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It grew easier to manage the trip every year, ramps and wider doors gradually appearing. Things did get more difficult once he left the States, and still harder outside Jerusalem, but nowadays the buses to Beit Sahur were handicapped-accessible, and people didn't stare quite so much at a man in a wheelchair.
It was still a welcome relief when he rolled out of the bus stop and the chair lifted slightly off the ground, not enough for a casual observer to notice, and he could give his arms and shoulders a rest. Erik was waiting for him in the usual place, the small cafe across from the stop, drinking Turkish coffee in sunglasses and an old-fashioned hat that he somehow managed to wear without looking even slightly ridiculous.
They didn't talk on their way to the car. Erik lifted him into the passenger seat and folded the chair into the back with a wave. The air conditioning was pleasant after the long trip and the heat outside, and Charles drowsed nearly the whole way to Efrata. It was long past dark when they arrived, but the town had grown steadily over the years, and there were bars still open, light and music spilling onto the main roads.
Erik kept his hat low and stayed with the car while Charles checked them in to the small motel, a new precaution they didn't need to discuss beforehand. He requested and got the ground-floor room at the furthest end of the cinderblock structure, away from the pool and the other guests, and offered exactly the right amount of money to get the clerk to keep from giving out any of the adjacent rooms.
Erik made love to him almost savagely, refusing to ask forgiveness so clearly that it was a single long plea. When Charles tried to give it to him with his hands and mouth, with the wordless touch of his mind, Erik turned him roughly onto his stomach and fucked him, driving him back into the confines of his own shuddering body, unable to focus past pleasure.
In the morning they drove the hour to the grove, the three trees they'd planted together all those years ago. He remembered the fragile saplings under their hands, surrounded by patchy grass and a few shrubs they'd added to keep the topsoil from blowing away. Now the ground beneath the heavy branches was dark with their shade and aromatic with rotting leaves.
One for each life lost in the first battle of the war Erik was fighting and Charles was trying to stop, symbol of the separate promises they'd made to the dead. Charles wondered what Erik would have done if the plan had worked, if he'd died under the lake. Planted a fourth tree, maybe, and gone back to his war alone and cold. He didn't know for sure; Erik wouldn't think about it.
They still didn't really speak, but Erik put his hand on Charles' shoulder, and that night he was apologetically too-gentle until Charles pushed him over onto his back. "I'm not so easy to break," he whispered, and Erik let out a deep, sobbing sigh and pulled him down.
They slept late in the dark, curtained room, and kissed in the car outside the bus station like the teenagers they'd never been, a year's worth of hunger crowded into days. Then the weight of the chair was dragging at him again, and Erik's mind faded into the crowd, and he pushed himself into the station slowly, one year older.
The ending, at least, never got easier.
= End =