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Perturbation Theory

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Before anything else, the thought that he is incredibly grateful he didn't take any suppressants that morning shoots through Charles' head.

Raven would scold him for it, he's sure. But then, if there is ever a time when he's allowed to be impulse-driven, it's now, isn't it? At least that's his excuse, and he's sticking to it. In his own mind. Which is the only place where he needs to stick to it, because Raven doesn't actually know what he's thinking. Nobody does, on account of the fact that there isn't another telepath around, and even if there were, Charles is really quite ridiculously powerful.

It's possible his thoughts are a bit scattered right now. Understandable, he's sure.

It's more than possible he's staring. But that, also, is understandable, because the alpha who just walked into the physics department is gorgeous. Tall, slender and lithely muscled, with broad shoulders, long legs and a narrow waist Charles can't wait to wrap his legs around. And the face – those cheekbones, god. That chin. That fierce, fiery, intensely alpha scowl, brows drawn together forebodingly, wide mouth pressed into a thin, impatient line.   

"Oh dear," Charles mutters. He is so lucky! Only imagine if he'd had some conference this evening. If he'd been writing a paper. If he just hadn't been in the mood – hadn't been planning to drop by his favorite club tonight and live a little.

If he'd found this when his heat was chemically suppressed and he wasn't in any position to take full advantage.

"It doesn't bear thinking about," he mutters with increased fervor.

A student shoots him an odd glance before scurrying past Charles' vantage point on the stair's first landing. She's late to her class, an anxious little mantra skittering through her mind. oh no not again ten minutes almost oh no why didn't I take the earlier train I have no clue about Kirchhoff's laws either what if she asks me about oh she's going to be so

The entrance hall is deserted now, except for the alpha, who's stopped just inside the door. He hasn't seen Charles yet, which gives Charles a second to gather himself, and another second to hesitate.  

He isn't here to wait for fortuitiously passing alphas, regardless of how eminently fuckable they might be. Had that been Charles' goal, it would have been rather silly of him to lurk in the foyer of the physics department of all places. No, he's here because of his research.

Lehnsherr has to come through here on his way to his weekly meeting with his supervising professor, and Charles is bound to recognize him by his mutation. There aren't that many high-powered mutants around, and everyone agrees Lehnsherr's mutation is at least a 5 on the Xavier Scala, maybe a 6.  

Well… they agree that he's powerful. Charles' scala still isn't yet as widely used as it should be, considering it's the first objective scale of measurement of metahuman genetic mutations. It's early days, however, and the academical world can be a ponderous beast. It will not be a problem in the long run; Charles' next publication will be so ground-breaking nobody will be able to ignore it, or get around the implications.

The exquisite alpha pauses almost imperceptibly just inside the door and straightens further, shoulders going back, chin coming up almost belligerently. He takes a deep breath, and Charles' eyes wander down to his chest automatically. It's a shame the man is wearing such a shapeless t-shirt.

Really, there isn't much to deliberate here. Lehnsherr will be around for Charles to waylay tomorrow, too. The day after that as well. This delectable creature, on the other hand…

Charles focusses briefly on the low-level arousal simmering in his core. It takes hardly a thought before the familiar, subtle prickle rushes through his blood, sweeping outwards.  

He walks down the stairs in a cloud of pheromones, trailing one hand coyly on the banister. The alpha's head snaps up as soon as Charles moves. His nostrils flare; his eyes are wide and glued to Charles, tracking his every move as he descends the stairs.

It takes conscious effort for Charles not to smirk. That would just be gauche, and Charles – of course – is many things, but never gauche. Charles, you old dog, he tells himself happily. You've still got it.

He deserves a day off. He does. He's been working so hard. And with this lovely alpha in his bed, in his arms, between his legs… it'll be the best stress-reliever anyone could ask for. Oh, he can hardly wait.

He wonders… will this gorgeous creature be loud? Will he groan and pant in Charles' ears as he fucks him, fills him up – will he clutch at Charles helplessly when he comes, trembling and desperate? Will he growl with mindless need as he presses Charles tightly to his body, forcing him down to the bed, pressing him down and keeping him still while he swells deliciously inside of him…

"I'm Charles," he says as he reaches the foot of the stairs, smiling. His voice is a bit husky, but all in all he sounds remarkably collected, given that he can feel himself growing wet. Another minute and he'll be completely hard, too – inconvenient for the drive back to the mansion. Maybe a quickie to warm up and take the edge off, if the alpha can keep from knotting inside Charles this once. There's usually a small lull after the first coupling of a heat.    

    The alpha in question is narrowing his eyes at Charles, stepping further into the hall but, oddly, away from the stairs. Away from Charles. His lips are curling slightly. He doesn't seem to be one of the very forward ones, because he's making no move to come and get Charles yet; on the contrary, he's looking distinctly unimpressed. If Charles didn't know better, he'd almost say the man seemed displeased.

    But that can hardly be the case, can it? Here Charles is, a young, healthy and – if he does say so himself – not at all unattractive omega in heat, practically drenched in pheromones and already so wet for the alpha that the man could take Charles right here in the entrance hall, right now, just grab him and tear off his jeans and bend him over his arm and shove himself into Charles hard, oh god.

    He's stepped forward before he even knows he's moving. Two quick steps, three – light, almost dancing. Charles is never usually this graceful. But the alpha steps back just as quickly, just as gracefully, brows drawing together darkly in what really does look astoundingly like anger. 

    Charles has to clear his throat a little. "Excuse me for being bold, but I couldn't help but notice what a groovy mutation you –"

    And that is when the bone-deep, thrumming mental echo of a mutation that has nothing to do with the enticing alpha's lovely storm-blue eyes hits. It's low, almost subtle, but vast and wild; it rushes through Charles and makes his gut clench, sets his teeth on edge.

    "– ergh," he finishes, somewhat less intelligently than anticipated.

    This is not a 6. This is nowhere near being a 6. And what are the chances of another man with a mutation as powerful as this just happening to be where Charles was waiting for the first such man? Vanishingly small. No, this is… has to be –

    "Mr Lehnsherr," Charles manages at last.

    "What the hell do you think you're doing?" growls the really quite distractingly attractive alpha, who is somehow, implausibly, Erik Lehnsherr. "Stay right the fuck where you are. Are you listening to me?"

    He's an alpha? But –

    This must have been why Professor Thomson had smiled that weird smile when Charles spoke to him about Lehnsherr, asked Thomson to send the man over. An alpha –

    Sheer amazement clears Charles' head enough that he remembers the oddly contemptuous edge to the professor's projected emotions about his student, the mocking drawl in his voice when he'd promised to tell Lehnsherr that Professor Xavier from Genetics wished to see him at his earliest convenience. "Don't expect him to actually show up, though, Xavier," Thomson had added, smirking as though at a joke too absurd to actually be funny. "Lehnsherr is… the perverse type. If you know what I mean."

    Charles hadn't had any idea what that was supposed to mean. Thomson really was a humongous, pompous arse – Charles had always thought so, and this just confirmed it. He could have just said Lehnsherr was an alpha. Had he been trying to prank Charles, or something equally infantile?

    Charles shakes his head, tries to clear some room for thought.

    "I don't –" but Charles doesn't actually know what to say, and just breaks off with another shake of the head. An alpha studying engineering? Well, it's unexpected, but Charles guesses there's no reason why Lehnsherr shouldn't try, if he wants to. No harm in trying, is there.

    "I, really – at this point I feel that, uhm. Mr Lehnsherr, I'm sure it hasn't escaped your notice that I am very taken with you. Please come home with me, because I would quite like to have rather a lot of sex with you."

    Not the most urbane speech in the history of omegas trying to bag an alpha, certainly. It may, perhaps, be termed gracelessly direct even by Charles' standards, which Raven tells him are sadly below par. But even so, Charles does not expect the delectable Mr Erik Lehnsherr to go pale with rage and make angry jazz hands at him, causing Charles' belt-buckle to first punch him in the gut and then drag him several meters to the side before spilling him to the floor.     

      By the time Charles has picked himself up, somewhat rattled and considerably less turned on, Lehnsherr has stormed off.

      Charles guesses that this is a definite "no".

      Maybe Charles should have asked Lehnsherr to participate in Charles' research first.

       

       

      Chapter Text

      Three years ago

       

      Heat packs is what they're called. Of course, Erik only finds this out later. At the time, he only knows that the omega who hit on him in the bar is following him outside, and so are his friends.

      Erik doesn't know why he'd thought this was a good idea. There's always someone who hits on him even in the middle of the lecture hall, or the seminar, or the library. Going to a student bar – what did he think was going to happen? Exchanging anecdotes about professors? Chatting about high-temperature superconductors and how to use them to increase the performance of high-power transmission lines and high-field magnets?

      Part of him wants to kick himself. But part of him is just angry, because – really, fuck it. He's a student too. Why the hell shouldn't he hang out at a student bar? Why the hell can't he chat about the latest superconductor research over a beer or two? 

      The virulent burn of resentment, anger and bitterness is familiar – almost comforting, in a way.

      "Wow," one of the annoying omegas says with a laugh. "Look at that glare! So primal. Like he'd throw you over his shoulder and drag you off to his cave in a heartbeat."

      "I wish!" This one is giggling and slurring her words, clearly more than a little drunk.  

      The night air outside the bar is mercifully fresh. It clears Erik's head a little as he sets out in a random direction. He hasn't had much to drink at all, but the noise and dark and alcoholic fumes inside seem to have made him a little light-headed. Plus, several of the omegas in there were in heat. Erik's never had any problems with self-control, but even so that kind of thing gets unpleasant after a while.

      "Wait up, stud!"

      Erik whirls to hit the gaggle of bothersome omegas with the full force of his derision. "Fuck off. That's the last time I'm telling you nicely; next time, it'll hurt."

      But they're either too drunk or stupid to get the hint. There's no hint of wariness, no sign of backing off – only a chorus of appreciative "ooooh"s and a burst of high-pitched laughter from a short blonde.

      "Do that again," says the one who'd told Erik to buy him a drink, a guy with artfully tousled hair and a too-intense stare that isn't so much stripping as outright molesting Erik. "That's totally hot."

      A gentle breeze cools Erik's face, but doesn't help with the slight muzziness he can't seem to shake. It's laden with omega pheromones – so much so he almost chokes on it for a moment. His heart trips into an unsteady staccato as the reflexive reaction rushes through him, tightening with painful force in his throat, his gut. His sex.

      The first rush goes on far longer than he expects. By the time he manages to suck another breath into his lungs, he's light-headed and almost fully hard.

      What the hell? He'd known that the "I want a screw…driver" dickwad was in heat, but it's not just him. For Erik to feel like this, it must be at least three of them, or more.

      There's seven – no, eight omegas watching him with lust written all over them. Not all of them, surely…?

      He doesn't like this situation. He doesn't like it, and he doesn't like the way the omegas are staring, the way they're starting forward again, fanning out into a line across the sidewalk. There's something very off about all of this.

      When Erik turns to cross the street, he nearly stumbles over his own feet. He takes a quick step to the side to recover and nearly stumbles again, lurches across the sidewalk like a drunk. When he catches himself against the wall of the adjacent building, he somehow manages to slam the heel of his hand into stone with painful force.

      He's dizzy. He's never clumsy, not even when he's drunk a hell of a lot more than one beer, and he's dizzy.

      Suspicion rises in him so fast and cold it's almost like a second physical rush.

      But he has no idea if – he might be overreacting. It might just be all the omegas in heat. Couldn't it? Maybe it's just – but they're much closer now than they were, when did they get this close? They're already right there, closing around him in a wall of flesh and stifling heat that seems no less solid than the wall against his back.

      He doesn't consciously reach for it, but suddenly the metal all around him is vibrant and alive in his senses. Singing from behind the layer of brick he's leaning against, from beneath the tar and concrete under his feet, from the cars parked at the curb and the streetlight some meters to the left.

      Seven of the omegas are wearing watches. Three are wearing belt buckles, and six adorn their fingers, wrists, earlobes and necks with various kinds of jewellery. One has a bar piercing in his nipple. All of them carry metal in their pockets, bags or backpacks. Change, keys, mp3 players, mobile phones, an inhaler…  

      "Get the fuck away from me," Erik snarls. His voice seems oddly distant, as though filtered through cotton. It's not just dizziness now. He feels almost muzzy; slow and sluggish.

      Never use your powers against an omega, Erik, his mother orders in his memory, no give at all in her tone. It was her alpha voice, the voice she only used on him when she expected instant and absolute obedience. Never. No exceptions. You have no idea of the kind of trouble you would make for yourself. Promise me, Erik.

      The icy pressure behind his eyes is pure rage. The hollowness in his chest… that's a lot like something else entirely.  

      Someone groans next to Erik's ear, husky and low. It's a sex sound. Others are laughing. A man's saying something fast and excited Erik can't understand over the noise of the blood rushing in his ears.

      When someone reaches for him, Erik is so slow that he doesn't catch their hand in time. He's never been slow anymore than he's been clumsy.

      "He's perfect," says the man with his hand pressed against the front of Erik's jeans, cupping his cock. "Yeah, this is the one we want. He's fucking hot, and – Cindy, come over here and feel this. Damn, he's hung like a horse."

      Erik had always obeyed his mother when she used the alpha voice. Not because she was more alpha than him; because she was his mother, and he wanted her to be pleased with him.

      Maybe it's that. Or maybe it's the overwhelming miasma of pheromones that's drowning him, making him sick and dizzy. Maybe it's whatever might or might not have been in his beer, back in the bar.

      Maybe it's everything.

      The watch on the bastard's wrist sings to Erik, but when he tries to catch hold of it, it slides through his grasp like water, like air. Like it isn't really there at all.

      He tries again, and again. But then there are other hands on him, and the first hand is kneading him, stroking – and there's no more time.

      He punches the man instead. He may be inexplicably slow and clumsy but he's not helpless, even with metal refusing to answer his call.

      It's not a solid uppercut like it's intended to be; Erik's fist glances off the fucker's chin and scrapes past his cheekbone instead, making for a sloppy hit with not nearly the power he'd intended. But it's good enough. The bastard gives a surprised, pained grunt and stumbles back, letting go of Erik.

      Erik pushes away from the wall, shakes off the other hands clutching at him. Two steps and he's pushing through between the omegas, elbowing them roughly aside. Every breath burns his sinuses and throat, the pheromones so thick in the air he's choking on them.

      The omegas close ranks around him again, crowding in close. There's no air; he feels like he's suffocating.

      "Leave me alone," he gets out, forcing the words through gritted teeth.  

      "That's not really what you want though, is it?" There's a hand in his hair, tugging insistently; another strokes down his neck, smoothes across his chest. "Don't worry, stud, we know what you need."  

      One of them unbuttons his jeans. He can feel the button slide through fabric, but he can't stop it – not with his power and not with his hands, either, because when he reaches out, his arms are caught and trapped against too-hot bodies. Someone grabs his hand, turns it and fills it with firm, rounded flesh. A breast, he thinks.

      It burns to the touch, and Erik can't help the sound he makes as the skin-to-skin contact sends his body into overdrive. 

      "Damn, where's April? If she doesn't get the van here soon, I'm gonna start right here."

      Laughter, and a mouth at the side of Erik's neck. Cool air against bare skin as his t-shirt is tugged up. He bats at all the hands, or tries to, but he doesn't know if he manages to push away even one. Not that it makes a difference; there's so many, and they're everywhere. A moment later there's also another mouth, sliding up his chin, sealing over his own mouth, a tongue pressing against his tightly closed lips –

      "April, thank fuck, where have you been?"

      Erik loses track of the exact sequence of events after that. Maybe he should be grateful, but he isn't. He would prefer to know – would prefer to remember more than confused fragments of being dragged across the sidewalk towards a van, metal closing around him but refusing to answer his call. Would prefer to know exactly whose hands were on his cock, whose mouth was sucking on his throat, who was straddling him and who was folding Erik's resistant fingers around a hot, thick cock.

      They end up in a building of some kind. Erik knows only that the pipes are old and rusty, that the bed has a metal frame that won't respond to him, and that there's nothing about this that he wants, but that it's going to happen just the same.

      The omegas strip off his t-shirt and his jeans and boxers, even his socks. They push him onto the bed, sit on him to hold him down, spread him open and touch him everywhere. They rub against him, force his fingers into their slick holes, force their tongues into his mouth. He can't even bite; he tries, in the beginning, but they hold his head and jaw after that.

      He doesn't remember which of them pushes his cock into his mouth, or if it's more than one. He remembers the burning heat of it on his tongue, though, and the thrusting, and that he can't breathe right and thinks he'll suffocate. He can taste it for hours after, too, so he knows it really happened.    

        Through it all, Erik is so hard he hurts. There's no way he can be anything else, nothing he can do against it – not with the air tainted by the stench of more omegas in heat, packed into a single small room, than Erik has ever shared space with before.

        The bastard who hit on him in the bar goes first. Erik is sure now that he spiked his beer, but it doesn't keep him from gasping when the man wraps a hand around Erik's erection, strokes him roughly. "– gagging for it, aren't –"

        No, no he is not, but his body won't listen to him, no more than the metal is. Erik snarls and tries to tear loose of the clutching hands, bucks up as much as he can. It doesn't get him free; just makes the omega's mouth fall open in a wet O of lust. His greedy touch slides over Erik's throat and chest and on to his stomach and hips, exploring with easy, possessive assurance.

        By the time the omega straddles Erik, he's so wet he drips on him. Nausea roils in Erik's gut, seeping through the sick, surging arousal like creeping poison.  

        A slow, thick wave of mingled revulsion, rage and desire boils up in Erik, and for a moment he's sure he's going to throw up. He welcomes the thought, embraces it, but it never happens. The nausea stays lodged in his throat, as powerless as the rest of him.

        The sound Erik makes when the bastard omega slides onto him is way too soft – almost deperate; almost broken.

        Erik wishes to god he could take back that sound. It's all but lost in the omega's groan of satisfaction; the long, sighing rush of air he gusts out as he forces Erik inside his body. Even so – even so. It's almost too much to bear that Erik himself heard it, that he let them force it from him.

        Erik doesn't want to give them this. Doesn't want to give them anything at all, but certainly no more than what they can take by force. Nothing, nothing –

        The omega pauses for a moment, eyes closing, chest heaving. He's smiling, a red flush spreading from his throat upwards.

        One day. One day soon, Erik is going to kill him.

        Now, his body burns tight around Erik's cock, and Erik is shivering helplessly beneath him, sweating and shaking. Arousal is sparking through him, coiling low in his belly.

        Hands twisted into his hair, around his wrists, ankles, arms and legs, pinning him down, keeping him in place. Knowing fingers massaging his nipples, pushing into his mouth… sliding in the slick running down between his spread legs.

        Erik jerks and tries to kick, tries to bite, tries to buck up and shake off the omega fucking him – or at least the other one, who now has her fingers in his ass as deep as they will go, pulling out and pushing back in to the rhythm that the other omega is setting.

        For his troubles, Erik gets a husky chuckle from the omega on top of him and more fingers prying his teeth apart, holding him still as the man bends forward to thrust his tongue into Erik's mouth.

        A moment later the weight on his legs shifts and his thighs are forced further apart, giving greater access to the omega finger-fucking him. Erik isn't sure if it's her or someone else who's rubbing his balls, rolling them greedily in their palm.    

          It doesn't hurt. Somehow that makes it worse – it should hurt. It should be agony, this, all of this, because Erik does not want it, doesn't want any of it but can't stop it, can't even prevent his own body's mindless betrayal. 

          Someone's spooling off a low, rough monotone, spewing out an endless soundtrack of lewdness and filth. Nobody else is speaking anymore; there's only sex sounds now, above all the loud breathing and wet, slapping sounds of the omega fucking Erik.

          The bastard speeds up, gasping, and a handful of thrusts later, his hole tightens convulsively around Erik. He stiffens, throwing back his head with a harsh cry. Come spatters over Erik's abdomen.

          A split second after, the new wave of pheromones hits Erik like a brick to the head. He gags even while his body arches off the bed, pushing up into the omega; every nerve and fiber inside him seizes up.

          "He's going to knot up – quick, move!"

          The unrelenting, heated drone of commentary stutters to silence as the omega on top of him slides off, half-dragged by the others.

          Orgasm clears Erik's head a little. He feels weak, shaky; his breath is shivering in his throat, and he's freezing even though he's so hot he's practically melting. He reaches out for the metal again and gets nothing; throws all the strength he can marshal against the bodies holding him down. Still nothing.

          "Wow," someone says at last, breaking the silence. "That was…"

          When had Erik closed his eyes? He doesn't remember. When he opens them again, though, all of the omegas are staring at him, lust and greed in their eyes. Staring at his cock, which is still hard, flushed red and dripping with the omega's slick and his own ejaculate. The base has begun swelling up; he wastes energy he doesn't have trying to will it down, but he already knows it's useless.

          "My turn," breathes someone else. A woman – girl, really. A petite girl with a tiny button of a nose and huge brown eyes, her heat wafting off her like poisonous smoke.

          Erik memorizes her face; burns it into his memory so deeply he will never forget. He won't forget any of them. Not one.  

          One of the men goes to fetch a washcloth and wipes him down, cleaning the mess of body fluids from Erik's cock and stomach. He even swipes the cloth down over his balls and ass. His touch is brisk, and Erik can't help but think that this seems very well thought-out, almost practiced – right down to the little details like making sure their captive alpha is clean enough for the next person in line to rape.

          The girl puts her hand on his chest, rubs across his pectorals. He snarls at her and tries to buck her off, and she stares with huge eyes, pupils so blown she looks drugged. Her mouth is slack with lust; her touch is covetous as she draws both hands down his stomach, slides them on to his newly cleaned cock without pausing.

          The touch is almost painful on over-sensitized skin, and this – the pain – is the first thing that makes sense about any of this.

          A burly man who's like the girl's polar opposite kneels on Erik's other side and puts a giant hand on his hip, dragging him some way down the bed. He pushes the girl away gently before carefully wrapping his thick fingers around Erik's knot.

          He feels it for a moment, adjusts his grip; then, he closes his grip, slowly but inexorably.

          Erik thinks he screams, although he's never really sure afterwards. There's a long moment in which he can't see, can't hear, can't even smell the stink of pheromones – knows nothing at all except pain. It's all-consuming, all-encompassing; like nothing he could have imagined.

          "Oh, come on, stud," one of them's saying when the world starts to swim back to him, red-tinged and distorted. "You're such a big, bad alpha – this won't even slow you down. It'll be way more fun this way, you'll see. We can fuck you all night."

          They do.

           

          ~~~~~~~~~~

           

          "That was really amazing," the one who went first – the leader – tells Erik, after. He's pulling on his shirt as he talks, and Erik thinks the expression on his face is probably meant to be a smile. "You're a gorgeous animal... man, your cock is like a lethal weapon. And I mean that as a compliment."

          On the other side of the room, several of the others laugh, the sound jarringly cheerful.

          The bastard who's smiling at Erik turns away to snag something from the floor – a backpack. Erik stares at the huge PETA decal stitched on its side while the man digs through it; an adorable baby seal stares soulfully back at him.

          "Here." He scribbles something on a scrap of paper and shows it to Erik before he tosses it on his chest, flashing another smile.  

          It's a name – Sebastian – and a phone number.

          "Call me," Sebastian says. "Next time I go into heat, I want you all to myself. And you'll get to knot me all you want… promise." A laugh. "Bet you want that pretty bad after tonight, huh?"

          He sounds so nonchalant, so pleased with himself – like he honestly believes that's a promise, rather than a threat.  

          Erik doesn't say anything. He's not giving them anything more. They're not getting anything more from him; nothing.

          And he doesn't believe in giving advance warning. When he's ready, they'll know.

           

          ~~~~~~~~~~

           

          The officer on duty at the police station is the one who first uses the term "heat packs" – groups of omegas who go out together when in heat, looking for an alpha to share. She chuckles at the term; evidently there's some kind of joke Erik isn't getting. Then, she locks Erik into the drunk tank to "sober up".

          Apparently, talking (or rather, "raving nonsense") about being assaulted by a bunch of omegas is a clear indication that Erik's had too much to drink – or, possibly, that he's taken some kind of illegal drug, and should be glad she's not doing a drug test like he's claiming to want her to.

          Most people find the idea of heat packs amusing, as Erik discovers later still; one of those fun – if slightly immature – things university students do in an excess of youthful spirits. A fond memory of wild university days for staid family omegas to look back on with a half-amused, half-rueful quirk of the mouth, reminiscing about how much time has passed since those halcyon days.  

           

           

          Chapter Text

          This is not Charles' month.

          "You caused quite a ruckus this morning, I understand," Professor Thomson says, disapproval drawing his heavy brows down even further. He looks like a grumpy bulldog.

          Data supporting the hypothesis of this not being Charles' month, exhibit A: When he was picking up coffee on his way to the lab this morning, he walked past a young man planning, very loudly, to kill himself. Charles doesn't invade people's privacy by reading their minds without invitation, but neither does he constantly shield at a level that can keep out thoughts and emotions projected outwards with such strength. This man's desperation and despair had punched through his every-day shield like a wrecking ball through a sheet of paper.

          It's not the first time Charles has picked up this kind of intent – far from it. But it's always a difficult situation, a harrowing decision to make, and a certain ticket to drama of some kind.

          Charles smiles at his fellow professor with careful politeness. "I'm afraid there was something of a stir, yes. It was unavoidable, since I was preventing someone from making a very grave and final mistake, and hopefully aiding them in getting the help they need."

          Thomson grunts; a hard, unpleasant thought rises to the surface of his mind. It's clear he wants Charles to see, but Charles refrains. He has no wish to become more closely acquainted with the man's thoughts than is unavoidable.

          Data supporting the hypothesis of this not being Charles' month, exhibit B: He is having a chat over tea with Professor Thomson for the second time in as many weeks.

          He's being unkind, he knows; he doesn't actually have concrete reasons for disliking Thomson. They've always had a good working relationship, and Charles knows the man is an excellent physicist, with a more than respectable publication history to his name.

          Still. He feels unpleasant in Charles' mind. Not to mention that he is a rather enormous arse.

          "If you're here about Lehnsherr again, you'd best give up, Xavier. I told you, he's… perverse." This time, Charles catches the unspoken meaning loud and clear: unnatural is what Thomson thinks, but won't say. His distaste radiates outwards so strongly it's almost indistinguishable from disgust. There's a sharp bite of anger there, too. "There's no way to get that one to do what he ought. Believe me, I've tried." ridiculous, making a mockery of the institution of learning / should never have been admitted "If I could make him participate in your research, I would, but I fear it's hopeless. You know how alphas are… no chance of a rational thought getting through their thick skulls."

          "Quite," Charles murmurs, trying not to fidget.

          Data supporting the hypothesis of this not being Charles' month, exhibit C: Erik Lehnsherr.

          He goes on quickly, unwilling to be caught up in thoughts of lingering sexual frustration and the embarrassment of being rejected in a way that involves being man-handled by fashion accessories. "Fortunately, I am here in a different matter entirely."

          Moving on to exhibit D: In the last three weeks, Charles' specimens have destroyed one centrifuge, one thermal cycler, and very nearly one electron microscope. Thank god Charles was pretty much waiting for something to go spectacularly wrong at that point, and had shut off the microscope and popped out the slide so quickly he's probably set a speed record. Electron microscopes are hideously expensive. Even if Charles had offered to pay for a replacement out of his own pocket, there would have been an enormous to-do, not to mention numerous colleagues out for his blood because of the inconvenience.

          High time to figure out those odd reactions in his specimens' DNA. Except that – exhibit E – Moira dropped by this morning to tell him only one of his funding applications for assistants has been granted. How could it be otherwise, with his month going the way it has been?

          Still, one is better than none. They'll just have to improvise. And be very careful with expensive equipment. "I'm looking for a graduate assistant – a post-graduate in physics. Some of my results in the DNA I'm studying have led me to believe there are molecular interactions at play that nobody has ever seen before. My working theory is that the stimulus is an unknown type of ionizing radiation originating within the nucleus."

          Thomson blinks at him, scepticism surging up like a shout. Charles lets it flow past with the ease of long practice. It's wiser to leave the possibility of epigenetic factors out of the picture for now, he decides – while it's utterly fascinating, Thomson does not give the impression of someone who is open to hearing more hypotheses at this point.  

          "As you can imagine, someone with a more in-depth understanding of the processes involved on an atomic and subatomic level will be invaluable to my research."

          He hands over the outline of his requirements. Thomson fishes for his glasses and squints at the list.

          "It's a good opportunity," Charles adds unnecessarily. "While I do have extremely high expectations, the chances the project offers are correspondingly excellent. There is certain to be potential for a dissertation, as well as the possibility to collaborate with me on several high-profile papers."   

            "An excellent prospect for any aspiring scientist," Thomson assures him, hmming thoughtfully while names, faces and scientific capabilities flash loudly through his mind.

            It's no more than the truth, and Thomson isn't just flattering Charles; he actually means it. All the same, Charles can't quite feel the joy he usually would at the compliment.

            "I would appreciate your input," Charles says, diplomatically. Thomson can't just pick a candidate or two for him, of course. All university jobs must be openly advertised. Still, only a very small handful of students will be remotely qualified, and it only makes sense to speed the selection process along by judicious targetting.

            "Certainly." Thomson smiles in perfect comprehension. His mind has settled on one student now, and Charles can tell he is happy with his choice. "I will put down some additional requirements your assistant should meet. It will only take a moment."

             

            ~~~~~~~~~~

             

            "Okay, spill," Raven says when he gets back to his office. She's sitting on his desk, legs dangling. She's trying out a whole variety of different shapes this week – Charles hasn't seen this one before. It's green, and – tentacles, really?

            She also made tea, bless her. Charles extracts the mug from her largest tentacle with some difficulty (he's interested to note that she's succeeded in forming functional suckers) and collapses onto the beat-up sofa in the corner with a groan. "You're an angel, Raven. This month, I swear. I think I've caught the attention of a trickster god. It's the only explanation."

            As if to prove his point, the heat of the tea radiating through the porcelain – or possibly the humidity of the steam – sets off the rash again. Charles almost spills hot tea all over himself as he switches the mug to his left hand, rubbing his itching fingers against his jeans.  

            Exhibit F. He thinks. He's starting to lose count. This month has been a total bust in the way of finding new research subjects. The first of the two new mutants he's located and approached in the last weeks was Erik Lehnsherr. The second one also refused to participate in his research, and made up for not tossing him around by inadvertently giving him a contact allergy.

            Raven stares at him pointedly as she gets up to pour herself another mug of tea. There's a tense moment where Charles fears for his office teapot – it's not like Raven is an expert in using tentacles – but she recovers just in time.

            Exhibit G, of course, is that without further study, there are no fruitful conclusions Charles can draw from the incident with the allergy-inducing mutant. That Charles' skin displays such an immediate and enduring reaction to the brief contact of a handshake indicates that the woman's natural secretions – and thus her body chemistry as a whole – are entirely distinct from those of a baseline human. Fascinating, and amazing, and something Charles will likely never know anything more about.

            "Wrong topic, Charles. Try again."

            Huh?

            He blinks at his sister for a moment. She's changed into her natural form, all the better to roll her eyes at him. "Your heat. You didn't take suppressants, and yet you didn't hook up with anyone the entire time? Who are you and what have you done with my brother?"

            Oh. Right. That.

            He shifts uncomfortably and takes a sip of tea to win time. It is unusual behavior for him – in fact, he can't even remember when he last went through an unsuppressed heat without having sex. As much as he could possibly fit in, for the most part. What's the point of being in  heat without sex, after all?

            There really is no charm to it, despite what certain movies aver. There is very little picturesque staring out of windows at dramatic sunsets while white doves flutter by in a fit of trite symbolism. No barefoot walks along deserted beaches in fluttery white clothes, either. Instead, there is a lot of decidedly unpicturesque masturbating, as well as the kind of constant arousal that gets tiresome very quickly. It's uncomfortable and distracting, not to mention impractical.

            Charles was glad when his heat finally subsided a couple of days ago, and will definitely not be doing this sort of thing again in a hurry.

            Not before he figures out why he did it this time, certainly. His first choice of companion might have turned him down, but Lehnsherr isn't the only alpha in the world. Charles could have simply picked up a more amenable alpha that evening… or the next evening. Or the one after that.

            Instead, he'd gone home to brood. And – fine – to masturbate. But mostly to brood. And he still doesn't quite understand the reason why.

            "You know I'm not going to stop pestering you until you tell me the entire sordid tale."

            This is true, so Charles gives in and recounts the sad tale of his encounter with the unfairly attractive alpha of the testy disposition. It doesn't take long – nothing actually happened, after all. Maybe Raven can make sense of Lehnsherr's overly antagonistic reaction. 

            "God, no. Charles. No. You did not actually start the conversation by telling him to come have lots of sex with you." Raven buries her face in her hands in melodramatic despair. "I can't believe you. How are you so bad at this? It's not like you don't get plenty of practice!"

            "I, uhm. I did say please," Charles protests, rather weakly. He acknowledges that he wasn't at his most classy. However, as Raven herself pointed out, Charles has not been forced into involuntary celibacy yet – he can't have been getting it so very wrong all this time.

            Raven shoots him a stern glare, but ruins the effect by a sudden snort of laughter. "Well that makes all the difference, then! How could he resist your worldly charm, I wonder?"

            They giggle together for a little while, just like the silly schoolkids they used to be.

            When they finally manage to calm down, Charles shrugs at her, only a tiny bit sheepish. "It would have been more circumspect to invite him to have tea with me, of course. Or dinner – though honestly, I didn't want to wait that long. But Raven, it would have meant the exact same thing, and both of us would have known it."

            Charles, we have talked about this, Raven projects, sternly. Affection and exasperation are woven almost equally through the carefully shaped words, shot through with lingering amusement. Social niceties exist for a reason.

            It's Charles' turn to roll his eyes. She makes him sound like an uncultured boor, and Charles is many things, but certainly neither uncultured nor boorish. Besides, in his experience, alphas rather appreciate the direct approach.

            Exhibit – oh whatever, he's well and truly lost count. Seriously, just his luck to run into an utterly gorgeous alpha who stands on protocol.

            "None of this explains why you didn't go out and find a less fussy alpha at some point, though," Raven says, almost suspiciously. 

            And the thing is – no. No, it really doesn't. 

            "I don't really understand it, either," he says, slowly. "There was something. Something was… off. It soured the mood."

            Raven frowns in incomprehension. He can't explain what he means more clearly, though, given that he doesn't know himself. It was a feeling – something Lehnsherr projected that he caught subconsciously, perhaps.

            He shakes his head, dispelling thoughts of his misadventure. "Never mind. It doesn't matter, anyway – water under the bridge. But what about you? Any special plans for your next heat? A night at the ballet, perhaps, or a five-course dinner at Per Se, followed by cocktails and a cultivated discussion of Renaissance poetry?"

            Raven tosses a pencil at him. He dodges, and is caught squarely on the forehead by the eraser she was holding in reserve.

             

            ~~~~~~~~~~

             

            Two days later, the engineering secretariat emails Charles to inform him that Erik Lehnsherr respectfully declines to participate in his research into metahuman genetic mutations. Charles calls the secretary who signed the email, and she assures him that yes, Mr Lehnsherr had indeed been made aware of the exceedingly generous monetary compensation Professor Xavier offers to participants, but had respectfully declined anyway.

            Charles strongly suspects that the respectful part of the declining is a fiction on the part of the secretary.

            That's that, then. Offering money was Charles' method of last resort – most students are notoriously low on cash, so he had thought his chances quite good. Especially since Lehnsherr has no cause to connect the reputable geneticist Professor C. F. Xavier with the overly bold omega who importuned him.

            Usually, Charles would not give up so easily. He can be very convincing in person; he's good at understanding what holds people back, and how to smooth the way between what they want and what Charles wants. In this specific case, however, Charles has thoroughly sabotaged himself.

            It's an incredible loss. The man's mutation is the strongest Charles has ever encountered – so much so that Charles has nothing to even compare it to. Most mutations register as hardly more than a tingle in his mind unless he concentrates. Lehnsherr's, on the other hand… Charles hadn't even been looking for it, and it had been overwhelming.   

              But there's no help for it, so Charles puts Erik Lehnsherr out of his mind.

              Which is why Charles is more than surprised four days later still, when Lehnsherr walks into his lab.

               

               

              Chapter Text

              The lab is unlocked and brightly lit, but seems deserted at first glance. Erik stops by the entrance, sorting quickly through the gentle press of overlapping magnetic fields, the bright impressions of steel, and the subtler notes of other metals, some quiescent, some humming with movement or heat.

              There – a closed metal door leading to a second room in the back, and beyond it, surrounded by more equipment, a body-warm brass button, zipper and several rivets.

              Fine. He'll wait. It's not like he has an appointment, and he knows better than to barge into someone's lab uninvited.

              More than absolutely necessary, that is.

              Looks like he won't have to wait long, anyway. The button, zipper and rivets are moving now, turning as their wearer heads towards the main lab; an instant later the door opens, out of sight behind a row of cabinets singing with iron, chromium and nickel.

              No, damn it – steel. The cabinets are made of steel. Erik's too close, sinking beyond the alloy down to its component metals. This will be difficult enough; he can't afford to be distracted on top of everything because he's caught up in the constituent atoms of a damned filing cabinet.  

              He draws himself back, straightens his shoulders and smoothes out his expression. He tries not to lift his chin too high; tries not to sound belligerent when he speaks to announce his presence. "Excuse me. I'm looking for Professor Xavier."

              Before he's finished speaking, a man in a lab coat ducks around the cabinets, a big smile on his face.

              His unexpectedly familiar face.

              "Mr Lehnsherr! I'm so glad to see you."

              For several moments, Erik is speechless, astonishment drowning out any other emotion. This is Professor Xavier? What the hell was renowned biologist Professor Xavier doing hitting on Erik in the foyer of the physics department?

              The radiant smile falters somewhat. "Ah, well. Uhm, I believe we should focus on the matter at hand, which is that you have a – an utterly fascinating – I mean to say, it's metal, isn't it?"

              It's not a conscious thing, but when he recovers from his astonishment, Erik finds that he has gathered all of the metal around him into his hold. The reassuring hum against his senses steadies him, clears his mind; he singles out a coin in his wallet and shifts it minutely against the others.

              The coin is solid and real in his mental grasp. When he reaches into the alloy, all the way down, he can easily separate the different metals, move them together while maintaining the coin's shape. Copper. Nickel. Iron. Manganese.

              "I'm very glad you have reconsidered," the professor is saying. "Of course the offer of compensation stands. If you would step over to the left with me, I'll get us started by drawing some blood and doing a buccal swab. That means we'll swab the inside of your cheek for a tissue sample. If you have a bit of time now, we can do the interview right away, and then I will devise a suitable range of tests. Have you heard of the Xavier Scala? It's quite brilliant, really…"

              He's not in heat anymore, at least. That's something, Erik supposes.

              Erik shapes the coin in his wallet into a ball of metals, pulls it flat again. It takes no effort and hardly any concentration. If he wanted, he could do more. There's no need, of course. But he could.

              He breathes deeply and consciously relaxes his stance, forcing himself back on track.

              As unpleasant a surprise as Professor Xavier's identity is, it doesn't matter. Erik can't afford to let it matter. What Xavier thinks about alphas has no bearing on his abilities as a scientist, and Erik doesn't have the luxury of choice.

              "I'm here for the position of graduate assistant," Erik says, talking right over Xavier.

              The silence is instantaneous. Xavier couldn't look more stunned if Erik had hit him over the head with a two-by-four.

              Erik holds out the application file he brought. Xavier hardly glances at it, preferring to stare at Erik, a quizzical frown forming between his brows. "I'm sorry, I thought I specified that applicants were to send in their documents and wait to be given an appointment."

              Except that if he'd sent in his application, Erik would never have made it to within fifty meters of the lab or Xavier... not for any of the right reasons, at least. "So you did. But we both know that only one person will get an appointment that way – and I am a better choice than she."

              It's so clear the job ad has been tailored to Pasfield that they might as well have written "applicants must have shoulder-length hair, wear rimless glasses, and be named Sarah".  And for all that Pasfield is a good physicist and a fair fit for this project, Erik is better. If Erik were an omega, there would not be any contest –

              Yeah, well. If Erik were an omega, he'd have had his doctorate long ago, and be well on the way to hiring assistants of his own. Instead, here he is, with pitifully little research experience to his name and constant investigations into the "suspicious" results of his exams dogging his academic career.  

              Fuck them. Erik has never let them stop him before. He isn't going to start now.

              Xavier is inspecting Erik with carefully raised eyebrows, but doesn't seem to be planning on speaking. Maybe he's waiting for Erik to realize how ridiculous it is for him to pretend to be a scientist and storm off in a fit of rage. If so, he'll be waiting a long time.

              "You're studying the metahuman genome, and are looking for a physicist with a background in quantum mechanics," Erik says, coldly. He supposes he should try to smile and be sweet, soft and ingratiating, but fuck that, too. He is what he is. "That means you've been confronted with unusual reactions on the part of the cells or DNA you're studying. You think you have to go to the quantum level to discover the cause. To warrant such a conclusion, the samples in question will have displayed behavior suited to prevent you from gaining meaningful results with the usual array of equipment for genetic analysis… perhaps even behavior destructive to said equipment."

              Xavier blinks. After a moment, he blinks again. Then, he frowns a mild, inquisitive frown.

              Fine. Erik can conduct this interview entirely by himself, if he has to. "I am an engineer and a physicist, with graduate degrees in both fields. I specialize in quantum mechanics, among other things. And unlike the applicant you tailored your ad for, I can think outside the box."

              Still nothing. Erik decides to prod a little. "What kind of problems were there with the equipment?"

              Another long moment of Xavier staring at Erik passes. Erik can feel himself starting to scowl, and makes no attempt to stop. Really, Xavier isn't even going to pretend?  

              But after another heartbeat or so, Xavier finally shakes himself out of it. He gives a small, brisk nod that seems to be addressed solely to himself and rediscovers the use of his voice at long last. "My thermal cycler overheated, for one thing. If you'd like to have a look…"

              Erik would, and does.

              He knows very little about thermal cyclers, except that they're used to copy segments of DNA for analysis. It turns out to be a simple system, though; a thermal block with openings to insert reaction tubes and a control unit attached to regulate heating and cooling. It's based on the Peltier effect, using silver.

              The machine didn't overheat, though. Not even remotely. Something melted through it – something that evidently originated from the reaction tubes in the thermal block. Fragments of the tubes are melted into the remains of the machine, reminding Erik of a surrealist painting he saw once where objects were flowing together like water.   

                "You checked for radioactivity, I presume." When Erik turns to glance at Xavier, the man's hovering very close by; Erik has to check himself to keep from stepping away.

                Xavier nods matter-of-factly. "Normal levels, exactly what you'd expect."

                Good. "At what point during the operation of the cycler did this happen?"

                "I wasn't watching it closely, but I'm assuming several minutes into the first heat phase of the first cycle. I'd set the phase in question for 65 °C, no gradient."

                Erik tips the cycler on its side, careful of leakage. Nothing. Nothing is trapped inside the remains of the silver thermal block either, though there may be some remaining metahuman DNA encased in plastic.

                It looks as though the content of the reaction tubes exploded outwards into the thermal block, where it reacted with the matter it came into contact with. But… "It doesn't look like a heat reaction. There's too much material missing, and no residue. And the pattern of the damage here, at the side – heat does not normally disperse like this."

                Xavier is back to saying nothing. He's watching Erik in a new way now, almost as though Erik is a particularly odd specimen – one that might melt through expensive equipment if handled carelessly, perhaps.

                If he intends to unnerve him, Xavier is going to have to do a lot better. Erik is used to being stared at in any number of ways. It's been a long time since he's let himself be discomfited by other people's disapproval.

                "An ionizing reaction, perhaps," Erik says, meeting and holding Xavier's piercing blue gaze. "Theoretically, it could have turned the cycler's matter into a plasma."

                It's one theory to be tested, at least. The fact that the present state of knowledge makes no allowance for such an occurrence only means that they're still at the beginning when it comes to understanding the laws that govern the universe. Erik can manipulate electromagnetic fields and command metal; there's no allowance for that in the current theories, either.

                Xavier says nothing some more, but his expression shifts. The frown is back, although now there's nothing mild about it anymore.

                The next question, of course, is what stimulus caused the reaction in the first place. Heat, the other reagents, the reactions induced in the metahuman DNA by any of these factors or combination of factors... "Tell me what exactly happens to DNA during the first heat phase of the first cycle, taking into consideration the temperature and the other reagents used."

                This time, Xavier doesn't hesitate.

                Three hours later, the lab is sinking beneath a drift of paper bearing hasty diagrams, fragments of equations, computer print-outs, notes in illegible shorthand, and a whole swarm of the misshapen fish, clovers and vines that Xavier doodles while he's thinking. Xavier's hair is standing on end from where he dug a hand into it a while back, seemingly trying to physically pull an idea from his brain. Tea has appeared from somewhere, along with a box of stale cookies that taste like dust, but that Erik has been eating anyway.

                At some point, Erik has started grinning. It's a grin that's fierce enough to stretch his lips and show teeth; the kind of grin – he's pretty sure – not remotely suitable for a scientist. Not that he gives a fuck.

                Xavier is faster to snap up any idea Erik throws his way than anyone Erik has ever worked with – and then he runs with it, takes it apart and puts it back together again. The way he thinks, the kinds of leaps he makes… they haven't actually been doing anything except tossing ideas back and forth, but even so, it feels like the most intensive and productive cooperation of Erik's life.

                It's definitely the closest Erik has ever come to working on a real research project. He tries not to get his hopes up too high; tries to remember that Xavier is not exactly enlightened when it comes to the role of alphas. But even so…

                Erik wants this. He wants it too much, wants it in a way that will mean he'll be far too disappointed when – if – it is taken away.

                The subtle chime of his cell phone's alarm goes almost unheard, but there's no way for Erik to miss the vibration shuddering through the phone's metal shell.

                Damn – there's a meeting tonight, and Erik doesn't have the agenda planned out yet. He'll have to improvise. And leave pretty damn quick to catch his bus, too, or waste money he doesn't have on a taxi.

                Xavier is scribbling something while muttering about reversed Hoogsteen hydrogen bonds, but reels his mind back to the lab quickly when Erik collects his backpack and starts shuffling through papers, hunting for the application he brought.

                "I have to leave, Professor. Thank you for your time." Surprisingly enough, Erik actually means it.

                This time, Xavier takes Erik's carefully assembled application file without hesitation.

                 

                 

                Chapter Text

                "Why would I require a physicist to aid me in my research? Theories?" Charles asks, spontaneously. He hasn't planned the question, but he is very interested in how his prospective assistant will answer.

                Sarah Pasfield pauses briefly while she examines the issue. Charles likes the way she thinks; her mind assesses problems quickly and thoroughly. She follows the quick hypotheses she builds with method and grace, sliding surely from one notion to the next.

                Charles doesn't read people's thoughts without invitation, of course, but he does sometimes observe how their minds work. It's not an invasion of privacy when Charles doesn't see what they're thinking, just the way they're thinking it.

                "I theorize that you wish to investigate your specimens' characteristics on an atomic or subatomic level, Professor Xavier," Pasfield says. "As I understand, the study of metahuman mutations is as yet in its infancy, so this shows a laudable thoroughness. In addition, I understand metahuman mutations can manifest as the ability to emit high levels of radiation. Studying such manifestations in detail would also require a physicist." 

                  Charles stares at the young woman until the steady hum of her confidence flickers. Her sudden uncertainty makes him feel like a bully, so he presses another mug of tea and a biscuit on her to make up for it.

                  It's not that her answer is wrong. It isn't. It's just – isn't she wondering why Charles would wish to go down to the atomic or subatomic level? Laudable thoroughness, nonsense. Technically, everything happens in the quantum realm, but it makes no sense to start looking there unless there's no other option.    

                  He waits while Pasfield busies herself with adding sugar to her tea and nibbling on her biscuit. Then, he waits some more while she, in turn, waits for him to ask his next question.

                  Charles finds he is unreasonably impatient with her for not asking to see some equipment that his metahuman specimens have damaged.

                  Erik Lehnsherr's mind felt entirely different. Just as ordered, perhaps, just as methodical, but… quicksilver and lightning, sharp and piercing and brilliant. Electric, almost.   

                    Charles shows Pasfield his ruined thermal cycler. She is stunned, genuinely intrigued, and visibly excited at the implications. When it comes to what might have happened, however, she hesitates to venture a guess.

                    "I really couldn't say." A renewed tang of uncertainty threads through her thoughts. She can tell that Charles expects something of her, but she doesn't know what, and it's throwing her off stride. "Anything I say at this point would be pure conjecture. Without further testing…"

                    Which is, of course, absolutely true. It would be unfair to judge Pasfield because she refuses to speculate without sufficient data. Of course it would be.

                    "Oh, by the way," Charles says when they're shaking hands after the interview. Her thoughts are warm and pleased; she is nervous, hopes that she made a good impression, thinks that she did. She's proud and happy that Professor Thomson recommended her. She knows she is good enough to do this; she likes Charles, admires him as a brilliant scientist, and is looking forward to working with him.

                    "I was wondering if, by any chance, you were acquainted with Erik Lehnsherr."

                    The wave of embarrassment is unexpected. For a moment Charles thinks that she approached Lehnsherr in a less than perfectly polite manner, and was summarily rejected – he could sympathize – but no, it's not that.

                    She feels embarrassed for all physicists, for the university. "I wouldn't say I was acquainted with him," she replies after a long moment. "But I do know him, yes."

                    "Is he a good physicist, would you say?"

                    Sarah Pasfield blinks huge, dark eyes at him as her astonishment explodes into Charles' mind. "I – I really couldn't say."

                    Is he making fun of me? The thought is too loud for Charles not to read it – she's practically shouting it in his ear. She thinks Charles is laughing at her because there's an alpha in her department, pretending to be one of them.  

                    "Never mind," he says quickly, and tries to ignore her relief.

                     

                    ~~~~~~~~~~

                     

                    If it were only a matter of scientific ability, there would be no contest at all. That fact alone is absurd enough to make Charles laugh out loud in the darkened living room, and pour himself another finger of bourbon.

                    It's absurd. It really is. Pasfield is a good scientist; Charles would do excellently with her. But Lehnsherr wasn't lying when he said that he is better.

                    He is much better, Charles can't deny that. But they're not merely disembodied brains. There's no getting around the fact that Lehnsherr is more than just a physicist and an engineer. He's also an alpha.

                    Charles has never worked with an alpha before, and he can't imagine it being anything but a bad idea. They'll be in close proximity for days on end – nights, too. What if Lehnsherr can't control himself?

                    Of course, to be fair, the only sexual advance so far has not been Lehnsherr's. But still. It's a valid concern. Isn't it?

                    Charles groans and lets his head fall back on the sofa's backrest with an audible thump. Then he does it again, for emphasis.

                    He heard a car pull up several minutes ago; now, Raven's familiar mind reaches out to him. Charles? Are you home? What are you doing?

                    "In here – I'm watching TV," Charles calls. He doesn't want to talk about it.

                    Fortunately, when he checks the TV is actually running, showing some kind of a historical epic. At least that's what Charles assumes, going by all the people in pseudo-medieval armor riding dramatically around the countryside.

                    What if Lehnsherr can't concentrate sufficiently – can't focus on non-physical things for long periods of time –

                    But to be honest, it's hard for Charles to imagine that. They'd spent an entire afternoon tossing theories back and forth, and Lehnsherr's mind had been a constant rush of quicksilver and acuity, brightly focussed and as deep and complex as any mind Charles has ever known.

                    Raven heads for the kitchen to find something to eat. One of the people on TV dramatically stumbles into a tent, collapsing in a heap of bloody armor and overacted horror. "Our forces in the valley! The enemy wizards have assassinated all of the officers!"

                    Charles works with delicate, expensive equipment. His experimental set-ups require a precise and gentle touch. He can't risk equipment or experiments being ruined because Lehnsherr goes off into a fit of frustrated rage –

                    The fantasy epic on screen cuts from a tableau of horrified faces in the tent to a battlefield scene of such brutality Charles fumbles for the remote. Really, did they have to show a spear breaking off in someone's throat in quite that much detail?

                    A rampaging, blood-covered soldier bares his teeth in bestial triumph just as Charles finally unearths the remote from between the cushions. The army on screen is turning from a well-ordered fighting force into a horde of mindless savages, the alpha soldiers turning on each other and enemies alike. A group of soldiers is breaking off from the battle entirely, heading for a nearby village where an omega family with children is trying to flee into the forest.

                    Charles really does not want to see where this is going. He switches channels just in time – the first alpha is already bending down from his horse for the slowest omega, a grin of exultant, feral lust on his face.   

                      There, that's better – some kind of soft-focus romantic movie. Two entirely unbloodied women are holding hands in a park, neither fleeing for their lives nor bent on rape and pillage.

                      Maybe Charles should sleep on the matter. He isn't going to get anywhere tonight, it seems; his thoughts are all tangled up.

                      "You mean more to me than anyone I've ever met," the first young omega on screen is saying, face glowing with love and good lighting. "Let's move in together and start our own family. I know it'll be just the two of us for now, but we'll find others –"

                      "It's enough if it's you," rhapsodizes the second. She is a very bad actress, but she does open her eyes very wide in an attempt to compensate. "You are the best friend I have ever had. You're closer to me than my own sister. I want to raise all of my children with you."

                      Raven comes into the living room just as the two omegas fall into each others arms in a tearful hug. "Will you choose an alpha for me, when I go into my next heat?" whispers the bad actress.

                      "Oh my god," Raven says, setting down a plate of sandwiches on the sofa table. "What on earth are you watching? That's awful, Charles."

                      He surrenders the remote to her gladly. She zaps through several channels before settling on something where a frazzled-looking man is seeing off his family. "Are you sure you can't come with us?" one of the other adult omegas calls from the first car. "The kids are going to miss you."

                      Ominous music starts up just as Charles remembers he's seen this movie before. It's a classic thriller – very well-done, if he remembers correctly. Very suspenseful. The hero, a family omega, is stalked by an insane alpha who wants to force him to bond with her.

                      Charles snags a sandwich as he stands up. "I'm going to bed early. It's been a long week."

                       

                       

                      Chapter Text

                      "Erik!" Supervisor Lee calls when he walks past her office. "Get in here."

                      Xavier hasn't called yet. The deadline for applications passed several days ago; Erik's sure Xavier has spoken with Pasfield by now. Maybe he's already hired her. Maybe he isn't going to call at all.

                      There's nothing more Erik can do, so he's trying not to worry about it. Xavier will call, or he won't; Erik will get the job, or he won't.

                      In the meantime, Erik has his current job to do, which – unfortunately – includes dealing with Supervisor Lee.

                      He doesn't close the door behind himself when he walks into her office, and Lee doesn't tell him to. He takes this as a good sign. Less promising is the narrow-eyed head-to-toe scrutiny she gives him before deigning to nod in curt greeting.

                      Erik returns her nod just as curtly, making a point of not being one whit more courteous than she. He doubts she notices, though.

                      "Guess you'll do," Lee says abruptly. "Our eldest has a career thing at school next week. I want to show him around my workplace, give him an idea of what I do and what it means to be a warehouse manager."

                      "Or a warehouse supervisor." Erik can tell the difference, thank you very much.

                      Lee glares at him for a moment, but then lets it go. He's never been deferent; he guesses she's learned to deal.

                      "He'll want to see the warehouses themselves, too," she goes on. "You're going to accompany him, show him the kind of work you people do. Let him drive a forklift, whatever. Make sure everyone behaves, nobody harasses him."

                      Another up-and-down look is accompanied by Lee's hardest glare. "You better keep your hands to yourself, too, along with all your other body parts. Try anything at all – you're dead. Got it?"

                      Erik gives her his least friendly smile. He's stopped caring about what omegas like Lee think a long time ago. Complete contempt makes a great emotional buffer. "I'm working half-nights Monday to Thursday next week. Day on Sunday."

                      The night shift begins at 6 p.m. – good luck getting Lee's spawn to stay that late.

                      "You'll have to come in for day instead," Lee says dismissively. "Let's say Tuesday. I'll change the schedule."

                      "Day shifts aren't an option for me during the week." Erik's smile shows teeth now.

                      Lee snorts. "Don't tell me you're still doing that thing – what was it?"

                      "Studying," Erik says, shortly.

                      Supervisor Lee laughs and rolls her eyes. "What do you actually do, though, spend all day trolling for students? I guess they like the muscle, and that scowl of yours, huh? That does have a certain primitive appeal. I bet –"

                      "Hey, so it is possible to change schedules after they've been cleared?" Erik wrinkles his brow in his best imitation of clueless confusion. "And here the team leader's been claiming it can't be done. I have to tell the other operatives – they'll be glad to know."

                      And that's that.

                      Someone else will have to play babysitter. Good thing, too; Lee would only have kicked up a huge fuss if Erik had made her precious baby cry.

                       

                      ~~~~~~~~~~

                       

                      "They're asking Eliza to join the family," Alex announces after half a shift of angry, glaring silence. His voice is belligerent, but when Erik glances over, the rigid cast of his shoulders is defensive.

                      A beat of tense silence passes, daring Erik to comment.

                      Erik hefts another crate off the forklift palette and carries it to the testing area. The thrill of metal from the equipment inside slides pleasantly against his senses. Slender constructs of steel and aluminum; light stands, trussing, hangers and extensions.

                      When Alex realizes Erik isn't going to ask, he gusts out a held breath in what sounds almost like relief. It's a good thing the crate he grabs next holds only cables, because he drops it to the floor from a height of almost half a meter.

                      They work in silence for a while, lining up the crates of lighting equipment to be unpacked, inspected and cleaned. Erik passes the time by opening his mind to the complex interwoven patterns of energy and matter all around, reaching out until an entire warehouse's worth of metal and electromagnetic fields is singing to him. He could reach further – or he could sink deeper, down to intricate crystal structures humming with activity. But today, this is enough.

                      He drinks in the bright clear notes of steel; the various tones and saturations of aluminum, iron, gold, silver, copper and tin; the countless alloys and energy fields, all winding around and through each other, like a symphony. It's a good feeling, standing securely in the midst of such potential. It makes Erik feel like nothing can go wrong, like he's exactly where he's meant to be. Like he has the power to do anything at all, and is just biding his time.

                      An illusion, of course. But a good feeling, even so.  

                      There's so much metal close at hand, here. It's in the walls and shelves of the warehouse; in the trucks that come and go in the loading bay; in the forklifts and carts that navigate the aisles, the reinforced equipment crates and metal transport cases, the equipment itself…

                      In the circular object Alex wears on his chest underneath his sweatshirt.

                      It's a shield of some kind, Erik thinks. He's never asked; it's none of his business. But there's something behind it, some kind of energy that presses against the natural electromagnetic forces flowing around Alex's body, warping them. 

                      "I don't like Eliza." Alex whirls to glare at Erik as though he is somehow responsible for this latest chapter in the annals of Alex's misadventures playing house with a bunch of omegas. "She's a total bitch."

                      Erik has never encouraged Alex to come out with confidences of any kind… hasn't, in fact, done anything to pry the kid out of his shell, not in all the time they've been working together. That fact seems to be a large part of why Alex decided that Erik, of all people – silent, glowering, radical misfit Erik – was the one he would open up to.  

                      Even stranger, perhaps, is that Erik likes it. Likes the trust that it implies, at least, even if Alex's confidences themselves are not always the most worthwhile of orations.  

                      "So leave," Erik snaps. "Live on your own." He's never understood the attraction of whoring yourself out to a bunch of omegas. In return for spending their lives as janitors, sperm donors and sex toys, alphas staying with families get what, exactly? Their last bit of freedom and autonomy stripped away, all in the interest of making life even more comfortable for some smug, entitled omegas.

                      Predictably, Alex doesn't appreciate the advice, and just glares at Erik with more heat. "Fuck you very much."

                      Erik snorts. "Try and I'll break off your dick."

                      Alex backs down immediately, looking away to the side and purposefully relaxing his stance. He even shifts his weight as though about to physically move back. No doubt he would, if Erik made to step into his space.

                      Erik very carefully does not sigh. He wasn't trying to play the dominance game; alpha posturing is pointless and stupid, a waste of time and a damn nuisance into the bargain. Erik is pretty sure it's merely another artificial behavior society has forced on them, making sure alphas are too busy fighting among themselves to wake up and address the real problem.

                      But Alex is no more than an insecure kid, and he tries so hard to be all alpha it's painful to watch. It would be cruel of Erik not to take him seriously.

                      "She was only staying for a couple months," Alex says more quietly. He's still not looking at Erik. "But now they're all like – oh Eliza, she's so great. So smart and nice and fun and shit."

                      There's an undertone in Alex's voice that Erik doesn't like. He pauses in his task of opening the crates, straightening to give the kid his full attention.

                      "She's not. None of that. Not with me. She orders me around and shit, but she never really talks to me, you know? It's like – and when she touches me it's like – weird. It's weird."

                      A knot of cold is solidifying in Erik's stomach. Weird as in I don't want it… except that Alex would never say that when it comes to sex. Don't real alphas always want it, after all?

                      "The other night, right, when she told me to come to her room, everyone smiled like it was so great how much she felt all at home and shit. Like she was already part of the family. They're gonna ask her soon, I know it."

                      Alex still isn't meeting Erik's eyes.

                      Erik wants to kill the omega who fucked Alex the other night. He wants to kill the omegas Alex lives with, who let her do it and smiled. He wants to shake Alex because he doesn't even realize what they're doing to him, just lets them do it and doesn't do anything to stop them –

                      The crowbar in his hand warps and bends. Erik turns away from the kid to take in a deep breath that shudders in his throat; concentrates on the steel in his grasp until it straightens.

                      "Armando, he. You know. During the – the knotting." Alex sounds almost shy now, and Erik turns back around in time to see a soft wash of pink rise to his cheeks. It's oddly endearing, in a guy who tries so hard to be all swagger and attitude. "He holds me. And I hold him. I mean, you're meant to, right. Be protective and shit. And we talk, you know? It's… And Hank, he – he's all shivery and wide-eyed every time, like he just can't believe – and he touches me like, I don't know, and looks at me like I'm really amazing. That – and Leah. She's, she cuddles and we kiss and she likes messing up my hair and sometimes she gets really silly and then we're laughing so hard. You know."

                      No, Erik does not know. Doesn't want to, either. But he gets what Alex is saying; the kid doesn't want to leave the omegas he's been living with, for all that he doesn't want to live with the new one. Which leaves him with a very narrow range of choices.

                      Fuck it. This is every alpha's business. Erik is making this his business.

                      "You're coming with me tonight," Erik says.

                      It comes out as an order. Alex never stands a chance.

                       

                      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

                       

                      Silence descends as Erik walks to the front of the room. They don't have a podium, the way the university's lecture halls do – they don't even have a blackboard, or anything but tables and chairs. It's just the backroom of a pub, stuffy and crowded even with their still-small number. But it does the job.

                      Erik looks out at his alphas – bitter, angry, battered and demeaned, but not defeated. Never defeated. Not if Erik has any say in the matter.

                      And he does.

                      He smiles, and doesn't even tense anymore as every alpha in the room cuts their eyes down and away for half a beat, just long enough. Even Emma. Dominance again, always dominance, and for all that he's used to it, it still gives him a pang at the thought of what they've been reduced to. But it's a minor issue, comparatively speaking – he doesn't have time to get caught in it, not now.

                      Not with all of the other things that are wrong in the world.

                      "None of you are what you should be," he starts, speaking into dead silence. "Right now, alphas are in a dismal state. Our minds and talents are undeveloped and wasted. We are uneducated, coarse, uncivilized – and none of that is our fault."

                      It's his standard introductory speech. Erik varies it every time, but the essence remains the same, and many of the alphas in the room have heard it dozens of times. It doesn't matter; the message bears repeating. It needs to be understood and believed not merely with the mind, but with the heart.

                      Besides, there are new faces, too – more than just Alex (who's hovering near the door as an embodiment of spooked uncertainty, trying in vain to masquerade as alpha toughness). There are always new faces, these days.

                      "Everything in society is geared towards making us less than we should be. Our lives have been orchestrated by omegas with the goal of shaping us into helpless toys rather than rational, empowered human beings."

                      The new alphas glare and grumble at being called helpless. They always do. "You don't like to be called helpless? But you are. How many of you are living the life you would choose to live? How many of you have the chance to discover your true potential? You've been taught all your lives that you have no capacity for thought or reason. That you're driven by impulse, instinct and emotion, like an animal. That you must be controlled and hedged in for everyone's good, including your own. There is no proof for any of these claims – nothing beyond the insistence of centuries of omegas. But society is structured around these false pretences, and so you are forced to live like leashed animals. You're treated as subordinate beings rather than equals. What would you call that, if not helpless?"

                      A wave of uncomfortable shifting ripples through the room. Someone in the back clears their throat. Erik waits for a beat or two, but nobody says anything.

                      That's fine. Erik can speak for them until they're ready to do it themselves. "Society has drawn an artificial divide between alphas and humans. Alphas are not merely treated as less than omega – we're treated as less than human. Falsehoods have been used to raise omegas above us and let them use us however they wish, while allowing us no say in the matter."

                      "No more!" calls a strong female voice from the left. Emma, of course.

                      Erik smiles as the audience's silence grows heavy and restless. "That's right. No more. What we are right now – that is not our fault. But it will be our fault if we remain as we are, and do nothing to right these wrongs."

                      "How, though?" That's an alpha in the first row, one Erik has seen several times, but never heard talk before. For a second she looks almost startled at her own outburst, but she quickly firms her chin and glowers at Erik. "What can we do? I want to change things, but how?" 

                      "Yes! Exactly the right question." Erik nods in approval. "That is what we are here to discuss. Most of all, we need to work on two things – education and public awareness."

                      It's a good evening. The speech segues naturally into a discussion, and before long various alphas come forward to talk about their successes and failures. Some project groups recruit newcomers, and a number of new ideas that Erik finds promising are tossed back and forth. A grey-haired alpha asks Erik if it's true that he's at university, and then seems stunned speechless when the rumor actually turns out to be true.

                      Alex leaves early, still looking spooked. He does manage a muttered "uh, got to go", though, and at least tries to be subtle about the wide-eyed stares he gives the other alphas as he makes his way to the door.

                      "Your little friend is traditional, is he," Emma says, watching him flee. She looks ravishing as always, perfectly turned out in a white pantsuit, blond hair curled just so, predatory steel gleam in her eye.

                      Erik shrugs. Almost everyone starts out traditional. What matters is where they end up. "He'll be back."

                      Nobody ever gets saved, no matter what lies certain sugary movies try to sell. No alpha ever does, anyway. Alex will have to save himself; nobody else can do it for him.

                      Erik will give the damn kid a few good hard shoves in the right direction, though. Maybe a kick or two in the ass, as well.

                      "We'll see." Emma dismisses Alex with a shrug and gives Erik a cool stare. "We need a larger and better venue. Among other things."

                      "I know." Erik's tired all of a sudden, but stops himself from running a hand over his face the way he wants to. There are too many alphas watching him. "I'm working on it."   

                        She smirks at him, narrowing her eyes in a way that he's learned to be wary of. "Anything wrong? You seem on edge."

                        Erik has seen omegas literally trip over themselves on catching sight of her. It took him several weeks to discover the tiny smugness lurking in the set of her mouth, and determine that that is exactly why she does it – because she makes them weak, ridiculous and desperate.

                        Erik understands that this is a form of power too, and that Emma wields it expertly and deliberately. Even so, he doesn't understand how she can bring herself to do it.

                        "Nothing's wrong," Erik says at last. Nothing except the world, at least. And he's working on that, too.

                         

                        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

                         

                        Xavier doesn't call. He sends an email.

                         

                        Chapter Text

                        This is an odd game.

                        Charles finishes decanting hot water into the office teapot to find Lehnsherr frowning at the chess board set up by the window. His mind is an electric rush of moves and strategies, analyzing the current position and tracing it back to the beginning; sifting through possible game sequences, projecting them forward into a swiftly progressing array of theories on how the game could continue. A torrent of fleet logic curls around the oddity Lehnsherr has perceived, puzzling it apart, searching for the underlying cause.

                        The man's mind is magnificent – a thing of true beauty. Charles actually loses track of what he's doing for an instant, only coming back to himself with a small start when the tea timer chimes.

                        Right, tea. Making tea for his guest. Properly steeped, premium grade green tea, because Charles is being cultured. Usually he simply tosses several bags of English Breakfast into the pot and leaves them to turn the tea into near-black sludge. But not today. Today, he has perfectly infused sencha and suitably decorous cups to pour it into.

                        "You play chess?" Charles intends it to be an innocent question, perhaps a segue into some innocuous small talk to bring down the level of tension in the room. He's genuinely interested, too; he wouldn't have thought that something as purely cerebral and theoretical as chess would interest an alpha, even one as exceptional as Lehnsherr.

                        Of course, Lehnsherr isn't the sort to make anything easy. He reacts with a spike of annoyance sharp enough to punch right through Charles' low-level shield.

                        "I do," he says, voice neutral, measured and even. Believe it or not, his mind snarls, loudly.

                        Charles suppresses a sigh, and prudently does not expand on the subject. Touchiness, thy name is Lehnsherr.

                        He's far too aware of Lehnsherr when the man comes over to take the tea cup Charles is holding out. It isn't that Lehnsherr is still every bit as unfairly attractive as he was the last time Charles saw him. He is, of course, but Charles is not a teenager, and certainly not callow enough to be unduly influenced by mere physicalities when not in heat.

                        So, no. It's not that the unlikely alpha's eyes are neither blue nor green, caught half-way in a lovely, clear shade of aqua. It's not that he's lean and effortlessly powerful; that his too-baggy jeans and turtleneck fail to conceal the appeal of his long-legged, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered physique. It isn't that it's late enough in the day that there's a slight hint of reddish stubble on his cheeks, making him look – weirdly enough – softer. More approachable.

                        Touchable.

                        No; it's none of that. It's the way Lehnsherr carries himself… the way he watches Charles. How he reaches out a hand for his tea, and then steps back again immediately. The way he turns so that Charles is never at his back as he drifts to the other side of the room.

                        Wary, and something more than that. 'Contained' is the term that Charles finds describes him best. It's not merely Lehnsherr's motions, either. His entire being is carefully controlled, wound tight and closely guarded… heated emotions and fierce intensity roiling just underneath the surface.

                        He wasn't like this at either of their previous meetings. But then, Charles had inadvertently caught him off-guard both times – perhaps this is his usual state.

                        Charles finds he is uncommonly intrigued.

                        "Thank you for coming in at short notice," he says, breaking the silence before it can grow awkward. "There are several issues that I would like to discuss with you, pending my decision in the matter of my research assistant."

                        And suddenly Charles is hit with a blast of feeling that nearly makes him drop his cup. It's too much to unravel all at once, but at its heart is a wild surge of hope / longing hedged around with a near-equal force of suspicion and mistrust. I want this too much I need to / is this the lead-in to Xavier demanding sex if I want the job

                        What the –

                        There's a slight delay in proceedings as Charles tries not to gape too obviously at the assumption hovering in Lehnsherr's mind. He honestly thinks that Charles might – that is more than unwarranted, that is downright viciously insulting. Charles would never be so manipulative, so – it's not that he expects anything. He would never make sex a prerequisite for employment. How dare this alpha assume –

                        Charles' indignation has hardly gotten off the ground when he catches a remembered voice echoing through Lehnsherr's mind. I'm sure we can come to an agreement. A confident leer accompanies the words, an encroaching touch bound up with Lehnsherr's disgust and anger. There's a glimpse of Charles in there, too, walking down the stairs in a (choking, reeking) cloud of pheromones.

                        "I don't – I," Charles starts, and then stops to clear his throat.

                        He's automatically strengthened the barrier between his thoughts and Lehnsherr's, giving himself a moment to gather himself. He's rattled to an extent he doesn't quite understand; he'll think about it later, when he has the chance. First, though… "Mr Lehnsherr, I believe I owe you an apology. Our first meeting was not what it should have been, which is entirely due to my lack of deportment. Please allow me to extend my sincere regrets."

                        He hadn't planned on saying this – hadn't meant to allude to the incident at all – but now finds that he's glad for the chance to clear the air.

                        Lehnsherr doesn't respond for a long moment, staring at Charles with unblinking intensity. Then, he nods once, tersely. It's not an acceptance of the apology, but it is an acknowledgement. It will do, for now.

                        Charles is careful to keep his eyes trained on Lehnherr's face when he speaks again. "One of the issues I wish to address is the fact that you have very little research experience."

                        It's a long moment before Lehnsherr answers. When he does, every word is as hard and precise as though etched in stone. "Some scientists appear to feel that my presence in a team would be disruptive."

                        Yes, well. In all likelihood, it would be, even if Lehnsherr himself behaved with perfect restraint.

                        Which, admittedly, he does appear to do most of the time. Charles has checked his student file, and there are no substantiated complaints of sexual harassment against him. There are a number of demerits for disrespectful behavior towards teaching personnel, but roughly half of them were filed by Professor Thomson. Charles is inclined to take that professor's views of what constitutes disrespectful behavior with a grain of salt, when it comes to this particular student.

                        Besides which – alphas should probably be given a bit of leeway when it comes to truculence, right?

                        As for the allegations of cheating… Charles has spent an entire afternoon discussing theories with Lehnsherr, revelling in the firebolt fleetness of his mind and the razor incisiveness of his thoughts. Not once had Lehnherr faltered; his mind flashed over and through facts and theories with absolute surety, spinning connections and building conclusions. Charles has never met anyone in less need of cheat sheets or other illicit aids, and copying from fellow students would only have brought Lehnsherr's grades down.

                        Lehnsherr's troubled student file is at complete odds with his actual performance. His lack of research experience is at odds with his capabilities and potential. And Lehnsherr himself seems prepared to be at odds with the entire world.

                        Charles takes a sip of his cooling tea to gain time. The taste is pleasant enough, but lacks the earthy bitterness he is used to. He finds he misses it, and allows himself a crooked, rueful smile at his own absurdity.

                        Indecisiveness is a state Charles has had very limited exposure to in his life. Depending on how you look at it, this is either fortunate (since he finds he does not appreciate the feeling) or unfortunate (since it means he has no strategies in place). Writing the short two-sentence email to Lehnsherr the other day took up almost an hour. He could hardly decide what to order for dinner last night, and was reduced to scrounging half of Raven's pizza because he didn't like the four cheese rigatoni he ended up with. And this morning, he almost didn't leave the house in time because – in an incident of indecision that cannot be beat for fatuity – he could not decide what to wear.

                        Charles is exceedingly tired of indecision.

                        There is a long list of carefully formulated questions lying on his desk, but the truth is that he doesn't need to hear the answers. At the core, this decision is very simple. Charles is looking for the best research assistant he can get, and there is simply no contest.

                        He puts down his cup to pick up the superfluous list of questions, folds it carefully and deposits it in the wastepaper basket. Underneath it is the folder holding the contract, already filled out with Lehnsherr's name. He hasn't asked the secretary to prepare a contract for Pasfield. Charles supposes that should have told him something – but sadly, being a telepath is no help when it comes to knowing your own mind.

                        "Mr Lehnsherr," Charles says. "I would like to hire you as my research assistant, starting next month."

                        Lehnsherr's eyes widen, stunned disbelief and slow, dawning joy uncurling from him. The harsh thread of wariness wound through it all is almost expected, now.

                        "This is the university's standard contract for full-time post-graduate research assistants. I've already signed both copies. You can sign mine now or take it home with you, to sign at your leisure."

                        Few students bother to actually read contracts before signing. Usually, his assistants glance at them fleetingly, at best – if they bother at all, rather than checking the salary and then leafing directly to the last page. Not so Lehnsherr, though. Why is Charles not surprised.

                        He pours himself more tea while Lehnsherr reads. It doesn't take long, but he feels weird just standing there staring at Lehnsherr's profile.

                        "One more thing." Charles smiles as he hands over a pen. "Perhaps you are already aware of this, but I feel that I should address the subject before you sign, merely as a formality."

                        Lehnsherr raises inquisitive eyebrows. His wariness jumps to suspicion, but Charles knows better than to take it personally.

                        "Like you, I am metahuman. My ability manifested early and was one of the initial key factors in my interest in the metahuman mutation."

                        "Oh?" Now Lehnsherr is interested; his curiosity reaches out across the space between them, warm and pleasant against Charles' mind.

                        "I am a telepath, and could be called an empath as well, although the term is misleading. Despite popular opinion, the human mind maintains no meaningful division between thoughts and emotions."

                        Surprise and, hitting an instant later, an ice-hot spike of alarm. And then… nothing.

                        Charles almost reaches out to make up for the sudden lack of projected thought. He catches himself in time, though. "I do not actively read thoughts unless invited to do so," he goes on. He keeps his gaze steady and open, locked with Lehnsherr's penetrating cyan stare. "I hope this doesn't make you feel too uncomfortable."

                        He doesn't explain about projected thoughts that he can't help overhearing, or about those times that he sees more than he lets on, because not reading people's thoughts is like trying to look only at their clothes without seeing the person wearing them.

                        "I liked the tea," Lehnsherr says at last, completely irrelevantly. "Sencha, isn't it?

                        Charles blinks at him. It's possible he looks less than intelligent at this moment.

                        After another instant of Lehnsherr staring stonily at him, he finally catches on. "Oh! Yes, it is sencha. Gold sencha, in fact, if you were wondering. I'm glad you enjoy it. Would you like another cup?"

                        He would. He takes his time drinking it, too, drifting back over to the chessboard. "If you have time, perhaps we could play a quick game of chess. We can note down the present board position."

                        It's moments like this that present Charles with almost irresistible temptation. One quick peek, and he would know exactly what was behind this wild segue… but it would be more than rude, considering he's only just said he will not take such liberties.

                        And why not accept Lehnsherr's abrupt proposal instead? Chess isn't the worst way of getting inside someone's head, even if Charles would prefer the more direct method.

                        "A round of chess sounds like just the thing," he says, and smiles. "I have two hours – we can pick up the game again at another time, if we exceed that time. And there's no need to note the board position. I was playing against myself. Not one of my more stellar efforts, I must add." In his excuse: He's been distracted.

                        The incredulous way Lehnsherr's eyebrows quirk obliges Charles to explain. "It's a mental exercise of sorts. I segregate the relevant knowledge of strategies, counterstrategies and so on for White and Black in two compartments in my mind and access it in turns, depending on which side I am playing at that time."

                        Granted, the idea is initially perplexing to anyone who is not a telepath, meaning everyone Charles knows. Still, there's no need for Lehnsherr to search for an acceptable response quite so plainly.

                        "I see," is what he finally settles upon.

                        Charles finds himself unexpectedly stung. Obviously he cannot expect Lehnsherr to appreciate the difficulty of the process in question, or the virtuosity which Charles brings to it… but even so. "There is, of course, a tendency towards a lack of diversity in strategy that is inevitable when the player one is attempting to anticipate is identical with oneself."

                        The only reaction he gets is a shrug and an unreadable look. Honestly.

                        Charles gets them both yet another cup of classy green tea while Lehnsherr sets up the board. When Charles offers him white, Lehnsherr accepts without even a token demur.

                        Predictably, Lehnsherr is an aggressive player, who wastes no time in taking the fight to Charles and never lets up once he's done so. He's calm and confident, surveying the board quickly and choosing his moves without lengthy deliberation. He's also somewhat confusing, because he regularly makes moves that Charles hasn't even considered as a possibility – moves that seem ill-considered, even random.

                        After the first time Charles happens into an unorthodox trap that almost costs him his queen and that does cost him a bishop, as well as a position he's been working towards for some time, Charles knows better.

                        It's not a surprise that the man is good; at this point, Charles has come to expect the unexpected from him. It is a surprise that he is this good, however.

                        In retrospect, Charles reflects that his mistake is allowing Lehnsherr to take the initiative in the first moves of the game, because after that, Charles never quite gets both of his feet on the ground again. He is usually very successful at forcing his opponents into positions where they're playing to Charles' strengths. But Lehnsherr… simply won't.

                        Lehnsherr doesn't announce check. At that point, Charles doesn't expect him to anymore.

                        After Charles resigns, Lehnsherr spends a good five minutes staring at him. Charles meets his gaze calmly and takes the opportunity to try to make up his mind about the man's eyes some more. In this light, for the first time, they look almost grey.

                        It is really quite unsporting of Lehnsherr to be an alpha, the implausible best choice for Charles' graduate assistant, and disconcertingly attractive, all at the same time. The offence is compounded by the fact that – as Charles could hardly help but note during their game – the man also has long, absurdly elegant fingers.

                        "Professor Xavier, I would like to accept your offer of employment as your research assistant," Lehnsherr says at last, sounding oddly formal.

                        How has this become a matter of Lehnsherr graciously accepting Charles' offer, anyway?

                        "In that case, Erik," Charles replies with his most winning smile, "I must insist you call me Charles."