A Fire of Coals
by Merri-Todd Webster
(20 April 1999)

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" As soon as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, xand bread.... Jesus saith unto them, 'Come and dine'."
(John 21: 9, 12, AV)

***

The lake is lovely this time of year. Of course, what am I saying? It's lovely year-round, so lovely it's almost a cliche. And yet, the subtle changes from season to season prevent it from cloying on one. It is as splendid in its stark winter austerity as it is now in the full bloom of summer.

Tomkins clears his throat softly. I had not heard him enter. I turn from looking out the window. "The plane has arrived, sir."

"Very good."

Once, I would have gone out to the airfield to watch the plane come in. I cannot afford to do so, now. Eyes are always watching, even here in the Alps. So I merely continue to stand by the window, watching the wind stir the line of evergreens in the distance, hoping with a foolish hope that there will be two passengers on that plane.

"Dearest."

Her voice is as quiet as ever, tinged with a hint of Scotland still, after all these years. It was the thing that charmed me about her, so many decades ago: It betrayed that she possessed her own mind. Smiling in memory, I turn to greet her--and see him standing beside her.

Alex waits as my wife comes forward. I take her hands in mine and press my lips to her cheek. She returns the salute with unusual warmth. "My dear."

"It's good to see you again, dear heart."

She steps back and then walks over to the window. "I'd forgotten what a lovely view you have here," she murmurs, gazing out into the distance. I hold out my hand to Alex.

"My dear boy."

He takes my hand, looking almost as surprised at the sight of me as I feel at the sight of him, and I cannot resist the impulse to fold him in my arms. Elisabeth is, after all, not looking at us, as she has not looked on so many occasions when I needed her to look away. She is a wise woman. I feel his arms come around me just as I step back and let go.

"Who knows?" he asks in a low voice. I have always cherished the sound of his voice, soft and rough together; no similes do it justice.

"The three of us. Tomkins. A few others whose loyalty I can rely on." I shake my head lightly. "No one within the syndicate."

"You're sure?"

"As sure as I can be." I take another step away from him and turn toward Elisabeth. "Are you up for tea, my dear?"

Tomkins serves the tea, and it is all very civilised. Elisabeth talks of the children and the grandchildren as if I were not officially dead. I shall miss visiting with my grandson, my son's boy, and the other little ones, but not my children, I am sorry to say. They have never had an inkling of the work I do; they have cared only for the money it brought them.

Elisabeth wipes her mouth carefully after the second scone and says, "Well, dearest, I really must go and lie down after our flight, if you don't mind."

"Of course not, my dear." Tomkins reappears as if by magic, as always, and with a clasp of my hand and a brief pat on the shoulder for Alex, Elisabeth leaves us alone. I follow her with my eyes until they have started up the grand staircase, out of my sight.

Smiling, I turn to Alex. "Now, my dear boy, you may tell me what is *really* going on."

It is a most interesting tale he has to tell, one which occupies us for hours. I let him go on, asking the questions that must be asked, answering those which he must answer, until I can no longer stifle my yawns.

"I am sorry, dear boy, but you must let the old man go to his hot bath, and to his early bedtime. We can resume talking in the morning, hmm?" I squeeze his shoulder briefly. "Good night, Alex."

His reply comes from behind me. "Good night, sir."

Tomkins has already drawn my bath. A love for hot baths is one of my few personal indulgences, and the only way I can compose these old bones for sleep. Well, perhaps not the *only* way, but the best way possible, most of the time. Tomkins has added a bit of fragrant salts to the water, some elusive scent which reminds me of the incense at the cathedral where I sang as a boy, somewhere in Wales.... I have nearly fallen asleep in the tub when I hear an unfamiliar footstep.

"Who's there?" The bathwater sloshes wildly as I try to sit up.

"It's me, sir. Alex."

He is standing just outside the bathroom door. Weary anew, I sag back into the soothing heat of the water.

"What is it, my boy?"

"I thought you might like my... company."

Something stirs deep within me, as if an old sere branch had put forth a tiny leaf after many barren springtimes. I hesitate, then breathe out and feel that tiny leaf unfold.

"Send in Tomkins, Alex, and I'll come to your rooms directly."

"Yes, sir."

I hear Alex walk away and, soon thereafter, Tomkins approach. He is his usual impassive self as he helps me out of the tub and does most of the work of drying me off--tasks I had not wanted Alex to do for me. Our relationship is too... fragile for that. And my joints ache despite the bath... but perhaps that won't matter, shortly.

I knock at the door of his room, a thing I never used to do. Once I entered unbidden, needing no permission. But things have changed between us. They cannot be what they used to. No matter what I need.

The door opens, and there is Alex, smiling, wrapped in a dressing gown from the closet. How young he looks, and yet how long he has been a part of this game we play. I do not regret sacrificing my place at the board so that he may join the play. I only hope he wins. That we all win.

He startles me greatly by putting his arms around me. It is a real embrace though a very careful one; he holds me as if I might break, and indeed, I might.

"I've missed you," he whispers. Does he know, then, how much his voice excites me?

I smile, raising my hand to touch his cheek lightly. "I've missed you, too, my dear boy. But you've done well without me."

He steps back but does not quite let go of me. "You've trained me well. You deserve the credit."

"Not all of it, Alex." I simply look at him for a moment, seeing everything in him that he cannot see in himself. "You've been an apt pupil, and you've applied your lessons ingeniously."

The smile we share speaks of too many dangerous things, too many risks successfully taken. "And Mr. Mulder?" I query, touching on a subject I've avoided till now.

Alex's face changes; his expression closes, shutters itself against me, and he half turns away. "He'll listen. He'll have to. But I didn't want to talk about Mulder tonight."

Folding my hands, I compose myself to answer more questions before allowing myself a few hours' sleep. "What is it then, my boy?"

He turns back, his eyes meeting mine through those impossible lashes, and then his mouth, dear God, his mouth brushes my cheek.

"Alex...." Not in decades have I felt so helpless.

"I want to touch you," he whispers. "I want you to touch me."

The shudder that goes through me is as hot as fire, but the flame is green, the colour of Alex's beseeching eyes. I am being burnt alive by the touch of this beautiful boy's mouth, so soft, yet he must surely have left a brand.

"Alex...." I sound as helpless as I feel. "Alex, you don't owe me this. You don't owe me anything."

"It's not a debt." His breath brushes that burning spot on my skin.

"Alex, please." I ought to move away from him, yet I simply cannot, even though he is no longer touching me. "Don't... spoil what we had. This would be a mistake--"

He kisses me.

It's all over.

His mouth touches mine just long enough for me to be certain that he means what he says, that he wants to be touched, that he is not kissing me as a man might kiss his father. And I can no longer resist the beauty that is being offered me. My soul is too dry to refuse this precious nourishment.

Alex undresses and lies down on the bed, just as he used to. Only now I leave my dressing gown on a chair and lie down beside him, laying my hand on his chest. As he did the night before I flew to DC, he takes my hand and kisses it, then cradles it to his cheek. The roughness of his beard, the softness of his lips, both are like warm water running over my hand, my hand which is stiff and dry and withered like a fallen branch, and yet something within me is blooming. Something is blazing here like a fire of coals.

For so long I only watched him, drank in his beauty as he pleasured himself, knew that behind his closed eyes he was thinking of someone else, of a man as young and desirable as himself. I never blamed him. I knew he did not want me to touch him; I had promised I wouldn't. It wouldn't have been... right.

It is right now, here and now, with the fire on the hearth blazing and the warmth of his young body keeping me warm. Is this how David felt, with Abishag in his bed? I touch his face and his chest, his nipples, draw my fingers down the thin line of hair that graces his belly, take hold with aching fingers of the organ that, inexplicably, impossibly, stands erect between his thighs.

Alex sighs, a long rippling sigh like the sound of waves rushing over the sandy shore. He turns toward me, onto his side, and slips his hand inside my tunic, pressing it against my heart. A young, warm, strong hand, a hand that could kill me easily, in an instant. My fingers throb too much to clutch him tightly--I touch the tip of his sex, moist and so sensitive. His hand glides down to touch mine, but I am not erect. There is only so much the body will do.

I take my hand away. "Touch yourself, Alex, dear boy...."

Obediently he wraps his fingers around himself, looking into my eyes as he does so. Beautiful boy, exquisite child, the very sweetest.... I kiss his chest and his nipples and his face and, finally, his mouth, as he reaches his climax.

Was it my name he tried to say? I would like to believe that it was.

It is so warm here in Alex's bed, with his arms around me, his tousled head on my shoulder. I believe I'll stay.

***