"It's the singer not the song/
that makes the music move along."
-"Join Together", by The Who
"I beg your pardon," Erik says, in a voice so dry and devoid of inflection that he barely recognizes it as his own. "I don't think I heard you."
Raven Darkholme, the junior partner of Lehnsherr, Frost and Darkholme Engineering, looks at her mentor with an odd sort of compassion. It is heavily laden with mourning, and Erik does not think he's ever seen such a look before, much less directed at himself.
"I said," she replies, making an abortive motion to come around her marble-top desk, "That Charles has been accepted to Athene's Basilica. He's to take orders three weeks hence." Raven is smiling, because this is a great accomplishment for Charles. At the same time, her hazel eyes shimmer with unshed tears, and her face has taken on an unpleasant mixture of paleness and flush. 'Waxen', Erik has heard it called in Old Earth literature. It is more as though, rather than giving news of accolade, she is instead informing one bereaved--
No. Lehnsherr curls his hand into a fist, as though he might strangle that thought into submission. His nails bite into his palm, drawing blood despite that fact he keeps them as conscientiously neat and manicured as any member of the alpha gentry. He is not aware of it as pain, only as a sensation of unpleasant wetness. His former apprentice, now business partner, blinks rapidly and turns her face away. Erik would feel a great deal of sympathy for her, if he could feel anything at all. It seems his own body, and the soul it houses, has become numb and unreal.
They stand in lengthy silence while Raven masters herself and Erik waits for time (or is it pulse of blood in his own veins?) to begin again. A blankness stretches before him while Raven's fists, in an unconscious mirror of his own, crush the delicate flounces of her gathered bodice.
'This,' a small, necrotic voice whispers, 'is the rest of your life'.
Lehnsherr's continued silence-- and whatever expression has come over the countenance he can no longer feel-- inspire Raven once more to go to her mentor's side, before her own alpha propriety halts her mid-step. She crosses to the sideboard instead.
"Maybe," she says gently, "you should sit down."
Erik does so mechanically, smoothing his black waistcoat and staring sightlessly at the small but stunning aquarium installed nearby. Raven's office also boasts a narrow window, through which one can survey the shipyards below and the the more distant dawn in the hills beyond. The room itself is done in dark wood and the lightest of blues, thankfully not the peerless and clinical white Emma so favors. All the same, every shade of the tasteful decor is easily put to shame by the tiny, twin specks of blue in the sole, prominently displayed holo-portrait.
Charles' eyes, reproduced in patterns of light though they may be, draw Erik's attention every time he crosses the threshold.
Lehsnherr's gaze is drawn there presently-- the glass cube in which a younger Raven is projected alongside her brother. Smiling and leaning into one another despite the formality of the portrait, the lines of their bodies sing of ease and contentment. Charles' face belongs on some sort of exquisite marble creation from the Artist's Pavilion, and the boy sits not at his sister's feet but on a stool only a few inches lower than the divan upon which she reclines. One of her hands rests possessively on his shoulder; Xavier has a traditional bound book in his lap, and even the oddly archaic high collar of his robes cannot hide the fact his neck is bare. There is a faint faey quality to Charles-- perhaps better described as an 'otherworldliness'-- but his jaw and hands are strong, and his shoulders solid despite their slender mold. Only his mouth-- so red!-- and the line of his ineffably graceful neck invite one to the correct conclusion.
Young Xavier is an omega.
It is for this reason, despite more than five years of friendship, deep confidence and affinity-- not to mention easily thousands of letters exchanged-- that Erik Lehnsherr has never actually met Charles in person.
Raven hands her mentor a glass of straight lava-liquor. It's rather a strong drink for the morning, but Lehnsherr downs it quickly, hardly noticing the way she knocks back her own. Reason is filtering back to him, criticizing the reaction that sprung from his vulnerable core. Charles has been navigating the complex selection of academic acolytes practically all through their correspondence. That someone as brilliant as the Xavier could ever fail in scholarship is absurd.
He's known this was coming-- he's known it for years.
"It never seemed real," Raven says morosely, as though reading his mind. When he looks up sharply, he sees she is lost in her own considerations. She is, in fact, confiding in and seeking sympathy from him. He wants to ask her how the hell she let this happen; wants to bare his fangs and growl until she acknowledges a superior alpha and damn well explains herself.
Lehnsherr does not tolerate arbitrary displays of baser instinct within his corporation, and he has even less tolerance for their sudden appearance in his own mind. This is an incomparable opportunity for Charles-- how in all the worlds was she to deny him what is at once his only escape and the pinnacle of academic achievement? Her brother is omega, and therefore subject to all the laws regarding their care and protection. The continuance of the species is burden enough, the Imperium has always argued. Let alphas and betas shoulder all the myriad complications of the public sphere.
Erik, never particularly political himself, had never really considered the Omega Movement and the surrounding furious debate at all until he encountered Charles' rather astonishing article on the implications of gene divergence for organic starship interface. The byline had described the author as an independent omega doctoral candidate with about as many degrees and certifications as one could get from traveling beta educational services and correspondence schools. Charles has published extensively in the intervening five years but he's reached a plateau-- the ubiquitous omegan 'glass ceiling'. To progress any further in his education, to obtain a teaching position-- to say nothing of research funding and equipment-- Xavier will have to leave the shelter of his family's estate. The only choice society, and Charles' own stated desire for continued freedom, will allow him is to take orders with an academic cloister. He will cast off everything tying him to the outside world, accepting life in a closed society composed only of omegas and their occasional beta liaisons.
Charles is brilliant-- erudite, articulate, possessed of endless curiosity and a truly astonishing breadth of knowledge. He is a Renaissance man if ever there was one; self-taught in many ways, an ardent pursuer of the esoteric and the obscure, but also a philosopher with a vulnerable heart. 'Science with compassion', is a phrase he often includes in his letters to Lehnsherr. Progress and discovery tempered with social justice. Erik, drawn first by the scholar's gift for writing and fearlessness in addressing radical theories, is by now very nearly a devotee as well as a friend. He and Charles argue constantly, but always with deep respect.
"This is such a marvelous accomplishment for him," Raven says and, though her voice is soft, it sends a jolt of unpleasant reality through Lehnsherr's musings. Briefly, he wonders if one of them-- or both-- has some sort of script they must read from. True, but trite. How many times will Erik himself need to repeat such platitudes before he can feel anything but the impending threat of being… robbed? It is as if someone has told him the precise date and time of some terrible future assault, yet bound his hands and left him helpless.
"He must be thrilled," Lehnsherr responds, feeling inane.
"He was beside himself," Xavier's sister and legal guardian says, unable to suppress a fond smile. "Transported with joy. After about two hours, it truly sank in-- the ramifications, I mean-- and he became very solemn. Distraught, I think, though he was trying not to show it. Maybe I'm just flattering myself. We spent the rest of the evening playing holo-games and not talking about it."
"So word came last night."
"Oh, yes, official courier, thumb-print security-- the whole nine yards." Raven does not conceal the roll of her eyes, but the exasperation cannot stand against the overwhelming sorrow. "I think part of him wanted to start packing right away, but he didn't want to hurt my feelings."
Erik can't find himself to care much about her emotional pain, not when he feels so slain himself. Surely he's deserving of at least a tele-send, if not an actual call from Charles. Even if the news were solely jubilant, Erik would have thought himself enough a confidant for his friend to share the information right away. After all, Charles called immediately-- almost manic with excitement-- when he became the first omega to publish in The Imperium Journal of Star-Faring.
Obliviously, Raven continues, "I wanted to tell you as soon as possible, before you encountered any rumors. Goddess knows half the R&D department subscribes to the scholarship tabloids." When Lehnsherr doesn't respond, she coughs delicately.
Not taking his eyes off the smiling image of Charles-- which tends to distract him at least once every time he's in Raven's office-- Erik mutters, "Thank you, you're most kind."
"For the gods' sake!" Darkholme explodes at last. "This is why I wanted to tell you privately. I knew you'd shut down and be useless. I should have let him deal with you."
So Charles would have called. That warms Lehnsherr considerably, though he narrowly restrains himself from snapping at his junior partner. He breathes out heavily through his nose. He's learned the rituals of 'polite society' through effort and practice; none of the careful conversational designs come to him naturally. If there's a set of standards for reacting to one's best friend entering life-long seclusion, not only is he not aware of it, he doesn't have in himself to care.
Crossing to the dark cherrywood cabinet, Raven keys in her thumb-print ID and begins removing a rather large white box. Does she really intend to segue straight into the Monday morning agenda directly from this? It can't be business, though, because she suddenly looks almost chagrined. Setting the wide package on the table, she pulls her own seat closer, facing her mentor with both hands braced on trouser-clad knees.
"I know it's inappropriate," she says apologetically. "Charles wanted me to give this to you. You don't have to accept--"
"Of course I'll accept it," Erik says quickly, gaze now quite riveted upon the package.
"It's been hard on him, ever since he Presented. He used to love being around people, teaching and helping the other children on the estate." Raven smiles sadly. "You're his only friend, really, and I think you know that. He wanted to do something more than just send a letter or place a call to say goodbye."
Goodbye. A word from Old Earth; a contraction of 'G-d be with you'. Athene, the scholar-huntress, patron goddess of all chaste omegas, will be with Charles now. Or he will be with her, for always. Lehnsherr is a monotheist by inheritance if not in actual practice and to him the entire Imperial Pantheon is just a troop of fancy dolls. Of course, he respects those who feel otherwise but, at this point in his life, he doubts very much that the universe runs on anything save merciless scientific clockwork. Yet suddenly he hates this goddess with the fervency of an avenger. Athene, and her fine academic cloister, and all the untouched omegas waiting to welcome Charles into their remote, cerebral kingdom. Bitch! Thief, usurper…
Oh, why wasn't Charles born a beta, or Erik's omega brother? Lehnsherrwould have spoiled him rotten, made his ancestral home a paradise of books and equipment and gardens-- a miniature cosmos with Charles as the center jewel. The Xaviers are old money, but Erik has plenty of financial standing, with corporate and political clout to boot. If he were Charles' guardian, the young man would never have felt the need to act so drastically. He could have published, studied and remained unbonded, and Lehnsherr would have had any alpha who so much as breathed near his lands shot on sight.
Nudging the box towards Lehnsherr, Raven jolts the elder alpha from his musings. Looking at the parcel, acknowledging how scandalized most people would be by the very concept (an omega, giving a gift to an unrelated, unbounded alpha!? the promiscuity it implies!), Erik knows his little daydream is the height of foolishness. Charles will never be satisfied with anything less than true freedom. Not just for himself, but for the omega polymorphism as a whole. It is not simply a matter of having a permissive, progressive guardian; one who won't force Charles into a political marriage or try to curb his 'headstrong' nature. Xavier is an advocate for personhood, feeling that all three genders (six, if one includes secondary sex characteristics like 'male' and 'female') suffer disservice in one way or another under the current hierarchy. From a practical standpoint, even her refusal to pressure Charles into matrimony does nothing to negate the danger he will always face in the public sphere-- the spontaneous, veritas bond.
Does Erik want to put his hands on this box, this concrete and inescapable artifact of change? It's impropriety speaks volumes. Xavier is a modest omega, not out of adherence to any stereotype, but because the last thing he wants to be accused of is coquettishness.
Lehnsherr could never turn away something from Charles, even if it is potent with morose finality. He doesn't really remember picking it up, though he must have-- for here it is in his hands, possessed of weight. Most of the blood under his nails has already dried, but a few smudges from his clenched fists still transfer garishly onto the white surface. Potent, portent.
As if from a great distance, he hears himself making terse excuses to his junior partner, tone minimally polite. Erik tells her to write up the Monday morning agenda in lieu of a meeting, stalking to his own office with only the briefest acknowledgement of his own beta secretary.
It is a necessary, tactical withdrawal.
There's only one appointment he absolutely must keep today-- he cancels all the rest with the click of a button and a terse note about 'pressing matters'. That task disposed of, he throws himself into design work for the new starliner. The Magneto-- a military-industrial vessel intended for colonial support, has out-performed even the most optimistic efficiency projections and won continued acclaim. It's made the firm a favorite among the Admiralty and brought in more ornate corporate contracts. Lehnsherr has been enthused by this latest commission, and the artistic latitude a commercial liner allows. It takes a good while for The Scarlet Witch to ensnare him today but, at last, she mercifully takes him under her power. The world narrows to the sensible and oddly freeing two-dimensionality of blue-prints and formulae. Soon, he'll be ready to give her depth, uploading the the sketch slides to the ethereal world of light and holographic projection. She's going to put anything Stark Industries rolls out to absolute shame.
(and if he thinks, even briefly, of Xavier's truly marvelous treatise on the linguistic remnants of pre-polymorphic evolution-- e.g. the 'female' nature assigned to ships-- well… he's alone in his office, and there is no one to see how harshly he blinks his suddenly watery eyes.)
One thing he most emphatically does not do is open Charles' gift. That will have to wait until he is at home, in his own chambers. He still rents the upper floor of the small townhouse he occupied as a graduate student-- there's no need to waste money on a sprawling statement dwelling if it will only gather dust. The landlady is most obliging, and the three rooms circumscribe a solitary, elegantly utilitarian kingdom he has spent years perfecting. The ancestral home-- that of his mother, of his far-off childhood-- is closed up. He pays for regular cleaning, maintenance, and upkeep of the grounds, but its best to let wounds like that alone. Charles once told him an Old Earth legend, of a beta woman who opened a box of wonders in the course of her divine housekeeping. The whole thing was rather picturesque in that the only ephemeral thing she managed to recapture was 'hope', but the point is well taken. It has that optimistic twist that Charles is so attracted to, and a beta heroine. He is forever going on about the visibility of betas in shared folklore.
Briefly, Erik's gaze slides over to his own box of mysteries-- woes or small mercies 'To Be Determined'. But he has never shared Charles' letters and manuscripts-- or even his first edition copies of the scholar's published works-- with anyone else. As fatal as his curiosity feels, he's hardly going to start now.
He leaves his office (and the temptation) briefly for lunch. Kitty, his secretary, is looking rather harried. She's adhered admirably to his 'no calls, period' mandate, but she has paid for it. One empty glass bottle of carmel coffee sits at the edge of her desk and she's a good way into another one, to say nothing of all the vitamin-cake wrappers abandoned in the trash. She's a monotheist like he is, though doubtless more observant, and has no option but to work for her living. As a beta, she cannot inherit title, fortune or trade as an alpha can, nor does she carry with her the dowry of an omega. Erik would like to think he occasionally considered things like this before he began corresponding with Charles, but that's probably not true. Regardless, he musters what little bit of compassion he has to spare today and tells Kitty to stack the rescheduled meetings anyway she needs to. Back-to-back, all day-- hell, all week! He's going to need something to distract him from the calamity he should have expected and his own reaction, which has blind-sided him with it's depth of loss.
"Once the schedule's set, you may go," Lehnsherr says, trying to keep his tone light. Such largesse is uncharacteristic of him, but it is also a bit self-serving. Without Kitty at her post, ninety-nine percent of potentially bothersome individuals will scuttle away rather than muster the courage to knock. The other one percent never knock anyway.
To her credit, Kitty merely smiles gratefully and asks if-- in light of the marathon meetings-- he'd like her to arrange catering for the next few days. As ever, he tells her to use her own discretion. Half the time, attendees have to remind him to stop for lunch. Lehnsherr has never been a man accused of lacking focus.
Normally Erik takes lunch in his office, but today he needs some air and decides the company cafe will do. He's stalking across the courtyard (only peripherally noticing the employees who scatter preemptively at his scowl), when he sees a flash of white descending the stairs from the Interiors Department. Emma Frost; his business partner, former school chum, and perpetual cordial nemesis. She's impossible to miss in her shimmering chiffon tunic and pearl-colored slacks. More importantly, one glance at her face tells him she's heard the news. Erik can't quite put his finger on exactly what her expression is, though it gives him and a strong and creeping sense of nauseous deja vu. Or perhaps it is merely he doesn't want to discuss this with anyone, and Emma is the only person brazen enough to force the issue. Before she can even begin moving towards him with that purposeful stride of hers, Erik veers off down a small marble pathway and past a thankfully obscuring arrangement of jasmine trees.
Actually going off-site for something other than business is an enormous departure from routine, but there's no going back on it now. He walks the not inconsiderable distance to the entry gate as though it has been his destination all along, and hires a caleche into the City. There he eats an expensive meal at a lavish opera house cafe, tasting nothing, unmoved by the music or wine. He feels as though he's circumvolved the real issue so many times he's lost his footing, but he cannot bear to think too long on this. Erik has never thought of himself as a coward, but he's also self-aware enough to know that many an Alpha has felt that way and been deluded. It would help if he knew how he really wants to react, even down to the most embarrassing instinct, but he's lost in a country left uncharted by choice. Emma jokes about keeping his heart under glass in her wine-cellar, and its one of those comments that is only funny because it so gaudily dresses up the truth.
It is not until he glances up-- perhaps half in askance to his mother's Nameless G-d-- that Erik catches sight of his own face in one of the gilded mirrors, and realizes why Frost's earlier strange expression struck such a chord. It is familiar; he has seen it on his own face, mirrored in some window or other reflective surface in the chaotic weeks just after Emma's spontaneous veritas bonding.
Only this time, that look of strange pity, incomprehension and discomfort have come back full circle.
It's exactly the way she was just looking at him now.
* * * * * * * * *
This bit of grave and somewhat blasphemous advice had been issued scarcely five weeks after her own bonding. Emma was then twenty-eight, a rather worrying age for traditional alphas longing for the completion of a veritas bond. Miss Frost was about as far from that sort of romantically inclined pack-leader/provider as any female alpha could be. She was more aggressive than protective, pursuing any goal with a carnivorously single-minded focus; a flawless and ambitious lioness. Like Lehnsherr, she had not completely ruled out the possibility of an omega somewhere in the far future, but the hazy consideration had been more for the sort of political alliance that could advance a career. Carefully arranged, all hidden strings and secret mechanisms producing the sort of highly ritualized bondings so common in the society section of the news-scroll. Veritas bonds, on the other hand, were completely unpredictable. They occurred in 40% of the population, and were by no means voluntary. A lightning bolt striking the poker table-- and, while the spiritual versus biological debate raged on, it was the dirty bitch Fate who held all the high cards. Emma hadn't been looking for metaphysical affinity or life-long devotion, but it had found her.
It had been more than three weeks since Erik had seen her and it was only now, in the context of so-called 'normality', that he realized just how drastically her life had changed. 'Irreparable' was an easy word to throw around, especially during moments of high drama: the public nature of the initial bonding, the very unexpected identities of the two partners, and even the hastily arranged (and short) post-bonding ceremony. Erik, ever a lover of linguistics, knew the precise definition of the adjective now so frequently used in connection with his friend. 'Unable to be repaired, rectified, or made good'.
There had been nothing good about Emma's looks or demeanor that night. At the ceremony, they'd raised cadmium-colored banners to bless the new union with the universally acknowledged red hue of joy. He'd never thought about it before, but it was a strangely morbid custom-- after all, cadmium itself was poisonous in large amounts and very resistant to heat. Cold hands, warm heart-- my dear, such a mundane witticism! It as if a relentless stain of such dye was spreading in Emma, made all the more vulgar by her typical look of icy perfection. Every line and shade of her body was brittle, platinum locks having become so ashen that they barely escaped being white. She sipped dispassionately at the heath-liquor, staring past Lehnsherr with sightless eyes at the glittering evening city below. They'd been at the most expensive restaurant in the Quarter, down by the Street of Four Rivers, and the fact that theirs had been the only occupied table on the glass balcony afforded the opportunity for a conversation more frank than they might have had otherwise. That, and the heavily alcohol-laden bottle of heath they'd ordered.
"I don't think I understood before," she murmured, halfway echoing Erik's own internal realization. "All those films, operas, shadow-plays and scrolls of Epic Romance." He could hear the capitalization in her tone of voice. "It's insipid, and it's a lie. Every time I see something-- a marquee on the street, or a novel in some foolish Alpha's bag, I just… I want to scream."
"We've neither one of us ever had time for that sort of metaphysical romanticism," Erik said, lacking anything really helpful to contribute. Ostensibly, they were having an 'Alpha's Night Out', a backwards sort of stag celebration. More circumspectly, Lehnsherr was trying-- awkwardly-- to give her some type of support, fearing that if she spent any more of her non-academic time in that new chic little marriage bungalow, she might pine away entirely.
The conversation had been sporadic all through the meal, filled with long silences and non sequiturs. He'd done his best to stand by her-- to be her ilarches and second throughout the whole affair-- but did not feel at all confident that he'd been any real help. Normally, the man underclassmen referred to as the 'Lord of Sharks' cared only for how the performance of any task would show his dedication to quality and his chosen trade, but this was so much more. This was the alpha who, for so long, had been his only friend and confidant. The brilliant career woman with whom he planned to build a firm and take the engineering industry by storm. She was an alpha he genuinely respected, instead of just making the usual polite, social motions that were supposed to show you recognized the other party as an equal and a potential threat. Those same complicated rules of alpha-to-alpha interaction made it difficult for him to offer her any comfort, and his desire to help in no way imparted a sudden understanding of softer emotions.
"Charles says," he began, taking a conservative sip of his own drink. He saw a faint, derisive smile tug at the corner of her mouth. She did love to tease him about his 'precious scholar', and for once he was happy to give her an opportunity to feel superior. "Charles says that there's significant evidence to show that, prior to the exodus from Earth, there may have only been two sexes."
Genuine interest sparked in her eyes, derailing any pithy remarks. "Really?"
"Indeed," Erik confirmed, feeling himself relax as he warmed to the topic. "He's published several articles about it, and has just sent me the rough-draft of another. The scrolls arrived this morning. I haven't had time to look at those yet, but I'm sure they'll be fascinating."
"And here I am, keeping you from Dr. Xavier."
Lehnsherr gave her a look that would quell most alphas into bearing neck and belly. "I consider you both fellow hypaspistes."
"I'll try to take that in the spirit in which it was intended," Miss Frost arched her own disapproving look at him, but it had just as little effect. He was well aware of the discomfort with which she viewed the friendship he'd developed with Charles, but he had never been one to give much weight to others' opinions. Charles and Emma had both earned his respect, and so he did not disregard their words so lightly-- but he was still a man rarely steered from the course he himself had set.
What other choice was there, but to be stubborn? Had he not formed his own iron-clad sense of self, he would have been the pawn of estate lawyers and distant relatives a thousand times over. He had no real family left-- just the smoking ruin of corporate sabotage, and more funds than one could spend in a lifetime. Mama had been very clever and explicit when writing her will, knowing her only son and alpha scion would look attractive prey to any who thought they could catch him while he was young and tractable. As a result, he was her sole heir at the age of twelve-- endowed with detailed educational plans she'd made to keep him as far away from the familial and media frenzy as possible. Her own relatives (not to mention the opportunistic individuals claiming distant blood connections to her deceased omega) had been shocked, frustrated, and finally defeated by her foresight.
Now in his fourth and final year of Graduate Atelier, he was one of the richest men in the city, and had barely touched said funds. Currency could buy many things-- including the lives, temporary love, and loyalty of others-- but he was well aware of high price money itself demanded in turn. He was a tall, well-muscled and driven man in plain but elegantly made suits, and he never failed to make an impression. Meeting him once allowed most people to form an instant and firm-- if often biased-- opinion. Awe, fear, envy, or grudging respect; no one ever felt wishy-washy about the rising engineering phenomenon that was Erik Lehnsherr. He was articulate, but taciturn-- not always out of cool contempt (which was the conclusion most jumped to), but just as often because he felt isolated even in the most crowded of rooms. He was not one for idle chatter; if he spoke, he wanted to have something to say. His papers, articles, and presentations contained more words than he'd speak in a week full of parties, because he found more things worth saying when he wrote.
"The theory is gaining a lot of traction," Erik said, choosing to ignore Emma's slight dig. "They think that our secondary sex characteristics-- that is, being male or female-- used to be primary. That only females were fertile, and that betas didn't even exist."
"'They', who?" Frost asks.
"Charles has a few fellow Omegan scholars working with him, and there's even a beta scientist who's expressed interest." He won't deny there's some pride in that last remark-- the beta will lend an air of legitimacy, regardless of whether or not that's fair.
"I'm sure the Office of Public Decency will love that."
Erik grinned, the same selachian smile that earned him his nickname. "They'll never like what most Omega scholars have to say, but the House of Lords has ruled they have use the same criteria for censorship they employ for Alphas."
"You never used to be so liberal," Emma observed faintly. Then, she stared down at the delicate cuff on her left wrist, turning it so that the smooth, cabochon moonstone caught the light. "I guess it's not my place to judge, now. I may have to be a bit more modern myself." She glanced up, making an obviously forced attempt at humor. "If I start worshiping Aletheia, do you think she'll intercede with one of her particularly difficult omega children for me?"
Lehnsherr knew enough of the general pantheon-- not to mention Frost's erstwhile omega-- to understand how little her new bondmate would appreciate that. Aletheia was the ideal of the sex she patronized, usually depicted in gossamer thin robes, with a wise-and-secret little half-smile and any number of children arranged at her feet. Despite the truly astonishing ranks of the polytheist divine, he also very much doubted a patron existed for omegas who Presented decades after the norm. Not unheard of, but rare enough to make for a fascinating scientific study. The subject himself might even develop the study, but he would have a hard time getting his old colleagues to give him the time of day now. To have thought oneself a beta for forty years…! Erik took a bite of his own meal to hide his reflexive grimace and, after a beat of silence, Emma laughed at herself.
"No, I don't suppose he would appreciate that," she continued, almost as if Erik had answered her. "Do betas have a god or goddess? They're so close-mouthed about such things."
"Doubtless to pay us back for being forced to spend their lives mediating between the 'polarized' sexes," he observed, eyeing how little of her dinner she'd touched. His role as ilarches hadn't required much contact with her new bondmate, but he knew that would change. They'd been avoiding the name all night, and might continue to do so until some ridiculous cotillion or business dinner forced a confrontation. It seemed at once a profound and paltry stumbling block, but he did not wish to lose her friendship. After more than a decade of schooling together, she could go twenty rounds with him and come out with not a dent in her icy ego or a scratch in her diamond poise. She was clever, and more willing to be underhanded than he, but he respected her methods. Despite these considerations, he knew a day would come when his promise to Mama trumped all other loyalties-- he would take blood to even the scales, and be her proper vengeance.
Matters were exponentially more complicated, now.
Oddly enough, he found himself wishing he'd asked Charles for advice, or at least kept him abreast of the situation. He'd had plenty of opportunity in the numerous letters they'd exchanged since Emma's bonding, and Xavier would have been able to provide a unique perspective. Erik's own contemporaries would probably consider it hilariously appropriate, and more than a little bit pathetic, that the man he considered his most intimate and trusted advisor was actually someone-- an omega-- he'd never met. He and Charles had such an amazing intellectual rapport and, having never seen Xavier or an image of the scholar, Lehnsherr tended to envision the younger man simply as a sort of lovely far-away point of light. A star like Rigel, so warm and blue and vibrant that even those on Old Earth had been able to see it with the naked eye. Mentioning the whole recent mess with Emma might upset the delicate balance he and Charles worked so hard to maintain and, as well as he knew his friend, he had no idea which side of the argument the professor would come down on. Were there 'sides', at this point? It was becoming increasingly hard to tell.
The name would have to be said eventually, and Erik was not a man to run, even metaphorically. He took a sip of his drink and asked, with studiously casual solicitude, "Has Shaw's disposition improved at all?"
"Very nice, Lehnsherr," Emma said, abandoning her delicate scrapings at the expensive dinner. "Congratulations-- I blinked first."