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The Geometry of Chance

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I.

Brimstone and sulfur made an acrid first postscript to Azazel's arrival, the shouts and screams of the corner cafe's unsuspecting patrons a noisy second; then Charles sighed and took a deep, gritty drag of his cigarette, and the humans around them subsided like marionettes.

"Impressive as always," Azazel drawled, all angular consonants, as the cafe's sole waiter even scurried out to take his order - a long black, no sugar, some sandwich with a distressing amount of bacon. Charles stirred his chamomile tea and breathed out, rolling the taste of the smoke in his mouth, the warm lover's caress of it through the lungs that he didn't actually need.

"Azazel. State your business."

A smirk stole its slow way across Azazel's lips, and his sinuous red tail twirled idly around one of the legs of Charles' chair. Charles arched an eyebrow at Azazel, indenting the swell of his lower lip with a press of his right thumb, and Azazel's tail unwound itself to curl back under the other demon's chair. "You've grown unfriendly, Cresil."

"That's not a name that I use any longer."

"Of course," Azazel said mockingly, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table as the waiter trotted back to them, with a cup of tea for Azazel and a dazed smile and a blush for Charles, lingering one moment too long until Charles frowned to himself. Within the cafe, there was an irritated shout, and the waiter rushed away, though he sneaked one last, longing glance from the doorway. "How is mediocrity working for you, Charles? You look pale."

"Mediocrity has been lovely, thank you," Charles replied primly, absently, though he took a sip from his lukewarm cup. The lingering trace of the human's want colored the air, mingling with cigarette smoke, making his mouth water, but he controlled himself in the next breath. He could last another day, surely, not yet.

"One of the oldest of Lilith's children, limiting yourself so," Azazel shook his head with arch regret. "Whatever will your mother say?"

"You know that she'll be pleased enough were I to starve myself to a whisper," Charles retorted, his eyes narrowing quickly. Azazel had been a long enough acquaintance, however unwanted, through their long and accidental exile into the Prime Material to know what a mention of Lilith would have on Charles' mood. "I ask you again, Azazel, what do you want?"

"Mutants," Azazel said simply, then he grinned slowly and raised his cup to his mouth. "There are more and more of them about."

Charles tilted his head, distracted as a lovely brunette lady glided past, walking a dog that seemed more white fluff than animal; even as its owner smiled prettily at Charles, the dog growled and crouched, teeth bared. Charles reached out a little regretfully to brush their minds, and human and dog blinked owlishly, together, before turning away. "And?"

"They're rather more interesting than the usual human, aren't they? As breakable as a human, but so... destructive, in the right hands. Perhaps more so than our traditional enemies."

Charles frowned at Azazel, setting down his cup. "The war's over, Azazel. We lost, remember?"

"We lost a battle, not the war," Azazel bared his teeth, his tail lashing under his chair. "You may not care much at all for your mother, but what of your brothers and sisters? They too are imprisoned."

"Your business, Azazel," Charles cut in, firmly.

"I think that I have found a way to break the seals," Azazel seemed to calm down with visible effort. "Will you aid me?"

Charles didn't answer, not at first, smoking the rest of his cigarette in steady, slow puffs, then stubbing it out on the ashtray and breathing out. "No."

"All I need you to do is to keep a few humans docile. It will be easy with your tricks."

"No," Charles repeated, with a small, wry smile this time, as Azazel growled at him. "I like this world as it is, Azazel. And I'm sad to say that it will deteriorate rather rapidly should the seals be broken. Find your own way, you'll not have any help from me."

"Fine," Azazel snarled with disgust, muttering something filthy in the Old Tongue before pushing himself angrily to his feet. "Of all of the Neyaphem who escaped the Cull other than myself, why did it have to be one of the Lilim?"

"Good day to you, Azazel," Charles said, with firm politeness, and Azazel vanished, in another acrid cloud of brimstone, leaving a bitter, accusing silence in his wake.

Charles waved the cloud away with discreet flicks of his hands, and beckoned the waiter over with a smile for another cup of tea. Azazel was always up to one scheme or another, and for all of his words, he would be back to pester Charles, sooner or later. There were no others on the Prime Material that were quite like them, after all, and even a Prince of the Neyaphem could be lonely.

When the second cup of tea arrived, Charles studied the blushing, stuttering waiter thoughtfully. He was rake-thin, far too gawky, his skin pocked, and his mind a whirl of self-doubt couched within terribly mundane concerns, about his rent, his job, the plates to be washed in the sink at the back - one glorious blur of mediocrity. Charles smiled, and watched as the waiter blushed again, this time to the roots of his short-cropped hair. He'd do for tonight.

II.

"You've been snacking," Raven accused, the moment Charles glided into the bar and settled himself into a stool at the smooth walnut counter, flushed and content and a little sleepy.

"Azazel made an appearance." It didn't go much by way of apology, but Raven stopped industriously polishing the counter for a moment, with a blink, then she sighed and set a glass in front of Charles, pouring him a generous measure of whisky.

"What did he want this time?"

"The usual." The whisky was smooth, with smoky notes of caramel and vanilla, a pleasant underscore to the rest of the day's activities. Azazel was a minor, recurring irritation that was easily forgotten.

Raven grimaced. "He never gives up. All these centuries and you'd think that he would have found another hobby by now."

"We have a rather different view of the centuries than your kind, my dear," Charles said dryly, though he grinned when he said it, and Raven glowered at him even as she finished scrubbing the counter. Charles had encountered Raven when she was nine or so, as a small mutant child who had tried to pick his pocket, and had, beyond all his usual reserve and caution, become rather fond of her. When he inevitably outlived her, it was going to be... difficult.

"At least this means that you won't be preying on my regulars tonight."

"Your regulars tend to be safe from me and my tastes, Raven."

"Are you implying that they tend to be blindingly ugly?"

"Your words, not mine," Charles shot back, and they bickered along the well-worn grooves of old arguments even as the pub began to fill and Charles was pressed into service despite his protests. He had to concentrate to be unobtrusive, when there were so many minds pressing about, concentrate harder to keep his aura to himself and in the end, Charles gave up trying to remember orders and simply picked the names of the drinks out of each patron's mind.

"You're lazy," Raven told him, when Charles returned for a tray of foamy beer.

"Keep calm and water the goods, darling," Charles replied blithely, only for her to spit a curse at him and for someone at his elbow to laugh, low and rough.

Quite possibly one of the most handsome human men Charles had ever met was perched on the bar stool, all long, sleek limbs in a turtleneck and pressed gray pants, his eyes dancing with dark humor and his sensuous mouth pulled into a smirk, his air of confidence eloquent of a quiet, inexplicable power. Charles froze for a moment, rather blindsided by the hunger that pulsed in a low throb in his belly despite the fact that he'd already had his quota for the week only a few hours ago, and he swallowed quickly as the stranger straightened, eyes dilating, and hastily clamped down with the best of his shields and picked up the tray so quickly that the beer sloshed.

Charles could feel the stranger's eyes on his back anyway as he did the rounds and came back to the bar with more orders. Raven was watching them both suspiciously, her gaze darting between them, even as she thought, Charles?

I'm fine. No eye contact. And absolutely no skin-to-skin. Charles could wait this out. He didn't usually feel such a strong sense of attraction to a human on looks alone. The last one which he had taken who had made him feel like this had...

Charles? What's wrong, Charles?

Had been left a drained husk on a rumpled bed, slats of sunlight painting brisk, stark shades over slack, ashen flesh. I'm fine, Raven, Charles repeated firmly, closing his eyes briefly against the sick lurch in his stomach as he picked up another tray, this one full of alarmingly colored cocktails. Are these strictly legal?

The hell you are, Angel can pick up your slack. Just head upstairs and lie down. Raven suggested gently, brusquely ignoring Charles' attempts to change the subject, but Charles was, against all bloody sense, hungry again, and if didn't leave soon, he was going to do something that he was going to regret; he had rules, for fuck's sake, he was older than this human city, even. He could control himself.

It seemed to take an eternity, weaving around the growing crowd to get to the corner table where a trio of perfumed ladies giggled to themselves around an equally dressed-up human male, probably all out slumming. Absently, Charles planted a suggestion in their minds not to stay out too late and to avoid the side streets, serving them with none of his usual playful flourish. He could feel the stranger still watching him, the hair on his neck was standing, hells, he could taste the stranger's interest even from here, over the thick weave of cigarette smoke with its notes of liquor and beer, and he had to swallow hard and grit his teeth. Control. Control.

"Hello," the stranger said softly, leaning forward when Charles returned with the empty tray. "Busy night?"

Shivering, wetting his lips with a press of his tongue, Charles gamely tried to ignore him, even as Raven attempted and failed to engage the stranger with small talk. The stranger reached out to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention - how crass - when Raven loaded up the tray again, and Charles froze his hand an inch away from his shoulder with a thought. "Don't touch me," Charles said quietly, distracted and now more than a little panicky, even as Angel sidled close and took the tray from him pointedly, shooting the stranger a hostile glance.

"How did you do that?" the stranger asked, genuinely curious rather than afraid, and this startled Raven into fumbling a bottle of beer and Charles into gawping. The bottle's fall was arrested abruptly in mid air, and it floated back to the counter, the bottle cap gleaming in the dull light of the pub. "Are you like me?"

The stranger was a mutant - a telekinetic... no, metal-control, Charles noted, as his curiosity took a peek in the stranger's mind despite his resolve. The stranger was called Erik Lehnsherr, born Max Eisenhardt, German, Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, vengeance, hatred, coins, Shaw, curiosity, and there, that frank, unselfconscious lust, all unprompted, so very odd in a man looking at another man, they were in the Village, but still-

Taking a deep breath, Charles managed a pitchy, "Hardly," before he edged out of reach and withdrew his touch from the stranger's mind. "Raven, I, I have to go, call me if you need me."

"Of course," Raven assured him, wide-eyed and still staring at the bottle, and Charles stumbled his way out of the pub, darting towards the street and flagging down a taxi, shaking and clutching at his arms. He'd only fed this afternoon. Granted, it was the usual measure, nothing more than his donor - his victim - could give, but it should have taken the edge off his hunger.

"Drive," he told the taxi driver sharply, and accentuated the command with a touch on the grizzled old man's mind when the man merely stared vacuously at him, and the taxi pulled away from the curb with a screech of tyres even as he saw the stranger walking briskly out of the pub and looking around.

Closing his eyes, Charles settled back in the cab and rested his head against the slightly greasy upholstery, breathing in stale air, sweat and the faint hint of old vomit that the taxi driver's cheap air freshener couldn't quite get rid of. Slowly, his hunger grew less visceral, replaced instead by a twitchy hyper-awareness that made him gag on the scents and roll down the passenger window even as his mind cleared. Guiltily, Charles knew that he had to get back to the pub eventually - the area tended to get rowdy when the night grew older, and often the patrons could get far too much even for Armando to handle.

"Where to, sir?" the driver asked, his voice a little slurred, and Charles knew that his name was Stanley, that he was fifty-four, a simple, God-fearing man who lived east of Brooklyn, and he'd been driving a cab for more than half of his life, that his wife had left him five years ago and taken only one of their children, the girl, and his son had fallen to bad ways and smoked and refused to find any meaningful employment, such a waste, that-

Oddly comforted by the mundane, Charles murmured, a little more kindly, even as he clamped down on his shields, "Just keep going. You'll know when I want to come back."

One of those crazy rich kids, Charles heard, even as the old man turned his eyes back to the road, even as Charles glanced out from the back window at the dark sleek curve of the road behind them, then he smiled as the old man followed that with a grumbling, who does 'ee think he is anyway-

"Who indeed," Charles murmured, rubbing at his eyes, and it occurred to him belatedly that instead of panicking and running off, he should simply have wiped the stranger's mind and nudged him out of the pub. He had to be growing careless.

III.

By the time Charles dared to slink back into the pub it was closing time, and Armando was pointedly ushering the few remaining stragglers off the premises. Charles made a vague, dismissive gesture at the door, and a florid drunk straightened up from where he had been flailing haphazardly at Armando, joining the single file now trudging neatly out of the door. Charles slouched into a stool at the counter, and this time, Raven wordlessly poured him a glass of whisky, on the rocks.

"Deja vu," Charles said wryly, pressing the cold glass to his temple.

"Mind telling me what the fuck that was about?" Angel asked, just behind him, and Charles nearly spilled all the whisky over himself.

"Hello Angel, how was your day?" Angel and Armando were other mutants that Charles had inadvertently collected after he had met Raven. It seemed sometimes that humans were a collector's habit - allow one to follow you around like a duckling and others would tag along in a slowly rising tide, and before you knew it you were providing for a whole host of them as some sort of pseudo-paternal figure. Azazel sometimes sneered at his so-called sentimentality.

"Peachy," Angel said flatly, arms folded as she slipped onto a stool next to him. "Was it that German cat who was bothering you? You could have just," Angel wiggled her fingers in the air, pointedly. "Made him go away."

"Yes, well, for some reason that did not occur to me," Charles admitted dryly.

"Wow. Well, he wasn't your type anyway," Angel reached over to snag Charles' glass when Raven's back was turned, taking a sip.

And then, sometimes his children reminded him why he had collected them in the first place. Smiling faintly, amused, Charles inquired, "And what's my 'type', sweetheart?"

"Ugly, too skinny, or going on the big side, lonely old men," Angel counted the descriptions off on her slender fingers even as Charles choked on his whisky. "Right? Honestly, I don't understand you. Maybe it's a demony thing, but hell, as a human, I can tell you that that German cat was one hot piece of ass and he would have been all over you if you'd even just smiled at him."

Parsing Angel's dialogue tended to take too much concentration. "Thank you for the input, Angel."

"I could just refuse entry to him in the future," Armando suggested, even as he locked up and went to fetch a broom.

"I'll send him away if I see him again," Charles decided. With Erik's ability, he could probably work trouble even for Armando. "Did he come back to the pub after I left?"

"Nope. Just up and left, chasing your tail." Angel sighed gustily. "If only my stalkers were this hot."

"You have stalkers?" Charles blinked.

"I can take care of myself, Dad." Angel retorted, and scowled when Charles frowned at her. Boys from the school, from the looks of it, just fumbling adolescent admirers. Angel had a beautifully visceral but disorganised mind, mostly strong emotional impressions and run-on thought processes than words and sentences.

Charles relaxed. "Don't go anywhere quiet by yourself. I don't like the look of that big one, Danny."

"I hate it when you do that," Angel pulled a face.

"Danny? That jock?" Raven said incredulously, from where she was wiping down the tables. "Seriously?"

"Raven likes Danny," Angel declared, in a sing-song voice.

"I do not!"

"I've seen you hanging around near the locker room, you slut," Angel grinned triumphantly, and Charles pressed the cold glass to the other temple as the two girls began to bicker.

"All right, all of you, off to bed. You lot have school tomorrow." Charles was developing a headache.

On hindsight, allowing the children to start a pub had not been a good idea. When the children had wanted to start up a joint business in order to earn their own upkeep, Charles had thought that it was a fabulous solution - adolescence was a troublesome age for humanity, when his wards were no longer cute little human children who would hang on to his every word instead of arguing with him, and he'd thought that a small business would keep them out of trouble. He didn't have that much energy to spare at the best of times, after all.

Now, he was vaguely concerned that the long hours would be affecting their school life, but their grades were passable to date and the business did keep them occupied, even if it meant that Charles had to hang around during opening hours to keep trouble to a minimum. Which meant that he would have to be here tomorrow night, and the stranger - Erik - might be back.

He'll have to feed again and keep himself calm. Today he had been caught off guard, as embarrassing as it was for one of the oldest of the Lilim, but tomorrow, Charles would be prepared. Besides, it had been a very, very long time since he'd had to exert an effort to keep himself under control, and this could be decent practice.

IV.

After the children had left for school, bickering and squabbling, Charles liked to sit cross-legged on the counter and read. He had been an enthusiastic follower of human literature ever since the species figured out publishing; the Neyaphem had a written language, but they had little artistic creativity, culture wise, compared to the short-lived humans.

He was dutifully working his way through The Metamorphosis when there was a rap at the locked door, then another. Charles frowned to himself and reached out automatically, to turn whoever it was away, only to hesitate when he touched a familiar human mind.

Lehnsherr.

Hello. You can hear me, can't you? Lehnsherr was thinking comically loudly and slowly, in images of scrolling copperplate text, and despite himself, Charles smiled wryly, his earlier resolve stalling.

Yes.

That's good, Lehnsherr thought awkwardly, before his carefully constructed mental sentences descended into the usual human jumble of impressions and half-finished phrases, wonder if he'll let me in, is he scared of me, then Lehnsherr cleared his throat audibly. "Could we talk?"

Charles sighed. Planting a suggestion in Lehnsherr's mind that he had pressing business elsewhere would be easy, plucking the memory of the pub and Charles from his mind, easier still, but he hesitated. Let yourself in, then.

The lock chain snaked to a side, then the lock itself clicked, and Lehnsherr opened the door, closing it behind him, even as Charles slipped down behind the counter. "Could I get you something to drink?"

"Coffee, please." Lehnsherr was dressed up today, in a gray suit and a white shirt, as though he'd just come out from some corporate meeting; the clothes were well-cut, and showed off his beautiful, elegant limbs. Swallowing, Charles averted his eyes when Lehnsherr sat down at the counter, eyeing the neat stack of books that Charles was reading with open curiosity. Lehnsherr didn't read very much - unsurprisingly; most humans whom Charles had met had probably only read a handful of books in their lifetime, usually only where required by the school syllabus - he was merely casting around a little desperately for something light for small talk. "Kafka... you are fluent in German?"

Charles was fluent in most human languages, including those that were now forgotten, but he nodded as he turned on the percolator and leaned back against the counter. "We could speak in German if you prefer. Or Polish."

"English is fine. You are a professor?"

"No." Charles decided to opt for the polite, but reserved approach. Hopefully he'd make Lehnsherr uncomfortable enough that the man would leave of his own accord.

"Ah... of course, you own this establishment." Another awkward silence ensued, within which Charles schooled his features to remain expressionless, then Lehnsherr sighed. "I wanted to apologize."

"For?"

"Last night, that little display, it could have caused trouble." Lehnsherr's eyes were dilated again, and quickly, Charles checked his own shielding. Everything seemed to be in place, and he was fairly sure that he wasn't projecting his aura... which meant that the strength of Lehnsherr's interest seemed to be purely from Lehnsherr himself.

Thinking about how much he could glean from Lehnsherr, just like this, without exerting any of his 'tricks', as Azazel called them, made his mouth start to water. Lehnsherr would be easy, and he would be passionate, unskilled but enthusiastic, and Charles could so easily take his fill and more besides and... no. Unsettled by his lapse, Charles fought the urge to take a step backwards, and nodded tightly instead.

"You froze my hand in mid air, how did you do that?"

"I'm a telepath, Mister Lehnsherr," Charles said, a little disingenuously, but usually, revealing to a human that he was a centuries-old member of another species tended to terrify. "Or would you prefer Mister Eisenhardt?"

"Erik, please," Lehnsherr looked pleased instead of disconcerted, and hells but he was gorgeous when he smiled. Charles realized that his own breathing was beginning to hitch, and forced himself to stay steady. "I have not met any others like myself. You are British?"

Charles was a bit of a stickler for authenticity, in actual fact, which was why he stubbornly clung to a carefully cultivated British accent. "No."

Lehnsherr sighed. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"

"Actually, you are," Charles said, as neutrally as he could; even with all his shields up, just being this close to Lehnsherr was making him twitchy; he could sense Lehnsherr's want in the air, sharp and clean, and it was beginning to make him a little dizzy. Lehnsherr was feeling uncertain, debating whether or not to leave when he really wanted to stay, wondering whether Charles was spooked because of Lehnsherr's ability or because he had read Lehnsherr's less-than-virtuous intentions; there was even a flicker of an image of Charles sitting on the counter before him, legs bracketing Lehnsherr's hips.

Charles arched an eyebrow, and Lehnsherr flushed, the image crumbling away into embarrassment. "Es tut mir furchtbar leid... My apologies."

German, Charles thought, was definitely not one of his favorite languages, aesthetically speaking. "It's... it's not uncommon."

"Ah, of course," He could feel Lehnsherr wondering whether it would be politic to offer a compliment - it seemed that flirtations and small talk were usually out of Lehnsherr's scope of affairs, what with being occupied with chasing Nazi war criminals across the world. Outside of basic conversation, blackmail, denouncements, and threats seemed the norm; chatting up someone was not. Charles would feel amused if he wasn't already rather fascinated - Lehnsherr's mind was like a knife, all single-minded, uncompromising purpose.

Hells.

"Your coffee," Charles muttered instead, pouring cups for the both of them and setting Lehnsherr's down before him, and the fumbling compliment that Lehnsherr was deciding on faded away, unspoken - it was rather uncreative, in any regard.

"Danke." Lehnsherr took his coffee black, no sugar, and he looked mildly surprised when Charles scooped several spoons of sugar into his cup, though he made no comment. Human food and drink had no real effect on Charles' system, and of all the flavors he could taste his favorite was anything sweet. "You play chess?"

For a moment, Charles blinked at Lehnsherr, surprised, only to remember belatedly that in his small stack of borrowed books there was a couple of Alekhine's. "Sometimes." It was a bald lie; he was a weekly visitor of the tables at the Washington Square Park. Lehnsherr, Charles already knew, had been taught by his father; chess was one of the only good childhood memories that he still retained. "You haven't played the game since you left Haifa. You're rusty."

Lehnsherr stared at him for a moment, then he smiled again, and didn't seem to notice when Charles twitched. "You have a most remarkable ability."

Acceptance wasn't the usual, default human attitude towards his telepathy. Startled, Charles fumbled his answer, ending up with a clumsy, "It's useful."

Lehnsherr was persistent, Charles had to give him that - he tried a few more standard human attempts at small talk before he finally finished his coffee. Thoroughly uncomfortable now and wishing that he had taken the time to go looking for a donor in the morning, Charles' responses grew more and more terse until Lehnsherr finally excused himself and thanked him for the coffee.

Charles kept a light trace on Lehnsherr's mind and waited an hour until he was fairly sure that Lehnsherr was nowhere near the vicinity, before smoothing over Lehnsherr's memories of Charles and the pub from his mind, boxing it deep and placing a few nudges in place to prevent Lehnsherr from obsessing over any lost time. Pouring himself another cup of coffee, Charles climbed back up onto the counter and picked up his book with a shaky breath, and forced himself to read the same page over and over until his mind calmed itself down. Lehnsherr was dangerous.

V.

Having thought that he had solved what Angel rather gracelessly called 'The Problem of the Too-Hot Stalker', Charles managed to force his routine back on track and relax back into its well-worn grooves, and after a week or so, he had more or less managed to relegate the entire episode of his rather gauche lack of self control to the past. Thank goodness his mother was locked away; she would never have let him hear the end of it. In any regard, Lehnsherr didn't come back to the pub, the children had stopped teasing Charles about it after a day or so, and things seemed to settle back to normal.

Therefore, when Lehnsherr sat down opposite Charles at the blitz table in the Washington Square Park, Charles could only stare at him in open-mouthed astonishment.

"I didn't manage to get your name the last time."

"How did you...?"

"I thought that it was possible that a mind reader could also pluck a memory from another person's mind," Lehnsherr said apologetically. "When I left the pub, I wrote down as much as I could remember of you in a note."

"And you are not," Charles fumbled for a moment, before deciding on, "Angry?"

"Perhaps you felt that you had to defend yourself. Often, the people I have met who have discovered what I could do have been... very hostile." Lehnsherr shrugged, then added earnestly, "I want you to believe that you have nothing to fear from me. You can check, if you like." Lehnsherr tapped his temple in emphasis.

Charles had to stifle a burp of startled laughter. Lehnsherr was so wrong on so many counts - Lehnsherr was the one who should fear Charles. "I just want you to leave me alone."

"I know that," Lehnsherr was projecting a sense of hurt, but also a steely determination. "Look, I'm sorry about what you might have seen in my mind, about you. I'm not going to attack you, and this isn't an elaborate attempt at... at..."

"Flirtation?" Charles suggested, with a wry grin, despite himself. Lehnsherr was indeed genuinely curious - oddly enough, Charles was in fact the first mutant he had ever discovered.

"Yes." Lehnsherr tentatively returned his grin. "I will not be in Manhattan for very long - I am waiting for some business to conclude, so, ah-"

"You're trying to reassure me that you won't stalk me." Charles concluded, and he had to laugh this time, thoroughly amused, "My friend, when was the last time you had a normal, friendly conversation with anyone? You're terribly out of practice."

"I haven't usually had the time or the inclination," Lehnsherr admitted, though he frowned briefly, then clearly decided not to take offense.

"And what will you do when you do kill Schmidt?" Charles asked idly, picking up a castle to run his thumb over the ridged tip. "Take up gardening? Flower arranging, perhaps?"

"You're trying to annoy me by being obnoxious," Lehnsherr concluded, narrowing his eyes. "It won't work."

Caught out, Charles shrugged, with a lazy smile. "I haven't even started trying, my friend. You want my name? Play a game with me. If you can beat me, I'll give it to you. I won't cheat."

Expecting an outburst, or at least a scowl, Charles was a little surprised instead when Lehnsherr's fingers hovered over the white pieces, then he settled for moving the third pawn from the left up two squares. Charles responded with his knight, and the game was as short as Charles predicted; Lehnsherr was intelligent, but considerably rusty, and Charles had been playing chess ever since the game had been invented. He beat Lehnsherr a second time, then a third, without having to exert very much effort, and as he reset the pieces, Lehnsherr sighed, frustrated.

"Giving up?" Charles suggested.

"I like a challenge." Lehnsherr shot back, with a frown at the board as though it was somehow complicit in his losses. "Again?"

Charles glanced up at the sky; it was growing late, and he was a little startled to realize that as terribly one-sided as the chess games had been, he had been, grudgingly, enjoying the company, enough that he hadn't noticed time passing. Other than the children and Azazel, he didn't usually keep company with anyone who knew what he could do; it often proved too complicated.

"One more. But you'll just lose again."

"We'll see."

Lehnsherr lost, as thoroughly as before, and reluctantly, Charles got up from the table with a yawn and a stretch. "I have to go."

"Will you be here tomorrow?" Lehnsherr was trying and failing to sound casual instead of hopeful.

"Maybe," Charles said vaguely, clearly meaning 'no', and as Lehnsherr's face fell, Charles rubbed his hand ruefully over his eyes and relented a little. Damn his sentimentality! "My name is Charles."

"Charles," Lehnsherr repeated slowly, as though committing it to memory, then he smiled warmly and held out his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

If their hands touched, Charles knew, it could be over; he felt strung out, as though he hadn't fed for weeks; he wouldn't be able to hold up all of his shields. Lehnsherr would probably kiss him, or pull him closer, and then Charles would end up taking him right there, at the blitz table, in the middle of the park in broad daylight, the taste of Lehnsherr's lust was so tempting and... and he would probably end up killing him.

Charles pressed his own hands tightly into the pockets of his jeans and pretended not to see the outstretched hand, instead inclining his head neatly and walking away as hurriedly as dignity allowed; he could already feel himself sweating.

Once outside the park, a middle-aged man in a suit paused in the middle of getting into his car and flushed a little when their eyes met; Charles hesitated for a moment before nudging the man's mind, causing him to turn back to his car. Within his pockets, his hands curled tightly for a moment against his thighs, and the next breath that he took was huffed out from behind gritted teeth. That had been close.

VI.

In total, over the next two weeks, Charles stole Lehnsherr's memories of himself three times, once more because of precaution, once out of curiosity, and the last out of a fit of pique, which, as it turned out, made him feel ashamed enough of himself to blink and nod when Lehnsherr unerringly found him in the local library and asked him whether he'd like to have some coffee.

"I don't understand how you do that each time," Charles admitted, when he allowed Lehnsherr to settle them both at the passable cafe opposite the library. "And I've looked. In your mind," Charles clarified, when Lehnsherr arched an eyebrow.

"Have you?" Lehnsherr 's mouth twitched, as though in amusement - a rather strange reaction to a man who'd been so intimately robbed four times to date.

"Well," Charles hedged; he hadn't actually looked - human minds were a morass at the best of times, and he hadn't wanted to linger too long in Lehnsherr's. It made his fingers itch and his mouth water. It didn't help, in the first place, that most of the memories that he had to excise and box up from Lehnsherr's mind, each time, were not publicly appropriate, some rather graphically so. "I don't want to hurt you," Charles added sulkily, when Lehnsherr 's eyebrows rose.

"Extrapolate," Lehnsherr suggested, sounding smug, though he looked serious.

"Presumably you still leave yourself notes, around your hotel room, perhaps," Charles grumbled, though he thought that he had nudged Lehnsherr's mind away from that the last time. "Maybe you get someone to call you with juvenile hints. You definitely somehow leave yourself clues, like some blasted gumshoe and... and you're laughing," Charles said incredulously, "You think that this is funny, do you?"

Lehnsherr stopped chuckling after a visible effort, though he did hiccup a little until he took a sip of his coffee. "Bezaubernd."

Adorable? Charles scowled, decidedly put out with the entire situation, and rather rattled by how easily Lehnsherr seemed to be bypassing his telepathy. Charles knew that of all of Lilith's children with the dreamthief's gift, his was the strongest, and it was rather unnerving to watch a human without a similar gift find a way around his methods. Repeatedly.

Something must have shown in his expression - Lehnsherr sobered instantly. "I didn't mean to frighten you."

"I'm not frightened, I'm exasperated," Charles insisted, narrowing his eyes. "You must tell me how you're doing this."

"Make me tell you, then," Lehnsherr suggested, and his mouth twitched again, as though this was some... some sort of terribly adolescent game of chicken, and... and... damn it all, but Charles was actually intrigued now. Few humans of late actually made him curious, and it was hells' luck indeed that this one was so pretty.

"Don't tempt me," Charles muttered, folding his face into his palms; he felt hot, and then cold again, and his skin seemed to itch and... and Lehnsherr was just sitting there, sipping awful coffee and yapping about... something. Charles frowned, and skimmed Lehnsherr's question from the surface of his mind.

Lehnsherr had asked him what he was doing in the history section in the library - probably another abysmal attempt at fishing for polite conversation. "I do have an interest in human history, yes." Sometimes he even inserted helpful little notes of corrections within the history books. Humans were remarkably good at getting the details of their own history wrong.

"Human history?" Lehnsherr repeated, and Charles had to suppress a wince at the slip of tongue.

"Well yes," Charles said, going for obnoxious and only managing to seem sullen, "There are other types of history. Natural history, for example."

"Ah, yes," Lehnsherr nodded, even as Charles mentally kicked himself. "Do you have a particular area of interest?"

All of it would probably seem rather odd, and not particularly was unacceptably imprecise. Charles decided to settle for a fond memory. "Renaissance Europe. Yourself?" Charles asked snidely, knowing as he did that Lehnsherr wasn't conventionally educated past the tender age of childhood, what with the Nazi's views on 'sub-humans', and then Lehnsherr's continuous preoccupation with murder, afterwards-

"I haven't had the leisure," Lehnsherr said evenly, and sipped his coffee even as Charles' conscience and cultivated sense of propriety finally caught up with him and made his ears burn.

Briefly, he considered skipping the entire farce and just straight out informing Lehnsherr to his face exactly what Charles' problem with him was, only to disregard it immediately when he drained his cup of tea. He didn't quite have the energy to deal with the endless questions that would arise. Or the possibly endless trouble. Lehnsherr was a Jew, Charles had picked up vaguely religious or cultural childhood memories, and possibly was still religious - Charles hadn't looked that far - he could turn hostile, or something equally tedious. Charles didn't quite want to deal with that.

"How goes your business in Manhattan?" Charles asked instead, his tone conciliatory. He supposed that he could be the mature immortal adult in this interaction, and Lehnsherr was going to leave sooner or later, anyway. Besides, for some reason, Azazel found mutant humans interesting - perhaps Lehnsherr could entertain him for a while.

"Inefficiently, I'm afraid. Chasing paper trails isn't always straightforward."

"The banker hasn't seen Schmidt - he calls him Shaw - for over two months," Charles said absently, having walked past the bank that he had gleaned off Lehnsherr's surface thoughts on their last meeting. He had been on the way to purchase groceries for the children and hadn't been able to resist taking a peek. "They communicate through a mail drop in Las Vegas. Schmidt owns property on the Strip, one of the clubs. The banker doesn't know which. He does have a license number for one of Schmidt's luxury yachts, you could run that past the harbormaster's records and see if he's docked anywhere and... what?"

Lehnsherr was staring at him as though he'd just sprouted fur and horns. "How did you know all that?"

"I walked past the bank," Charles muttered reluctantly. "Not that I was going to help you or anything, I was just curious to see if your story correlated."

"Well, thank you all the same, you've just tied up a lot of loose ends for me," Lehnsherr said warmly, with a brilliant smile that froze Charles to his seat. "You must allow me to thank you with dinner," he added, even as he reached over and folded his big hand over the palm that Charles had splayed on the arm rest of his chair, under the shadow of the table.

It was like pure electricity, like a psychoactive drug, like nothing Charles had ever tasted, the amplified flavor of Lehnsherr's energy, and in the second that Charles was startled enough to drop his shielding Lehnsherr moaned like a starving man and dragged him over, Charles' chair crashing against the ground and his outflung hand sweeping the pot of sugar off the table; the feel of Lehnsherr's mouth was drowned out in the sweet euphoria of feeding, the absorption of heady, raw energy, rich and invigorating, as though Charles had only known starvation all of his life until now and-

A shriek from a neighboring table jerked him back to reality in an ugly jolt, and Charles hastily reached out, smoothing away the other patrons' disgust and astonishment, until the cafe was back to normal. The waitress who had dropped her tray of scones scooted back into the kitchen, and Charles batted away Lehnsherr's hands and retreated to his chair, righting it and curling on it, wide-eyed.

One of his dreamthief brothers had once told him that a few, rare humans had minds that tasted better than others; Charles had always put it down to personal idiosyncrasies. After all, the Lilim were known to be eccentric.

Lehnsherr swept the cafe with a sharp glance, then looked back over at Charles, his cheeks flushed and crossing his legs in a futile effort to hide the straining, substantial bulge in his pants. Dear Gods.

"That was... was that a telepath's trick?" When Charles shrank back instead of answering, Lehnsherr choked out a laugh, running the fingers of his right hand nervously through his hair. "Charles, I'm not... I'm just... I can't see why anyone who kisses you would ever want to touch anyone else," he said fervently, all raw honesty, and belatedly, Charles dropped his shields back in place and withdrew all of his aura.

"It can be too much," Charles warned tightly. "I will hurt you."

"Perhaps I'll want you to," Lehnsherr admitted, his breathing still ragged, and Charles had to curl his fingers tightly into his arms to suppress a shudder.

"I have to go," Charles mumbled, shooting to his feet and scattering some coins on the table, too distracted even to count them; when Lehnsherr leaned forward, as though to stop him, in his panic Charles lashed out with a subconscious command - sleep.

Lehnsherr slumped on the table, beside his unfinished coffee, and Charles edged away from the table, hands shoved tightly into his pockets, swallowing hard. He considered another theft, but in his current, awry state Charles knew that he might be heavy handed with a delicate job, and after a moment's hesitation, he settled for a quick retreat. He had to... he had to find some sort of solution, before Lehnsherr drove the both of them mad.

VII.

The children had to talk him out of his room, though Charles refused to tell them what was wrong. He could tell that his condition was scaring them, however, and he forced himself into some semblance of composure through sheer willpower. Over most of their lives, they had only ever seen him calm and in control, after all. He smoothed over the concerns in their minds, not wishing to have to keep tasting the sharp edges of anxiety in the air, and folded his head in his arms at the counter, strung high on a much stronger cup of coffee, annoyed at himself.

Charles knew that he had to go to Lehnsherr's hotel room, dispose of all the clues and notes, and find out who the hell it was who was possibly calling Lehnsherr to jog his memory. There had to be other ways, but he wasn't calm enough yet to figure it out. He'll have to let an inch go tonight, feed properly but be careful about it, and then when he'd taken the edge off, Charles would reach out, find Lehnsherr's mind, and get to the root of the problem once and for all. Simple.

Slipping out of the pub with a nod at Raven, Charles sidled down an alley, keeping within a safe distance of the children in case he had to return for any reason, and waited, leaning against the grimy wall and watching passers-by trot past, scanning their memories. For a predator of his ilk, Charles liked being considerate; passers-by on immediate, pressing business, he disregarded. Eventually, he found a single human male trotting briskly towards the alley - Mark Hallis was the manager of a clothes store a block away, single and pushing middle age, working to support his sister's daughter through college, he had a bit of an ache in his joints that was bothering him, and he was heading away from a pharmacist-

You'll do, Charles murmured into Hallis' mind, and drew him into the alley and around the corner, out of view of the main street, the man stumbling, his eyes glassy, a fly caught in a web. The constant, background buzz of nervous distraction in Hallis' mind was a decent enough dampener; Charles pushed him against the wall with a sly smile and rubbed lazily against him, crinkling his pressed suit and shirt and making him gasp and fumble awkwardly at Charles' lapels, mouthing wetly at Charles' throat and letting out a strangled gasp.

"Who... what are you?" Hallis muttered, sounding panicky for a moment before Charles let up more of his shields and caught his jaw; he relaxed with a groan when Charles leaned in for a kiss, drinking through the growing haze of the human's lust, letting him up briefly when Hallis struggled for breath, then taking his mouth again. He could feel the restlessness within him fading a little as instincts took over, hooking into the pleasure centres of Hallis' mind and soothing him, making him pliant-

Someone abruptly jerked Charles backwards a full couple of steps, with a crushing grip on Charles' shoulders; Charles snarled, angry at the sudden interruption, snapping his head around to retaliate against the intruder - and hesitated, blinking in surprise. It was Lehnsherr - and he was angry, bright red with it, his shoulders hunched and tense and his lips trembling, glaring at Hallis as though he was going to kill him, and Charles could hear metal rattling, from the grille of the windows above and around them, to the dumpster scraping an inch closer far to their right.

Even as Charles stared, somewhat bemused, Lehnsherr began to snarl at Hallis in German, apparently too furious to remember anything other than German, and it was insulting, childishly possessive, and... and... Charles hastily froze Lehnsherr in place and nudged Hallis' mind as he felt Lehnsherr's roiling surface thoughts take on a darker, dangerous turn. Instantly, Hallis bolted, and Charles waited until he could no longer hear the human's fleeing footsteps before taking in a deep breath.

"What are you doing? English, Lehnsherr, concentrate. Calm down, damn you!"

Lehnsherr stared at him, his breathing rough and shallow, then he growled and fisted his hands in Charles' jacket and shoved him up against the wall, until Charles was dangling off the ground and trapped between Lehnsherr's long, lean frame and the cracked brick and being kissed within an inch of his immortal life. He groaned, curling his arms tight around Lehnsherr's shoulders and wrapping his legs over his hips, and yes this was better, richer, intoxicating; he could drown himself in it forever-

"Lehnsherr... Erik," Charles hissed, jerking back so quickly that his skull cracked against the brick; thank hells for a Neyaphem's hardier body. "Stop, verdamnt, stop!"

"Nein," Erik moaned, blindly pushing forward even when Charles hastily clapped a palm over his mouth, and Charles could hear the jumble of thoughts anyway, all bitte, bitte and a desperate urge to please; Erik must have been caught by the tail end of Charles' aura, he was mad from it. Charles reached out, about to force Erik back into unconsciousness, only for Erik to make a sound like a wrenching sob and jerk Charles' hand away via his watch, leaning back in for another kiss, wet and sloppy. Charles' grip on his aura was fraying, he was hungry and Erik tasted so good.

"You'll regret this," Charles warned, when Erik had to let up for air.

"I don't care," Erik said, his voice raw, "You drive me crazy, Charles, I'm not... I'm not usually like this, I want you, want this, I wanted to kill that other man, are you seeing him or did you just pick him off the street, fuck-" Charles hastily silenced Erik with a slower kiss when violence leaked into the taste of Erik's lusts, turning it sharp and bitter; it took another kiss for Erik's anger to fade into a sort of disbelieving euphoria, and that was good, sweet and vivid.

Charles gave in, too hungry to fight it, and he reached out for Erik's mind, made him put his palms down over Charles' hips and rump and rut against him, but he didn't have to work at amplifying his lust; Erik was exuding enough intense energy for Charles to be drunk on it even as he tried to control his intake, and Gods but they weren't even naked. "That's it," Charles breathed, as Erik shuddered and let out another desperate sob and sank his teeth in Charles' neck before licking and worrying at the mark, "Let me watch you come apart, darling."

Erik let out a choked sound that even seemed a little surprised as he stiffened against Charles, his hips jerking forward, and if he said anything at all Charles wasn't in a position to hear, skimming the white-hot, breaking crest of Erik's ecstasy and keeping himself carefully apart even as he felt the rich energy wash over and suffuse him, the world turning sharper, all visceral scents and sounds. He could feel Erik carefully letting him down, slumping against him and panting hard.

"Es tu... ah... I'm so sorry," Erik said breathlessly, after a long moment, and the nice, warm buzz of residual energy turned sour with Erik's awkward concerns over his 'poor' performance, the panicked threads of mein Gott and what must he think of me, all in a slow burn of mawkish schoolboy embarrassment.

"It's quite all right, my dear chap," Charles said dreamily, still giddy enough that he didn't automatically reach out to tamp down on the contamination of Erik's energy; it felt like he had taken more than he usually did, and he hadn't even gotten Erik onto a bed.

"I'll... I'll help you with your-"

"Don't bother, there's no need," Charles batted Erik's hands away, growing a little irritable. Humans and their concepts of equitable contribution. Erik wouldn't understand that for Charles, an orgasm was merely a pleasant but optional coda; his partner's pleasure was the highlight, as it were. Physical gratification did little in comparison, and he might be tempted to take even more, and... and how much had he taken, anyway?

The buzz of pleasure faded as though Charles had been splashed with cold water. Now concerned, Charles peered at Erik's dilated pupils, turning his chin this way and that and ignoring Erik's fumbling attempts to struggle with Charles' belt. Erik was on the verge of exhaustion, and Charles couldn't tell whether it was because of Charles or because of what the dark rings under Erik's eyes meant. "You need to rest."

"Lack of sleep," Erik said dismissively, and Charles carefully edged his way out of grasping hands, backing away quickly when Erik sucked in a breath and reached for him - only to stumble heavily with a yelp of surprise. Charles caught Erik by reflex, taking a heavy couple of steps back under the sudden weight, and sighed as Erik nosed at his neck and mumbled something incoherent. He was teetering on the edge of consciousness, Charles could tell, and for a moment, he considered walking Erik back to Charles' rooms at the pub and pouring him into bed there, but that way led only to further disaster. He'd be far too tempted to have Erik again in the morning.

With a deep sigh, Charles pointedly began half-carrying, half-dragging Erik towards the main road, flagging down a taxi and ignoring Erik's uncoordinated attempts to embrace him, turning away the eyes of passers-by and nudging away the taxi driver's uncertainty. Erik's mind was a jumbled mess, all wants and Charles and impressions, and Charles dug through his pockets instead when he got Erik seated in the cab, locating a set of hotel keys and reading the address on the tab to the driver. Once the cab settled back into traffic, Charles nudged Erik off to sleep, and spent the entire ride in silence, staring out of the window with his jaw clenched, rather ashamed of himself.

Mentally commanding the driver to wait for him once they pulled up at a small hotel only a few blocks away from the pub, Charles woke Erik just enough for Erik to walk with him with another nudge, manhandling him out of the taxi and into the sparse lobby of the hotel. A bored concierge glanced up at the counter with a frown, glancing at Charles, then at Erik's listless form, and Charles skimmed the first words off the surface of her mind - the 183C man is drunk.

"Hello, I'm afraid that my friend had a little too much to drink," Charles said, with his best smile and a little prod to the concierge's mind. She straightened up a little with a wavering smile of her own, smoothing down a wrinkle to her pencil skirt and tucking at the hem to her blazer. "Could I get the location of Room 22? I'll pour him into bed and then leave."

"Room 22 is on the second floor, to your left," the concierge said warmly, and her name was Rosie, she was thirty-four and a divorcee with a new boyfriend who wasn't anywhere near as cute as 183C man or his friend, damn her life, they were probably queers... Charles winked at her to make her blush, and Rosie ducked her head down to look at the guestbook as he hauled Erik towards the lift.

Room 22. Why 183C? Charles took a little peek into Rosie's mind as he pressed the plastic '2' circle, and pursed his lips as he noted that Rosie was puzzled about it all as well; Erik wanted a wake up call every day, at 8 am, and after the wake up he needed whoever it was to tell him '183C'. A code, perhaps, or more likely, an address, or a post box number...

A dreamer's mind was difficult to navigate at the best of times, and Charles gave up after a brief attempt when the lift doors pinged open to a ratty maroon carpet that had seen far better days, scuffed and discolored. He dragged Erik to the room door marked '22' and used Erik's keys to unlock it, then pulled Erik into the room, cursing under his breath, and somehow managed enough effort to haul Erik all the way into the small bedroom and roll him onto the bed, pushing him back to sleep when Erik mumbled something and tried to pull him down.

The quilt was an alarming shade of pea green, and the room seemed sterile even for a hotel room, sparsely furnished. Rubbing his shoulder absently, Charles closed the door, then he circled it, curious. There was a map affixed to a cork board opposite the bed, upon which a photograph of Shaw was pinned, as well as a painstaking series of annotations in German and marks on a piece of notepaper. Irrelevant, Charles decided.

On the lumpy armchair close to the door was something more promising - a stack of books, and Charles realized with a wry sense of amusement that the titles were exactly the same as those that Erik had seen in the pub, on the counter; from their creased spines and dog-eared pages, probably purchased second-hand. There was a bound scrap book tucked on the couch behind the stack, and it had photographs - one of the blitz tables at the Washington Park, the other of the street corner close to the pub, one of the library which Charles liked to frequent to borrow his books. Addresses were written in neat copperplate writing on the back of the polaroids.

Feeling a little like a common thief and shaking his head at Erik's careful attention to detail, Charles went through the cupboards in the rooms and the cabinets, as well as Erik's suitcase of clothes and effects, just in case, then he decided to confiscate the books, the scrap book and the photographs. Leaving Erik's keys in his coat, Charles left the room, trotting out and ensuring that the concierge only watched him incuriously as he left. Briefly, he considered plucking the memory out of her mind altogether, including Erik's wake up call instructions, but decided against it. Until he fixed Erik's memories, there was no use in mopping up the collateral.

Outside in the night air, Charles shivered, closed his eyes, and bit down on his lip for a long moment, before padding towards the waiting taxi. Erik's lack of sleep had probably just saved his life - if he hadn't collapsed on the spot, Charles would definitely have been very tempted to take him home for another round and... and Erik would not have survived that. Tomorrow, or whenever Erik reappeared, Charles knew that he had to use the boost from Erik's life energy to settle the matter once and for all.

VIII.

"I'm not in a good mood, Azazel," Charles warned, when Azazel appeared next to the bench in a puff of red smoke and brimstone. The fountain behind them trickled a lazy stream of water from a cracked stone sculpture of what was quite possibly a drunkard's idea of a supplicant woman; the pipes were clogged, and the water drew its sluggish way down moss-splotched stone breasts and a the curve of her robes, scratched here and there by the knives of vandals.

"I can see that." Azazel sat down at the bench beside him anyway, comically sleek today in a white shirt and a black bow tie. "You do need to eat, you know that, don't you?"

"I did," Charles snapped, far too aware that he was being twitchy and highly strung, and he took a shaky puff of his cigarette. "Don't coddle me, it's tiresome."

It had been four days since the alley, and Erik hadn't shown up since, at the pub, or the blitz tables, or at the library. Charles was feeling... restless, for want of a better word, and a trifle disappointed. He knew that he hadn't taken enough from Erik that a good night's rest and a day of recuperation couldn't fix, and he had been all prepared for a dramatic confrontation, speeches and all. It was somewhat of a letdown.

"Perish the thought," Azazel said, though he narrowed his eyes, and his tail lashed and curled beside his legs on the bench. "You are... ill? I did not think that the Lilim could grow ill."

"Don't be silly."

Azazel scowled. "I was being concerned."

"You don't need to be," Charles growled, teeth bared, then at Azazel's startled blink, he took in several deep, measured breaths. "It's a little personal trouble. Nothing that I can't fix. What do you want, Azazel?"

"Personal trouble?" Azazel repeated, with a frown. "I haven't seen you like this for a very long time, Cresil."

"You're only 'concerned' because I'm the only full blooded Neyaphem left on any of the Planes," Charles snapped, "Don't bore me with the charade, Azazel. What do you want?"

Azazel was genuinely worried - instead of bristling and taking offense, as Charles had thought, he merely folded his arms. "Cheyarafim?"

"I'll have called you if it was, I'm not suicidal." Charles muttered, taking another shaky drag of his cigarette. "Just some minor trouble with a donor. He's been following me about."

"I thought you could just easily make him go away," Azazel tilted his head, puzzled. "Or does he also have the dreamthief's gift?"

"Not as far as I can tell." Grudgingly, Charles told Azazel about the books, the photographs, and the other little methods that Erik had come up with to get around the repeated theft of his memories. He didn't, however, mention the way Erik affected him. "It's unsettling," Charles concluded, "But he's only human."

"Still dangerous." Azazel's tail curled under the bench, then lashed from side to side. "I can take care of him, if you'll like."

Charles shuddered. He had a great distaste for bloodshed; the death rattle of a human's mind was a thoroughly unpleasant thing to hear. "No. He won't be here for long. Can we get to business, or is this some sort of social visit?"

"You're not in any condition to help me," Azazel said, with surprising and annoying solicitousness. "Get some rest, and for Hells' sake, feed, Cresil."

"I've told you that I no longer answer to that name," Charles growled, if half-heartedly, and Azazel vanished in a puff of brimstone and sulfur that Charles irritably fanned away with the magazine that he had been attempting to peruse.

He was on his third cigarette, eyes closed, savoring the nicotine buzz and the curling warmth when someone slouched onto the bench beside him. Charles frowned, reaching out automatically to nudge the intruder away, only to hesitate and blink his eyes open sharply. Erik's eyes were fixed on his shoes, and he was plucking at his sleeves, his mind humming with a nervous tension that made Charles swallow hard and start coughing.

"Who was that?" Erik asked quietly, when Charles managed to compose himself.

"Who was what?"

"That man you were talking to, the one like us."

Charles stared, astonished, for a long moment, then he belatedly realized that his net on the surrounding humans had been a surface one, scanning only for alarm or concern to turn that aside. Simple curiosity he would have left alone. Carelessness. "An old... friend," Charles decided. Acquaintance would be more accurate, if illogical.

"He seemed concerned about you."

"He likes to stick his nose into affairs that are none of his business," Charles shrugged. "It's the way that he is." A default habit of Azazel's rank that he had never been able to shake, now that his once-great empire had dwindled to just one recalcitrant and insolent subject, from a sub-race of the Neyaphem that had never generally found much use for the rest of them.

"Oh," Erik said, clenching and unclenching his hands over his knees, and he was jealous, Charles noted, with amusement, as though Charles would ever, with Azazel, of all people... still, this was a good start, if he wanted to break things off.

"He wanted a favor," Charles concluded, trying for blasé. "What do you want?"

"I..." Charles picked through the thorny clutter of surface thoughts that immediately broke; lingering embarrassment, a wish to apologize, curiosity, jealousy again, and Erik stuttered, cheeks flushed, when Charles smiled lazily at him, entertained. Erik was usually a very reserved man, Charles knew, used only to bouts of fury where passion was concerned; this desperate infatuation was all new to him, and at his age, at that.

"We could be friends, perhaps," Charles offered, twisting in the knife with some regret, watching as Erik's head snapped up, wild-eyed. Sometimes you had to be cruel to be kind. "You're leaving soon, aren't you? You've been busy, you know where Schmidt's docked."

"I'll come back, afterwards."

Charles breathed out, all ashy smoke, and shook his head. "Don't bother. I won't take up with a murderer."

Erik's temper was a remarkable thing; it could blaze violently hot in the space of a second. Charles watched with curiosity as the metal of the bench around them began to warp, then Erik said, his voice deadly calm, even as his shoulders trembled, "How could you say that? Can't you see what he did to me? He killed my mother."

Charles could, all too starkly, but he inhaled another lungful of smoke, slow and careful, breathing out before replying, "There are courts of justice for a reason."

"I won't wait years and years for groups of lawyers to battle it out with words, only for the bastard to be deemed too old to be executed," Erik shot back venomously, "He's changed his appearance a few times, he might not even be arrested."

"Do what you like," Charles told him, disinterested in belaboring the point. It was one thing which the Neyaphem and humans had in common; violence always beget violence, hatred always circled back to hatred. The Lilim tended to find it tedious.

Erik made a harsh, animalistic sound of frustration. "I can't believe that you think that I'm wrong to want vengeance."

"If everyone who was wronged took the law into their hands rather than going to the authorities, we'll have anarchy. Disproportionate retaliation." Human justice systems tended to be fatally flawed in many ways and moved slowly, but Charles could see that they were necessary. He'd lived through the so-called Dark Ages and before, after all, and before that, the Neyaphem's rather simplistic systems of trial-by-dreamthief. "The concept of an eye for an eye is terribly primitive. Not to mention subjective. You don't see the other Holocaust survivors going on their own witch hunts, do you?"

Erik glared at him, his jaw clenched tight, then he spat out something sharp and incoherent, possibly in German, and pushed himself away from the bench, storming off. Charles watched him go, felt an ache blossom briefly in his chest for a long moment before he shook his head and stubbed out his cigarette, getting to his feet and ambling towards the chess tables. That hadn't been a particularly delicate way of getting the job done, but it was sufficient.

IX.

Azazel resorted to kidnapping when he next arrived to 'check' on Charles, and they reappeared on the deck of a luxury yacht, anchored offshore at a port that Charles didn't immediately recognise.

"Stop worrying, I've arranged a security detail for your human pets," Azazel began by saying, when Charles whirled on him with bared teeth. "This is for your own good."

"The last time you said that to me, I nearly got knocked unconscious by a mob and lynched," Charles snapped, though the sea breeze smelled crisp and fresh, and the late afternoon sun was pleasantly warm. "Where are we?"

"Miami."

"I'm not about to help you puppet a few humans for your own ends. Your schemes are always awfully dull."

"Very well then, get home by yourself," Azazel said, folding his arms, "You don't even like water. Can you even swim?"

"I could make you," Charles retorted resentfully, though making Azazel do anything at all was difficult and frustrating; Azazel and all of the royal family had been thoroughly trained by their own dreamthieves.

"Or you could do this tiny favor for me and-"

"Bring about Armageddon?"

"You're being dramatic," Azazel huffed, his tail lashing back and forth. "The human I've been dealing with has acquired a human with dreamthief gifts. I want you to suggest very strongly to her not to read my mind. Either that, or I want you to shield me all the time. That's all."

" 'That's all'?" Charles repeated, frowning. "She'll run into the same trouble that I would, trying to control you."

"You can still see my surface thoughts," Azazel pointed out. "I want her to ignore that completely. It'll create complications that I can't afford."

"Hn," Charles walked over to the rail of the ship, peering over at the dark, lapping waves. "And how is this 'for my own good', pray tell?"

"The humans run a club full of decent whores. You're making me twitchy, watching you as you are now," Azazel said bluntly. "If you're concerned that you'd go too far, I'll stop you."

There was a long, strained pause, then Charles sighed out aloud and rubbed his palm slowly over his face. "For your own good, I'm just going to forget the tail end of our conversation. Fine. I'll help you. You'll get me back home. And then you'll leave me alone for the next decade."

"Fine," Azazel snorted, his tail stabbing briefly at the air in irritation, then he held out his hand.

The human with dreamthief gifts turned out to be a beautiful blonde woman with a mind that was all sharp edges, cold and guarded; she sat at a cafe dressed in defiant impropriety and sipped at a latte while reading a magazine. Across the street, in a bookstore with Azazel, Charles closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temple, concentrating, slipping silent as a thief into her defences and making a few careful rearrangements.

"Done," Charles said finally, and Azazel glanced up from his disinterested perusal of a shelf of penny dreadfuls. "Also," Charles added, with a frown, having found out a few choice tidbits of information while rifling through Miss Frost's mind, "One of the humans you are stringing around is known as Sebastian Shaw."

"Yes, why?"

"What are you doing with him?"

"He has a very unique ability. And a very interesting set of goals." Azazel said, studiedly blithe. "Also, I've found a way to get what I want without fragmenting the Prime Material in the process. Curious?"

"No," Charles lied, having once devoted a considerable amount of time out of curiosity towards working out how to break the seals safely - without causing widespread devastation and the immediate demise of those present - and had come up with a blank. Azazel smirked, his tail snaking over to snag another book off the shelves. "Also, you have the most terrible taste in literature," Charles added, petulantly.

"Once I break the seals, I'll take the Host and leave the Prime Material," Azazel told him, the book weaving back and forth behind him, idly. "Word of honor."

"As though you've ever had very much control at all over the other races," Charles replied, unimpressed. "I stand by what I've said to you. Take me home."

"In time," Azazel said, irritatingly smug, and Charles gaped at him, too astonished by his blatant effrontery to be furious for a long, shocked moment.

"Azazel...!"

"You can't stand commercial flights and you've never learned how to drive." Azazel pointed out. "Shouldn't you be polite to me, Cresil? Or," Azazel added, as Charles growled deep and low in his throat, "You could feed properly, and get back to an acceptable level of strength, and make me bring you home."

This was what happened whenever Azazel tried to be caring; he tended to approach problems with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Groaning, Charles pinched at the bridge of his nose. It wasn't that difficult to get himself home - he'd just have to pick out a human with a car - but it was going to be terribly inconvenient, and take time, and... and... where was he, anyway? This didn't look like Miami.

"We're in Vegas," Azazel said helpfully, as Charles looked around in confusion. "Even if you can find someone whom you won't 'inconvenience', knowing your funny little moral code, it's going to take you about a couple of days to drive all the way back. Assuming that you don't stop to rest or feed."

"I'm going to make you regret this, princeling."

X.

Azazel introduced Charles to Sebastian Shaw and his other, equally tedious minions as an 'associate', and Charles took a brief peek into Shaw's mind before retreating quickly, somewhat repulsed. He didn't like lingering long in the minds of the certifiably insane; the fragments tended to be ugly and destructive. Only the human dreamthief was remotely interesting; she recognised him as a fellow telepath immediately, of course, but didn't seem to have noticed his meddling. Charles had, after all, had centuries to perfect the nature of his gift.

Utterly bored, Charles spent the first night desultorily playing poker and baccarat at the adjoining casino until he had amassed a small fortune, then he had it wired to one of his Swiss accounts and spent the second night's winnings losing spectacularly at roulette in another of the gaudy establishments on the Strip. Azazel located him nursing a splendid Macallan in the Hellfire Club, late into the night, sprawled in one of the ghastly red alcoves and reading a tattered copy of Mansfield Park that he had made a tourist give him on the way back.

"You're still not feeding," Azazel stated, pouring himself a glass from the bottle, manipulating it with his tail. "Why not?"

"I don't like their minds." The whores in the Hellfire Club were pretty and well paid, but for the most part, their surface memories were all dark mirrors of regret and self-loathing.

"Pick up one of the patrons, then."

Charles grimaced. "Nor theirs." He'd tried, actually, the night before, called one of the men in their sharp suits to his side, and then dismissed the human immediately once he had seated himself, with a nascent sense of irritated dissatisfaction. The taste of the man's lust had been... thin. Bland, almost. Charles had put it down to Vegas in general. He'd have to go out of the Strip to find anyone halfway decent.

At least the children seemed to be all right - Charles had made a phone call to the pub from a public payphone, and had to talk the kids out of storming Vegas. They had school to attend, and he could solve his own problems. Besides, it wasn't as though he was in danger of anything save dying of boredom.

Azazel had a face that was particularly well suited for sulking. "Fine then, stay on as long as you like."

"I'll starve to death and you'll regret it." Immortality was not a cure for petulance.

"You're just like your mother, sometimes," Azazel retorted snidely, indicating that neither, in equal measure, was having royal blood a precursor to maturity, and disappeared in a puff of smoke.

On the fourth day, now a fixture at the alcove, Charles was reading Shaw's copy of On the Origin of Species when a sharp intake of breath made him look up quickly. Erik stared down at him, dressed for the club in a tailored gray suit and a crisp shirt, and Charles automatically gave him an appreciative once over before turning his eyes hastily back down to his book. "All right, I'm going to get some sort of restraining order tomorrow."

"What are you doing here?" Erik hissed, sitting down at the table opposite Charles. The heavy velvet curtain flicked across on the steel runners, obscuring them from view of the club and muting the music to a bass rumble.

"I was kidnapped by my old friend," Charles said dryly. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm hunting Schmidt," Erik said - oh yes, of course. Charles had put the whole issue of Shaw and his brand of madness as far away from himself as possible, the last few days, wallowing in irritation instead and trading barbs with Azazel. Humans tended to come and go, and Charles usually paid little attention to those that didn't interest him. "You were kidnapped?"

"As a manner of speaking." Charles muttered. "I hate flying and I can't drive, and he won't take me home until he's finished proving some sort of point."

"I'll get you home when I'm done with Schmidt," Erik promised, his lips thinned, "And I'll like to have a word with this 'friend' of yours."

Protective. Erik was being protective. Strange. "Didn't I make you very angry only a couple of weeks ago?"

"I knew that you were trying to drive me away. And it wasn't as though I haven't heard everything that you've said before, from other people." It seemed that Erik had been far more hurt than angry, at least when he had calmed down somewhat; for some remarkable reason he had assumed that Charles would understand simply because they were 'like' each other. Foolishness. Charles shared far more racial traits with Azazel than anything else in the world, and they disagreed on almost everything. "Do you know whose club this is?"

"Schmidt's," Charles said, after a moment's hesitation. "My friend wants to use Schmidt to do something, I do believe."

"And you're helping him?" Erik asked, from behind gritted teeth, his mind sparking with ugly violence, intense enough that Charles instinctively straightened up and pressed his feet flat on the ground.

"Schmidt has a very tedious mind, I refuse to have anything to do with him," Charles poured himself more whisky, forcing himself to relax. "I'm waiting for my friend to stop being childish. What?" Charles asked, with a slight frown, when Erik merely stared at him.

"That's... not what I would have expected to hear from a telepath, describing a war criminal's mind."

Ah. A slip. He had to be growing forgetful. "Schmidt has a telepath of his own, one Miss Emma Frost. We're at an impasse where mind-reading is concerned. Which means that I haven't read anything but his surface thoughts," Charles clarified, when Erik narrowed his eyes. "Come to think of it, Miss Frost would be a problem for you, as well, wouldn't she? She'll have the same tricks that I do. Not to mention that my friend will be there. He's dangerous."

"I'll think of something," Erik tapped his long fingers on the table with a scowl. "You should occupy yourself someplace else. Schmidt's dangerous to our kind. He'll want to use you."

"I can take care of myself," Charles replied, amused despite himself at the warning, finishing the whisky and pouring himself another glass.

"Of course. That's why you're stranded in Las Vegas, waiting on a 'friend's' good graces," Erik retorted, with a sigh. "Call your friend here. I'll talk to him."

"I don't need your help. If I wanted to make him take me home, I could."

"Then why haven't you?"

Because Charles was hungry, and irritable, and Azazel could easily pop out of his range the moment he made a fumble. "It's complicated. Also, Schmidt's not in Vegas at the moment," he added, when Erik opened his mouth. "He's only going to be back in a week or so. He's gone to Monaco."

"A week? Verdamnt." Erik sighed. "Get your things, then."

"What?"

"I'll drive you back to Manhattan and catch another flight back here."

"Don't trouble yourself-"

"Just let me help you," Erik snapped, then he took in a sharp, deep breath. "As an apology." At Charles' blank look, Erik muttered, stiffly, "Please."

"I'm going to end up murdered and tossed into a ditch on the highway," Charles mused, and Erik turned very pale, then he flushed a deep crimson.

"I would never hurt you, Charles... you're making fun of me," Erik growled, when Charles smiled at his earnestness, wounded. "I want you to trust me. Why do you keep driving me away?"

Explaining that would be fun. Still, he had grown tired of Vegas, and Azazel was also away with Schmidt at this point, and Charles really should get back to the Village before the children burned the pub down. "You'll drive me back, no strings attached? I'll pay for the petrol," Charles added, conscientiously. "And the lodging on the way." If only because he disliked ratty little motels.

"No strings attached," Erik said soberly, though Charles could feel the hot flush of hope from where he sat without even trying, and he had to down his whisky to keep his mouth from watering.

XI.

"Mm, no," Charles said with distaste, glancing at the old Ford that Erik had rented for use in Vegas. "Return that, please."

"It'll get us back to Manhattan," Erik pointed out, though his lips twitched. "You live in a pub in the Village, Charles. You can't be spoiled."

"Only sometimes." Charles also had a few other far nicer pieces of real estate scattered around the globe that he'd long since leased out or left in the hands of complex trust funds; he was only living in the pub because he'd grown bored of stately Westchester after a couple of decades or so. "When you've returned that old thing, meet me there." Charles waved vaguely in the direction of the glass show rooms, several blocks in the distance from the Strip.

"You're going to buy a car?" Erik interjected disbelievingly, but Charles ignored him and crossed the street.

Half an hour later, Charles settled comfortably in the front passenger seat, enjoying the smell of new leather as he crossed his legs. The silver Aston Martin's engine purred to itself as Erik slipped into traffic, confident in anything made mostly of metal, it seemed. "This is better."

"You're a very wealthy man," Erik observed, trying for casual, though his mind was so thick with an inextricable mesh of frustrated anger and jealousy that Charles was beginning to get a headache.

He had allowed the showroom's pretty young thing of a salesgirl to tug him into the storeroom for a quick fling; her mind had been warm and bubbly and light, and Charles had enjoyed the reprieve from his self-imposed, sullen fast since the kidnapping, enough that he had slipped her a large tip after purchasing the car outright. Erik had only arrived some time afterwards, and had been his usual, friendly self for all of five minutes before assuming his usual state, and Charles was fairly sure that there wasn't any evidence.

Checking his reflection in the rearview window, Charles studied his still impeccable clothes for a moment before noticing the smudge of lipstick on the inner lining of his collar. Ah. Well. Until Erik decided to call him out on it, Charles decided that it was none of the human's business, anyway.

"Mm-hmm. So are you. You have that cache of Nazi gold." Money had been necessary at the start, then entertaining for a while, playing with and investing in human currency and their unnecessarily complex little ventures, and then it seemed to just make more and more money just by itself, and now Charles could no longer quite keep count of it.

"I can't spend that on frivolities." Erik retorted, his fingers white-knuckled on the steering wheel, and Charles waited, ready to stop Erik if he tried anything awful with the new car.

Erik, however, merely took another deep breath, this time from behind gritted teeth, his eyes fixed on the road, as he reasoned rather loudly in his mind with himself, all why did he do that and I could have - I was just and which girl was it, was she any good and then a bitter, ragged jumble of impressions rife with a sort of resentful possessiveness. Charles stifled a sigh - this was usually why he tried not to get involved with humans where feeding was concerned - and watched the landscape go past instead, carefully reinforcing his shields so as to shut out Erik altogether.

Eventually, the radio switched itself on, breaking the pointed silence between them both, and Charles relaxed a fraction to the music of Duke Wellington, tapping the rhythm on his thigh and humming along. This was as another reason why he liked the world as it was now; the Neyaphem didn't quite seem to have the capacity to create music. Perhaps it was because their minds were wired differently, somehow; Charles occasionally researched or thought about this topic a couple of times or so every half a century, but he hadn't made much headway, and-

"I'm sorry," Erik said flatly, cutting through Charles' comfortable reverie, "I didn't mean to judge."

"Of course you did," Charles said dryly, with a quick glance at Erik through his peripheral vision - Erik was sneaking glances at him in between watching the traffic, hunched and tense. "People judge others all the time, particularly on first impressions." It wasn't how the Neyaphem interacted, but Charles supposed that his race had the luxury of time, usually.

"Not literally, I mean..." Erik paused, then he managed a harsh, barking laugh. "I did not think that speaking with someone who can read my mind should still prove so... challenging. But-"

"Yes, you are sorry, for a transgression that you imagined. It takes far more than that to offend me, my friend." Charles cut in, before the conversation became tiresome.

"Oh, all right," Erik murmured, shifting in his seat, and Charles didn't need to lower his shields to guess that Erik was going to try more of his awful attempts at small talk, having stubbornly decided on this as the best way to go courting, evidently determined not to waste the time that he now had.

Charles hid a smile. Usually, small talk was dreadfully boring; for all its creativity in the arts and literature, humanity had never made many inroads in its basic courtship rituals over the centuries. Erik's fumbling attempts at it, however, were rather entertaining, at least when he wasn't manhandling Charles, and-

Erik blinked for a moment, with a faint flush, and Charles quickly checked all his shields again, embarrassed at the juvenile mistake. He wasn't usually this sloppy. Damn Azazel!

"Careful," Charles warned, when the car veered a little to the left, and Erik quickly snapped his stare back to the road. He could feel the apology welling in Erik's mind, and with another sigh, he reached out and stifled it before Erik could give it voice.

"I felt that," Erik observed.

Charles had meant to be subtle. "Good."

"Yours is a very powerful ability," Erik continued, curiosity pushing back against the grit of ugly emotions for now. "I don't really understand why you're so... guarded. Surely you would know immediately should anyone mean you harm."

Charles hesitated a moment, the truth on the tip of his tongue, then he shook his head and stared out of the passenger window again. "It's hard to explain. But I do have good reasons."

"Maybe you've been hurt before," Erik said earnestly, "By normal people. People who aren't like us. So have I. There are probably others like us out there, in all of the wide world-"

"It's not normal people that I'm afraid of," Charles cut in curtly, settling for a sidelong truth instead, and Erik exhaled loudly, exasperated. "And I know that there are others like us. You've met them. The children in the pub, the ones I adopted. My old friend. Schmidt and his other thugs."

"Schmidt is...?" Erik frowned, and the car's fittings rattled for a moment until he breathed out, jaw clenched. "I suspected it. He seemed ageless... no, he seemed to be getting younger. I thought perhaps that he had found one of us, someone who could heal, or turn back body clocks, perhaps, but... what can he do?"

"He absorbs kinetic energy. He can use it to augment himself or return it in force. The others... the blonde woman, Emma Frost, is also a telepath, along with a secondary mutation of a diamond, invulnerable form. The last one, Riptide, creates whirlwinds."

"And your friend teleports."

"That he does."

"What does he want with Schmidt?"

Charles shrugged. "I haven't asked." He wasn't interested, actually. "Whatever it is, I don't want to be involved."

"That's... probably wise," Erik conceded, though he was frowning. "The children in the pub-"

"I won't talk about them." Charles interrupted, as firmly as he could. "And, before you protest, I should add that I wasn't lying to you previously, when we were on the topic of your incipient intent to commit murder. I thank you for your kindness in offering me a ride home, but I'll rather that neither myself nor the children have any further association with you afterwards."

"I can accept that," Erik said tightly, though his jaw clenched again. "But I must have my revenge, and should you refuse to speak with me ever again afterwards, so be it."

Charles snorted. Humans tended to lie so badly. "You won't give in so easily. You're already considering several different ways to try to encourage me to 'see things your way', and may I add, my friend, that a nice dinner somewhere acceptably fashionable, even in Lutèce, will not move matters an inch in your direction."

Besides, since Charles' sense of taste worked differently, expensive human gastronomy would be wasted on him anyway: he couldn't quite pick out sourness or bitterness, and anything that wasn't noticeably spicy or sweet tended to taste of nothing.

Instead of growing annoyed - Erik merely chuckled; and if Charles had to admit it, it was one thing that he liked about Erik, however grudgingly - he couldn't always seem to predict him. "Tell me, are you against the act of killing, or against my decision to take the law into my hands? Were he convicted as a war criminal, he would be executed, after all."

"I'm not entirely certain that you could claim self defence, nor is provocation possibly applicable here," Charles had once attempted, in the 1800s, to get a legal education, and had been bored out of his mind within the first year. Humans liked to entangle their lives in unnecessary intricacies. "It would be murder."

"A justifiable murder."

"Justifiable or not, there are judicial systems for a reason-"

"And yet he sits free. Untouched. Unknown. The facility in Auschwitz that he oversaw has long fell into ruin; he claims another name, and with his ability, he looks far too young to be Doktor Schmidt. Taking my case to the courts would only cause me to be locked up for insanity," Erik said reasonably. "I have no choice. And of all his victims, I believe that I am the only survivor. Besides, I doubt that he has spent his retirement simply smoking pipes and drinking whisky. He must have other plans. It is his way."

"Don't be trite with me, Erik. You want to kill him because he killed your mother." Charles scrolled down the car window, digging out a cigarette and a lighter. "You don't care whether he has nefarious plans in place. Even if he had devoted the rest of his life to philanthropy, you would still kill him."

"And if the judicial system that you have so much faith in had convicted him, it would kill him." Charles could feel Erik's temper bubbling close to the surface, but Erik was in tighter control, this time. Perhaps he had practiced. "You object not so much to death but to vigilantism."

"Anarchy-"

"I am not advocating the dissolution of the judicial system," Erik said testily, "Just the necessary death of one man. I know that he is guilty - I was there when he murdered my mother! You can see that, can't you?"

"No-one's death is 'necessary'," Charles said, taking in the first, gritty drag of his cigarette, leaning further against the window.

"Gott, don't tell me that you're one of those..." Erik swallowed the words, but not before Charles plucked them from his mind.

"Doves? Peaceniks? Anti-militarists? Quite assuredly."

"You can't change the world without violence. And some people deserve to die." Erik declared, and Charles could read Erik's bitter surface impressions without even trying; that Charles had to be from old money, that he had never been anywhere close to a war, that all his textbook philosophies came from armchair revisions of dusty theories, naive, blithely oblivious, arrogant-

Charles smiled wryly to himself, and took another slow drag of his cigarette. He had survived a war that had decimated his race, which had run for longer than some human civilisations had existed; it had been ruthlessly vicious, it had been pointless destructive, and in the end, they had almost destroyed far more than just their own planar realm. He had watched human civilisations rise up and destroy each other, seen the beast of war devour souls regardless of their degrees of innocence. He had no illusions about hatred's cycles. Death was far too final a creature; it stole away any and all possibilities of redress.

And Charles, in another life, so very long ago, had also needed to understand the necessity of redemption and second chances.

"You're a telepath," Erik tried again. "You live in the Village, and you're a... you're a bisexual. Surely you've seen the worst of people. The way people treat others who are different. Whether because they can read minds, or simply because of the gender of the person they love, the color of their skin. You can't change people like that by... by singing songs at them, or sitting around peacefully. People only understand force."

Charles had, over all of his life, seen every venal nature in humanity, every cruelty and every hue of spite and malice, but there was always more. Far more. "That's not all that I've seen in people." Civilisation, over time, tended to better itself, however slowly - that much Charles had seen.

"Focus on the good, ignore the flaws?" Erik asked, his tone dripping with cynicism, and despite himself, Charles found himself mustering the effort to argue the point with Erik. It was comfortable, oddly enough; the argument felt familiar, as though they had circled these issues before, fenced and parried. Absorbed, Charles didn't even realize that Erik had taken a turn off the main road until he had driven into the parking lot of a diner.

"Why are we here?" Charles asked, looking around, puzzled. The diner looked like any number of faded, greasy joints that occasionally littered the shadows of the large roadways like bedraggled, painted crows. This one sat on the edge of what looked like a small traveller's stop, along with a petrol station to the right.

"Dinner?" Erik suggested, gesturing up at the gradually darkening sky, and then when Charles furrowed his brow, he added, dryly, "Surely a place like this isn't beneath you."

"I'm not hungry," Charles said truthfully.

"You'll be hungry later."

Charles sighed. He didn't like eating solid human food; unlike liquids, his body took up a noticeable amount of energy to process all the useless matter. "I have allergies, and I really doubt that a place like this would serve anything that I can eat. But you should go ahead. I'll have some coffee."

"Oh." Erik looked contrite, fishing the complimentary map out from the back pocket of the driver's seat. "We could find another place."

"This place is fine, you should eat," Charles replied, then he pinched at his nose when Erik set his jaw stubbornly, and nudged him out of the car, none too gently. Erik scowled, clearly about to argue, up until Charles started him walking towards the diner, and then he gave up, muttering a few strings of choice German darkly under his breath that made Charles smirk.

Charles spent dinner smoking and drinking a surprisingly decent cup of coffee, and listening in on the freckled, plump waitress' surprisingly vivid fantasies of exactly what she would like to do to Erik in her bed, with a great deal of amusement. Erik spent it eating the predictably greasy fish and chips with mechanical aplomb and radiating an equal measure of irritation and guilt, until Charles finally grew tired of the sour taste of it all on the air and shielded up.

"You seem preoccupied," Erik said finally, when the dishes were cleared and he was working on his own cup of coffee.

"Mm-hmm." Charles watched the waitress go, his chin in the palm of his hand, and chuckled as she stole a look back at Erik over her shoulder, blushing a bright, cherry red when she noticed Charles looking at her.

Erik misinterpreted the exchange; the teaspoons on the table and the light fixtures rattled for a moment until Erik took in a deep, tight breath, then he drained his coffee and dropped some cash on the table. "Let's go."

Charles arched an eyebrow at Erik over his cup, taking another sip. "Calm down, Erik. I'm enjoying the coffee."

Not only the coffee, the impression was loud in Erik's mind, and his lips thinned, glaring at the hapless waitress when she sashayed over to ask them if they wanted anything else. "No. Go away."

"Please forgive him, he had an early start. Keep the change, Marianne," Charles said, with a charming smile and a touch to the startled waitress' mind, and she smiled back at him, waveringly and incuriously, before retreating with the money. Finishing the coffee, Charles put down the cup and dabbed at his mouth. "There's a decent boutique hotel westwards of here. We should be able to make it there before dark."

Erik stalked out of the diner without a word, and kept his silence on the road, even as Charles directed him down winding side streets and short cuts, the map picked from the waitress' memories. The hotel was small, but it looked tolerably clean and comfortable, and Charles arranged for two rooms even as Erik parked the car and joined him in the lobby with their bags.

On the second floor, Erik didn't quite manage to hide his look of disappointment in time when Charles passed him a set of keys and took his briefcase off Erik's hands. "Charles, wait," Erik said quickly, when Charles nodded at him, and started down the corridor - he'd made sure that Erik had another room that was several rooms apart.

"Yes?" Charles asked, and carefully schooled his features to swallow his grin when Erik hesitated, visibly wavering between asking Charles outright if he wanted company to trying something more subtle.

"You haven't eaten," Erik settled on instead, lamely. "Let me know what your allergies are. I could speak with the concierge. Drive out and get something for you."

"That's very sweet of you, Erik," Charles said, trying for scorn and managing only wry amusement, his lips twitching. "But I'll manage."

"You were managing very well when I found you in Vegas," Erik pointed out, clearly content to harp on that point for all of the near future, and Charles sighed, tilting his head in the direction of Erik's door, and Erik let out a startled curse as he started walking towards it, jerkily unlocking the door with a deft, borrowed use of Erik's abilities rather than the key, and then pointedly locking Erik into the room.

"Much better," Charles said, to the empty corridor, and trotted over to his room.

Some time closer to midnight, when Charles had showered, wrapped himself in the hotel's fluffy bathrobe and had curled up on the bed with his 'borrowed' copy of Mansfield Park, he felt Erik's presence, coming closer, and finally halting approximately in front of his door. Slightly annoyed at Erik's persistence, Charles reached out, intending to turn Erik away, only to run up against a maudlin concoction of impaired impressions and skittering phrases. Erik, it seemed, was a morose drunk.

And a very presumptuous one - Charles heard the lock in his door turn, and Erik stumbling into the small room, cursing as he barked his toe on the deplorably yellow couch. Looking up from his book at the headboard of the bed with his best long-suffering expression, Charles frowned, sorting through the drunken impulses in Erik's mind to locate the motor controls, only to hesitate, blindsided by a sudden surge of pure, desperate want from Erik and... Charles checked his shields, panicked. They were definitely up.

Forcing Erik to stop meant a confused moment when Erik's befuddled body decided to disobey his mind anyway and folded under him in a sort of long-limbed heap; Charles winced at the sharp feedback of pain as Erik's knees hit the thin carpet. He hadn't changed, and he hadn't even bathed, and he looked rumpled and tired, and Charles still had to tamp down on an impulse to command him over to the bed and take him slowly apart until Erik begged for mercy-

Pinching at the bridge of his nose, Charles said, dryly, "If you're going to throw up, do it outside."

"I know why you haven't eaten," Erik's words were slurred, his pretty eyes unfocused, and he was speaking in a jumbled combination of German and Polish. "You have a... have a secondary mutation, don't you? You probably eat energy."

Charles blinked at Erik, startled, and Erik smiled, thin and bitter. "That man in the alley, those girls... is that how you normally feed?"

"And why would you think-"

"You've kissed me a few times," Erik somehow managed to meander back into broken English, punctuated with scatters of German, "Each time, I... felt something. Like a pull. Like being drained."

Usually, Charles wiped his partners' minds, after the fact, or smoothed over the memories. He had been utterly careless. Warily, he watched Erik, silent, the book closed over his lap as he sat up on the bed, and Erik sighed out aloud, closing his eyes. "I said that you didn't need to be afraid of me. I've suspected this of you since the alley. Today was merely... merely confirmation."

"I've told you that you could get hurt-"

"You don't strike me as someone who would willingly hurt other people."

"Not willingly, no."

"How many times then?" Erik asked, looking up now, if unsteadily, trying to meet his gaze. "How many times have you hurt someone, taking what you need?"

Since his resolve? "Once," Charles admitted, a little stiffly. "I've been careful since."

"Those are good chances." Erik said, and smiled, a crooked, lopsided smile that made Charles suck in a quick, dry breath, fighting temptation, his fingers curled over the worn cover of his book.

"What makes you think," Charles said, as haughtily as he could, "That I'm even interested? You're terribly drunk right now, Erik, you stink of cheap whisky-"

"You're hungry, aren't you?" Erik interrupted, struggling to get up, but Charles held him tight to the spot. "You were looking at that girl in the restaurant, I saw you."

"My dear fellow, I wouldn't have called that a restaurant," Charles corrected automatically, and Erik laughed, startled and harsh and threaded tight with a hungry need that felt like a hot spike of pure adrenaline, blissfully heady, if bitter from residual, angry jealousy.

"You act like a spoiled child, you're arrogant and insufferable and... and I'm obsessed with you," Erik said, his voice raw and low, "Every time I think that I know why, I become certain that I'm wrong, I, I want you to take what you need from me," Erik took in a deep breath, seemingly oblivious to Charles' wide-eyed stare, his mind as much in disorder as his words, "I've already survived what you can do twice, haven't I? Doesn't that prove that I can handle this? Damn you, Charles, say something!"

"This trip was," Charles observed into the silence, as Erik breathed in shallow, labored gasps, his eyes reddened, "Meant to be obligation free, wasn't it?" Hells, but Erik looked so good on his knees, begging Charles to take from him; unconsciously, Charles wet his lips, breathing deep, as his hunger stirred like a fitfully sleeping beast.

"It is." Erik said, though his handsome features took on a wounded cast. "This is an offer."

"Also obligation free?"

"Yes," Erik conceded, after a moment's pause, looking wretched this time, and Charles knew that this was a battle that he could no longer win. Charles tossed the book onto the side table and shifted over to sit on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees, a thumb pressed against the swell of his lower lip. Erik's mind was still in disarray but his lust was all clean, honest want and... and if Charles kept his shields up and watched himself... Careful. He was old enough to be careful.

"Come closer then," Charles commanded, and allowed Erik to stumble forward a few steps before going back down on his knees, this time within reach, but he left Erik's hands on his knees, reaching forward to cup Erik's cheek in his palm, watching the human's eyes dilate as he rubbed his cheek against Charles' hand with a low sigh.

Charles could feel Erik's pride roiling uneasily beneath the surface of his mind, encircled by his uncertainty and his habitual distrust of others, but it was far overshadowed by his desire. Erik, Charles knew, had never felt lust so powerfully before, never felt sexual needs that were any more complex than scratching the occasional itch, and he couldn't seem to handle this, didn't know what to do, didn't want Charles to look at others if he wanted something like this, wanted so desperately to please-

"Don't speak," Charles admonished, when Erik opened his mouth to make some sort of clumsy offer. "Take your belt off."

Erik fumbled with his belt, the metal even warping a little under his eagerness, tossing it aside. Charles hooked Erik's thumbs in the hem of his boxers and pants and slid them down, slowly, ignoring Erik's desperate little moan and his pleading stare, pressing the tip of his tongue to his own thumb when Erik freed his impressive erection, flushed and fully aroused, fluid beading on the tip, and Charles breathed deep, tasting the musk, the heightening edge of Erik's lust.

"Touch yourself for me," Charles instructed, and Erik sucked in a tight breath and spat on his right palm, taking himself in hand and sitting back on his heels, spreading his legs further under Charles' silent direction and stroking his lovely cock, slow and measured, for show, rather than to sate himself, making a fist at the thick base and dragging the ring of his fingers up-

"That won't do," Charles shook his head disapprovingly, and Erik groaned urgently as Charles curled Erik's elegant, long fingers tight at the base before squeezing up, rubbing the pad of his thumb against the leaking slit at the tip and pulling his hand back down, his mind hooked onto Erik's pleasure; he curled his lips into a faint smirk as Erik let out a wet gasp at the gritty friction, saliva not quite enough. "Like that, darling."

Darling, Erik's mind echoed, all warm, dizzy pleasure before Charles could correct himself, Liebling, and he groaned, his chin tilting up for a moment as he obeyed, all by rote, rolling his hips into the tight circle of his fingers, managing Charles' steady rhythm for all of a few strokes before it became erratic and desperate, and Charles smiled, raking his eyes hungrily up and down the lovely sight. Erik's cheeks were flushed bright and his eyes were glazed, working his own flesh furiously, his gorgeous cock leaking all over his pretty, long fingers, the pulse of ecstasy in his mind growing visceral and intense, all faceted emotions rather than words and images, the way Charles preferred it.

Please, Erik's mind was all but shouting, even as he merely whimpered and curled his free hand into a claw over the cheap carpeting, Charles, please, Charles, please-

Charles reached over and curled his hand around the back of Erik's neck, dragging him close for a bruising kiss, and Erik shuddered, his cry muffled against Charles' mouth as he spent himself and this time, Charles was expecting the surge, the heady taste of Erik's energy, taking as much as he knew was safe before forcing himself back with a choked gasp of his own, every vein in his body all but thrumming with borrowed pleasure.

Charles wanted more. He wanted to push Erik down and hook into his mind, find the pleasure centres and stimulate them until Erik was hard and shaking for it again, and then ride that lovely cock until Erik sobbed and begged to come, and then ignore him and keep going until he'd sated himself... and... Erik whined, trying to lean forward, greedy for another kiss, but Charles hastily pushed him none too gently into unconsciousness, and he slumped down onto his side, boneless.

"Fuck," Charles said, a little dazed from it all. That had been close; the temptation had been so strong.

And yet - even with this, Charles already felt stronger than he had been for decades. Quickly, he leaned down, checking Erik's pulse, and it was steady, if slow, and the floor didn't look too comfortable, but it wasn't as though Charles really had the strength to lift Erik onto the bed, anyway. Besides, it was Erik's fault in the first place, barging in like this.

Charles stared at the prone body, somewhat resentful of its accidental placement, then he shook his head and managed to edge a pillow under Erik's head, smoothing back a few stray strands of fine hair, stroking a thumb down over the soft, chapped swell of Erik's lips.

Another life, another name, another planar realm ago, before Charles lived long enough among humanity to absorb some of its finer sentiments, he would not have hesitated to take Erik as a favorite, to use until he tired of him or drained him dry. Now, however, Erik was at best, a liability, at worst, a disaster in the making, and Charles was close to breaking many of his oldest, strictest rules, and-

"I hope that you have a terrible headache in the morning," Charles said resentfully, slipping off the bed and heading over to the bathroom for a hand towel to wipe Erik down cursorily, then he curled back on the bed with his book.

He knew that he should feel trapped, that he should be thinking of a way to prise Erik out of his life, that it was dangerous to get close to someone so possessive, with such a temper, with such a powerful mortal ability, but buzzed on rich energy and the residual, sweet taste of Erik's pleasure, Charles opened the book and took in a deep, slow, reckless breath again, savoring the moment before reaching over to get his cigarettes and the lighter from the side table.

XII.

Erik woke up with a wet, choked noise and made a bee-line to the bathroom; Charles wrinkled his nose in distaste from where he was curled on the bed, eyed the dark patch on the carpet and sighed. Human males could be so casually filthy.

"You stink," Charles observed in a clipped tone, when he heard the bathroom door creak in his direction, still reading his book. "If you've washed your hands, throw me your keys. I'm going to use your bathroom. Seeing as you've thrown up in mine."

"Are you normally such a bundle of sunshine in the morning?" Erik rasped, raking his long fingers over his bedraggled hair; he looked exhausted and more than a little ill. He did, however, toss Charles his keys.

"You may come by when you're presentable again," Charles instructed, though he was unable to hide a grin when Erik glared at him and made some undoubtedly obscene gesture with his right hand before stomping back into the bathroom in a fine temper.

Charles had showered, changed, and because concepts of personal privacy were laughable anyway where dreamthieves were concerned, was occupied in going through the contents of Erik's carrybag when Erik finally reappeared, his eyes still bloodshot but looking slightly less rumpled. He arched an eyebrow when he noticed Charles sitting on the edge of the bed encircled by neat piles of clothing and personal effects, but said nothing, instead reaching over to select some clothes, then disappearing into the bathroom.

When Erik emerged, in a black turtleneck and a pair of gray pants, Charles had repacked everything neatly back into the bag and was in the process of confiscating copies of the same photographs he had last taken in Erik's hotel room, back in the Village. "You're obsessive," Charles told him, pocketing the photographs. "You might wish to seek psychiatric assistance. I could recommend you someone quite competent." Charles had gone through a brief, fairly recent phase where psychology and its theories had been very amusing, to the point where he had gone to the trouble of insinuating himself into the professional community for a time.

Erik snorted, looking Charles over, slowly, almost tenderly, as though memorizing every inch of him, then he glanced back down at his bag. "Do you, ah, need-"

"No," Charles cut in, before Erik could finish voicing the question. "I only need an intake about once a week or so. I don't usually use repeat donors." Humans as a race tended to be fairly fond of histrionics, and they had a rather broad view of what a 'relationship' was. On that point, Charles rather preferred the ritualized, code-centric system that most of the Neyaphem tended to follow. It was neater, and Charles liked things to be neat.

"Wouldn't your... donors want to see you again?" Erik asked, genuinely puzzled. "This can't be unusual for you." Du bist schön, Erik's mind broadcasted, with points for earnest honesty, but losing points for the German consonants. Admittedly, as long lived as he was, Charles had to admit that he still rather enjoyed flattery.

"I usually just remove the memories." Charles scowled. "And they normally stay removed."

Erik smirked at that, picking up Charles' briefcase along with his own, and sullenly, Charles followed Erik out of the room. Erik eyed him briefly even as he descended the stairs, but he said nothing as he checked them out and led Charles to the parked Aston Martin. Once the engine started up, Erik seemed to relax, running his palms over the steering wheel as he pulled them out of the parking lot, as if taking comfort from the sleek machine.

When they were in traffic again, Erik asked, "Not usually?"

"Mm?" Charles had been reading the mind of the gardener working at the shrubs at the driveway to the hotel, picking up on the taste and scent of the homemade cherry pie that he'd had for breakfast, the simple pleasures of working with his hands in the soil. Erik repeated his question, and with an irritated frown, Charles skimmed the context from Erik's surface thoughts. "Oh, that. No, I don't make it a habit. It's unsafe. People tend to become hysterical, and possessive, and before you know it they'll be breaking into your rooms in the middle of the night and making all sorts of ludicrous accusations."

"It wasn't 'ludicrous'," Erik protested, then he let out a laugh when Charles chuckled, amused. "All right, perhaps. But it was true."

"It was a shot in the dark. And you were awfully drunk."

"But I was right."

"You're incredibly stubborn, my friend," Charles said dryly, and when Erik sniffed, he added, as an afterthought, "183C?"

"Pardon?" Erik blinked at the apparent non-sequitur, though Charles picked the image of a bank from Erik's mind, brass bars, a lady with a bright smile and a neat uniform, polished counter.

"A bank deposit box," Charles concluded, out aloud. "Of course. And naturally you have copies of all those books that I was reading... the original film for the photographs? A chess piece, no, two - a king, a knight - not very subtle there, Erik... and some... rather tawdry trinkets," Charles pursed his lips, "A tarnished silver necklace, a dusty journal and a pressed old flower in an envelope, an old pocket watch that doesn't work. You do realize that traditionally, people put valuables and title deeds in safe deposit boxes, not junk."

"I save all the good memories that I have in that box," Erik cut in, his tone deadly calm again, his mind humming bright with anger, "I don't have many."

Instantly contrite, Charles shut up, shrinking into his seat; he should have guessed, from the warmth of the threads laced through the memory in Erik's mind, the richness of the memory. He considered apologizing, and then decided to keep his distance, folding his arms and staring out of the window at the traffic, settling for picking up fleeting impressions from the minds of passing drivers, of faces of people he'd never meet, schedules and numbers and slices of the mundane until he was absorbed.

He was listening in comfortably on a middle-aged couple's worn old argument about some mutual friend and her deplorable lack of taste in kitchen furnishings when Erik said, so very seriously, "Charles?"

"If you're hungry, just pull over somewhere," Charles murmured, skimming the top layer of Erik's thoughts.

"Ah," Erik said, uncomfortably, and Charles dragged himself away from the couple's thought processes with some effort, frowning over at his companion. Erik was thinking in jumbled impressions touched with worry, lingering on the bank deposit box and its contents, on the way Charles had suddenly gone silent-

"You're not normally this concerned about what people think of you." Charles said finally, when the confusion in Erik's mind began to put his teeth on edge.

Erik had been building an admittedly lovely line going in his mind, something about how other people didn't usually concern him, but he stuttered over an appropriate compliment to tack on to the end and the silence stretched, long past when wit would have been timely, and then he began obsessing over whether or not to say anything at all and Charles started to laugh, despite himself, and Erik arched both his eyebrows and then shook his head slowly and stared at the road, a faint flush growing on his cheeks. "You have no sense of privacy whatsoever, do you?"

"And you're far more comfortable insulting someone than flattering them," Charles shot back, still chuckling. "Don't bother comparing my eyes to the sky, it's entirely inaccurate. The color isn't even close."

"I'm beginning to think that this obnoxious aspect of you isn't an act, after all," Erik grumbled.

"Are you still so sure that my effects belong in that box of memories, my friend?" Charles drawled archly, amused. "After all, I do so easily seem to irritate you."

"Yes," Erik said simply, quietly, and the jibe that Charles was working towards died uncomfortably in the face of Erik's open honesty; he looked away quickly and firmly, back at the road, and shut Erik out when he felt Erik again begin to struggle with mawkish uncertainty. This time, the silence lasted all the way until Erik pulled up at a promising, whitewashed corner cafe of steel tables and quaint wooden stools for brunch, which, according to the minds of its patrons, served an excellent peppermint tea.

While stirring copious amounts of sugar into his tea and watching Erik wolf down a considerably large portion of eggs and toast, Charles took a quick check of Erik's mind - the human was feeling considerably less tired now that he'd had the placebo effect of a morning espresso, and a full stomach was making him mellow.

"Tell me about the other items," Charles instructed, after a sip of his tea, once he grew bored. The sole waitress' mind was occupied with a blank contemplation of the fraying hem of her skirt, and the other patrons were already packing up. "In box 183C."

"Can't you tell?" Erik tilted his head, and he seemed... wary, for want of a better word. It was at clear odds with Erik's usual obvious fascination with Charles' ability, and Charles took another sip of his tea, a little startled.

"I could, if I wanted to," Charles conceded, somewhat helplessly. "But it takes effort. Particularly if the memories are old."

"... I do not wish to talk about them," Erik said carefully, after a short pause. "But I can't stop you if you wish to know."

"Well then, I don't," Charles shrugged, because he probably still had to be careful if he read Erik's mind or risk waking up the edge of his hunger, and because it was a nice, warm day and Charles tended to be lazy on days like these. Erik, however, blinked at him, then he smiled his crooked, endearing smile as though Charles had said something touching or profound, even when Charles frowned at him. Humans easily misconstrued things, and Erik seemed to have taken on a completely incorrect understanding of Charles' gesture.

Opening his mouth to correct him, Charles hesitated when Erik murmured, "Thank you," and bent his attention back to his toast, leaving Charles to puzzle over human peculiarities. At least even after centuries of secret co-existence, the short-lived species could still surprise him.

XIII.

"Clearly you're determined to have us arrested," Charles observed, when Erik let himself into Charles' room. "A man creeping into another man's bedroom in the middle of the night. I hope nobody saw you. Mrs Fenwick next door has a weak heart."

This hotel was a sight better than the last one, with proper room service and fairly color-coordinated furniture of acceptable quality - they were probably already back on the fringes of proper civilisation. Charles would be back home sometime tomorrow or the next day, hopefully. He never did move very far from his latest residence, unless Azazel was involved, and his grasp of local geography tended to be fairly shaky.

Erik managed a smile, though it was forced and brittle. At least he wasn't drunk this time, though he was still so very stiff as he circled over to sit beside Charles on the bed, and that seemed to be the extent of his resolve. "You'll be home soon."

An unfortunate part of telepathy was a lack of patience with people stating the bloody obvious, particularly when Charles was in the middle of a good book that he hadn't read before. Pointedly fixing his eyes on the copy of The Old Man and the Sea that Charles had nudged an exiting hotel patron from passing to him when Erik was checking in, Charles drawled, "And...?"

He could feel Erik's carefully rehearsed script collapsing into a mire of exasperation. "Sometimes I truly feel like shaking you."

"Because breaking into someone's room at an unholy hour and then threatening him with physical violence is such an original way to begin a civilised conversation," Charles mused, and Erik glowered at him, thin-lipped, his long fingers curled tight in the bed, then he exhaled loudly and angrily.

"I have just one question-"

"That's untrue, you have at least three."

"Hypothetically," Erik grit out, forging ahead, "If I were to... to give up on Shaw, would you..." accept me, Erik's mind supplied, but he bit down on his lip, groping awkwardly for something less staid, and Charles grinned slowly despite himself at the faint touch of panic that he felt from Erik.

"Wasn't last night obligation-free, my friend?"

"It was." Erik was staring at the thick brown carpet now, his jaw clenched tight. "I was asking you, hypothetically."

"I don't use repeat donors. And before you start nattering about how I can trust you, I don't need telepathy to know that you're a very jealous man, and a violent one," Charles turned a page, tracing the text absently with the tip of a forefinger. "So the answer is no, regardless." A long and considerable association with his mother and his siblings had taught him how to lie-

"I don't believe you," Erik said tightly, and reached over, hauling Charles onto his lap and startling Charles into awkward flailing until Erik closed one palm over the back of Charles' head and pulled him down for a rough, hungry kiss; Charles could feel the clean lines of Erik's lust humming through him, the burst of raw pleasure in Erik's mind, the warmth of his roughened hands stroking up Charles' spine before clutching at his arms, as though afraid that Charles would jerk away.

Erik broke for breath with a ragged moan and mouthed at Charles' jaw, panting until Charles tilted Erik's head back with an expert flick of his wrist and kissed him properly, delving deep to draw Erik's tongue into his mouth to taste and suck until Erik shook against him and whimpered.

"Such utter effrontery," Charles murmured, when Erik had to gasp for breath again, and he could feel Erik's arousal throb under his rump, trapped by only a layer of thin fabric and the flannel of Charles' bathrobe.

"You could stop me if you wanted to," Erik retorted, his hands drifting lower to knead tender circles up Charles' thighs from his calves to his knees, then slipping under the robe, higher, over inner thighs to the silk of Charles' boxers, and Erik took another shaky breath. "Push me away then, Charles."

"I will, once I stop being so taken aback by your total disregard of propriety." Charles plucked pointedly at Erik's turtleneck, and with a wry, lopsided smile, Erik tugged it off a beautifully lean, muscular frame, marred here and there by old scars. Charles studied him admiringly, stroking his hands over the broad arch of Erik's shoulders. "Mm. Not bad."

Erik stared at him, endearingly puzzled by Charles' reaction, then he swallowed hard and stuttered a trite, "Not like you, you're so beautiful," at which time in the middle of a usual tryst Charles would have rolled his eyes at the unimaginative use of adjective and nudged his partner into shutting up.

With Erik, however, Charles found himself smiling lazily instead, pleased enough to reward Erik with a longer, slower kiss that had Erik tremble against him and buck urgently, and Charles hadn't even begun, and... and there was a good reason why he didn't want to do this with Erik, wasn't there? Frowning, Charles rallied, pulling back and shielding up against Erik's pleasure, catching Erik by the chin with thumb and forefinger when Erik groaned and tried to lean forward.

"Erik-"

"No, please," Erik begged as prettily as Charles thought he would, all honest, wild desperation even as Charles froze Erik's hands back on the bed, his mind all snatches of please and bitte and anything you want Charles and then Erik choked out a low sob when Charles went up on his knees to edge himself off Erik's lap. "At least... at least let me suck you off. Please."

"No," Charles frowned, though he hesitated, his hands light on Erik's shoulders, "You haven't done it before, you'll be awful at it."

"You're so refreshingly brutal," Erik said dryly, after a startled pause, even as Charles relaxed his grip on Erik's mind and allowed Erik to rub the palms of his lovely hands up and down Charles' flanks. "I don't suppose that your Highness could deign to let me try?"

"You suppose correctly, I refuse," Charles replied, though he grinned impishly and relented a fraction, allowing Erik to tug him back down to seat him firmly against the hard swell of Erik's straining cock, allowed Erik to kiss him again, measured this time, sucking tentatively on Charles' lower lip and nipping lightly before licking into Charles' mouth with an inarticulate rumble.

He wasn't hungry, which made this slow intake a singular pleasure; his shields weren't cracking along the edges as they usually would be, whenever he limited his feeding or as matters had been during the decidedly embarrassing way he had conducted himself over the last few weeks. Feeling somewhat more confident, Charles pushed at Erik's shoulders until he had Erik pressed down over the heavy quilt, and then Erik made a strangled sound when Charles breathed a puff of air over one of Erik's nipples and followed it with a lick and a nip.

"Charles-"

"Your hands go up," Charles commanded, "On the headboard. Come on, chop chop."

"As obnoxious as ever," Erik observed, though he obeyed, his fingers clawing tight into the headboard, his eyes dilated and wide, muscles bunching deliciously under his skin as he flexed experimentally.

"Leave them there. Take off your belt. You can manage that without your hands, can't you, pet?" Charles told him, even as he followed the lovely lines of Erik's body with an appreciative eye, and Erik frowned, concentrating, and the metal tip of the belt lifted up into the air, as did the buckle, delicate work up until Charles leaned back down and latched his mouth back over the same nipple, this time sucking hard. Erik's hips jerked as he let out a gasp as though he'd been punched in the stomach, and then when Charles smirked and rasped his teeth over the hardened pebble of flesh, the belt flew off and smacked against the bedroom wall, the buckle inextricably mangled.

"Terrible," Charles sighed, in mock rebuke, pinching the abused nipple, causing Erik to twist up into the pressure with a hoarse moan. "No finesse or control whatsoever, and at your age."

Erik stared at him, dazed, his teeth digging into his lower lip, then he writhed with a low whine when Charles bent his head over the other nipple and pressed his thigh between Erik's legs, the tailored fabric of Erik's pants supple against Charles' skin as he rubbed himself blindly against the pressure, heels twisting and pushing into the quilt of the bed as Charles gently drew flesh between his teeth, then sucked wetly and flicked the tip of his tongue over the reddened nub. Erik hissed, and Charles repeated the gesture again, and again, until Erik was writhing under him and Charles could smell the tart scent of his sweat over the musk of his arousal.

"Uhh...! Gott, mein Gott... bitte, bitte... aah, nein, Charles!" Erik gasped urgently, when Charles drew back with a pout.

"English, Erik. Or French. And I suppose Italian is passable," Charles mused, and desperation was a good taste for Erik, sweet and vivid and intense as Erik licked at his bruised lips and let out a wrecked sob. "Also, this is usually only so erogenous for women," Charles added primly, as Erik stuttered something inarticulate and wrecked, probably in Polish by the sounds of the consonants, and then seemed to visibly force himself to work his way back to English.

"Please, Charles...!"

"What do you want?" Charles shifted up to straddle Erik's hips, grinding himself against the bulge in Erik's pants before holding himself back up when Erik didn't answer, making Erik buck blindly into the air and choke, panting in dry, harsh heaves. "I asked you a question, Erik, answer me."

"I want... verdamnt... no, no, no, touch me," Erik said plaintively, his hands clenching and unclenching restlessly on the headboard when Charles arched an eyebrow. "Can't... can't think, kiss me, please-"

Charles leaned up, with a playful smirk, and brushed his lips over Erik's parted ones, ignoring the shiver and the anxious whimper and pulling away when Erik tried to push forward for another kiss. "You have your kiss," Charles whispered, licking over the shell of Erik's left ear and sucking lightly on the lobe, then taking it between his teeth to tug lightly, chuckling softly when Erik shivered. "What next?"

"Another one," Erik panted, "Deeper, more."

"Mm, and then?" Charles grazed his teeth over Erik's pulse, lazily, and then made a slow series of nips and licks up to Erik's jaw that made Erik hiss and start thrashing. Erik's neck was sensitive, apparently; Charles had to sit up for a moment, blinking, at the sudden intensity of the feedback. His shields held, however - perhaps it was a good thing that he'd already had Erik only the night before - and he relaxed, kneading fingers over Erik's tensed shoulders, and gave Erik the kiss, deeper, slower, ignoring the eager moan that Erik muffled against his mouth and the restless twitch of the muscle under Charles' palms.

"I want you to come," Erik said, so very earnestly, when they broke for breath, then at Charles' chuckle, he flushed crimson and muttered, "You didn't. Before. And you wouldn't let me help. I would have, I wanted to. Help you. That is."

"All right," Charles smiled, amused; he had been expecting Erik to ask to mount or be mounted, not this continuing, desperate need to please, "Where?"

Erik frowned, too far gone to do anything but scrabble for context. "Yesterday in the hotel-"

"I meant," Charles interrupted, "Where would you like me to come, Erik? On the bed? On your belly? Inside you?" Even as he spoke, allowing his tone to take on a teasing lilt, Charles swept the tips of his fingers up from the bed beside Erik's flanks to linger over Erik's heaving stomach, then he trailed them over the impressive tent of Erik's pants between his legs, pressing lightly and scratching at the fabric just behind Erik's balls, even as Erik inhaled sharply. "Over your pretty face, your lovely mouth?"

"Christ, yes, anywhere, on me, in me, use me however you like, I don't care," Erik said roughly, licking Charles' fingers as he trailed them teasingly over Erik's lips. "I swear, you're a bloody demon."

Charles stared, startled for a moment, and then he began to laugh, even as Erik looked confused and a little worried, and then he was squirming and wetting his lips restlessly as Charles slowly dragged down his pants, Erik's gorgeous prick already leaking enough to leave a wet, slick smear over the flat muscle of Erik's stomach. "You don't know half of it, darling."

"I don't?" Erik repeated, adorably bewildered, then he sucked in a sharp breath as Charles traced the tip of his tongue over the circumcision scar, then the plump swell of the reddened cap of Erik's prick, and then Erik was clawing at the headboard and whimpering as Charles drew the thick head into his mouth to suck, teasingly, stroking his tongue over the slit until the heady edge of frustration permeated the textures of Erik's desire. "Please, please," Erik moaned, in a broken, stammering mantra.

"Please what, pet?"

"I..." Erik exhaled, in a harsh rush, licking his lips, then he dug his heels into the bed with a groan, his throat working, and it took several attempts until he managed to grit out a strained, "Please let me fuck you."

Well, that was about time. "Since you've asked so nicely." Charles stripped and drew back onto his knees, straddling Erik's thighs, and took his time to slick up himself and Erik's swollen prick with his saliva - his body had a higher pain threshold than most humans, and usually, any slick was sufficient - and then Erik was keening as Charles gripped Erik's cock to hold it in place as he lowered himself down, inch by slow inch and concentrating on his shielding more than anything else, it was so surprisingly... good. Dangerously so.

Sex was a necessity to Charles, and he had thought that it had long lost its urgency and its lustre. With Erik, however, it was different, the human was a perfect storm of raw physical beauty and a vivid, passionate mind; Charles felt like he'd been gorging, his body felt like it was strung blissfully past satiation with borrowed energy when he was sure that only a little of it was getting past his shielding, and Erik was still panting against the sheets and trying his damnedest not to move.

"God," Erik whispered roughly, in between wet gasps and roughened groans, "This has never... never felt so amazing before."

"Of course not," Charles drawled, taking refuge behind smugness, rocking experimentally against Erik and watching him shiver and jerk his hips up. Charles' shielding was beginning to fracture a little more, not enough to be dangerous, thankfully, but it was getting closer; Erik had a lovely prick, long and beautifully thick at the base, taking it deep was intensely satisfying. "You've never had sex with a demon before, have you?"

Erik frowned. "I wasn't-" he began, then his voice shook into a hoarse cry as Charles lifted himself up a few inches and sank back down with a luxurious roll of his hips, purring as his body stretched to accommodate Erik. "Jesus fuck!"

Charles glanced up, lips pursed in disapproval, as the windows rattled and something smashed in the bathroom, the metal hinges of the doors creaking alarmingly. "You can't already be close," Charles admonished, even as he smiled wickedly and rolled his hips again, harder this time, his hands pressed on the sheets beside Erik's sweating, straining frame, "We haven't even started."

At the next buck, Charles chuckled as Erik tentatively set his heels against the bed and thrust up against him with a low curse. Then standing lamp at the side table skittered off and landed with an unpleasant tinkle on the carpet when Charles clenched tight, experimentally. "Erik, I would prefer not to wreck the hotel, if you please."

"You can stop me, can't you?" Erik said in a desperate rush, and only when Charles stopped his lazily deliberate rocking and stayed deeply seated. "Move, please move, please, please move-"

"I could stop you," Charles conceded, though he reached out instead, to nudge the guests from the neighboring rooms out on walks to the nearby cafes. "But you do need to work on your concentration. It's dreadful."

"Fuck that," Erik groaned, chewing on his lower lip as Charles drew himself up, until he was holding only the thick cap of Erik's prick within him, then Erik screamed when Charles snapped his hips back down in a rough slide, and the topmost, brass-plated-handled drawer of the side table flew out with a crash, scattering pens and a dusty copy of the Bible. Laughing, Charles did it again, sharper, shallower, and as he bottomed out, there was an alarming splintering sound from the walk-in wardrobe, then a heavy, muffled thump, and Erik made a choked sob, eyes squeezed tightly closed, squirming. The hat stand next to the door melted with a gurgling sound.

Charles decided that he'd had enough only when the walls began to make a disquieting groaning noise - the piping, perhaps - and he pressed his palm to Erik's cheeks, locating the appropriate switch in Erik's mind and flicking it the other way. Erik didn't seem to notice, he was already so close, writhing and panting for it, too far gone for words, bucking wildly and erratically against Charles, and at a few more rough, rolling snaps of Charles' hips that beautiful knife-edged mind faded into a roar of white noise, the rush so powerful that Charles' shields slipped for a fraction before he desperately clawed them back into place-

and-

-Erik's eyes were closed, his mind blank, and Charles gasped, his palm dropping quickly to Erik's throat, a cold sweat breaking between his shoulders, then he relaxed with a deep sigh when he felt a pulse, slow and steady. Erik was just out for the count.

"Tch. Humans." Charles stretched luxuriously, basking for a long moment in the aftershocks of Erik's pleasure, dropping his hand to his own arousal and stroking himself, once, twice, and spilling over his hand, smearing his release messily and deliberately over Erik's belly. Rubbing his tongue up over his soiled forefinger and middle finger, absently, rolling the tart taste of himself in his mouth, Charles shook his head slowly and slipped free, padding towards the bathroom, feeling irrationally giddy and light on his feet.

XIV.

Erik had slept through half of the day and had woken up blearily only well into the afternoon, looking drained; if he didn't also look so thoroughly fucked out Charles might even had felt rather guilty about it all. As it was, Erik merely smiled at him, all unfocused, then tottered over to the bathroom, where Charles had already arranged for all the broken glass from the shattered shower screen to be fixed up, and Charles applied himself back to his book, curled on the couch. It was one of the few pieces of furniture that had survived unscathed.

"Qodeshah's tits, what the fuck."

Charles glanced up, irritated, at the sudden scent of brimstone, and watched Azazel goggling at the devastation in the room. "What do you want?"

"Was there a fight? Are you unharmed?" Azazel's tail lashed from side to side as he crouched, sniffing at the air, then he pulled a face and slouched down onto the tail end of the couch, beside Charles' feet. "Huh. I see."

"Mutant," Charles explained, and then felt annoyed at having explained, and scowled. "Azazel-"

"You look better than you have for a very, very long time. Longer than I can remember." Azazel peered at him, pleased, tilting his head. "Maybe mutants agree with you. And I don't see any dead bodies. Congratulations."

Charles bared his teeth. "I'm strong enough to throw you out now if I want to."

"You can't deny," Azazel declared smugly, "That my plans work." He held up his hands when Charles growled, low in his throat, white-gloved today, and the demon prince was dressed like some sort of bell hop, with a rakish black beret and a brass-buttoned black jacket and pants. "Calm down, Cresil. I just wanted to talk."

"I've told you that I'm not interested in your schemes..." Charles trailed off when Erik emerged from the bathroom, clad only in a towel, wearing a rather foolish smile on his face that fell right off when he noticed Azazel.

Something within the wardrobe and the door hinges at the bathroom rattled and groaned for a moment before Erik took in a sharp breath, and bit out, "Good afternoon to you, sir. I hear that you kidnapped Charles."

"It seems to have agreed with him," Azazel shrugged, clearly unrepentant, and turned to Charles. "He's not your usual type, is he?"

Charles rolled his eyes. "Just get out, Azazel."

"That's just ungrateful," Azazel said dryly, poking at Charles' knee with the tip of his tail and ignoring the growl from Erik. "Look, Cresil. That human, Shaw, Schmidt, whatever he's calling himself, somehow, he got his hands on a Sansenoy helm. We have to talk."

Charles sat up sharply, the book forgotten. "You're certain?"

"The other dreamthief couldn't read him once he put it on. I'm certain. Also, the metal doesn't just affect your kind, it also makes my skin crawl." Azazel scowled, his tail curling and uncurling restlessly over his lap. "And-"

"What did you say about Schmidt?" Erik cut in sharply.

"Can you switch him off for a while?" Azazel didn't bother looking up, and Charles nodded with a deep sigh, even as Erik protested with an urgent, "Charles, wait-" he abruptly shut up, blinking owlishly, walking in a stilted stride to the bed and lying down before Charles pushed him into unconsciousness.

"There. Now. About that helm."

"It arrived this morning. From Russia, apparently." The tip of Azazel's tail stabbed into the cushioned arm of the couch, leaving a gash. "I haven't managed to find his sources, yet."

"What sort of helm?"

"Seraphim, at the least, from the color and the design. Silver and black."

Charles pursed his lips, hugging himself, briefly touching the edges of ugly, old memories. The higher echelons of the Cheyarafim sometimes had weapons or helms in Sansenoy steel. Particularly those that specialised in hunting the Lilim. "A Seraphim won't so easily let go of its helm."

"But how did it get here?" Azazel pointed out, making an additional gash on the couch. "It's the first piece of Sansenoy steel that I've seen in this planar realm. It feels... wrong. It's a warning, I'm sure of it. There's a Cheyarafim agent about. He must know about my plans."

"Don't be so paranoid," Charles frowned. "No self-respecting Cheyarafim will send Sansenoy steel our way. It's a rare metal to them. Besides, it doesn't restrict your powers. You could easily steal it when that human's sleeping, and dispose of it down a volcano."

"I thought about that," Azazel admitted, fingering the hilt of the sheathed thrice-wrought blade at his hip. "But I think I'll let it stand for now. Up until I find out where it came from. And besides, it might be warded. I'll keep you updated. Be wary."

"You're not going to ask for my help?" Charles said, surprised.

"Your powers won't work on that human if he wears that helm," Azazel pointed out, "And I'm well aware what type of Seraphim wears that sort of armor. If there's Cheyarafim about-"

Charles folded his arms. "I'm aware of that. But as I said, the helmet won't restrict your powers, and once you remove it, he'll just be another human. I'll help you. Get that helmet off, and I'll know how he acquired it."

"True." Azazel conceded, visibly relieved. "Ready to leave?"

Charles looked over at Erik's prone body, a little regretfully; it posed a massive loose end that he now did not have the time to fix, though he reached back as an afterthought and flipped the switch within Erik's mind for the use of his power back to full throttle. The night had been... entirely satisfactory, to say the least, and Erik had even survived it, which was a decided bonus, but Charles knew logically that Erik represented an extremely messy complication, and at the core of it all, Charles tended to be irrevocably lazy about sorting out complications.

Briefly, he considered wiping Erik's memories again, including that of the safe deposit box, but hesitated, discarding the idea guiltily with a sharp pang in his chest. Charles wasn't entirely heartless, after all. Exhaling, Charles rubbed his eyes, then he put down his book, inserting the appropriate nudges to ensure that Erik would wake up shortly after he left, with no memory of Charles' conversation with Azazel.

"Take me home, I need to speak to the children before they start looking for me by themselves and getting into trouble. Then we'll see this Schmidt of yours about that helm."

XV.

The children were overjoyed to see him but considerably less happy at the sight of Azazel perched on the counter, helping himself to Charles' stash of antique whisky, and in the end, Charles made it quick, skimming their minds for an update on homework and their lives, admonishing Raven on her truancy during history class two days ago and Angel for aiding and abetting, ruffled Armando's hair, and then trotted back over to Azazel before the whisky was fully wasted on a creature whose biological makeup didn't allow taste differentials between liquids.

They reappeared on a far too familiar yacht. "Full circle," Charles sighed, padding over to the rail to look at the still sunny outline of the Miami coast. "Where's Schmidt?"

"I'm not sure," Azazel scowled, and at Charles' arched eyebrow, added, irritably, "You do know how Sansenoy steel works, don't you?"

"I thought that it didn't affect you of the Shemhazai," Charles said, surprised.

"It doesn't stop me from worldwalking, even if I'm touching it," Azazel conceded, with a deep sigh, "But I can't see the fate threads of a Sansenoy wearer on the Winding Stair. I took us to the dreamthief instead. She's his woman, he'll be back for her eventually. Humans are predictable that way."

Charles pressed his fingers briefly to his forehead. Azazel had taken them onto the main deck, one floor above where the dreamthief was ensconced in a stateroom, bored, drinking champagne and reading some glossy women's magazine, alone. She hadn't sensed them - Charles was tightly shielded against others of his kind, and Charles' careful nudges in her mind were still holding firm where Azazel was concerned. Carefully, quietly, he stole into her mind to take a peek. "Schmidt isn't here. Emma doesn't know where he's gone, but she strongly suspects that he's gone into the mainland to take care of some business. Also, she doesn't know anything about the helm."

"Like I've said, he'll be back here sooner or later for his woman, and for the diving ship device that he built into the hull of this one." Azazel predicted, padding over to sprawl into a deck chair, his tail curled on the warmed wood, the tip twitching. "We'll wait."

"You keep watch. I'm going to go through his effects."

"Oh? And how exactly are you going to break into his locked room?"

True. Charles folded his arms. "Well then, what are you waiting for? Get me in."

Azazel rolled his eyes, but he rolled back up onto his feet and took Charles by the arm, and they reappeared in a darkened room. Lights blossomed overhead when Azazel flicked the light switch with the tip of his tail, revealing a room that somehow managed to be devoid both of taste and color. Charles grimaced at the white furs and the luxurious, reclining leather divans, the whorled glass tables and the awful faceted silver mosaic along the walls, the thick, clinging scent of molasses layered with brimstone and sulfur.

"I hate you sometimes," he told Azazel, who shrugged at him and gestured grandly at the room.

"After you, Cresil."

Grumbling to himself, Charles circled it slowly, prowling around the room. Shaw had the mind of a scientist; he kept several neat folders of documentation in a cabinet beside some dreadful glass and steel concoction of a private liquor cabinet, and Charles flipped through a thick folder of invoices before giving it up as a bad job. Many of the invoices had no descriptions whatsoever, only reference numbers, and the considerable number of zeroes on some of them stank of illegality in general.

"The helmet was a gift, or a commission?"

"I don't know. It just arrived, in a box marked only with Shaw's name. He was expecting it, though. I excused myself the moment I felt that it wouldn't seem suspicious." Azazel was ill at ease, his tail curling and uncurling over his heels. "Found anything yet? We may not have much time."

"Why don't you look through these, princeling," Charles suggested, syrupy sweet, "And I'll check the rest of his chambers? Or would your lordship prefer to continue to 'supervise'?"

Scowling, his tail jabbing briefly at the air, Azazel disappeared in a puff of smoke and reappeared beside Charles, taking a folder from the cabinet with an air of imperial indulgence. Charles smiled thinly at him and padded off to inspect the bedroom, with its plush, massive bed and its horrific red satin sheets and black silk pillows, nesting on what looked like the skin from some poor tiger. Momentarily blindsided by the shameless display of poor taste, Charles almost didn't notice the residue in the air, a grating whisper in the Prime Material's paper-thin planarscene above the bedside table. Unnerved, Charles backed quickly out of the room and nearly backpedalled into Azazel.

"What?" Azazel looked around sharply, feet shifting apart into a combat-ready stance. "What do you sense?"

"He takes the helmet off when he sleeps," Charles said tightly. "We'll just need to wait. Get us out of here."

Azazel nodded slowly, and with a touch of his elbow, they were back up on the deck. Charles leaned over the side of the yacht and breathed deeply, forcing himself to calm down, his eyes squeezed shut. Sometimes he envied humans and their unreliable memories. Charles still remembered everything, over all of his considerable life, including the wars, including the arrow formations of the Seraphim ranks in the Final Days, winging down over the broken battlements of Līlītu with murder in their eyes. All he could really do with bad memories was compartmentalize.

After a while, Azazel asked, quietly, "Better?"

Charles rubbed the heels of his palms over his eyes, chasing away old ghosts with some effort. "You're right. Something feels wrong, even its trace. Either the effect is stronger in this planar realm, or..." Charles trailed off. The alternative didn't really bear repeating.

"Or the metal's sanctified," Azazel said it anyway, grimly. "It's probably the former. I've battled the malakhi elohim, and I've not seen any of them wear helms like that. Plain," Azazel elaborated, when Charles glanced up at him, querying.

Charles should have thought of that - he himself had faced down the elohim, after all, when they had finally come calling on the Lilim's territories. It was a bad day (or week, or century) when Azazel was less paranoid than Charles was. "I can tell whether it's the latter, once I've had a look at it. Is Shaw usually alone? There was one more human, wasn't there? Riptide, I think his name was. You can see his fate thread, surely."

"Riptide is elsewhere, on separate business. Procuring some sort of poisonous metal," Azazel said vaguely, having never been particularly interested in the details of mere human machinations. "Shaw's alone, somewhere. He's the most deadly of all of his thugs, he doesn't actually need an escort."

"So we wait." Charles concluded, with a sigh. He was going to be utterly bored. Perhaps he should have brought Erik after all.

XVI.

Schmidt took his time to return; days dragged on into two, and then three, and Charles amused himself by patiently worming his way into Emma's good graces. He hadn't yet met a human that he couldn't charm if he wanted to, even without his gift, but Emma was a prickly one, just like her patronym, queenly and glacial and gorgeous. Charles wasn't entirely sure as yet whether he wanted to bed her; he preferred effervescence to iron control, but interacting with Emma was better entertainment than sniping with a restless, paranoid Azazel.

The moment Emma stopped watching him with her habitual air of cool suspicion, however, allowing him a faint nod or even a neutral greeting, Charles grew bored. The challenge had passed, after all. He kept up pretences, because Emma was still somewhat interesting, and because Azazel was unbearable when he was waiting for something, but in the end Charles forced Azazel to drop him off on the mainland and fetch him back only when Schmidt returned. He set himself up in a decent hotel and found a local library with a chess section, complete with a couple of tables and a few regulars well into their sixties.

He was working slowly through the library's collection of Agatha Christie novels, curled on a chair beside one of the empty chess tables, on a slow afternoon, happily absorbed, and had been closing in on the last few chapters when the other chair scraped aside and someone sat down. Without looking up at the challenger, Charles said, "I prefer white."

"Black it is," Erik said, and Charles looked up, startled. Erik looked haggard and pale in a white polo shirt, the collar askew and his hair uncombed, the dark circles under his eyes more pronounced. "God, Charles," he said roughly, and Charles winced at the loud impressions that bled over, choking relief, white hot fury and festering exasperation and beneath it all still, the same helpless, desperate want.

"Good afternoon, Erik," Charles ventured, cautiously, checking his shields. "What are you-"

"I woke up and you were just gone, I thought, I wasn't sure what I thought," Erik pressed his elbows against the table and dragged his fingers through his bedraggled hair, "I thought at first that maybe I had hurt you or something, but I didn't see any blood, then I thought that I might have scared you away, I spent hours looking for you and terrorizing the hotel staff and..." Erik let out a harsh, wrecked sob and Charles hastily swept away the curiosity of the dowdy young lady browsing the nearby gardening section.

"My friend came by," Charles belatedly recalled that he had stolen part of Erik's memory, to be safe. "Something very important happened that needed my attention."

"And you couldn't have, verdamnt, woken me up to tell me?"

Charles narrowed his eyes, a little irritated by the vehemence of Erik's accusation. Humans and their preoccupations with social custom. "You wouldn't understand."

"Damned right I wouldn't!" Erik snapped hotly, "I drove to your pub but those children didn't know where you'd gone, and then I flew to Vegas but you weren't at the club and nobody had seen you since we'd left, then I thought, I thought I'd just try Miami, I thought that you'd been kidnapped, by Shaw this time or-"

The children had turned Erik away, perhaps with a greater opinion of their own abilities than was truly the case, Charles noted, and Erik didn't - wouldn't - hurt them, in any case. Interrupting, Charles continued, mildly, "And then you asked around for the most expensive hotel and checked with the concierge if anyone had asked about the location of public chess tables." He wasn't that predictable, was he? Hells. "Normal people would call the police when faced with this sort of behavior, by the by."

That seemed to deflate Erik's temper, all at once. "I know," Erik whispered instead, sounding wretched now. "Jesus. I want to take this slow, I don't want to frighten you off but I'm crazy about you, I... I... Have you... have you fed yet? Since the last time?" Jealousy crept into Erik's tone and pitched fortifications.

"You've just never been in love like this before," Charles advised, even as he reached over to select and move a pawn forward two paces. "It's intense at the start, like a forest fire, and then it blows out, and you forget."

Erik stared hard at the pawn, his jaw working, in his mind a brief image of chess pieces scattering as they were swept off the table, then he exhaled loudly and clenched his hands into fists over the edge of the etched board, instead. "I asked you a question."

"It's been more than a week," Charles said, with a light shrug. "Don't ask me questions with answers that you know that you won't like."

He'd picked someone out of a bar on his way back from the library, yesterday, a pretty, blonde young thing with a broad smile and a scatter of freckles and had her drive them someplace quiet. It had been... mild, and it hadn't felt substantial, not the way it had been with Erik, but it had been sufficient, and as mechanical as it had turned out, it had been necessary. He had to be ready when Shaw returned.

Overhead, to his right, the lamp at the wall burst into tinkling shards, then Erik grit his teeth and sucked in a tight, sharp breath, struggling for calm, growing very pale. Erik wanted to be patient, Charles observed, wanted to try a rather laughable schedule in the form of a stiff, old-fashioned courtship of dinners and dates and chess games in creative places, but his first taste of Charles' aura had allowed Charles' influence to dig its hooks firmly in the irrational beast that every human held at the core of their souls and the line had held fast. Erik hadn't been thinking clearly for a while.

As old a predator as he was, Charles had been loved before, many times; human affection was often inextricably linked to their baser desires. Usually, it was endearing, in its own way, but often it just became inconvenient, if only because he wouldn't age, and whichever human he chose as a companion would be all too transient. Becoming fond of them would only hurt in the end, which would come all too quickly.

"I know that you don't usually take repeat donors," Erik said, at last, trying to sound even, but raw earnestness made his voice shaky. "But I'm begging you please, give me a chance."

"You have a life of your own to lead," Charles noted slowly, checking his shields again, as temptation reared its mendacious head, tasting the threads of rich desire in the air, bitter and tart with resentment and anger. "Murder and mayhem."

"I'm just after one man's blood," Erik growled, "And I asked, hypothetically-"

"I said no, you blithely decided not to believe me." Charles pointed out primly. "And rather rudely, I should add. Schmidt's not in Miami, by the way."

"You...!" Erik breathed out, between clenched teeth, bowing his head for a moment, then he sighed, visibly forcing down his temper. "Never mind. Do you need a ride home?"

"No, I actually do have to stay and help my friend this time, the matter's serious." Charles admitted, resigned. "I'll be here for a while."

"Waiting for Schmidt?"

"In a sense."

"What do you mean?"

"It means," Charles said, growing tired of the interrogation, "That I'll be here for a while, Erik. You're giving me a headache."

"Sorry," Erik muttered insincerely. "I thought that you said that you didn't want to get involved with your 'friend's' schemes."

"Circumstances change."

"You're infuriating," Erik snarled, even as steel book holders leaped off the shelves closest to him with a clatter of tumbling books . "I don't understand you!"

Charles sighed, surveying the mess with some degree of exasperation, and got to his feet. "And you're growing tiresome, Erik. Get some rest before you collapse."

He had walked out into the afternoon sun when Erik stumbled out of the library, swaying a little on his feet and looking so exhausted that Charles' irritation thawed, somewhat. He allowed Erik to follow him back to the hotel, pointedly ignoring his attempts at polite conversation, until they were in Charles' suite, then he walked Erik to the bed, ignoring his protests, and forced Erik into sleep the moment his knees hit the quilt.

Erik's body crumpled gracelessly, and Charles cursed under his breath as he hauled him further onto the quilt, then decided to leave him as he was, opening the novel again as he removed his own shoes and sat cross-legged on the bed. This, Charles decided petulantly, had to be Azazel's fault, somehow.

XVII.

Erik slept like the dead through the night and over most of the next day, during which Charles made another trip to the library, meandered around the botanical garden and eventually returned to the hotel with some wrapped sandwiches and newly purchased clothes, somewhat annoyed at the inconvenience caused and the inextricable concern that his immortal conscience still managed to dredge up about it all. At least there was still no word from Azazel.

Shower, change, eat, Charles commanded Erik when he finally heard Erik stir on the bed, seated on an armchair in the sumptuous living space of the suite. He heard an incoherent grumble, then the shower switched on, and eventually, Erik padded out to occupy the other armchair, a glass table between them, unwrapping the sandwich, handsome in the pressed white dress shirt and charcoal gray tailored pants that Charles had picked for him on the way back. Charles felt his mouth go dry, and silently cursed his subconscious for enabling his bad habits.

Charles didn't allow Erik to speak until he had finished eating, and although Erik made some visible effort to try anyway, coupled with some decidedly rude gestures, he eventually conceded the point, eating quickly and downing the sandwich with a glass of water. Carefully, Charles withdrew his touch from Erik's mind, and Erik took in a deep breath, leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees. "I apologize. About yesterday."

"Actually, you're not sorry at all," Charles shook his head, still reading.

"If you or your friend are in trouble," Erik grit out, temper flaring briefly, "I would like to help."

"I truly doubt that you would be of any aid whatso..." Charles paused, tapping absently at his lower lip with a forefinger. Sansenoy steel and Erik's remarkable ability, it was serendipity. Granted, it was entirely possible that the metal couldn't be magnetised, but this was a nice back-up plan, if the helmet was sanctified or warded. "Hm."

Erik had the soul of a predator; he leaned closer, sensing an advantage. "What's troubling you, Charles? Tell me. I want to help you."

"I'm thinking, hush." Charles admonished, chewing absently on his lower lip. He'll have to check with Azazel; the princeling didn't always react well to additional surprises, and besides, in matters involving their ancient, common enemy, Charles was more than capable of being a team player. Azazel?

What? Azazel felt far away, on the edge of Charles' range, and abruptly, he was in the room, crouching beside Charles' armchair and startling Erik into jerking back and swearing. Azazel had half-drawn one of his blades before he snorted and sheathed it, straightening up. "I thought that you'd grown out of this habit of playing with your food, Cresil."

"'Cresil'?" Erik repeated.

"Azazel here sometimes thinks it entertaining to call me by other names." Charles shrugged. "Erik tracked me down."

"Trouble?" Azazel eyed Erik with open distrust, and Erik set his jaw with a scowl. "Didn't you mention earlier that one of your donors was giving you grief?"

"Not precisely. Perhaps he could help us with our... problem." Charles suggested delicately, even as Erik looked sharply over at him. "He controls metal. Magnetisable metal, in any regard."

"Well then, that makes matters easier. We wouldn't even have to wait for Schmidt to go to sleep. We'll just get that helmet off, read his mind, and then we'll head onwards to the source."

What did you need Schmidt for, anyway? Charles asked silently, as Azazel settled onto the couch tail curled over his lap.

Kinetic energy absorption. Seal backlash, Azazel pointed out. Azazel only thought in sharp, clear impressions. Sometimes Charles wondered whether this was the way he had been taught; unless Charles tried, he couldn't usually pick out anything else.

That could work, Charles decided, with a pause. If you had the materials on hand to break the seals in the first place.

Working on that. Weapon X program. Star iron. Azazel smiled lazily and toothily, as Charles raised both eyebrows and Erik glanced between them both, frowning. Borrow your plaything. Build a spear.

Charles narrowed his eyes, and then Erik broke in, with a curt, "Care to include me in the conversation?"

I don't think so, Azazel. Pointedly, Charles placed his book on the coffee table and rolled to his feet, padding over to Erik and slipping onto his lap, hooking one leg over the armrest and curling up against Erik's chest even as he felt the human stiffen and inhale sharply. An arm went tentatively over his waist, and Charles tipped Erik's head down for a kiss, tasting delight and relief on his tongue. He won't listen to you.

Azazel snorted, his tail flicking back and forth, when Erik broke for air with a gasp, then he stifled a moan badly by nuzzling Charles' hair. "We'll see."

"Erik has a grudge against Schmidt," Charles said, turning up Erik's right arm and rolling back his sleeve briefly to reveal the green ink of the old tattoos. "An old one, a blood feud." The Shemhazai traditionally respected blood feuds.

"I just need Schmidt's ability for a moment. I don't care what happens to him afterwards." Azazel allowed, relaxing a fraction. "That aside, the Sansenoy steel helm remains our immediate problem."

"What exactly is it?" Erik asked, curious. "Is this the problem that you were talking about, Charles?"

"That's none of your concern." Azazel glanced over at Charles, when Erik scowled at the blatant dismissal. "You'll be in control?"

"If I must."

"I want Schmidt alive, Cresil." Azazel said pointedly, getting to his feet. "Keep your new pet on a tight leash."

Charles sighed out aloud, even as Azazel disappeared in a puff of smoke, and Erik grumbled, "I don't like him."

"Neither do I, usually." Charles tried to slip back off Erik's lap, but Erik's arm didn't budge.

"And you're still friends?"

"Out of necessity." Charles smirked as Erik's brow furrowed, clearly trying to puzzle that out. "It's complicated, and I don't quite feel like explaining. Why don't we move to the bed?" Charles suggested, with a sly smile, when Erik opened his mouth to ask some searching, surprisingly intelligent questions about Charles' birth name and about Azazel's exact relationship with him. "Or are you still tired?"

"That depends." Erik's eyes, however, were growing dilated again, and his breath hitched as Charles squirmed pointedly and luxuriously in his lap; it didn't take long for Erik to hiss and start clutching at his hips.

"Good." Charles checked his shields, then Erik's energy levels, and decided to opt for the most mutually gratifying way of keeping a human docile. "You'll do all the work, this time."

Erik sucked in a deep breath, all his personal questions about Charles immediately forgotten. "Gladly," he growled, and hooked an arm under Charles' thighs and shifted the other more tightly around Charles' waist, making Charles laugh when he was lifted up into the air. "You're lighter than I thought," Erik murmured, as he walked them both over to the bed and gently settled Charles on the quilt, climbing up over him, resting his weight on an elbow as he brought one hand up to cup Charles' cheek, gently, almost reverent.

"Side effect," Charles smiled, curling his hands into the pressed curve of Erik's shirt collar and hauling him up for a kiss, stroking his tongue into Erik's mouth to chase the taste of his pleasure, chuckling as Erik moaned urgently for it and rubbed himself blindly between Charles' thighs. "Keep your clothes on, darling," Charles added, when Erik stripped Charles of his clothes, the belt rolling off the bed and the socks kicked off the side.

"I'll ruin them," Erik said doubtfully, even as he fumbled his own belt and yanked it off, his fingers jerky with impatience.

"I'll get new ones for you," Charles shrugged, with a lazy smile, hooking his legs around Erik's waist. Erik would look good in leather, perhaps, black and elegant, or a white short sleeved shirt that stretched over his lovely shoulders and showed off all that sleek muscle, or another suit, tailor cut this time, to show off Erik's beautifully narrow waist. The very thought made him lick his lips in anticipation before he remembered that he was meant to be careful. Erik was just another donor, after all. Just meant to be another donor. This wasn't going to be anything more than sex.

"Come on, slick me up. Saliva's fine," Charles instructed, with a touch of impatience, when Erik reached over to check the side table's drawer. "There's nothing usable in there."

"Are you normally this domineering with your... with your donors, or am I a special case?" Erik asked wryly, though he sucked two of his graceful fingers into his mouth, pink tongue flicking out over the valleys and the knuckles.

Charles spread his legs, unashamed, and propped himself up on his elbows. "Why bring up other donors? You'll get angry, and then you'll spoil the intake."

"Intake? Energy has flavor?" Erik found this so interesting that he actually paused, nearly knuckle-deep in Charles, and Charles rolled his eyes, rocking his hips forward to take Erik in until his rump was pushed tight over the ridge of his palm.

"It does, yes. Move your fingers, Erik. Stop obsessing, you're doing fine."

"I'm doing 'fine', but not 'well'?" Erik, however, cracked a faint smile and pushed his weight onto his free arm, leaning down to mouth up over the slender line of Charles' collarbone, wet and tender.

"So far overall on a scale of one to ten, one being abysmal and ten being fantastic, you're probably at around a three by way of technique," Charles informed him, as fingers crooked within him, searching for something that wasn't there. Like the rest of Lilith's firstborns, birthed from the original dreamthief, Adam, Charles was human-shaped, but physiologies tended to differ, even across his immediate siblings, particularly among those of them who processed energy rather than physical matter for sustenance. "That's enough, darling."

Erik snorted, even as he freed himself from his pants and boxers and spat in his palm, dragging it over his arousal with a low, hungry growl, hunched and strung wire-tight from arousal, his smile wolfish. "So I'm a failure by your scale, but you've still broken one of your personal rules for me."

"The main personal rule, actually," Charles admitted, concentrating on his shielding and therefore unfortunately saying the first thing on his mind, but instead of walking his words back, he ended up arching up as Erik smiled, sharp and bright with his heart on his sleeve as he pushed into Charles, slowly and carefully, brushing soft, worshipful kisses over his chest and collar. Too slowly. Charles could feel Erik's energy banks, held back, simmering as Erik cursed and tried to take his time, to draw this out. Pursing his lips in disapproval, Charles nudged Erik in the back with the ball of his foot. "Faster, Erik. I won't break."

Erik was wearing a curious expression that seemed part tenderness and part exasperation. "I'll hurt you."

"Oh, come on, you have a lovely prick, but it's not really as big as you think it is-" The rest of Charles' words were cut off in a hiss as Erik braced himself and pushed a few delicious, gritty inches deeper, then Erik was moaning hoarsely as Charles curled his nails up against the headboard and his legs over Erik's narrow hips and pulled himself up and fully onto Erik's cock, hard enough to see stars.

"Fuck, fuck fuck," Erik was gasping wetly against his ear, trembling with his hands fisted in the sheets, then he moaned again, this time a ragged, wrenching sound coupled with a beautifully sweet pulse of arousal, when Charles twisted fingers into the soft furl of Erik's hair to tilt his head to the side and whispered, "That's it, come on, I want it rough," into his ear.

Erik carefully lifted Charles up by his hips when Charles hooked his ankles over his shoulders, and drove deep as Charles braced himself, teeth bared, then he did it again, harder this time, shoving the breath out from Charles' lungs. "Like this?" Erik asked, so very earnestly.

"No. Harder." Charles hissed again, his head snapping back as Erik drew out and thrust roughly back in, his hands bruisingly tight on Charles' hips, and then there was a stuttered curse in Polish and Erik was finally just taking his pleasure, hauling Charles back up and onto Erik's cock with each brutal thrust until all Charles could do was hang on to the bed and laugh and ready his shielding, something was crashing against the floor and glass was shattering as Erik somehow managed to keep going, long past when even Charles' physiology began to feel the tightening ache.

Charles chuckled roughly, dragging Erik forward with the balls of his feet and clenching tight, then allowing Erik to draw back an inch, two, before he buried himself balls deep again with a choked yell. Erik's ecstasy swept over Charles in a heady, onrushing tide, but he had been expecting it, this time, drinking only as much as he felt he could take and reluctantly holding back from the rest, waiting, until Erik lowered him down gently onto the bed and carefully slipped out of him.

Dimly, he could feel lips on his mouth, over his eyes, then his mouth again before trailing down, butterfly soft, over his ribs to his belly, lower yet, and then Erik was mouthing tentatively at Charles' arousal, still breathing hard, pressing the flat of his tongue to the tip of Charles' cock, and then trying to take it into his mouth. Charles grimaced at the first, accidental touch of teeth - a mistake of inexperience - and reached out for Erik's mind, forcing Erik to pull up and lie onto the side, to watch as Charles brought himself off with a few, quick jerks of his wrist, the physical pleasure a soft shadowy afterthought to Erik's energy.

"I've warned you about trying that, haven't I," Charles said dryly, though he smirked at Erik's blank look of confusion and worry and leaned over to kiss him until Erik's energy was clean again, warm and satisfying. Erik dropped off to sleep curled against Charles, in his ruined shirt with the same foolish smile lingering over his lips, an arm flung out over Charles' belly. Feeling pleasantly sore, Charles contemplated the presumptuousness of the gesture half-heartedly for a long moment and decided to let it pass, trailing appreciative fingers up over the length of Erik's arm, to the swell and dip of the beautifully defined muscle at the biceps.

XVIII.

Azazel appeared in the library when Charles was teaching Erik a few basic chess moves, the leather of Erik's shoe pressed intimately against the back of Charles' calf under the table, and Charles frowned at the interruption for a moment before he took in the pinched look on Azazel's angular features. "Schmidt?"

"He's just cleared customs at the air port and will be on his way to his yacht," Azazel said, glancing briefly at the chess board, then back to Charles. "There are other yachts anchored in the harbor. I could drop you on one overlooking Schmidt's."

"It's better to get to him while he's still on the shore." Charles pointed out. "If anything goes awry, I can't swim, remember?"

"Yes, all this while and you've never bothered to learn," Azazel rolled his eyes, his tail curling and uncurling. "Honestly, Cresil-"

"Save the lecture," Charles cut in. "Hide us someplace on the marina. Erik, what's your range?"

"Assuming that I can affect this helmet of yours," Erik rubbed a palm absently over his hair, "Sight."

"Well then, we'll just get the helm off, I'll read Schmidt, and then-"

"And then just put him to sleep," Azazel cut in firmly. "I have arrangements. You'll be able to wait, I hope," Azazel turned to Erik, his tone belligerent, "I'll give you my word that I'll hand him over to you when I'm finished with him. The Shemhazai will not stand in the way of a blood feud."

"It's a point of honor for his people," Charles said, deliberately vague, when Erik glanced over at him for an explanation. "Though I should add that I approve neither of his blood feud nor yours."

"If you need Schmidt for something," Erik said slowly, "Take him. Because Charles sees you as a friend."

Azazel snorted, though he held out his hands to the both of them. "Try to earn your pathetic way into his good graces some other way, human. Cresil has a very low opinion of my methods."

"I can see why the both of you are friends, suddenly," Erik bit back, though he felt amused rather than annoyed. "You share the same, unselfconsciously brutal sense of honesty."

They reappeared in the sun, on the balcony floor of a seafood restaurant overlooking the marina, and Azazel pointed at a small speedboat moored at the jetty. Riptide was standing on the pier, checking his watch. "Remember, Cresil. I want Schmidt taken out of the game, but not killed."

Charles scowled at him, but couldn't immediately think of a retort. It was logically sound to keep Schmidt under wraps until they could figure out the matter of the helm in its entirety, but in principle he usually stayed out of Azazel's schemes, altogether. Erik, it seemed, somehow managed to be an utterly destabilizing influence. "Fine. But that's the extent of my assistance."

Azazel nodded, even as a sleek black Rolls Royce pulled up into the marina, and Schmidt emerged from it, alone, wearing a black and silver helm that seemed to resonate in the Prime Material like a bell, a silver-tongued tone around what felt like a skull-shaped void, a blank space in the fabric of reality. Normal Sansenoy steel wasn't this disorienting, and as Charles clutched tight at the safety rail and leaned forward, frowning, he could sense the Name spells newly woven into the jagged brim, malakhi, ezekiel, prima secundae, and beneath it all, the beautifully simple trap, primed to explode when in contact with Shemhazai skin-

"Get the helm off if you can, Erik," Charles said tightly, shuddering as he felt his body tense up under the weight of far too many old memories. "Azazel, don't touch it, it's been warded."

Erik gestured, and the helm lifted off Schmidt's head; Charles sank past momentary surprise and cool amusement, searching automatically for the information that he needed even as logic abruptly caught up with him - Schmidt had felt what - and he drew back, onto surface thoughts, to an image of a human in black leather on a rooftop, aiming a sniper rifle-

Belatedly, Charles cast his mind out further, and located the assassin's mind even as he felt the man pull the trigger. Linked, he accidentally felt-projected the explosion of pain the moment he was jarred back into his own body, disoriented and cradled in Erik's arms, he could see, in the distance, a man flailing as he fell off the rooftop of a nearby office building, and then Azazel's grip was shockingly tight on his arm.

They reappeared in the hotel room, and Charles numbly pressed his palm to his chest through the red haze of pain and blinked as it came away wet and crimson. "Oh," he murmured, rather astonished.

"He's going into shock," Erik was cradling him tightly, all panic-anger-fear, "Get us to a doctor!"

"No. No human doctors. He won't die just from that, flesh wounds are nothing to the Lilim," Azazel was somewhere at the side, ripping something, and then he was back, cutting off Charles' new shirt with a few deft flicks of his tail and binding his wound tightly, even as Charles felt himself start to drift off, his body preparing to repair itself from its stores of energy. "I have to make sure that we're secure here. Stay with him. And if you value your life, human, don't touch him when he wakes up."

XIX.

Charles woke up hungry, which was normal when his body's reserves had just been spent fixing up his frame, disoriented and annoyed, his chest ached and he could sense a human in the room, temptingly close... and... Erik was asleep in a chair that he had pulled up next to the bed, Charles' Agatha Christie novel open on his lap, a glass of water on the side table, his shirt mottled with dried blood. Charles' blood.

Charles hunger abated enough at the jarring sight for him to sit up instead and rub his eyes, breathing shallowly, and glancing down at his chest. Someone had applied an appalling haphazard level of first aid. Azazel?

Busy, Azazel replied, terse and tense. Stay. Stealing helm.

It's warded, you'd hurt yourself.

Have plan, Azazel retorted, and rather rudely shut Charles out by winding his thoughts inward. Scowling, Charles grabbed the glass of water and downed it, and when he looked up again, Erik was watching him, expressionless, a question bright in his mind. "Azazel's right," Charles said tightly, "Don't touch me. I'm probably going to need at least two donors. Three, to be safe."

"What are you?" Erik asked, warily. "You're not... not-"

"Not human? Yes, I'm not." Charles said carefully, poised to stop Erik if he had to. "Your kind call us demons."

"So... it is all real?" Erik said, clearly struggling with the concept, "The Bible? God?"

"Wildly wrong for most of it, actually. The so-called Eternal War is over. It's been over for a very long time. Depending on your religious affiliation, you might be happy to know that the angels won."

"And there are more of you out there? You and Azazel?"

"No. Just us." Charles looked down at his hands. "We're all that's left of our species that hasn't been herded into a prison realm. Azazel escaped the final binding, and he just reached out for the closest of us within reach to save with him. That happened to be me." Charles laughed harshly and rubbed his fingers through his hair. "I think he's regretted being so indiscriminate, on and off, over the past few centuries."

"Herded into a prison realm... by angels?" Erik's expression was an odd struggle between skepticism and wonder.

"In a sense. The Cheyarafim - angels - were xenophobic. But I can't say that the war was entirely their fault," Charles said, choosing his words with care, and Erik sighed out aloud.

"Charles, I'm not going to attack you. Or should I be calling you 'Cresil'?"

"I prefer 'Charles', thank you." Charles said quietly, though he didn't relax a fraction. "By the way, the last time someone who knew about me assured me about his good intentions, I was nearly burned at the stake. Which probably wouldn't have killed me, but it would have been thoroughly unpleasant."

Erik clenched his jaw, and for a moment Charles winced at the spike of temper that Erik felt, a weird sort of protective anger. "Check me if you want."

"I have. You're feeling uncertain. You think that you've been lied to, as laughable as that is, I've never lied to you about what I am. You think that you should walk away, you're not sure why you haven't."

"But I'm not going to hurt you," Erik cut in, evenly. "Am I?"

"I suppose not. Not right now." Charles conceded. Erik was hurt and feeling bruised about it all, but the forest fire that Charles had mentioned earlier was still there, unforgiving, twisted through all of Erik's logic and rationality. "You should go."

"Schmidt's hunting you-"

"He isn't. He doesn't know about me, he thought that I was just another human telepath," Charles said flatly, "He's after Azazel." Charles was a little concerned there, but he had to admit that Azazel was canny, and he was far more experienced than Charles where taking care of himself around humans was concerned. After all, even without telepathy, Charles could easily pass as a human, on the street. Azazel could not. "The helm was a trap."

Azazel? Charles called again, and although he could feel Azazel acknowledging him, there was pointedly no response. Irritated, Charles struggled to get out of the sheets, feeling sluggish. Come back here, damn you!

"Charles, don't," Erik warned, automatically reaching over to pin him back onto the bed, and Charles' control, turned brittle and fragile from his low energy reserves, snapped altogether.

Few of the Neyaphem knew that in actual fact, for the Lilim, physical sex with their donor was more of a stabilizing guide for the Lilim themselves than a necessary part of the exercise. Granted, sex could be enjoyable, and it meant expending less energy on mental stimulation, but if the any of the Lilim truly wanted to, a mere touch was sufficient to start the intake, and the outflow of energy need not be tantric in any flavor or form to satisfy their hunger. Charles dragged Erik onto the bed with a low snarl and pinned him down with his fingers clenched over Erik's neck, too far past control to register Erik's words and the hands pushing at his shoulders, Erik was thrashing and his life force was leaking everywhere, such a waste, more-

Charles roared and struggled when Azazel pulled him off, fighting and struggling until he was pinned against the wall, Azazel's hands crushingly tight over his wrists and one of his thrice-forged blades held against Charles' neck by the Shemhazai's tail. "Cresil! Stop, Cresil, listen to me!"

Blinking, owlishly, Charles hesitated at the sharp tone of command in Azazel's voice, then he let out a long, choked gasp and looked wildly over to the bed, where Erik lay, unmoving, then Charles exhaled again with a low sob when he saw Erik's chest move, in a slow breath.

"I warned that damned human not to touch you," Azazel muttered, letting Charles go carefully, though he didn't sheathe his blade as he walked over to Erik's body and nudged him with the toe of his boot. When Erik didn't wake, Azazel snorted. "Huh. So much for that. Fragile things."

Panicked, Charles checked Erik's mind, then his energy levels, and bit down on his lip, hard enough to draw blood, staggering forward. Erik was barely clinging on to life, but it was a near thing. "We'll check him into a hospital. Get someone to watch him. And then you're going to update me on this bloody fiasco."

XX.

Schmidt had acquired the helmet from someone whom he had only known as 'The Broker', which was some sort of shadowy human enterprise run from Chernobyl in Ukraine. He had been put in contact with the Broker through an intermediary that he knew as Rubi, who only corresponded in impersonal, typed messages. Rubi had been the one to inform Schmidt of Azazel's nature, and Schmidt had thought that Azazel was some sort of otherwordly agent, sent to jeopardize Schmidt's intentions to bring on the third World War.

Azazel had rolled his eyes when Charles had described this to him. They were seated in the French Lounge of Charles' Westchester mansion, with a giant map of the world spread over the antique Queen Anne table, marked here and there with tags. Azazel had managed to steal the box that the helmet had come in, and had spent the time when Charles was out tracing its postal route to a mail drop address in Ukraine.

"We'll find the Broker first," he decided, stabbing his tail over Chernobyl on the map. "Read his mind, he'll know about Rubi. Then we find this Rubi and get rid of him or her."

"What about Schmidt? He still has the helmet. A warded helmet, mind."

"Pity you didn't pick out all of the Name spell," Azazel grumbled. "I'll have liked to know the name of the puppet master. Anyway, I left a few choice documents in the offices of the CIA, SHIELD and M16. Let the humans deal with their own problems for a while."

"Didn't you need Schmidt to open the seals?"

Azazel scowled. "He arranged for you to be killed, Cresil. And as to that helmet... Hells, if I had him in my hands now..." Azazel's tail slashed a gash over the armrest of one of Charles' matching Queen Anne chairs, but the Shemhazai prince ignored Charles' disapproving pout. "In any case, they won't be able to do much other than harass him. They'll keep him out of our way - hopefully - for now."

"Chernobyl, then. Take us there." Charles held out his hand, but Azazel didn't touch him.

"Are you sure that you don't want to feed again? You're still pale."

"I..." Charles shuddered visibly, still unnerved and utterly guilty. Erik was in a coma right now, and if he'd only, if Charles had only... if Azazel hadn't come by to check on him... "No. I'm fine."

Azazel stared at him oddly. "That donor of yours is only human, you know that, don't you? They die sooner or later."

"I nearly killed him, Azazel," Charles shot back, "If you hadn't stopped me, I would have!"

"There's millions, billions more of them out on this planet," Azazel retorted, unimpressed. "What's one more of them?"

"This is exactly why I usually refuse to help you with your schemes," Charles growled.

"You grow fond of your toys far too quickly and then you become melodramatic when you break them," Azazel snapped, "This isn't the first time and I fucking bet that it won't be the last. Don't take out your inability to deal with your own issues on me, Cresil. I stopped you this time."

"I really hate you," Charles muttered, but it was a childish thing to say, and he sighed, running the fingers of his left hand through his hair. "Never mind. We can't afford to fight, not now. Let's go."

The Broker's auction chambers were housed under a bar, and Azazel was well through his third shot of whisky when Charles abruptly straightened up in his stool, his own drink untouched. "The helm was provided to the Broker by one 'Thomas R. Ibur', with strict instructions to be kept on hold for Sebastian Shaw. He paid a princely sum for the privilege. The Broker does not know anyone called 'Rubi'."

The Broker, as it turned out, was actually three minds - three sisters huddled in a room of typewriters, all black market transactions of varying degrees of criminal illegality. They usually dealt with weapons, or uranium, and they were in varying hues victims of social circumstance and the overarching political regime, grim and merciless. Usually, they didn't take on clients that they couldn't verify, but 'Ibur' - obviously a name reversal of 'Rubi' - had paid them a ridiculous amount of money.

Azazel cursed, and slammed his fist on the table. "Then this is a wasted trip."

"Not really." Charles smiled, tapping at his forehead. "The Broker sent one of their own with a return receipt for the invoice. It was sent to a mail drop site in Jordan. The Broker's agent observed the mail drop site for a week, and then followed a man who picked up the post for the box in question. The agent lost the man in the Mount Seir range, but found him again when the man returned and learned who he was. Rubi's postman is a beggar called Edom. Here." Charles projected the name and an image of the Broker's photograph of Edom into Azazel's mind.

The Broker's agent had neglected to mention that Edom was blind, his mind dark and filled only with the most basic impressions of food and voices and coin. Frowning, Charles nudged Edom into going to the mail drop site, convincing him that there was important mail for his master, and then they watched from a rooftop as Edom began to amble slowly out of the city, clearly following a pre-set route, cane tapping on the pavements, a few days' worth of water and biscuits slung on his shoulder.

"This is going to take a while," Charles complained, sweating gently in the sun.

"If you can't pick out where he's going, then I can't take us there," Azazel scowled at the beggar from their vantage point. "So we're left with only this alternative. Perhaps you could suggest that he use a car?"

"He knows the route only through habit, he doesn't even hold it in his surface memories. We'll have to watch." Charles rolled up his sleeves carefully, grumbling to himself. "Did I mention that I hated you?"

"About three times or so this week, give or take."

"Good."

They followed Edom for two days from a safe distance, sniping at each other, and just as Charles was fairly sure that, Cheyarafim agent or not, he was going to find a way to push Azazel off the next cliff and make the fall take, Edom abruptly stopped, in the shadow of a cliff, groping along the rock, and then he turned into the weathered stone and disappeared.

"What in the..." Charles hurried over to the rock, frowning at it until he finally sensed the faint, ancient threads of energy woven over an archway, a turning-away spell, a weak barrier. "There's a ward, but it's a weak one. We can break it, it's only anchored in stone, but whatever it is will know that we're coming."

Azazel cracked his knuckles. "Break it."

"Use your blade, make an incision here-" Charles yelped as Azazel stabbed the thrice-forged blade into the stone where indicated, an inch away from Charles' pointed finger. "Azazel!"

"It worked," Azazel shrugged, as the illusion dissipated, revealing a dark mouth of a tunnel. "After you."

The tunnel was trapped at neat intervals, none of which would be triggered by humans, all of which was anchored in stone. Silently thanking his older brother for the forced education in wards, Charles borrowed Azazel's blade, and progress slowed to a crawl. He could sense Azazel's tension and battle hunger, and it didn't help with his nerves, but Charles kept his silence, groping along the tunnel a step at a time, until they eventually emerged into a circular room. Edom was prostrate near the end of it, his forehead pressed into the dirt, an old typewriter propped on a crate beside him with a small pile of papers stacked against it, and in a small alcove carved into the room was balanced a blank, smooth gray slate.

Leystone, Charles told Azazel. It's what anchors some of the Cheyarafim to other planar realms-

Edom suddenly shrieked, leaping to his feet and flinging himself at them, only for Charles to shut him down hastily; he fell, face first, asleep in the dust. An illusion sprang up, quite a credible one of golden-haired Michael, teeth bared, wings arching up and into the rock, but Azazel sliced through it with one of his blades, contemptuously, and it disappeared.

"Don't tell me," Azazel growled, stepping over Edom's body towards the slate, "That all this grief was caused by just one damned Cherubim?"

The Cherubim screeched, its only real defensive mechanism, but Charles shut off the sound within their minds, even as he leaned against the wall, wary of wards. "That explains things. Like how crude the wards and the Name spells seemed, it had to have gotten a human to etch the sigils. And the consistent human legends around this region. Moses and Mount Sinai," Charles elaborated, when Azazel frowned at him, having once spent half a century or so nosing about theology and the various versions of the Bible, trying to figure out how humans had managed to cross reference so much about their races.

There'd been a Cheyarafim hand in its drafting, Charles had been sure. He just hadn't expected it to be a ninth tier malakhi, one of the lowest and least powerful of the species, especially when separated from its hive mind and alone, unable to manifest in any realms but its own by its own strength, and then only as a pale blob of light.

"You're telling me," Azazel said dryly, jabbing his tail in the direction of the slate, "That we've found the human equivalent of God?"

Charles sighed, suddenly bone tired. "No. Not exactly, more like a scribe. Let's go, Azazel. It's harmless."

"It's not harmless, it managed to hurt you," Azazel growled, "It nearly got me killed! If you hadn't taken a look at that helm I would have tried to put my hands on it sooner or later to dispose of it, and it would have blown up in my face! I want to know how it got its hands on all that Sansenoy steel! The Name Spells had to be its own-"

"It's the last of its kind out here. Just like we are. And it can't hurt us like this. It..." Charles reached forward to skim the frightened, furious being's part-mind, "It's lost. Cut off from the Cherubim hive mind for so long, it's driven it mad. It knew about you, but it didn't know about me, that's why it didn't plan any of its traps to take someone with wardsight into account. It thinks that if it kills you, everyone else would come back."

"Well, they won't," Azazel snapped at the stone, tail lashing, "I don't know where the Cheyarafim went to, after they sealed in our people! How should I know? I'm no spell caster, I barely escaped their damned wards myself!"

"You're scaring it." Charles warned, stepping quickly to Azazel's side as he raised his blades. "Don't-"

The stone shimmered, pulsing, and then it abruptly went dull, and Charles exhaled. "Damnation."

"What?" Azazel glared at the stone. "It killed itself? Can they do that?"

"Last act of defiance." Charles clenched his hands. "This is what happened, Azazel! None of you would back down, none of all of us would, and then in the end the Cheyarafim and the Neyaphem destroyed each other! This is what happens-" Charles let out a shocked yelp when Azazel abruptly slapped him, jerking his head to the side.

"Calm down, Cresil." Azazel said, his tone deadly calm. "And don't you dare blame the war, or the Final Days, on our race. Are we clear?"

Charles bared his teeth, his eyes narrowed in outrage, then he exhaled loudly and straightened up, watching silently as Azazel's tail flicked over, shattering the leystone. "Take me back to Miami. Then you can get out of my sight."

Azazel growled, as though wondering whether or not to leave Charles to his own devices in the middle of a mountain range, then he thinned his lips and grabbed Charles by the elbow.

postscript. erik.

The world is soft in slow focus when Erik opens his eyes, one slow blink, then another, staring up at a pale blue ceiling, scuffed and cracked at the corner. There's silence, for one long, surreal moment, then he slowly registers the steady beeping sound of some machine a foot or so to his left, the sounds of footsteps and a trolley rattling past outside the door, a distant sound of cars driving past. It takes effort to roll his head to the side; he feels like he's run a marathon, or has been trampled by elephants; he aches in places that he didn't realize was possible to ache in.

Charles is curled with his knees drawn up on a chair next to his bed, wide-eyed, clutching a book to himself like a shield, and he looks so oddly casual in a soft white sweater and jeans that Erik frowns at him, for a long, puzzled moment. "Charles?" His voice is hoarse and cracked, he doesn't recognise it.

"Hello." Charles says slowly, warily. Behind Charles, on a desk, are a few folders, one open to something that looks like an invoice, and beside it is a pot of fresh white daisies. There's a catheter going from Erik's arm up to an IV, and Erik stares at it for a long, confused moment, before the images trickle back. There had been a gunshot, Charles bleeding and fading in his arms, like all of his worst nightmares and then-

"Ah," Erik murmurs, blinking, and Charles tries to curl further into the chair, his brilliant blue eyes darting away guiltily to the window. "Charles, are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Charles blinks at him, before looking away again. "What about you?"

"I've been better," Erik tries for casual, and a hunted expression crawls onto Charles' face, the corners of his sinfully red lips turning downwards in unhappiness.

"I'll get one of the nurses." Charles shoots to his feet. "Then I'll go."

"Wait," Erik panics at the thought, trying to sit up but only managing to slump against the pillow, "Don't go, Charles. Please."

Charles stares at him as though he's crazy, and tilts his head. "I nearly killed you, Erik. I can see that you remember that."

"It was an accident. It was my fault."

"No," Charles shudders. "No it wasn't, and it could happen again, don't you see? You've been in a coma for nearly a month, Erik. Nobody knew whether you were going to wake up at all. I looked in your head but I couldn't figure out how to pull you out without breaking something, I..." Charles lets out a harsh, high breath. "I should go."

"Sit down here, come on," Erik feels like there's a hand clenched tight in his chest, he can't breathe, and it hurts. "Charles, please. Please, please."

"All right," Charles swallows visibly, hugging himself for a moment, then he tosses the book into the chair and sits down hesitantly on the edge of the bed when by some supreme effort Erik manages to pat at the crisp blue sheets. Charles looks like he's going to bolt at any minute, and gritting his teeth, Erik manages to move his palm onto one denim-clad thigh and squeeze lightly. Charles stares at it but doesn't shift away, chewing on his lower lip, then he exhales in a rush. "Schmidt's missing, by the way. Him and the helmet. Azazel is really annoyed by that. Maybe it'll give him some humility. He doesn't have a very high opinion of your species."

Neither do you, Erik thinks immediately, without saying it, and Charles narrows his eyes a fraction. "All right," Erik says instead, slowly. "We'll find him again, eventually."

Perhaps it's because he's just woken up from a coma, or perhaps it's because it seems like a pleasant day, or perhaps it's the warmth of Charles' skin under the denim, but the urgency he usually feels whenever he thinks of Schmidt, of the dark, old hatred that he had nursed for so long, all of it seems dampened. Less important. As though all of the last three decades of his life has been but a half-forgotten nightmare, from which he was slowly learning how to wake up from. Nothing seems more real to him now than Charles. It frightens him sometimes.

Erik thinks for a moment back to his mother's unmarked grave, and squeezes Charles' thigh again, absently. He isn't sure what Edie Eisenhardt would have said to her son taking up with a demon. The thought makes him chuckle softly.

Charles, however, doesn't smile, only studies him thoughtfully, as though taking his measure. "I'm sorry," Charles says finally, stiffly.

"Charles, it was an accident."

Charles watches him with a terrible sort of knowing, in his eyes, ageless, then he reaches over to press the flat of his left palm over Erik's heart. "Not about that. About everything else. I'm not human, Erik. I shouldn't have encouraged this. I won't age, and you will. I don't have the same approach to anything at all as you do. We'll end up quarrelling, or I'll hurt you again, worse. It never ends well. That's why I don't take repeat donors, Erik. It wasn't about you."

"You didn't exactly encourage me," Erik corrects, with what he hopes is a playful smile but which is probably rather brittle. "Quite the opposite. I think there were veiled threats to call the authorities, even, at some point."

"It never ends well," Charles repeats, though he doesn't move his palm, and slowly, painfully, Erik forces his other hand up to press his fingers over Charles' smooth, warm knuckles, stroking the tips of his fingers into the dips between Charles' beautifully tapered fingers. Charles' pupils flare and grow large, until Erik can barely see the brilliant blue of his eyes, then he squeezes his eyes shut and sits up, pulling his hand back. "I don't quite understand humans. I've been awful to you at every turn, I don't know why you're so persistent. Maybe you like the humiliation. I've known humans who enjoyed pain and suffering. Yours is often a very strange species."

Erik chuckles again, slow and lazy as he squeezes Charles' thigh again, gently. "I've been told that logic doesn't apply to such matters, Charles. I love you." He isn't sure when, why or how that had happened, exactly - it had probably been more of a culmination of little things, Charles' adorably haughty airs and his gorgeous self confidence, his spoiled arrogance and the way he so easily uses his remarkable ability as a sixth sense, their long arguments in the car, the way he scoops all that goddamned sugar into anything that he drank-

"Well yes, I knew that," Charles begins, a little irritably, and then he pauses, cocking his head again, as though listening to a part of Erik that even Erik himself can't hear. "You mean, that's the answer? I don't quite... well. Well then." Charles mutters, twisting his fingers together, and then he smiles, a hesitant, crooked little smile that steals Erik's breath away.

postscript. azazel.

"Huh," Azazel says, blinking, when he reappears beside Cresil' fate thread at what looks like a recent, cafe extension to Cresil's pets' pub, and finds himself staring right over at Cresil's extremely persistent donor, the troublemaker, whatever his name was. Terry? Melvin?

"His name is Erik, Azazel," Cresil says dryly, sitting primly on a cushioned chair with his nose yet again buried in another human book, a cup of cooling tea on the round steel table beside him. Erik glares at Azazel for a long, measured moment before going back to reading his paper, and Azazel's tail twitches. Cresil has to be feeding well if he could pick the thought off Azazel's mind, just like that.

He uses his tail to hook up another chair next to Cresil, and settles into it with a yawn, even as one of Cresil's pets pops her pretty blonde head out from the doorway and frowns at him. She disappears back indoors when Cresil nods, however. Raven, her name was. Azazel had once made an offhand comment to Cresil about how Raven would be ripe for plucking in a few years, and Cresil had overreacted. The Lilim are unpredictable.

"You told me once that you had a rule against repeat donors," Azazel tells Cresil, with a jerk of his chin towards Erik. "It had very good reasons."

"I know." Cresil replies calmly. "He was quite persuasive." Behind the paper, Erik glances up and smiles at Cresil like some sort of well-trained dog, utterly besotted.

Azazel stifles a shudder. The Shemhazai have traditionally never been on very good terms with the Lilim for this very reason; he's seen Cresil and his siblings string along more than humans - not even the Baal were safe from them at the height of their strength. For all that the Lilim look human, they are as dangerous in their own way as any of the other Neyaphem, and the firstborns in particular would have been well qualified as princes in their own right. It was not, however, Lilith's way.

"Schmidt's still missing," Azazel says, as Raven appears with a mere glass of water, despite Cresil's arched eyebrows.

"What? He's a freeloader," Raven growls, and flounces back into the cafe in a fine temper. Azazel appreciatively follows the long line of her legs under the bounce of her pale green frock and gets kicked in the ankle by Cresil for his trouble.

Cresil smiles sweetly at him, but he has his thumb pressed against his lower lip, and Azazel knows it for the warning that it is. "Lovely girl," Azazel says anyway, though he does it as neutrally as he can, and takes a sip from the glass.

"Quite." Cresil leans back, his eyes slightly narrowed. Cresil has always been very possessive of his pets. "What about Schmidt?"

"Can't find him. He's gone to ground," Azazel says, mildly. "Just thought that I'll update you."

"Thank you," Cresil says, clearly without meaning it, but he sips at his tea and settles down contentedly instead of snapping at Azazel to leave. Azazel eyes Cresil with some surprise, then he flicks his gaze over to Cresil's newest pet, to the reddened mark under an ear that looks fresh. Huh. Mutants definitely agreed with Cresil. "What about the helm?"

"I've some ideas about how that came about," Azazel states, and they spend the afternoon comparing notes and squabbling. At one point, Raven refills Cresil's tea and Erik's latte, but not Azazel's water, and while reaching over to scoop sugar into his cup, Cresil's hand is momentarily arrested by Erik's, the human winding fingers absently in a lattice with Cresil's, still reading his paper, seemingly unaware that he had even done it at all.

Cresil smiles, indulgently, almost tenderly, and Azazel shakes his head. "You never do learn."

"I know," Cresil concedes, the quirk to his plush mouth mysterious and not a little sad, but he pulls their clasped hands over and brushes his lips over Erik's fingertips.