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An absence which could not be more there

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Darwin & Co. was one of the few mutant-only bookstores in town – as in mutant-owned, mutant-staffed, and stocked only with titles authored by mutants, for mutants. It meant the risk of running into Charles was high – unless, of course, Erik went during the times Charles held classes or office hours, and those times were freely available on the Biology and Biophysics department website. Charles was allergic to Friday classes and had seniority enough to get scheduled for blocks on Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday, so generally Erik could count on a safe zone that corresponded to his lunch break four days a week.

That Erik knew Charles saw Friday classes as an abomination sometimes made him feel as if Charles had carved out space in his cortex, permanently, done something shifty and telepathic to fix himself there forever. However many times Erik told himself you didn't forget someone just because they broke up with you and broke your heart (and never mind you probably did that to yourself, you dumb prick), he couldn't quite convince himself that that was true.

On this particular day, Erik found himself surfing aimlessly through the periodicals, half his mind on the time and the project waiting for him back in the labs. The nightmare of a project, in Erik's opinion, for a client he strongly suspected Stark had hired on purpose – not for the money, which Stark Industries did not need, but as part of some revenge scheme. As project lead, Erik fielded all calls, emails, and visits from Emma Frost, who was exacting, condescending, absolutely not intimidated by Erik, and telepathic. All the other things would have pushed his buttons and held them down, but that last… Stark had done that deliberately, and with malice aforethought.

Erik resolved not to think about that until his hour – working on two hours now, and he was risking it staying this late – was up.

The magazines ran the usual gamut, from celebrity rags to fine art and sports to literary journals, the same assortment found in any human-dominated establishment but by mutant presses and mutant authors. Not fifteen years ago, the selection in front of him wouldn't have been even half what it was now. Absently Erik picked up a copy of Metamorphosis, a short story periodical, and tucked it under his arm, shifted half a step over.

That half-step brought him eye to eye with something offensively neon and glossy, plastered with all-caps teasers promising to reveal the TOP 10 SEX TIPS TO DRIVE HIR WILD and the season's favored styles to ACCENTUATE YOUR ADAPTATIONS!!! Christ, Erik thought, rolling his eyes. Weren't they past this? The model, or what Erik could see of her behind the hysterical headlines, was naked and blue-scaled with compelling yellow eyes, and she was probably the only thing not ridiculously backwards and human about the entire publication.

He prepared to shift another half-step over to the Current Events section (which would, of course, enrage him) when the teaser positioned by the model's left elbow caught his eye.


* * *

Even though Armando's mutation meant he could probably survive whatever Erik threw at him, he'd wisely kept his mouth shut while ringing out Erik's purchases. The silence, punctuated only by the beeps of the register and Armando asking if Erik wanted a bag (and of course Erik wanted a fucking bag, he wasn't going to walk around with Modern and Mutant tucked under his goddamn arm), had still been awkward; Erik had tried to look nonchalant even as the odd conviction that Armando was reading his mind grew in that uncomfortable, unreachable place between his shoulder blades. That this was idiotic, that this was exactly the same thing Charles had accused him of in that quietly disappointed voice of his the last time they'd fought, occurred to him, but he couldn't shake the feeling.

Either I'm out of your head or I'm in it, Erik; I can't be both.

He'd called into work and told Frost – in slightly more diplomatic terms – to spend the rest of the afternoon fucking herself, because Erik had things to take care of and about two years of unused personal time banked. Leaving Tony out of the loop had been an act of petty vengeance, and Pepper would tell him about it anyway.

The magazine lay in all its hyperbolic ridiculousness next to Erik's elbow. There wasn't much point in putting it off; he'd spent four dollars for what would probably end up being five hundred words of gossipy bitching or a telepath complaining about how the limited conception and prejudice of baseline humans would necessarily inflect their relationship, and anyway, Erik didn't believe in shying from uncomfortable things.

Erik, if I can't read your mind, I don't know what's going on unless you tell me. And if you don't want to talk about it, fine, but you need to tell me that.

Sighing, Erik flipped the magazine open to page 127. From what he could see, the magazine was about ninety pages of ads, thirty pages of gossip and fashion advice, and seven pages of actual writing. At least it would keep the pain of quasi-competent prose to a minimum.

* Names and abilities have been changed to protect the assholes.

I knew the relationship was going to be a failure when my now-ex boyfriend decided that, seeing as I was a telepath, he could be emotionally unavailable. After all, as a telepath, I'd do all the work, right? He didn't have to vocalize any of his problems; I could take care of that for him.

That he'd made this unilateral decision didn't occur to me until the night of a friend's party, when then he demanded to know why I "violated his privacy" and read his mind to find out why he was sulking in the corner.

Greg* was a mutant too, a kinetic with the ability to manipulate electric currents. When we first met, well, there were sparks (to use the obvious pun); when we had sex, my climax was like being hit by lightning. He loved it when I shared that with him; in fact, while we were making out on my couch before moving to the bedroom, he told me "I want you in my head so badly; I want to know what you want, I want you to see what you do to me." I was so happy that I'd found a partner who understood that for a telepath the mental connections forged during sex are as or more important than the physical ones.

The first time with Charles, god, Erik still couldn't find words for that. The vocabulary didn't exist, not for the shy pleasure dancing through Erik's head when Erik had refused to let Charles duck into his flat and had pulled him back and pulled Charles to him and kissed him, and not for the intricate mesh of Charles's mind and his twined together as Charles arched up into him and Erik heard his name like a prayer in stereo on Charles's lips and echoing in his skull. Afterward he'd kissed Charles again, cupping his face in his hands and drawing him close, and he'd thought being able to hold that much happiness – his own and Charles's – shouldn't be possible, that he might split apart with it, cut open by it like a knife.

After two months of dating and sex – two months when the only time I spent in my apartment was with him – Greg's lease expired and I invited him to move in with me. That night after we moved him in we had a bottle of wine and sex on his couch (I'd gotten rid of mine; his was nicer), and I told him I was so happy he was there with me and how at home I felt with him.

"What do you mean?" he asked, stroking my collar bone absently.

"Your mind," I explained. "It's… familiar. Like a space I've lived in for ages."

"Really?" He lifted up his head and looked at me. "I didn't know that."

"Well," I said, "now you do," and I kissed him on the nose.

Looking back, I should have known that this conversation was the beginning of the end. At the time, I'd only thought it was… the beginning.

Charles had a tiny, second-story walk-up near Columbia, a place barely large enough to hold himself, the bare minimum of furniture, and a truly staggering amount of books. The only thing that had made packing and moving them tolerable had been a sturdy iron pallet that, along with Erik's powers, could carry twenty boxes at a time. They managed the move in a day, and evening saw Charles spread out on Erik's bed, the loops of the wrought-steel bedstead twisted around his wrists and laced through his fingers. Charles was sweating and flushed and marked all over, biting his lip to hold in his cries but whispering steadily in Erik's head, filthy adoration and pleas and promises, so so big, god you feel good here's how you feel Erik do you like it how thick your cock is in my ass how amazing it is me filling you up you filling me up god please let me come you can come too we can together – and Erik had finally had to bend close and bury his face in Charles's neck and give it up.

With a sigh, Charles stretched out next to him, pressed chest to chest and hip to hip, the soft, sweaty comfort of his hair brushing under Erik's chin. His contentment rippled and eddied against Erik, interlaced with idle musings about another go after they'd recovered and how lovely it felt, settling his mind against Erik's like this and knowing him so well already.

Deep down at the base of his spine, a chill started up. Erik ignored it and kissed Charles on the temple, and reminded himself this was perfection.

Around three weeks later the problems started. I got home from work (I run a private practice counseling service, working with teenaged mutants but with a specialty in psionics) and Greg was there already, watching TV in the living room. I walked in, kissed him on the cheek, and said, "I don't really feel like Chinese tonight, but there's that place on Third with the sushi menu; we could do that."

"I really wish you wouldn't do that," Greg said. He didn't look away from the TV.

"Wish I wouldn't do what?" I asked.

"You know."

I crossed my arms over my chest. "No," I said, "I don't. So why don't you tell me?"

"Read my mind like that," Greg replied.

Work had been a fucking unmitigated disaster. One of the interns had managed to lose a set of plans Erik needed; when Erik had gone to the project files in the company server, the folder popped up as empty. They'd needed two hours stroking the IT people's egos to find the damn things, and then Erik had needed ten minutes to chew the intern out. And then, upon opening the files Erik had discovered they were old versions, at least two iterations back, and then his phone had started ringing, and things had only gotten worse from there.

By the time Erik got home, he was in a murderous frame of mind. He sensed Charles inside already, the peculiar resonance of his watch and the brushed-steel pen that lived in the breast pocket of his button-down – and, newer and still foreign, the subtle pressure of Charles's mind against his. Erik had no words for it; the closest he could come was two hands clasped loosely together. Most of the time he could ignore it, but after a day of endless intrusion into his space, he had to bristle.

I'm sorry, Charles said sympathetically once Erik banged his way in through the front door. He was bent over a cookbook and frowning dubiously at the instructions. Although I'm sure you've terrified that intern into never messing up again.

"Do you have to have an opinion on everything in my head?" Erik growled.

Mind-Charles went still and distant; the Charles in front of him did the same.

"My apologies," Charles said stiffly, and out loud this time. "I won't do it again."

"I'm sorry for snapping." Erik kissed Charles on one cheek, already busy with his tie. "It's been a shitty day, and I need to wash it off; I'll be out soon."

That night in bed Erik tightened the steel ring around Charles's cock with the barest flex of his ability, and if Charles's breathy moans and whimpers didn't have their usual richness, and the reflected glow of his happiness was muted, Erik told himself it would pass.

About two months post-move, I realized that Greg and I were talking less. Oh, we still had conversations – about what kind of new microwave to buy, whether to go to the basketball game or the poetry reading on Friday – but our hopes and dreams, the minutiae of our days… those seemed to be off the table. The sex was still great, and Greg still encouraged me to use my telepathy in bed, but things seemed different. I stayed out of his head as much as I could, and the longer this went on, the more he seemed like a stranger. And, paradoxically, the more I stayed out of his head, the angrier he got about it – and the more convinced he was that I was "doing something" to him.

Older telepaths, of course, know the dangers of this particular dance: trying to work out boundaries when the other partner is unclear about where those boundaries should be. A good number of them – most of those I've talked to, come to think of it – now only date empaths or other telepaths. Much of that has to do with the tiresome and contradictory attitudes non-psionics have toward mind-reading, but those attitudes are inextricably related to non-psionics' inability to understand the fundamental ways in which psionics' experiences and identities challenge Western preconceptions such as the wholly private, interior self.

"I found it's so important to be with someone who doesn't entertain archaic, baseline concepts of discrete individuality," Indira Das, a telepath from Kolkata, told me one day. She had come to the States as a graduate student to study postcolonial literature at NYU, and had written her dissertation on the intersection of colonial and posthuman identities in modern Indian fiction. Along the way, she had acquired not only a doctorate but a heart broken by a non-psionic partner who accused her of stalking and coercion in the course of their breakup; she almost lost her student visa before police dropped the investigation. "I met Penny [her wife] at a support group for psionics," Indira explained, "and when she told me that she'd had the same experiences, and that she'd found it impossible to explain how her telepathy influenced her experience of constructs like individuality and selfhood."

James Westcott, 32, agrees: "Non-psionics aren't mentally equipped to deal with people for whom "reading minds" isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of their experiences; it's not just reading minds for telepaths, or reading feelings for empaths, but having your worldview reshaped at this really basic level by interacting with people in ways they aren't able to appreciate. My first girlfriend couldn't understand that – neither could my second, third, and fourth. After the last one, I decided to stick with other psionics, because they're the only people who can comprehend the ways in which my telepathy is a central part of my identity."

"Erik, for god's sake, what's wrong?"

Charles was poking at him again, like poking a bear with a very short, very annoying stick. Erik turned over, hoping the wall of his back would send the message Charles clearly wasn't getting and, to emphasize it, thought Shut up about it as hard as he could.

Charles shut up about it and withdrew.

The next morning, Charles sat hunched over a stack of grading and a cup of tea when Erik wandered out of the bedroom. He glanced briefly at the papers, half-expected Charles to tell him what they were, a fondly exasperated mental whisper of first drafts of lab reports or abysmal pop quiz. Silence greeted his inquiry, and the silence continued as Erik made his coffee – Charles hadn't started it – and poured his cereal and sat down.

With Charles immersed in whatever horror the undergraduates were inflicting on him and apparently bent on ignoring Erik, Erik could study him freely – study him sitting still, which he rarely had the opportunity to do with Charles as kinetic as he was. In the morning he was beautiful and disheveled, with his hair unbrushed and ridiculous glasses balanced on his nose, still in his t-shirt and boxers, bare calf and ankle hooked around one leg of his chair and pushing back the ratty bathrobe. Beautiful, Erik thought, with a sudden and abrupt pulse of fondness.

Charles didn't look up.

You're beautiful, Erik thought, more forcefully this time.

Charles made a series of red marks on one paper, wrote a number at the top, and reached for the next one.

"Did you hear me?" Erik asked.

"No," Charles said. He inscribed an emphatic X on the first question. "No, I did not. Did you say something?"

"I did." Erik tried a smile; he wasn't very good at it. "Am I getting rusty?"

"Oh," and Charles did look up this time, all wide and guileless eyes and anger thick in his voice, "is this one of the times I'm allowed to know what you're thinking?"

"What?" Jesus, he'd been trying to compliment Charles, not – not do this, whatever this was. "Charles, what the hell do you mean?"

"I mean," Charles said slowly, placing the pen down on the table, "am I supposed to read your mind even after you've told me not to? Or am I supposed to be able to divine when I'm allowed to read you without reading you to do it? I'm a telepath, not a precog."

Erik stared. "What the fuck? What are you talking about?"

"Forget it," Charles sighed. He picked up his pen and bent his head over the paper. "Just forget it, it's pointless."

For myself, it came down to the fact that non-psionics seem willfully ignorant of the burden placed on psionics in relationships: One minute we're expected read minds in order to do the heavy emotional lifting in the relationship, but the next it's KEEP OUT!!!! And when we respect the wishes of our partners and keep our minds to ourselves – something that is incredibly difficult for some of us – our partners demand to know why we don't know what they want and don't know what they're thinking about.

Strangely, they want us to read their minds or live in their mindscape only when it's advantageous for them, when they don't want to articulate their emotions or their reasons, or when they know that psionic abilities will benefit them – usually in sex. We all know the extent to which modern popular culture fetishizes telepathy, and how depictions of telepathy in sexual scenarios affect how non-psionic partners of telepaths and empaths think psionic sexual relationships work. Almost all telepaths I've met roll their eyes at mainstream depictions of soulbonds, "mindsex," and psionic bondage kinks; empaths detest the extent to which they're spiritualized or reduced to de-sexed maternal figures.

"Do you have to know everything that goes on in my head?" Erik was trying to straighten the bookshelf; Charles's peculiar filing habits – completely unsystematic and relying on his photographic memory – drove him nuts. "Don't you think you can let me have some secrets?"

"I don't do it on purpose," Charles protested. "It's – I like knowing about you. I don't mean to be intrusive; I don't see it as intruding."

"Maybe you should see it as intruding." Erik sighed, breath ragged in his throat. "Just…"

"Just what?" Charles stared at him and god, there were no words for the look on Charles's face, desperation and confusion and Charles wanting to understand, and what the fuck was so hard to get, that Erik didn't want to be understood?

"Don't you know?" Erik indicated his temple. Charles shook his head, bewildered, and Erik snapped, "Fucking read my mind, and maybe you'll get it, seeing as words apparently aren't good enough."

"You told me not to," Charles said, voice tight. "What the hell do you want me to do, Erik? Because I have no idea why you're so angry about whatever you're angry about if you won't let me read you and you refuse to tell me."

"Look." Erik pointed to his own temple.

He didn't feel it, the surgical precision of Charles slipping in and out. He shivered all the same, imagining it.

"Okay," Charles said at last. He nodded, as if coming to a decision, and Erik wanted to laugh at the irony of wanting to know what was going on in Charles's head. Instead, as he watched, Charles turned and, hands in his pockets, left the room.

A moment later, the front door opened and then shut again. Erik didn't feel Charles's watch returning until well after midnight, and he had gone to bed.

One of the persistent ironies (in the incorrect sense) of being a telepath is how we can be quite blind to ourselves and to the realities of situations in which we are involved. Telepaths aren't clairvoyants (although we're often confused with them), and at times our sight can be as muddied as anyone else's. So those of you who are psionics will understand when I say that my relationship staggered on for perhaps five months after it had died.

I realized that I'd been kicking the proverbial dead horse one night after an exceptionally difficult day at work. I'd had a new patient intake, a twelve-year-old girl whose abilities had manifested unexpectedly and, in a family poorly equipped to deal with her gifts, catastrophically. We all know the suicide rates for telepaths – down in recent years due to better interventions, but still second-highest among mutants, just behind those who present with extreme physical mutations – and I had had those figures very much in my mind while dealing with my new client. As a result, by the time I got home my shields were shot to hell; I was projecting all over the place and on information overload from the subway, the streets at rush hour, and the hundred other people in our building. By the time I got up the stairs, I sensed Greg in our apartment, upset about something. He usually was, these days.

Despite his dislike of my using my telepathy outside of pre-approved scenarios, I was so exhausted I simply picked up on his thoughts. You all know what it's like, right? You focus on the familiar voice, the one you know, without realizing it. So I didn't need any effort at all to realize he was wondering if I'd been reading his mind without telling him, if I'd discovered that he was corresponding with someone from his office, a circuits specialist whose mutation was closer to his own. He didn't want to miss the sex with me, though – that was the best he'd ever had – but was that worth the risk? Was I controlling him, manipulating him into staying with me? How could he be sure?

Exhausted as I was, I was sorely tempted to block out knowledge of my presence from him, walk into the apartment, pack my things and leave. But I couldn't bring myself to do that. I walked in openly instead.

"What are you doing?" he asked when I avoided his welcome-home kiss and began to walk to our bedroom.

"Leaving," I said.

Honestly, Erik.

Charles's lectures had always begun that way; the one about two weeks before they broke up had been no exception. It had come after two months of drifting, Charles almost completely absent from his head, a presence Erik missed and resented because he missed it. In the safety of his office he wondered if Charles was manipulating him somehow; the very fact that he entertained that notion for even the briefest second should have told him how very much he'd fucked up, but at the time… At the time he'd been trying to focus on the structural integrity of a prototype and Charles managed to be in his head when he was supposed to be out of it, when he wasn't actually in it. He'd left a residue, or a sore spot, something Erik had to pick at.

He'd returned home angry, and between opening the front door and finding Charles on the couch, already in his jeans and t-shirt and rubbing at his temples, had snapped. What he said he had no idea, but it ended up with Charles stumbling to his feet, spilling his tablet and some books to the floor, wide-eyed with fury.

"I have a headache!" Charles said. "I've had one all day, but I need to get this data set analyzed."

"So you weren't, what, tracking me coming up the stairs?" Where that had come from, Erik couldn't begin to say. Maybe up from the well of suspicion he'd never been able to seal up.

"Honestly, Erik." Charles's voice shivered with anger; any more and it would break. "Any baseline sense – vision, smell, hearing, you name it – takes in an incredible amount of information, but the mind processes only a small percentage of it. The same is true for telepaths. Yes, I'm open to thoughts and feelings around me, but I rarely pay attention to them in detail; it's too much effort, and I'd rather expend it on more important things. Like my work, for example."

"Oh, so I'm like any petty baseline, then," Erik said sarcastically. "That's fucking wonderful, thanks, Charles."

"That's not what I mean, and you know it." Charles moved to the far side of the couch, arms crossed defensively. His eyes were bright and his anger – that was almost tangible, hot and thin and edged like an electric charge in the air. Erik knew Charles's control and knew he could keep himself from projecting, and the fact that he wasn't bothering to harness himself –

"I don't see why I should," Charles snapped.

"What the fuck did I tell you about staying out of my head?" Erik held himself back, held on to the dependable iron of the coffee table like a lifeline, the only thing holding him back from fury.

"Why the fuck should I care?" Charles shook his head. "So is that how it is in this relationship? You use your powers to hold me down and fuck me, you get to express yourself and your nature, you get to be proud of it – and what, I can be proud as long as I keep my mind to myself? As long as I only use it in ways that make you feel comfortable or get you off? Whenever you don't feel like saying what's on your mind but want me to know anyway without you having to do the work? Fuck you. Fuck you."

Charles wasn't even shouting. He stood there, contained, controlled, but his anger – that battered at Erik like a riptide, tugging and yanking and inexorable. He tried to push his own anger up against it, but it was a small thing against Charles's, half-drowned Can't you just listen for once? I thought you telepaths were supposed to be so fucking good at listening.

Abruptly the anger cut off, the sharpness of it softening and fading. Nothingness took its place, and next to the anger it was cold.

"I'm going," Charles said. His voice had gone thin, but woven in there was a thread of steel.

"Going where?" Wrong-footed and hating it, Erik could only stare and try to think where Charles might possibly want to go at this time of night. Dinner? How the hell could he even think about eating? Erik's stomach had tied itself in knots, and something heavy settled in it.

"I'll be back tomorrow to box up my things," Charles continued calmly. "The movers will be here by the end of the week."

"You're breaking up with me?" Erik asked.

He trailed Charles, Charles who was ignoring him, down the hall to the bedroom. Their bedroom. The bed was still disarranged from last night – they hadn't had sex, but Charles had been restless, murmuring sadly to himself in dreams Erik couldn't suss out (and in former times Charles's dreams had been quiet, sweet, and lapped at the edges of Erik's) – and Erik couldn't reconcile that, the reminder of the two of them with Charles pulling a duffel from the closet and shoving things into it.

Erik counted three shirts, two pairs of pants, socks, a fistful of underwear. Charles vanished into the bathroom to collect his shaving kit and toothbrush. His watch burned, the skin under it hot with agitation. The sound of the zip closing shivered across him.

"Don't leave," Erik said, moving to block the door. He could do it easily, tall as he was.

"Don't make me make you move," Charles said quietly, and fuck, his eyes had gone liquid, sheen of tears across them, and the tears didn't fall. There was iron underneath them, though, and the quiet reminder that Charles could take every last memory of himself from Erik's head, if he wanted. He could take everything, if he wanted, everything that Erik was. Charles sighed. "I would never do that. Don't end it like this, Erik, please."

Nothing of Charles's pleading flickered through his head, but Erik didn't need it, not with it laid bare in Charles's eyes.

He stepped to the side to let Charles shoulder past, gaze fixed on the wall across from him and the strange, subtle patterns in the paint.

All I felt from him was anger. Not even relief – anger, that I'd read his mind, that I refused to feel bad about it, that I was going to leave him when he had more right to it because I'd done what I told him I wouldn't do. While I packed, I thought about how he had refused to give me the benefit of the doubt, that he had assumed I'd violated his privacy with malicious intent. After that day, and after months of repressing myself, I didn't have the energy to correct him.

I wish I'd found that energy; I'm sure he's out there now, confirmed in his bias against psionics and convinced that I'd tricked him into togetherness with malice aforethought. But you only have so much in you, and I prefer to save my resources to help those who need it, not those who remain willfully ignorant.

Note to you non-psionics out there: Your thoughts aren't that remarkable and unique. That you believe so is a function of Western psychologies of individuality and doctrines of uniqueness that hold that discrete minds are inherently special, exceptional, and worthy of notice. It's a curious sort of enshrined egotism. If you honestly believe telepaths are obsessed with every minute detail of what goes on in your head, you're sorely mistaken. Most of us, unless we have a particular interest in you, don't notice and don't care. It's the equivalent of believing a cashier is committing to memory some bizarre combination of things that you're purchasing. They really don't give a fuck.

When we do have an interest, we want to know you. We can't help it; that's who and what we are. We love you, and to have you treat our desires as intrusive and evil, aren't we justified in feeling hurt? When you assume that we must always know what you're thinking so you can avoid being honest and open with us, how does that make you an equal partner in the relationship? When you make the suppression of our powers and identity a condition for intimacy, how can we be intimate – so how are you any better than the baselines who want us to muffle our abilities so they can feel safer?

For the first few months after Charles left, Erik leaned on anger.

He'd never had much use for grief. Even standing at his parents' coffins while the gathered mourners and the rabbi murmured psalms the grief had been a distant thing, overwhelmed by fury; he only allowed himself tears that night in the rabbi's guest bedroom, with a handful of distant, disinterested relatives sitting shiva downstairs. After that, anger saw him through the trial of his parents' murderer – it saw him through the detention the judge gave him for trying to crush the killer's wrists with the handcuffs binding them – it saw him through the carousel of foster care because no family would keep a kid with unlawful use of mutant abilities on his record, even if the judge had been lenient and noted that Erik had acted purely out of the impulse of a bereaved child.

Where grief froze, anger could heat and burn and activate him, and it was better (he'd learned this) to strike first rather than wait, and remorse only added more pain to a situation that was already painful enough. All the times he'd traded a family for a group home, he hadn't ever left anything behind that he might regret; after he aged out and his beleaguered case worker let him out of their last meeting and, surprisingly, wished him good luck at MIT, he forgot her name and forgot New York for a while too. So he'd never been well-versed in regret or longing, although he suspected Charles might be trying to teach him.

Erik much preferred the anger.

Erik closed the magazine. The afternoon had drifted on, the sun now in the far corner of the window and sending a slant of light across the coffee table, his legs, the half-empty bookcase by the sofa. He hadn't moved his books back, despite six months passing. Laziness, he told himself, and not hoping Charles would come back, and he'd been busy – over-busy – with work. Tony had been impressed with his productivity.

The last time Erik had heard from Charles had been the one phone call to confirm that Erik would be home on Saturday to let the movers in. He'd escaped to work the morning following Charles's departure; Charles must have canceled class and packed in record time, because that night Erik had returned home, exhausted, to gutted bookshelves, his spare keys on the counter, and piles of boxes in the dining room. Then the phone call the following day, Charles's voice detached and distant with more than the static of his cell phone, and that had been that. Once the movers had come and gone, Charles had vanished from Erik's life and his head, and left traces in his absence.

Sometimes Erik woke up wondering at the stillness, turning over and half-expecting to see Charles snoring next to him, loose-limbed and taking up most of the bed. Attacks of conscience – wholly unwelcome, when he couldn't muster up enough anger to ward them off – usually came at those hours, staring at the empty pillow and wondering over the pain and confusion on Charles's face. In those quiet hours, the question hadn't been why the hell didn't Charles understand, but something Erik couldn't articulate, close to what didn't I understand?.

Every time he tried to see the situation from Charles's point of view, his mind looped in on itself, defensive, he could just ask questions like everyone else on the planet does, and never mind that Erik hated questions, that it was easier to let Charles excavate the answers for himself, and never mind that Erik hated it when Charles had done that. Why couldn't he leave well enough alone, but why was Charles's telepathy permissible only when Erik didn't feel uncomfortable – why was that quiet touch suddenly so terrifying, when it had never once actively threatened him?

It was the notion, maybe, the dizzying, incomprehensible power that Charles possessed. Erik shrugged against the tightness in his shoulders, and against the last lines of the article.

Fear without cause. That was baseline, assuming that someone with a particular ability that couldn't be quantified or easily described would use that ability against him.

That Charles would, fuck, that the same person who'd taken one look at Erik (a stray, abandoned at a mutual acquaintance's party and lurking in the corner) and pulled him into conversation like saving him from drowning – Erik had thought that Charles was capable of pirating his thoughts, violating his privacy and not caring about it. Erik shut his eyes. Shit, shit, fuck, he had thought that. He'd believed it, and not stopped for a minute to ask why.

His head hurt, a tension headache mixed with no lunch and a peculiar twinge behind his eyes. Erik rubbed at his temple, chasing the throb and the pain. He couldn't catch it. Apparently, he hadn't caught a lot of things in the past year – or caught them and then lost them.

Sighing, he set the magazine back on the coffee table. His stomach growled, but he had no appetite, and with his own thoughts making him dizzy, he couldn't see the point of eating. Instead, he resituated himself against the arm of the sofa and summoned his laptop to him and, after opening it, began to type.

* * *

"So," Tony said, "am I going to get my top engineer back, or is he going to mope in his metaphorical cave for the next ten years?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Erik especially had no idea what Tony was talking about because five other engineers were in the room, waiting for the progress meeting to start.

"What I'm talking about is, I tried to break you with Emma Frost, and all you did was take more personal time." Tony idly flipped through some project specs. "I might have to hand the project off to Azazel, but I'm sure he can find a way to make sure Frost keeps emailing and texting you personally. I could demote you to secretary."

"The work's getting done on time and on budget."

Tony hmmm'ed. "It is, and it's high-quality as always. And I'm all for non-standard approaches to work and such, buuuut… while it's almost brilliant enough to be one of my designs and you're cranking it out at a speed that suggests you're on something, I have it on good authority that you're running under budget because you're doing all the work yourself. The lab rats are bored."

"Frost is an important client." One of the engineers – Erik forgot her name – was drifting perilously close, preparing to take her seat. He lowered his voice. "Is that it?"

"Nope!" Tony said cheerfully and unnecessarily loudly. "I also want to know why the browser history in your work tablet includes websites like, and why you're reading articles about sensory integration in psionic mutants and why you have the autobiographies of two telepaths in your e-book library."

"That is none of your business," Erik growled, "and I'll thank you to drop it."

"I didn't want to get split up in the divorce. Charles is still a good friend, so he is kind of my business." Tony smiled at him, a smile only marginally less predatory than Erik's best. "I hope for your sake you're not planning on finding other ways to fuck him up."

"No," Erik said softly, and the softness was mostly because the defensiveness had gone out of him. "No, I'm not."

Tony examined him closely, so closely Erik wondered if maybe Tony weren't secretly telepathic himself. The last time Erik had been subjected to that scrutiny had been during his hiring interview, when Tony had studied him for two long, silent minutes before finally announcing he thought Erik looked like a contrary, arrogant bastard, and he liked him already.

"Okay then," Tony said now, at last, and turned to call the meeting to order.

* * *

Anger had gotten him nowhere over the past six months, Erik had realized eventually. Where he could direct it profitably against many people, even Charles at first, he couldn't sustain it, not in the face of what he'd slowly realized had been his own hypocrisy. He knew what it was like to be angry at himself (nights lying in a crowded dormitory, telling himself he could have saved his parents if he'd been stronger, if he'd known more about his abilities), and in the clarity of that anger had determined at least to set things right between himself and Charles, even if he couldn't have what he really wanted: Charles back with him.

The website for Charles's department at Columbia, in addition to listing Charles's class times, also listed his office hours and his office location. He had his office near his labs, in a building satisfyingly constructed of steel framing overlaid with marble and less-satisfying drywall, and replete with the metal of filing cabinets, lab equipment, and microscopes. The doors to more sensitive areas were reinforced steel, held shut by electronic locks and heavy deadbolts, and Erik found himself somewhat more secure.

He walked down the hallway, ignoring the occasional curious glances from the students and lab techs, one eye on the numbers as they climbed upward and his mind on the presence of a watch, each link and gear of it intimate and familiar. Erik wondered if Charles sensed him coming, if his mind had the same sort of shape in Charles's head as Charles's watch had in his.

You're only another mind, Erik reminded himself. He didn't mean it to be reassuring, but a reminder of a different reality than the one he'd assumed was true.

With proper training, telepaths learn to discriminate among a high amount of sensory data. Most psionic impressions, approximately 80 to 90% depending on sensitivity and alertness, register as background or white noise; the majority of the remaining percentage is analyzed subconsciously and either discarded as unimportant or used to contextualize the very small amount of input that is actively processed and interpreted.

The most common metaphor used to explain psionic sensory integration and cognition is that of a non-psionic in a crowded room. The non-psionic has the initial impression of undifferentiated noise, but as zie moves to join a group, more cognitive energy is devoted to following the flow of conversation and filtering out irrelevant or extraneous information. Much the same can be said for telepaths: active reading and interpretation of thoughts requires concentration to some degree, a concentration that telepaths do not consistently sustain. Contrary to the expectation of non-psionics, the majority of a psionic's sensory experiences are passive in nature; fear that one's thoughts are being constantly monitored stems from this fundamental misunderstanding of psionic experiences.

The corridor wound around, interminable. Erik's shoes sounded loud on the tile and in the empty, sterile air of the hallway. He passed by an open lab door that was festooned with warning signs and science jokes; a grad assistant, huge and blue-furred looked up and growled something Erik didn't catch to the tiny Asian girl beside him.

He was close now, the body-warm steel of Charles's watch a caress in the corner of his brain that held his power, still pleasurable and familiar and intimate despite six months of separation. Erik shuddered, sighed, tried to open himself and remember the words he'd practiced in the shower and over the breakfast he hadn't eaten.

Charles's office was tucked in a corner, a sign posted on the wall announcing that he would be holding advising hours on Wednesday instead of Thursday the following week due to a conference involving a long, complex acronym. A smiley face and Charles's scribble of a signature ended the reminder. By it was the room number and Charles's nameplate, Charles Francis Xavier, Professor of Genetics and Biophysics, X-Genome Working Group Co-Chair, and Erik stared at it dully for a long moment, half-wanting to trace the familiar shapes of the letters.

Open, open, he reminded himself as he gathered breath and what courage he could and knocked on the door.

He felt, suspended and waiting and helpless, the watch moving – drawing back, scraping against something (a desk, perhaps) – and, more tentatively, the inquiring brush of Charles's mind (who are you who's here oh) before it danced back. For a terrible moment he wondered if he would have to wait out Charles on the other side of the door, if Charles would call security, and why the hell was he here, he should have emailed or called first – no, that was hiding, and there was only one way to do this.

Charles, he thought, almost every atom of his concentration bent on following the trace of iron in Charles' blood, his watch, his pen. Between the three of them they traced their own impression of Charles, tired, probably wary but determined to be polite even so, and that impression melded with the cheap brass and iron of the door handle as Charles's hand closed around it to pull the door open.