning of the seasons.’

Feeling awkward at the fact that they were indirectly speaking of him, Charles asked:

‘Have you escaped your office?’

‘Not for very long,’ Gaby admitted. ‘I have twenty minutes left of my lunch-break. I was going to go up to the look-out.’

‘Would you like company?’ Erik asked. The suggestion obviously surprised her, but she did not look displeased.

‘Yes, that’d be wonderful, if...’ She trailed off and looked anxiously at Charles. Erik followed her gaze. Charles tried to ignore how condescending their looks were.

‘Don’t let me keep you,’ he said quickly and waved a hand at them. ‘I’ll be quite fine.’

‘We won’t be long,’ Erik said obligingly, but Charles said:

‘No, do take your time. I’m sure it’s a lovely view.’ Gaby smiled at him, compassion in her eyes. He wished he could look away.

‘In that case, shall we?’ Erik asked her and offered his arm. She accepted it and with a final smile and wave, they left. Erik offered no words in parting.

Charles stayed where he was, watching them walking towards the lookout arm in arm. Erik held his head lowered a little, and Gaby tilted hers up as they spoke. He noticed how Erik gestured to himself, and Gaby smiled and mirrored his gesture. He surmised that they had gotten rid of titles as well. A pang of jealousy struck, but also a distinct worry. What if Erik was in a spiteful mood, and decided to say something inappropriate, or just something Charles did not want Gaby to hear? There was an easy way of knowing, and an easy way of alleviating the jealousy of their walk. He was always so strict about his moral code, and anytime anyone challenged him, he would assure them that he would never read anyone’s mind without their permission. Most often it was true, except for emergencies and tricks for ordering drinks to girls (and the latter was something he had not done much of recently). Had he been able to walk, he would have walked up with them. What was really the difference? It would be harmless, only a few minutes’ contact. Finding himself convinced, he raised his fingers to his temple and found both their minds.

They approach the stairs of the lookout in silence, and Gaby thinks that there is something about the set of Erik’s jaw which makes him look upset.

‘You seem very pensive.’ He shrugs, but lets go of her arm.

‘Just a... setback in business,’ he says. ‘And a disagreement with Charles.’

‘About business?’ she asks.

‘Of sorts.’

‘I didn’t know he knew anything about trade,’ Gaby admits. ‘On top of being a doctor and a teacher...’

‘Oh, Charles knows everything,’ Erik says scathingly.

‘Did I interrupt you in your discussion?’

‘Saved us from each other, rather,’ he says, and now he laughs. She laughs with him, and they start climbing.

Erik looks over his shoulder as they climb, hoping to catch a glimpse of Charles. Climbing up to admire the view might be a small thing, but it hurts him more than he imagines it should that he cannot climb with them. Gaby interrupts his thoughts; her hand finds his and slides under his fingers. He presses it, comforted by the way it fit against his palm.

They reaches the top, and Erik changes the grip around her hand to tug her towards the stationary binoculars there. He gives her no time to protest, but picks some spare change out of a pocket and puts it into the coin slot. She looks through the lenses and pretends to admire the view, but she is only aware of his arm around her shoulders as he holds the binoculars, and the way his body is so close to hers. The only thing that catches her attention through the binoculars is Charles, facing them where he sits far down in his wheelchair. She wonders what horrific thing must have happened to him. Then she wonders if he can see them up at this height, and what he would say if he saw how close Erik is standing. Suddenly she is very aware of that they are alone on the lookout.

But he draws back, and she steps away from the binoculars. He breaks the silence:

‘Cigarette?’ She takes one from the package and he lights it for her before lighting his own. In unison, they exhale the smoke, which mingles between them. She watches the smoke instead of him. He watches her. ‘Where were you?’

She looks up, startled. It is such an ambiguous question - it could mean anything - but she knows at once what he is asking.

‘I beg your pardon?’ she says nevertheless, wondering how he could possibly know. He draws on the cigarette again and clarifies, his voice soft:

‘During the war. Where were you?’

‘Sobiror,’ she says finally. She wants to turn and leave, but as if he senses her intention, he touches her arm to keep her in place. The hand falls at once. He looks away as he says:

‘Auschwitz.’ She stares at him. She should have guessed - what he said at the restaurant about being a stranger in all lands should have been enough, but somehow she did not considered it.

‘What about your family?’ she manages at last. He shakes his head so minutely that it is barely noticeable.

‘Yours?’ he asks quietly.

‘My aunt moved to America before the war. My grandparents and my parents died.’

‘I’m sorry.’ She glances up at him, trying to swallow down tears. How could he say that, when she has Auntie Hannah and he has no-one? She wants to offer her condolences, but there is no way that it would sound appropriately sincere.

‘Let’s go down,’ she says instead and takes his hand again. He presses hers and they turned to the steps. She walks down first, Erik following. They do not speak - she is thinking about what she had learned.

‘Did Charles tell you?’ she asks finally.

‘No,’ he answers. ‘Charles is good with other people’s secrets - better with his own.’

‘Then how did you know?’

‘You’re conscious of etiquette, but you didn’t take off your gloves when you ate.’ She glances at his clothed arm. ‘I have one too,’ he assures her. She looks up at him, perplexed and intrigued. It seems that every little thing he says is a greater confidence than anyone has ever offered her, even if they are small things which do not make him unique among survivors. She is grateful that it stays at an acknowledgement of a shared experience (and certainly not one to build on). He does not offer her stories, and he does not ask her for any. Often she avoids conversation with others who had been in the camps - she does not want the reminder or hear any attempts to trump her pain, but she feels no need to draw away from Erik. Ever since he told her to keep his jacket, she had sensed some kind of mystery about him. There are still undiscovered depths, which fascinates her, and that this new piece of information does not solve that mystery was somehow comforting. It is not that simple - there is more to him. Glancing up at him, that much is clear. So much more.

She gives in to the urge, and goes up on tiptoes. The kiss surprises him, but then he kisses back for a brief moment. They draw back and stared at each other, as if it had not been their own choice to kiss.

‘I’ve never kissed anyone before,’ she admits. He swallows. It is barely noticeable, but the shadow of some inner wound passes over his face. Then it is replaced with relief.

‘It was a long time ago I kissed a woman,’ he answers. They look at each other for a moment longer, then she sinks back onto her heels. Her hand slips off his arm. He takes it in his and presses it briefly. ‘We shouldn’t keep Charles waiting.’ She nods. The thought of the kindly professor makes her stomach turn with mixed guilt and anticipation.

‘Yes,’ she agrees. They walk down side by side in silence, but she cannot help smiling.

Chapter Text

The kiss lingered in Charles’ mind. Over the next few days, he reexamined it from every angle, as it had seemed to Erik and as it had seemed to Gaby. To his frustration he could not quite figure out what he felt about it. Suddenly pleasure, jealousy and envy seemed very similar.

Then there was the issue of Erik. When they had dinner together three days after the kiss, he reflected on how used they had grown to each other. It was less than three weeks since they met again, but things seemed very simple. Perhaps their talk in the park and the decision to simply be friends had helped, even if it did not mean that some things lay between them. Among them was the kiss. Once during the meal, Erik stopped suddenly and smiled to himself.

‘Why are you smiling?’ Charles asked, glancing up at him.

‘Nothing,’ Erik said and schooled his face. ‘I’m merely content.’

Had he not watched the kiss, Charles would still have known it was a lie. Contentment was nothing he associated with Erik, and even if he felt it, he would not sincerely admit to it. He reflected on how Erik thought of this almost like something new. “It was a long time since I kissed a woman”, he had said. How long? Charles wondered. Since he kissed Raven, the night before Cuba? He had rejected her after that, but he had had no way of knowing then that his involvement with Charles would end the next day. Against his better judgement, he wondered...

‘Is Mystique in New York?’ he asked, trying to sound casual.

‘Yes, although you probably won’t see her. As you know, the Brotherhood only meets when we liaise. We have no other contact - it’s safest that way.’ Charles sipped his wine to stall for time.

‘You must miss her.’ Erik cast him an odd glance.

‘She’s by far my most trusted associate,’ he said guardedly. Charles kept his eyes intent on the wine in his glass and the way the light shone through it.

‘Associate?’

‘Yes,’ Erik said firmly. He looked around, to see if anyone was watching, and then leaned closer. ‘Only associate,’ he repeated and touched Charles’ arm. ‘Do you honestly think that I would jump straight into bed with your sister after all the two of us experienced together?’

‘My sister makes an excellent impersonation of me,’ he said off-handedly and picked up his wine-glass. Erik rolled his eyes.

‘Not good enough for me,’ he said. ‘Why do you ask? I thought you didn’t care.’ Charles put down the glass again and sighed. It would be easy to admit knowing about the kiss - he would not even have to say that he had read their minds. He could simply point out the obvious attraction between them. But how could he, without sounding like he judged them? He had dismissed Erik so definitively that he could not really admit that his attraction was still present, and he felt far too protective of Gaby to give in to the feelings he undeniably had. The situation was undoubtedly ridiculous. He had more opportunities for romance than he had had for years, and yet he felt infinitely lonely.

‘Nothing,’ he said and forced a smile. ‘I don’t know where I was going with it.’

Erik’s eyes lingered on him a little longer, but let the matter was dropped. Charles’ sense of loneliness lingered. Still when he went to bed, the feeling of isolation was there, along with a gnawing sense of guilt. How could he be jealous of them, when they of all the people he knew were the loneliest? He should be happy for their sake. Instead, he could not let go of the memory of how Gaby’s eyes had lit up when he had kissed her hand, or the of the way Erik constantly looked at him. His worries kept him awake. The last time he remembered reading off the alarm clock before finally drifting off was half past twelve.

His sleep was not undisturbed long. A shrill, trilling noise roused him suddenly. Bewildered, he looked around, wondering what had woken him. The telephone rang again, cutting through the silence. Quickly, he turned the bedside lamp on - it was just after half past one - and transferred himself into the wheelchair, as the telephone rang a third time. At the fourth ring, he picked up the receiver, still blinking sleep out of his eyes.

‘Hello?’ He heard the crackle of an open line, but no sound. ‘Hello? Charles Xavier speaking.’ Over the background sound he heard someone breathing - no, sobbing. ‘Who is this?’

‘Charles?’ It was little more than a whisper, but it was enough to make the speaker identifiable.

‘Gaby!’ he exclaimed. ‘Is that you?’ He heard her breath hitch. ‘What’s happened?’

‘I... I.... please, will you come?’ she stuttered, fighting to speak.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked as he looked around the room to locate where he had left his clothes.

‘I don’t know,’ she sobbed. ‘Please, I don’t want to disappear...’

‘Are you in your flat? It’s on the ground-floor, isn’t it?’ All he could hear was her shaking breaths. He had to take it as a yes. ‘Gaby, just stay where you are. Unlock your door, and stay exactly where you are.’ There was no reply, but he could still hear her sobbing. ‘Gaby, tell me you can do that.’

‘Yes - yes,’ came the trembling reply.

‘I’ll be there as soon as I can,’ he told her. ‘Don’t do anything rash - I’ll be there in a jiffy.’ He thought he could hear her nod. ‘Good - take care until I get there.’ Not waiting for a reply, he flung the receiver down and started finding clothes. He exchanged his pyjama jacket for his shirt of the previous day and pulled a jumper over it, and retrieved his blanket for his legs - there was no time to change his pyjama trousers. He was half-way through the door when he realised his feet were still bare. Deciding to ignore socks, he pushed his brogues on and did not bother to tie the shoe-laces. In that half-dressed state, he left his room and wheeled himself out onto the street as fast as he could.

It was not until he started down the street that the reality of what was happening was obvious to him. He had no way of knowing what kind of crisis Gaby was in. Through the din of the millions of minds around him, he could not pick out her specifically, but it had been obvious on the telephone that she had been very agitated. “I don’t want to disappear”, she had said - what did it mean, “disappear”? As he stopped at a zebra crossing, waiting for the traffic to pass, he felt a cold lump forming in the pit of his stomach. She might be about to harm herself - she might be suicidal. It must already be ten minutes since her phone call, which was ample time... He stopped himself. No, thinking like that was not going to help. He simply had to concentrate on the task of getting to her as quickly as possible. Besides, when he had read her mind that first time they met, she had made a distinction between dying and disappearing. He still did not know what that meant, but it implied that there was no immediate danger for her life.

Even if Charles moved so fast that he thought he would strain the muscles in his arms, it still took him well over twenty minutes to reach Gaby’s address. No-one was awake at this time of night to stop the dishevelled half-dressed man in a wheelchair and ask what he was doing there as he entered the house. Not knowing on which side of the house her flat was, he picked a direction at random. Furthest down the corridor was a door bearing the name Haller. When Charles pressed down the handle, it creaked open. Composing himself, he entered.

The narrow hallway inside was thick with cigarette-smoke and panic. A shoe haphazardly thrown onto the floor hit one of the wheels. With a wrench, he managed to drive over it.

‘Gaby?’ He could sense her through the darkness - close, very close. He passed through the hallway and glanced into the adjoining rooms. It was a little way into the kitchen he found her, curled up and cowering against the wall. ‘Gaby.’ When he spoke her name, she looked up from her knees. Her eyes shone with tears. ‘I’m here - it’s alright.’ A sob ripped through her, and she hid her face in her hands. ‘There, there, come here.’

Precariously he reached towards her, took her arm and managed to coax her to stand. It was not until then she seemed to realise who he was.

‘Charles,’ she said between sobs and threw her arms around his neck. ‘You’re here, you came, I thought you wouldn’t...’

‘I’m sorry it took a bit of time,’ he said, a little embarrassed by her effusions. He had expected her to let go of him, but instead she shifted and sat down in his lap, arms still around his neck. He returned the embrace. The fabric under his fingers was thin, and through the darkness he realised that she was only in her night-gown. Carefully, he made her let go around his neck. He tried to catch her gaze, but her head hung and her eyes were unfocused.

‘What set this off?’ he asked. It seemed an effort to answer.

‘I do- don’t know,’ she stuttered, and her hand clamped down painfully on his wrist. ‘It just happened - I felt a little sad and then it got worse and suddenly...’ She made a choked sound and buried her face in her hands.

‘I think you should lie down,’ Charles said. This position was not making his bedside manner easy to fall into. He took her by the shoulders and heaved her onto her feet. She stood, moving simply because she was instructed to. When he took her hand and put it on his shoulder, she clasped it as if by reflex. His progression to the bedroom was slow, and the room itself was cramped and difficult to maneuver. Nevertheless, Gaby held his pace. When Charles helped her into bed, it was as if all that was making her move was muscle memory. He turned on her bedside lamp, and saw how blank her eyes were.

‘Gaby?’ The blankness vanished, and her eyes pushed open so that the whites were visible.

‘No, no, not that,’ she whispered, and she started trembling. She raised her arms and shielded herself with them.

‘Gaby, calm down, you don’t have to be frightened,’ he said and reached out towards her arms. One of her hands flung out of the way and connected with his jaw, just hard enough to make his teeth close painfully. In surprise, he drew back. Gaby rolled onto her side, drew her legs up and clamped her arms around them. A steady stream of whispers could be heard. When he reached out to her, she screamed. He did not understand the words, but the way her mind was screaming at him not to touch her, he gathered what they must mean. But there was something else in her mind - the way she saw the place was not right. It was shifting, turning into something else, and then hovered back to reality again. As she perceived her surroundings change, so did Charles, and through her eyes he saw himself transform into a face from a twisted memory. That closed place in her mind was open, threatening to unleash its demons. In desperation, Charles called out with his mind.

Gaby, it’s me, Charles. I just want to help you. You can trust me. You know me. Trust me.

It was such a small push, but it was enough. The presence beside her bed was no longer a nightmarish creature, but someone familiar to her in a way that she could not understand herself. She sat up suddenly and stared at him for a moment, confused at his being here and at this sudden sense of trust. Then she started crying, wrapping her arms around her thin body. Charles knew that touching her was not appropriate, but it was too difficult to simply watch. Now he edged closer and put an arm around her. She leaned against him and said his name between sobs. In the half-obscured lamplight inspected her arms and her exposed shoulders.

‘Have you hurt yourself?’

Gaby shook her head against his shoulder.

‘I’m scared,’ she admitted weakly. ‘I don’t want to disappear. I almost did it again, and I don’t want to...’

‘Don’t want what?’ Charles asked and drew away to look at her. ‘What do you mean, “disappear”?’ She leaned against the bed-board, curling up around herself, and looked at him. Her eyes shone with tears, but they had none of the blankness they had had before. She was evidently upset, but the delusions he had sensed before were gone.

‘After the war,’ she started slowly. Whatever she was about to explain was obviously difficult to put into words. ‘After the war... I can’t remember anything after they liberated the camp. It’s all a blank. All there was was... the memories. It was all I knew.’ She paused and tried to dry the tears off her cheeks, but only smeared them over her face. Charles offered her his handkerchief. She took it, but did not use it, only clasped it in both hands. A shiver ran through her body. He drew the covers tighter around her.

‘Go on,’ he said softly. She bit her lip and gathered her thoughts.

‘I disappeared,’ she explained. ‘That was what happened. They said later that it was a way of surviving, that I shut myself away from the rest of the world. They sent me to hospital, and there, I simply was. I slept, I woke, I sat and stared. But I never spoke. I never moved. I wouldn’t eat. It was as if I didn’t have a soul. All I was was a body. I didn’t notice anything - I was locked inside. I locked myself inside, they said, to keep everything else out.’ Charles fought the instinct to take her hand to comfort her. He should have realised what she had meant when she had talked about disappearing, but he had never imagined such a complete withdrawal as catatonic schizophrenia.

‘How long were you like that?’

‘Ten years.’

‘What changed?’ he asked. ‘How did they bring you out of it?’ Gaby swallowed noisily.

‘Electric shocks,’ she explained weakly. ‘They thought it’d be better for me to be awake Nothing else had worked, so they decided to try pain...’ She pressed her eyes close for a moment, remembering the sensations. Then her face relaxed again.

‘Was waking a relief, as they thought?’ She shook her head.

‘It was terrifying. I didn’t recognise myself. I was a child one moment, and then the next time I knew, I was twenty-one.’

‘It must have been a very big shock,’ Charles said gravely.

‘I don’t want to be like that again,’ she said, her voice urgent. ‘I don’t want to lose any more time.’

‘Of course you don’t,’ he said and touched her shoulder. ‘Has it ever happened after that?’

‘Not properly... but sometimes I feel it coming closer, like tonight. It’s different from the panic-attacks. It’s much worse.’

‘But you’ve had the panic-attacks ever since this?’ Gaby nodded. ‘What happened after you woke up?’

‘First, very little changed,’ she said. There was no emotion in her voice, as if she was only stating facts. ‘I was still committed. The only difference was that I was awake. I remember it very clearly. It was terrifying, because nothing seemed the way it should. Everything was twisted and crooked.’

‘I assume you were still psychotic.’ She nodded.

‘It took very long before that started to go away. Sometimes it’s still there, but usually not. After a while, I wasn’t a danger to myself anymore. I could do without most of the medicines.’

‘So they discharged you?’

‘I’d been there for over a decade, they were glad to get rid of me,’ she sighed. ‘My aunt came over to fetch me. She had not had the money to move to be with me in France - all the old family money went to the hospital. She’d come over once a year for my birthday, even if I was not conscious. She’d write me letters - I still have them. They’re almost like a diary. One-sided conversations.’

‘So you went to America with her?’ Charles asked.

‘Yes. I lived with her in Boston. I tried to learn to live. Everyday things, like cooking and cleaning. How to talk to people. All the things I had missed out on when I had been unconscious. When I was strong enough, I took classes - I learned English and typing and shorthand. I worked there for a few years, and then I got the job I have now. Auntie Hannah hated the idea of me moving, but I was so sick of it - being treated like I was going to break. Being on my own after so long at the mercy of others... it was horrible, but so... liberating.’

‘It must have been,’ Charles said. Even if his case was very different, he could sympathise.

They sat in silence for a while, and he considered what he had heard. It had been apparent to him from the first time they met that Gaby was deeply scarred by her experiences, but a nervous disposition was very different from full-blown schizophrenia. On the other hand, it explained much. Twenty years was enough time to recover from starvation, but being more or less unconscious through her entire teens was bound to leave traces. Perhaps this was also the reason why she seemed so young - even if she was thirty, she had only lived twenty of those years. She had never been eased into her body. The chagrins of puberty or the joys of approaching adulthood had been lost to her.

Then he thought of the things he had seen in Erik’s memories, and barely suppressed a shudder. Even if he told himself that he should not wonder, as it was not professional interest but only curiosity for the horrifying details, he could not resist asking.

‘What happened to you, Gaby? What did you see that made you so ill?’ The gaze that met his was not that of the sickly girl, but of her other side, the keen-minded woman.

‘What would happen, Charles?’ she asked, her tone suddenly scathing. He frowned.

‘I’m afraid I don’t follow...’

‘What happens to women in war?’ she clarified. Charles swallowed uncomfortably.

‘Gaby, surely you don’t mean...’ She cut him off, and even if it quivered with tears, her voice was strong.

‘Do you know what they told me - the guards?’ she asked. ‘They said that I was too beautiful to gas. So they kept me. They locked me in a shed - I was their entertainment.’

Charles was suddenly afraid that he might be sick.

‘You were ten years old,’ he choked.

‘They didn’t care,’ she exclaimed. It was anger rather than grief making the tears fall down her cheeks now. ‘Many of them were delighted at the opportunity. I can’t ever remember anyone being disgusted by it - all that disgusted them was me. They thought that the fact that I wasn’t dead showed that I must enjoy it somehow. Not that any of that mattered to them. They wanted to make us suffer. I think they wanted to see how much I could endure.’

And as quickly as her anger had come, she pushed the covers off her, unbuttoned her night-gown and pulled it down from her shoulders. The thin cloth fell away and pooled around her waist. Charles looked away, shocked by this sudden exposure.

‘Look at it, Charles,’ she urged him. He fought down his reluctance and turned towards her. She had raised her left arm, closest to him, so that it stretched out her side. In the lamp-light, he saw the round marks of cigarettes, shaping an irregular pattern, on the inside of her arm, in her armpit, down her ribcage and her side. One scar on her breast had been stretched; the burn had happened before her breasts had started growing. There might be a scar of some kind over her right nipple, but Charles did not dare look closer.

‘Gaby, cover up,’ he said and averted his gaze. He kept it fixed on the corner of the room as he listened to her putting her gown back on and buttoned it. When he was certain she was decent again, he turned back. In that brief time, it was as if she had shrunken. The anger was gone, and exhaustion was catching up. She was shaking, and looked like she might collapse. Quickly, Charles reached out and steadied her by the shoulders. ‘Look at you, you’re exhausted. You need to get some sleep.’ She shook her head.

‘I don’t want to. I don’t know if I could,’ she said, but the objection sounded weak. ‘The nightmares...’ If she had been in a better state, he would have simply asked, but now he briefly read her mind and learned that she had no tranquilizers in the flat - not unexpected, if she did not have a doctor to prescribe them for her. He had not had the mind to bring any with him in the rush to get here, but his psychic abilities would do just as well.

‘You’ll feel much better if you rest,’ he assured her. ‘Then tomorrow morning, we can talk about this properly.’

Gaby let him help her to lie down and draw the covers over her. Her hair was still let out, and Charles had a sudden impulse to reach out and draw the lock from her shoulder. He leaned back in his chair so that he could not reach, lest the temptation be too great. The alarm clock on her bedside table showed that it was past two. As he sensed Gaby slipping into an unsteady sleep, he rubbed his eyes and yawned. There was a dull ache in his back, and now he felt the consequence of his mad dash, set deep in the muscles of his arms. For a brief moment, he imagined circling the bed and lying down on it beside Gaby. Perhaps she would nestle close and put her head on his chest, or let herself be enfolded in his arms...

Charles shook himself. The sudden sleepiness must be muddling his mind. Not only was it no way to treat a patient - there was no way of telling how Gaby, with the memories of her childhood lying in wait, might react. He leaned his chin in his hand and watched her form in the bed. She was so slight and looked so breakable, yet when she had told him what had happened to her in the camp, it had been the overwhelming anger at the outrage that had been most palpable. There was no way of doubting that there was strength in her. Despite that, he wanted to hold her and keep her from harm, but the threat was from within, and even if he could shield her from it, he could never keep it from hurting her. How foul it seemed, that such horrors had kept her from being alive. Still it was fouler that they were a part of her, so without them she would not be whole. He wished he could cut it out of her mind, but she would bleed and scar, and he did not want that.

Resigning to sitting by her bedside, Charles pulled his blanket up a little and gave into sleep.

***

He woke at first light, not many hours after falling asleep. His chin had rested on his chest when he slept, which had left him with a stiff neck and a painful back. His arms felt worse than they had before sleeping.

Gaby was still lying on her side, asleep under a fan of hair. The morning light which streamed through the window made her look very peaceful. Charles smiled to himself, resisting the urge to reach out and stroke her cheek. Disturbing her rest would be criminal, and staying at her bedside was bound to wake her.

He knew that he should get back to the comfort of the hotel, for his morning medication and some proper sleep, but he did not want to leave without speaking to her first. Deciding to delay his departure a little, he headed to the kitchen. It took much concentration to get out of the cluttered bedroom without making much noise, and the kitchen was equally crammed. It was only by nudging the table to the side that he could reach the stove. Making coffee seemed like the right thing to do, so painstakingly slowly, he started finding the things he needed. Both the coffeepot and the grounds were on the workbench, and if he locked the wheels and pushed himself up, he could turn the tap on. The cups seemed to be in one of the upper cupboards, which one could only reach standing.

As the water on the stove came up to boil, his gaze was drawn to the books on the kitchen table. He had somehow expected novels, but instead, they seemed all to be about international law. Most were library books, but some of the particularly well-thumbed ones did not have any classmarks on the back. He considered looking closer, but then decided against it - he did not want to intrude more than he already had.

The coffee was brewing when he heard the padding of naked feet against the floor, and Gaby appeared. Her hair was tousled and her eyes only half-open. The way she huddled in a blanket draped across her shoulders made her look particularly sleepy.

‘Good morning,’ she murmured.

‘Good morning,’ Charles said. ‘How are you feeling?’ She rubbed her eyes and said:

‘Better, I think. I’ve got a headache.’

‘It’s probably the tension,’ he said. ‘Take an aspirin, and a glass of water. I made some coffee. Couldn’t find any cups, though.’

‘They’re in that cupboard,’ she said and pointed to one of the overheard cupboards. ‘If I could, eum, pass...’

‘Oh,’ Charles said, realising suddenly that he was blocking her way. ‘Just a moment.’ He wheeled himself backwards, and she slipped past him. Neither of them spoke when she took down cups and poured the coffee. He accepted the cup, but did not taste it. Gaby did not seem particularly concerned by the drink either, but only clasped it between her hands. By the way her head was bowed, she seemed to compose herself.

‘Thank you,’ she said finally. ‘For coming. It was silly to call you like that, but...’

‘It was not silly at all,’ Charles said gravely. ‘I’m very glad you did.’ She looked at him apologetically.

‘I don’t even have a sofa you could sleep on.’

‘It’s alright,’ he assured her. ‘I was glad I could be there to keep you company.’

‘I’m glad too.’ As if pretending she had not said anything, Gaby sipped her coffee and then crossed to the window, cup still between her hands.

‘How much do you remember of yesterday?’ Charles asked.

‘Most of it,’ Gaby said. ‘I didn’t really black out, did I?’

‘No,’ he said slowly. ‘But there were.... lapses.’ She sighed.

‘Yes. I do remember that.’

‘And you know what you told me?’

‘Yes,’ she said and looked over at him.

‘I asked simply if...’ He cleared his throat and rearranged his blanket. ‘...if you actually hadn’t meant to tell me.’

‘I trust you,’ she said earnestly. ‘I don’t see why you shouldn’t know.’ He nodded, but did not understand. Gaby turned back to watching the street outside.

‘Gaby...’

‘Hm?’

‘How often does this kind of thing happen?’ She did not turn to look at him, but remained by the window. For a moment, he imagined that the sun shone through her thin body like through the curtains.

‘It depends,’ she said finally. ‘A few times every year. Sometimes when I’m not feeling well, more often.’ Charles sighed and rubbed his eyes.

‘Gaby, you need to do something about this,’ he said. ‘I can’t always be here.’

‘I’m not asking you to be,’ she said and stared resolutely at her hands.

‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ Charles said. ‘But... God, the thought of you alone, when you’re like that...’

‘It’s worked this far,’ she objected.

‘It’s dangerous,’ he exclaimed.

‘I haven’t wanted to hurt myself for years,’ Gaby said and glanced over her shoulder at him. ‘I don’t think it’ll come back.’

‘There is no way of knowing that,’ he said, struggling to express his frustration. ‘Gaby, you need to go see a doctor. Talk to someone. There are ways to make these things better...’

‘I don’t want more medicines,’ Gaby whispered, suddenly humbled. She leaned her face against the glass. All Charles could see of her face was the reflection of her tightly shut eyes. ‘They gave me so many drugs when I was in hospital - at last I wasn’t certain if I was human anymore. If I’m not human, what is the point with me? What will stop anyone from hurting me?’

Charles sat still, trying to think of what to say.

‘But if it stopped you from hurting yourself - directly or indirectly?’

‘I’d rather be like this and still myself than sane and not a person.’

‘I still think...’ Gaby turned around very suddenly, and he broke off in surprise. There were tears in her eyes, but from anger, not sorrow.

‘I can’t just explain it,’ she exclaimed. ‘There’s too much... Besides, what would they do? What if they lock me up, Charles?’

He inhaled slowly and answered:

‘They wouldn’t do anything that they did not think was for your own good...’

‘I don’t want to be a prisoner - in an asylum or in my own body,’ she continued. ‘I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t.’ Charles joined his hands and considered it.

‘If it’s an issue of money...’

‘I told you, I don’t want to go to a doctor about it,’ she snapped. ‘I don’t want to be branded as insane anymore.’

‘Leaving it will only make it worse,’ he pressed on. ‘You’re neglecting yourself, Gaby - this in itself is self-destructive. And not just the mental part, which is alarming enough. It’s your physical health too. Mind and body are interconnected, and if one fares ill...’

‘Yes, I know,’ Gaby sighed. ‘I suppose that’s why I went mad in the first place.’

‘You’re not mad, Gaby,’ he told her. ‘You’re ill.’ The coffee cup clanged against the window-pane as she put it down. Pulling the blanket tighter around her, she said:

‘It adds up to the same thing.’ Where she stood, she at once looked tiny, and Charles felt an overwhelming need to protect her.

‘What if I were to do it?’ She looked at him, puzzled. ‘I haven’t practiced for some time, but if that’s what it’d take...’ It was not an ideal solution; he did not know how he would go about getting instruments or having samples tested or writing prescriptions. But if it was what it took to help her, he was prepared to find ways of doing it.

Gaby nodded.

‘I would rather it was you than anyone else.’ Charles nodded back with a sigh of relief. They lapsed into awkward silence, and he tried to think of something to say which was not quite as compromising.

‘Eum, these books...’ Gaby’s cheeks flushed, but when she answered she looked at him more steadily.

‘It’s my hobby,’ she explained.

‘Hobby?’ Charles repeated and picked up one of the tomes. ‘I’m... I’m impressed.’

‘Didn’t you think I could handle anything more complicated than typing?’ she said with a wicked grin. Charles chuckled as he leafed through the book. It was one of her own, and the margins were full of annotations.

‘Certainly not,’ he assured her. ‘You should pursue this, Gaby.’

Her shoulders slumped suddenly.

‘How could I?’ she asked and sat down. ‘I don’t have money to go to university.’

‘You could get a scholarship,’ Charles suggested.

‘I’m probably too old,’ she said. ‘Besides, even if I somehow managed, I couldn’t do any of this. I find the office oppressive. How would I manage a court-room? I’d go to pieces.’ Charles put back the book carefully.

‘You could get better,’ he said emphatically. ‘If you have a goal, something you really want... that could help you.’ Gaby simply hung her head. Seeing her so dispirited was heartbreaking. On sudden impulse, he reached out and took her hand. Now she looked up at him. ‘I can help you.’ She smiled weakly, not believing him. Once again she looked down, and then asked:

‘Charles, why aren’t you wearing socks?’ Charles looked down on his feet, not properly covered by the blanket.

‘I, eum, left in a bit of a hurry.’ Gaby laughed. She put her hand to her mouth to stop it, but continued to giggle a little hysterically.

‘Sorry,’ she said after a while and wiped a tear from her eye. ‘Just... no socks.’ Charles’ reluctance broke, and he laughed too. When the laughter subsided, they smiled at each other, as if they somehow understood each other.

The moment ended, and Charles looked away.

‘I should go,’ he said. Gaby rose.

‘I shouldn’t keep you,’ she said, but there was regret in her voice. Charles looked up at her; the way he had to angle his head to meet her eyes felt suddenly awkward.

‘May I use your phone?’ he asked. She nodded and crossed to the small table in one of the corners where the telephone stood. She pulled it his way and handed it to him. Perching the phone in his lap, Charles dialed the number of the hotel. As the tone rang, he was aware of her watching him. He could not decide whether to look at her or not. The things she had told him the previous night seemed at once written in front of him, and he wondered if he would be able to look at her without thinking about the humiliation she had suffered and the scars she bore. Equally, he would also think of the way her body had felt against his when she curled up in his lap or how she had shed her nightgown and shown him her chest. At the time, he had been too shocked to think about it, but now he remembered her narrow ribcage, her pale skin, her small, red-tipped breasts. The thought left an itch in his palms, a physical manifestation of the urge to touch. He balled up his free hand into a fist.

The hotel’s telephone operator finally picked up, and he stated Erik’s room number. There was a long pause as the operator patched him through, and Charles looked up at Gaby with an apologetic smile. She smiled back, blanket drawn tightly around her where she stood leaning against the door-frame.

On the other side of the line, the receiver was picked up, and Erik’s hoarse voice was heard through the buzz.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, Erik - it’s Charles. Sorry if I woke you.’

‘You didn’t. Why are you calling? You’re two floors away from me...’

‘No, not at the moment,’ he explained. ‘I’m at Gaby’s flat.’ He gave him the address. ‘I’m sorry to be a nuisance, but could you take a cab and come and pick me up?’ A long silence fell. When Erik finally answered, the word was drawn out, and held all his scepticism:

‘Right.’

‘Thank you - you’re a darling. Bye for now.’ He put the receiver down and handed the phone back to Gaby.

‘Did you wake him?’ she asked.

‘Most certainly,’ Charles answered. ‘It’s very early, so it’s not that odd.’ They stood in silence for a while, then Charles asked: ‘Will you be alright on your own now?’ Gaby nodded.

‘Yes, I feel much better,’ she said.

‘You seem it,’ he answered. ‘I’ll be in touch about, eum, arranging something for you.’

‘Thank you,’ Gaby said sincerely.

‘My pleasure,’ Charles said and smiled. She smiled back, obviously entertained by the irony of the phrase. It felt as if as they smiled at each other, something shifted. For a short, dizzy moment, he imagined taking her hand, pulling her down and kissing her. He would push the blanket off her shoulders and pull down her nightgown to expose her delicate breasts. He would lean in...

The door-bell rang. Gaby moved to answer it, and Charles tried to shake off the fantasy as he heard Erik outside.

‘Good morning, Erik.’

‘Good morning. I understand Charles is lurking here?’ At that, Charles straightened his blanket and wheeled himself into the hallway. Erik was standing outside, looking newly awake and quite annoyed.

‘Thank you for coming,’ Charles said. Gaby stepped aside to let him pass. Once out of the door, he smiled up at her. ‘Take care, Gaby.’ She smiled back hesitantly.

‘See you.’ Erik raised his hat to her; Charles sensed her blushing. The door closed, and Erik turned to glare at him.

‘You’d better have a good reason for all this,’ he said under his breath and pushed him down the corridor and to the cab. Once Erik got in as well, he eyed what could be seen of his pyjama trousers under the blanket. ‘So what happened between you and Gaby?’ he asked curtly.

‘Nothing happened between us,’ Charles objected. ‘I was there in a strictly professional role.’

‘And did you stay the night in your strictly professional role?’ Erik retorted. Charles wondered towards whom this jealousy was directed. Suddenly he was afraid that he was intruding on something between him and Gaby, even if it was only through his wayward fantasies.

‘Look, Erik,’ he said under his breath. ‘I rushed over last night to take care of Gaby in the role as her doctor. I then stayed to look after her. She’s very ill, and I didn’t want her to be on her own.’ Erik’s anger stalled, and was slowly replaced with embarrassment.

‘I assumed...’

‘I’d wear something else than pyjama bottoms and no socks for a date, Erik,’ he pointed out dryly.

‘Why aren’t you wearing socks?’ Erik asked.

‘I didn’t have time to put any on,’ Charles sighed, a little frustrated at having to explain it a second time within ten minutes. They were silent for a little while, and as they drew close to the hotel, Charles said: ‘Thank you for coming to get me. It’s just beastly hard to get a taxi on my own. Just flagging one down is a chore.’ Erik almost smiled, but remembered himself before it had time to grow. The cab stopped. ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any money on me, either,’ Charles continued. ‘I’ll pay you back.’ Erik sighed, but there was something theatrical about his annoyance as he took out his wallet and paid the driver.

‘It’ll have to be in wine,’ he then said, got out and brought the chair around. He steadied him as he transferred into it, and pushed him into the foyer.

‘I’ll be fine from here,’ Charles assured him. Erik let go of the handles and came around to face him.

‘Get some sleep, Charles,’ he told him. ‘You look awful. That wine will have to be this evening, though.’ Charles smiled.

‘Of course, my friend.’ Erik doffed his hat at him and left him to make his way back to the comforts of his suite.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

At breakfast one morning, Erik announced:

‘I’ll take Gaby dancing tonight.’ Charles looked up from his newspaper.

‘Oh? You talked to her?’

‘Yes, yesterday.’

Returning his gaze to the paper, Charles asked:

‘Where are you taking her?’ The thought of dancing made him feel inadequate, and the idea of Erik and Gaby doing it together grated on him.

‘I haven’t decided yet,’ Erik answered, oblivious to his friend’s inner agitation. ‘I thought we might have dinner, all three of us, here at the hotel.’ There was something anxious about the way he said it, as if he were asking for some kind of permission. Charles hummed his approval, but knew that the wait would make him restless the whole day.

When he came down to the hotel restaurant at the appointed time, he found Erik dressed quite casually.

‘That won’t do for dancing,’ he said and indicated his turtleneck.

‘I’m not taking her to a ballroom, Charles,’ Erik grinned. Charles sensed Gaby entering, and looked over at her. She was also casually but nicely dressed, in a red dress the same shade as her lipstick. When Charles caught her eye, she smiled, but there was no hiding the conflict she was feeling. Throughout the meal, he kept glancing over at her, and was aware that she was doing the same, but often he saw her looking at Erik as well. She looked uncomfortable, as if she did not know how to sublimate the tensions between the three of them into conversation. When he caught her eye briefly, he could see regret in her. He understood that she thought that going dancing with Erik was somehow an act of faithlessness, and he found no way to remind her that they had not promised each other anything, and even if they had, her kissing Erik was a kind of contract in itself. Nevertheless, imagining them together, doing something which was essentially an act of wooing which he was excluded from, hurt.

When Erik went to get his coat and hat from his room, Gaby resolutely tried not to look at Charles until he was out of the restaurant. Then she swallowed and asked:

‘We should do something too.’ The question which she had wanted to ask, but had repressed, echoed in her mind, when can I see you again?

‘I saw that they’re giving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at one of the concert houses next week,’ Charles said, trying to sound casual. ‘Would you like to go?’

‘Yes, please. Perhaps dinner before that?’

‘Sounds lovely.’ She smiled thinly and looked down at her hands awkwardly. He wondered if it would be wrong to reach out and tell her he did not mind, when part of him did (not that he minded Erik - only the dancing, and only because he could not do it, because he would love to dance with her). Before he had time to say anything, she stood up, suddenly resolute, and, leaning down close, kissed him. It took him by surprise, but then he raised his hand to stroke her hair and kissed back. The kiss lasted longer than it should have in public. The lady at the neighbouring table thought that the girl must have a heart of gold, if she made herself have feelings for a cripple, but thought that that kiss was more obscene than touching.

Charles leaned back, breaking the kiss.

‘Enjoy tonight.’ It was the only thing he could think of which verged on an assurance of approval. Nevertheless it seemed enough. She smiled and said:

‘Of course.’ Her fingers touched his for a moment before she straightened up, took her outdoor things and left. Erik was standing in the door, waiting for her. He nodded in greeting to Charles, who nodded back. Gaby reached him, and casually his arm went around her back, just high enough not to be around her waist. She turned her face towards him, and they exchanged words he could not hear as they disappeared out of sight. The tension between them seemed to burn the air, and their minds were frantic with the need to touch.

Charles returned to his room. His mind was spinning with how he and Gaby had kissed in the park, and how Erik had put his arm around Gaby and how he had taken his hand across the table. He wished he was able to draw a chart of what was happening, and to find a line between two of them where emotion and intent and action coincided and became somehow truer than anywhere else, but it was too confused for any such visualisation.

Erik and Gaby’s minds were still close enough not to have been swallowed in the din of the city. He knew he should resist the temptation, because he had promised himself that he would not violate anyone’s mind like that, but his agitation made the opportunity seem so intriguing. He had done it before, when they had gone up to the look-out, but that had only been for a few minutes... He felt them slipping a little further away, and before realising that he had made up his mind, he reached out and saw through both their eyes.

He does not take her far afield, only ten minutes’ walk down the avenue. The bar is in a basement, a kind of place Gaby has never been in before. The push of the crowd and the noise sends a brief flare of panic through her, but Erik’s arm is around her shoulders and his hand is holding hers, guiding her through the place. All the lamps are coloured and provide little illumination, but throw red and blue and green patterns over the guests. The canned music plays too loudly, but people are dancing nevertheless. The atmosphere is heavy with cigarette-smoke, which almost blots out the smell of spilt alcohol.

They reach the bar, and Erik lights cigarettes and buys drinks. He would not trust the bartender with vermouth, but orders gin and tonics instead. When they are put on the counter and he hands it to Gaby, she raises it in a toast, a sophisticated gesture out of place in such a modern, impersonal establishment. He mirrors her, and watches in fascination as she sips her drink. It is too noisy to talk, but even if it were not, he does not think he would be able to find the right thing to say. The lights make her eyes shine even more than usual, and the dress leaves her collar-bones completely uncovered. He reaches up and touches the pearl necklace she always wears, and then traces the bone instead. The crowd is pushing them together. He lets his hand fall and gulps at his drink, a little too quickly. He realises that he must be looking desperate. When he looks back at her, she does not look offended at his touch. The smile she gives him looks almost seductive. He feels her fingers brush against his hand. He grins back, and for the briefest of moments, Gaby thinks about the Ballad of Mack the Knife.

So the shark he has teeth
which he carries in his face,
and Macheath he has a knife,
but it’s a knife you’ll never see.
But the impression of something threatening about him passes quickly, and she forgets the association altogether. The noise around them, which was first alarming in its intensity, now feels safe. It staves off awkward conversation, and as Gaby entwines their fingers, she is glad for that. They do have other things to talk about than that, but it feels ever-present, and not being able to speak is a relief.

Gaby has never been at a disco before, and somehow she knows that Erik has not either. It is not until now she realises that they are at least ten years older than the rest of the clientele. Her slightness makes her look younger, she knows, but they have identified her and Erik as intruders on their youthful games, and they stare at the two adults, who are sipping drinks and holding hands. A girl who cannot be older than seventeen passes and stares at her, as if she has never seen anyone out of their teens. It must be the alcohol, because instead of recoiling at the glare, Gaby laughs straight into the girl’s face, making her jump. Erik laughs with her, and knocks back his drink. He leans down, and she feels his lips briefly against her ear.

‘Let’s dance,’ he shouts and presses her hand. She draws back, nods and gulps down her drink too. The gin and the light and the drum-beat make her feel dizzy, but she cannot tell what is drunkenness and what is excitement. He pulls her through the crowd, towards the dance-floor.

Erik has no idea how to dance in this kind of place. He knows how to waltz, and once in Argentina he learnt to tango, but most of the people on the dance-floor now are not even holding in their partner, to the extent they actually have partners. He simply finds the beat of the music and takes her hands, drawing her close. She seems to find it funny, because she shakes them free with a smile and puts her arms around his neck instead. As if they move on their own accord, his hands settle on her hips. The press from the crowd increases, and their bodies push together. He imagines but is not certain that she pushes her breasts against his chest. This close, he feels her every breath, and it becomes an anchor to reality in the flashing lights and the loud music.

They both lose track of time. They dance, sometimes simply pushed together, swaying as one, or in imitation of the young guests’ dances (to their own amusement, and the teenagers’ annoyance). They retreat for more drinks, which they do not finish before they are drawn back onto the dance-floor. When they first kiss, it feels like the way metal calls to him. It is nothing like the desperate, chaste schoolgirl kiss on the look-out. It feels savage, and quickly becomes so deep that Gaby wonders if they will be thrown out for being indecent. But everyone turn a blind eye - the employees because they do not care, and the rest of the clientele because they do not want to think about the fact that people in their thirties still kiss. The kiss makes them stop in the middle of the dance-floor, and it is not until they draw back they manage to move again. It all makes Gaby giddy, and in a way it reminds her of the way she felt when Charles slipped his fingers over her.

That memory makes her twinge with guilt, but she keeps it at a distance. In the corridor leading to the rundown washrooms, Erik kisses her again and puts a hand on her breast. She covers his hand to urge him to squeeze it, and arousal heats between her legs. Her free hand is on his hip and slips down onto his thigh.

‘Let’s go back,’ she whispers.

They hold hands all the way, but do not touch otherwise. Erik is glad he picked somewhere so close, because it seems like the only thing that will keep them apart is if they keep moving, and they would not last sitting still in a taxi. Once they come to the hotel, they run up the stairs, still hand in hand. They only let go of each other so that he can unlock the door to his room. The temptation to manipulate the metal in it and not use the key at all is great, but he is still sober enough to remember discretion. Finally he opens the door and she steps in, dragging him in by the arm.

Neither of them knows who kisses whom first, once they stand there is the darkness. She pulls him close and he backs them against the wall - it does not alarm her to be pushed between a surface and another person, and she kisses him harder in triumph. His hands trace the outlines of her body, and precariously she reaches down and takes off one shoe after the other, sinking a little lower without the heels. They break the kiss and shed their coats. Gaby runs her fingers along the line of his trousers and untucks his turtleneck to slip her hands inside it. His skin is warm and the muscles play under her grip. He leans down to play with her hair - the bun it is held up in slowly unravels. He kisses her neck, and she gasps. They start tugging at the clothes again. Erik feels the zipper in her dress itch in his skin, and even if he reaches around, he pulls it by manipulating the metal. She pushes it down and releases her arms. They break contact for a moment when he pulls the turtleneck over his head. It is impossible to miss the way she stares.

Even through the dark, she can see the scars, worse than her own. There are cigarette burns and glass cuts, and other things she cannot identify. Without her realising it, her hand goes to her left arm and covers her tattoo. He notices her hesitation. He reaches out and unpicks her fingers from her skin, then turns his arm to show his mark. His is written by a more trained hand, the numbers much more regular. Briefly, she reflects how absurd it is that she can tell. She glances up at him for a moment and flattens her palm against his chest. As she draws it over his scars, she aches to ask him what they did to him which left such marks. She wonders if it hurt as much as hers did, but she supposes that it is impossible to quantify suffering, or for one person to know what another feels. His hand covers hers, stopping its course over his skin.

‘We do not belong to them,’ he whispers and looks into her eyes. She nods, and he leans down. They seek the kiss slowly, but as soon as their lips meet the passion is back, and they push the reminiscences aside. Her arms around his neck - his hands against the small of her back. The zipper opens completely, and with a small tug, he makes the dress fall to the floor.

He draws back to look at her, only dressed in underwear and stockings. It pains him to see how thin she is - his hand rests on her hip and traces the hipbone, which pushes up under her skin. But it does not change that she is beautiful, so beautiful that he does not know where to touch her first. Moving slowly, he kneels, and she looks down at him in confusion. He smiles mischievously and kisses the point where the garter belt ends. His hands are behind her knees, and now he pulls them upwards, over her thighs to her arse. The next kiss falls on her exposed stomach - the third lower down. At that, she swears and says his name. She pushes him away and kneels too, and again they kiss. She touches his chest more readily now, and he finds the fastenings of her bra. Her nipples scratches against his palms, and he relishes the sensation. Meanwhile, Gaby traces her fingers down the line of his stomach and touches him through his trousers. He groans and takes away his hands.

‘Not on the floor,’ he murmurs and pulls her up. They stumble to the bed, and on his way there he undoes his fly. As she watches him strip naked, she realises suddenly that she has never seen a circumcised penis erect before (and then she thinks of Charles, that he is probably not circumcised, and that he did not let her touch him there).The sight of his long-muscled form completely uncovered makes her grow hot and dizzy, and the cool wetness between her legs grows almost unbearable. As he climbs onto the bed, she releases the stockings from the garters. Unbidden, he rolls them off her legs.

‘I’ll be gentle,’ he whispers through the dark as she undoes the fastenings of her garter belt.

‘I’m not a virgin,’ she whispers back, and she notices him looking surprised, at her statement and at her boldness. She pushes her knickers down, and he pulls them off her legs too, throwing them onto the floor along with the stockings.

‘Right,’ he says breathlessly, and suddenly they find themselves caught in a kiss, consuming them. He strokes the inside of her thigh, and she breaks the kiss to lick at his ear. Then he withdraws, and the passion halts oddly. He fumbles in a drawer and retrieves a condom. Their bodies align, his knees between her legs and his elbows on either side of her head. Their eyes are at the same level, and unblinkingly, they stare at each other. Their chests heave and meet in the space between their bodies. Erik shifts his weight onto one elbow and moves his other hand to feel his way. She bends her legs around his hips. His fingers stroke her, then withdraw, and she feels his erection against her. Their eyes do not stray, but are caught looking at each other. Then he pushes in, and she sees his eyes flutter shut before she arches her back and moves her field of vision.

It is nothing like she remembers it, and little like she has imagined it. When she thinks of what is actually happening, it seems absurd, with that part of his body inside her, but all the same it sparks sensations she has never imagined. It is not something being done to her - it happens between their bodies, and they both move, hips moving and backs curving. (Charles gasped, his hand thrust under his shirt, touching his chest.) They are no longer themselves, even to each other. They cease existing, and only the points where their bodies meet seem real. Erik wants it to last, but he has not touched another person for so long, and his hips buck at their own speed, Gaby angling up to meet him. (He pinched his own nipple as he sensed nerves not his own be overwrought with sensations.) Gaby grabs at him and his hand tangles in her hair. It builds between them, their movements speeding up until they are barely more than a constant tremble against each other. Gaby comes first, and calls out wordlessly as the shockwave of impressions assaults her. Erik is soon to follow, swearing in a long-forgotten language. They kiss and gasp into each other’s mouths, both stunned at what has passed.

The connection broke just as he himself reached climax. When he opened his eyes, he was shocked to find himself in such a state, shirt half-open and hands thrust inside it, his body shaking. Trying to compose himself, he looked at his watch. It showed almost midnight. He had been inside their minds several hours, and had grown completely unaware of his own body. It was a disturbing concept, not to mention the fact that he had spied on them. Perhaps it was the inebriation he had felt in their minds or the extended psychic contact, but his thoughts felt disorientated, and it was a relief to go to bed. He should feel guiltier about his trespass, but he could not muster it. Even now, he could sense their minds on the other side of the hotel. As he fell asleep, he knew that they did not speak, but only clung to each other.

***

When Charles woke, bewildered by nightmares not his own, he could still feel the connection between his own mind and the minds he had read last night. It felt odd, blotting out his self, turning him simply into a conductor between other people’s thoughts and his perception of them. Having only just woken up, being dragged along that bond was too comforting to resist.

Gaby wakes with a start, as if someone has shaken her awake. She is alone in the bed, and the air that creeps in under the covers makes her shiver. She pulls the sheet around her and sits up. Erik is at the window, watching the street below. He is wearing a robe, but nothing else, it seems. Suddenly aware of her own naked body, she pulls the sheet tighter around herself.

‘Good morning.’ He turns around and looks at her. She smiles at him, hoping for signs of appreciation in his face. Seeing her in his bed makes his heart leap, but her expectant gaze worries him. He wants to show his approval, but his smile falters. There is too much darkness in his mind. ‘Erik? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing,’ he sighs and leans against the window. ‘Just a lot on my mind.’ The silence grows tense, and the shuffling of sheets is heard. A hand comes to rest on his arm; she stands beside him, still swathed in her sheet.

‘Do you regret it?’ she asks quietly.

‘No,’ he says, not meeting her eye. ‘But there is so much, Gaby, so much you could not possibly know...’

‘Then tell me.’

‘I couldn’t,’ he sighs. ‘So many horrible things...’ Her hand closes around his arm.

‘You wouldn’t scare me,’ she assures him. ‘Surely you know that?’

‘It’s more complicated than that,’ he says and breaks free. He walks away from the window, leaving her there.

His back is turned on her, but she does not look away from him. Had yesterday been a mistake? Quite possibly, but it had not felt like one. It was probably as much a mistake as what happened between her and Charles. Both experiences had simply left her with a wish for more.

She takes a step towards him.

‘Erik...’ He turned his head, but does not look at her. For a moment, he looks absolutely frantic, then suddenly it bursts out of him.

‘I’m in love with Charles.’ She stops. The words struggle to register - they do not make sense. Had she misheard him? Had her mastery of English suddenly lapsed? But no, he had said it. By the look in his eyes as he turned to face her, she knows that he meant it.

Her mouth works wordlessly, not knowing what to say.

‘You... seemed to enjoy last night,’ she says at last.

‘It’s not about not enjoying women,’ he says quietly, evidently not used to speaking about it. ‘Not for me. It’s just...’ He swallows.

‘You enjoy sleeping with men too?’ she says hesitantly. He gives a curt nod. ‘Charles? I know you were close...’ Erik nods and swallows again.

‘As close as two people can be, without becoming each other.’

‘You were lovers?’ she whispers. The coincidence shocks her. She tries to make sense of it and imagine the two of them together. It seems twisted, but despite that, the image comes naturally to her.

‘Things were different before...’ his voice sounds like it is about to break. ‘...before the accident. It was so long ago. It might as well never have happened.’ They stood in silence. She does not quite know what to do. He must notice her hesitation, because he says: ‘I understand if you want to leave. But... it’s not unnatural.’

‘I never said it was,’ she says, but cannot help thinking that it is not really right. Now when she knows, it seems like it makes sense, though. There is something between them which she has registered but did not understand at the time. Her head is spinning with his confessions and what happened yesterday and what happened days before that. This really would give Auntie Hannah that heart-attack she kept saying Gaby would drive her to sooner or later. “Yes, Auntie, I have met someone - two men, actually. One of them’s a distinguished professor of some kind, but he’s a gentile and a cripple. The other is a Jew, but he was in Auschwitz, and he is a bisexual, and apparently had an affair with my professor friend, which I assume makes him a bisexual too. They are both well-spoken, very polite and treat me well.” If she were not in the middle of it, the situation would be laughable. ‘I... I should go...’

She starts collecting her clothes, and puts them on clumsily. There is no way but to discard the sheet, and she is aware that Erik is watching her dress. When she finally takes her coat from the floor and steps into her shoes, he approaches and stops close to her.

‘I’m glad about yesterday,’ he says, as if it is a confession.

‘Me too,’ she answers and smiles a little. ‘I’m not walking out on you, I just... need to figure out what’s happening.’ He nods gravely.

‘I’m sorry if...’ He makes a vague gesture. ‘I’ve not really done this sort of thing for a long time... I mean, the sex, yes, but...’ He breaks off. She nods, thinking she understands what he means. His face remains a mask of despair. ‘It was different with him,’ he says quietly. ‘In... in so many ways.’ She hesitates, but then slips her hand into his.

‘I don’t want it to be about that.

‘Neither do I. But...’ He breaks off again and releases her grip around his hand. ‘I must not keep you. Go, if you want to.’ She does not move. He stands, waiting for her to leave, and it is not until she puts her hand on his shoulder and angled her head up that he realises. They kiss goodbye slowly, and not without tenderness.

‘See you,’ she whispers and leaves. Erik lingers by the door, torn between relief at her acceptance and fear at what she might say the next time they meet.

Charles rose from their minds, and bit back a curse directed at Erik. That had not been his confession to make - it implicated both of them. He should have asked him first. Not that that would actually make any difference, because Charles would have said no, and Erik would probably not listen to him anyway. At least Gaby had not responded with disgust, only confusion. There had been no hate in her. He would have to cling to the small blessings.

‘Yes,’ he said to himself and pushed himself up. ‘A laughable situation.’ It made him feel ready to cry.

Chapter Text

The streets around the hotel were calm, but towards the harbour, the wind had swept up. Erik and Charles had steered their steps there for no reason other than to catch a glimpse of the sea. Well there, they stopped and leaned against the railings. The sound of the waves made them both reluctant to speak.

At last Erik said:

‘It’s a very ugly statue, isn’t it?’ He gestured out into the bay with his cigarette. Charles followed his gaze and considered the Statue of Liberty.

‘Oh, I don’t know. Anything that big is bound not to be very delicate.’ Erik nodded thoughtfully.

‘I remember seeing it for the first time, when I was eighteen. I thought it was so... ostentatious. I still think that.’

‘I was eight,’ Charles said. ‘I was seasick the whole journey, and my mother made me come up on deck to see it anyway.’ Erik snorted with laughter. ‘Did you know that in many languages, it’s called the Goddess of Freedom?’

Now he looked at him, his gaze suddenly profound.

‘And what freedom is there for us, in the country of the free?’ he asked and kissed him.

The kiss pushed his back against the railing, and made him cling to Erik’s coat, as though he might fall into the sea if he let go. Charles was aware of lips and tongues of teeth, but he could not quite feel it. He pushed closer, and yet closer, but still nothing...

***

The next moment, Charles was in bed, flat on his back. A ray of sunshine had sneaked between the curtain and cast a shaft of light over the bed. He sighed and closed in eyes in resignation. Dreams of walking - dreams of kissing - dreams of Erik... It seemed quite clear what his subconscious was telling him. Perhaps it would clear his mind if he could see him. Maybe that would make him angry with him again. But his anger was becoming more and more difficult to feed on. It was diluted by other things - desire, love, jealousy. Still, he wanted to push it all aside. Gaby and he were going to the Tchaikovsky concert they had discussed, and he wanted to meet her with a clear mind.

The clock on the bedside table showing eight, and he supposed that Erik was down at breakfast. He reached out with his mind and searched the hotel, but he was not there. Instead, he found him a little while away, close to the park. Despite his better judgement, he slipped into his mind.

‘Thank you,’ Erik says, trying not to sound too awkward. ‘I felt that we should... talk.’ Gaby nods solemnly.

‘Of course,’ she says, trying to sound as neutral as possible. They start walking in silence, all the topics they could and should speak of too embarrassing or painful to touch yet. Finally, Gaby clears her throat and asks: ‘When did you, eum, realise?’

‘Realise what?’ Erik asks. ‘That I was a bisexual?’ He struggles to remember. Was there some awareness of it before the camps - some too-close friendship, some childhood crush? He can recall faces, but not names. He does not trust his own memories. ‘After the war,’ he says instead. ‘When I left the holding camp. Everyone was so... alive. I wanted to touch every single one of them. Boys, girls - what was the difference? I was so jealous of them all, and I wanted them anyway.’ He smiles crookedly. ‘Being skinny and scarred made my chances a little less good, of course.’

‘Yes,’ Gaby says hollowly, looking out into the distance instead of at him. They walk in silence until she says: ‘You don’t look it.’

‘Queer?’ She shrugs.

‘Effeminate.’ She stumbles a little over the word.

‘There are all sorts,’ he says. ‘It’s not really connected.’

She does not answer, and now he finds that he would like Charles’ gift, so he could know what she is thinking.

‘It’s not wrong,’ he says forcefully. ‘I’m not sick.’ Then he breaks off and admits: ‘And then again, who knows? Perhaps I am. Perhaps they broke me, and it’s a symptom.’ Now Gaby looks up at him, coyly.

‘I know that feeling.’ They look away from each other very quickly. The questions of what, how, why? are hovering between them, and if they give into them, they will never be able to look each other in the eye. That is, if they live this down, Erik thinks. He has never had to explain it before. Except for Charles, who always was and is the exception to human laws, he has never had any deeper relationship, only dalliances to sate a need. There had been Magda, of course, but he had felt so raw then that it seemed more like a feverish dream than a real affair. He had never paused to pay anyone attention before Charles, but now he finds himself doing it again, and it hurts in a way he had not imagined it would. Gaby grates against his bones, like Charles touched the depth of his soul, and both hurt.

‘When you said he saved your life, I thought you were his patient.’

Erik snorts.

‘The whole world is Charles’ patient. He tries constantly to cure us all from our maladies.’

Gaby stops, quite suddenly, and looks up at him, her face oddly severe. Finally, she asks:

‘What did he do, to make you so spiteful towards him?’ Erik looks away.

‘It’s not spite,’ he says, at once sounding miserable. ‘It’s regret. He never did anything to me. Nothing I did not deserve, at least. I... I did horrible things to him.’ He hopes she does not notice the tears which threaten to well up in his eyes, but she does. She looks away, wondering what he did. Surely it cannot have anything to do with whatever is wrong with him...

She pushes it aside, reluctant to face it, and instead, slowly, she reaches out to touch him. He takes her hand with both his and looks at it as if it is something very precious. They stand close, so that their chests almost touch. Finally she looks up at him, reflecting briefly that the situation could not get odder, and honesty was probably the best way.

‘I’m in love with him too,’ she admits. His eyes grow a little.

‘So we’re fools together, then?’ he whispers. She laughs and presses against him. He embraces her, burying his face in her hair and laughs with relief.

‘I don’t really understand it,’ she says against his chest.

‘I’m not asking you to. It’s not different from any other kind of love.’ She draws back to look at him.

‘I don’t really understand love either,’ she says. ‘Doesn’t it terrify you?’

‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘It does. But so does Charles.’ She leans against him again.

‘Perhaps they’re synonyms.’

Erik imagines it - Love, unwilling and unable himself to love. Love, crippled and distant, enamoured only in his own loneliness. Love, filled with rejection and empty words.

Charles withdrew, and settled into his own turmoil of emotions. Was that what Erik thought of him? Why did it upset him so, when he constantly told himself that nothing would happen between them? How could he face Gaby tonight, when he knew what she knew, and knowing that she thought him ignorant of her knowledge? He wished now that he had never thought to read their minds when they were alone. How much easier it must be to keep track of a romance only on one side. However, such a thing did not come naturally to him. Then again, most romances only had two participants. Not until now did Charles realise that Erik was the one in the most vulnerable position, because despite Gaby’s confession of her feelings towards Charles, he had assumed that they had not been acted upon. Perhaps he should catch him when he came back to the hotel, when Gaby left to get to work, and explain that he knew... But that would mean admitting having eavesdropped - and which time in succession was this? The third or fourth? There was no telling how Erik would take that. The show of trust that he would be in his presence without the helmet was precious to him, even if it would be a practical impossibility for him to wear the thing in central New York without being arrested. He could not find it in himself to admit having broken that implicit trust. He would have to go on being dishonest - sleeping with the same girl as him and reading his mind, and deny both trespasses.

***

Charles and Gaby met well before the concert for dinner. They settled on going to a small Chinese restaurant, where they were placed at a table beneath the stairs. It was not the most spacious of dining areas, and Gaby apologised as she had to put her feet between Charles’ foot-rests.

‘Else I’ll have to sit on my feet,’ she explained with a shrug.

‘I don’t think they’d mind in an establishment like this,’ Charles said. ‘Not really conventionally decorous.’ To his surprise, Gaby laughed and slapped him over the fingers with her chop-sticks.

‘Imperialist,’ she said, but her eyes lit up. Charles laughed and looked at her mock-severely.

‘My dear lady, I’d just like to remind you that it wasn’t the British who dominated the South-East Asian trade until the past two hundred years, but the Dutch.’

Gaby rolled her eyes at him, but smiled. Still, Charles got the feeling that perhaps he had somehow insulted her. Therefore, when they had ordered, he said:

‘Perhaps that was presumptuous of me. I suppose by rights you’re American.’ Gaby shrugged.

‘Well, yes.’ He intertwined his fingers and leaned forward a little.

‘You don’t sound very pleased.’ She looked away and admitted:

‘I think that if it hadn’t been for my aunt, I wouldn’t have come here.’

‘You were in France after the war, weren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Just outside Paris.’

‘Did you want to stay there?’ Gaby shook her head emphatically.

‘No.’ Charles raised a questioning eyebrow.

‘Then where? Back to Amsterdam?’ The muscles around her mouth tightened momentarily, and he realised that it had been a mistake. He unclasped his hands and touched her arm. The tightness grew into an apologetic smile, as if she did not want him to feel bad about it.

‘I’d like to go to Israel,’ she explained. ‘I’ve heard such beautiful things of it.’

‘I’m sure it’s lovely,’ he said, even if he did not have much to build that opinion on. ‘A friend of mine, Daniel Shomron, who studied medicine with me, went there a few years ago, and he is doing very well.’ Gaby tilted her head, looking interested.

‘Where does he live?’

‘Haifa,’ Charles said. ‘We haven’t really been touch since I left Oxford, but the last I heard, he had converted an old holiday resort into a hospital, more or less on his own.’ He refrained from mentioning that Dan worked with cases similar to Gaby’s, not wanting to go into that now. It seemed like most conversations he had nowadays were minefields. ‘If I’m not misremembering, Erik was in Israel for a while in the fifties.’

‘Oh,’ she said, looking suddenly distracted. ‘Do you know how he found it?‘ Charles laughed nervously. Of what he had gathered from Erik’s memories, he had felt as uprooted in Israel as anywhere else. His powers had set him apart from the rest of his people, and he had found no solace there.

‘He’s not really an ardent Zionist,’ he said finally. Gaby looked him in the eye and observed:

‘He is very angry.’ This caught him unawares; he did not quite know how to answer it.

‘Yes, he... he is.’ She looked down on her hands, instead of at him.

‘Would you say that we’ve reacted very differently to our... eum...’

‘Traumas?’ She nodded. Charles sighed. ‘It’s not really my place to say.’ He was not certain how much Gaby actually knew about Erik’s past, but he was certain that she did not know about his vengeful hunts. ‘I suppose one might say that Erik has externalised a lot of his troubles, while you have turned them inside.’

‘Which is worse, do you think?’ Gaby asked, and the way she looked at him was almost greedy for knowledge.

‘There’s no way of making value judgements about these kinds of things,’ Charles said, and was relieved to see the waiter returning with their dinner. It saved him from having to forcefully steer them away from the topic, which would have been awkward. The food put them both in a better mood, and when Gaby spoke again, it was on a considerably lighter note.

‘There’s so much about you I’d like to know,’ she said. ‘Every time we meet, it always seems like I end up talking and you just listen.’ Charles threw out his arms.

‘Ask away, then.’ Gaby watched him, smiling.

‘Where were you born?’

‘London. Belgravia, to be precise.’

‘When did you come to America?’

‘In 1938 - I was eight. It was just after my mother remarried.’

‘Do you have brothers or sisters?’ Charles gathered his thoughts before answering.

‘One step-brother and one foster-sister. Cain and I never got on, and I’ve lost touch with my sister, which is a great pity. We were very close when we were children.’ Gaby smiled in sympathy and then asked:

‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Charles chuckled.

‘Green. What’s yours?’

‘Blue, I think. But I like green too.’ They looked at each other, and remained that way long time, simply watching one another. Charles sensed her weighing between two questions, both about abnormalities of his. Ever since they had met earlier that evening, she had been considering the newfound knowledge about him and Erik, not knowing whether to address it or not. Finally, Charles sensed her settle on the physical rather than the sexual peculiarity.

‘It’s alright,’ he said, smiling. ‘I won’t be offended if you ask.’ Gaby turned her eyes down, a little embarrassed.

‘How come you can’t walk?’ He folded his hands.

‘I broke my back,’ he explained. ‘Snapped the spinal cord. Quite irreversible, I’m afraid.’ Gaby looked up, with a compassionate frown, and he sensed how she remembered Erik’s words. It’s regret. I did horrible things to him.

‘How did it happen?’

Charles hesitated. He could not tell her the truth. Even the relatively simple answer that he had been show would raise far too many questions.

‘It was a traffic accident,’ he said instead. She must have interpreted the lie as reluctance, because she fussed with her napkin and said:

‘I’m sorry to have brought it up. I understand if you don’t want to talk about it.’

‘No, it’s... it’s alright,’ he said, even if he would rather not discuss it. ‘There’s just not very much to tell. It’s all a bit of a blur.’ They sat in awkward silence for a while. ‘I’m surprised it took you so long to ask,’ he admitted. ‘Most people use it as a conversation opener.’

‘That’s hardly polite,’ Gaby said severely.

‘No, it’s not,’ Charles agreed. ‘I’m quite glad you didn’t. Much nicer to...’ He cleared his throat. ‘...not just be a broken back.’

Or a number.

He wished he had not heard that. It was far different. His childhood may not have been perfect, but he had not known suffering, not in comparison to either Gaby or Erik. He may have been different, but no-one had tried to kill him for it. He had had the time to lead a real, full life - friends, lovers, academia... But then was not Gaby’s life, or indeed Erik’s life, also real and full? Was it any less an actual life than his? Their misfortunes should not lessen them. That would be letting those who had sought to destroy them win.

When they picked their way through their dinner conversation, avoiding anything worrying or upsetting, half his mind remained on this question. Even during the concert, the music did not catch his full attention. The 1812 Overture, which he had always enjoyed, now seemed to him soulless. He did not care for the musical representations of the French and Russian forces meeting in battle, and the fanfares and the cannons felt prosaic and without depth. They sat at the back, his wheelchair parked in the aisle beside Gaby’s outer seat, and her hand rested in his, but he did not stroke it or squeeze it. The worry that had been accumulating was growing into alarm, and now, when everyone’s attention was on the music, he had the opportunity to meet it.

He could always run away. Perhaps was what he should do. After the concert, he could kiss Gaby goodbye and send her home in a cab, then go back to the hotel and call the school to ask them to pick him up the next day. Then they could all get on with their separate lives - Charles with his school, Gaby with her typing and reading, Erik with his sabotage and fighting for a better world. The thought of Erik shook him awake. He could not simply leave Erik and Gaby alone together like that. Neither of them were the most stable of people, and sooner or later, Erik would don the helmet and cape of Magneto again, and human society would become abhorrent to him. What would such a thing do to poor Gaby? If they did not manage to hurt each other with their common misfortunes, Erik’s inevitable return to his sworn quest would. Charles could not simply let that happen. But they could not continue like this - with Charles courting Gaby, and Gaby sleeping with Erik, and Erik pining after Charles... He did not know where to start to untangle this into a coherent single thread. However he tried, it remained a huge knot, and as a Gordian solution was out of the question, there was little to do. The thought of it made his chest grow tighter, and for a wild moment he imagined himself having a panic attack then and there. The idea of Gaby being put in the situation of becoming an onlooker of such a thing was enough to force him to calm down. Her hand was warm against his palm, and he longed to hold her close. He knew he would have the opportunity after the concert, all he had to do was ask...

And in the end, he did not even have to do that. Once they were outside on the street, they looked at each other and Gaby touched his shoulder. Her lips parted a little, and her gaze shifted, pupils dilating ever so slightly. He nodded minutely, and started wheeling himself towards the hotel. Holding onto one of the handles, she went beside him, haste in her step.

They did not speak on the way, or when they entered the hotel. When she stepped into his suite, Gaby looked around and said:

‘This is very grand.’

‘It’s not too bad,’ he said with a shrug, and instantly felt like a fool, considering how she lived. Instead of looking at her, he took off his coat and threw off his blanket, and looked up at her, where she stood a few feet away. With slow deliberation, she unbuttoned her jacket and let it fall to the floor. Her fingers went to the buttons in her blouse, but Charles reached out a hand, stopping her.

‘Let me,’ he whispered. She approached, not certain what to do, and then knelt. He leaned forward and undid the buttons down her front, and then on each sleeve, slowly touching the skin he exposed. The blouse slipped off, and his hands cupped her face. She looked up at him, at once desperate, and they pushed into a kiss. The slowness did not remain long, and soon they were kissing deeply. Gaby ran her hands up his arms and over his chest. He moaned into the kiss and wanted to ask her to do it again, when suddenly she pushed up, breaking the kiss suddenly.

‘I’m sorry,’ she gasped, wrapping her arms around her almost-naked torso. ‘I’m so, so sorry, I... I should have... should have asked...’ He started at her, bewildered, and she fell silent.

‘What’s the matter, Gaby?’ he asked. She bit her lip. He could guess.

‘Does your... eum.’ She looked away, embarrassed for his sake, not hers. ‘With the injury to your back, do you still... function?’

Charles cleared his throat. It was a discussion he knew would eventually be necessary, and now he wished that he had addressed it before so that it would not stall the passion like this. Gaby looked awkward and exposed where she stood, her arms wrapped around herself. Her gaze was hesitant, anticipating his answer with equal hope and worry.

‘It... it takes a bit of work,’ he said. ‘But it’s not impossible.’ He had hoped that she would move closer, but she remained where she was.

‘Could we still...?’

‘Would you like to?’ Charles asked. He was not certain whether he wanted it. He would not be able to feel it, after all, and he would probably give a pretty poor performance (he tried and failed not to think, in comparison to Erik). But at the same time, he wanted to make love to her the way a man was supposed to. He wanted the sense of possession it gave to be inside another human being. (But should he want to possess her, or treat her like a thing? Would fucking her do that?) It would not be the way he would want it to be, of course. By necessity it would be him on his back, her on top of him - his looking up, her looking down - him still, her moving. In a way, she would objectify him more than he would her. He wondered if it was worth doing it, just for the sake of doing it, when the experience itself might be disappointing.

‘Yes,’ Gaby answered. ‘I would... if you want to. And if you can.’

‘It wouldn’t be very pleasurable, I think,’ he admitted.

‘You’ve never...’

‘Not since the accident,’ he said. Gaby approached again, and knelt down in front of him.

‘Why wouldn’t it be?’ she asked sincerely.

‘I wouldn’t actually be able to...’ He cleared his throat into his fist. ‘...meet your movements.’

‘That doesn’t have to be that bad, does it?’ she asked, as if she did not know but was ready to find out. He shrugged, communicating his ignorance, and then froze. Gaby had put her hand on his knee and was slowly moving it over his leg. He stared at its upwards movement, mesmerised. ‘How would it be for you?’ she asked.

‘I can’t feel that,’ he said and brushed against her hand, but the mere fact that she was touching him like that was exciting in itself. ‘I wouldn’t be able to feel anything...’ Her face took on a look of confused pity.

‘Then what..? What would be... good?’ He took her hand from his leg and placed it against his chest instead.

‘This.’ Her eyes lit up again; now when they had found common ground, the excitement started to return. She stood up and slowly undid his tie.

‘Like this?’ she asked and kissed his neck.

‘Yes,’ he choked. Gaby mouthed against his skin and as her breath played against it, she started unbuttoning his shirt and untucking his vest. ‘Yes, like that.’

‘What would you need to... make it work?’ she whispered.

‘Let’s move to the bed.’ It was with reluctance he drew away from her, and she stepped aside to let him wheel himself to the bed. He was aware that she was watching him as he transferred himself onto it, took his shoes off and straightened his legs. In her he sensed conflicting desires to stare and to resolutely look away. Even if the events with the stairs to the theatre had been something of an illustration, it was not until now she truly realised that he really could not move his legs. She did not know if it was more polite to ignore it or take it into consideration. Where did the line between considerate tact and intrusive pity lie?

‘Come on,’ Charles said and patted the space beside him. Gaby shook off her thoughts and stepped out of her shoes. When she crawled onto the bed and settled beside him, she looked worried. ‘It’s alright,’ he said and stroked her hair behind her ear. ‘You look like you think you’re going to hurt me, darling. Relax.’

‘I’m sorry if I...’ She looked away, not knowing how to apologise for her own ignorance towards his handicap. But this was no time for fumbling apologies; Charles did not want it to be about the things they could not do, but the things they would do. He hushed her and guided their mouths together. They kissed and sank back. After a while, they started touching again. He drew his hand down her bare back and squeezed her arse, and she stroked his chest. Jointly they pulled off his shirt and vest, and she looked at him. Charles suddenly felt rather self-conscious about his slight plumpness, particularly in comparison to her thin frame, but she seemed not to notice or mind, but grinned. As she traced the line of hair down his stomach, however, her brow knit into a frown.

‘Do you have scars from the accident?’

‘Yes,’ Charles admitted. ‘But only on my back. You don’t have to see them.’ In fact, he would prefer if she did not have to see them at all. He did not want their affair to be about scars. In an attempt to distract her, he leaned closer to nibble at her ear, and fondled her breasts. She gasped and took away his hand to undo her bra. ‘You have such gorgeous breasts,’ he whispered, moving to kiss them. It took her a moment to be able to answer.

‘Even with that?’ she asked, hushed, and touched her right nipple, where a deep scar ran.

‘Yes,’ he said and dragged his tongue across it. She gasped, and then drew away to look him in the eye.

‘Can I do that to you?’ The mere thought of it made his nipples grow harder.

‘Yes.’ She propped herself up on her elbows and deliberately lowered he head. First she simply pressed her lips against his nipple, then she let it slip between her lips. She lapped at it, and under her mouth Charles’ heart beat quicker and quicker.

‘Good Lord, Gaby,’ he moaned. She looked up and smiled mischievously. Sitting up again, she undid his fly with one hand. When the put her hand on his groin, her face fell.

‘Not enough?’ she asked quietly. She was fighting disappointment, trying to not let it show. Charles swallowed, awkwardness returning.

‘I need to... do it by hand,’ he explained.

‘Oh.’ She took away her hand, as if it were an intrusion. Charles propped himself onto his elbows, and considered what to do. The prospect of undressing in front of her made him feel quite vulnerable, and he half wanted to ask her to leave while he prepared. But he could not send her away - that was bound to ruin both their moods. This interruption was bound to take some of the excitement away, though. Lovemaking should be spontaneous, and not need this amount of planning.

Deciding that it was better to be done with it, he pushed down his trousers.

‘Could you give me a hand with these?’ he asked, and Gaby obeyed with a look of embarrassment on her face. She took off his socks too, but Charles pushed down his pants himself. Gaby was still kneeling at his side, trying to decide where to fix her gaze, when he started stroking himself. He sensed that she was wondering whether she should ask if she should do it for him, but she did not dare, and he was secretly glad. He preferred to do this himself.

Now he reflected how oddly matched they were. In contrast to his complete nakedness, she was still half-dressed; her necklace was still around her bare throat, and she was still wearing her skirt and other underthings.

‘Gaby?’ he whispered. She looked a little startled, forcing her eyes from his moving hand to his face. ‘Won’t you undress?’ She smiled weakly and started to strip. It was too slow and self-conscious to seem an act of seduction, but as she slipped off her pencil skirt and shook out her hair, unclasped her necklace and rolled off her stockings, undid her garter-belt and threw aside her knickers, she was transformed from decorously pretty to savagely beautiful. Her pale form looked almost otherworldly as it was framed by the mass of black hair and her green eyes shone up her face. The look of her herself would have been enough, he was sure, but the thought that this was a body Erik had touched made him eager to reach out for her. How could it intrigue him so much, that he had kissed the same lips and touched the same breasts, and would soon slide into the same crevice as he had? He was becoming hard now, and he wanted to touch her more than he thought he ever did.

‘Shall we do it?’ he whispered. She nodded, dumbstruck by the excitement. ‘I don’t actually have...’

‘Wait,’ she said and moved, crawling to the edge of the bed and picking her handbag off the floor. She rummaged through it carelessly and then held up a wrapped condom triumphantly. He took it and as he opened it, Gaby reached out and touched his erection. Her caresses wandered, exploring parts of his body which he could not feel her fondle. When he put on the condom, she followed his fingers. They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Charles nodded and Gaby straddled him. He put his hands on her thighs as she shuffled to the right place. When their bodies connected, she gasped. She leaned forward to find the right alignment, shifted to find the angle, and then pushed down, one steadying hand on each side of his chest.

In the short time between the suggestion and the act, Charles had had time to imagine it several times, but he had not anticipated all the sensations it brought. The frustration at his inability to feel paled suddenly, as he instead felt the pleasure she felt, as well as her hands against his skin. He watched the way her head tipped back, the vein in her throat tensed, her hair framed her shoulders and she heaved herself up. The sound of her breath coming quicker and growing ragged set his heart beating even faster, and then her finger-tips found his nipple to twist. His hands were on her thighs, pushing her down for want of anything else. She followed the prompting, still with her hands on his chest, caressing him until she found the way that was most pleasurable.

But then, far too early, her movement stopped. She frowned and, picking his fingers from her hip, she started climbing off him.

‘Gaby, what’s wrong...?’ he asked. At first, he was afraid that he had hurt her in some way, but then he realised that what she felt was not pain but disappointment. As she sat down beside him and started pulling the covers over herself, he glanced down and realised what had happened. His lack of feeling had meant that he had not noticed how far he had gone. Embarrassed, he peeled off the condom and tossed it in the bin. Beside him, Gaby was just about to lie down, evidently trying not to seem disappointed or displeased. ‘Gaby...’

‘It’s alright,’ she murmured. ‘I understand.’

‘No, I mean... Gaby... come here.’

A memory from his days at public school suddenly manifested. They had been given Catullus’ least dirty poems to translate, but of course everyone did their upmost to get hold of the most improper one. Most students felt that these annals of perversity were the only reason to ever learn Latin. The few unabridged copies had passed hand to hand, never discussed but constantly read. Charles remembered reading them, but there were plenty of things he did not understand, even beyond the words which were not in his dictionary. For example, for a long time he wondered why accusing someone of having bad breath was such a horrible insult. It was only through reading his schoolmaster’s mind he learned that the basis of this was sexual. The accusation was actually one of impotence, which required the sufferer to use alternative methods to satisfy his mistress. Evidently a classical education had not been wasted on him after all.

Gaby had almost lain down beside him, but when he put a hand on her hip, she stalled. When he repeated, ‘come here,’ she obeyed, and he guided her upwards. She settled by the bedstead and watched as Charles pushed himself onto his stomach, propped up on his elbows. It was clear from the way she watching him that she did not know what he was planning, but she was curious rather than apprehensive now. Putting a hand on her thigh, he dipped down and kissed her protruding hip bone. Then he drew his lips over the slight curve of her stomach. His hand wandered and nudged her legs apart. Once again he shifted until he lay between them. By the way she looked down at him, Charles knew that until this moment, Gaby had never even considered this a possibility. He smiled up at her and leaned down to press his mouth between her legs, lips against lips. Her breath trembled, and a quiver seemed to go through her entire body. Charles pushed at her with his tongue, and she thrust against him. At first she stuttered apologies for this, as she tried to stall her movements and control her pleasure. After a while, however, the unconscious conviction that she should not be enjoying this became suddenly unimportant as Charles’ licks became more deft. Her speech was reduced to moans, but not for long. Her movements sped up and her breath came quickly, until her body went suddenly taut. She remained rigid for the shortest of moments, neither breathing nor moving, and then she relaxed, gasping for air.

She disentangled herself and lay down beside him. As she pressed close, hands on his chest and head resting on his shoulder, Charles felt just as relieved as she seemed. After a little while, Gaby’s hands, which had been lying flat against his skin, started stroking him lazily. He hummed in encouragement and put an arm around her. They lay like that for quite some time. At length, they shifted again and lay shoulder to shoulder. They had their faces turned towards one another, but Gaby’s concentration seemed suddenly to be elsewhere. Then it lifted and her face split into a smile. Charles traced a laughing line which he thought might form when she grew older.

‘Share?’

‘I think we’re the same height,’ Gaby explained. Charles glanced towards the foot of the bed and saw how she moved her foot onto his under the sheets. He chuckled and they kissed languidly, shifting again so that their bodies lay comfortably against each other.

‘You’ll stay the night, won’t you?’ he whispered.

‘Yes, if you’d let me.’

‘Of course.’ They lay in silence, touching each other’s bodies and stroking each other’s hair. Slowly, sleep crept up on them, and they let themselves be called into its embrace.

Charles slept deeply, but when Gaby woke, her thoughts were enough to make him stir. Her mind whirled with thoughts of Erik and Charles, and of touching and kissing. It all felt so wonderful, and it made her so happy, and yet it was wrong. Here was evidence that she was still insane, if she needed further proof. That she should enjoy sex not just with one man but with two was enough to show that. What would her aunt say? What would her parents have said? Even they, tolerant, kind people, and artists at that, would have been appalled at her. It was licentious and immoral and deceitful. Somehow, unconsciously, perhaps, she was playing them against each other. Even when she had admitted to having feelings for Charles to Erik, she had not admitted to having slept with him, and she had not even mentioned to Charles what she and Erik had done. She was taking advantage of Charles’ pity for her to make him like her (and poor man, he did not deserve to be deceived, not on top of everything else), and she was using Erik’s loneliness to alleviate her own. What would they say, when they realised what she had done? How they would hate her! She remembered what Erik had said, about that perhaps his odd preferences were caused by his experiences in the camps. Perhaps it was the same with her. Had what had happened to her cut all sense of morality out of her? Had it given her a taste for debauchery? Perhaps her tormentors had been right about her after all... She tried to fight the thought, but it presented itself nevertheless.

Charles reached out and pulled her closer. He wanted to tell her that she was wrong, that there was nothing twisted about this at all and that never should she listen to what those people had said about her. But how could he, without explaining his own trespasses and secrets? It would scare her to learn that her lovers were mutants, particularly that one of them could read her mind. He hugged her and tried to comfort her without speaking, and let her think that he assumed she had had a bad dream and that was the reason why she was crying. Only briefly did he dare to acknowledge how much it would terrify her to learn his secret. She must think that his relationship with Erik (which she had been kind enough not to quiz him about, even if she had been sorely tempted) was the most shameful thing in his life, but this was so much worse. He did not want to contemplate what she would think of him if she knew, but his imagination presented him with the way she would withdraw in horror at the knowledge.

But as she lay there, her tears smearing across his bare chest, Charles pushed all that aside. Instead, he made the decision that he must do something to save her from the scorn of the world and her own self-hatred. It was his fault and Erik’s. Had it not been for their tangled feelings, perhaps none of it would have happened. Now he wondered what would have happened if he had not withdrawn his hand when Erik had sought to take it, or if he had returned the kiss he had planted on his cheek. Perhaps they had never looked twice at Gaby then - and on the other hand they might, and that may have been worse. Or would it? No, they must talk about it - they must decide how to right their mistake. He knew already how (he had after all considered it earlier that evening), but he did not want to think of it yet. So he hugged Gaby tighter and slipped off to sleep again.

***

It was during a game of chess a few days later that Erik asked:

‘What is the matter? You should be playing better.’ Charles made a move, which was better planned than his last few ones, but shrugged in acknowledgement to the critique. He watched Erik consider his bishop, and then chose his rook instead.

‘I worry for Gaby,’ Charles explained. Erik looked up briefly, guilt in his eyes. Then he looked away, and a tense silence fell. Charles clasped his hands together, waiting for the confession. He sensed it approaching, but the regret and confusion in his voice still surprised him.

‘I slept with her, Charles.’ It sounded almost like an apology, as if it had been a case of infidelity.

‘Was it a good experience?’ he asked, knowing that it had been. Erik shot him a look, evidently wondering how he could ask such a thing.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But...’

‘Erik, this is not going to happen,’ Charles said and gestured to them both. ‘You’ve not let anyone down.’ He sighed. ‘Unlike me. I suppose you should know that I’ve slept with her too.’

Erik looked at him again. The succession of surprise and envy and anger could be seen in his eyes.

‘But you’re her doctor,’ he said in disbelief. ‘You said that you saw her in just a professional capacity. You said you couldn’t...!’ Charles sighed.

‘Yes, I know,’ he said. ‘I said those things.’

‘So you lied to me,’ Erik surmised.

‘Nothing had happened between us when I said that,’ he explained testily. ‘It was a few days later.’ Erik thought of it, and sighed.

‘Of course,’ he murmured to himself. ‘I saw it in your face. I should have known.’

Charles decided to explain his other accusations too.

‘As for the question of my... ability of perform, I didn’t lie either,’ he explained. ‘I may have simplified matters a little. Some creative solutions are required, but...’ He broke off, realising that this was probably not helping the jealousy. Erik remembered what he had said, you will remain my last. That had been a lie too, even if he had slept with the usurper of that title.

‘She told me she was in love with you,’ he remembered now.

‘I know,’ Charles said. ‘That she is, I mean.’ He hesitated and then asked: ‘Are you in love with her?’

‘I haven’t known her for very long,’ he said curtly, but then softened. ‘I care for her. Quite a lot.’

‘That’s usually how things like this start,’ Charles said kindly. Erik shot him a look.

‘It’s not that simple.’

‘It was with me. It took you much less time than this to fall in love with me.’

‘It’s not the same thing,’ Erik snapped. ‘It’s hard not to love someone who still acts like you are a person, even after all having seen all that. Gaby’s never pushed into my head. I’m glad for that.’ Charles pursed his lips, trying to process the hurt of that implication.

‘You make it sound like I made those feelings happen,’ he said finally. ‘I never manipulated your mind.’

‘Normal people don’t learn everything there is to know about someone in an instant,’ Erik said. Charles leaned forward a little, suddenly intrigued.

‘And that’s what you think your relationship with Gaby is, or what you hope it to be? Normal?’

‘You know it could never be,’ Erik sighed. ‘The things we share... and the things that make us different from one another.’

‘Yes,’ Charles said, looking away in resignation. ‘I am aware of that.’

‘But there are other reasons,’ Erik added. ‘Especially one.’ His gaze was so pointed that he did not have to say, you.

‘And you told her that as well, I suppose?’ Charles said acidly. Erik looked at him, equally aggressively.

‘I couldn’t keep it from her.’

‘You didn’t even ask me,’ Charles exclaimed. ‘It concerns me too, doesn’t it?’

‘And that you were sleeping with her too didn’t concern me?’

Charles exhaled, knowing he was right. He rubbed his forehead, trying to loosen the approaching headache.

‘This isn’t about us,’ he said. ‘It’s about Gaby. We’ve put her in an impossible situation.’ Erik raised an eyebrow.

‘How?’ It took Charles a moment to get his bearings enough to answer that.

‘What do you mean, “how”?’ he asked. ‘What do you think? Having a relationship with even one of us will disgrace her in the eyes of society. How can you not realise that?’

‘Because I am not part of this society,’ Erik answered gravely. Charles gave an involuntary yelp at his arrogance.

‘But you are! By being with her, you are! By pretending to be human...’ Erik’s face clouded with anger, but he restrained himself and let it not take hold of him.

‘I’m not pretending to be human,’ he said finally through gritted teeth. Evidently the implication that he would rather be human offended him deeply.

‘You pass for one,’ Charles reminded him. ‘You’re letting people assume you’re one. They’re including you in their society, and your silent rejection of it doesn’t change that.’ Erik looked him in the eye. The challenge was clearly written there.

‘They are wrong to judge her, or us.’

‘But the fact remains that they do,’ he said. ‘It could cost her her reputation, her job, her favour with her aunt. I’m not going to be responsible for that. And even if none of that happened, this is bound to hurt her. Sooner or later, there’ll be complications.’ He unlocked the wheels of his chair and moved over to the desk. ‘We need to meet, all three of us, and talk about this,’ he explained as he retrieved some notepaper and his pen. ‘Then, we decide what to do.’

‘You mean, you’re going to tell her to make a choice?’

‘Well, something has to be done,’ Charles said and started writing.

‘Isn’t that a little formal?’ Erik observed, meaning the letter. ‘You could just call her.’

‘I’d like to do it properly,’ he explained. ‘Are you free Saturday?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good,’ Charles said, wrote the day down and signed the short letter. ‘I’ll ask them to arrange dinner in my suite for the three of us, so we can talk without being disturbed.’ Erik snorted in frustration and, getting to his feet, approached.

‘Why must you always try to live people’s lives for them?’

‘I don’t do that,’ he objected. ‘Besides, this concerns me as much as it concerns you.’

‘Then why are you so keen to ruin your own chances for happiness?’ Now Erik was at his side, and when Charles looked up at him he felt small and insignificant, with that large presence looming over him. Why indeed? He could just let himself be happy. He could cultivate this, give it time to grow, make it part of his life... Yet Charles was not even rejecting that, but even a summer dalliance, a short affair which would leave him recuperated, an uncommon opportunity to learn that he was still able to inspire love. But when Erik spoke, it was not only about Gaby. His hand rested on the back of his wheelchair - it would take so little for it to slip onto his shoulder...

Charles looked away from him and concentrated on addressing the letter. When it was done, he held out the sealed envelope to Erik.

‘Would you give this to the receptionist to post?’ he said. ‘I’ve said eight, on Saturday.’

Erik’s disappointment was obvious, but he took the letter nevertheless.

‘Until Saturday, then.’ His hand brushed against his shoulder. Charles did not look at him as he left.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Charles woke with the realisation that one of his legs was dangling from the side of the bed, and that Gaby and Erik had stolen the covers. With some difficulty, he lifted his leg onto the bed again and drew himself up against the bed-board. Then he looked over to his bed-fellows, both fast asleep. Gaby lay with her face half-buried into the pillows. Her hair had worked itself out of its constraints during the night, and spilled over her bare shoulders and onto Erik’s. He was lying pressed close to her, his free arm stretched over her in what looked like an attempt to find Charles there. They, who were always so full of quivering energy, were an odd sight when this tranquil, and the idea of the human girl and the mutant supremacist sleeping so closely entangled felt almost symbolic. And the leopard shall lie down with the kid, Charles thought. It felt apt.

With that reflection, he drew himself into his wheelchair and headed for the bathroom. When he returned, wrapped in his dressing-gown, he saw that both Erik and Gaby had woken up, even if Gaby stayed curled up under the covers.

‘Come back to bed, Charles,’ Erik urged. Charles feigned reluctance, but moved onto the bed again. When he lay down again, he kissed Gaby on each eyelid. Sleepily, she opened her eyes and blinked.

‘Good morning,’ he said and smiled. She yawned.

‘Good morning.’

‘What is it they say?’ Erik said as he got out of bed. ‘The later in the morning, the more beautiful the riser.’

‘That won’t be me,’ Gaby murmured and burrowed into the pillow. ‘Your bed’s much nicer than mine, Charles.’

‘You’re welcome to sleep in it,’ Charles told her, ‘but it’s almost ten, and I think you should wake up.’ Gaby opened her eyes in earnest, pretending to be disappointed.

‘Oh, alright.’ Instead, she scooted closer and kissed Charles. When they drew apart, he brushed her hair out of her face and asked:

‘Are you happy?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Are you?’ Charles had not been expecting her to ask.

‘Yes. Very.’

By then, Erik reentered the bedroom, carrying a stack of clothes.

‘We’ve missed breakfast here, so we’ll have to go somewhere else,’ he said and pulled on his trousers, which had been lying on the bedroom floor. Gaby sat up and looked at the clothes.

‘I guess I’ll have to wear my formal blouse to breakfast,’ she reflected.

‘Where ever we go, you’ll probably the nicest dressed,’ Charles pointed out. Gaby rolled her eyes at him, gathered her clothes and made for the bathroom. While Erik went up to his own room to find a clean shirt, Charles found new clothes for himself and dressed. After twenty minutes, when they could all pass for decent, they left the hotel, choosing a direction at random. Erik pushed Charles and Gaby walked beside them, talking to them both. As always when he was in public, Charles felt the thoughts others directed at it, but for once they did not make him feel uncomfortable. When they looked at him, they still saw a young man worthy of their pity, crippled by some common accident or taken ill in his prime. Gaby and Erik they took for a couple, perhaps his only friends, who had stayed on to humour him, because they knew that the small inconvenience of seeing him meant so much to him. If they saw Gaby taking Charles’ hand or laughing at a compliment, they might assume that he was a flirt, or even that once, they had been in love, and he hoped that she might still care, and if she did, it is because she knew it was all the happiness he would get. Usually such ignorance angered Charles, but now the secret of their joy made him feel strong. The thought that they might all be lovers never crossed the passers’-by minds. For once, he savoured this misinterpreted anonymity.

Finding somewhere which was open on a Sunday was difficult, but finally they found an open café. Erik pushed the wheelchair up the few steps, and Charles wondered if he had not used his powers to take some of the weight. Gaby evidently did not notice anything, which he was glad for. There had been enough revelations between them lately. They settled at a window seat; Erik pushed the adjacent table to the side to make place for Charles’ wheelchair. The waitress, a matronly lady with a grey coiffure and a pink apron, glared at him for it, but she did not comment, evidently feeling sorry for Charles, whom she did not address directly. Gaby, noticing this, cast a worried look at Charles, but he smiled at her and shrugged to communicate that he was used to it. As they sank into a companionable silence with their cigarettes and bread-rolls and cups of coffee, Charles reflected how odd it was that it was possible to feel this happy while still feeling tired and having an aching back. Everything felt surprisingly light. Gazes travelled between them - Gaby looking at Charles, Charles at Erik, Erik at Gaby - and they all exchanged smiles. The tension had been resolved, and replaced with content.

Charles had been so intent on his companions that he did not notice the radio behind the till, until the waitress turned up the volume to a little to hear better.

Without a doubt, something needs to be done. Every single of these individuals is a walking atom bomb.

‘Erik,’ Charles said under his breath, calling his attention. Erik looked to him, and when he gestured towards the radio, listened. Gaby did the same.

When will the government see that mutants are a threat to the citizens of this country? These people are issuing demands for recognition, when they have no interest in America, or any part of the world. Some people - even respected scientists, who have been taken in by their lies - claim that mutants are going to replace humans. How, I ask you? There are those who think the mutants mean to do this in some peaceful way, but how can any such takeover be peaceful? The government must act. We stood against the threat of Nazism - we stand against the threat of communism. We must make it official policy to stand against mutants too.

Charles had heard enough.

‘Excuse me,’ he called. ‘Would you turn off the radio, please?’ The waitress, seemingly a little shaken at having been addressed by him, turned it off, and the obnoxious voice stopped. Then she took the coffee pot and crossed to their table.

‘Don’t see why they’re arguing about it,’ she said to no-one in particular as she refilled their cups. ‘You’d think they’d be beyond talking about it. There’s only one thing to do, and we should do it fast. Round them up and deal with them, before more innocent people get hurt.’

Gaby looked up suddenly.

‘How can you say something like that?’ she exclaimed. The waitress stopped, startled, but then relaxed and gave the girl a condescending smile.

‘Honey, it’s not as harsh as it sounds,’ she said. ‘Some of them are almost animals, you know. Real tragedies. Mercy-killings, they’d be.’

‘But they have human rights, just like the rest of us!’ Gaby pressed. Now the waitress smirked rather than smiled.

‘Missy, they ain’t human.’

‘The point with human rights is that you can’t take them away from people, whatever you think of them,’ she said. ‘They can never be circumvented!’ The waitress stared at her in surprise, as if she had not really expected her to be able to talk.

‘But they say they’re not human - probably they don’t want human rights,’ the waitress answered.

‘You can’t forswear your human rights!’ Gaby almost shouted.

‘But we have to draw the line somewhere,’ the waitress said, sounding a little less sure now. ‘Would you give human rights to monkeys?’

‘Would you take them away from the mentally ill?’ Gaby retorted. ‘You don’t have to claim human rights to have them.’ The waitress snapped her mouth shut.

‘Didn’t mean to offend, miss,’ she said through her teeth and left. As she passed it, she switched on the radio again. Gaby exhaled angrily through her nose, and then realised that the two men were watching her. Erik’s face split into a wide grin, and Charles lost the battle against himself and chuckled.

‘What are you smiling at?’ Gaby asked, sounding defensive. Erik reached over, took her hand and kissed it forcefully. Charles imagined that he could see him falling further in love with her.

‘You’re just very brave,’ Charles explained.

‘And very right,’ Erik added.

‘It shouldn’t be brave to say such things,’ she said, sounding convinced. ‘That they need to be stated is a...’ She struggled to find the right word. ‘A calamity.’

‘Of course.’ Charles glanced over at the waitress, and noticed her eyeing them angrily. ‘Might I suggest that we remove ourselves?’

‘Good idea,’ Erik said and emptied his coffee.

‘I wouldn’t like to stay in a place where they say things like that to you anyway,’ Gaby said and rose. ‘You’d think their coffee was the worst thing about it.’

Once they were out on the street again and started walking, Gaby asked:

‘But then you agree with me? About mutants?’

‘Of course,’ Erik said, but Charles sensed his unease. To Erik, this was a discussion he could not have without it becoming deeply personal. He decided to speak up instead.

‘Naturally. You’re absolutely right in everything you said. Unfortunately, people are too quick to forget compassion when they are afraid.’

‘That’s all it is, isn’t it?’ said Gaby. ‘Fear. People are afraid of what is different.’ She turned and looked at Erik. ‘They were afraid of us Jews, but none of the reasons they thought they had to be afraid were true.’ Erik nodded wordlessly.

‘Fear and hate are built on misconceptions, generalisations, oversimplifications,’ Charles said. ‘Some mutants may be dangerous, but some humans are dangerous. All the arguments they are using against mutants will, with very few modifications, look like any other intolerant statement.’ Gaby nodded in agreement. ‘I can understand that the prospect of a new species being born is startling, but these things are a natural part of evolution. It’s happened before. It was bound to happen sooner or later, in some way. It is particularly drastic in the question of mutants, but in reality, it is no different from a million other mutations that shape a species.’

Gaby pondered this.

‘That part scares me,’ she admitted finally, sounding a little ashamed. ‘Are mutants really going to take the place of humans?’

‘Not in the way that man on the radio seemed to think,’ Charles said. ‘It’s an evolutionary process. It’s going to take generations.’

‘So in a hundred years or so there won’t be any humans?’ Gaby asked, frowning deeply.
When put like that, Charles understood why this was a terrifying concept.

‘Humans and mutants are not so unlike each other,’ he said kindly.

‘“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”’ she asked sarcastically.

‘Yes, if you like,’ Charles said. ‘That speech is as relevant as it ever was. But look at it like this, Gaby. Mutants are born to human parents. They grow up among humans. Most of them look like humans. Mutants are not a homogenous group any more than humans are. This mutation occur in every population group the world over - the world in a hundred, a hundred and fifty years, however long it will take for this change to happen, will not be a world of mutants. Human culture, human arts, human ideas, the things that make us human will still be there. Changed, of course, but still a continuation. Still something we’ll recognise.’

Gaby smiled, melancholic at the idea of the far future, but also hopeful.

‘The way you describe the future is beautiful,’ she said.

‘He is such an idealist,’ Erik commented. Gaby glanced back at him, smiling.

‘Don’t you think that’s how it’ll be?’ she asked.

‘That is how I want it to be, but there are people ready to spill innocent blood to force us into a different future,’ he explained gravely.

‘Do you mean that you think people are going to try to kill the mutants?’ She sounded intrigued, but skeptical.

‘You heard the woman back there,’ Erik said, nodding back the way they had come. ‘She is not alone.’

‘Often when people say things like that, they’re just too stupid to realise what they’re saying,’ Gaby said. ‘Do you really think that if you gave her a gun and showed her a mutant, she’d kill it?’

‘Him, or her,’ Charles said. Being unknowingly described as an “it” hurt.

‘Of course,’ Gaby said apologetically. ‘But you see what I mean. Besides, she doesn’t have any more political power than you or I. I haven’t heard any politicians saying things like that.’

‘Of course you haven’t,’ Erik spat suddenly. ‘Did the Germans nicely tell your neighbours that they were taking your family to the gas-chambers when they deported you?’ Gaby stopped suddenly, turning on her heel to face him. Charles looked up and caught sight of their angry faces, Erik still lingering on the question of mutants, Gaby shocked that he would dare to use that argument. ‘People never talk about extermination,’ Erik said, a little calmer. ‘They just do it.’

‘We’ve learned,’ Gaby said.

‘That woman hadn’t learned,’ Erik said, pointing back the way they had come. ‘Give her a gun and show her a mutant - would she shoot? If she was told his name and the name of his parents and his children, hopefully not, but possibly. But if she was told that he might be about to kill her or someone she loved, of course she would. That is human nature. And when they ask her why, she will say that she was told that they were a threat, that she thought that she was right. Just as before.’

Gaby crossed her arms over her chest.

‘But surely anyone evil enough to plan such a thing must also realise that they’d only postpone the inevitable? If that’s the way evolution’s heading, then there is nothing we can do about it. You can’t kill all mutants, especially not the potential mutants, considering how many humans who carry the genes for it. So why bother?’ Erik’s eyes flared.

‘Hitler must have known that he did not stand a chance to kill every single Jew, but it did not stop him from trying,’ he said. ‘That he killed a third of us was bad enough.’ Gaby opened her mouth to answer, but Charles held up a hand, silencing them.

‘Erik, please,’ he said pleadingly. ‘Perhaps we could... change the subject?’ Gaby unfolded her arms and Erik started pushing the chair again. The interruption seemed at least to have calmed their tempers, but it had not chased away the subject.

‘But aren’t there people who are ready to kill for the survival of mutants?’ Gaby asked. ‘Organisations, sects, whatever they are. Like the one that made those threats a year or so back against the armament factories.’

‘The Brotherhood of Mutants,’ Charles said before he could stop himself. He sensed Erik’s shock at his slip, but Gaby naturally did not think anything of it.

‘Yes, that was what they were called,’ she said. ‘What about that, then?’

‘They are responding to a threat against them,’ Erik said. ‘They are acting against oppression, like civil right activists.’

‘But civil right activists don’t threaten to blow up factories,’ Gaby said.

‘Are you saying that mutants have no right to defend their interests?’ Erik asked vehemently.

‘No!’ Gaby exclaimed, sounding equally annoyed. ‘I just meant that there are two sides to everything, and violence from either side is wrong.’ Charles held up a finger again.

‘May I point out that you both agree on that mutants are being discriminated against, which was what we were discussing, so there is really no reason to fight about it.’

‘We’re not fighting,’ Erik said sullenly.

‘Yes, you are,’ Charles answered back.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ Gaby admitted. There was an awkward pause.

Erik, apologise, Charles projected.

Apologise for what? Erik thought back. I was just saying the truth.

You upset her. You’re not the only one who’s suffered oppression, you know. Besides, Gaby has no idea why you’re so defensive. Your reactions might make sense to those who know you’re a mutant, but not to her.

Erik sighed.

‘I’m sorry, Gaby,’ he said, still sounding reluctant. ‘It is a question that... stirs memories.’

‘Yes, it does,’ she said gravely, as if reminding him that she too had such memories. They walked a few more steps, and then she said: ‘You’re forgiven.’

‘Thank you.’ Charles barely heard Erik say the words; he had spoken them in barely a murmur. However, he saw how Gaby looked over her shoulder and smiled briefly at him. He could not see it, but he knew that Erik had smiled back, if a little sadly.

They walked in silence for a while, until Gaby spoke again.

‘It seems to me that the newspapers claim that everything bad is because of mutants. Almost every crime they report they claim is committed by one.’

‘Mutants are the new scapegoats, I’m afraid,’ Charles sighed.

‘It surprises me that people are so simpleminded,’ Erik said. ‘You would think that they could grasp that not one group could do all that.’ Gaby laughed.

‘Just a few minutes ago you were convinced anyone could become a murderer, and now you’re surprised by their stupidity,’ she said. ‘Why this sudden change of heart?’

‘I do not think the average person is morally high-standing, but I always hope, in vain, that they are capable of independent thought,’ Erik explained.

‘People believe what they’re told because they’re too afraid to argue against authority,’ Gaby observed. ‘Don’t you think that we can teach people not to be afraid of that?’

‘It’s probably easier said than done,’ Charles said.

‘You couldn’t, without tearing down this society and founding a new one,’ Erik added. ‘Everything about this culture is about not challenging authority. Obeying your parents, obeying your God, obeying your government. It is engrained in us.’

‘Perhaps,’ Gaby said and shrugged. ‘I’m not a nihilist, so I wouldn’t advocate ripping up the fabric of society.’ She seemed to go back to thinking about the newspapers’ take on mutants. ‘Some things are so absurd that most people dismiss them, at least,’ she said. ‘I once read an article which argued that the Cold War was a mutant conspiracy. They claimed that everything was planned out by them, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis. That it was meant to scare us humans into a frenzy. As if anyone could influence both the Soviet Union and the West like that.’ Charles felt himself tense. ‘Some people think that there were mutants there when they stopped the ship with the warheads, even. Their only evidence is that the governments made the existence of mutants public so soon after that, but it looks like coincidence to me. What would they be doing there, anyway? In case there isn’t a secret mutant division, but that doesn’t sound likely.’

Charles had listened to this with a growing sense of surreality. That Gaby did not believe it meant that she was in no danger to realise that all this was was actually true, but having one’s own experiences ridiculed as implausible was odd. Worst was how he was suddenly remembering that day with new clarity, and he felt the pain of Erik’s betrayal and Erik’s mistake. His back had been aching even before, but as if agitated by the memory, a shaft of pain travelled suddenly up it. Charles breathed in sharply, and his fingers clenched around his armrest.

‘Charles? What’s wrong?’ Gaby leaned down and grabbed his arm, bringing her concerned face close to his.

‘Nothing,’ he said, but it did not sound very convincing, as his voice strained with the pain. ‘Nothing to worry about, I just... think I need to lie down. Just a bit sore from sleeping oddly last night.’ Gaby exchanged concerned looks with Erik, who in turn look at Charles and raised an eyebrow.

I mean it, you don’t have to worry. It’s nothing, Charles projected, with some difficulty.

It doesn’t look like nothing, Erik thought.

I’m in some amount of pain, but it’s not dangerous. I just need to get back to the hotel.

‘Perhaps that’s wise,’ Erik said, evidently not realising that he had just switched means of communication. Gaby frowned.

‘What is?’

‘I mean, for Charles to rest,’ he explained. Gaby did not detect the lie, and Charles thought that if the suggestion that they had had a telepathic conversation would ever present itself, she would dismiss it as contrived. Instead, she nodded and turned to Charles.

‘I shouldn’t keep you.’ For a moment, she looked disappointed, but then she smiled. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said and pecked him on the lips. He returned the kiss and smiled back.

‘Yes, we’ll have to make sure of that,’ he said. Still smiling, she turned to say goodbye to Erik, who was waiting beside her. They looked at each other for a moment, and then kissed each other on the cheek. Charles could not tell if it was because it would not be appropriate for her to kiss them both goodbye when someone might see, or because of their previous disagreement. She stepped away from him, gave them both a wave and a smile, and walked off. From the way the wheelchair was angled, Charles could not see how she crossed the street and walked in the opposite direction, but he was aware of how Erik watched her until she turned the corner. Then, as if shaking off a daydream, he turned away and looked at Charles instead. His mouth thinned into a worried line.

‘You don’t look at all well,’ he observed.

‘I promise, it’s fine,’ Charles said. ‘But I suppose I’m rather pale. It’s just the pain.’ Guilt passed over Erik’s features.

‘It’s not far back,’ he said instead of answering, and started pushing him in the direction of the hotel. Getting to Charles’ door took at most five minutes, and once they reached it, Erik asked: ‘Can I help in some way?’

‘No, no, it’s fine,’ Charles said, digging in the pockets of his jacket for the key. ‘I’ll be alright from here.’

‘It’s in your breast pocket,’ Erik said casually, and the offending key rose from Charles’ pocket and landed in his hand.

‘Thank you,’ Charles said dumbly and unlocked the door. Erik had made no attempt to move. He sighed. ‘Erik, I don’t need a nurse.’ He had not meant it to sound as severe, or indeed as emasculating, as it did, but Erik did not look particularly offended.

‘You’re chalk-white, Charles. Your hands are shaking,’ he observed. ‘What if you fall?’

‘I know what I’m doing. I’ve had several years to get used to it.’ They looked at each other, neither of them ready to give in. It was Charles who finally sighed and averted his eyes. When he thought about it, it would be rather nice to have some company, but he was not ready to admit it. ‘Fine,’ he muttered. Erik opened the door with a wave of his hand and rolled him in with another gesture.

Charles had always hated being mothered, and it was only with a grudging acceptance he ever let any of the children (as he thought of them, even if they were all in their twenties by now) help him. However, he realised now that some part of it must be connected to who the other person was. Instead of his usual annoyance, he felt a vague kind of gratitude towards Erik, even if he would not let him move onto the bed on his own but lifted him. He felt happier to leave himself in Erik’s hands than in anyone else’s. One does not surrender like this to anyone one does not trust implicitly, he reflected. The idea that he trusted Magneto so much still surprised him.

Erik placed his shoes neatly in a drawer and rose.

‘What do you need?’

‘There are some pill bottles in the top drawer of that cupboard,’ Charles said and pointed. Erik opened the drawer he had indicated and raised his eyebrows.

‘“Some” bottles?’ he repeated. ‘You could open a minor pharmacy with these.’

‘I need the one with the red cap, and the large one,’ Charles instructed, ignoring the joke. Erik levitated the bottles by their metal lids to Charles. When he grabbed them, the lids unscrewed of their own accord. As he shook out the right number of pills, Erik fetched a glass of water. Charles accepted it, and did his best to ignore how Erik sat down and watched him swallow the medication. His previous cynicism was gone, and replaced with evident worry. When Charles put aside the glass and sank back on his pillows, feeling a little better simply by knowing that the medicines were going to start working soon, Erik said:

‘I didn’t know you were ill.’

‘I’m not ill,’ Charles said, his previous defensiveness replaced with fatigue. ‘Only injured.’ Erik looked unconvinced.

‘You need all those pills only because you’re injured?’ Charles pushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed.

‘A lot of them are painkillers, but many are prophylactic,’ he explained. ‘Injuries such as mine often lead to... complications.’ Now, Erik frowned, his worry deepening.

‘What kind of complications?’ Charles sighed again. Briefly, he wondered whether Erik was asking because of genuine interest, or some twisted desire to torture himself with the knowledge of what he had done.

‘All sorts of things. I run a higher risk of thrombosis. Pneumonia. Various heart problems. Other things, which I’m not going to go into.’

Erik stared down at the floor, shocked. He had always known that the consequences of his actions had been great, but he had never thought of this. It’s not just that he can’t walk. I haven’t just made him a pariah. It could kill him. I might kill him...

Charles put his hand on his arm.

‘Erik, it’s not your fault.’ He looked up, looking as if he thought he might have misheard. This was so contrary to what Charles had claimed before that he did not quite believe it.

‘But... I did this...’ Charles snorted a little, but smiled.

‘No more than Moira did, or I did,’ he said. ‘If I hadn’t been in the wrong place, I would never have been hit. And if you had not deflected it, it could have killed you.’ He moved his hand and stroked Erik’s cheek instead. ‘If that was the alternative...’ Erik looked up fiercely.

‘You’re talking as if it was a trade-off.’

‘What says it wasn’t?’ Charles asked. Erik’s eyes softened a little.

‘I thought you were beyond such mystic talk.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Charles told him with a shrug. ‘There’s no way to turn back the clock. I’ve grown used to this. Of course it’s not what I want, but I don’t have a choice.’ He paused, and then admitted: ‘These past months have made all the difference, I think. I... I didn’t think anyone would be interested in me now that I’m like this.’ At that, Erik smiled, baring his teeth.

‘You fool,’ he said and leaned in. Charles turned his face away.

‘Erik...’ Erik stopped and slowly drew back, to let Charles face him again. They looked at each other for a tense moment. Finally, Charles found his voice. ‘I don’t think we should kiss.’

‘But... yesterday...’

‘Gaby was there yesterday.’ Erik’s jaw tightened, disbelief returning.

‘So between us, nothing has changed?’

‘Of course it’s changed,’ Charles said. ‘What happened yesterday wasn’t really everyday stuff.’

‘But I can’t kiss you?’ Erik persisted.

Charles sighed and leaned his head back. To his credit, Erik let him gather his thoughts, and did not try to touch him. Still, he felt him watching him intently.

‘Erik,’ he said finally. ‘I’m still attracted to you, I still... have feelings for you, but it’s not about the two of us. It seems - and correct me if I’m mistaken - like there’s three of us in this relationship now. The only way that could ever work is if there are no twos.’

‘But each of us are “twos” with her, aren’t we?’ Erik asked.

‘At least we were,’ he answered. ‘I don’t think we’ll stop seeing her separately, but now we’re all aware of it. Without that communication, this is bound to become destructive.’

‘Are you afraid that she’d be repulsed by finding out about us?’ he wondered. ‘She already knows about it. She saw us kiss.’

‘But that’s different,’ Charles exclaimed. ‘She was there - she was part of it. The reason for it, even. But if we were to... do anything, even kiss, here...’

‘Wherein lies the danger?’ Erik persisted.

‘Don’t you see that the strongest two isn’t you and her, or me and her, but the two of us?’ Charles said. Erik drew back a little, surprised. He had evidently not thought about that. ‘We have known each other so much longer. We were lovers years back. It would be so easy for her to feel excluded, more so than either of us.’

Erik seemed to waver, but then his shoulders slumped.

‘I guess... you might be right,’ he said quietly.

‘You must understand, Erik,’ Charles said sincerely. ‘I don’t want her hurt.’ Erik nodded, but his regret was clear on his face.

‘I don’t want that either.’ He hesitated, as if wondering whether to risk a parting-kiss, but then, deciding against it, rose. ‘Sometimes, I just wish that you were not so kind-hearted.’

As do I, Charles thought, as he watched him leave.

Chapter Text

There was spring in the air. As if their newfound shared love had spurred the weather on, it was getting warmer. New York felt a new place, and Charles’ wish to go back to the mansion early disappeared. His presence there had been given a new purpose, which he happily embraced. It was a few days after their first encounter, and afternoon was drawing towards evening, when there was a knock on the door. Charles had sensed Gaby entering the hotel, but it was not until that worldly announcement of her presence that he truly felt it. His heart skipped.

‘Come in!’

The door opened and Gaby stepped in. His joy at seeing her was only dimmed by the worry on her face. It looked like she was trying to keep a happy countenance, but her smile was forced, and soon faded.

‘Gaby,’ Charles said, smiling at her. She tried to smile back, but then took to chewing chewed her lower lip instead.

‘Hi. I didn’t want to disturb you, but...’ Charles took her hand and guided her to the sofa.

‘You’re not disturbing me at all, my dear. I’m on holiday, remember? I have nothing to do.’ Gaby dipped her head, her eyes set on the floor. ‘Bad day?’ She nodded. ‘Any particular reason?’

‘Nothing but the usual, really,’ she said and bit her lip.

‘Which is...?’

‘The other girls,’ she explained. ‘They tend to...talk behind my back.’ Charles frowned.

‘Whyever so?’ Gaby shrugged.

‘Any reason they can find. That my clothes aren’t new enough and that I’m too thin and that I just want to read my books and have no mind to snare a husband. But today...’ She broke off and bit her lip. ‘It was different. One of them had seen me with Erik. I don’t know when, but... They started pestering me for details, and when I wouldn’t give them to them, the things they implied...’

‘Whatever they said, they were wrong,’ Charles said quickly and took her hand. She pressed his gratefully. ‘I know that’s cold comfort, but...’

‘Not when coming from you,’ she said, sounding sincere. ‘I know they’re wrong, but it doesn’t make any less hurtful. Usually I can brush it off, but... I’ve tried to make friends with them, but they don’t seem to want anything of it. I’ve been there for years, so it’s not about to happen, I suppose.’

‘Then it’s their loss,’ Charles said, even if he could not help thinking that it must be lonely if the people at the office treated her like that. Hoping to lighten the mood, he looked at his watch and said: ‘It’s half past five - should be late enough for a drink. We could have dinner later, if you’re up for it?’

‘I would be, yes.’ Charles felt her watch him as he wheeled over to the drinks cupboard. When he had poured them a tumbler of scotch each, Gaby rose from the sofa and took hers. Charles moved closer, moving his glass between his hands as he turned one wheel at a time. They did not speak any words, only raised the glasses in a toast. After they had tasted it, Gaby kicked her shoes off and curled up in the corner of the sofa.

‘Do you think it’s obvious?’ she asked, looking him in the eye. Charles frowned.

‘What?’

‘That there’s something wrong with me,’ she said. ‘Do you suppose that they can see it? Is that why they dislike me?’ Charles thought about it, not certain what would be the right reply. There was something about Gaby which betrayed something, not necessarily her mental state or her personal history, but something hinting on past hardships. On the other hand, he was not certain if he saw it because he expected it.

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid people are not very bright, most of the time.’

‘I suppose not.’ Gaby sipped her scotch again and relished the taste. ‘This is very good,’ she observed.

‘Erik gave it to me, just the other day,’ he explained. ‘He knows my taste in scotch quite well, it seems.’

‘You look much better than on last Sunday,’ Gaby said tentatively. Charles shrugged.

‘I feel much better, but that probably looked worse than it was,’ he assured her. ‘I’d been careless, simply - I forgot about my evening medication, and, well, the sleeping arrangements that night weren’t very comfortable.’ Gaby nodded a little, looking pensive.

‘But... would you want it to happen again?’ she asked. Charles smiled. Somehow, her anxiety over if it pleased him.

‘I’d love for it to happen again.’ She smiled back and leaned closer. They kissed, open-mouthed but still restrained. There was a familiarity to her kiss, which surprised him. It was certainly something he could grow used to. He enjoyed the touch of her lips, and the way she smiled when they drew apart, pausing to look at each other. As she settled back into the corner, she put one foot on the edge of the sofa. Charles took hold of it and pulled it towards him. She watched him in bemusement as he held it between his hands and inspected it. It was small and delicate, and he enjoyed how easily he could hold her heel in his hand. Gaby wriggled her toes at him, and he rubbed them playfully. That made her laugh into her scotch. He sipped his drink too and watched her. Her eyes shone, her mood quite opposite to what it had been a while ago.

For a long time, they simply sat like that, content in the silence. After a while, however, Gaby raised her foot and traced his lapel, and then said:

‘Tell me about Erik and you.’

Charles’ surprise was apparent, because the playfulness in her face disappeared, and she drew away her foot, as if afraid that she might have angered him. He looked away and bit his lip, searching for an appropriate answer.

‘There’s not really much to tell,’ he said finally.

‘It seems like there is far too much to tell,’ Gaby said knowingly, but without a smile. Charles sighed. He had not expected such clear-sightedness from her.

‘That’s true,’ he admitted. ‘I just... I find it difficult to talk about it.’ Gaby shifted and watched him questioningly.

‘Why?’ she wondered. When Charles shrugged, she added: ‘Are you ashamed of it?’ He laughed hollowly and looked away from her again.

‘I suppose I am,’ he said. ‘It’s something which comes about from hiding in plain sight, I suppose. Knowing that there are parts of oneself which would disgust the most tolerant person... it’s bound to take its toll in some way.’ It did not go only for sexual preferences, of course, but it was easy to pretend to her that it was all he was talking about.

He was surprised when Gaby put her hand over his. When he looked up, he was met by her eyes, watching him searchingly.

‘Are you still in love with him?’ Charles struggled to lie.

‘When one has cared for a person, part of that will always stay with you,’ he said, and then added, ‘I’m glad he’s still my friend.’

‘A friend you share a woman with,’ she reminded him.

‘Well, yes.’ That was not really the common definition of friendship. It had doubtlessly added a sexual component to their relationship again, even if it was not strictly between them. ‘I understand that Erik told you about this,’ he said instead of pressing the matter further.

‘He didn’t tell me much,’ she said. ‘Only that you’d been lovers, and that he felt guilty about something.’ Charles looked away. He sensed Gaby hesitating, but then gathering her courage. ‘Was he there, when the accident happened?’ Part of him wanted to tell her sharply not to ask and leave that topic alone, but he restrained himself, not wanting to snap at her.

‘Yes,’ he said shortly. ‘Yes, he was there.’

‘Was that how it ended between you...?’ Charles drew for breath sharply, momentarily losing his calm. Gaby drew away her hand, obviously realising that she had trespassed on something. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you. I just want to understand.’ She paused, and admitted: ‘I feel like I have a right to understand.’

‘With things being as they are...’ Charles said with a sigh and pushed his fringe out of his eyes. In principle, he agreed. It seemed only fair that Gaby should know in what she had been landed. In practice, it was far more difficult. He barely wanted to think about it - finding a way to speak about it felt too difficult. He wished suddenly that Erik was there, because he would have known how to curtly but not impolitely cut the conversation short. He had half a mind to make Gaby forget what they had been talking about, but of course he could not. When he looked up at her, she averted her eyes and tugged at her sleeves instead. He could see from her face that she was trying to find something else to ask.

‘What do you think is better?’ she asked finally. ‘For a man to love another man, or a woman to love two men?’ Charles could not help to be surprised at the question.

‘In what way? Morally? Legally? Medically?’ he asked. She shrugged. ‘Well, promiscuity is certainly frowned upon, but at least it’s legal.’ Gaby nodded thoughtfully.

‘And what does the medical profession think about it?’

‘Some might look for a psychiatric explanation - for example, an underdeveloped sense of morality, an overdeveloped sex-drive. As for homosexuality, it all depends on who you ask.’ That was a part of his medical studies Charles had never enjoyed. Finding the cause for his telepathy had been an adventure, but trawling through the countless potential explanations of his sexual orientation had been oppressive. ‘Some think that it is purely a biological state, caused by hormonal imbalances, but there is little to no evidence to support that theory. Most will put it down to psychological factors, the result of an overbearing mother, an attempt to find a surrogate for an absent father, or simply of some confusion between the genders.’

‘And you? What do you think?’ Gaby asked. He sensed that she had wanted to ask if any of the theories were right about him, but she decided against it. Explaining his own professional views on the subject was difficult enough. It took him a long time to gather his thoughts, and to figure out how to explain this without bringing up the issue of telepathy.

‘To me, homosexual tendencies have never seemed contrary to the character of the person in question,’ he said slowly. ‘It’s never seemed like a deviation from a healthy norm. I think it’s simply an alternative way of being.’ Gaby frowned.

‘Then how come you’re ashamed?’ Charles smiled to himself. She had indeed put her finger on the contradiction.

‘Shame isn’t a rational process,’ he said. ‘I can know that something is not wrong and yet feel it is.’

‘Do you feel it’s wrong?’ Gaby asked.

‘Don’t you?’ Charles answered.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, obviously uncomfortable with the question. ‘I haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about it before, but...’ She gathered her thoughts and explained: ‘I don’t believe on judging people just because it’s my first impulse.’

‘Wise,’ Charles conceded.

‘And it doesn’t put me off,’ she continued. ‘I got to know both of you before I knew this, and it doesn’t change anything.’ Charles nodded gratefully, but still thought that it would inevitably change something. He did not want this to come between them, especially not after his recent talk with Erik. Not knowing what else to say, he took her hand and said:

‘Let’s go find Erik.’ She squeezed his hand and smiled, but Charles had a feeling that she was simply letting the question drop out of courtesy to him. Still, all through dinner and their discussions, which were finally interrupted by smothering kisses, the topic seemed forgotten.

***

It surprised Charles how the extraordinary situation he had found himself in soon started feeling completely normal. They were finding a natural rhythm according to which to live their now intertwined lives, and new routines started forming. Charles took most of his meals together with Erik, and Gaby often joined them in the evenings. Once they came to her flat for dinner, but the cramped space made it difficult for Charles, and it was an ill-hidden secret that the glamour of the hotel attracted her.

As Charles had predicted, they still met in pairs as well. He himself took her to the theatre and Erik took her dancing. More often than not, however, the third party would join the pair eventually. Charles’ suite was their usual place of rendezvous, enough that after a week of having to sneak back to her apartment in last day’s clothes, Gaby left a few blouses, fresh stockings and underwear, as well as a hairbrush, in an unoccupied drawer. Charles did not quite know why this pleased him so much. A few times when he was on his own, he had opened the drawer and touched the fine fabric of her stockings, marvelling that a woman would be attached enough to him to leave such things in his room.

A side-effect of the newly achieved normality was that time seemed to go faster. The middle of March came with startling rapidity. The scene in Charles’ bedroom that morning felt almost domestic, if only for how often it occurred. Charles, still in pyjamas and dressing-gown, was considering what to do that day. Erik was pouring coffee into cups which room-service had, to all intents and purposes, accidentally left in the suite - Charles had felt that asking for three cups at this time of the morning would raise a few eyebrows, so he had planted an innocent suggestion into the maid’s mind. Gaby, in the meantime, was sitting in front of the mirror, only half-dressed, combing out her long hair. When Erik crossed with the coffee to her, she put down the brush and, smiling her thanks, took it.

‘Do you have a busy week ahead of you?’ she asked and sipped the drink. Erik snorted.

‘It does not seem that way.’

‘But surely your business doesn’t run itself?’

‘Business is a little slow at the moment,’ Erik said grimly, and cast a glance towards Charles, who raised his eyebrows. He had not heard anything about the Brotherhood’s progress with the Sentinel program for a long time, and here, it seemed, was the answer.

‘So that... new business opening you told me about...?’ Charles said slowly, giving him a significant look. Erik shrugged.

‘Inconclusive,’ he said, half under his breath.

‘Do you enjoy your work?’ Gaby asked, looking at Erik through the mirror.

‘It has its uses,’ he said, eyes meeting hers in the glass and then moving to her back, which was turned to him. Charles watched how Gaby pulled her hair over her shoulder to continue brushing it, and Erik reached out to touch the exposed neck. She closed her eyes momentarily, smiling. The contact did not last long, no more than a few seconds, before Erik stepped away again, but that touch had made Charles’ stomach clench oddly. Immediately he turned his mind to analyse it. Was he jealous? he wondered. To his annoyance, he found that he might be, although he was not certain towards whom it was directed. As Erik stepped away from the mirror, Charles wheeled himself closer and stopped just behind Gaby. She looked over her shoulder and smiled broadly at him. Charles smiled back and plucked the brush out of her hand. Gaby looked surprised for a moment and then laughed.

‘Just look straight ahead, and I’ll do it for you,’ he told her, moving her hair to her back again. Gaining control of her laughter, she obeyed, and Charles felt himself relax as he drew the brush through the hair. For a while, they were all silent. Then, Gaby spoke.

‘Erik?’

Erik, who, judging by the rustle of paper, was looking through the newspaper, gave a responding, ‘hm?’

‘Would you come to the synagogue with me on Saturday?’

Charles was sitting with his back to Erik, but he heard the unmistakable sound of a cup being knocked over onto its saucer. When he looked around, he saw that much of the coffee had spilt onto the newspaper, which Erik was trying to dry with a hastily found handkerchief. Turning back, Charles continued brushing Gaby’s hair. It seemed decent to distract her from their mutual friend’s shock. When he finally answered, his voice sounded a little too tense to pass for normal.

‘I don’t think so, Gaby.’

‘Why not?’ she asked in a tone as if she thought he was merely being boring.

‘I’m... very out of practice...’

‘All the more reason to go.’

‘No, I...’ Erik broke off, uncharacteristically lost for words. Charles decided to step in.

‘It’s only Tuesday,’ he pointed out. ‘If the service is on Saturday, that gives Erik plenty of time to make up his mind, doesn’t it?’

‘Oh, you’re right,’ Gaby said and shrugged. As she twisted her hair up into a bun, he handed her the hair-pins, and considered his own plans for the week.

‘I was thinking of visiting the Guggenheim today,’ he said. ‘I think they’re open rather late, well after you get off work. Fancy coming with me?’

Gaby took the hairpin he was offering her, but did not answer immediately.

‘No,’ she said at last, her voice oddly cold. Then she added, very quickly: ‘I don’t like art very much.’

Charles looked at her, perplexed. What did she mean she did not like art? He knew for a fact that that the opposite was true. He recalled how she had spoken of her parents and their paintings. She had smiled at the memory... But then Charles stopped himself, and realised that that was just it. The thought of art upset Gaby much as the thought of worship upset Erik. Art had been what her parents had lived for, and in a way, what they had died of. He considered arguing, telling her that the fact that her parents had been more interested in art than in the world around them did not mean that she should forswear herself the joy of beautiful paintings... But he knew that he would be wasting his breath, and probably upsetting Gaby too.

‘Alright,’ he said kindly. ‘Then come for dinner tomorrow, at least.’ Now she smiled at him.

‘That sounds good.’

Erik, who must have taken Charles’ intervention as an opportunity to fetch clean clothes from his own room, entered.

‘What have I missed?’

‘Not much,’ Charles said. ‘I was hoping to lure Gaby to go to the Guggenheim with me...’ But before he had time to finish the sentence, Erik said:

‘I’ll come with you, if you want company.’

Charles met his eyes, surprised but pleased.

‘If you want...’

‘I’d love to,’ Erik said, sounding sincere. ‘I’ve never been.’ Charles grinned.

‘You and me, then?’ Erik nodded. ‘Today?’

‘Yes.’

At that point, Gaby got up, stratching her head and frowning.

‘I had a spare blouse here somewhere...’ Erik looked around.

‘I saw it just a moment ago...’

Together, they started looking for the escaped blouse. Charles, who felt he would be little help, simply smiled at the two of them and crossed to the wardrobe, already trying to decide what was most appropriate to wear at an art gallery.

Chapter Text

Tuesday was spent in art-galleries. When Charles and Erik had done the Guggenheim, they decided to continue, and at the end of the day it felt as if there was not a painting in New York they had not seen, even if Charles knew they had just scratched the surface. Most of the time they had spent in companionable silence. When there had been an opinion Charles had wanted to communicate to him, he had reached out and touched his friend’s mind to tell him. Erik did not object, but instead seemed pleased by it. It was an intimate gesture Charles had not dared a few weeks ago.

The next day, Erik left the hotel early, and as Gaby had not stayed over, Charles had the day to himself. The past few years, he had grown used to solitude, but now he felt unaccustomed in the psychic silence. It was like trying on an old pair of favourite shoes and finding that they no longer fit the way one remembered. He attempted to read, but his mind wandered. It struck hm suddenly how seldom he thought about the school. It was as if he had all but forgotten Hank with his excited research projects, Sean and his endearing failures in the kitchen, Alex and his sparring and training. He even felt like he had forgotten about the children. He missed them, but his longing was muted, badly tuned. It was a different world, and in New York, which was part of the human world, it was difficult to imagine that the mutant school was real.

Would it be able to reconcile the two worlds? Before Charles had imagined that when he went back, it would mean cutting all connections to this little reality he and Erik and Gaby formed, but now, he allowed himself to play with the idea that it might not end with that. What if he could convince Erik to come with him, and merge their forces into one? What if he could bring Gaby with him? He imagined presenting her to his surprised students. This is Gabrielle Haller, my...

He paused in his fantasy, realising the word he had almost thought. Without warning, his imagination had jumped to the prospect of engagement. Charles did not think he had thought of it before this daydream where he called Gaby his fiancée, and it had never been mentioned. Of course it had not - they had known each other a matter of months, far too short time to think of such things yet. Time was not the only issue. Charles remembered Gaby’s objection, it’s not a problem, but he felt that she could not truly know. What woman would marry a cripple if she had some other alternative? Even if she said she was in love with him, even if she spent time with him, he was reluctant to accept that her words were the whole truth. Besides, in the eyes of Gaby’s aunt, he would certainly not be an ideal candidate, by virtue of his religion as well as his handicap. And people might object, not only on Gaby’s side...

Now he saw the scene he had imagined change, as the mutants stared and, turning to each other, whispered: human, human, human. He wanted to think that they would accept her, but he was not certain. He was not even certain if just bringing a human to the mansion was right. How would they react if he married one?

It felt absurd that he had let his daydreams go this far. The thought scared him, but it was evidently something he wanted on some level, considering that he had thought of it in the first place. All the same, if that was the case, it would have to stay as fantasies.

These thoughts had occupied Charles for most of the day, and towards the evening, the prospect of meeting Erik and Gaby for dinner felt welcome. Seeing them in the flesh should clear his head from this persistent chimera. It was less than half an hour before they were to meet when the phone rang. Putting the book, which he had been holding but not reading, aside, he crossed to answer.

‘Xavier.’ On the other end of the line, he could hear the murmur of voices, and then, Gaby’s hurried half-whisper:

‘Charles, it’s me. I’m so sorry, there’s a meeting - they need me to take the minutes for it...’

‘Oh,’ Charles said, a little surprised. ‘Will you be late...?’

‘I think I’ll be here all evening,’ she answered and sighed. ‘I’m sorry...’

‘Don’t be, my dear,’ Charles said. ‘We’ll miss you, of course, but don’t feel bad about it.’

‘They said I could have the morning off tomorrow,’ Gaby said, sounding a litlte happier. ‘I won’t have to come in until eleven.’

‘I’ll give you a call tomorrow, then.’

‘Wonderful. Give Erik my love.’

‘Naturally,’ Charles said. ‘Take care.’ With a final, ‘you too,’ Gaby rang off. Charles put the receiver down, trying to rid himself of the mild disappointment he was feeling. He would see her in the morning, and perhaps an evening in Erik’s company would clear his mind equally.

When Charles entered the hotel restaurant a little while later, it was obvious that Erik felt Gaby’s absence keenly. When he saw him, he stood up and gave him an inquiring look.

‘Gaby isn’t here yet,’ he said.

‘She’s not coming,’ Charles said and made an apologetic face. ‘She called - they’re keeping her at the office. Apparently they wanted her to take the minutes for some meeting.’ Erik sighed. ‘It can’t be helped,’ Charles added and shook out his napkin.

‘Of course not,’ Erik said with a shrug. ‘She has a decent job, which is more than we have.’ Charles looked up at him and raised an eyebrow.

‘Perhaps you should consider becoming a teacher,’ he suggested. He had not known how Erik would react to that, even when said as a joke, but his solemn face split into a sharkish grin.

‘You can try to persuade me all you want, Charles,’ he said. ‘You know it’s not going to work.’

‘I think you’d be a splendid teacher,’ Charles said and stopped to think. ‘Well, after a bit of training.’

‘You seem to have this idea that I am uncultured,’ Erik said teasingly. ‘It is the lack of a family fortune or of education which gives you that idea?’

‘I suspect it’s down to the terrorism, really,’ Charles answered, mock-serious. As Erik grinned at him, he reflected how odd it was that they could joke about such things. He supposed that it was their way of keeping their conflict at bay.

They ordered wine, and did not speak until it arrived. When they first met again, silence had been something Charles had feared, and it had always felt very awkward. Now, it felt comfortable. When Erik caught his eye as the waiter poured their wine, he returned the gaze and smiled. Leaving the bottle behind, the waiter disappeared. They tasted the wine together.

‘Not bad,’ Charles said. Erik nodded, holding the glass up to the light, but he was not really looking at it. It was only a gesture which stalled for time. He put the glass down and said:

‘I’ve decided to go to the synagogue with Gaby.’ He did not look at Charles when he said it, and it sounded rushed, as if he needed to say it before he changed his mind.

‘That’s wonderful,’ Charles said and smiled.

‘I hope so,’ Erik said, his face unreadable. ‘I haven’t worshipped for so long. My family was devout, so I have always thought that it would be a painful reminder, but... if she can do it, why can’t I?’

‘It’ll probably do you good. Religion can work as a healing force.’ Erik shrugged, obviously not knowing what to say. Charles watched him for a while, and then asked: ‘For whose sake are you going?’ Erik looked at him and frowned.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Are you going for God’s sake, or for Gaby’s sake?’ Charles clarified. Erik thought about it.

‘I suppose I’ll find out once I get there,’ he said finally.

‘Whatever the reason, I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ Charles said and casually touched his arm. By the look on Erik’s face, it surprised him. It surprised Charles himself. He had not planned to do it, but it had come naturally. He smiled apologetically and drew away, busying himself with the menu. He was aware of Erik watching him, but he did not press him. Now the silence was more charged, and Charles knew that he only had himself to blame.

This time, it was Erik who spoke first.

‘Charles, can I ask something?’

Charles’ stomach flipped, but he made himself sound unaffected.

‘Of course.’ When Erik did not ask immediately, he turned to him, and saw how he had leaned closer, watching him. His gaze prompted Erik to speak.

‘Does Gaby prefer one of us over the other?’ Charles gave him an incredulous stare.

‘Erik, how can you ask such a thing?’

‘Because I suppose you know it,’ Erik said calmly.

‘I would never...’ At that, he snorted.

‘You must have read her mind, Charles,’ he said. ‘You must have been curious.’

‘Curiosity isn’t an excuse for unethical use of such a power,’ Charles said sharply. Erik smirked.

‘Is that what you tell your children?’ he asked, leaning a little closer. His voice had become an intense whisper, and his tone sounded almost seductive. ‘Is that what you tell your X-Men? Do you lie to make them feel safe - do you think they would not trust you if they knew that you could kill them with a thought? Aren’t you ever tempted to seize the world and shape it? You could have your mutant-human peace. All you’d have to do would be to think. You can do what others only dream of.’

Charles looked at him, tightlipped.

‘If you have thought of that, you should have realised why I am careful with using my powers,’ he answered finally. Erik shifted closer still.

‘How come other rules apply to you?’ he asked. ‘You tell others to embrace their powers, to rejoice in them, while you keep yours locked away. I don’t see why you are so reluctant.’ Charles let out a breath slowly.

‘This is why we fight on different sides, my friend.’ Erik leaned back in his chair. The sadness Charles felt seemed not to be shared by him.

‘Have you really never been tempted?’ he pressed. Charles shook his head.

‘If I so much as think about it, I would forfeit the right to use those powers.’ He wished that it was that easy, but Erik was right. Of course he had thought about it, and only over the last few weeks, he had started bending his rules by eavesdropping on Erik and Gaby. He had to make sure that that was as far as the abuse of his powers went. Taking away Moira’s memories had at least served a purpose. This was at best curiosity, at worst jealousy.

Erik snorted at his reply, as if he knew. Then he reminded him:

‘We were talking about Gaby.’ Charles threw him an annoyed look.

‘Things might have... bled through,’ he said. Consciously or not, Erik had effectively tricked him into answering. ‘It’s not really as simple as preferring one or the other. She values different things about us.’ Erik made a gesture to make him continue. Charles braided his fingers together and spoke. ‘She feels an affinity to you. There is something familiar about you, with the fact that you’re both Jewish, and I suppose, also a comfort in... well, shared experiences. But she finds there’s a sense of adventure about you that she cherishes. She’s intrigued by the things she does not know. She imagines that the life you have lived is fuller than her own.’

‘And what about you?’ Erik asked. ‘What does she value in you?’ That was harder to speak of. It felt strange to explain something that pertained to oneself like that.

‘Well... I make her feel safe. She thinks of me as her first friend for a very long time. She enjoys our conversations. Where you finds you exciting, she finds me tender. She feels that I know her properly, which I suppose I do, even if she does not know why, of course.’ He went silent. Erik raised his eyebrows.

‘And...?’

‘And nothing,’ Charles answered. Erik grinned.

‘You’re leaving something out,’ he said. Charles sighed, both impressed and annoyed with his friend’s astuteness.

‘It’s the wheelchair,’ he explained.

‘She pities you, you mean?’ he asked, but Charles shook his head.

‘No, it’s not pity. It’s fascination. I can’t quite explain it...’ He gathered his thoughts, and then said: ‘It makes her feel strong. She feels that perhaps she’s not so broken after all.’ Erik watched him, an strange look in his eye.

‘How ironic,’ he finally said, ‘that you would be the most broken of the three of us.’ Charles looked away, uncomfortable with the subject. He wanted to say, that’s not the way it works, but he did not want to start discussing that. It would either provoke or upset Erik, and he wanted neither of those things. Also, he realised that he did not want to talk more about Gaby. After a day of considering ways things could go wrong between them, he wanted some respite.

‘Let’s talk about something else,’ he said, and Erik smiled knowingly. It looked almost like it pleased him that he had disturbed him.

‘Tell me about your school.’ Charles straightened up, startled. Even if Erik’s face barely changed, he could see the disappointment in his eyes. ‘I’m not asking because of any ulterior motive,’ he said. ‘I’d simply like to learn what you have done when we’ve been apart.’

‘I-I’m sorry,’ Charles stammered. ‘I didn’t mean...’ Erik cut him off.

‘You thought that I was asking because I wanted to use it in some plan,’ he said, his disappointment evident now. ‘You do not trust me.’

‘I do,’ Charles said earnestly. ‘It’s just... those children are under my protection. If anything happened to them...’ Erik turned his eyes on him fiercely.

‘They’re mutant children,’ Erik reminded him. ‘They are the ones I am fighting for.’ Charles nodded, but looked away, ashamed by his lapse of faith. He felt Erik draw his fingers over his hand briefly. When he looked up, his gaze was sincere. ‘Let me know who I am fighting for,’ he said. Charles swallowed. The idea that Erik protected them as much as he did touched him deeply.

‘There are six students now,’ he said quietly. Even if the restaurant was not busy, he was careful that no-one should hear them. ‘There’s Scott, who’s Alex’s little brother.’ Erik raised an impressed eyebrow. ‘His power is quite... destructive.’

‘That runs in the family,’ Erik chuckled. Charles smiled too, realising how anxious he was for Erik’s approval. ‘What can he do?’

‘We call it an optic blast,’ Charles explained. ‘He emits powerful energy beams from his eyes. I designed a visor to keep it under control - before that, he would destroy anything he looked at.’

‘He can’t control it?’ Erik asked, frowning in compassion. Charles shook his head morosely.

‘No. He suffered head trauma in the plane crash that killed his parents - I think it might be connected to that.’ He paused and continued his description. ‘Then there’s Jean. She’s psychic, but her primary power is telekinesis. She’s a very clever girl, and quite talented with her powers too.’

‘Teacher’s pet?’ Erik said and raised an eyebrow. Charles laughed.

‘Perhaps a little,’ he admitted. ‘If you met her, you’d understand - she’s lovely. She and Scott are the eldest. Rahne’s youngest - she’s only nine. The most apt way of describing her, I suppose, is a werewolf. Well, without the business with the moon phases. She can transform into a wolf.’

‘Impressive.’

‘She’s a very shy girl - she had a quite strict upbringing back in Scotland, but she’s making friends,’ Charles said. ‘She and the twins are very close.’

‘Mutant twins?’ Erik said, looking intrigued. ‘Identical?’ Charles shook his head.

‘No - a boy and a girl. Wanda and Pietro. Pietro is able to move incredibly fast, much faster than any ordinary human. Wanda can affect probabilities. Essentially, she can change, well, reality. She’s still insisting to say that it’s really magic, so she and Rahne bond over considering themselves supernaturals.’

‘The werewolf and the witch?’

‘Exactly,’ Charles said, smiling at the thought of the children. ‘They’re not that much older than Rahne, and they’ve had a harder time adjusting. We found them in a Romanian orphanage. I dread to think what might have happened to them if they had stayed there. They picked up English in a matter of weeks, though. Absolutely remarkable - they sound native now. Ororo’s the same.’

‘I suppose she’s the sixth pupil,’ Erik said, and Charles nodded. ‘Where did you find her?’

‘In Cairo. She can control the weather. When there was a snow-storm in mid-June there, it was quite easy to realise that something was happening.’ Erik smiled with him. Charles was not used to seeing such warmth in his eyes.

‘You sound very fond of them all,’ Erik said finally.

‘I am,’ Charles said. ‘It’s hard not to be.’ He had come to think of his students as his own children, especially as he would probably not have any of his own. The possiblity of that had certainly grown in the past weeks. That thought sent a brief jab of panic through him. He had not considered that before. Even if they had taken precautions, there was always a risk involved. It would be more probable that Erik would have a child by her, but it was in no way impossible that Charles might. He shook himself mentally to dismiss the thought. It was purely hypothetical, after all - there was no need to get worked up about it.

They left the topic of the school, and instead discussed their museum visit the previous day. They spent the rest of the dinner discussing modern art, and Charles ended up defending cubism, which he was not particularly fond of, but he turned out to be more more so than Erik, who thought that abstract art was pointless. The restaurant was completely empty and the waiters were throwing them annoyed looks when they decided to agree to disagree, and Erik rose, hesitating.

‘A game of chess, perhaps?’ he suggested.

‘I was going to suggest just that,’ Charles said and unlocked his wheels. ‘Come on, my suite’s closest.’ He wheeled himself first, and Erik followed. In silence, they set up the chess pieces and settled down to play. On occasion they would look at each other and smile, sharing in each other’s contentment. It still seemed strange to Charles that however much he and Erik disagreed on things, he was still so comfortable around him. Erik must have been thinking something similar, because after half an hour of playing, he cleared his throat and said:

‘I’m glad that you trust me enough to tell me the things you did tonight.’

‘Well, if it turns out I was wrong to trust you, I could always make you forget,’ Charles said lightly, as if to imply that the confidence was not special. Erik did not seemed fooled by it, though, because there was nothing ironic in his smile.

‘I promise you, you will have no need to doubt me. We may not fight together, but we want the same thing.’ Charles did not argue. Tonight he wanted to believe it.

He considered his next move, and decided to move his bishop. He reached to take hold of the piece, but half-way to the board, Erik’s hand reached out and covered his. Charles stared as he turned his hand palm-up and traced a line from finger to heel, over his palm. He looked up and was met by the question in his eyes. Perhaps there had been an intentional ambiguity in what he had said about wanting the same thing. It could have been about their dream of a safe world for mutants, or about something more attainable in the present. Charles’ throat had gone very dry. Erik raised an eyebrow, prompting him. He closed his hand around his fingers.

‘Yes,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll come to bed with you.’

Erik’s relief was so palpable that for a moment Charles half-expected to see tears in his eyes, but instead, Erik stood up and leaned over the table, a hand on his armrest. Their lips brushed against each other first and then met for a real kiss. It sparked an old flame inside them, and set Charles’ heart beating faster. His free hand stroked Erik’s hair and caressed his cheek. Erik hummed against his mouth and drew his hand down his chest. They separated, picking the places of contact apart one by one. Not taking his eyes off Erik, Charles unlocked the wheels and turned around. He looked up at him and, finding his hand, brought it to his lips.

‘Come on,’ he said softly and wheeled himself towards the bedroom. Erik followed him with long strides. Once there, they were pulled together again. Mouth pressed against mouth. Hands moved, reforming touch memories as they went. Charles wondered if they had ever felt as tender as now. He could not remember. There was so much he had forgotten - the shape of Erik’s chest, the bristly hairs on the back of his neck, the strength of his hands. He cradled Charles’ head as he sucked at his throat, making him whimper his name.

‘Let... let me move,’ he whispered. Erik drew back, a little disappointed, but his breathing came quickly and his eyes glowed. He watched Charles pulling himself onto the bed and then followed him. He covered his body with his own and kissed him so deeply it verged on painful. Charles’ shirt was already unbuttoned, and it was little work to push it off and pull the vest over his head. In the process, Erik pulled his shirt over his head, and then lay down again, chest to chest. They heaved against each other, the contact arousing in itself. Charles kissed down his neck, as Erik pushed his hips forward and ground against his body. He fought down an apology at his own impotence, realising that Erik might take it as an attempt to make him feel guilty. Instead he kissed him and traced his hands down his sides. He recognised the texture of his skin, but when he reached the lowest ribs, he felt something he did not remember. Erik, noticing his hesitation, broke the kiss and looked at him.

‘Hm?’

‘This is new,’ Charles explained and drew a finger over the unfamiliar scar. It was a few inches long, and did not seem very old.

‘The Metrochem factory, last year,’ he explained. ‘You must remember it.’

‘Yes,’ Charles said. ‘I sent the boys there. They said you withdrew very quickly. You didn’t have time to sabotage much.’ Erik nodded.

‘I was holding your students at bay, when a security guard behind me fired at me.’

‘But this isn’t a gun-wound,’ Charles said.

‘No, it’s not. I deflected it easily, but it took my attention off my front. Havok brought down some scaffolding, hence that.’

‘I didn’t know they wounded you,’ Charles said earnestly. ‘I asked them not to harm anyone, especially... not even you.’ Erik smiled a little at his lapse, and the way he could not decide whether to view him as enemy or lover.

‘It wasn’t deep,’ he said, ‘and it’s healed. Now...’ He traced his lips with a finger. ‘Are you going to continue talking?’ Charles pushed his hand away and kissed him. Then Erik moved downwards, kissing his way down his chest, and unbuttoned his trousers.

‘Erik...’

‘I want to see you,’ he explained. ‘All of you.’ He undressed him slowly. For a second, Charles thought that he should say no and announce that this was a bad idea, but it was too late, far too late. More than anything, it was too late because he could no longer pretend, to himself or to Erik, that he did not want this. Once Erik had stripped him, he pulled down the covers and spread them over him. Together, they struggled Erik out of his trousers. Erik moved to lie down, but Charles pushed him towards the bed-board. He had evidently expected to lead, but now he let himself be led. His eyes were wide-open as Charles pushed himself up on his elbows and settled between his legs. When he took him into his mouth, his eyes slid shut, and his gasps were close to shouts. That familiar hand settled on his neck, prompting him to meet his thrusts. Charles pushed down as much as was possible and enclosed him in his lips. He had not realised until now how much he had craved all of this. The world shrunk until all there was was their shared arousal and the points of contact. They lost themselves in it. Erik’s climax felt not like the end of an act, but simply a part of it. Charles pushed himself away to give him room, and Erik, bleary-eyed with the sensations, moved downwards and started touching him in earnest with hands and lips. He did not ask for instructions - perhaps he had figured out what would be best or, more likely, he had watched Gaby. Had he known that this was how they would end up? Charles wondered as Erik took his earlobe into his mouth. It was only a feverish reflection, and he felt like he did not care whether Erik had anticipated or planned it at all. He simply enclosed him in his arms as he circled his nipple with his tongue, prompting him to continue. The arousal peaked, making him gasp briefly, and started receding. He kept his hold around Erik, cradling his head against his chest. When he let his grip slacken, Erik pulled himself so that they were face to face. They looked at each other for a long time, not knowing whether to speak or kiss.

‘I love you.’ When the words escaped him, they felt as obvious as his own breath. Not in love with, as with Gaby, but love. Erik touched his cheek. His lips moved soundlessly at first, before he managed to compose himself.

‘I love you, Charles,’ he said. Charles smiled. He felt the strain in his face of oncoming tears, and afraid that they might erupt, he wrapped his arms around Erik and pulled him close. He returned the embrace and pressed him close.

‘What changed your mind?’ Erik murmured into his hair.

‘I just couldn’t stand it any longer - pretending I didn’t want to,’ he answered. ‘After years of trying to deny it...’

‘Years?’

‘Yes. I was so angry, but I couldn’t help hoping...’ Charles chuckled and shifted to look at him. ‘I kept imagining that one day, you’d turn up. Sometimes I almost thought I saw you crossing the grounds towards the house, to join us...’ Erik snorted.

‘Dreamer.’

‘Yes,’ Charles said sincerely. ‘You’re right. But that dream did come true, after a fashion.’

‘I’m not joining your X-Men,’ Erik told him.

‘Well, that bit was only half of it,’ Charles said. It was an important part, but rationally, he knew that it could never be. At least this could. He touched Erik’s cheek, and he mirrored him.

‘I just hope you were wrong.’

Charles frowned.

‘What do you mean?’

Erik’s hand fell from his face.

‘About your objections,’ he explained. ‘That it might complicate things with Gaby...’

‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Charles murmured and put his head against his shoulder. He had spent too much time agonising about consequences today. His relationship with Gaby felt complicated, whereas this seemed easy. He knew how to deal with strained mutant-human relations and opposing ideologies. He did not know what to do about the pressure of society and the risk of pregnancy. Prejudice and legislation aside, homosexuality was much easier.

Erik’s face remained in its slight frown. Charles’ attempt to wave it away seemed to have gone unnoticed.

‘I think it’s a valid concern,’ he pointed out. ‘Why wouldn’t you want to talk about it?’ Charles groaned in exasperation.

‘Please, Erik,’ he said. ‘We were having a lovely time...’

‘Don’t you care for her?’ His tone had sharpened, but it was not yet unkind.

‘Of course I care for her,’ Charles said and drew away from the embrace to push himself up against the bed board. ‘It’s just that being with her... it’s messy sometimes. Complicated. With you...’ He reached out to touch him, but Erik flinched away. His eyes were fixed on him, as if what he saw was incomprehensible, alien even.

‘I don’t understand you,’ Erik said. ‘You safeguard her interests so long, and then you give in. You want to end it with her, and then you go to bed with her and me. Then you won’t kiss me, because it might somehow hurt Gaby, and suddenly here you are, in bed with me, not even wanting to talk about her.’ Charles pressed his lips together defiantly, uncomfortable with having it spelt out like this. Erik looked at him and then proclaimed: ‘You’re a hypocrite, Charles.’

‘And you’re not?’ he blurted. ‘You keep talking about human oppression, but with Gaby, it’s none of that. She’s a person, but none of the others are.’ Erik guffawed in astonishment.

‘Not only are you a hypocrite, you’re petty too,’ he said. ‘Why does that bother you so much? Do I not fulfill your villainous ideal? Are you jealous? Of whom?’ Throughout his questions, Charles shook his head. He did not know why they were suddenly arguing. All he wanted was for Erik to curl around him and hold him, but the tenderness on his face was gone. Instead there was only anger and disappointment.

‘Please, Erik,’ he whispered, about to ask him to stop, but he did not heed him.

‘Why do you want me to hate her?’ Because it would make everything easier. Because I feel left out. Because I’m afraid that you’ll leave me, both of you.

‘I don’t want you to hate her,’ he exclaimed. ‘I’m just afraid you’ll suddenly start hating her!’

‘Why would I?’ Erik asked.

‘Why do we have to talk about this now, of all times?’ Charles cried. ‘When we finally... finally...’ He broke off, his throat tight. Erik was shook his head, still staring at him.

‘You said there must be no twos, but you’re making them,’ he said. ‘Why did you force it into this? Why did you go after her in the first place?’ Charles tried to think of a good answer, and realised that the true one was very simple.

‘Because I was lonely.’

‘But I was there,’ Erik shouted. In the dim light, the tears glistened on his cheeks. The anger was gone. The sorrow remained. ‘I reached out to you, and you rejected me, and then Gaby turned up, and you went after her instead.... Why?’

Charles knew the answer well. She was a woman. She bore no guilt as Erik did. She was at once strange and familiar, in her beauty and her tragedy.

‘When did you settle on her?’ Erik asked and looked away. Charles started protesting, but he shook his head and repeated: ‘When? There must have been something that made up your mind.’

He thought back to that evening at the fish restaurant, and realised that there was one distinct turning-point. Charles closed his eyes, not wanting to look at him.

‘Yes. There was.’

‘When was it?’ Erik pressed. ‘When she collapsed?’

‘No,’ he said and opened his eyes, but he could not bear turning his gaze on him. ‘It was after that, when you left to get her a glass of water. I took off her glove to feel her pulse.’ Erik’s mouth thinned in realisation.

‘Her glove,’ he said. ‘Her left glove.’

‘Yes,’ Charles whispered. He wanted to flee from his gaze, feeling suddenly afraid. He knew that Erik would not lash out at him, but he almost wished he would. If he struck him, at least he could fight back. There was no way of evading the thoughts and emotions which were crashing against him. First came shock, then surprise, then the cold burn of something close to betrayal.

‘Is that what this is about?’ Erik whispered, wide-eyed. ‘The ways she and I are alike?’

‘It’s so much more than that,’ Charles objected, but he was not listening. Instead, he curled his left hand into a fist and held out his arm, presenting him with the numbers tattooed on it.

‘Is this all I am to you?’ he asked. ‘Is this all we are?’

‘No,’ Charles exclaimed, not even trying to brush his tears aside now. ‘No, it’s not...’

But what if he was right? What if he was in love not with the young woman with her passion for Brecht and knowledge of international law, but for the mad girl, with paper-thin skin and shallow bones? What if he loved her for her pain, and for the fact that it was so much like Erik’s? What if he was not in love with her, but through her?

Had it not been for that tattoo on her arm, he would not have paid attention to her like he had. He would have helped her and calmed her and sent her home in a cab, of cousre, but he did not think he would have asked to see her again, and he would not have been given the time to fall for her. It had taken that small thing to mark her out and make him truly pay attention to her. But surely there must have been more, and Erik must be wrong that it was the only thing he saw in her and in him... Charles hoped so.

Erik did not seem to believe his dissent, but turned away and threw away the covers.

‘Erik, don’t go,’ Charles said. Erik did not answer, but simply climbed off the bed and found his clothes.

‘I never thought I would say this to a mutant, Charles, but your power is your ruin,’ Erik said, speaking very fast as he dressed, half turned away from him. ‘It’s not just what it does to others - it’s what it does to you. Seeing into people’s souls hasn’t made you more than human. It’s made you inhuman.’

‘How can you say such a thing?’ Charles whispered. On top of everything, this seemed more than cruel.

‘It’s true,’ Erik said curtly and shrugged on his shirt.

‘For goodness’ sake, Erik, how can you say such a thing...?’

‘I’m not interested in your excuses,’ Erik aid, pushing on his shoes. Charles could not see his face, but he thought he was crying again. ‘You make it out like you care so much, but you’re cold, right through.’ Then, he collected the rest of his clothes and walked away.

‘Erik, please!’ Charles called, but he was already gone. From the other room, he heard the door slam shut. He waited, holding his breath. Perhaps he would come back... But the silence remained, without any footsteps to interrupt it. He sensed Erik’s mind moving further away. Every word he had spoken spun around in Charles’ head, and as if it would blot them out, he pushed at his temples in despair. He must be wrong, he thought. Oh God, he must be wrong... It angered him that Erik had said such things, but perhaps worse, it worried him that he could not confidently dismiss them. And so he instead thought, I hope he’s wrong, even as he wished that Erik was still there with his arms around him.

Chapter Text

The first thought Charles had when he woke was of the things Erik had said to him last night. The pain followed shortly after. Even the memory of his words filled him with spiritual agony, which made him want to sob and hide his face in his hands. He recalled every accusation and every insult - that he was a hypocrite, that he wanted Erik to hate Gaby, that he was in love with her for all the wrong reasons, that he did not truly feel anything... It would have been bad enough to just hear those things, but the timing had made it all worse. He had been so happy, which had probably been part of the reason they had started fighting.

It hurt too much to linger on, and getting out of bed seemed like the best way of distracting himself. Charles washed and dressed and called for breakfast with all the commitment of an automaton. When the breakfast arrived, he realised that he had no appetite. Still he knew that he had to eat something, so he sipped his tea and nibbled on some toast. His throat felt tight, and more than once he had to pause to compose himself. He would not let himself weep over this. He had done that enough yesterday night. By the time he had fallen asleep, he had been raw with crying. It was the kind of display of emotion he might allow himself in the dead of night, but not now, even if he was alone. It would still be humiliating to give in.

How silly, he thought, that this had started simply because he had tried to push away his worries. But perhaps it had been inevitable. Maybe the dam was bound to break as soon as he gave into the temptation of sleeping with Erik. That thought made him feel suddenly indignant. Why should he not have given into the temptation? Why must their love be this infected, twisted thing that reared against them? Why could Erik not be right about that at least? That made him think about the worst part. When Erik had said the things he had, he had been angry, but that was not the worse of it. It was the disappointment, the sense of betrayal, the sorrow for the things Charles did which he should not do, that hurt especially. Erik had expected better from him, and he had failed him.

Charles put down his teacup with a clatter and tried to steady himself with deep breaths. He was being ridiculous. If he did not get a grip, he might have to take one of those calming pills Hank had given him a while back when his nerves had been in a bad state. Charles disliked them, because they made him feel unfocused, and his telepathy became more difficult to control, but perhaps he was getting to the stage where he needed them. But no, he was not going to let Erik get the better of him. It was half past nine, and he had said he would call Gaby in the morning. He would prove Erik wrong. He longed for her, even if he had no idea what he would say, and he would not want to admit to being this upset. That gave him a reason to calm down a little. After a few more deep breaths and another sip of tea, the prospect of speaking on the phone did not feel at all daunting. With a new sense of purpose, he left his breakfast half-finished and wheeled himself over to telephone.

Having dialled her number, Charles listened to the signals in the receiver, and imagined the phone in Gaby’s flat ringing. He pictured her curled up in an armchair with a book. When she heard the phone ring, she would scramble up to get it. She would know it was him, and that would make her smile when she picked it up. She’ll pick it up now, very soon, he thought. After the next signal. Or the next... But the signals continued. The phone must be ringing in an empty house.

Charles put the receiver down and looked at it, uncertain. Perhaps Gaby had been called into the office, even if they had said she would have the morning off. Perhaps she had gone for a walk, or to the library. Perhaps she was still asleep. There was so many explanation to why she did not pick up which were completely harmless, but, true to his agitated mood, the alarming reasons presented themselves to Charles first. He stayed by the telephone, as if staring at it would make her call. Finally he picked up the receiver and dialed her number again. The signals came, but no answer. He felt a rising sense of dread, and reminded himself to keep composed. No, he needed someone to tell him he was being silly. He knew it verged on masochism, but Erik’s disappointment would be welcome now. Besides, this was not about them at all, only about Gaby.

The lift-boy watched him curiously on the way up, but did not talk to him, which he was grateful for. When Charles knocked on Erik’s door, he felt his mind on the other side of the door. As clearly as if he had had his hand on Erik’s chest, he sensed his heart jump with excitement, interrupted by the memory of last night. His footsteps were hesitant, but they crossed to the door, which then opened. Erik’s face was wary as he looked down at him.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked dully, as if simply seeing him hurt. Charles found himself momentarily speechless, forgetting what he had come for. He wanted to rage against him and beat his fists against his chest, but he also wanted to embrace him and not let go. Then he shook himself.

‘It’s Gaby,’ he said quickly. ‘She’s not answering her phone.’

‘It’s a Thursday,’ Erik said. ‘She’s in the office.’ He made to close the door, but Charles held out his hand.

‘Erik!’ It would have been easy for him to ignore him and retreat, but instead he hesitated. Now that he had his attention, Charles explained: ‘She’s not working this morning. She told me when I talked to her yesterday. I said I’d call.’ Erik hesitated in the doorway, not seeming certain whether to acknowledge his worry or wave it away.

‘She might have gone out.’

‘Yes, but...’ he trailed off. ‘I just have a bad feeling.’

‘You’re a telepath, not a precog, Charles,’ Erik said with a sigh, but there was a certain amount of fondness in his voice.

‘I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just...’ Erik’s shoulder slumped, giving in.

‘Fine. We’ll go see her,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a surprise visit.’

It took them a few minutes to collect their outdoor things, but soon, Erik hailed a cab and helped Charles into the backseat. The taxi driver was watching the wheelchair suspiciously.

‘That thing won’t fit in the trunk,’ he said.

‘It’ll fit fine,’ Erik replied gruffly as he collapsed the chair.

‘Too much hassle, mister. Not worth the time. Why don’t you just walk?’ Already tired of this, Charles gave him a mental nudge, and instead of hovering over Erik, the driver stepped into the car and waited meekly until Erik had stored the wheelchair away safely and gotten in himself. As they drove down the street, Erik cleared his throat and said, his reluctance obvious:

‘Thank you.’

‘I couldn’t let you deal with the problems I cause,’ Charles said.

‘I could have handled it.’ They sat in awkward silence for a while, then Erik said: ‘Look, Charles...’ He raised a hand, silencing him.

‘Please, let’s not talk about it.’

‘How can we not talk about it?’ Erik challenged him.

‘Can we do it somewhere else? Sometime else?’ His voice came close to breaking. In a whisper, he said: ‘Some of the things you said were very hurtful.’ Erik looked straight at him. Charles could not tell whether what he saw in his eyes was regret or defiance. Then he turned away.

‘Let’s talk about it later,’ he muttered and looked out of the window instead. They were just rounding the block by then, close enough for Charles to pick out the individual minds in the building. One was particularly familiar.

‘She’s there,’ he said under his breath. He saw Erik’s mouth thinning, but it was the only concession to his worry.

Soon the taxi stopped outside the front door. As Erik paid the driver and got out the wheelchair, Charles sat in the back seat, his fingers to his temple as he tried to concentrate.

‘Well?’ Erik asked when Charles pulled himself into the chair. He must have noticed his frown, because then he added: ‘Do you have anything?’

‘It’s strange, I can’t seem to reach her,’ Charles said. Erik frowned back.

‘What do you mean? Is something blocking you? What could block you?’

‘I’m not being blocked,’ Charles said as Erik pushed him into the house. ‘It’s not like when another telepath puts up barriers, it’s more as if... she’s further away than she really is.’ He concentrated again, pushing at Gaby’s mind. It would not wield. ‘I think we should hurry.’ Erik quickened his step, and even before they had reached the door, announced:

‘The door’s still locked.’

‘Let’s knock.’ Erik rapped his fist against it and waited.

‘Gaby?’ he called. ‘It’s us, Gaby.’ Charles could sense no acknowledgement that she heard them. The only thing that changed was that he suddenly felt quite cold. He supposed it was nerves.

‘Unlock it,’ he told him.

Erik did not argue, but turned his hand, and the lock drew back with a click. He stepped in first, calling, ‘Gaby?’ Charles followed. The sensation of terror was so sudden that it felt almost like a punch to the stomach, making him double up and call out in pain. Erik swirled around, his eyes growing in alarm. Forgetting why they were there and why he was angry at him, he grabbed his shoulders urgently. ‘Charles?’

‘It’s Gaby,’ Charles gasped. He was shivering, even if the room was warm. ‘The bathroom!’ Erik bounded through the hall and pulled at the locked door. Arduously, Charles straightened up and wheeled himself forward into the narrow hall, as Erik unlocked the door and threw it open.

Charles could not see her, and it was not until Erik ran in and swore that he realised where she was. From the hall, he watched how Erik plunged his arms into the bathtub and pulled out a soaked figure. The water ran off her body as he lifted her up. There’s no blood, Charles thought, his throat still tight with fear. Thank God, there’s no blood. The gratitude only lasted for a second. The body Erik had pulled from the bath was not blood-stained, but it was so pale it might as well have been bled. As Erik knelt and lowered her down onto the floor, he saw that her limp fingers were almost blue.

‘Erik, be careful with her,’ he whispered, even if he knew that Erik did not need telling. Taking care not to shake her, he leaned close to her face to feel for her breath and pressed his fingers against her throat. When he looked up at Charles, relief was written on his face. His nod acknowledged what Charles already knew. He nodded back, feeling choked.

‘I can’t read her,’ he murmured. ‘I can feel her mind, but I can’t get in... I don’t know what that means...’

‘What do we do?’ Erik asked urgently as he cradled her in his arms.

‘Take off that nightgown, towel her off, get her into bed,’ Charles said quickly. Erik pulled off the nightgown, made transparent by the water, towelled her dry as best he could and then took off his jacket to wrap her in before he picked her up. Charles led the way into the bedroom. The bed was unmade, and a book lay on it, a pencil between the pages. Charles put it aside and moved back a little to give Erik space to put her down. Then he stepped aside again and let Charles roll closer again.

‘Check for more blankets,’ he told him and pulled the covers over her. He heard Erik leave without a word. Leaning closer, he took Gaby’s hand. It was ice-cold. Shifting his grip to take her pulse, he felt her heart racing. That at least was a good sign - her body was trying to warm itself up. However, she was barely shaking, which was bad. Why was she in the water? Why cold water? he thought to himself. He tried to read her mind again. It felt like a fortress, impregnable to him. He could break through, of course, but shattering those walls would harm her. Was this it? he wondered. Had the temptation to let go and slip into catatonia become too great to resist? He had assumed she was unconscious because of the hypothermia, but now he thought this was something else. He rounded the walls of her mind, not built to keep him out but to keep her in. They did not encompass all her mind, he realised now, only parts of them. Her short-term memory was still open to him, and without hesitating he entered it.

The thirst comes with the memories, brought on by a dream. It burns in her throat. She gulps down the water in the glass at the bedside, but it is not enough. She knows that there is more - it runs beneath her feet, and the turn of a tap will send it flowing - so she rises and goes into the bathroom. She drinks from the tap, awkwardly bent over to catch every drop. She drinks and drinks, but her mouth is still too dry. She cannot get the taste of dirt out of it. Her stomach protests, and she is sick. It is mostly bile and gastric juices mixed with water, and it makes the taste worse. She tries to wash it out, but dares not spit out the water out, because it is such a precious thing. But here it is common-place, she reminds herself. She turns to the bathtub. If she wants to, she can fill it up. Perhaps if she lowers herself into it, she’ll feel clean. Perhaps she can drown her thirst. She puts the plug in and gets in without taking her nightgown off, and lets the cold water run over her head. She gasps at the cold, afraid at first. After a while, she turns off the tap and sinks into the water. She surrenders.

Charles broke from the memory with a gasp. For a wild moment, he was afraid that replaying it might have worsened Gaby’s condition, but she seemed unchanged. At that moment, Erik came back, carrying a pile of blankets.

‘How is she?’ he asked as he put them down at the foot of the bed.

‘In a bad way,’ Charles sighed and stroked her hair from her face. It was still damp, and her skin was clammy.

‘Should we take her to hospital?’

‘No need, as things are now,’ Charles said. ‘I can take care of her here. But I need the bag from my room.’ Erik nodded curtly.

‘I’ll get it.’

With those words, he left quickly. Charles felt his heart tighten at the sight, his love for the man suddenly rising. He pushed it aside, turning back to his other love, lying cold and unresponsive before him. By the look of her, she might as well be dead. It was not just the cold water that had done it, but the absence of her person. He could not do anything about the latter, only the former. He took one of the blankets from the foot of the bed and started tucking her in, while he murmured assuring things she would not hear.

He had just finished that when Erik came running into the apartment again, the requested leather bag in his hand. It had been little more than a minute since he left.

‘How did you manage that?’ Charles said incredulously as handed it over.

‘I called Azazel.’ He looked up, not quite believing what he was hearing.

‘You called one of the Brotherhood to Gaby’s apartment?’ he exclaimed.

‘The alley behind the house, actually,’ Erik said. ‘And I didn’t tell him who lived where we went. I figured time was of essence.’ Charles realised that it had probably been the best course of action.

‘Thank you, I suppose,’ he said and found a thermometer. ‘Will you look if there’s a hot water-bottle somewhere? We need to bring her temperature up.’ While Charles examined Gaby, he could hear Erik going through the kitchen cupboards. It took him a long time before he finally found one, hidden away in the wardrobe. Once it had been filled and they had covered her with another blanket, Erik sat down on the bed. On the other side, Charles sat, the stethoscope slung around his neck. He felt reluctant to put it down altogether, in case he needed it quickly. It was one of the great ironies that nothing calmed frazzled nerves quite as well as an emergency. It felt like all that was left now was surface anxiety, which made him wring his hands. Idly, he watched how Erik stroked Gaby’s hair. His face was unreadable.

After a long while, he asked:

‘Why was she in the bath? In the cold water?’

Charles swallowed and kept his eyes averted.

‘She had a flashback,’ he explained. ‘From the camps. She remembered the thirst and thought... it might help.’ When he looked up at Erik, he saw the incomprehension in his eyes.

‘How could it possibly help?’ he asked. Charles shrugged, hoping Erik would leave it at that, but he did not. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Positive.’

‘But why? That makes no sense...’

‘Of course it doesn’t make sense,’ he snapped. Erik looked up at him, shocked. Charles closed his eyes and breathed in. ‘It made sense to her at the time. She wasn’t thinking straight. She...’ He made a helpless gesture, but he knew that there was no way out of this. ‘Her perception of reality is off sometimes - badly off. It’s a quite common symptom, in schizophrenics.’

Erik stared more than looked at him.

‘She’s a schizophrenic?’ Charles gave a curt nod. Perhaps he should not have told him that, but it was too late to take it back. He sensed Erik’s worry darkening into disbelief. ‘No,’ he murmured. ‘She can’t be. She seems...’

Charles rubbed his eyes and sighed.

‘It comes in episodes,’ he explained. ‘After the war, she withdrew into a state of catatonia. She locked herself in into her own body. She didn’t come out of it until in her twenties. Since then, it’s just happened sporadically. Sometimes she retreats into a psychotic state, sometimes she withdraws into herself, but as far as I know... not as badly as this.’

They both looked at the girl lying still in the bed.

‘I thought she was unconscious,’ Erik said finally.

‘No,’ Charles sighed. ‘She’s building walls around her mind. She’s trying to escape reality.’ Erik drew his fingers over her cheek, stunned at what he was hearing.

‘Can’t you help her?’

Charles wondered if he had ever heard Erik ask for something so pleadingly.

‘Not enough,’ he sighed.

‘But you can break through mental walls,’ he said, looking at him with hectic eyes. ‘If you forced your way in...’ Charles shook his head.

‘It would harm her. The damage I’d cause might be irreparable. Even if it didn’t... she’d become dependent on my telepathy. It would weaken her mind. I’m sorry, Erik, there is nothing I can do. She needs to wake up on her own.’ Erik looked back at Gaby and stroked her forehead.

‘What happens if she doesn’t?’

Charles swallowed.

‘Then we have no choice than to take her to the hospital.’

‘And then?’

‘Most likely, they’d commit her, keep her there, medicate her.’ Just thinking about it made his stomach knot up. He did not want it to be the solution, yet he knew that if she did not get better, it was the only one.

‘She’s still so cold,’ Erik murmured.

‘She’s warming up,’ Charles promised.

‘Is there really nothing you can do?’ he asked, looking desperate. Charles shook his head.

‘No. No more than this.’ Erik looked down at Gaby, away from Charles. Evidently, he did not feel that it was enough.

They sat in silence, oblivious of each other and only concentrated on Gaby. Charles wished he could think of something to say, but he was not certain if he wanted to talk to Erik, although by now he had realised that that usually meant that he actually did want it. He had been right yesterday. With Erik it was easy, but with Gaby - with the three of them - it was complicated. But the memory of last night seemed to burn him. What a coincidence, he reflected, that the very night when he gave in to his attraction to Erik, Gaby lost her mind. He reached out and brushed her damp hair out of her forehead. He could feel the walls of her mind, growing ever higher. She had started to shiver, and soon it was so violent that her teeth chattered. Erik caught Charles’ eye, but he nodded, communicating that there was no danger.

After more than an hour, Gaby’s eyes opened. Erik, who had leaned against the bed-board, straightened up, eyes going wide.

‘Gaby?’

‘She’s not there,’ Charles said softly and, despite himself, touched Erik’s hand. Erik swallowed noisily and took hold of it. It was a moment of sincerity, but it was quickly broken. Erik pulled away and settled back onto the bed, his worried eyes on Gaby. Charles closed his hand, the touch fading fast into a memory. Hoping that it might distract him, he lit a cigarette. The silence made his skin crawl. Gaby’s eyes were wide-open, but they did not see anything, just as she did not feel when Erik touched her cheek, or when Charles leaned in to feel her pulse. He wondered what went on behind the mental walls she had built. Was she at peace there, or was she trapped with her nightmares? There was no way of knowing. He wondered, in the event that he figured out a way to break into her mind, whether he had the right to do so, if she thought it preferable. At least his reluctance saved him from that moral dilemma. He breathed out the smoke with a sigh and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. Erik shifted, but still stroked Gaby’s hair. Charles was surprised at the tenderness written on his face. He wondered now why he himself was not holding her hand. The only way he had touched her was to feel her temperature and her pulse. He looked over at Erik again, at how he watched her staring eyes and dipped his head to kiss her forehead carefully. Charles had always thought that Erik was the broken one whose emotions made no sense, but suddenly he himself felt as if it was his heart that had been crippled, not his legs. It was as if that bullet had made him incapable of truly loving anyone else than his adversary. But you care for her, he thought to himself, and then answered: Of course I care about her. I’m in love with her. But I don’t love her. Not like I love him. It’s not the same thing...

The shrieking of the telephone interrupted his thoughts. Erik straightened up and climbed off the bed.

‘I’ll get it.’

Charles nodded wordlessly. Erik left for the hall, and the phone stopped ringing as he picked it up. As he listened, Charles realised that the cigarette had burned down to his fingers. He stubbed it out on the ashtray on the bedside table, wishing he had thought to bring his pipe. Pushing aside the thought, he turned his gaze onto Gaby and kept it there. She was still shivering and her face was rigid, as if in concentration. She blinked, but her eyes did not stray from the ceiling. From the corridor, he heard Erik’s voice.

‘Hello? ...Yes, this is Miss Haller’s apartment. She can’t come to the phone, she’s very ill... Yes, that is why... No, that’s impossible, miss. When I said “very ill”, I mean it. There’s a doctor with her now.’

Charles sighed.

‘I suppose that’s your superior,’ he said to his unresponsive patient. It felt silly at first, but when he spoke, he realised that it was probably what he needed, even if he probably could not hear him. In the hall, Erik was still arguing with the caller from the office. Charles unlocked the wheels of his chair and moved closer. Her hand looked fragile where it lay, and he picked it up as one would a wounded bird. ‘Gaby,’ he whispered. ‘I’m so sorry. So very sorry. I’ve been such an idiot... am such an idiot.’ He paused and gathered his thoughts. ‘Please, Gaby, you can’t leave us like this,’ he said urgently. ‘You must wake up. Fight it! Don’t let it get the better of you. Please...’ He raised her hand and kissed it, her skin cold against his lips. ‘Please, wake up. What are we going to do without you - me, and Erik, and your aunt...? Gaby...’

Gaby! Gaby! Wake up! He called her with his mind and pressed her hand. From the hall, Charles heard Erik almost shout into the telephone, ‘yes, good-bye!’ and slam down the receiver, but he did not register it. The sensation of something shifting was taking all his attention. The walls around Gaby’s mind were no longer thickening. Instead, they had started waning.

Erik reentered.

‘Those people she works for are terribly unpleasant,’ he announced. ‘They wouldn’t believe...’ Charles hushed him, and suddenly he noticed how his manner had changed. At once, he moved closer.

‘What’s happening?’ Charles looked at him, his vision blurred with tears.

‘It worked,’ he explained. ‘She’s going to wake up.’ Erik gave a deep sigh of relief and, reaching out, pressed both their hands at once.

‘How long?’

‘I don’t know,’ Charles admitted. ‘The barriers are fading, so her consciousness might return at any time.’ Erik nodded and turned his gaze back at Gaby.

Charles sensed the walls breaking down, one mental stone remove at a time, and little by little, life returned to her. The first signs were subtle. She started blinking more frequently, and slowly, her fingers curled around Charles’. The first real sign of consciousness, however, was far more shocking than they expected. Neither of them had expected the scream.

It came so suddenly that Charles almost dropped her hand, and Erik jumped. Suddenly, her mouth opened and emitted a full-throated, high-pitched scream. Then it turned to desperate babbling, which Charles did not understand. She whipped her hand out of his grip and started thrashing. Erik jumped to his feet and tried to keep her steady. She clawed and hit him, trying to make him lose the grip around her arms.

‘Gaby, it’s me - Erik!’

‘She doesn’t recognise you,’ Charles called. ‘She thinks you’re someone else.’ He had thought that he would not interfere with her mind while she was awake, but now he saw no other way. This time he projected no words, but only a deep sense of calm which he himself did not feel. Gaby’s thrashing became half-hearted and with a final jerking motion which looked almost like a convulsion, she slumped against Erik, weeping. Startled, Erik hugged her close. He looked at Charles, and a gaze of assurance passed between them. Erik pressed her against him and hushed her, until she seemed calmer. She was murmuring something, still incomprehensible to Charles.

‘Do you speak Dutch, Erik?’ Erik shook his head.

‘I never had a reason to learn it, but I can understand most of what she’s saying. She’s asking for her mother.’ Charles bit his lip.

‘She’s in shock,’ he said. ‘No wonder, really.’ Erik nodded, but instead of looking at him watched his own hand comb through Gaby’s hair. Then, planting a kiss on her brow, he said something to her in Yiddish, even if she would not understand it. There they sat, murmuring in their mother-tongues which they no longer had anyone to speak with. Erik hugged her as if he was afraid that she might disappear, metaphorically or physically. Charles sat beside them, excluded from their embrace.

After a long time, he reached out and touched Gaby’s hand, then pressed Erik’s shoulder.

‘Erik, she’s still too cold,’ he said softly. ‘We should cover her up again.’ Slowly, Erik let go of her and made her lie down. He rose, and Charles pulled the covers over her, happy for the small kindnesses he could show.

‘What can I do?’ Erik asked, as if now when he had let go of her, he felt inadequate.

‘She need something hot to drink,’ Charles instructed. ‘Something she can take on an empty stomach. Tea, or cocoa. Do you think you could manage that?’ Erik nodded and left for the kitchen. When Charles turned back to Gaby, he realised that she was watching him. Her eyes were only half-open, but there was life in her face.

‘Welcome back,’ he said, trying to sound light. Something reminiscent of a smile changed her expression.

‘Charles.’ Charles laughed with relief.

‘Yes, that’s me,’ he said and stroked her cheek. ‘You’re alright now, Gaby. You’re safe.’ A shiver ran through her again. At least her colour was better now, and seeing her move was a great relief. She rolled over to her side and curled into a ball, only half her face visible under the blankets. She said something in a pitiful tone that made him think that she complained about being cold. ‘You’ll feel better soon,’ he assured her. ‘Erik’s getting you something to warm you up. You’ll be right as rain.’ He looked into her eyes, which peeked up from behind the covers. ‘You understand what I’m saying, don’t you? You’re just a little too shaken up to manage to speak in English.’ She gave no real reply, but he sensed that he was right.

He had expected Erik to take longer than he did, but soon he came back, carrying a large cup of hot chocolate in both hands. They left it on the bedside table as they helped Gaby into a new nightgown, carefully matching her sluggish movements. Charles worried that she might spill the chocolate over herself if she tried to drink out of the cup, so he gave it to her by the spoonful. She looked strangely childish where she lay propped up with pillows, which seemed to make her shrink. She would still not speak English, and her reactions were slower than usual, but he could sense her mind trying to bring itself into balance again.

Charles must have been running on adrenaline since she started waking up, because now he felt himself slowly weakening. The sound of their minds was pushing against his head, and even the concentration of keeping the spoon steady and not spilling the cocoa made him feel a low-key kind of panic. Finally, he put down the spoon and said:

‘Will you give her the rest?’ Erik rose from where he had been sitting on the other side of the bed.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

‘Nowhere, I just... need a moment.’ Giving no further explanation, he turned and headed for the kitchen. It was not much of an improvement, but at least the distance silenced the worst of the stray thoughts. There was no logic to how this suddenly hit. He supposed part of it might be shock from the events of the morning. He had a sudden urge of bolting, but he could not, for more than one reason. Instead, he buried his face in his hands and tried to compose himself. It all spun around his head - Erik showing him his tattoo and asking, ‘is this all I am to you?’, Gaby being lifted from the water, his own confusion about what he felt, what he wanted and what he did not want, and both implicating the same thing, and most of all the coincidence...

‘Charles?’ He looked up, startled. Erik was standing beside him, looking down at him. ‘Are you alright?’

Charles straightened up and took a deep breath.

‘You shouldn’t leave Gaby alone,’ he said instead. ‘Not when she’s like this...’

‘She’s asleep.’

‘Oh... oh. Alright.’ He swallowed, trying to gather his thoughts. Erik leaned against the table so that they were face to face. Reluctantly, Charles looked up, and saw his worried eyes.

‘This isn’t your fault,’ Erik said quietly. ‘It has nothing to do with what happened yesterday.’ Charles struggled to speak, flustered at the fact that he had been so obvious.

‘She could have died!’ he exclaimed. ‘Another half hour... or if she’d slipped into the water...’ Erik waved his hand to silence him.

‘But that didn’t happen,’ he concluded. Charles opened his mouth to press on, but Erik spoke first. ‘Charles, you can’t save people from themselves.’

‘But it’s what I do,’ he objected.

‘Then try, but it’s not your fault if you fail,’ Erik reasoned. ‘And if you need to blame yourself... at least do it when it is your fault, not over something like this. You make it sound like this is some case of divine retribution.’

‘I know it doesn’t make any sense, but...’

Erik sighed, sounding almost amused at his friend’s obstinacy.

‘And there is no way Gaby could have known what happened between us,’ he said. ‘It has nothing to do with that.’ He stopped and thought through something. ‘You said she did it because she thought it’d make the thirst go away.’

‘Yes.’

‘So she didn’t mean to...?’ Charles shook his head.

‘No. It wasn’t a suicide attempt, thank God.’ Had that been the case, his guilt would have been even greater. ‘I know you’re right, Erik. It’s just...’ he made a helpless gesture. Erik pressed his lips together.

‘Yes, I know.’ Then he swore under his breath and sat back on the table, looking suddenly miserable. ‘I was too hard on you yesterday,’ he admitted. ‘I was angry, and I was drunk. I hope you can forgive me.’

‘I hope you can forgive me,’ Charles said, relieved and distressed at the same time. ‘I don’t know, but... perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I’m just the faithless bastard you say I am.’ Erik smiled sorrowfully.

‘Never faithless, Charles,’ he said. ‘Simply too generous with your affection. It is not my business why you care for her.’

‘I do, you know,’ Charles said, barely managing to keep his voice steady. ‘Care for her. It’s just... I always forget what a huge thing it is, caring for someone. It frightens me.’ He looked him in the eye, facing up to his fears. ‘And it frightens me how much I still want to be with you. How much I want things to be the way they were all those years ago.’ Erik looked down at the floor.

‘It was just three years ago.’

‘It feels like longer than that.’

Erik nodded, sighing.

‘Yes, it does.’

They were silent, until Charles asked:

‘Did you start flirting with her to annoy me?’ Erik hung his head, but laughed.

‘Guilty as charged.’ Charles swallowed.

‘And I courted her because I didn’t dare to approach you,’ he sighed. ‘At least at first.’ Erik reached out and pressed his arm.

‘She deserves better than being caught between us like this,’ he concluded, voicing both their thoughts. ‘Sooner or later, she will become drawn into affairs that do not concern her - that would hurt her.’

‘But we can’t just leave her,’ Charles objected, whispering now. ‘You must have realised now, if not before, how fragile her mind is. If we both suddenly disappear, it could mean the death of her. And even if it came to a situation where she might get involved, there’s no saying she would. Although, with connections to both of us, the government would probably see her as a security risk. But anyhow, most importantly, I don’t want to leave her.’

‘Neither do I,’ Erik said gravely and straightened up. ‘It simply seems... unfair.’ Charles watched his pensive face.

‘Do you ever want to tell her?’ he asked. ‘That you’re a mutant?’

‘Sometimes,’ he said, not looking at him. ‘Half of the time I want to show her. The other half...’ He fell silent. Charles understood what he dared not articulate. He enjoyed the lie where his days as an outcast were in the past. Charles took his hand. Erik pressed his in answer.

‘So,’ Charles said and swallowed nervously. ‘What do we do about us?’ The answer was a shrug.

‘Is there anything that needs to be dealt with?’

‘I rather think so,’ Charles snorted. ‘It feels like it’s cheating.’

‘It’s not.’

‘We haven’t actually made it entirely clear whether it is or not,’ he pointed out. ‘Gaby may know that we have a shared past, but there was never any clear implication that we were going to take it up.’ Erik watched him searchingly, and asked:

‘Could you give it up now?’ Charles’ throat felt thick suddenly.

‘I’m not sure I could,’ he admitted. If he did, it might just result in another lapse. ‘But I don’t see how we could tell her.’ Erik shrugged.

‘In that case... we simply keep it quiet.’ Charles threw up his hands in despair.

‘How did all this happen?’ he exclaimed. ‘I was just going to go on holiday. Hank thought I was overworked and needed some time off. I never meant to get myself landed in a ménage à trois! Especially not one like this.’ The smile Erik gave him was surprisingly compassionate, but it still surprised him when he reached out and embraced him. Charles rested his head against his chest gratefully. They stayed in the embrace, Charles’ ear pressed against Erik’s heart and Erik’s lips against Charles’ hair. Then:

‘Charles?’

When he let go of Erik and looked up. In the doorway stood Gaby, grabbing the doorframe for support. Her eyes were wide-open and lucid, but she was pale and swayed dangerously on her feet.

‘Gaby, you shouldn’t be up!’ he exclaimed. By then Erik had already hurried over to her and caught her in an embrace before she fell. She hummed in surprise, realising whose chest she was pressed again.

‘You’re both here...’ she murmured. Charles sighed in relief.

‘Yes, we are, darling.’ He nodded to Erik.

‘You’re going back into bed,’ Erik told her and picked her up, an arm under her back and one under her knees. Charles followed him as he carried her out of the kitchen and into the bedroom.

‘My head...’ she whimpered, and leaned said head against Erik’s shoulder. ‘It’s pounding.’

‘You’re very weak,’ Erik explained and put her down on the bed. A shiver passed through her when he tucked her in.

‘How are you feeling?’ Charles asked, as he maneuvered closer.

‘Cold,’ she said. ‘And hungry.’ He smiled, pleased with what she said.

‘Erik, are you any good in the kitchen?’ Erik nodded.

‘I’ll see what you can do.’

Gaby remained silent as Charles examined her, surrendering completely. Her gaze was on the far wall, a little absent but not dangerously so. When he was satisfied, he put his instruments back and asked:

‘Do you remember anything?’ Gaby turned to look at him and frowned. She was searching through her recent memories and tried to make sense of them.

‘No... or, yes. I’m not sure. I.... had a nightmare. I woke up, and I was so thirsty...’

‘So you got into the bath?’ She nodded, as if taking his word for it. Charles sighed and joined his hands. ‘Gaby...’ She drew back and stared at him, eyes wide with terror.

‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered.

‘I’m not angry at you,’ he assured her gravely. ‘But you must promise me never to do that again. Ever.’ She looked down, as if it were hopeless.

‘How can I? If I’m... not myself...’

‘Then you must try,’ he intoned. ‘Please, Gaby. You could have died. You could have relapsed completely...’ He broke off. As he spoke, Gaby had hung her head, her hair hiding her face. Charles reached out and tucked the curtain of hair behind her ear. A tear was trailing down her cheek. He wiped it away. ‘I don’t mean to upset you,’ he said, softer now. ‘I’m just worried for you.’ She sniffed and shrugged.

‘I’m sorry to have disappointed you.’ Charles frowned.

‘Disappointed me? What do you mean?’

‘You said I was strong... that I resisted,’ she sighed. ‘You were wrong.’ He took her hand.

‘No, I wasn’t,’ he said. ‘You can’t be strong without having been weak.’ She glanced at him, but dared not hold his gaze. Nevertheless, she pressed his hand.

The afternoon was by no means as upsetting as the morning. Steadily, Gaby grew stronger. She slept a lot, and her lovers sat on either side of her, holding her hands. Charles went back briefly to the hotel, and made sure to take a stack of books and the pills with him. He left a few in an envelope, though, in case he would be needing them. Back in Gaby’s flat, they did not speak much. Mostly, they smoked and watched Gaby drifting in and out of her slumber. By four o’clock, Charles was growing restless. Finally, Erik rose from the bed and crossed to him. He stopped behind him and put his hands on his shoulders.

‘Charles, you don’t have to stay, you know.’ He waved his hand, dismissing the suggestion.

‘Of course I have to stay.’

‘You can barely move around this place,’ Erik pointed out. ‘I see that you find it distressing. Why don’t you go back to the hotel for the evening? I’ll stay here tonight.’ Now Charles looked up at him, over his shoulder.

‘What if something happens?’

‘Is anything likely to happen?’ Charles shrugged.

‘One can never know.’ Erik smiled.

‘I’ll call,’ he promised. ‘And if it’s urgent, I’ll send Azazel for you. If it gets that bad, keeping this from the Brotherhood will not be important.’ For some reason, that made an impression on Charles. He had expected that Erik would value the Brotherhood over anything, even him and Gaby, but not so. It showed a new side to him. Charles’ shoulders slumped in submission.

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘You’re right, I suppose. I could do with the rest. Didn’t really get much sleep last night.’ Erik grinned in sympathy and let go of him.

Gaby was almost asleep, but when Charles wheeled closer and leaned in to kiss her, she stirred.

‘Hm?’

‘I’m going, Gaby.’ She blinked a few times.

‘Why?’

‘I need to get some rest. Besides, I have none of my medication here. I’ll be back in the morning.’ At the sight of Gaby’s disappointed pout, he put a finger under her chin and pushed it up a little. ‘There. I won’t be long, and Erik’s staying with you. Do you think you’ll be alright?’ She nodded and let herself be kissed. A light mental command was all it took to send her back to sleep.

Erik followed him out into the hallway and opened the door for him, so that he could turn.

‘Please take care of her,’ he said sincerely.

‘Of course I will,’ Erik said. Charles smiled.

‘Thank you.’ He reached out his hand to him, but Erik ignored it and instead kissed him full on the mouth.

‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ he murmured against his lips. Charles stroked his hair and nodded. Then he broke the embrace and straightened up. The door closed. The coming night may be restful, but it would be lonely.

Chapter Text

However much Charles trusted Erik, the thought of leaving him in charge of Gaby when she was recovering from a psychotic episode worried him. He could keep a level head in combat, but how would he react if Gaby lost control? Charles had to remind himself that unlike himself, Erik did not sense what others felt, and that would undoubtedly make the task easier. When he reflected on it, it seemed odd that others lacked a sense he had.

He called in the evening, and was assured that all was going well.

‘You haven’t let her out of bed, have you?’ Charles asked anxiously.

‘Of course not. She’s too weak to walk around,’ Erik said, his voice sounding strange to Charles without the echo of his mind accompanying it. He had never liked telephones. It felt like people weren’t real when he could not pick up on their thoughts. Briefly, he wondered whether Erik had his helmet hidden somewhere in his hotel room. There was more than one reason he hated it. ‘She’s waving to you now. (Hello, Gaby.) She sends her love.’

‘Give her mine,’ Charles said and smiled to himself. ‘Take care, both of you.’ They hung up. Charles tugged at the sleeve of his cardigan hesitantly. Erik’s mindless, disembodied voice was still far better than the silence.

That night he did not sleep well. He dreamt that he was woken up by Azazel, his devilish face leering down at him. The mutant grabbed him and suddenly, they were somewhere else, on a heath under a stormy sky. He knew that Gaby was in danger and Erik had called for help, but the Brotherhood would no longer follow his orders. Now they were closing in on him, where he half-sat, helpless in the mud, unable to reach their minds to fend them off, and out of the mist came a helmeted, cloaked figure...

He woke before it reached him, and for a long time he lay panting, reeling with the shock of the nightmare. It was just a dream, he told himself. Erik would never turn on me. He would never betray us. In his mind, he knew it for truth, but now when he was newly awake from that dream, he feared that it might bear some likeness to reality. Finally, he fell asleep again, and did not dream.

When morning came, there had been no phone calls and no visitations of tailed mutants. Charles decided to have a proper breakfast to strengthen himself. It was well past nine when he set out. Erik had given him the key to the apartment, and as he unlocked it, he could hear a voice from inside, which grew louder when he opened the door and wheeled himself in.

‘“Don’t you know what an Ambush is?” “Owl,” said Piglet, looking round at him severely, “Pooh’s whisper was a perfectly private whisper, and there was no need -” “An Ambush,” said Owl, “is a sort of Surprise.” “So is a gorse-bush sometimes,” said Pooh. “An Ambush, as I was about to explain to Pooh,” said Piglet, “is a sort of Surprise.”’

There was something very endearing with Piglet read in a German accent, especially considering that Erik was reading him in a squeaky voice. Now, Charles had reached the doorway of the bedroom. Both of them were sitting in bed, covers pulled over them. Gaby, wrapped in a shawl over her nightgown, rested against Erik’s chest, nestled close by his arm around her shoulders. He held the book he was reading out of with his free hand, and angled it so that Gaby could see the illustrations. Charles hesitated to speak, but watched them, touched by the scene. Erik was just about to continue reading about the Expotition to the North Pole, when Gaby looked up and spotted Charles.

‘Charles! You’re here,’ she said, her face breaking into a smile. Erik disentangle himself from her and closed the book, giving Charles a brief smile of greeting.

‘You’ve been keeping busy, I see,’ Charles said lightly.

‘Erik’s been reading for me,’ Gaby explained, smiling with genuine happiness.

‘I found it in her bookcase,’ Erik explained and waved Winnie-the-Pooh in demonstration. ‘She’d never read it.’

‘I never had time,’ she said and shrugged. ‘But we’ve read most of the book this morning.’ Charles rolled up to the bed and, shaking back his shirt-sleeve to be able to see his watch, felt her pulse.

‘Have you slept well?’ he asked.

‘Yes. I was exhausted.’

‘You look much better than you did yesterday,’ Charles observed and put her hand down. She was still a little pale, and the skin under her eyes looked thin and dark, but her spirits were as high as they ever were.

‘I feel it,’ she said.

‘Erik’s been treating you well?’ She nodded, and they smiled at each other. Then Gaby seemed to remember the professional capacity he was here in, and she looked down, seemingly embarrassed. ‘Should I...?’ She lowered her shawl.

‘Eum, yes - just slip it down. Where’s my stethoscope gone? Ah, there.’ He put it around his neck and watched how Gaby lowered the straps of her nightgown and pulled the shawl over her shoulders before pushing the nightgown down under her breasts. It looked like a modest gesture, even if he assumed it was because she felt cold. She looked like some renaissance painting where she reclined, hair let out and body covered, but for her chest. Even like this, when she was ill and in his care, the sight of her bare breasts felt undoubtedly erotic. He had to control himself not to reach out and trace their roundness. Charles wondered if he was more attracted to her when it was wrong for him to be. Leaving the thought aside, he concentrated on the matter at hand. Erik, who had disappeared into the kitchen during the examination, reappeared as Gaby was struggling into her nightgown again.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘It’s certainly moving in the right direction,’ Charles said as he closed his bag.

‘I’ve been invited to the Prydemanns for sabbath dinner tonight. Can I still go?’ Gaby asked.

‘Yes, as long as you feel up to it tonight. How would you get there?’

‘I walk. It’s not far.’

‘Well, in that case, Erik should walk with you,’ he said and glanced at Erik, who nodded in acknowledgement. Charles looked back at Gaby, as she put the pillow against the bed board and crossed her legs. He should talk to her about the gravity about the situation and urge her to reconsider speaking to a doctor, but he did not think it would lead anywhere. In fact, it might just serve to depress her. Yesterday, his attempts to talk to her had made her feel as if she was at fault, and he did not want that.

So he pushed it aside, hoping he had made enough of an impression yesterday, and instead picked up the book they had been reading.

‘Shall we give Erik some time to rest his voice...?’ he asked and indicated the book. Gaby smiled and curled up around herself, watching him intently.

‘Yes - read to me.’

***

It turned into a very quiet day. They read and talked, and if it had not been for the fact that Gaby stayed in bed most of the day (even if she sat up), it could have been just a social gathering. Several times, Charles thought that he should speak to her properly, but he pushed it aside. He did not want to scold her, and he knew it would sound like a rebuke, not an expression of concern. In the late afternoon, both he and Erik kissed her goodbye, and Erik pushed Charles back to the hotel. They nodded in parting to each other in the lobby. As Charles entered his suite, he sensed Erik leaving the hotel again, retracing his steps.

He remained half-present in his mind until he reached Gaby’s flat. When Erik stepped into the hall and Gaby came to greet him, Charles could see her so clearly that she might as well have been standing right in front of him. It felt like her mind was calling to his to enter it. Slipping into both their thoughts as they left the flat felt easier than not to do it. In thought he followed them as they walked away from the hotel. As Gaby said, it was not far, and after some ten minutes, she stopped.

‘Here it is,’ she said and nodded at the house they had stopped by. Erik watched the light pouring out of the windows and the movements he could see through them. It twisted his stomach. ‘Erik?’ He forced away his gaze and looked at her. Gaby looked up at him expectantly. ‘Won’t you come with me?’ He looked at her in surprise, then managed to shake his head.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I... I couldn’t. I can’t invite myself into some strangers’ house...’

‘You wouldn’t be,’ Gaby said. ‘I’d invite you. They wouldn’t mind - they’re kind people. Come on. It’ll be lovely.’ He shook his head again.

‘I’m sorry, Gaby.’ He could see how it dispirited her, and quickly, he tried to explain. ‘I don’t think I can face it.’

‘Why not?’ she challenged him. Erik snapped his mouth shut. There was no way he could answer that. She sighed and looked away, disappointed. He wondered whether he should apologise again, but before he could do that, Gaby leaned a little closer and spoke quietly, as if to exclude some eavesdropper, but the only eavesdropper present heard every word.

‘When we first made love, you told me that they didn’t own us.’ Erik sighed, realising where this was going. The worst was that she had a point. ‘So why are you letting them?’

‘Gaby, I can’t explain this,’ he tried. ‘You wouldn’t understand...’ Gaby exclaimed a sarcastic ‘hah!’

‘You can’t know that without having tried to explain it,’ she said. She waited for him to try, but he remained silent. She looked down as well, and as if deciding to give it another try, took his hand. ‘I know what this is about.’

‘Do you?’ he snorted.

‘I think I do,’ she said. ‘You don’t want to stand apart. But we do, Erik. We’re different. But it doesn’t have to be in a bad way. It doesn’t mean that people will automatically hate us.’

‘Humans always hate what is different.’

‘And do you think you can become someone else just by wanting it?’ she exclaimed. ‘You can’t just cut this piece out of yourself! That’s not how it works.’

‘I know that,’ Erik all but spat and drew away his hand. ‘But you have no idea what all this means, Gaby - how complicated this is...’ Gaby did not stop looking at him. Her gaze looked almost pleading.

‘What good’s surviving, if you’re going to turn your back on your people?’

He stared at her, wondering if he had actually heard her correctly.

‘That,’ he said finally. ‘That was a cheap shot.’ Gaby looked almost pleased.

‘Did I hit a nerve?’ Despite himself, Erik laughed. He had never thought her such a ruthless debater.

‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘You did.’ She smiled at him, suddenly timidly, and reached out her hand. He took it. ‘You should go,’ he told her. ‘You’ll be late.’

‘You’re still coming with me to shul tomorrow, aren’t you?’ He nodded.

‘Yes.’ She bit her lip, considering something.

‘Perhaps next Friday...’

‘Perhaps,’ he said quickly. ‘Let’s decide that next week.’ She smiled at him and tilted her head back. He kissed her, longer than was appropriate in public. When they pulled apart, he was the first to say:

‘Shabbat shalom.’

‘Shabbat shalom,’ she answered and kissed him again. Then she stepped away and, smiling over her shoulder, went to ring the doorbell. Erik started walking away, but could hear how the door opened and voices welcomed her in. He quickened his step and hunched his back. The memory of his mother chanting under her breath echoed in his head.

Charles decided to intervene.

Erik?

He sensed Erik jump.

‘Charles, what...?’

Don’t speak out loud. You’ll look like a lunatic. Just think.

Are you eavesdropping?

In a manner of speaking. I wanted to make sure you were alright.

Of course I’m alright.

You should have gone with her.

Too late now.

Would you like to come here? You feel like you could do with the company. I happen to know that your only other plan is to brood.

He sensed Erik considering it, then:

Fine. Now get out of my head.

Charles withdrew, and could not help but feel a little guilty. He looked around the room, trying to find something to occupy him until Erik arrived. He could not settle on anything, so instead he wheeled closer to the couch and transferred himself onto it. When he had settled, he wove his fingers together and looked towards the door. Erik must still be at least ten minutes away. He made himself look away - it would be silly to watch it until he turned up. It was strange that this wait made him so fidgety, nervous even. There was nothing out of the ordinary about it. It was not like Erik did not come to see him often.

But when he looked at the facts again, he realised that several things were out of the ordinary. This was the first time he had admitted to listening in on their private conversations. Would Erik be angry with him? Would there be a confrontation? But that was not all. Excepting the short reconciliation in Gaby’s kitchen, they had not spoken privately since the night before last. Charles did not know what would happen now, but he supposed that whatever transpired now would decide what would. Finally, he thought of Gaby at dinner with some acquaintances from the congregation, and Erik, on his way from her to him. Would meeting like this be going behind her back? Would she learn about it?

There was a knock on the door.

‘Come in!’ Charles called. The door opened and Erik stepped in, hat in hand. Charles smiled at him in greeting. The corner of Erik’s mouth twitched, but it was not quite enough be called a smile. He did not look at him as he took his coat off and put it over the back of an armchair. Without speaking, he circled the couch and sat down beside Charles. He sat at a respectable distance, but it felt like he was sitting up close. Charles unclasped his hands and then reclasped them. Erik drummed his fingers against his knee. The sinews of his hands moved to the rhythm. He watched the way they played under the skin. Erik must have noticed him staring at his hand, because when he said his name, he sounded almost concerned.

‘Charles?’

He shook himself and looked up with an apologetic smile.

‘Sorry. I was lost in my thoughts.’ Now, the smile Erik gave him was genuine. His mouth barely moved, but his eyes changed, and took on a particular shine. Charles exhaled and surrendered. They leaned in at the same time, and without speaking, without discussing the consequences, they kissed.

***

The next morning, Charles was awoken by Erik kissing his brow.

‘What?’ he muttered sleepily. He wondered what time it was, thinking it was far too early to be up, and why Erik was rising, wishing he could stay. Then he remembered the previous evening, and what had happened on the couch and then in the bed, and understood why he felt so tired and stiff.

‘I’m going to the synagogue with Gaby,’ Erik explained and stroked his hair back. Charles blinked sleep out of his eyes and propped himself up on his elbows.

‘Why are you nervous?’ he asked him. Erik looked taken aback, but his loss of control of his features only lasted for a moment.

‘I’m not.’ He planted a kiss on his lips and climbed out of the bed. ‘I’ll see you later.’ Charles hummed and put down his head on the pillow again. It had been as if he could taste Erik’s apprehension on his lips.

***

At midday, Charles was still reading the newspaper. He had taken to reading it in detail during his time in New York. At the school, he usually just had time to read the most important parts and skimmed the rest. Unfortunately it was not uplifting reading. He had found several mentions of mutants, especially in articles about various kinds of crimes, some of them petty, others quite violent, where a mutant was thought to be the perpetrator. It made him wonder (not for the first time) if the public’s views on mutants would have been different if they had been told of the existence of mutants in some other way than the Cuban missile crisis.

A knock on the door saved him from more worry about this topic.

‘It’s unlocked!’ he called as he folded up the broadsheet. He had expected both Erik and Gaby to enter, but instead, Erik was on his own. ‘Come in,’ Charles said cheerfully, but he could tell at once that his good mood was not shared by Erik. As he took off his hat and sat down on the couch, leaving his coat on, there was an unfamiliar lost look in his eye. He sat quietly for a few moments, his shoulders hunched and his eyes in the carpet, then his face seized up and his eyes clenched, trying to keep the tears from falling. Charles bit his lip at the sight. He approached cautiously, afraid to make him bolt. When he was as close as he could be, he put his hand on his arm.

‘What’s the matter?’ he said softly. ‘Was it the service?’ Erik shook his head.

‘The people.’

Charles did not have to enter his mind to read his thoughts. The recent memory presented itself to him willingly.

The service had not disturbed, as much as startled and moved him. It was not like the worship of his childhood, hidden away in cellars and locked rooms, conducted in secret and under the threat of punishment. Instead it was huge, impressive, proud. It made him want to cower, waking buried fears of what would happen if they were caught. He had to remind himself that nothing would happen - no one wanted them to suffer for this. At the same time as it was so unlike what he remembered, it was just like it. The sights and smells and words made him remember things he had thought he had forgotten. The memories were so vivid that he felt momentarily misplaced in his adult body.

When the service was over, he had waited for Gaby to descend from the gallery. She had taken his hand and lead him to meet the congregation in earnest. He had not considered this before, and was barely given time to consider it before he was engulfed in the crowd. Gaby did not have any friends her own age, but from what Erik could gather, most of the elderly ladies in the congregation liked and worried for her. That she had turned up with a man was as surprising as it was welcome to them. At once, the couple were surrounded by people greeting them and asking questions. Gaby answered half of the questions directed at Erik for him - he, who always knew what to say, was suddenly lost for words. All the time her arm remained in the crook of his. They asked how they had met, where he was from, which synagogue he usually went to, what he did for a living, if he knew this or that person. Someone asked them about the date of the wedding. Gaby laughed and pretended not to have heard. Erik looked around at these people, who were talking and joking and laughing, and thought over and over again: they are humans. I am their superior. They are the oppressors. I am different from them. But these words suddenly lost their meaning. One of the women who had first approached Gaby - he could not remember her name - turned to him and addressed him in Yiddish. She was congratulating him and saying that she hoped Gaby would feed him properly once they got married, and herself as well, because she was too thin, poor dear. But don’t just keep her by the stove, Mister Lehnsherr, because she is a clever girl...

He could not remember the last time he had heard anyone speak Yiddish. He had consigned it to a part of his mind where he would not go, and had never expected to be faced with it again. Hearing it now, he felt himself seize up. It sparked too many emotions, none of which he wanted to show. Distress and surprise and relief coursed through him and struck him dumb. The lady smiled apologetically and switched into English instead, assuming that his silence was due to that he had not understood her. Choked by the flood of memories which had washed over him, he stumbled upon the words of a language he was so used to speaking when he answered her. He did not say anything of any consequence, and Gaby soon took over that conversation too. He was grateful for it, because he did not know what to say. He looked around at all these people, puzzled and intrigued. They were so happy to meet him, and so excited for Gaby and a union that would never happen. If they had known who and what he was, if he would do even something so innocent as bend a spoon out of shape, he would be a monster in their eyes. But as long as he did not do that, they would embrace him as one of them. Briefly, he thought of the possibility of taking this as his community and accepting that part to play. He let it drop, but the rejection did not comfort him. Instead, it only underlined the possibility more, as he stood among them, both among his own people and among strangers.

Charles pressed his shoulder in sympathy.

‘They were so happy,’ Erik whispered, looking out into space. ‘How could they be happy?’

‘I don’t know,’ Charles answered earnestly. ‘There is no way for us to know how their lives have been.’

‘Still...’ he said and shook his head. It did not make sense to him that anyone could be happy when their people were being oppressed, however far away it was. Charles felt that he needed to say something.

‘Perhaps they find happiness in being together.’ It sounded rather inane, he thought, but Erik did not seem to be listening.

‘I felt like a child.’

‘It’s not so strange,’ Charles said kindly. ‘It must have reminded you of things you tend not to think about.’

‘It made me feel lost.’

That surprised him.

‘Why?’ Charles asked. Erik closed his eyes, as though not seeing the world around him would make what he felt more clear. Then suddenly he opened them again, and the worry could not be seen. He doubted that it had been dispelled. Rather it had been locked away somewhere deeper.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘It was just an experience I haven’t had for some time.’

‘But...’

‘It was just startling,’ he said curtly. The conversation was obviously at an end. Charles closed his mouth, confused. Erik had come here because he wanted to talk about it - why would he change his mind so suddenly? What had he realised that had made him close up? What made matters even worse was that Erik had picked up his hat and was rising.

‘Please, Erik, don’t go,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry if I misstepped somehow...’ Erik stopped, looking down at the hat in his hands.

‘You didn’t.’ He spoke quietly, as though afraid to waken something inside himself. ‘I was simply mistaken. I need to think this through...’ He looked up at him. His eyes made it plain that he was telling the truth. They held no anger, but Charles could see sadness and something which he thought might be fear.

‘Think what through?’ Charles asked. Erik shook his head.

‘I believe I have a decision to make.’ He took a few swift steps towards him, put his hand under Charles’ chin to angle his face up and kissed him. Then with a smile and a quiet, ‘I’ll see you at dinner,’ he left. Charles watched him go. There was regret in his step.

Chapter Text

At times, Charles marveled at his own conscience. For months, he had been slipping into Erik and Gaby’s minds, shadowing them around town and piggybacking inside their heads as they made love. He had felt ashamed of that, knowing that it was a misuse of his powers, but not enough to stop. In general, he was used to secrets not existing - it was surprising how loudly non-telepaths could think, especially when they did not want anyone to hear. But now, when he knew that Erik was actively keeping something from him, he could not find it in himself to read his mind. Not even his surface thoughts betrayed anything. Charles had long suspected that also non-psychic mutants had stronger mental defenses than humans. Was this further proof of this, or was Charles just avoiding something that was there?

There was no denying that Erik obviously had something on his mind. Charles assumed it was something to do with the service or with Gaby, but more than that he did not know. Erik’s mood provided no clues either. It happened that Charles saw him smile to himself, without anything around him provoking it. At other times, he would brood, and then his worry seemed to itch against Charles’ mind. He could sense it, but could not (or would not let himself) reach it. Most of the time he was trying not to think about it, telling himself that Erik had the right of privacy. But it was difficult not to reflect sometimes that Erik was spending more time with Gaby than he had before. Perhaps he was just being protective, after what had happened to her, even if she was completely well now. Besides, it was not as if they were excluding him, apart from the ways he was naturally excluded. They went dancing once or twice, and Erik went with Gaby for Friday dinner with one of her fellow congregants the following two weeks. They met as they always had, and on occasion Gaby spent the night. A few times, Erik stayed even when Gaby did not, but then Charles always sensed his unease. It felt, he realised finally, like a set of scales. Erik had said it himself, that he had a decision to make, and Charles’ presence seemed to upset the balance, making the usually less favoured option weigh heavier than usual.

The next two weeks, Charles continued to wonder what was going on in Erik’s mind but remained reluctant to break in and find out. Most of the time he pushed it away, managing not to think about it, but when on the edge of sleep, the query would present itself stronger. It always brought with it a strong sense of loneliness, which he could not quite explain. On the night of the third Sunday after Erik’s cryptic announcement, the questions had been haunting him as usual. Finally, Charles shrugged them off and was just slipping off, when there was a knock on the door. He decided to ignore it, unwilling to acknowledge that anyone would knock on his door at midnight. Another, more insistent knock, broke the silence. It was followed by Erik’s voice.

‘Charles?’ He opened his eyes and raised his head, a little confused. ‘Charles, I’m in my dressing-gown. Let me come in before someone sees me like this.’

Charles rubbed his eyes and started pulling himself up into a sitting position.

Fine. Come inside.

The door unlocked, and Erik slipped in, locking it again behind him. Even through the dark Charles could see that he was only in his pyjamas and dressing-gown. He switched on the light, and saw to his surprise how haunted his face looked. It was a wonder that he had not sensed that at once.

‘Are you alright?’ he asked. Erik looked away for a moment and then said:

‘I need to talk to you.’

‘Of course.’ Charles drew back the covers and nodded to him. A little reluctantly, Erik crawled into bed and settled, arms crossed over his chest. ‘So. What’s the matter?’

His shoulders slumped, but his eyes remained fixed in front of him. He struggled to speak, and when he finally did, there was a tremble to his voice.

‘You must swear not to repeat this to anyone.’

‘Of course,’ Charles said. ‘I’d never betray a confidence.’ Erik closed his eyes and nodded, grateful. They sat in silence for a long time. ‘Has anything happened?’ he asked after a long time. ‘With the Brotherhood...?’

‘This isn’t about them,’ he almost snapped.

‘Alright,’ Charles said measuredly. ‘Then what is it?’ Erik sighed and rested his head in his hands. Finally, he looked at him, fierceness mixed with terror.

‘What if we were wrong, Charles?’ he whispered. ‘About us.’

‘Us?’

‘Mutants,’ he whispered. ‘At times I wonder... I wish... that we are not the next step of evolution. That we are simply something which went wrong. What if we are the end of humanity, without being the start of something else? Perhaps it is all the other way around, and I am at fault.’

Charles stared at him. He could not believe that the man saying this things was Magneto, the great advocate of the homo superior.

‘Erik...’ He had to pause to gather his thoughts. ‘That’s nonsense. You don’t sound like yourself. What on earth has happened to make you think these things?’

Erik sighed, massaging his forehead.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he asked.

‘Oh,’ Charles said. A sense of disappointment started spreading in his chest. ‘This is about Gaby.’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ve been spending a lot of time together recently.’ It was just a statement, but it burned in his throat. Erik nodded mutely. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

‘Yes,’ he said again. ‘It’s strange, the sense of being part of something. And not in the same way as being part of a group of mutants. I know that my descendants will be mutants, but my forefathers were not. They were human. They were Jews. Being that again...’ Charles watched him. He saw the longing in him to be not a semi-divine creature of evolution, but a human being who had a covenant with God. He also saw the version of the future he imagined. An ordinary house, a mezuzah on the doorframe, the noise of children...

Charles stared at him in shocked surprise.

‘You want to marry her,’ he whispered. Erik looked away, but he did not contradict him. Carefully, afraid that he might make him bolt, Charles reached out towards him and touched his shoulder. ‘Erik...’

‘I know we said it wouldn’t be that way,’ Erik murmured.

‘We’ve already broken that promise, you and I.’ Charles swallowed noisily. ‘Besides, I can’t stay here forever. Sooner or later, I will need to go back to the school. This was never going to last.’ Erik sat quietly, not looking at him. ‘How long have you been thinking about this?’

‘Since she...’ He struggled to find the words. ‘Since she fell ill, I think.’ Charles nodded. To himself he thought that this meant that he had thought about it first. He wondered momentarily if he should tell Erik that, but decided against it.

‘You’ve only known her for a few months,’ he observed insetad.

‘It’s enough,’ Erik said with a shrug. ‘My parents had never met unchaperoned before they married.’

‘Those were different times.’ Erik only nodded morosely. Charles’ words had been doubly true.

‘They were,’ he said. ‘Gaby thinks that this is a better world. She thinks that she could emigrate and all would be well. As if all that death burned away the hate and purified the world. I can’t see how she could think that.’

‘Because she needs to think it,’ Charles answered, suddenly annoyed at Erik’s vehemence against the woman he claimed he loved. ‘She wants to be safe, and believing that is the only way she can feel it.’

‘But don’t we all want to feel safe?’ Erik exclaimed, suddenly flaring up. ‘We all want to belong to something, to a group that can protect us. Isn’t that what this is all about?’

When Charles looked at him now, he did not look away. They sat in silence, simply watching each other, which Charles tried to decied what to say. He did not know where to start, and which conflicting desire to address first.

‘You make it sound like you want to be human,’ he observed finally. Erik closed his eyes with a sigh. ‘Don’t you realise how ridiculous that is?’ Charles continued. ‘You can’t wish yourself into another form of being. Are you truly imagining that you could simply stop being a mutant by hiding that side of you? That you could put it all aside and live a normal life? You can’t be something you’re not!’ He caught sight of Erik’s face, and closed his mouth. He had not meant to say any of those things, but still he had lost his temper. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, and looked away.

‘Were you really talking about my being a mutant?’ Erik asked quietly. ‘Not about anything else?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Charles said dismissively, even if he did. They sat in embarrassed silence for a moment or so, the subject of their affair hovering between them. Fianlly, Erik spoke again.

‘Of course I realise how ridiculous it is. But I would like to be the kind of man she would love.’

‘She does love you,’ Charles reminded him, still not looking at him.

‘She would not love Magneto.’ That made him look up. He had not thought about that. ‘Do you not see, Charles, that it could never happen? She would hate me if she knew, and my followers would hate her if they saw her. If I married her, what would the Brotherhood do to her?’ Erik’s thoughts were strong enough that the gruesome images forced themselves into Charles’ mind. As if it were a physical blow threatening to hit him, he held up his hand to protect himself, and mentally pushed the images aside. ‘I would destroy her, Charles. Mutants would hate her, and humans would hate her. She would be a racial traitor or a devolved sapien. She wants to be safe, you say. If I married her, she would lose every shred of protection. Everyone would want to hunt her down. You can’t think that my will to feel part of something is so big that I would risk that. And to give up everything I have worked for, even for her...’ He turned towards Charles. For a long, drawn-out moment, they watched each other. ‘It’d never happen,’ he sighed. Charles hesitated for a moment, then put his hand on his shoulder. Erik pressed his hand briefly before brushing it off. In his movements he sensed his fear of meeting the world alone, once again, as he had all these years. He reached out again and caught his hand.

‘Erik, it’s never preferable to be alone.’ Erik shook his head.

‘But there is no way...’

‘Then don’t marry her!’ he urged. He had meant to make it sound like an innocent suggestion, but at the thought of it, he laughed, giddy with the idea of a shared future. ‘Come with me. We don’t have to be enemies. Run the school with me. We can make it all better....’

Erik shook his head.

‘We couldn’t, Charles,’ he said. ‘It’s just a silly dream.’ He shook off his hands, not heeding the tears rising in Charles’ eyes.

‘But you can’t be alone,’ he whispered.

‘Am I?’ Erik asked, looking him in the eye. ‘Now?’

‘No,’ he said and touched his face. Erik shifted closer, until they sat forehead to forehead, nose to nose. Charles wondered what cruel twist of fate had made it so that just when he finally acepted his love for Erik, Erik started entertaining ideas of marriage, however hypothetical they may be. It had all seemed so easy when they had decided on this.

‘Will you stay?’ Charles murmured.

‘For a while,’ Erik whispered back and shifted to rest his head against his chest. He lay there, running his fingers through his hair. Charles thought through what he had said, and felt disgusted at himself. How could he even attempt to deny Gaby that? Was he really so selfish? He thought about her and about Erik, as his lovers and each others’. If it were not for the Brotherhood, they had every opportunity to be very happy. He wondered if there was something he could say to undo his previous words. After a long time, he said:

‘You would be beautiful together.’ Erik snorted.

‘Our children would be born scarred.’

‘Don’t joke about such things.’

‘I wasn’t joking.’

They did not speak more. When Charles fell asleep, Erik was lying in his arms. In the morning when he woke up, there was no sign that he had ever lain beside him.

***

The following days, it felt as if Erik’s confession had not truly happened, but only been a confused dream brought on by Charles’ own worry. All seemed like it always had, even if he did not see much of either of his lovers. In a way, it was a relief. Telepaths were in need of solitude, and constantly sleeping with other minds close by disturbed his sleep.

Thursday was such a day. He woke up on his own accord, undisturbed by other people’s dreams, and bathed and dressed leisurely before ringing for breakfast. Erik had lent him Kim by Ruyard Kipling, which he did not know when he last read, so now he settled down with it over the breakfast. He was on the second chapter and the third cup of tea when there was a knock on the door.

‘Come in!’ He unlocked the wheels and swung around his chair in time to see Gaby enter. Her clothes were hastily put on and her hair was uncombed. Charles had sensed her unease, but her wide and shocked eyes, and the lips, pressed tightly together, still shocked him.

‘Gaby, whatever’s the matter?’ She did not answer yet, but remained by the closed door, as if she thought she might be trespassing. Quickly, Charles put the bookmark between the pages and closed the door, then moved a chair by its armrest to face him. ‘Come, sit down. Would you like some tea?’

‘No,’ she said numbly and sat down. ‘Thank you.’ She spoke as if her mind was not quite connected to her body, and she witnessed the events around her through a filter.

‘I wasn’t expecting you,’ Charles said, hoping it would prompt her to speak. At once, she looked away, and a brief blush passed over her cheeks.

‘I spent the night in Erik’s room,’ she admitted.

‘Good,’ Charles said, trying his very best to sound encouraging. ‘No reason why you shouldn’t.’ But she did not look calmed, and Charles felt her worry spread to him. ‘Unless... What happened, Gaby?’ Something must have. Had Erik brought up the question of engagement, despite the doubts he had had? No, Charles could not see Gaby reacting like this to a proposal, even if it might surprise her. Had he told her that he was a mutant? Had something altogether more unpleasant happened? He felt ashamed to even think it, but by how frightened Gaby seemed, it was a natural worry. Still, he shook it off. Erik might be unpredictable, but he was not violent towards those he cared for.

While he tried to guess, Gaby had tried to compose herself. Finally she started speaking, her voice quiet but steady.

‘I spent the night with Erik,’ she repeated. ‘When we went to bed, he simply couldn’t sleep. He woke up every few minutes in a panic, kicking and screaming. I had to try to calm him down...’

‘That must have been awful for you,’ Charles said compassionately. ‘You should have let me know.’

‘I didn’t want to bother you,’ she said, looking down in her lap. ‘I thought about it, but... Well, finally, he fell asleep and stayed that way, and I fell asleep too. When I woke up, I knew I had to leave to get home and change before work, but he was still fast asleep, and I just couldn’t wake him. Yesterday, he was so exhausted, and I thought that just letting him sleep would be kindest. So I thought that I’d write him a note, to tell him that I’d gone. I went to the desk, and looked for pen and paper in the drawers...’ She fell silent, and she went a little paler. Charles waited for the rest of the story, but all she did was to stare at her hands.

‘And what then?’ he asked softly. She did not answer. ‘Gaby, what was in the drawers?’ Now she looked up at him and let out a trembling breath.

‘Passports,’ she said. ‘Four of them. An American one, an Israeli one, a French one and a Swiss one.’ Charles watched her, hoping for more. His inability to draw the conclusions she had drawn seemed to annoy her. ‘The only way a person could have that many passports would be if some of them were forged.’

‘Did you look at them?’ Charles asked, stroking his chin and considering it. This was undoubtedly worrying. It was a shard of a different life, which Gaby had not been told about.

‘They were all his,’ Gaby said. ‘It was even the same picture in all of them. There was no doubt. And all of them had been used. He’d travelled all around the world with them.’ They looked at each other. Gaby was once again the one to offer an explanation. ‘Don’t you see what this means?’ she asked. ‘He’s lied to us. He’s not a businessman. Why would someone like that have four passports? No. The only people who have that are spies and criminals.’

‘And which one do you think Erik is?’

Gaby shrugged.

‘Does it matter?’ she asked. ‘In any case, he’s lied to us.’

‘Perhaps it’s something he’s not able to tell us,’ Charles reasoned. It felt cruel to pretend to be ignorant when he was not, but even if he could have explained to Gaby precisely why Erik would want to travel without being able to be traced, he would not. That story was not his to tell, and anyhow, he would rather that Gaby did not know about that part of Erik’s life. ‘If he’s secret intelligence, then he certainly would not.’ Gaby seemed to think about it.

‘I suppose so,’ she said slowly. ‘But we’re all so close...’

‘I’m sure he has a good reason for keeping it from us,’ Charles said. Gaby looked at him, frowning.

‘You don’t seem at all surprised by this,’ she observed. Charles laughed nervously.

‘Well, it’s something which wouldn’t surprise me about Erik, I suppose,’ he said, trying to sound light-hearted.

‘Has he ever told you anything?’ she pressed. ‘You’ve known each other for so long...’

‘As a rule, Erik doesn’t talk business with me,’ he lied. ‘Gaby, I think that the best course of action would be to forget about all this.’

‘Why?’ she asked, startled.

‘It feels like something not meant for us to know,’ he said, even if he knew that this sounded a little forced. ‘You weren’t meant to see those passports...’

‘I wasn’t snooping,’ she said sharply. ‘It was an accident!’

‘Then isn’t it better that you let it go?’

‘But I want to know why he hasn’t told me the truth!’ she explained. ‘Or even, told us the truth. Doesn’t that disturb you?’

‘Erik is a very private person. I don’t expect him to tell me everything...’

‘But something like this, Charles! What it implies...’

He was just about to answer, when there was a sharp knock on the door and the creaking of hinges. Charles looked up and Gaby turned, just when Erik stepped in. He seemed simply to have put on the clothes he had found, and the only attention his hair had had was a hair run through it. He did not look well-rested, but his face lit up with relief when he saw them.

‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I hope I’m not interrupting. I was looking for you, Gaby...’ Suddenly noticing how Gaby’s face did not change, Erik fell silent. He looked from one to the other and finally asked: ‘Has something happened?’ Charles wheeled a little closer.

‘Erik...’ But before he had time to say or do anything, Gaby said:


‘Tell me about the passports.’ Erik’s concern turned into surprise.

‘What?’

‘The passports,’ Gaby all but hissed.

‘What passports?’ Erik asked.

‘The ones in your desk-drawer!’ she said and pointed in the direction of his room. He frowned, obviously about to ask how she could know. ‘I saw them,’ she said. ‘What do they mean?’ Erik did not answer, but just stared at her as if he did not want this to be happening. When he did not speak, Gaby pressed on. ‘You lied to me. You’re not a businessman at all. I should have known - you don’t act it, or sound it.’ Erik pressed his mouth shut, defiant in his silence.

‘Gaby...’ Charles said, reaching out to touch her arm, but she took a step towards Erik, evading his grip.

‘What are you keeping from us?’ she asked. ‘What would you need four passports for? What are you?’

Erik’s expression did not change, but Charles could see the storm in his eyes. He was fighting against the truth, and the answer he actually wanted to give. Erik looked at Charles, his gaze communicating his distress. He could do nothing else than look back at him and lightly touch his mind.

‘I needed them for revenge,’ he finally said. Gaby frowned. Now that she had an answer, however, vague, her disapproval lifted, but she still looked sceptical.

‘Revenge?’ she repeated.

Still looking at Charles, he answered:

‘I track down Nazis.’

Gaby’s eyes grew. A short, surprised laugh escaped her.

‘You’re a... Nazi hunter?’ she said slowly.

‘I suppose that’s the phrase,’ Erik said and shrugged, eyes on the floor. Like this, with crinkled clothes and uncombed hair, fearing rejection from a lover, he looked nothing like it. Charles could understand why Gaby found it difficult to believe. Their first (and indeed later) impressions of Erik were very different. She took a step closer, looking at him with new respect, but also with a new wariness.

‘So... are you Mossad? If you’re allowed to say, of course...’

Erik shook his head.

‘I’m not Mossad.’

‘CIA?’

‘No.’ Gaby frowned.

‘Then... who do you liaise with?’ Now it was Erik who frowned.

‘Liaise with?’ he repeated, as if he did not understand her.

‘Yes - to hand them over,’ she explained. ‘To get them to the authorities.’ Charles realised too late where this was heading, but he did not have time to realise what the helpless look Erik cast him meant. He turned his eyes from Charles and stepped closer to Gaby. He had an air about him of a man surrendering.

‘I don’t hand them over to the authorities.’

‘Then what...?’ The impact of the realisation was so strong that Charles sensed it without even reaching out. Before Gaby’s eyes, her lover transformed into a killer. She took a step backwards. ‘No...’ she whispered. ‘You don’t mean...’ Erik’s gaze remained steady on her, and he did not contradict her. ‘Erik, you can’t have...!’

‘Every single one of them deserved it,’ he said calmly. He took a step towards her. She recoiled from his outstretched hand, as if it were covered in blood. She stared at it and then, mastering her terror, looked him in the eye.

‘How many people have you killed?’

‘Nazis,’ he intoned. ‘I’ve never taken an innocent life. They have all been guilty.’

‘But...!’ she exclaimed, struggling for words. Her breathing was becoming shallow, but her anger was greater than her panic. ‘That doesn’t give you the right to kill them!’ Erik’s equilibrium broke.

‘Do I not have the right, after what they did to us?’ he roared. ‘They deserved it!’

‘I don’t care if they deserved it,’ Gaby shouted back. ‘That’s not the point! You can’t just kill people, punish them without a fair trial...’

‘Trials are too good for them. Besides, they would have been hanged anyway,’ Erik retorted. ‘Why wait, and deny me the satisfaction?’

‘Because they have the right to be tried!’ A sudden sob rose, and she pressed her hand against her mouth to quench it. It came out sounding almost as a scream. ‘Oh, God,’ she whispered. ‘Erik, how could you...?’ As if the sight of her tears humbled her, his shoulder slumped and his anger abated. There was something tender in his eyes when he stepped closer. His hand was almost on her shoulder when she backed away.

‘Don’t touch me,’ she shouted, raising a hand to shield herself. His face fell.

‘Don’t you think they deserve to suffer?’ he asked. ‘Like we suffered?’

‘What does it matter what I think?’ she sobbed. ‘I want them to suffer, yes, but that’s irrelevant. If you take the law into your own hands like that and decide who is to live and who is to die, what makes you different from them?’ She looked at him defiantly. He offered no answer.

‘Gaby...’ he whispered.

‘No,’ she said firmly, wiping the tears off her cheeks. ‘Stop it.’ She crossed to where she had left her bag and hat. ‘I’m sorry, Charles,’ she said, new tears already falling. Then she turned and made for the door.

‘Gaby, wait!’ Charles called and unlocked the wheels on his chair. Even before the door closed, he heard the clatter of her heels as she ran down the corridor, sobbing. There was no way for him to give pursuit. Instead, he turned to Erik. He was facing the door, watching it as if it was some impenetrable obstacle. ‘Erik?’ Charles said cautiously. ‘Are you alright?’

Erik swallowed. The fantasy of his human future, which already had cracks running through it, fractured and fell apart. This had been bad enough to make her run away from him, and she did not even know that he was a mutant. It was like with Magda, who had turned away from him in disgust, only much worse, because he had expected Gaby to understand. A hatred for his actions, actions which Charles had never accused him of committing, even if they had never met with his approval, had been seen in her eyes, and that cut deep into his soul.

Earnestly, he shook his head.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Charles was not certain how he got through the following weeks. He had grown so used to the pattern that Gaby and Erik seemed to grow closer and closer that it threw him that that was not the case anymore. They became very good at avoiding each other, especially as it seemed, at least to Charles, that whenever one of them was not with him, the other was. Previously, Gaby had been their connector. Now Charles played that part instead. Most nights, he would have one of them curled up beside him. Sometimes, he had half a mind to invite them both on the same day and let them settle their differences, but he was not quite that cruel. Besides, Gaby made it clear that she did not want to see Erik at all. He had tried to write and call, but to no avail. The one time he had gone to her flat and had tried to plead with her through the door, Gaby later told Charles that she had simply pretended to be at home. It was only through touching her mind Charles knew just how pitiful she had found his begging, and all that had kept her from opening the door and letting him in had been the memory of what he had told her he had done. Charles pretended not to know that, either with her or with Erik. The way they both confided in him played him in his usual role of the calm counsellor, who did not share what one had said to the other.

Only on occasion did his calm break, and it was almost always with Erik, who would tell him to convey messages (‘tell her she hasn’t understood,’ ‘explain to her that after what they did to me, it was the only thing I could do’) as Gaby refused to see him. He found that it was easier to be harsh towards Erik, who to some extent was guilty for the break. Gaby, with all her just ardor, was difficult to find fault in. Still, Charles sometimes found himself defending Erik, despite the things he had done. It hurt to hear someone rage against him like Gaby did. He tried his best to answer her questions, but the ones around their past (‘did you know?’, ‘did you ever suspect?’) were difficult to answer truthfully. Other, more professional ones, about whether Erik was in fact insane and that was why he thought he was allowed to do what he did, were easier, but he kept his answers vague. The very worst was when she considered acting on what she had learned. Once during a completely unrelated conversation, she went silent and then said:

‘We should go to the police.’ She was about to get up when Charles grabbed her arm.

‘No, Gaby!’

She looked at him fiercely.

‘Why shouldn’t we?’ she asked. ‘He’s killed people, Charles. That’s the worst thing a person can do.’

‘He claims he’s killed people,’ Charles answered. ‘That’s altogether different. Where’s your evidence? You only have his word for it. For all we know, he may be delusional.’ Some of her momentum disappeared.

‘Do you think he is delusional?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Charles admitted, ‘but that doesn’t change anything. You’d just be laughed at, Gaby. They won’t listen to you.’ Sighing, she sat back down.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said. ‘I just wish we could do something. Knowing and not doing anything feels wrong.’ Charles supposed it was wrong, but to him it was the only thing to do. His love for Erik trumped his sense of justice.

All the worries they brought him to judge were taking its toll, and more and more often, he felt the strain on his nerves. Part of him longed for the school and its open grounds, where the demands on him were not so emotionally draining. When he called the mansion for the first time in weeks, Hank, who picked up the phone, noticed the weariness in his voice.

‘You don’t sound well, professor,’ he said carefully. ‘Is everything alright?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Charles answered. ‘I’ve been losing sleep over petty things, I suppose.’

‘When will you be coming back?’ Hank asked. ‘The kids miss you.’ Charles smiled, reflecting that Hank was too inhibited to admit that he and the other adults missed him, even if it was obvious that they did.

‘I don’t know when,’ he admitted. ‘I have some personal business I have to attend to.’

‘Oh. Alright.’ Hank was too far away for him to be able to read his thoughts, but he could imagine him thinking, since when did the professor ever have any personal business?

‘I’m sorry I can’t give a definite answer, Hank,’ Charles said. ‘There are things keeping me here.’ Hank waited, hoping that he would elaborate. Before Hank had time to simply ask what was on his mind, Charles heard a cacophony of voices.

‘Oh, here are the children,’ Hank said, then: ‘Hey!’ Charles heard his voice grow more distant. ‘You could have just asked for the receiver, Jean!’

‘Hello, professor,’ said Jean.

‘Hello, Jean,’ Charles answered, smiling to himself. It was a relief to hear her voice. ‘Don’t tell me you telekinetically stole the receiver from Hank.’

‘I couldn’t help it,’ she said, but really did not sound apologetic. ‘Besides, if I hadn’t, Pietro would have taken it.’

‘I hope you’re all behaving yourselves,’ Charles said, mock-sternly. ‘I wouldn’t want you giving your teachers a hard time.’ There was the sound of someone pulling the receiver their way.

‘They’re giving us a hard time!’ Pietro said. ‘I don’t think Sean is allowed to give us detention!’

‘Pietro smashed one of the vases in the hallway, professor,’ Ororo called from a distance. ‘He deserved detention!’

‘Good Lord, Pietro,’ Charles said. ‘I should thank you. I’ve never liked those vases.’

‘Can I break the other one?’ Pietro said excitedly.

‘No, you can’t!’ Scott shouted.

‘Let’s put it in the attic,’ Charles said. Once again there was the sound of someone wrestling with the receiver. Then he heard Wanda’s voice:

‘Can I have it? I could use it for practice, for changing the pattern on it.’

‘Sounds much better than putting it in the attic,’ Charles conceded. ‘You can have it, Wanda.’

‘Won’t you come home soon, professor?’ Jean asked. ‘We miss you!’ The others called out, ‘yes! absolutely! please come home?’ and Rahne barked her agreement.

‘Soon, I hope,’ he said, even if he did not know if it was true. It felt worse to give them vague answers than Hank. Even if none of them knew his reasons, Hank could at least understand why he did not know. ‘Will you behave until then?’ They all murmured in unison. ‘Good. Take care of each other. Now hand me back to Hank, so that I can have a word with him.’

‘Alright!’

‘Bye-bye!’

‘Miss you, professor!’

The receiver moved again, back to Hank.

‘Hello again, professor. Sorry about that.’

‘No, completely fine,’ Charles said and smiled, even if there was no-one there to smile at. Talking to the children had cheered him up a little.

‘Let us know when you want us to come for you,’ he said. ‘I must admit, running this place on our own...’ He trailed off.

‘I’m sure you’re doing fine,’ Charles assured him. ‘I’m sorry to leave it all to you, of course.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that,’ Hank said quickly. ‘You need the rest.’ Which I am really not getting, Charles thought to himself.

‘I’ll be in touch,’ he promised. ‘Give my regards to Sean and Alex. Take care of the children.’

‘Sure. Goodbye!’ Charles put down the receiver, and a sense of melancholia descended upon him. He had thought that the school had been nerve-wrecking. Love was worse. Still he could not leave New York yet, not when Gaby’s mind was this fragile and Erik’s path was so unclear. He knew that he could not count on Erik’s companionship, but leaving New York would mean leaving Gaby, and he did not want that. He may have realised that his feelings for Erik were stronger still, but it did not mean that he did not feel for Gaby too. He loved Erik, but he was still in love with Gaby. It felt good enough, under the circumstances. Leaving New York would mean leaving Gaby, and as he did not know if bringing her with him would work, or indeed if she would want it, he lingered, letting his date of departure remain blurred in the distant future. Knowing that he could afford the hotel suite for however long he wanted it was a relief, but it meant that he lacked a reason for leaving. Now, he was only torn between loyalties - to his school in Westchester on the one hand and, in New York, both to Gaby and Erik on the other.

In the weeks following their row, Gaby and Erik mostly talked about each other. Charles found it an absurd that though they may have fallen out, probably bad enough for it never to heal, they were still so preoccupied for each other. After three weeks, however, they had both started to calm down, and became less prone to ranting about the absent party. It was a Sunday, and the May sun was pouring into Gaby’s kitchen, making it grow hot enough that Charles rolled up his shirt-sleeves. Gaby sat facing him him, her feet in his lap.

‘Did you hear that students at Berkeley burned their draft-cards?’ she said as she started peeling an apple. ‘There was a demonstration with 30 000 people in it.’

‘Yes, I did hear,’ Charles said.

‘I think it’s brilliant,’ Gaby admitted. ‘It’s high time someone said no to what’s been going on in Vietnam.’

‘Aren’t most of them hippies, though?’ She shrugged.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘They’re standing up for that they think their government is doing something wrong. That’s what matters.’ As she cut the apple in half and took out the pips, she added: ‘It’s the kind of thing Erik says doesn’t happen. He thinks that people are like cattle, and will just believe what their leaders say they should believe in.’

‘Some people are like that,’ Charles said, as he stroked her foot absentmindedly. ‘A lot of them are scared, and they think it’ll keep them safe.’

‘Well, yes,’ she said, looking a little sad about it. ‘But if enough people say no, then the government must listen. That’s the point with democracy, surely.’

‘Direct democracy, at least.’

‘And we don’t live in ancient Athens,’ she sighed. Charles was just about to say something about the problems with direct democracy in a modern setting when the phone rang. Gaby got up, handed him one half of the apple and licked the juice of her fingers. ‘Excuse me.’ Still with her fingers in her mouth, she crossed to the phone and picked it up just as it rang for the second time. ‘Haller.’ There was a pause for the person on the other side to introduce themselves, and Gaby lit up a little and said something in Dutch. Turning to Charles, she mouthed, ‘my aunt’. He nodded and started eating his half of the apple, as he listened to the sound of her voice. It sounded particularly beautiful when speaking a language he did not know, and he found the sound of Dutch exotic and familiar all at once. The conversation seemed to be completely common-place, until a few minutes into the phone call, when Gaby’s eyes grew. She protested in Dutch, but her aunt pressed on, interrupting her. As she listened, Gaby looked more and more panic-stricken, and started grimacing to express it somehow. Once or twice she tried to object, but the attempts went unnoticed. At last, they said goodbye and Gaby hung up, staring at the telephone in disbelief.

‘What was that all about, Gaby?’ Charles asked, looking concern.

‘She’s coming down for my birthday next week,’ she explained.

‘Is that so bad?’

‘No, it’s not that,’ she said, swallowing. ‘One of the congregants told her I was seeing someone, and now she requested to meet him!’ She turned around and looked at Charles helplessly. ‘What do I do?’

Charles tried to think. It was as clear to him as it was to Gaby that he could not meet her aunt. She would not approve of him, and it would be obvious to her at once that this was not the man her niece had taken with her to the synagogue. As Gaby started pacing the kitchen, whispering. ‘damn, damn, damn’ under her breath, he thought it through. The answer was apparent, but he knew that she would not like it.

‘I tried to tell her that it wasn’t possible,’ she said, sounding close to tears. ‘But she wouldn’t listen...’

‘Gaby, come and sit down,’ Charles told her. ‘Don’t agitate yourself.’ She came to sit facing him, but still said:

‘This is a disaster. I’ll have to tell her that it’s over, and she’ll think I’m a slut.’

‘She won’t,’ Charles said patiently. Gaby gave him a withering look.

‘You haven’t met my aunt. She keeps saying that I am trying to drive her to an early grave by living here and not in Boston in her miserable little flat. She would think that I’ve taken to the streets.’

‘So if the repercussions of not bringing someone is worse than bringing someone, then surely it is better to do the latter.’ Gaby bit her lip.

‘I’m sorry, Charles, but... if she met you...’

‘I know, she wouldn’t want her niece seeing a cripple.’

‘A gentile cripple,’ she corrected him.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said and handed her one half of the apple. She bit into it, looking defiant. ‘So you can’t bring me, and you can’t tell her the truth about the state of your love life,’ Charles reasoned. ‘Isn’t it obvious what you should do?’

‘How can I do that?’ she asked, sarcasm in her voice. ‘Say that my boyfriend is busy with - hah - killing Nazis?’

‘No, that wasn’t what I meant,’ Charles said patiently. ‘Rather, I was thinking that you bring Erik with you.’

Gaby dropped the remainder of the apple.

‘Bring Erik?’ she repeated incredulously. ‘No!’

‘Why, pray, is that such an impossibility?’ Charles asked, using his teacher voice.

‘Because... no! I won’t.’ She crossed her arms over her chest.

‘You’re being childish.’

‘I’m not,’ she shot back. ‘He’s a killer, Charles. The thought of what he must have done makes me sick. I refuse to talk to him.’

‘Then I suppose you don’t care that you’ve as good as broken his heart,’ Charles said sharply, his light tone completely gone.

‘I’m glad to hear he’s got one that can break,’ she answered, getting to her feet.

‘Gaby, you can’t be this cruel,’ he exclaimed. ‘Your feelings can’t have changed this fast.’

‘Are you telling me I should take him back?’ she asked vehemently. ‘Why doesn’t this shock you?’ It was a valid question, and one he had pondered himself during the past week, but nevertheless, he answered.

‘That’s beside the point. Don’t you see that this is the best for everyone? Your aunt gets to meet your beau. You don’t have to find an excuse. Erik gets to meet you again.’

‘But I don’t want to meet him,’ she said, her protest less angry and more desperate now.

‘I’m not making you,’ Charles said with a shrug. ‘It’s simply my advice of what would be the best - and, perhaps, the kindest. He would just be there to play a role, one you know he would play very well...’ Even as he said this, he knew that it was not the most obvious way out at all. He had simply seen a chance of engineering a meeting between the two of them, and had taken it.

Gaby sighed and returned to her chair, but she did not put her feet in his lap again.

‘Will you ask him?’

‘You’ll have to tell him yourself, Gaby,’ he said sharply. ‘See it as facing up to your mistakes.’

‘I haven’t made any mistakes,’ she exclaimed, anger flaring up again. ‘And don’t accuse me of being cruel again, because I did the only thing I could have.’

‘Whatever you think about his actions, or the fact that he kept them secret from us, it does not change the person he is,’ Charles pointed out. ‘He’s still the same man.’ Gaby stared at him, looking grim.

‘How can you see beyond what he’s done?’

‘I have an understanding of troubled minds.’ It seemed as good a euphemism as any.

‘Understanding means accepting - tolerating, even,’ Gaby said. ‘What he did, regardless of to whom he did it, should not be tolerated.’

For want of anything else, Charles shrugged and said:

‘Hate the sin, love the sinner. Quite literally, in my case.’ Gaby looked at him for a long time, as if she wanted to be surprised but was not.

‘So you do still love him,’ she said finally. There was something disappointed in the way she said it, but whether it was because of Erik or Charles, he could not tell. Charles smiled sadly.

‘I suppose that one day it’ll be my undoing.’ Wordlessly, Gaby took his hand. They did not discuss any of it for the rest of the day.

***

Gaby’s surrender did not mean the end of her reluctance. The next day when she came to the hotel to speak to Erik, she lingered in Charles’ room for the best part of half an hour.

‘Won’t you come with me?’ she asked. Charles shook his head.

‘You’ll have to do this yourself.’ Gaby paced across the room again, seemingly intent on wearing down the carpet. ‘If I were you, I’d just get it over with.’ She stopped and took a purposeful breath.

‘You’re right.’ Charles nodded in encouragement.

‘Be kind to him, Gaby.’ She rolled her eyes but said:

‘I’ll try.’ Then, after kissing him on the cheek, left. As soon as the door closed, he reached out and touched her mind, just enough to sense where she was. As she started climbing the stairs, he found Erik’s mind and projected:

I hope you’re in an appeasable mood, Erik.

He sensed his confusion.

What do you mean?

You’ll see, very soon. Now, in fact.

Charles slipped into Erik’s mind to share his senses and heard -

-the knock. Confused by Charles’ cryptic message, Erik made for the door. As soon as he opened it, he wondered if he had fallen asleep while reading and was dreaming. Gaping, he stared at Gaby, who stared back, not speaking. Finally, he found his voice.

‘I didn’t expect you. Would you like...’ He stepped aside to let her in, but shook her head. Disappointed, he returned to where he had stood before.

‘I’m not here to make amends,’ she said coldly. ‘I’m here to ask for a favour.’

‘A favour?’ he asked, perplexed.

‘It’s quite silly, really,’ she said and averted her eyes. It looked almost like she was blushing. ‘My aunt’s coming to New York for my birthday next Thursday, and she expects to meet my boyfriend.’

‘It’s your birthday on Thursday?’ he said, lighting up. ‘I didn’t know.’ She shrugged. She had thought it would be hard to speak to him because of knowing that he had blood on his hands, but she was ashamed to think that that was not the problem. What was throwing her off-balance was instead how unchanged he was. She had expected a monster to recoil from. She had found a man who made her heart beat faster, even when she did not want it to.

‘Would you come and meet my aunt?’ she asked. ‘Most of it would just be sitting there. You don’t have to do much talking. Auntie Hannah usually does most of that anyway.’ Then she added: ‘That’d be all, of course. It’d just be to keep her off my back.’ Erik nodded, trying to make it look as if he understood and accepted the situation.

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘Just that.’

‘But I’d be grateful,’ she added. Her voice sounded strained, as if her sudden emotional confusion was making itself apparent.

‘If it’ll help you, of course.’

‘Thank you,’ she forced herself to say. They stood there looking at each other. Gaby wondered what she was supposed to do next.

‘When on Thursday?’ Erik asked. Gaby shook herself, realising she had forgotten to give him such practical details.

‘We’re supposed to meet at six.’

‘Shall I pick you up?’

‘I’ll probably see Charles after I finish working,’ she said. ‘How about in the foyer, at twenty to?’ He nodded.

‘Good.’

‘Dress neatly, but nothing formal.’ He nodded in acknowledgement. Once again they looked at each other, waiting for the other one to speak.

‘Good,’ Erik repeated.

‘Yes,’ Gaby said.

‘I’ll see you on Thursday, then.’ They nodded to each other, and realising that he was waiting for her to leave, Gaby took a few steps away from the door. Slowly, he closed it. When she heard it shut completely, she turned around and looked at it. For the first time that year she bothered to count the days to her birthday.

***

Learning that Gaby’s birthday was fast approaching made Charles consider the issue of birthday presents. He wanted to give her something, but he did not know what, and he could not go out and browse. Before Cuba he had never reflected on how many department stores had revolving doors, and how many shops were tiny and cramped. In the end, he simply had to ask Erik to go for him, which he happily did. On Wednesday, the day before Gaby’s birthday, Erik came to his room to hand it over.

‘I found it in a little jeweller’s shop, run by a son and a father,’ Erik explained as he handed over the small velvet-covered case. ‘It reminded me a little of my uncle’s shop, back in Düsseldorf.’ Charles smiled at him and opened the case. On the bedding lay a bracelet of perfectly round pearls. Carefully, he picked it up and looked at it.

‘It’s a wonderful choice,’ he said. ‘It’ll suit her.’

‘I though it would go well with the necklace she wears.’ Charles nodded.

‘Yes, it would.’ Then, putting it back, he asked: ‘So... how much do I owe you for this?’

‘I was hoping it could be from both of us,’ Erik said earnestly.

‘So we both pay. How much?’ He named half the price. Charles wrote him a check, reflecting that it was probably enough to feed a person for weeks. There were plenty who needed that money more. It did not change that it pleased him to know that Gaby would wear something the two of them had bought her.

The next morning, Charles woke with a sense of excitement. He had not seen Gaby since that Monday, and he had missed her. Even if they were not going to celebrate her birthday properly, he would at least get to hand over the gift, which lay on his bedside table. She had promsied to be at the hotel by half past four, but it was almost five when she turned up. Even before she stepped through the door, Charles could sense her anxiety.

‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ she said as she kissed him, but her voice was quiet, and the way she moved made her look oddly self-conscious. When she withdrew, he noticed that she was wearing more makeup than usual. It did little to hide the fact that she had been crying.

‘Is everything alright?’ Charles asked and pressed her hand. She nodded, but did not look at him.

‘Of course.’

‘Are you nervous?’

‘No,’ she lied.

‘Come here, sit down,’ he said and nodded towards the sofa. ‘I have something for you.’

‘Really?’ she said, surprised. She sat down as he retrieved the case, and wheeled himself over to her.

‘Happy birthday.’ She watched the box in surprise, and took it from him carefully. With measured movements, she opened it. Her eyes grew.

‘Charles, you shouldn’t have...’

‘Erik helped me get it,’ Charles admitted and picked the bracelet from the box. Tenderly, he put it around her wrist and secured it. She raised her hand and studied it, a slight smile on her otherwise worried face.

‘Thank you.’

‘Erik thought it would fit with your necklace,’ he explained. Gaby touched it and compared the pearls.

‘It does.’

‘Does it have a history - the necklace?’ Gaby nodded.

‘It was my mother’s. She lent it to my aunt, and she ended up taking it with her to America. My mother wanted her to send it over, but then the invasion came. After the war, Hannah sold all her jewelry to pay the hospital fees, but she kept this. When I woke up, and she came over to France, she brought it with her and gave it to me.’ Her fingers lingered against the pearls.

‘I understand why you always wear it,’ Charles said. She nodded and looked away, her gaze growing distant. For a moment, she fought it, but now the tears welled up and started running down her cheeks, leaving dark trails after them. ‘Oh, Gaby,’ Charles said and grabbed her shoulders. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you....’ She shook her head.

‘It’s not that,’ she sobbed.

‘Then what’s the matter? Come here.’ She let him lead her from the sofa to his lap, where she sat down and leaned against him. He held her and murmured calming things to her as she cried. When she had no tears left and her sobs only became small gasps, she put her arms around his neck and leaned their heads together. He tried asking again, ‘what’s the matter?’ but she did not answer, pretending that she had not heard. After a long time, she broke the embrace and stood up. She touched her cheek, and looked at her mascara-stained fingers.

‘Can I borrow your bathroom?’ Gaby asked, still sounding miserable. ‘I can’t possibly go looking like this.’

‘Of course - be my guest,’ Charles said. She went to wash her face, and then came back to put her makeup back on. Once she was done, Gaby lit a cigarette and dragged on it with eyes closed in relief. Charles watched her, and felt how she gradually calmed down.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?’ She nodded, almost before he had finished the sentence. ‘Very well.’ He was curious, but he decided not to pry. He let the subject drop. Instead, he glanced at his watch and asked: ‘When were you meeting Erik?’

‘Twenty to.’

‘You should go, then.’ She nodded and stubbed out her cigarette.

‘I’m sorry about going to pieces like this,’ she said and swallowed.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said and took her hand. She squeezed his fingers gratefully.

‘I was just hoping to have a better birthday,’ she explained. Charles almost asked why it was not a good birthday, but he knew she would not answer. He kissed her hand.

‘Have a good time. I hope it all goes well.’

‘So do I,’ Gaby said and smiled a little. She leaned in and planted a fresh lipstick mark on his mouth. When she pulled back, she laughed at the way he looked. It was a beautiful sound. After a final hug, she left, and he sensed her making her way to the foyer. He did not enter their minds, but he kept part of his concentration on them all evening. Through that thin link, he sensed their feelings; apprehension, embarrassment, gratitude. It was not until late in the evening, when Gaby’s aunt had told Erik to escort her niece home, that he dared to eavesdrop.

They walked side by side. It felt like they should be arm in arm, but both were trying to pretend that they did not want it. Both were waiting for the other to speak, assuming that if they spoke first, they would end up speaking at the same time. It was Erik who finally said something.

‘Your aunt is a terrifying woman.’ Gaby could not help smiling.

‘Yes, she is,’ she agreed. ‘And you haven’t even seen her angry.’ Erik chuckled, and the silence resumed. After a while, he asked:

‘Did I do alright?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I think she liked you. Or at least didn’t disapprove of you.’ She bit her lip and said: ‘Now I just need to figure out how to tell her that we’re not getting married.’

‘Yes, she did assume we would,’ Erik observed, trying to sound light-hearted. They were on Gaby’s street now, and had started to walk slower. Both wanted it to last for as long as possible. Gaby was inwardly cursing herself for enjoying his company this much. She should run away, not slow down. Instead, she wanted it all to be like it had been at the very beginning, with the three of them, like the morning after their first night together. Then, things had been simple. Despite everything, they had all seemed innocent, knowing nothing of the past, and with no burdens for the future. Then, there had been no consequences.

They drew to a halt by Gaby’s door, and Erik turned to face her.

‘Well,’ he said, weighing from one foot to another. She wondered if he expected to be asked in.

‘Thank you for coming with me,’ she said, not knowing whether to look up at him or down at the pavement. ‘And thank you for the bracelet. Charles told me you chose it.’

‘It suits you,’ he said, gesturing towards it. An anticipatory silence fell. ‘Gaby...’ She looked away, half wanting to tell him to be quiet. ‘I feel I owe you a proper explanation.’

‘I don’t think I want to hear,’ she said earnestly.

‘Then you’re judging me without the full evidence,’ he said. She felt like protesting against the metaphor - she was not a judge giving him his sentence - but she knew that it would do no good. ‘Please.’

‘It won’t change anything,’ she said, still not looking at him.

‘But you don’t want it to be like this...?’

‘I didn’t want you to turn out to be a killer, no,’ she said annoyedly. ‘Of course I didn’t. If that weren’t the case, things would be very different.’

‘I miss you,’ Erik said. She sighed.

‘And I miss you,’ she admitted. ‘Still. I can’t compromise on this.’

‘But you will let me explain?’

‘Yes, but not now,’ Gaby said, brushing her hair back. ‘I’m very tired.’

‘Then some other time? Next week?’ She nodded.

‘Yes. Sometime next week. I’ll write.’ She took a step back, to show that she needed to go. ‘Goodnight, Erik.’ He took a step forward, hovering over her. He was intimidating, and he scared her, but longing stung in her chest. When he bent down and kissed her on the cheek, she let him, pretending she bore it stoically, rather than cherishing it. She wished Charles could have been there. It would have made things so much easier. But nothing was easy now.

‘Happy birthday, Gaby.’

‘Good night,’ she said again and, without looking back, went through the front door. When she turned into the hallway leading to her flat, Erik was still standing outside, looking after her.

***

The following day, Charles sought out Erik in his room.

‘How did it go?’ he asked.

‘I think it went fairly well, despite everything,’ Erik admitted. ‘Her aunt is quite a character, but Gaby seemed to think I convinced her well enough.’

‘And what about Gaby?’

Erik sighed deeply and closed his eyes.

‘Seeing Gaby again was...’ He struggled to find the right words. ‘I expected it to be painful. Three weeks, and she has sent back all my letters unopened. She has slammed down the telephone every time I call her. She pretended not to be at home when I came to see her. I was so sure that she hated me. When she asked me to come with her, I was certain that it would be something I would suffer through. I thought she would make me suffer, in some way or other. And perhaps I would deserve it. But...’ He smiled a little. ‘It was almost like it had not happened. We didn’t really talk much. I really was just there for show.’

‘But...?’ Charles said. Even if he had been half-present in their minds, he enjoyed hearing this.

‘Sometimes, she would look at me,’ Erik explained. His eyes shone up at the memory, and grew more intent than they had been before. ‘If her aunt said something particularly preposterous, she would catch my eye and smile. And sometimes, she did it even without that. There were these moments of... silent connection.’

‘Well, that sounds promising.’

‘When I walked her home, she said that we could meet again, so I might explain it to her better.’ Charles nodded slowly.

‘I hope you’re not reading too much into that,’ he said. ‘When Gaby said that she can’t compromise, I think she is telling the truth.’ Erik waved a hand impatiently.

‘It is more than before, and that is enough for now,’ he said. ‘I simply want to see her.’ Charles shrugged, not quite certain whether that was true. He could not see Erik accepting this change, from lover to acquaintance, so easily. Cutting all ties may have been painful, but perhaps it was the easier way for them. On the other hand, this might give them an opportunity to settle their differences, which Charles felt they desperately needed.

‘Did she seem upset at all, last night?’

‘No, not upset,’ Erik said. ‘She may have been a little distant, but that is not so strange. How come you ask?’

‘Oh, it’s probably nothing,’ Charles said. ‘When she saw me, before meeting you, I had the impression that something was preying on her mind. But I guess it might just have been the business with you and her aunt.’

‘A few times, I thought she seemed to have her thoughts elsewhere,’ Erik recalled. Before he could elaborate, the telephone rang. ‘Sorry,’ Erik muttered and, getting up, picked up the receiver. ‘Yes?’ The irritation on his face disappeared, and was replaced by surprise. ‘Mystique! Has something happened?’

‘Raven?’ Charles said quietly. Erik nodded, glancing over to him but still listening, straight-backed and intent. Charles could hear the voice on the other side, but not the words. Whatever they were, they were unsettling.

‘Good,’ Erik said finally. ‘Bring him here.’ With those words, he put down the receiver.

‘What was that about?’ Charles asked.

‘One of Trask’s lackeys is on his way here.’ Erik explained and crackled his knuckles.

‘Who’s Trask?’ Charles asked.

‘Bolivar Trask is the executive of the company we think is the front for the Sentinel project,’ he said. The news had excited him; instead of returning to the armchair, he started pacing up and down the room. Charles thought he saw his face slowly changing, becoming more like Magneto. ‘Chances are he’s deep in the project itself. Mystique shadowed one of his employees, heading here. She managed to stop by a telephone kiosk to call. She’s bringing him in.’

‘And what are you going to do?’ Charles wondered, knowing he would probably not like the answer. Erik seemed to think as much too, and simply answered:

‘See what he knows.’

‘So we wait, I suppose.’ Erik looked at him sceptically.

‘Perhaps you should leave,’ he said finally.

‘I think I’d like to hear what this prospective spy has to say,’ Charles said lightly.

‘What about Mystique?’ Erik asked.

‘We’ll think of something,’ he said with a shrug. Erik looked like he was about to argue, when there was a knock on the door.

‘She’s already here,’ he muttered and made for the door. Through the crack of the door, Charles saw an unfamiliar face for a moment, but then it changed into one he knew so well, a yellow eye set in a blue-hued face. The voice that spoke changed from one to another during the sentence:

‘Let me in - this bitch is fighting like a shewolf.’ Erik stepped aside and Mystique backed in, dragging her captive after her. Then, she kicked the door shut. ‘Here’s the sapien,’ she announced and threw the prisoner onto the floor.

Through strands of hair which had fallen down into her face, Gabrielle Haller stared up at the mutants around her.

Chapter Text

This can’t be happening, was Charles’ first thought as Gaby struggled against Mystique’s grip around her hair. At the same time as he recognised the prisoner, the guard recognised the onlooker, so just as Erik shouted, ‘Gaby!’, Mystique shouted, ‘Charles!’ and let go of Gaby’s hair. With a few swift steps, Erik crossed to her and swept her up in his arms.

‘It’s alright,’ he murmured into her hair. ‘All’s well - you’re safe.’ She leaned against him, whispering his name, as if everything between them was forgiven. As he held her shivering body close, he turned his angry gaze at Mystique. ‘Explain yourself.’

It took a moment for her to find her momentum and stop gaping at him.
You explain yourself!’ she retorted, the shock of finding her brother there eclipsed by her leader’s behaviour. ‘She’s one of Trask’s cronies!’

‘You’re mistaken,’ Erik intoned. ‘I know her.’

Know her? How!?’ Mystique exclaimed. Now Gaby looked up at Erik.

‘What’s going on, Erik?’ she asked weakly.

‘Gaby, come here,’ Charles said and extended a hand to her. Erik loosened his hold of her, but steadied her until Charles could reach her. ‘There, there,’ he murmured and hushed her, stroking the hair back from her forehead.

‘What the hell is going on?’ Mystique asked. ‘What’s he doing here?’ She pointed at her brother.

‘I don’t see why he shouldn’t be here,’ Erik said vehemently, turning to face her. Before she had time to ask anything else, Gaby, still breathless from panic, asked:

‘Who... what is she?’ Her shock and her fear was clear on her face. Erik turned around to look at her, but the sight of that made him pause, and Charles realised that if he did not want Mystique herself to do the introductions, it was up to him.

‘Gaby, this is my sister,’ he sighed. ‘Raven, eum, Mystique - this is Gabrielle Haller.’

The two women stared at each other in equal horror. Gaby’s thin, slumped form, still shaking with the shock, seemed to confuse and disgust Mystique as much as her own scaled blue body, proud in its nakedness where she stood, feet wide apart and breasts thrust forward, shocked Gaby.

‘Your sister?’ Gaby said faintly. ‘But she’s... she’s a...’ Mystique shifted from foot to foot, looking awkward at how bourgeois the situation had turned.

‘So I’m the sister, and you are...?’ she asked, raising her eyebrows. Gaby’s silence must have been enough of an answer, because suddenly Mystique whooped with laughter and made a little jump. ‘Oh, that’s it, isn’t it?’ she said gleefully. ‘You’re the human girlfriend. He always had a thing for the lesser evolved. Which bit of you did he tell you was groovy?’

Gaby stared at her as if she had said something in a language she did not know, but the words were sinking in. Charles could feel her grip around his hand grow less decisive. Slowly, her gaze moved from Mystique to Charles.

‘What does she mean?’

Charles swallowed and caught Erik’s eye. He gave a minute nod. He turned back to Gaby and braced himself. The words themselves were surprisingly easy to speak.

‘I’m a mutant,’ he explained. ‘And so is Erik.’

His words registered and sank in. Gaby’s hand fell out of his. Charles had expected fear, and found it there, but he had not expected disappointment. Shakily she got to her feet and looked at Erik.

‘Is this true?’ she whispered. Erik nodded.

‘I told you that it was more complicated than you could imagine.’ She swallowed, trying to control her own reactions. Instead, she looked at Mystique.

‘Why did you attack me on my way here?’ she asked. The shaking of her voice was no longer because of fear, but anger. ‘What gives you the right to do that?’

‘What gives you the right to be here?’ Mystique spat back.

‘I wanted to speak to Erik,’ Gaby snapped.

‘“Erik”?’ Mystique repeated and looked from her leader to the girl. She hooted with laughter. ‘“Erik”!? This is just too much! Magneto, you and the human girl?’

‘This doesn’t concern you, Mystique,’ he said through clenched teeth.

‘I think it does,’ she told him and stepped up to him. ‘I thought I might change that statement to “you and the human spy”.’

‘Spy?’ Gaby exclaimed. ‘How dare you, you...?’

‘What?’ Mystique said, whirling around to face her. ‘“Monster”? “Freak”?’ Gaby glared at her, still blushing. ‘Whatever you call me, you call them.’

‘They’re not blue,’ she pointed out. ‘Also, they wear clothes.’

‘Don’t you think this suits me?’ Mystique said and flicked her hair over her shoulder. In any other situation, Charles would have found it funny how Gaby was desperately trying not to stare at Mystique’s breasts.

‘It’s disturbing,’ she said, averting her eyes completely. Erik stepped closer.

‘Mystique, put some clothes on.’

‘So we’re taking orders from sapiens now?’ Mystique answered back.

‘Stop calling her that, and put something on.’ She rolled her eyes and made a gabbing gesture with her hand, but then her skin rippled and changed. The next moment, she was no longer naked, but dressed in a white halter-neck dress. Charles wondered why she had chosen a belt made from tiny skulls.

‘Now,’ Mystique said curtly. ‘Can we get back to the issue that you’re apparently both sleeping with a spy?’

‘Stop calling me that!’ Gaby shrieked.

‘Wait,’ Charles said, speaking up. For a moment, the others seemed to have forgotten that he was there, because now they turned around to stare at him in surprise as he wheeled himself closer to the others, joining the circle. ‘This will not get anywhere if we just shout at each other. It’d be easier if we talked one at a time.’

‘Surely you don’t believe her?’ Gaby said anxiously.

‘I’m sure there’s been some mistake,’ Charles said levelly. ‘Now, might I suggest that you all sit down and we can sort this out.’ Mystique muttered something under her breath, but then sat down cross-legged on the floor. Erik waved a hand, and with a creak two chairs drew up. Gaby stared at it, and when Erik gestured to her to sit down, she took a step backwards.

‘It moved on its own,’ she said, stunned.

‘Not on its own,’ Erik assured her. ‘I moved it.’

‘You can move things without touching them?’ she asked, looking at him finally.

‘I can manipulate metal,’ he explained. ‘I control magnetic fields. I dragged them here by the nails.’ Her look became a stare. ‘This must be very strange for you,’ he added. Looking away, she nodded and sat down. He followed suit, looking to Charles for reassurance. He could give him little, and simply shrugged.

‘Now,’ Charles said, looking at each of them in turn. ‘Can we please show each other respect?’

‘Do we have to put out hand up if we want to speak?’ Mystique asked sullenly.

‘I hope there’s no need for that,’ he answered and gave her a reprimanding look. ‘But as you’re the coming with the accusations, perhaps you’d like to start. Tell us what happened just now.’

‘The past few months, I’ve been guarding the Trask building. I’d noticed that she-’ she pointed towards Gaby ‘-had started walking in a new direction recently, towards this very hotel. Yesterday, I followed her home, and then followed her when she came here. Then today I followed her again, and when I was certain that she was heading here, I found a telephone booth and called ahead. Then I caught up and...’

‘...Slammed me into a wall and threatened to break my neck if I screamed,’ Gaby finished acidly. Little remained of her previous anxiety. Charles felt oddly proud of her.

‘...I apprehended her,’ Mystique finished.

Erik had ignored this exchange and instead looked at Gaby.

‘You work for Trask?’ There was something in his tone which was difficult to pinpoint, which made Gaby shift in her chair and grab the sides of it.

‘At his company, yes,’ she said. ‘Why’s that important?’

‘Because the company is just a front,’ Erik said gravely. ‘Bolivar Trask is involved in some unspeakable things.’

‘What do you mean?’ Gaby asked. ‘What do you mean, the company is a front?’

‘Yes, explain that to her,’ Mystique snapped. ‘Make sure that she knows all we know so that she can report back and let them tighten up security, and we’ll never get into that building.’ Erik ignored her.

‘Do you really not know anything of this?’ he asked. She hugged herself and shook her head.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she whispered. ‘I’m just the typist.’

‘That’s all?’ Mystique asked. ‘Your girlfriend is plotting genocide, and you’re going to believe that?’

‘Plotting genocide?’ Gaby repeated, incredulously.

‘She’s not lying, Mystique,’ Charles said. ‘She honestly believes that this company is what it sets out to be. And to a certain extent, it is. It deals in metals and plastics. However, industries of that kind could be... subverted.’

‘And are being subverted,’ Erik added.

‘I can’t believe this,’ Gaby exclaimed and got to her feet. ‘This is too much.’

‘Gaby, sit down,’ Charles said, but she shook her head.

‘I don’t know what to make of this!’ she said helplessly. ‘You’re mutants - your sister attacked me - the company I work for is just a front and the man who once tried to seduce me is apparently some kind of criminal mastermind!’

They all stared at her. It was Charles who broke the silence.

‘It was Trask who asked you out that night we met you,’ he said, leaning forward a little. Gaby brushed away a tear and nodded.

‘Yes.’

‘Sit down and tell us,’ Charles urged her. ‘How did it happen?’

‘You know what happened...’

‘No, I mean when he asked you out,’ he clarified. ‘All of it.’ She sat down and took a deep breath.

‘It was an awful day,’ she started. ‘I’d lost my pearl necklace. It must have come loose and fallen off just after I came to work. I was at my table, trying to do some stupid bit of typing, when he suddenly stopped beside me. He held his hand out, and there was my necklace. I was so relieved, because I was afraid I might have lost it for good. I tried to take it from his hand, but instead, he put it round my neck and when he leaned down, he whispered in my ear. He said he’d noticed me, and that he wanted to take me out...’

Erik had listened intently as his jaw tightened with irrational jealousy, but suddenly, he sat up straight and held out his hand.

‘Your necklace.’

Gaby looked at him, startled.

‘What?’

‘Let me see the necklace.’ It was obvious from the look in her eyes that she did not trust him. ‘It’s important.’ Reluctantly, she reached round her neck and unclasped the band of pearls. They clattered together when she put them in his palm.

‘Please be careful with it,’ she said when he held it up and inspected it. ‘It was my mother’s.’ A tense silence fell as he examined every pearl and every link of metal, holding it up close to his eye. Finally, he stopped, looking at the round golden clasp.

‘Has this ever been mended?’ he asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ she stammered. ‘Not since I was given it, and my aunt didn’t wear it much. I don’t know if my mother...’

‘I meant recently,’ he said. ‘Because this clasp has been opened.’

‘But...’

‘It has been mended fairly well,’ he conceded, ‘but someone has opened this link-’ he pointed to the one which connected the clasp to the rest of the necklace ‘-and cut open the golden ball, and then resealed it. The tools were probably not made for the job either, even if they were small.’

‘How can you tell?’ she asked. ‘I can’t see anything.’

‘My uncle was a jeweller - he taught me a thing or two,’ Erik said with a shrug. ‘Also, I can feel the scratches in the metal. Someone opened up this clasp, less than half a year ago.’

‘But why?’ Gaby asked, looking at him and then at Charles. ‘Are you saying that Trask stole my necklace to cut open the clasp and then close it again? Why?’ Charles sighed, unable not to admire the plan.

‘This is clever,’ he admitted. ‘Very clever.’ Then, turning to Gaby, he asked: ‘This was the same day you came to the restaurant, wasn’t it?’ She nodded. ‘That isn’t where the story starts.’

‘You’ve lost me,’ Mystique said. ‘How is any of this relevant?’

‘This is all part of Trask’s plan,’ Charles explained. ‘He has a spy on the hotel staff - someone on the serving staff, I would wager. Quite possibly, he planted them there when my room was booked. My reservation was under my own name, and if he has contacts in the CIA, he’d know about me.’

‘Contacts in the CIA?’ Gaby repeated.

‘This is big, honey,’ Mystique explained. ‘Your boss is being thorough with having the right people on his side.’ Then, feeling her brother’s glare, gestured for him to continue.

‘Whoever this is probably watched me ever since I arrived. So when Erik turned up at my table one night...’

‘...He reported back to his master,’ Erik finished.

‘Exactly. If Trask knew about me through the CIA, he knew about you, possibly enough to figure out who you are now. Even if he didn’t, he must have figured out that you might upset his plans.’

‘But what does this have to do with Mister Trask asking me out?’ Gaby asked.

‘Because it was in the hotel restaurant that Erik suggested us meeting at Sibell’s, the same restaurant where we met you,’ Charles said. ‘The spy hears this and reports back to Trask. Trask has read my file. He might well know about the school. He most certainly knows about my medical training...’

‘I was bait?’ Gaby asked, eyes growing.

‘Yes,’ Charles sighed. ‘I’m sorry, but I think you were. Someone, whether him or someone else (for all we know, one of the other typists), had noticed you, and drawn their own conclusions about the state of your nerves. He never intended to turn up. He fully intended you to wait for him in vain.’

‘But that’s a huge gamble,’ Erik said. ‘He had no way of knowing that Gaby would come, or that she would react like she did...’

‘No, he must have been certain that she was going to,’ Charles answered. ‘After all, he had given back her necklace. He must have realised how important it was to you, Gaby - you wear it every day. Someone took it of your neck - how, I do not know. Perhaps he has trained thieves on his side. He knew that you would feel indebted. But yes, it was a gamble. There was no way for him to know that you would simply walk off when he did not turn up. He only had to hope that somehow, you would draw my attention...’

‘And I did,’ Gaby whispered.

‘Yes,’ Charles sighed.

‘It worked out perfectly,’ Erik said. ‘He assumed that Charles would come to the rescue if you were agitated enough.’ Gaby gulped.

‘He used me... Why?’

‘To get to us,’ Charles said. ‘He hoped that I would try to befriend you, and we all played into his hands.’

‘But how is that important?’ Mystique asked. Erik got to his feet.

‘It’s important because it means that for a lot of the time, there had been a transponder close to us.’ Gaby stared up at him, and the necklace he still held in his hand.

‘The clasp?’ she whispered.

‘Yes. There’s a tiny transponder inside it. It’s not a difficult piece of technology, but getting it this small shows that they are more advanced than we thought. It can’t have taken long to plant the transponder in it. Waiting for the clasp to cool would be the most time-consuming part of it.’

‘So they’ve been spying on me?’ Gaby said weakly. Erik placed the necklace in her hand.

‘You might want to consider where your loyalties lie,’ he said. Gaby looked from Erik to Charles, not certain what she saw.

‘Oh, God,’ she whispered and pressed her hand to her mouth as she started crying. Erik sat down again, looking guilty. With him between them, Charles could not reach out to take her hand, and he did not know if she would want him to. Even Mystique looked uncomfortable. They were all silent, and for a long time, all that was heard was the sound of Gaby crying.

At long last, Mystique spoke up.

‘We could use this.’ Erik looked at her.

‘How?’

‘Well, little Gabrielle is on our side, isn’t she?’

‘I’m not on your side!’ Gaby spat, staring at her. Mystique looked quite gleeful at her outburst. Charles cleared his throat.

‘Gaby, right now, these people are simply using you without your knowing it,’ he said. ‘But as soon as they realise that you know this, you won’t be safe any more. Your ignorance protected you. But now... you’re too close to us, and you know too much. They’ll see you as an enemy.’

‘I don’t want to be anyone’s enemy,’ Gaby whispered.

‘Of course you don’t want to,’ Charles said. ‘No-one ever wants that. But if they start putting their plans in motion, the best you’ll be is collateral damage.’ She swallowed a sob.

‘What are their plans?’

‘We don’t know exactly,’ Erik said.

‘She said genocide,’ Gaby said and gestured towards Mystique.

‘They’re building some kind of device which can detect mutant DNA,’ Erik explained. ‘And destroy those with it.’

‘You mean kill mutants?’

‘Yes.’ She stared at them all.

‘Why?’ she asked, her voice hitching.

‘Because they’re afraid,’ Charles said before either of the others had time to suggest any alternative. ‘When met with something they do not understand, they respond with hate, because it takes less effort and is more comforting than trying to understand.’ Gaby swallowed.

‘Humankind hasn’t learned, Gaby,’ Erik added. ‘They see this as self-defence.They will fight their own extinction. And mutants will fight for their right to survive.’

‘I don’t want to go extinct,’ Gaby whispered. ‘And I don’t want to die.’

‘If it’s up to us, you won’t,’ Charles intoned.

‘Look, Haller,’ Mystique said and leaned forward, elbows on knees. ‘If we don’t do something, Trask and his friends in the government are going to start hunting down every mutant in existence, including these two.’ She pointed to Erik and Charles. ‘But you could help us. We could stop it.’ Erik rose.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I won’t have it.’

‘She’s our best shot, Magneto!’ Mystique exclaimed. ‘The reason why we couldn’t get inside before was that because we didn’t know the set-up of the building because we couldn’t get hold of the blueprints, and using Azazel has been far too risky, but she knows how the place works...’

‘I’m not having her put in danger,’ he snapped. Now Gaby got to her feet too.

‘Won’t you at least ask me if I want to help before making decisions for me?’ Erik stopped, looking embarrassed. He turned to face her and asked:

‘Do you want to help?’

‘Is anyone going to die?’ Gaby asked and looked in straight in the eye.

‘If we don’t do anything, certainly.’

‘I meant if you try to stop this project,’ she clarified. ‘Because I don’t want to be part of any killing.’ Erik looked taken aback.

‘I need to be able to protect my own,’ he said.

‘Killing and self-defense aren’t the same thing,’ Gaby pointed out. Erik breathed out sharply.

‘Is this your condition for helping us?’

‘Yes. If you promise that no-one is killed, I’ll help.’ Erik sighed deeply.

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘There’ll be plenty of material destruction. People may get hurt. But no-one will be actively killed.’

‘I suppose that’s the best I can get from you,’ she said unsmilingly. ‘So you’re all three in this?’

‘Not me,’ Charles said. ‘They’re the terrorists. I just run a school.’ Gaby turned to stare at him.

‘How is your school part of this?’

‘All my students are... gifted,’ he explained. ‘They’re all mutants.’ Gaby looked as if all this was getting a little too much.

‘Oh.’

Erik, ignoring this, turned to Mystique.

‘We need to talk this through,’ he said. ‘In private.’ Charles took his keys out of his pocket.

‘Here - talk in my suite.’ He threw them up, and Erik raised his hand. The keys rushed through the air and stuck to his palm. Gaby stared at the way he picked the metal from his skin.

‘Thank you,’ he said and nodded to both of them. ‘Mystique, change into something a little less eye-catching. Come on.’ With those words, he made for the door. Mystique’s features rippled, and as she followed him through the door, she looked back and winked at them with Gabrielle Haller’s face. The real Gaby swallowed and grabbed the back of a chair, and did not let go until the Doppelgänger was out of sight.

Now that they had left, an awkward silence fell. Gaby crossed to the window and leaned against the glass to watch the street below as she lit a cigarette. Charles sat in the middle of the room, waiting for her to speak, or at least look at him. She did neither.

‘So,’ he said finally.

‘So,’ she repeated. Now she turned around to face him, but it felt as if something he usually in her gaze was lacking. ‘You’re a mutant.’

‘Yes,’ he said and clasped his hands together, trying not to fidget. ‘Gaby, this... wasn’t how I wanted you to find out.’ She shrugged and stepped away from the window, arms folded over her chest.

‘So Erik can manipulate metal,’ she said. ‘What can you do?’ Charles swallowed and looked down at his hands. This was the question he had truly feared.

‘I’m a telepath.’ When he looked up at her, he saw her frown, so he elaborated: ‘I can read people’s minds.’ Gaby’s mouth thinned.

‘Really?’ He nodded. ‘Have you ever read my mind?’

‘Only when it’s been necessary,’ he lied. ‘When you’ve been too ill to speak...’

‘Never other than that?’ she said sharply.

‘Perhaps... a few times, out of curiosity,’ he said. ‘Not recently.’ She closed her eyes, looking relieved. ‘Gaby, I’m sorry... I didn’t know how you’d react.’

‘I don’t know how to react,’ she admitted.

‘I never did it to harm you, I swear,’ he said. ‘I know that sounds petty, but...’ She sighed.

‘I suppose it’s a relief,’ Gaby said without feeling and put the cigarette to her lips again. It had already burnt down almost to her fingers. ‘It could be worse.’

They fell silent again, and Gaby turned back to the window. A light rain started to fall outside. Charles watched how she followed the course of the raindrops down the window as they pooled together and left streaks on the glass.

‘They say that mutants are more or less human when they’re born,’ she said. ‘Is that true?’

‘They already have the mutation - that happens at the very start - but their abilities develop later,’ Charles explained. Perhaps understanding would make this easier on her. ‘Some mutants are born already with their mutation showing, but mostly, it’s impossible to tell mutant and human infants apart. Most mutants start manifesting their abilities during puberty. I started reading minds when I was ten, and that’s quite early. Erik’s powers manifested when he was fourteen.’

‘But it’s all inherited?’ she asked. Charles nodded.

‘Yes. There are mutants of all demographics. It’s purely genetic, due to one mutated gene passed down the male line.’

The change in Gaby’s features was so tiny that he later did not know how he had noticed. Ever so briefly, her lips tightened and her eyes flickered with panic. Then her face went back to the schooled expression she had had throughout the conversation. However, it was enough for Charles to notice.

‘Gaby...’ He wheeled himself closer, but she remained turned away from him. ‘Gaby, look at me,’ he said softly. Reluctantly, she did. Yes, it was still there, a secret written on her face. He swallowed loudly. ‘Gaby, you’re not... are you...?’ His eyes wandered downwards, and then up again. She looked at him for another moment, and then burst into tears.

It took Charles a moment to think of what to do. The realisation had struck so suddenly that he did not know how to react. Then, getting hold of himself, he wheeled a little closer and took hold of her elbow.

‘Come on, love, sit down,’ he murmured and lead her to the bed. She let him, and did not object when he took the cigarette from between her fingers and pressed a handkerchief into her hand. ‘Have a good cry,’ he said, trying to conceal his own helplessness. He was not certain how she would react if he took her hand, so he kept his distance and simply murmured comforting things. After a long time, Gaby blew her nose and took a deep, steadying breath to compose herself. They sat in awkward silence, as Charles wondered where to start. He had known it was a risk, but he had not been prepared that it would turn out to actually have happened. It had just been another hypothetical worry.

For want of anything else, he asked:

‘How long have you known?’ Gaby swallowed and quenched another bout of crying.

‘Since Monday,’ she said, ‘but I’ve suspected it longer. Finally I got tired of worrying about it, and went to a doctor. And... well.’ Charles rested his chin in his hand, as countless feelings stormed through him. He did not know which one to succumb to. Fear, for the repercussions of this? Joy, at a new life? Guilt, at possibly being the one who had put Gaby in this position? Frustration, over the fact that their precautions had not helped?

‘Good God,’ he murmured. Then, taking control of himself again, he cleared his throat and asked: ‘How far gone are you?’

‘A little more than three months,’ she said, looking away. Counting backwards, Charles concluded that it must have happened very early. The thought that Gaby had been carrying the seed of a life inside her all that time felt absurd.

‘I don’t know quite what to say,’ he admitted. Gaby wiped another tear from her cheek.

‘I’ve been so stupid,’ she said, her voice little more than a whisper. ‘I’m going to lose my job. My aunt will stop talking to me. My congregation will shun me...’

‘I’m so sorry, Gaby,’ Charles said, even if it sounded pitiful. He knew that if anyone could help her, it was he. All he had to do was to reach out, take her hand, say a few words, have her say yes... He should, but his hand remained planted on the armrest. The right thing to do would be to propose, but he could not find it in him. What good would it do, to save her from being an outcast in one sense, if it would only turn her into one in another? Erik had already been through all the arguments, and Charles was certain that despite everything, he would make a worse husband. He stayed silent.

Gaby woke him from him reverie.

‘Charles?’ He looked up, nodding to her to speak. Her face was anxious, but she was no longer crying. ‘This baby is going to be a mutant, isn’t he?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Without a doubt.’

‘So he’ll be hated,’ she said. ‘There’ll be people who will want to kill him.’ Charles nodded, wishing he could give a different answer. Gaby looked down at her hands, which gripped each other tightly. ‘Why is the world so cruel?’

‘There’s no answer to that,’ Charles said. ‘All we can hope for it that the world becomes better.’

‘Can it?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps Erik is right. Perhaps it just goes on.’

‘But that’s not the way it should be,’ Charles intoned. ‘In different ways, we’re trying to change that.’ Gaby hung her head.

‘What would Trask do to me if he knew?’ she asked. ‘Would he have me killed?’ Charles could no longer hold his distance. He pressed her shoulder and she looked up at him. There was no tenderness to be read in her face, only fear and grief.

‘That won’t happen,’ he said. ‘I promise you. We’ll keep you safe, Erik and me...’

‘No,’ she exclaimed, coming alive suddenly. She grabbed his arms desperately. ‘Charles, don’t tell Erik - you mustn’t.’

‘Why not?’ he asked. Even with his telepathic abilities, he could not fathom what having a family, however small and however distant, would mean to Erik. ‘Gaby, this would mean the world to him...’

‘I don’t want him to know,’ she pleaded. ‘Not after everything. He doesn’t have to know. Please, don’t tell him. Promise me.’

Charles sighed.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I promise you. I won’t tell Erik.’ She exhaled in relief.

‘Thank you,’ she said and let go of him.

As if on cue, the door opened and Erik entered, closely followed by Mystique, who turned into her natural, albeit clothed, form as she stepped over the threshold. Neither of them seemed to notice the others’ tenseness, or if they did, they ascribed it to the revelation of Erik and Charles’ mutations.

‘We have a plan,’ Erik announced, ‘or at least the start of one.’

‘What will I have to do?’ Gaby asked.

‘Very little,’ he said. ‘We’ll need to know anything you can tell us or find out about the archive, the general setup of the place, security. Purely information.’

‘Do you think they would keep this in the main building?’ Charles asked. ‘Isn’t that rather careless?’

‘It draws less attention than another location, and if it’s not there, we might find information about where to look,’ Erik said. ‘It’s the best place to start.’ Gaby shifted, looking concerned.

‘How do I get them to you?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think I could take documents out of the building...’

‘You won’t have to,’ Erik assured her. ‘You simply need to find out where the papers are. Mystique will handle the rest.’ Mystique grinned and shifted shape, again taking on Gaby’s face.

‘You’d go in like that?’ Gaby asked, looking as shocked as she had before when she had seen her change her appearance.

‘It’s a choice between you doing it and Mystique doing it,’ Erik said as Mystique turned into her natural form. ‘Mystique can handle any danger.’

‘So... she goes to work instead of me one day and gets out the papers?’

‘Yes.’

‘And then...?’ Erik sighed and crossed to the window, then turned on his heel to face her.

‘You’re not safe,’ he said. ‘And you’ll be even less safe after this.’

‘I know that,’ Gaby said.

‘Then you know that you should leave,’ Erik said sharply. She looked up at him, taken aback.

‘Leave New York?’

‘At the very least,’ he said with a sigh. ‘But I doubt that it’d be enough. Rather, you should leave the country.’

‘For how long?’ she asked. There was panic in her voice now, only barely kept under control. Erik did not answer, but simply looked her. ‘You mean... I should flee?’

‘Leave before the danger is too great,’ Erik said gravely. ‘But it would have to be soon.’

‘But I can’t just leave,’ she objected. ‘I’d have to give in my notice and deal with rent...’

‘It’ll be dealt with,’ Erik said. ‘You won’t give in your notice - Mystique will. She won’t act until you’re out of the country.’

‘But what about my aunt?’ Gaby asked desperately. Charles touched her arm, hoping it would calm her. He was not certain if it did.

‘She won’t be in any danger,’ Erik assured her.

‘But I can’t leave her here and go off...’

‘We could arrange something.’ She shook her head defiantly, not meeting anyone’s eye.

‘Gaby, in light of... everything, I think Erik has a point,’ Charles said carefully.

‘I don’t want to run away,’ she said helplessly.

‘Of course you don’t...’

‘...But you might have to,’ Erik added. ‘These people are using you like a tool. When they think you’ve outplayed your usefulness...’

‘Don’t,’ Gaby whispered, fighting tears again. The mutants watched her trying to compose herself. When he felt that she was getting the upper hand over her shock, Charles spoke.

‘I remember you telling me that you wanted to go to Israel...’

‘But not like this,’ Gaby exclaimed. ‘I don’t want to run away from everything I know!’

Mystique, who had been silent for the entire conversation, suddenly stepped forward.

‘Would you rather be dead?’ she asked. Gaby glared at her, but somehow, her speaking this plain truth had done the trick.

‘No,’ she admitted. Then she asked: ‘How long can I stay?’

‘How fast can you get ready?’ Erik asked back.

‘I don’t know,’ Gaby answered.

‘Let’s say a week,’ he said. She looked like she wanted to object, but knew it was no good. Instead, she picked up her handbag and said:

‘I should go. I’m supposed to have dinner with the Prydemanns...’

‘Don’t tell anyone about this,’ Erik said gravely. She nodded.

‘I can come over tomorrow to help, if you’d like,’ Charles offered. She nodded again, unable to speak. She looked from Charles to Erik, trying to figure out how to say goodbye. Finally, she just nodded to them both and half-ran to the door. It closed behind her and muffled her footsteps.

‘Well,’ Mystique said and crossed her arms. Erik did not look at her, but instead stepped towards Charles. The order he gave her was like an afterthought.

‘Make sure she gets there safely. Then spread the word that we’re moving on Trask.’ Mystique rolled her eyes, evidently disappointed that she did not get to pressure them into explaining their relationship with Gaby.

‘Fine.’

Erik remained with his back turned against the door as she left. When it once again slammed shut, all his momentum was lost. He exhaled, his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed. That spark of Magneto that had inhabited him throughout had disappeared, and only Erik remained.

It took a moment for him to start moving, and when he did, his movements were slow. He stepped closer to Charles and with slow deliberation, he lowered himself down onto his knees in front of him. They looked at each other. Charles could see his own relief and fear reflected in Erik’s face. As he reached out to stroke his cheek, he reflected on that Erik only knew about the secret they had surrendered, and nothing of the one Gaby had divulged to him. He had to fight the urge to tell him, reminding himself of Gaby’s desperate plea: don’t tell Erik. He had promised. Gaby had her reasons to want to keep it from him. She could not shake off the sense that Erik was dangerous, and she did not want him to have this hold on her. Now that he thought about it, he realised that it would only add to Erik’s pain to know. Helping a lover who had turned away from him out of the country was hard enough, but knowing that he was sending away what might be his own flesh and blood was far worse.

They did not speak. There was no need, because they knew each other’s minds. Erik pressed his face against Charles’ chest, and so they remained, anchored to one another.

Chapter Text

As he had promised, Charles came to see Gaby the next day. She did not look particularly happy to see him, so when she waved him in, he paused and said:

‘If you like, I could leave. I just thought...’

‘It’s fine,’ she said, still not looking at him. ‘I wouldn’t mind the company. Besides, there are things I want to ask you about.’ She went into the bedroom, and Charles followed. She stood by the bed, where a small suitcase was lying.

‘You’ve already started packing, I see.’

‘No,’ she said and touched the suitcase. ‘This isn’t packing, really.’ Charles frowned.

‘Then what is it?’

She leaned down to unclasp and open it. From where he sat, Charles only caught a glimpse of the content, but he saw clothes, a comb, a bar of soap, a book.

‘I packed this when I first came to America,’ Gaby said. Her voice was strained, but she kept it level as she spoke. ‘Just the bare necessities, if I’d need them.’ Charles realised suddenly what she was saying.

‘You mean, if you had to flee?’ She nodded, lips pressed tightly together. Slowly, Charles wheeled himself closer and touched her arm. ‘You’re not doing that again, Gaby.’

‘What’s the difference?’ she asked. ‘Just because I’m given a week’s warning...’

‘The danger isn’t immediate. You’ll be safe. Besides, you don’t have to bring just a small suitcase,’ he assured her. ‘You’re not confined to what you can carry. We can arrange to send things by boat too.’ She shrugged and swallowed, trying to keep the tears at bay. Then she closed the suitcase again and sat down on the bed.

‘I just don’t know where to start,’ she admitted.

‘Well,’ Charles said, not knowing either. ‘I suppose you have to make up your mind about what to bring, and what to get rid of...’ He fell silent, watching the way she was wringing her hands. ‘Gaby...’

‘Why?’ she said helplessly. ‘Why do I have to leave? How can he just expect this of me?’ She let go of her own hands and grabbed at her head instead. Charles did not answer, not knowing what to answer.

Finally, Gaby rose, wiped her eyes on her sleeve and opened her wardrobe. She started throwing clothes onto the bed, as Charles watched her.

‘I could get in touch with Dan for you,’ he said. ‘That is, Daniel Shomron, my friend in Haifa.’

Gaby stopped, halfway through folding up a cardigan. She looked a little lost, as if she had not expected this.

‘Thank you.’

‘You’d have some kind of contact with someone there,’ he said. ‘You’d have someone who could... keep an eye on you.’ Gaby resumed her folding.

‘You mean if I go insane again.’

‘If you have an episode,’ Charles corrected. ‘It’ll be stressful, moving somewhere new, especially in your condition. It’s a fair safety precaution.’ She shrugged.

‘Thank you,’ she said again, despite her reluctance. ‘I suppose it’s nice of you to think about it.’

‘I want everything to go well for you.’ She put down the cardigan, but kept her gaze averted.

‘How did it end up like this?’ she murmured. Charles sighed.

‘I don’t know. Just fate running its course.’ Pushing some of the unfolded clothes aside, she sat down to face him.

‘Were you going to tell me?’ she asked. She may have been acting dismissive before, but now Charles was impressed with her courage. For some reason he had expected her to cower, but instead she looked him in the eye.

‘Yes. Or... I wanted to. But it’s difficult. I never knew when was right.’ He shrugged helplessly. ‘I was afraid of how you’d take it. I didn’t want to lose you.’

‘So you rather lied,’ she said coldly.

‘It was a lie of omission,’ he said, but it sounded petty. ‘I never wanted to tell you anything but the truth.’ They looked at each other for a long moment, then Charles asked: ‘And were you planning to tell me?’ He nodded downwards. Now she turned away her eyes awkwardly.

‘I was going to,’ she said. ‘Eventually.’

‘If you’re three months gone, you’ll be showing soon,’ he observed. ‘You couldn’t keep it a secret for much longer.’ He failed not to pick up on her instinctive reaction: Then it’s a good thing that I’m leaving, before people start noticing, especially Erik. As if she had guessed that he might have heard it, she rose and crossed to the dressing-table to light a cigarette. Charles sat in silence, letting his mind wander, but it kept coming back to one specific worry.

‘Gaby?’

‘Yes?’

With some difficulty, he turned around to face her.

‘Why were you putting off telling me?’ he asked. ‘You saw me on Monday. Why didn’t you tell me then? Were you considering...’ He made a vague gesture as he tried to find a euphemism. ‘Well, not having it.’

Gaby turned away to tap the ash off her cigarette, but she was not able to hide her guilty face. Then she turned back to him.

‘You’d know if I lied, wouldn’t you?’ she asked. ‘As you’re a telepath.’ He nodded. She sighed and shrugged. ‘Yes. I thought about it.’ He tried to find something appropriate to say.

‘How were you going to afford it?’ Gaby shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Perhaps I’d have told you that I was behind on rent.’ When she looked up at him, a challenge was written in her eyes. ‘What kind of mother would I make? I’m barely holding myself together as it is. Sometimes I can’t take care of myself. How could I take care of a baby?’ She hung her head. ‘But then I thought... when will I have another chance? Perhaps it’d make me able to cope. And I’d rather try than be too scared to even do that. The idea of a child... I always thought that my aunt would be all the family I’d have. But now... I’ll have a child. My parents will have a grandchild. My family won’t die with me.’

Charles tried to keep his emotions from his face. He felt felt torn between a sense of betrayal at the mere thought and the knowledge that medically, she had a point. That professional realisation grated against his relief at her decision for a moment, but he was not going to challenge it.

‘You can get better, Gaby,’ he said earnestly. ‘I think you have, since we met. True, there have been incidents, but you’ve seemed... content.’ She shrugged.

‘Will I be content in Israel?’ she asked, half to herself.

‘I don’t know,’ Charles admitted. ‘I’m sure it’ll be difficult at first, but it’ll get easier. There are bound to be people who will be able to help, not just Dan, although I’m sure he’ll be glad to help you adjust.’

‘Perhaps I should go to Haifa, then,’ she said. ‘Since yesterday, I’ve tried to decide where.’

‘Well, start there, and then you could move,’ he said. That reminded him of an issue he had realised he had forgotten about. ‘Gaby, about the issue of money...’ She smiled and took an envelope from her bedside table. Charles opened it and looked inside. It held a single check, with Erik’s unruly signature on. At the sight of the value of it, Charles could not help wonder how many kills that sum corresponded to.

‘He came over early today with it,’ she explained. ‘He didn’t stay. I think he didn’t want me to get a chance to say no.’ Charles laughed hollowly.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘That’s...good.’ He closed the envelope and gave it back to her. When she put it back, he said: ‘Gaby... that’s a lot of money.’

‘I know.’

‘It could pay you through university,’ he continued. Gaby nodded.

‘That was what Erik said.’

‘But it’s not enough for both you and a child.’ Gaby nodded again, looking away this time.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘It’s a silly idea anyway. I couldn’t go to university if I had a baby.’

‘I don’t see why,’ Charles said. She looked at him, and he held her gaze. ‘Gaby, you could make this a new beginning. You could do what you truly want to do.’

‘But I couldn’t...’

‘Gaby, you’ve spent years reading about these things,’ Charles reminded her. ‘You could argue down most law students. Are you honestly going to just throw that talent away?’

‘It doesn’t change that I couldn’t study and take care of a baby at the same time,’ she said. ‘It’s not just the money. Who’d mind the baby when I’m away? Or do you imagine me bringing it with me to seminars?’

Charles sighed and shrugged.

‘You know, I disagree with a lot of the things Erik says, but he’s right about one thing. If you don’t challenge the world, it’s never going to change. There must be at least one academic lawyer in Israel who could be persuaded that you should be given a place, and that could be your way in. Everything else are practical problems which you can find a solution to.’

Gaby looked uncertain, but seemed not willing to let go of her reluctance just yet.

‘It’s not that I don’t want to,’ she said. ‘I just don’t know if it’d work.’

‘Then try,’ Charles told her. ‘I have every faith in you.’ Then he reached into his inner pocket and found his check-book.

‘Charles...’

‘No, don’t argue,’ he said and gestured with his fountain pen. ‘It’s only fair. The father of the child should do something to help, and I’m not going to let Erik have that satisfaction alone.’ He did some calculations under his breath and filled in the check. Gaby accepted it, glancing guiltily at it before putting it in the envelope along with Erik’s.

‘Thank you,’ she said. For the first time since yesterday, there was no anger in her eyes. Charles stretched out a hand to her, and she took it and approached. They kissed coyly, and when Gaby straightened up, Charles caught her eye.

‘May I...?’ She nodded, at once looking apprehensive. She watched as he flattened his hand over her stomach. Then she undid the button in her skirt and pushed it down a little. Once again looking up at her in question, Charles put both hands against her bare skin. He wondered if he would have noticed it if he did not know. There was a small curve, nestled just by her pelvis, but at first glance it could have been anything.

‘It’s so odd,’ Gaby said and touched Charles’ hand. ‘The idea that there’s another human being growing inside me...’

‘Yes. It is odd,’ Charles agreed. He did not know if he had really thought about how absurd it was that every person started out as a conglomerate of cells inside another creature. Thinking about it with the mind of a scientist was one thing, but thinking of it just instinctively was quite another.

‘Charles?’

‘Yes?’

‘Can you read its thoughts?’ Gaby asked. Charles swallowed, taken aback at the questions.

‘No,’ he said. ‘There’s not really anything to read yet. Its brain isn’t fully developed. It doesn’t have any independent thought, or any sense of self. A few times, I’ve read the thoughts of unborn children, but only much later. To be honest, I find it a rather odd experience.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s like no other thoughts. All it knows is the safety of the womb, the beating of its mother’s heart, the sound of her voice, some sounds from her surroundings. It feels strange, even alien, but at the same time... so familiar.’

Gaby nodded slowly, watching his hands.

‘It seems cruel, that we start off like that, and then we are thrown into this world.’ Charles understood what she was really speaking of. It was not only about her child, but about her, and the safety of locking herself away inside herself and escaping the world.

‘Pain is part of being alive as much as happiness is,’ Charles said. ‘We need to experience one to know the other.’

‘I know,’ she said sincerely. Charles removed his hands, and Gaby buttoned up her skirt again. They stood facing each other, but not looking at each other. Finally, Charles spoke.

‘I wish you didn’t have to go.’

‘So do I,’ she said. ‘But it’s better.’ He looked up at her now.

‘Nowhere is truly safe for mutants,’ he said.

‘But chances are it won’t be obvious at birth?’

‘Yes, true.’

‘And if I stay,’ Gaby reasoned, ‘they’ll know that one of you is the father, and they’ll know that I’m having a mutant baby. So going away is safer.’ She shrugged. ‘Besides, it’ll be a Jewish child. The best place will be Israel.’

‘I suppose so,’ Charles said and took her hand. She squeezed his fingers. ‘You’ll write, won’t you?’

‘Of course,’ she said. He could sense her trying to keep herself aloof, but she was starting to feel the pain of losing her lovers, even if they were criminals and mutants. He squeezed back, and looked up at her with a smile.

‘Come on,’ he said encouragingly. ‘Let me help you pack.’ For a moment, she struggled, but then she smiled, and before she went to find a task for him, she kissed his cheek.

***

Slowly, the week passed. Gaby went to work as usual in the daytime, and packed in the evenings. Charles helped her as best he could, even if he was not really the person for moving bulky objects. Erik aided them in little ways, like getting Gaby a large suitcase and arranging books and other heavy things to be sent overseas. Charles had written several drafts of his letter to Daniel Shomron, and then finally sent off one which he was not particularly happy with. It sounded stilted and professional, and gave the impression that he was writing simply in the role of Gaby’s doctor. He provided an outline of her medical history and her usual state of mind, as well as an explanation of his hopes that she might attend university. He said nothing of the true nature of their relationship, and did not mention that she was pregnant. In a few weeks’ time, it would be easy to spot, and he settled on that Dan would have to think him inattentive. Still, he wondered what assumptions Dan would jump to when he realised it. Charles hoped that Dan had enough trust in him not to assume that he had abused the trust of a patient, but that was a trust he was not worthy of, however unofficial their arrangement had been.

On Thursday, after several days of packing, Gaby’s small apartment no longer looked like a home, but the disintegrating unity it was. Things were no longer on their assigned place. Crockery was in boxes, clothes were stuffed in suitcases, assorted small objects had been moved to shelf in the hall until they were ready to be packed. Charles was busy wrapping the few plates which Gaby had decided to bring with her in newspapers to keep them from breaking when shipped, when there was a knock on the door. He heard Gaby put down what she had been working on and, leaving the bedroom, head for the door.

‘Oh. Hello.’ Charles stopped his work and listened. He heard a few footsteps, and noticed the swirl of a coat too warm for May in the doorway. Then - Erik’s voice.

‘I have your tickets.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You’re leaving early Monday morning.’ The sound of an envelope being opened was heard. From where he sat, Charles could see Erik’s back, and he sensed his anticipation as Gaby looked at the tickets. ‘Going by sea would take too much time,’ Erik continued. ‘Now that you go by plane, you’ll be on the other side of the Atlantic before Trask knows you’ve left New York.’

‘So I go to Paris...?’

‘And then to Tel Aviv, again with plane. There’ll be trains to Haifa.’

‘Thank you,’ she said again, and with a rustle, she closed the envelope again.

‘There is something else, although it is not urgent. We need to keep the transponder here, so I need to remove it from your necklace.’

‘Of course,’ Gaby said.

‘It is better if I do it later, sometime in the weekend, so they will not suspect that it’s been removed. Then after you have left, Mystique will carry it with her. Speaking of which, she will need to see you at some point soon. She can imitate appearances and voices after having seen someone a moment, but she needs to study your gait to make sure she’s convincing.’

‘I don’t see how she can’t be convincing,’ Gaby said, a little coldly. ‘It’s not like she’ll be wearing a wig they can pull off, is it?’

‘No, you’re right. But we don’t want the suspicion.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Have you been working on those maps?’

‘Yes, they’re almost done,’ she said. ‘I’ve found out some more about the archives. There’s one small room that’s always locked. It might be documents, or computer spools - I don’t know.’

‘It sounds promising. Mystique can pick most locks, so that won’t be a problem.’

‘How are you going to get the documents out?’

‘Easy,’ Erik said. ‘We have a teleporter.’ Gaby made a choked sound.

‘I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.’ Erik chuckled.

‘No, I guess not.’

Silence fell again. Erik turned a little and seemed to sight of something. He picked it up; from his unwilling hiding-place, Charles briefly saw the shape of a frame in his hand.

‘Your parents?’ he asked. Charles knew the photograph he had picked up - it had caught his attention too. He had been able to trace her features in her parents. She had her lean build and her dark hair from her father, and her nose and large eyes from her mother. In the photograph, they were sitting on either side of her, no more than six years old. She did not look much like she did now, more than the shape of the eyes and the long dark plaits, but there was something inquisitive in her gaze which he recognised.

‘Yes.’

‘It’s a good photo.’ But Erik’s compliment sounded half-hearted, as he put it back. Gaby must have noticed it too.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ he said and shrugged. ‘I was simply thinking. I don’t have any pictures of my parents.’ It took a moment for Gaby to answer; this was not what she had expected.

‘Really?’ she said. ‘Not one?’

‘No. We had no family outside Germany. Everything we owned was lost, at one stage or another. Our house in Düsseldorf was bombed. I went back once, out of curiosity. I didn’t recognise anything.’

A shocked silence fell. Charles imagined that Gaby was trying to find what to say, surprised at her new position as the lucky one. Finally, she simply put her hand on his arm. By the movements he could see, he surmised how Erik took her hand and kissed it.

‘Will you be there, when I go?’ Gaby asked quietly.

‘Yes. We’ll drive you to the airport, both Charles and I.’

‘I should like that.’ They did not speak, cherishing this unexpected moment of closeness.

‘Is it strange - leaving?’ he asked after a while.

‘Yes. But on the other hand no. I’ve wanted to. All that has kept me has been habit, I guess. Perhaps this was the reason I needed. Besides, it means that we can all go back to how things should be.’

‘Between us, you mean?’

‘Yes,’ Gaby said. ‘I think it’s better this way. Both for me, and... the two of you.’ Erik swallowed.

‘Gaby...’

‘You don’t have to explain,’ she said. He did not heed her.

‘I love you. You are not a replacement. Not for me. Charles may be a fool and not see how precious you are, but...’

‘Stop it,’ Gaby said sharply. ‘Attacking Charles is not going to earn you any points.’

‘I only want you to understand.’

‘This is not about you and me, Erik. You must know that by now. Besides, I don’t know if I can understand it. I know what you shared, but... I can’t comprehend how deep it runs. The way you care for each other... It’s something beyond love, more like obsession. It’s not right. But perhaps this is how it is supposed to be. I leave, and you two can be together.’

Erik shook his head.

‘Charles and I could never be together.’

‘Why not?’ Gaby asked, tone somewhere between teasing and annoyed. ‘You seem to be doing a perfectly good job now.’

‘We have lives to get back to,’ he said. ‘Charles has his school, I have my quest. The two are worlds apart. We fight in different ways, Gaby. Charles thinks that he can hide away in his mansion and snatch children from the jaws of evil, and that will make it all better. I know that if we want to survive, we have to fight. My father never did, and he died. I refuse to make his mistakes. I will fight - I will teach my children to fight. Charles can teach his children to turn the other cheek, but I’m not naïve enough to think that it will save them.’

‘He’s too kind, and you’re too stubborn,’ Gaby observed. He sighed, but Charles could hear his smile.

‘You might be right.’ He said goodbye, and as she watched him leave, Charles felt her thoughts. Thank God I’m leaving. Better to go away, and not let either of them make this baby into a weapon for their cause. It doesn’t matter who of them is the father. It’ll be my child, not theirs. I refuse to let it be part of this conflict.

As he went back to packing porcelain, Charles reflected that he could not blame her.

***

Charles had never imagined that the last few days would be so painful. He had hoped to stay the night until Monday, but it was obvious Gaby did not want him there. Despite himself, he felt hurt. During those evenings when he had helped her with her packing, he had sensed her fear at what he was. It had changed him to her, if not as badly as the revelation of Erik’s past had. Her fear was a paradoxical thing. She would wonder if he had ever planted a thought in her head, or if indeed he had pushed her attraction onto her, and then she would reprimand herself, reminding herself that he was an honourable man. But the fear lingered, and she chose to spend her last night in New York alone, sleeping fitfully in an empty room, her life packed into the suitcases standing in the hallway.

Charles was half-way through a lonely dinner when Erik entered the hotel restaurant and caught sight of him. His eyes grew in surprise, and he crossed, sitting down beside him.

‘I thought you’d be with Gaby.’ Charles shrugged.

‘She wanted to be on her own,’ he explained.

‘Ah.’

‘Have you had dinner?’ Erik nodded.

‘We’ve been planning tomorrow,’ he said, consciously being obscure, in case someone was listening.

‘What do your lot eat?’ Charles asked. ‘Do you take turns cooking, or do you simply have Chinese takeaways?’ Erik laughed drily.

‘Seeing as we’re in New York, we’ve mostly played patrons to the kosher delis.’

‘I’m desperately trying to imagine how Emma Frost eats falafel,’ Charles said.

‘The answer is, so annoyingly carefully that I always want to give her a push to make her spill it all into her lap.’ Charles laughed, genuinely now.

‘Aren’t you the perfect villain?’ Erik smiled, but it did not last long. Instead, he admitted:

‘I’ll miss her.’ It was obvious that they were no longer talking about Emma Frost.

‘Me too,’ Charles said with a sigh. They did not speak for a while, then Erik asked:

‘Are you returning to the school?’

‘Yes, day after tomorrow,’ he said. ‘All that was keeping me here was Gaby.’ When he looked up, he found himself looking straight into Erik’s eyes. It made it clear to him what a lie he had just told. Gaby was part of it, yes, but so was Erik, and Erik’s absence would be stranger than Gaby’s once he came back to the mansion. She had never been part of that world, but the thought of Erik once again being his adversary hurt. ‘I guess you’re not staying either.’

‘After Monday, when we get into that archive, I have no reason to stay.’ They sat tensely, Erik waiting for the question and Charles fighting against it. He knew the answer, but he knew he had to voice it.

‘Won’t you come with me?’

Erik smiled sadly.

‘I’m sorry, Charles.’

Charles reflected that at least he did not say that he did not want it. Perhaps he did, despite everything. He wanted to ask him, but knew that whatever the answer, he had been rejected. It was better not to bring it up. Instead, he cleared his throat and said:

‘How about a game of chess? Just the one, of course - tomorrow will be an early morning.’

‘Chess would be nice,’ Erik agreed and rose.

They made their way to Charles’ suite in silence, and did not speak as they started the game. It surprised Charles how comfortable they were like this, simply coexisting. Still, there was a sense of anticipation in the air. They both knew where this was going to end up. Finally, Charles surrendered.

‘You know, Erik, if you’d like, you could...’ He waved vaguely towards the bedroom. ‘...stay the night.’ Erik pretended to consider his next move, eyes on the board. He still did not manage not to sound relieved when he answered.

‘Thank you. I’d like that.’ He made his move. Charles moved his bishop.

‘Check.’ Erik smiled grimly.

‘I could do with an early night,’ he said and moved his king.

‘Do you want to call it a day?’

‘Yes.’

They left the chess-board as it was and moved to the bedroom. Charles had expected that this would end with them having sex, but when Erik crept close to him and kissed him, it felt more profound than that. He kissed him back, and as they pressed closer, he felt how they finally managed to communicate what had been hovering between them all night. This was the last night they spent together for now, perhaps forever. They slept too little, reluctant to lose even a moment of each other’s company.

***

When the alarm clock rang at five AM, Charles wished that Erik would make the accursed thing crumple up into scrap metal so that they could go back to sleep in each other’s arms. Instead, Erik shook his shoulder.

‘Charles, we need to get up.’ He grunted and pushed himself up. There would be no time for breakfast, so all there was to do was to wash and dress and take his medicines. By half past five, Erik reappeared and they went outside. With a mild psychic touch, Charles made sure the receptionist did not notice them, and the doorman promptly forgot why he had opened the door when there was no-one in sight. The street was deserted, and with a quick mind-sweep, Charles made sure that there were no-one watching them. The car Erik had rented under a false name was parked not far away. The drive to Gaby’s house took only a few minutes, but the anticipation made it feel longer.

‘Is the coast clear?’ Erik asked when he killed the engine. Charles extended his mind and, sensing no one watching, nodded. He continued to keep a psychic look-out as Erik went inside, and soon re-emerged, carrying two suitcases. Gaby followed him, glanced worriedly up and down the street, as if expecting spies there. The sight of her made his stomach lurch with part joy, part regret. She got into the back-seat as Erik stowed away the luggage.

‘Hello,’ Charles said, looking over his shoulder.

‘Hi,’ she answered and smiled bleakly.

‘Nervous?’

Gaby shrugged noncommittally. Not knowing quite what to say, she took out a cigarette. Charles offered her his matchbox, and then set about lighting his pipe. It kept his hands busy and his attention on something else, even if it did not stop him sensing her thoughts. In fact, it felt like those thoughts blocked out everything, even the slam of the trunk door and the roar of the engine when Erik turned the key. As they started driving, he sensed her worry grow, getting close to panic, and heard her breath coming faster. Everything that was happening - leaving New York, going somewhere where she knew no one, having a baby, being alone - pushed at her. Charles reached his hand back towards her. Now, she did not hesitate, but took it and pressed it so hard it hurt.

Stay calm, he projected. It’s going to be fine.

Of course, he could not know that. All he did know was that it was safer than what might happen here, and it was better than her being drawn into their battle. Still, the half-lie worked. Slowly, she calmed down, and her grip around his hand grew less desperate. When she let go of it and he rolled his shoulder, sore from the odd angle, Erik caught his eye. He offered no explanation, even Erik probably did not need one to understand what had happened. When Charles looked in the rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of Gaby, he saw that she had schooled her face into an expression of pure calm. The only thing betraying her worry was the slight shaking of her hand, visible in the trail of smoke from her cigarette.

The silence continued as they reached the airport, entered the building and followed Gaby to the check-in. Erik helped her with the bags, while Charles waited apart from the queue, feeling that he was in the way. He felt Gaby’s nervousness coming back. Even this early in the morning, the terminal was bustling with life, and the the pressure of all those strangers unsettled her. More surprising, Charles thought, was how nervous waiting for the goodbyes was making her. She was afraid that she might make a scene, of that they would, or that they would not care. Charles realised that the best thing would probably be to get it over with, so when they returned to him, he said:

‘Perhaps you should go through at once. Better to have be there early.’ She nodded.

‘Yes, you’re right.’ They all knew that it was very early, but none of them felt like prolonging the pain by waiting. They set off towards the passport controls, Erik pushing the wheelchair and Gaby walking beside them. Charles watched her, where she walked with her bag clasped in both hands. It struck him suddenly that throughout these months, he had not thought to pick up the camera which he kept in his desk drawer and snap a picture of her. Instead, he tried to memorise her features and the way she moved.

At last, they reached the passport control, and Gaby turned to face them both.

‘Do you have everything?’ Charles asked. ‘Passport, ticket?’

‘Yes,’ she said, picking them out of her bag.

‘And those pills I gave you, in case you feel jittery?’ She nodded. ‘A book? Enough cigarettes? Francs, for when you land in Paris? And shekels?’

‘Yes, Charles,’ she said, laughing suddenly. ‘I’m an adult. I’ve remembered everything.’ Then, her smile slipped, but she still said what she had thought: ‘I’m not a little girl being sent somewhere by her parents.’ Even before she had time to start crying, Erik took a step forward and wrapped her in his arms. She let him hold him, and even put an arm around him to keep him there. After a long while, he let go of her and looked into her eyes.

‘I’m glad we met, Gabrielle.’ She nodded through the tears.

‘Me too,’ she said. ‘Despite everything.’ Then she turned to Charles and reached a hand to him. ‘Charles...’ He took the hand between both of his and brought it to his lips.

‘My dearest Gaby,’ he murmured, trying in vain not to sound tearful. He let her hand fall, and smiled encouragingly. ‘I’m sure you’ll go far.’ She laughed and shrugged.

‘Who knows?’ she said.

‘I do,’ he answered. She smiled coyly, but he noticed that she had listened. That was encouraging. ‘You’ll write?’

‘Yes, of course,’ she said.

‘Good. Send me a telegram when you’ve settled in.’ She nodded and then looked back to Erik. She looked uncertain for a moment, then swallowed and said:

‘Good luck.’ Erik raised his eyebrows in surprise.

‘Thank you.’

She nodded and smiled, and looked over her shoulder at the passport control. For a moment, Charles thought she was going to turn and join the queue, but instead she turned back and looked at them both. He sensed how she rejected every parting phrase she could think of, and instead shook her head in annoyance and stepped closer. She reached up and kissed Erik full on the lips. Surprised, he kissed back, an arm around her waist. Then she stepped over to Charles and leaned down. Her face was only inches from his when the sound of murmuring was heard. They both looked to their left, and saw an elderly couple, staring at them. From their right, Erik said:

‘Let them stare.’

Gaby’s face split into a smile and, throwing decorum to the winds, she leaned in and kissed him. When she drew back, he could not help feeling disappointed. If she had kissed him for an hour straight, it would still have been too short.

‘Well,’ she said, looking from one lover to the other. ‘Perhaps we’ll see each other again.’

‘I hope so,’ Charles said.

‘So do I,’ Erik agreed.

‘Until then,’ she said and, with a final smile, turned. They watched her as she walked over to the passport clerk, received an outbound journey stamp and stepped through the door, out of their lives.

Chapter Text

14 November 1980

A newborn cannot be a stranger, but the child lying before them was fourteen years old, and completely unknown to Charles. Had it not been for the name-tag around his wrist, he had not known he was Gaby’s son. All his attempts to read his thoughts has been without result. The walls around his mind were thicker than any he had experienced.

‘Well?’ Magneto asked. ‘Can you do anything for him?’ Charles’ hand fell from his temple.

‘No,’ he said with a sigh. ‘His mind is completely closed to me. There’s no way in.’

‘Like Gaby’s was, then.’

‘Yes, but worse,’ he said. ‘I’d guess, even more than when she was at her worst. Gaby has a strong mind, enough that it posed a difficulty for me to get through her shields. Her son, however, is a mutant.’

‘Didn’t we establish that he controlled fire?’

‘Most mutants have a stronger psychic defense than humans,’ Charles explained. ‘And for all we know, control of fire may not be his only power.’

Magneto sighed from where he stood at by the end of the bed. The silence gave him time to watch David, where he lay wide-eyed and absent. His hair was as dark as Gaby’s, and a little too long, as if he was getting to the stage where he needed a haircut. He had Gaby’s lower lip, and her nose too. His eyes, however, were a little more blue than green, but Charles could not tell if the intermingling colour was his own deep blue or Erik’s grey. David took after his mother; there was no distinguishing feature which betrayed the other side of his parentage. Charles wondered if Gaby ever looked at him and tried to find their looks in his face, second-guessing the identity of his father.

‘I wonder how Gaby will take it, that he killed those people,’ Charles said, half to himself.

‘Badly, if her usual morals hold true,’ Magneto said, ‘although I hope she’ll see the necessity of it.’

‘It’s possible to be grateful and unhappy about something at the same time, you know,’ Charles pointed out.

‘They were anti-Semitic armed thugs who threatened his family. Good for him that he was able to unlock his powers.’

‘I’m not so sure,’ Charles said, leaning closer. ‘About his powers, that is. I think they may have manifested too early. He wasn’t ready for it. This-’ he gestured to him at David to indicate his withdrawal ‘-isn’t just a response to the shock of the attack. It’s to do with the manifestation of his powers.’ Magneto watched the boy, his face unreadable.

‘Will he recover?’ he asked at last.

‘I can’t say,’ Charles admitted.

‘By which you mean, you don’t think so?’

‘I hope you’re not intending to try to recruit him.' Magneto shook his head.

‘He’s ill, and, judging on what happened, he might be unstable enough to be dangerous. That’s your territory, Charles.’

‘If Gaby wants my help, that is,’ Charles said laconically.

‘Why wouldn’t she? You never had any disputes, did you?’

‘Apart from the fact that I turned out to be able to read her mind, no,’ Charles said and leaned his head against the heel of his hand. ‘She hasn’t been in touch since just after David was born. I assume she didn’t want that confusion in her life.’ He hesitated for a moment, then asked: ‘Did you ever want to go to see her?’

‘I almost did, a few times,’ Magneto admitted. ‘I found out what university she was at, years after we met, so I went there. I only saw her at a distance, and then lost my nerve. I came back when she graduated, but she disappeared so quickly that I never had a chance to talk to her. Then I was in Israel during the von Strucker trial.’

‘I remember that,’ Charles said, and smiled. It had been the first time he had seen Gaby’s name in the paper, and he had been incredibly proud, despite the sickening subject-matter. ‘Were you angry?’ Magneto shook his head.

‘Impressed,’ he said. ‘Surprised, too. I can’t see how any Jew would willingly defend someone like that, especially not the Monster of Dachau. I attended one of the sessions - it was all I could stand. I didn’t realise until then that all she was trying to do was to make sure he didn’t get hanged, even if it was obvious that she was as disgusted with him as everyone else. In a way, I admire her for being able to sit through months of those testimonials. For me, a day was enough.’

‘They did hang him, though.’

‘Yes, but it wasn’t because of lack of effort from the defense,’ Magneto said. ‘It was because he deserved it. That is the workings of a fair trial, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ There had been other trials and cases. Charles wondered, like Erik, how she had managed it. He imagined that it was through knowing that she was an important part of bringing them to justice. Still, he wondered if it was the emotional fatigue of those trials which made her leave law and become a diplomat instead. He had lost sight of her for a few years while she worked in minor capacities at small embassies and consulates. Her appointment as ambassador to Britain had been greeted with surprise, and from some groups disapproval. Charles, watching from his secluded mansion in America, had once again felt a swelling pride for her. It was a silly thing, but it pleased him that Gaby worked in his home-country. That thought lead to another, more alarming one.

‘When Gaby emigrated, I was so worried for her,’ he said out loud. ‘I kept thinking, what if war breaks out, or if there’s a bomb or something? During the Six-Day War, I was terrified. What if she had decided to go somewhere, and ended up in the middle of the fighting? But then Dan wrote and told me that both she and David were fine...’ He trailed off for a moment, remembering once again that Dan was dead. ‘What I mean,’ he said, pushing the thought aside, ‘is that it feels ironic that now when something has happened, it’s so close to home.’

‘In the last ten years, your mansion has been partially destroyed, what, three times?’ Magneto said.

‘But that’s different,’ Charles objected. ‘Britain is supposed to be safe.’

‘“Home” is as much a battle-ground as anywhere else, Charles.’ They fell silent again, both watching their son. Charles moved a little closer and took his hand. The boy’s fingers did not close around his. He heard Magneto move behind him, but the hand which came to rest on his shoulder surprised him. He reached out with his free hand and squeezed it.

‘I still find it difficult to believe,’ Magneto admitted.

‘I wanted to tell you,’ Charles said. ‘Every time I saw you, I wished I could...’

‘But you promised her,’ he sighed. ‘Yes, I know. You’re not keeping any other children of mine secret from me, are you?’

‘Not as far as I know.’ Magneto snorted at his joke and pressed his shoulder. Charles turned his chair a little so that he could look him in the face. ‘Are you staying?’ Magneto shrugged.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think so. I’m as wanted in Britain as anywhere else, and this place is crawling with police.’

‘They’d not arrest you here, surely.’

‘It’s not just that,’ he said grudgingly. ‘As you know, I’m not very fond of hospitals.’ Charles nodded, still not certain what to say about that. ‘How long do you think Gaby will stay here?’

‘Well, with a gunshot wound, they’ll probably keep her for at least a week. She’ll probably be on high doses of morphine.’ He paused, and hazarded to add: ‘If you went to see her when she’s awake, she’d probably be influenced enough not to remember it properly later.’

‘I don’t think I could face her,’ he admitted. ‘I just want to know that she’ll be alright.’

‘And she will.’ David was another matter. Speculating about that felt hazardous.

‘What about you?’ Magneto asked. ‘Will you see her?’ Charles thought about it, finding himself at a loss.

‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘I... don’t think so.’ Once again, Magneto laughed ruefully.

‘So we both coming rushing here when we hear, and then neither of us are willing to see her when she wakes.’

‘I’d happily help,’ Charles said. ‘If she wanted me to. But we’ve been out of touch for so long... I don’t want to assume that I have a right to it.’ He sighed. ‘Perhaps it’s better not to draw it out too much.’

‘I guess not,’ Magneto said. ‘Who drove you?’

‘Scott.’

‘Well, I should make sure not to be seen, then.’ His hand fell from his shoulder. ‘I’m going to go and see Gaby again, before I leave.’

‘Do.’ Charles watched him as he rounded the bed and watched the boy in it, hesitating. Then he leaned down and kissed his forehead. His eyes closed, the pain on his face unmistakable. Straightening up again, he crossed to the door. His hand was on the handle when Charles said: ‘Erik?’

He paused, looking at him.

‘It’s good to see you,’ Charles said. ‘It’s not often it happens.’ Magneto watched him, and for a moment, Charles thought he could plainly see the man he had fallen in love with.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you too.’ They watched each other for another moment. Then Magneto looked away and, donning his hat, slipped out. Charles watched how the door slowly shut, and heard his footsteps growing more and more distant. Finally, he sighed and turned away, massaging his forehead.

‘That’s your fathers for you, David,’ he said to the unconscious child. ‘Fighting on different sides, and still in love with each other. You were probably better off without us, in the long run.’ He kissed his forehead in parting, as Magneto had, and turned away from the bed.

When he left, the only sign of his presence was something pushed halfway under the fruit bowl on the bedside table - a card, crowned with the school emblem, and with the scribbled message on the back:

If I can be of service. x C