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Frosted hearts

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Frosted Hearts

The one redeeming quality Janos Quested had, in addition to his uncanny ability to keep his mouth shut, was his appreciation of elegance and restraint. Aside from that one unfortunate purple jacket, the purchase of which Janos referred to as "a wild hair," his taste agreed with Emma's in almost every particular, right down to his belief that the website for Frosted Hearts should not cave to the cutesy pastel-and-computer-generated-generic-people design that characterized its competitors. Or, Janos had added with a shudder, the stock photographs of happy, nuzzling heterosexual and human-standard partners.

He'd also agreed with Emma that the offices of Frosted Hearts should be more professional than soppy. This meant that, when Emma conducted screenings for potential clients, they waited for her in a room whose whiteness was relieved only by eggshell and taupe, and the Forbes magazines spread across a glass-topped coffee table. When she finally deigned to see them – assuming they passed the rigorous telepathic pre-inspection – it was in an office not much warmer, with silver-streaked marble floors and the chrome FROSTED HEARTS logo looming behind Emma's head.

"So, you seem to have done well for yourself."

"Well enough," Emma said. "Mr. Stark."

No one, of course, could ever accuse Tony Stark of being elegant or restrained. The goatee alone destroyed nearly any chance of that, Emma thought with a frown. The drunken shenanigans that had Stark's face plastered across nearly every city gossip magazine obliterated the rest.

Still, money talked, and Tony's money spoke rather loudly and garishly, with the sort of accent Emma associated more with "back streets" than "Fifth Avenue." Which was why money alone was insufficient, and why the unspoken mission of Frosted Hearts was to help others – mostly mutants but the occasional qualified human – avoid the sort of miscalculation that had cost Emma five years of her life and a truly embarrassing amount of social capital.

She preferred "miscalculation" to "error," as it sounded more like an error her GPS had made and not falling prey to an error made by telepaths in grade school: thinking you knew a person on first scan, and not bothering to look deeper. Four years later, Emma still couldn't say if the blow to her image or her pride had been harder to weather.

While she was woolgathering, Tony was helping himself to the tablet she'd placed on her desk. He'd somehow navigated out of her list of five prospects for him and had gone, infuriatingly, for the rejects.

"What about him?" Tony held up the tablet so Emma could see the photo of a wholesome-looking young man with his Captain-America face and blue eyes.

"Oh, not him, sweetie," Emma told him. "If you got hold of him, America would lose one more slice of Mom's apple pie. He believes in truth, justice, and the American Way. For that matter," and here Emma gave thanks for her near-encyclopedic knowledge of her clients, "he does, in fact, teach American constitutional history at New York University. He's as wholesome as a bottle of unpasteurized milk. It would never work."

"Oh, I don't know," Tony said, tracing a finger across the tablet's surface, a ridiculous smile sitting in the corner of his mouth. "Opposites attract and all that. Boy from the Midwest meets and falls in love with high-powered, big-city CEO? It happens in movies all the time."

"Not this movie," Emma said firmly. "Can we please get back to the people I actually selected for you?"

"Or what about him?"

"Absolutely not." Emma allowed herself to flicker to diamond, just enough to remind Stark who he was dealing with – namely, a person who could crush his wrist into bone dust.

"Charles Xavier," Tony said musingly. Emma could see Charles's face in Tony's mind's eye, his mouth and eyes colored vividly by lust and appreciation, the ridiculous curl to his hair that Tony was imagining looked soft and fun to rumple up. "Now, he sounds right up my alley: casual relationship, bisexual, open to anything… That is a very, very nice alley, Miss Frost."

"He's a telepath," Emma said coolly, "and I don't think your board would appreciate you having cocktails with someone who can read your engineering secrets like it's Fifty Shades of Whatever."

"Hey, our engineering secrets are much better written." Tony winced. "Anyway, his file says he's a geneticist…. Ooooh, and he's loaded," that was not included in the base information Emma gave to clients, although she did screen for financial compatibility, which meant Tony had hacked into the service's database, "so it's not like he'd want to sell me out for money."

"I doubt your board is going to see it that way. Now," Emma added a little snap to her voice, "before your time runs out and I have to see to my other clients, how about we go through the people I actually picked out for you?"

Tony reluctantly agreed to this, and agreed to consider Emma's choices in more detail – as long as they were neither Steve Rogers nor Charles Xavier – and call her back. He left a few minutes early, for which Emma was grateful, as it gave her time to sip her tea and push back the headache that dealing with Tony Stark inevitably occasioned.

"You know," Janos said as he came bustling in with more tea and a plate of chia seeds, "perhaps Dr. Xavier would be good for him. They're very similar, after all, with the preference for no-strings-attached sex and drinking and such."

"The last thing Charles needs is someone to encourage him," Emma said with a frown. "It's high time – past high time, really, it's positively irksome – for him to admit that he needs to stop wallowing in the past and start looking for some permanence."

"As you have done," Janos said with a handwave that summoned a gust of wind to loosen Emma's hair from its immaculate coif. Emma had the sense of tugging on pigtails from him. "Of course."

"Yes, exactly," Emma said briskly. "I've put Sebastian and his lunacy behind me, and Charles ought to do the same."

Janos hummed. "I find it amazing that neither the owner of a dating service nor the author of a relationship advice column can find a single date, let alone maintain relations with another person extending past two consecutive nights."

Emma scowled. The problem with Janos was that, on the rare occasion he failed to keep his mouth shut, he said things like this.

"Do you think, once you're done editorializing," she said while Janos busied himself with needlessly rearranging the glass ornaments on a bookcase, "you could tell me if our next client is waiting?" She knew, of course – there was a fog of impatience drifting in from the lobby – but it gave Janos something to say that wasn't a well-placed barb.

"Mr. Lehnsherr for his three o'clock, ma'am," Janos said serenely as he adjusted a glass dove. "Shall I show him in?"

"Please," Emma mumbled. "Anything."

* * *

Dear Professor X,

I'm a shapeshifter and I'm out and proud about my mutation. I'm eighteen. I also have a boyfriend, "Kevin," who is human. He's supportive of me and when I told him I was a mutant on our first date, he didn't flip out or run screaming. But the thing is, though, he only wants to have sex when I look like someone famous or hot, like Scarlett Johansson, his current Babe of the Moment, or that girl from The Hunger Games, which is kind of creepy since her character's only like fifteen or whatever. He tells me he loves me for who I am and that by asking me to change into different shapes he's showing how much he enjoys my mutation. When I tell him that if he loved me he would have sex with me whatever shape I'm in, he tells me I don't trust him and reminds me that his sister is a mutant, so he's not being bigoted or anything. It makes me feel like I'm freaking out about nothing and that, instead of being grateful for a wonderful boyfriend, I'm being demanding and picky. Still, I can't escape the feeling that he doesn't really love me unless I'm willing to give in to his demands. What should I do?


Shapeless in Seattle

Charles took a therapeutic sip of tea as he considered his answer. He usually had two answers to give to his Questions of the Day: one that he, as a long-time dating advice expert, knew he should give, and the one he wanted to give because, sometimes, he wanted to be angry and virtually shout at idiots being terrible, rather than offer help and support to the letter-writer who needed him. Most days he had no difficulty suppressing the urge to say what he really thought, but other days… those were therapy tea days. Therapy tea had whiskey in it and a bit of lemon, and was necessary after a day spent covering for a sick TA and then writing the column that had taken over his life. It was also necessary to remind him that the purpose of Professor X was to help people, not yell at morons.

Sometimes he could not quite believe this had started as a way to earn an extracurricular credit towards his undergraduate degree.

"Really," Moira, his future editor, had said, "who can give better sex advice than a telepath?"

"Well," Charles had hedged. He had prepared to say something to the effect of you would be surprised to know I do not, in fact, spend all my time reading people's minds for their prurient fantasies… but then he remembered the extracurricular credit.

"Good point," he'd said instead.

So he'd become Dr. XXX for the next four years of his life, until he graduated. Dr. XXX had become the syndicated Professor X and then a book and then another book and then, finally, a blog that got an obscene amount of unique hits each month and endless comments on his posts. Usually Charles found pride in the community that had developed around Professor X and even his own sort of pride in counseling mutants still stymied by the human mysteries of love and togetherness.

But every now and then… He added another splash of whiskey to his tea and sipped some more before composing a reply.

Dear Shapeless,

First, let me tell you what a wonderful thing it is that you're 'out and proud.'

Back when he'd first begun Dr. XXX, he'd given relationship advice to all and sundry. Slowly, though, it had taken a turn when he'd revealed his own mutation in one column his junior year – to an empathy whose boyfriend had accused her of psionically spying on him and using him to cheat on her exams, never mind that empathy did not work that way – and had become a mutant-only column. And another thing that had changed was the number of letter-writers who had asserted their mutation and made it clear they were open about what they were and what they could do. Fewer confessed to being in the closet; of those, Charles had determined via Hank, who had done the statistical breakdown, most were telepaths or empaths.

He was out and proud himself, although it wasn't like there were databases or registries these days – thank god for that – so most prospective partners greeted his telepathy with alarm and unease. The ones who didn't care were generally drunk, or the sorts of people interested in the more sordid side of telepathy, like one young woman who had asked Charles, very seriously and while running a hand up his arm, if he could temporarily shut down one of her major organs.

"Not so I die," she had clarified, "just so, you know, I know what it's like."

"How about I walk you home," Charles had suggested.

To each their own, Charles figured, but being treated like a living, breathing bondage device lost its allure quickly. It hadn't been long after he'd broken up with Kyle, who had gradually become more paranoid that Charles's telepathy had overheard he was really gay and not just experimenting, that he'd made two resolutions. Since, apparently, people who treated telepaths like ordinary mutants, not like spies digging up dirty mental laundry or the darkest corners of the id, did not exist.

Resolution the First: not to go out with any telepath-fetishists.

Resolution the second: not to start any new relationships.

However, despite his words, Kevin isn't really proud of your mutation or your confidence in it: he's proud of being able to manipulate you into using your abilities in the way he desires you to use them. That is, when he says "If you loved me, you'd use your abilities to please me," he's not really taking pride in what you can do, but turning your ability into something that exists only for his gratification.

That was probably too bitter, Charles reflected, but he had enough whiskey in him not to care. After a certain point, it was easier not to advertise his telepathy, because it was either deal with the sudden recoiling and lies about having an early morning or forgotten paperwork at the office, or the sort of interest that left Charles feeling covered in a coating of slime for days after. It would be nice – god, it would be very, very nice, to wake up with the same person morning after morning, to let himself learn all the textures of another mind, from waking to sleeping and all the times in between, and let himself be known as fully as he could know another person… but, well, if wishes were fishes after all, and, Charles reminded himself, if he was going to be any more maudlin about this, Emma would probably hear him and then he'd never hear the end of it.

Still, it would be nice. Charles pushed that thought firmly to the side and refocused on Shapeless and her problems. He wished Raven were here; she would have sympathized.

His bringing his sister into it is a classical derailing tactic, as well as an attempt to gaslight you into believing that you're the one with the hang-ups, not him. He could have any number of friends and relatives with mutations, but as long as he believes the only good mutation is the one that benefits him… he's going to be a bigot.

These sorts of letters – and, on Charles's more irritable days, his responses – always brought out the trolls. Referring to "Kevin" as little more than a mutant fetishist would likely summon FoH sympathizers or bored morons pretending to be FoH sympathizers. Hank and his team of comment moderators wouldn't appreciate that, even if, as Charles suspected, a few of his comment board "regulars" would have a field day. With a brief prayer to Hank to request forgiveness for what he was about to do, Charles went back to typing.

Our mutations can bring new dimensions to sexuality, of course, but only if we so desire and only if our mutations are valued in and of themselves, not only for what they bring to the bedroom. In the context of a relationship that one party insists is about love, that should be a given. Even if Kevin refuses to accept this, you should know that you have every right to be valued for who and what you are, not whose shape you can take on for his gratification. And if Kevin refuses to accept this, then it doesn't matter how many relatives he has who happen to be mutants: he's still objectifying you and your abilities, and you deserve so much more than what his baseline appetite has to offer.

He still had a lecture for his seminar to prepare for the next day, and the looming specter of a paper to write. Then coffee with Raven, so she could complain about Sharkface the Boss, who was cranky and made her life miserable, and never mind that he donated a ton of money to mutant-based charities because he was cruel and the embodiment of all that was evil. And then an appointment with Emma, to indulge her never-ending quest to find him Mr. Non-Existent and her once-monthly need to remind him that just because he'd grown up in a dysfunctional home that taught him the best way to handle relationships was not to have them at all didn't mean he actually had to abide by those lessons.

"Oh, like you've managed to do," he'd said the last time she'd sermonized him on the subject. It had been cruel, but he'd had a headache – mutant rights and election cycles never went well together – and the comment had slid off Emma like a raindrop off her diamond skin.

Sighing, Charles clicked submit and didn't bother waiting for the confirmation to pop up before emptying his mug. The tea and whiskey went down cold, without the edge of heat to make it pleasant. He pushed his mug to the side and, before he could think too much more about it, closed his browser window.

It was going to be a very long week.

* * *

Erik Lehnsherr was thirty-four, successful, driven, and a mutant. Also criminally good-looking in his gray suit and a tie he'd pulled loose in that attractively disheveled way that belonged to movie stars and almost no one else. And, inexplicably – although, after reading his bio, perhaps not-so-inexplicably – single. Emma was fairly certain most of her client list would have happily lined up -- and many of them were people not used to waiting in line for anything – to have a chance at what Lehnsherr had, but she was also fairly certain the reverse was not true. To say Lehnsherr was picky was putting it mildly, even when it came to a partner he was only interested in entertaining for a week or so.

The face looking out at her from her computer screen lacked the fire and personality of the one in front of her, faint crow's-feet and piercing grey eyes, and a mouth that didn't seem particularly given to happiness. Emma didn't have to look deeply, or pay much attention at all, to sense Lehnsherr's reluctance, or the fact that his present state of singleness was not a result of having singleness or celibacy thrust upon him. Emma was already half the calculating villainess, conspiring to rope him into matrimony. Well, Emma had worked with worse.

"I can't tell you how important it is that they not chew their food loudly," Lehnsherr was saying as he frowned at her over steepled fingers. "It's a sign of poor discipline."

"Of course," Emma said with the lack of inflection that came from years of listening to irrational people. "I did read every single one of your comments in the supplemental information section, Mr. Lehnsherr. Including that one."

"Good," Lehnsherr said, although he dripped of suspicion.

"And you said on your initial survey," Emma paused – needless, as she'd already memorized the data, but the pause created a useful sort of suspense, "that you're not interested in anything long-term. Only casual dating to start."

"I'm not even interested in doing this," Lehnsherr said, tapping long fingers on the arm of his chair. In the air in front of him, the twisted remains of Emma's steel hair pin revolved. "My assistant is making me. She labors under the delusion that I'm missing something from my life. 'The love of a good mutant,' I think she said."

"I don't suppose it occurred to you to fire her." God knew, Emma had considered firing Janos fifty times since the day had begun.

"She would annoy me back into hiring her again." Lehnsherr had a fearsome scowl, not quite as fearsome as the smile he wore in his initial photo. Emma had never thought of happiness as being terrifying before. Fortunately, that smile was not currently in evidence. "Now, I'm assuming that at least part of your client base is interested in the same things I am, so could we please get on with this?"

He had the tablet already and was, of course, already flipping through it – had, in fact, flipped through the five top choices Emma had picked. The Frost Scale was rigorously designed, a hundred-point system designed to assess compatibility across multiple dimensions of prospective partners' personalities, behaviors, and expectations. Add in Emma's telepathy, harnessed as it was by a battery of NDAs and confidentiality forms, alas, and success was virtually guaranteed. You didn't get a ninety-five-percent satisfaction rate by letting morons fill out poorly-designed questionnaires, after all, not when people couldn't be counted on to know themselves.

"Now," Emma said, ignoring the boredom wafting off Lehnsherr's very attractive form, "I've gone through our client base and weeded out those who are looking for more permanent arrangements, as well as all humans, regardless of relationship preference. I've also refined results based on personality profile, so the top five picks for you are all career-minded individuals with high comfort levels with respect to their mutations, as well as a high premium placed on the importance of – "

"What about him?" Lehnsherr asked, holding up his tablet.

"Absolutely not," Emma said immediately.

"Why not?" Lehnsherr peered at the tablet. "It says here that he matches me in all ten statistically-significant data points, including his preference for non-exclusivity and no long-term commitments."

"Trust me, sugar," Emma plucked the tablet from Lehnsherr's hand, and made a note not to let clients near actual files ever again, "the last thing he's interested in is non-exclusivity. What that one needs is a house full of adopted mutant babies and rescued kittens." She set the tablet on the desk, pointedly face down – a useless gesture, given Lehnsherr's abilities, which she could feel tugging at the metal beneath her fingers.

"But it says – "

"I don't care what it says," Emma snapped, "the last time I checked, I was the telepath and dating-relationship expert here, not you. Would I be correct in that assumption?" Lehnsherr nodded. "And it follows logically, then, that when I tell you someone actually wants something they claim not to want, you should probably take my word for it?" Lehnsherr nodded once more, although he looked distinctly mulish. "Now." Emma drew a breath and made herself release her diamond form before she could do something as impolitic as strangle Lehnsherr until he saw reason, because, really, people came to her for advice and guidance and ended up thinking they still knew better than a woman with a PhD in psychology and an MBA. "Now, let us return to your compatible choices, shall we?"

* * *

In the never-end parade of annoyances that was Erik Lehnsherr's life, being set up with a dating service ranked surprisingly high. At least, it ranked highly enough that preparing for his date – changing his shirt and stuffing his tie in his laptop case – was sufficient to distract him from the truly infuriating conference call with Sebastian Shaw earlier that day

Over my dead body, Erik thought to himself. One of the benefits of having a precognitive on staff: Irene's foretellings were maddeningly obscure when it came to major events, but she had worked out enough of the future's specifics that he knew Shaw's offer would come with subtle hooks and traps. Still, the man had been agitating for a meeting, and Erik, mostly for the prospective satisfaction of telling the man to go screw himself in person, had finally given in and arranged an impromptu trip to neutral territory.

Raven, of course, had been on him about not wanting to get a call from Miami police saying Erik was being held for Shaw's gruesome murder. Erik had retaliated by dumping the travel arrangements on her, which meant she would have to stay late coordinating with Shaw's Las Vegas office. This made Erik very happy, until he remembered where he was going.

The overbearing diamond woman at Frosted Hearts had set him up with a young professor of Mutant and Women's Studies over at Columbia, a woman who was probably a bit too young for Erik but otherwise met his stringent list of qualifications, even down to the not chewing with her mouth open.

"She does, however, spit balls of acid," Emma had added. "I hope that's not a dealbreaker."

"As long as she doesn't chew it first," Erik had said.

Emma, who probably had to do something to earn her ridiculous fee, had arranged the first date at a faculty club near Columbia, where the young woman –Angel Salvadore, Erik reminded himself – would have the opportunity to escape from a terminally awkward date in favor of talking shop with colleagues. Already Erik was predisposed to like her; the choice of venue suggested a certain cunning he could appreciate, as well as a lack of the sort of pretension that characterized the clubs closer to his own world.

He found the bar much as he'd imagined it, low-raftered ceilings and a fireplace, and overstuffed chairs with the leather worn shiny in some places and cracked in others, bottles crammed into the tiny space behind the bar. For a wonder, the old books crammed into a corner bookshelf seemed not to have been touched for months, even by a dusting cloth. Not an undergraduate to be seen, for which Erik gave silent thanks; they'd been unbearable enough when he'd been an undergraduate himself, and then completely intolerable the one semester CalTech had allowed him to TA for an intro to engineering principles class. The youngest person here seemed to be the bartender, who was pushing a tumbler of whiskey across to a patron, the amber liquid sloshing crystalline in the clear of the glass.

"Cheers," the patron said, sounding anything but sincere, even if the way he tipped his head back to take and savor a mouthful suggested appreciation.

Angel hadn't arrived yet – Erik had scanned the room and found neither her face as he remembered it from her photograph or the shape of the metal hairpin she'd said she'd wear – so he wandered over to the bar. If he was going to be forced to socialize to keep Raven off his back (and really, he'd decided this one date would be it, enough to pacify Raven or else he would fire her next time), then he was at least going to enjoy himself with something decent.

He ordered a whiskey of his own, a Glenfiddich mostly because it was the first label he saw that wasn't Wild Turkey. Still, it won him a "lovely choice," from the professor – he had to be one, based on the waistcoat and the jacket slung over the back of his chair, and the rumpled, academical brown hair – and, of a sudden, a quick, bright grin from an oddly familiar face.

"It's good, isn't it?" Good god, Erik thought distantly, that smile. He nodded. "Not quite as good as the eighteen-year, of course, but still… anything goes down nicely after some days, wouldn't you agree?"

Erik would agree to many things on account of that mouth, and those eyes, which were vividly, vividly blue in the somberness of the bar. He might even, he suspected, be willing to carry on conversation, despite the fact that he rarely had anything to say to anyone. It was, in fact, one of the reasons he'd insisted on casual encounters only; sex was one thing, intimacy quite another, and conversation was hardly necessary for the former. The man sitting next to him winced, a funny little expression that managed to be pained and rueful at the same time.

"Are you here to meet someone?" A tilt of the chin indicated Erik's drink, which he'd consumed half of rather ungracefully. "I don't recall seeing you here before."

"I am, as a matter of fact," Erik said. He scanned the room again for Angel's hairpin, and came up blank. "She's not here yet, though."

"Ah. Well, we could always wait together, and you can savor that properly." The stranger had very nice hands, square and capable-looking, not slender like Erik's own, and now he was offering one of them – his right, of course, so they could shake hands and introduce themselves properly.

"Charles Xavier," the stranger said, and all at once became the face from three days ago, looking up at Erik from the one-dimensionality of an iPad, his eyes nothing like Erik remembered – a thousand times more alive and more electric – and that smile still infuriatingly Mona-Lisa-like.

"Erik Lehnsherr," Erik said, and automatically accepted Charles's hand, which was somewhat cool from the glass. I feel like I know you already.

"Funny," Charles Xavier said, that smile even broader now and no longer enigmatic but delighted, "that's usually my line."

* * *

"A telepath?" Erik asked later.

They were drunk enough that Charles didn't pay much attention to his tone or the thoughts behind it. His telepathy always unfocused under the influence, so any unease in Erik blurred in with boozy contentment and fascination of a decidedly carnal sort. They'd worked their way through a variety of topics, mostly gossip in the mutant community and their mutual love of chess. Then Erik had demonstrated his abilities, sending some spare change to orbit around Charles's head, and Charles had sent his delight straight to Erik in purest language. Erik had twitched and shaken his head, as though to shake Charles out, before he realized what it was and smiled, sharp-toothed and delighted.

"Hmmm. More trouble than it's worth sometimes." To stop from going down that well-trodden path, Charles helped himself to a swallow of Erik's gin and tonic. Erik let him have it, but stole it back so he could drink himself, from the place where Charles's mouth had been. Charles made a small, helpless sound.

"Humans?" Erik said, with a curl to his lip that suggested both sympathy and disdain.

"Oh no, other mutants too." Charles found himself listing in Erik's direction, and did not particularly mind. Erik didn't seem to mind either and let Charles brush their shoulders together. "Does that bother you?"

"Not really." Charles supposed that not much would be bothering Erik right now. The world seemed like a very kind place, from the bartender beaming at them to the other happy, animated people scattered at their tables. Erik shifted a little. He was, Charles reflected, quite fit. "It's disappointing that other mutants are tainted by human prejudice."

"We are humans." With an effort, Charles straightened himself up. It took more work than he thought. Erik was watching him curiously, his grey eyes sharper now. "I mean, our mutations only make us qualitatively," it felt important to emphasize this word, "not quantitively different from other humans. But," he offered Erik his slyest look, "we can still procreate with them and produce fertile offspring."

That line usually won him a lot of uncomfortable shifting when he said it in class, usually during the lecture he found himself giving to the more obviously mutant-and-proud of his students. It only made Erik look interested and take another sip of his gin and tonic while staring at Charles the entire time.

"It's that," god Erik was a distracting flicker of energy in front of him, all that powerful attention and intelligence burning holes in Charles's control. "It's that, do you see, evolution does not seek an end; it isn't looking to make the best animal. Anything can happen to throw it off… the animal carrying the fittest genes falls down a cliff before it can procreate, or gets sick, or doesn't enjoy the kind of sex that produces the next generation." He broke off the lecture to offer Erik another smirk.

"So you think those who believe mutants are superior to their predecessors are ignorant." Erik quirked a very expressive brow at him. "Clinging to their genes and fear, as it were."

It was a difficult point. Charles knew little of Erik without prying, and he wasn't yet drunk enough to violate someone's privacy, even someone as tantalizing as Erik. Most mutants who held supremacist views had had desperately little to be proud of, growing up, and the constant burden of marginalization and fear and bullying before new laws had come into being to protect them.

"Oh, absolutely not." Charles reappropriated Erik's drink and finished it off, partly to drown out the voice that suggested he was guaranteeing the next thing Erik did would be collect his coat and leave. "I firmly," he stifled a giggle, firmly, god Erik was amazingly attractive, "believe that we should be proud of our abilities. But I'm saying, mutation qua mutation isn't anything other than what it is. Sometimes it's maladaptive in the short term and we have to wait to see how the long term plays out. Cockroaches may inherit the earth before we do."

"You're something else, Charles," Erik said, sounding frustrated but also fond.

"I've been told this," Charles said solemnly. "I suppose I should also tell you the same, although I mean look at you, you have to have heard it before."

Erik accepted the compliment in silence. The silence stretched between them, and would have transformed into discomfort had Charles not caught the sense of Erik turning his words over, handling them with care the way his fingers played with the plastic stirrer lying on the bar top. Charles ordered another drink and tossed it back, and felt Erik's focus shifting, burning hotter as Charles swallowed, his gaze very nearly tangible.

"Not from you," Erik said at last, and when he looked at Charles the thoughtfulness had been washed under and drowned by hunger, the pulse of it sudden. Magnetism, Charles thought with a bit of drunken giddiness, opposites attracting. There had to be a joke in there about poles.

"My place," Charles said. Raven had gone back to Irene's. "It's only a quick ride."

"Hopefully the only quick one tonight," Erik said, low and hot, and entirely too close as they stood.


Chapter two

Charles lazily stretched into the morning, sighing at the twinges and aches that, once he resettled under the covers, resolved into a delicious warmth. He might almost call the feeling sated, but that would imply he'd had enough of what he'd gotten last night, and Charles decided that he was nowhere near his limit. Every night, he concluded as he arched his back to pop a bit of the stiffness out of his spine and maybe, to show off for Erik a little, he could do this every night forever and wake up to it in the morning besides.

Three had been the limit last night, Charles thought when he peeled an eye open and saw the condom wrappers scattered on the floor by the bed, one of them resting on top of the discarded comforter like a bit of blue confetti. Stopping by the drug store on the way to his place from the bar had been wise. Absently, Charles scratched a bit of dry lube and probably other things off his belly.

"Do you want me to be late for work?" Erik rumbled from – not beside him. Charles blinked and pushed himself up onto his pillows.

Erik had exhausted him so thoroughly Charles had slept through both him getting up and appropriating Charles's shower. The room still had the dimness of pre-dawn – which would also explain how Charles had slept on undisturbed; he was in academia for a reason, and that reason was days that started at nine o'clock – and outside the city streets buzzed with only occasional traffic. Charles couldn't even smell the doughnuts from the fancy doughnut place down the street.

"What do you do that has you getting up at this hour?" Charles asked, and just to be cruel, eeled around so he lay on his stomach, sheet pushed enticingly low on his hips. Surely nothing that important.

Lots and lots of naked skin shivered as Charles did that, and all of Erik seemed to redshift with lust, a sudden ache that snagged Charles low and deep. Erik had only his boxers on – Charles really should have hidden those – and they didn't do much to conceal his interest, as if anything could be concealed from Charles anyway. Charles looked and made sure Erik saw and felt him looking, his gaze like fingers tracing the line of Erik's shoulders and arms, the strangely demure, brown nipples and the elegant ladder of muscle leading down chest and abdomen to… well, Erik's boxers, Charles supposed.

"Conference call with London today," Erik said raggedly, and returned to hunting for his clothes. "Time difference."

Last night his self-possession had driven Charles right up to the edge of pleasure, close enough for him to look down into it, and held him there until Erik was good and ready for him to come. Now, though, Charles wanted to scream, but for entirely different reasons. He watched as Erik studiously ignored him, so studiously that he was practically telegraphing his awareness of Charles lying stretched and waiting for him to come back to bed, and tried to content himself with soaking up the way Erik's skin caught the light from his bedside lamp and glowed, soft with moisture from the shower, captivating even when doing something like putting on his socks.

Unfairly magnificent came to mind, and then unfair when Erik extracted his shirt from a tangle that contained Charles's waistcoat and a pair of jeans that hadn't made it to the hamper. Slowly, the realization that he'd left his jacket at the bar coalesced, somewhere in the neighborhood of Erik had a date last night that wasn't me and Oh my god, Charles, you cad and then That poor girl.

"I hope your date won't be angry at you," he said.

Erik's long, lovely mouth twisted. "I'll have to call to apologize, I suppose."

"It would be the first gentlemanly thing you've done since last night."

That got him a snort. "This from the man about to send me on the walk of shame out of his very nice apartment?"

"Hmmm." Charles rolled onto his back again and smiled. It seemed to soften something in Erik, who even smiled back. "I prefer the stride of pride, myself. We're sexual beings, Erik; we might as well own it."

"I already got the lecture on how mutation propagates itself through a species," Erik said. His voice had dropped, shifting into the range that Charles associated with devastating effects in the trouser region. Erik had his shirt on now, and pants, but the shirt was unbuttoned and the dress slacks were still undone, gaping enough that Charles, if he was very clever, could get his fingers in. The bed dipped as Erik perched on the edge of it, his body blocking out the light from the bathroom, shadows catching the edge of his cheekbones. "Sexual reproduction, isn't it?"

"And response to environment." Charles pitched his voice in a way that he thought of as sultry. Raven said it sounded weird and geeky, but there had to be something seductive in it; Erik was bending closer, as if Charles himself were magnetic, eyelids drifting shut and eyes drifting down Charles's naked torso – before, no no no, catching himself and leaning back.

"Do you…" Erik frowned and shook his head. "I want to see you again."

It didn't have the raw, earnest desperation that part of Charles secretly wished to hear, and No, Charles told himself, no part of you at all wants to hear that. Instead, it had something that he had come very rapidly to expect from Erik. In another person, Charles would call it bossiness and he'd never once – outside of Raven, anyway – taken to being taken charge of. But, well, having Erik take charge of things last night had been delightful, and so Charles was happy to call it certainty.

"Sure," Charles said, wondering if a shrug would be too nonchalant. He managed a slight one, only a shift of shoulder against his pillow. "But…"

"Not serious," Erik added quickly. "I don't – "

Charles opened himself enough to catch a hint of please, please, and refused to let himself examine the context before he closed himself off again. Erik's face was indecipherable, a hint of something Charles couldn't catch tightening the corner of his mouth.

"Hmmm, give it here." For answer, Charles tugged on Erik's hand, appropriated a pen from the breast pocket of Erik's shirt. The pen needed a couple of shakes to start the ink flowing, which required some ungracefulness from Charles, but it started and Charles wrote out his phone number in the warm cup of Erik's palm.

"Don't forget to copy it down before you… do anything," Charles said.

"I won't," Erik told him, almost enough conviction in the words for a promise.

They kissed one last time – twice, maybe three times, depending on the particular definition of kiss, Erik pulling back only when Charles heroically sacrificed his libido on the altar of the London conference call to remind him of the time difference. He wore dishevelment well, Charles thought as he pulled the button of Erik's collar out of its hole, mostly to hear Erik's aggravated noise and watch his long, skillful fingers work the button back in again.

"I'll call," Erik said, and bent for one last kiss – Charles's forehead, wisely not his mouth – and grabbed his jacket and disappeared into the darkness of the hallway.

Charles turned his lamp back off, and decided he was too lazy to get up to turn off the bathroom light. Instead, he rolled over into the spot Erik had vacated, which was cool now but still smelled like him. Absently, he tagged on to Erik's thoughts as he took the twenty-story elevator ride back down to the street, a moment of confusion as he reoriented himself – a flicker only, as Erik accessed his powers, such a lovely mutation, to read electromagnetic fields as well as manipulate metal – and then solidifying with determination as he looked for a taxi.

Following him further, to work, to whatever life he led outside the bar and Charles's bedroom, would be creepy. Charles let him go reluctantly, curling his mind back and back so it knew only the warm comfort of his bed and the pillow bunched under his cheek.

He wanted to see Erik again. And not just tonight, or whenever they next met, and not only the night after that, but for some hazy, indefinite future that consisted of copious amounts of nakedness and lying curled together, Erik whispering dirty plans for next time in his ear while Charles twined their thoughts together like fingers grasping each other.

"Serial one-night stands," Charles told his ceiling. "Those are, in fact, possible to have without having a relationship. It's like friends with benefits, except no friendship required. He wants what you want. Yes, that's the way to look at it."

Only, he suspected, it really wasn't, and wouldn't it be fitting, that in the space of one night his life had become fodder for his own column? It would be, Charles decided bleakly; he could almost see the letter in his inbox.

Dear Professor X,

I'm thirty-two years old, and a successful, responsible individual. I'm also a telepath who's decided just to have fun and not pursue a committed relationship for a while. Many of my acquaintances – one in particular – have told me that I should be looking for something more permanent and "fulfilling" – as if monogamy is inherently fulfilling – instead of wasting my time with one-night stands and acting like one of the students I teach. So what do I do when I meet the most amazing, fantastic, brilliant man who is a genius in bed, who values my mutation and me, and all I can think of is eloping to Las Vegas… when all he wants is to have fun and not pursue a committed relationship? Please advise.


Charles you bloody idiot

* * *

Charles wanted to see him again.

Erik told himself not to get too excited. Of course Charles wanted to see him again. The sex last night had been… well, if sex went to eleven, sex with Charles went there. It only made sense that, once he'd had it, he'd want more of it. Erik hummed to himself and returned to examining Azazel's data from the Avalon's most recent flight simulation. Maybe tonight, if Charles could clear his schedule… or maybe Erik would find it and clear it for him.

It won't happen if you don't finish this report. Erik scowled at the numbers scrolling across his tablet screen, but the scowl dissolved as he thought of Charles in bed, warm and sleepy, hiding a smile in the ridge of Erik's collar bone.

"You met someone!"

Raven was blue, as usual, but clothed to spare the sensibilities of the London humans who were helping finance Erik's current proposal. She was also observant (as usual) and obnoxious (as, unfortunately, usual), and that combined with Erik's not wanting to leave Charles's apartment resulting in him not having nearly enough coffee was more than enough to pitch him over the edge from "vaguely discontent" into "annoyed."

"You're fired," he said to his tablet. Where was Azazel getting these numbers from? "Have your things packed up in twenty – no, ten – minutes, and security will escort you down."

"Sure thing, boss," Raven said cheerfully. She sat down in the clients' chair across from Erik, uncaring of the fact that the chair was, deliberately, the most uncomfortable and hostile chair money could buy. "So, tell me about them. Are they good in the sack?"

"The last time I checked," Erik eyed her, "your primary concerns as my part-time administrator, hired because my CFO's girlfriend needed work, were keeping the coffee filled, answering phones, and not inquiring about my sex life."

"Irene always says you don't take care of yourself." Raven's secondary mutation had to be selective deafness, Erik decided, as the things she elected not to hear went completely unheard. "And you hired me because my skills as a researcher are unparalleled, and you'd never get a dime of government money sending 'Give us the fucking grant you morons' to the NSF."

That, at least, was true; Raven was maddeningly competent and finding and exploiting other companies' weaknesses and chiseling money out of unlikely sources. The British had loved her this morning, which was the only reason Erik hadn't been serious about firing her.

"I take care of myself," he said, rather than compliment her. It won him a wolf-whistle and an I'll bet, a flash of white-toothed grin that was nearly as unnerving as his own. "By which I mean," he said over whatever innuendo-laced remark Raven was about to make, "I can see to procuring my own dates – "

"Procuring?" Raven winced. "I set you up with a dating service, Erik, not a logistics service. You don't procure dates unless you – oh my god. Please tell me you didn't," Raven's voice dropped to an over-loud, dramatic whisper, "please tell me you didn't hire a prostitute."

"For god's sake, no I didn't. I found a date, then, if you're going to make this about semantics. Or whatever you want to call it." Erik set the tablet down before he broke it and wished, passionately, for Raven to have some kind of metal on her. She didn't – she never wore it, on purpose – but the chair was metal, a cheap alloy that offended every one of Erik's sensibilities. "The point is, if you must know, I went on a date last night."

"With someone from the dating service?" Raven asked, not sounding entirely convinced about the prostitutes.

Erik eased the chair up off the floor, enough for it to float clear of the carpet. "No, as a matter of fact. I found this person on my own, and as I said, I did not pay for them." Technically he'd found Charles through Frosted Hearts, but Emma had been ridiculously insistent on their incompatibility.

Well, Charles had seemed very open to the idea of no-strings-attached sex, which was just one of the many appealing things about him. His eyes, of course, which were the loveliest, electric blue, like an aurora Erik had seen once. He had felt that aurora too, and he'd felt Charles's telepathy like that – a cold, vivifying slide across his skin), and his hair, which was as soft as it had looked in on Emma's tablet. His freckles, which Erik had secretly tried to count, and a body that had muscles in most places and pliant curves elsewhere, and a truly, truly fantastic ass that Erik wanted, very badly, to do very bad things to as often as possible.

"Oh my god, that is… I don't know if that's endearing or disturbing, or both," Raven was saying. "You should see your face right now, it is, like, besotted. That's a…" Raven squinted at him, yellow eyes narrowing, "oh my god, that's a 'I got some last night' face. That's a 'I got some and I want some more' face."

"Then you can consider your experiment a success and go," Erik said, attempting to transmogrify his smile into something more terrifying. The chair drifted closer to the door, a little higher now, enough so that Raven's feet dangled in the air. "Now, I believe you have a business trip to organize, so goodbye."

The door swung shut in Raven's face, but couldn't quite block out her whoop of victory. And it could not prevent her from intercomming him to remind him of the teleconference with Shaw's representatives at eleven.

With considerably diminished good humor (Shaw, fucking Shaw), Erik got back to work. He could practically hear Shaw's grandiose rambling in his head already, and while Erik admitted to a certain belief in mutant superiority, he wasn't entirely sure subcontracting to a firm whose owner enjoyed speculating on mutants thriving in a nuclear wasteland was sound business practice.

* * *

"Ah, Dr. Rogers." Emma allowed herself to flicker to diamond in order to prevent Steve Rogers from inadvertently crushing her hand. "A pleasure, as always."

"Ma'am." Steve beamed at her, a milk-and-cookies expression that made Emma feel as if she'd been transported to some mythical, wholesome American past. "I'm sorry I walked in, well, when I did."

"It's no difficulty," Emma said smoothly. "A misunderstanding with a client. I'm sure you have similar scenes."

"Usually my students don't fume about me standing them up – they tend to prefer it, actually." That smile again. Emma had never quite worked out why a person like Steve Rogers had signed on with her service, considering he should have married his high school sweetheart right after graduating from State University. Someone, somewhere, had to be wearing his letter jacket. "But I hope everything worked itself out."

"Oh, free things usually help." Emma managed to hide a wince and telepathically reminded Janos to waive Angel's fee for the next six months. It was fortunate for Lehnsherr that he was both rich and a mutant, otherwise Emma would have gotten rid of him.

"Look, I would have been totally cool if he'd called you to say he couldn't make it. I would have been totally cool if he'd lied, as long as I didn't know." Angel hadn't sounded particularly hurt so much as angry, a sentiment to which Emma could relate; Frosted Hearts, after all, had been founded at least partly because of Sebastian's obsessions and the series of broken engagements that had resulted from them. "But seriously, I'm walking in and he's walking out with some guy? Come on."

Along with a penalty fee, Emma was going to extract an apology out of Lehnsherr. With pliers, if she had to.

Something of this must have shown on her face, because Dr. Rogers was easing back in his chair, radiating alarm.

"It's not you, honey," Emma said. Reassurance was not usually in her spectrum of responses to distress, but something about Steve seemed to warrant it. "Now, before I keep woolgathering, let's see about your options."

Unlike certain other clients she could name, Dr. Rogers politely kept to the five choices she offered and listened attentively as she listed their various virtues and vices. Bruce Banner – a bit temperamental, but not everyone can be nice all the time, a fact that Steve's personality profile hinted at – was leading, with Armando Muñoz in second place, when Emma pulled up choice number five.

"He sounds wonderful, but…" Steve poked at the tablet. "It says here that he's not really looking for anything long-term. Now, I'm pretty open when it comes to lots of things, Miss Frost, but I really am serious when it comes to being in this for keeps."

Two steps removed from a promise ring. Emma took a breath. "I know his profile says… what it does, but trust me when I say that it's an error." She had been planning to say Dr. Xavier knows what he wants, he just can't bring himself to admit it, but that hadn't seemed to work lately. White lies were forgivable offenses, Emma told herself. "There was a bug in the system that we're working to address."

Dr. Rogers peered at her skeptically, as if he were the telepath and not the freakishly strong, but still quite baseline, human. Emma kept her face as bland as possible. Taupe thoughts, Betsy used to say when talking about how to keep psionics or expression-sensitive mutants from detecting what she was thinking. That was another friendship Sebastian had flushed down the toilet. Taupe thoughts, and Emma let her lips fall into the smile that suggested nothing but utter truthfulness and that she knew best.

"Okay then!" Dr. Rogers said cheerfully. "I guess if it's fine with him, we can set something up? For tomorrow or this weekend – but if it's fine with him, of course."

"It will be," Emma told him as she reached for the phone. It would be.

Janos on the intercom beat her to her phone call.

I believe you should know, in case you don't know already, that Mr. Stark is here for…

Emma was up and out of her chair, diamond and stalking across the room and out the door in time to see Tony looking Steve up and down in such a way that left nothing to suggestion.

"Can I help you, Mr. Stark?" she asked. "The last time I checked my calendar, we weren't to meet until next week."

"Well, you know, I was coming in just by complete coincidence and not because I thought I would try a different way in through your firewall to take a look at some records," Tony said brightly. "Date things. I thought we'd talk about them some more, since we had such a good talk yesterday."

"You hacked in to Miss Frost's database?" Steve asked, sounding both bemused and affronted.

"Oh, it's nothing," Tony stage-whispered. The whisper, to Emma's endless vexation, was mostly an excuse for Tony to lean into Steve's chest; he was short enough, very nearly, to plant his face in Steve's solar plexus. "If you want to see something really impressive, how about you come over to my place Friday night – or, hey, how about right now? – and we hack into SHIELD? Or hell, do you have any parking tickets you need taken care of? Do you need more cable channels?"

"I don't really watch TV," Steve said, far more amused than anything now, "and I'm sorry, but I've got plans tonight and Friday. And," he glanced at his watch, and he was either very polite or very oblivious because Tony wore a leer visible from space, "I hate to be rude, but I need to get going. Thanks again, ma'am, Janos."

"Any day," Janos said, and joined Tony in a sloppily hormonal sigh.

"He looks just as nice going," Tony said. "In fact, I should probably – "

"No," Emma seized Tony by the arm and, to make a point, dug the diamond tips of her fingers into the muscle. Kinky whispered across Tony's cortex before he, wisely, hushed it up. "We're going to talk about dating things for a while, since you insisted."

* * *

"Oh my god, Charles, you will never guess what happened at work today."

Only the long-standing promise that had kept Charles from reading Raven's mind since she'd turned twelve and required privacy, Charles, a girl has to have some privacy kept Raven's assertion from being untrue. That, and Charles had been unable to concentrate on anything not Erik-shaped for the entire day, and that had included his column.

Dear Professor X,

I'm part of a MRO at my school, and for the most part I really enjoy it. We're working to develop the mutant community here and advocate for mutant rights with the administration and the local government, and I've been thinking that it's because of this MRO that I want to go to law school and specialize in mutant rights work.

But the thing is, I'm gay, well, a lesbian I guess, and I don't think that would be cool with my fellow members. They say that, since mutants only make up 9% of the population, we have an obligation to reproduce and increase our numbers. This really freaks me out. It seems really baseline to say that the only reason we're here is to perpetuate the species. I mean, what about free will and being what we want to be? I don't ask these questions because I don't want to be ostracized from the group and lose my friends. I haven't come out to them because of this attitude, though, and because I can't trust them, I don't know if I can really consider them my friends after all. What can I do?


Mutant, Proud and not Heterosexual

And he should be able to concentrate on that – the hypocrisy of not accepting all forms of consensual sexual expression in a community where mutations regularly challenged traditional Western conceptions of sex and gender – and why couldn't the fates have sent him something asking for practical sex advice? Charles set his laptop back on the coffee table and tried to focus on Raven, who was vibrating impatiently, instead.

"Guess!" Raven said. "I mean, you never will, but guess!"

"Sharkface Boss gave you a promotion."

"I wish, but this is almost as good."

Charles worked his way through three more possibilities – a Friday off to go on a mini-break with Irene (no, but that was an idea), winning a grant she'd slaved over for weeks (still hadn't heard), Sharkface Boss going back to the waters from whence he came (no, but Charles was getting warmer) – before finally admitting, dramatically, "You're right, I'll never guess."

"Sharkface Boss met someone," Raven crowed, bouncing a little so Charles, who was on the sofa with her, bounced too. "You should have seen him, he came to our teleconference in yesterday's clothes and without shaving and everything."

Charles thought wistfully of Erik in yesterday's clothes, his precision rumpled at the edges and ever-so-slightly off-kilter, the last kiss they'd shared when Erik's stubble had scraped deliciously against Charles's skin. "How does this affect you, exactly?"

"I don't know. He might become marginally less awful if he's getting some on the regular… he only tried to fire me once today, and he wasn't really paying attention when he said it." Raven paused. "If this ends up working out, I might even get a raise or promotion for being the one who brought them together. It's like Emma, only without the empire-waist dresses."

"What, bringing people together inadvertently?" Charles's computer, giving up, switched over to its screen-saver. "Or the part where Emma's an administrative assistant-cum-grant writer?"

"With a happy ending," Raven corrected. She clapped her hands and bounced some more. "I could write the modern adaptation of it. Clueless for the twenty-first century. But seriously, Sharkface Boss really needs to get his ashes hauled, or he did before last night. I'd say he needs to get married, but I honestly don't know if anyone could put up with him till death do they part."

The only things Charles knew about Sharkface Boss – because he was an honorable man who kept his word and did not read his sister's mind – were that he was a tyrant who made Raven's life unnecessarily difficult, and that he was so busy being a tyrant that he either never dated or never had any kind of romantic attachment to anyone. Probably this was a good thing, Raven said, because Sharkface Boss came from a species that ate its mate shortly after copulation or implanted its spawn in the abdomens of unsuspecting hosts. Charles didn't even know his name, and the company name was some acronym that had left his head as soon as Raven had said it. Sharkface Boss did something complicated and confidential with planes and engines, and Raven helped him find the money to do it and, when she wasn't doing that, helped him find the true love that had to be swimming around out in the vast ocean of New York City.

Raven had found earthly bliss with Irene, and so, like an evangelist, she'd taken up the gospel of deep, committed relationships and from what Charles could guess had started beating Sharkface Boss on the head with it. The fascination with her employer's romantic life indicated to Charles that Raven did, actually, care about him despite his unmitigated awfulness; if Raven hadn't cared, she wouldn't have interfered. Interference was how Raven expressed her care and concern.

"The next thing," Raven said, "is to get him to fess up to who the new person is, but I've decided to wait on that. Let them get used to each other first, and then maybe after a while I can get him to invite the new person to the office winter party."

"How restrained of you." Charles flicked a glance at his phone. It was five-thirty and nothing so far. Erik seemed like the sort of man who worked until near collapse, to which Charles could relate, but really… not when more incendiary sex was in the offing. He picked up his phone and flipped through to its settings to make sure he'd turned the ringtone on.

"Expecting a call?" Raven purred, sudden and scaly and blue at his elbow.

"Lab results," Charles said, and to cover himself reached for his computer. "Would you like to help me answer a letter? I promise this is going to make you very angry."

"The day just keeps getting better," Raven said happily, and scrunched herself close to read over his shoulder and, on occasion, shriek indignantly in his ear.

He nearly pushed her off the sofa when the phone rang, and then nearly dropped his laptop fumbling for it. With a grunt of annoyance, Raven rescued the computer and pulled it over into herself so she could fiddle with Charles's reply, which had not progressed past a detailed biological explanation of why the MRO people were wrong; he would have to review his post carefully before submitting it, god knew what she'd – oh god. Thoughts of checking the piece for Raven's modifications fled. Not an unknown number.

Frosted Hearts, said the caller ID, and Charles's own heart dropped.


Chapter three

Based on previous experience, Emma knew Charles had answered his phone fully intending to inform her that he neither needed, nor in fact wanted, her further assistance. Aside from administering a quick telepathic nudge, she had little strength at range – her telepathy much preferred close contact – so she could read nothing of him unless he projected to her, and at any rate, Charles's strength was enough to prevent her from finding out anything he didn't want her to. Still, she didn't need telepathy, given that I've decided to cancel my account had been the first thing out of his mouth for the past few conversations.

I've decided to cancel my account, Charles said, manifesting in her head as a wave of mild disappointment and determination. You and Raven have had your fun, but all good things must come to an end.

Of course you have, sugar, Emma replied.

Going to Emma had been at Raven's instigation, which had also, from Charles's perspective, not been needed or wanted. Underneath the sisterly concern, though, had been a salient point even Charles had recognized: both Charles and Emma were telepaths who had had experience of the world of mutant dating, and so it was only natural that they should meet and exchange notes. That had turned into Charles filling out a Frosted Hearts personality questionnaire and, with a faintly poleaxed expression on his face, signing up for a year contract. Emma diverted some attention to send a telepathic nudge to Janos to see about a gift card or something for Raven, and Janos laughed. Perhaps we should hire her away from Lehnsherr? She is a very persuasive recruiter.

Now, before we get on to what you want to do, let's get on to what I want to do. With Charles meeting her halfway, Emma could bring up a memory of Steve Rogers and present it to Charles, who replied with a wave of baffled amusement and a Emma, I ought to –

One date, Charles, Emma said firmly. How will you really know what you want until you try everything?

Charles huffed. His indignation, whether experienced face-to-face or telepathically, was always amusing. Emma muffled a laugh. I'm not a picky five-year-old, Charles said.

Well, you're acting enough like one. Emma maintained the image of Steve Rogers, perhaps putting more of a suggestion of compatibility and desirability into it than might otherwise be there.

Just because you can read minds doesn't mean you know your own, Emma said reprovingly. Charles sighed, a faint ripple of reluctant agreement. Emma saw the advantage and seized it. Look, sugar. Charles. You've paid for four more months, you might as well go out on this one teeny-tiny date with a nice young man. And I truly do think you'd like him.

Does he know I'm a telepath? Charles asked.

Of course he does. You gave me permission to disclose it. Emma shifted to re-cross her legs, her bracelets chiming as she ran her fingers through her hair. Charles was powerful but, for the most part, considerate; he would take the nonchalance for what it was and not go probing. And you know, he does have abilities of his own. Not only does he look like he comes from the 1940s, he actually is from the 1940s.

That super-secret super soldier thing? Charles asked, sounding intrigued despite himself.

I'll let him tell you all about that, Emma said briskly and, deep under her diamond shields, allowed herself a small thrill of victory. Now, I've taken the liberty of setting up a date for the both of you, this Friday at eight.

She transmitted the information to him, a quiet old bar far enough away from Columbia and sufficiently expensive to foreclose the possibility of students, and added a few reminders – not that Charles's steel-trap mind needed them – about constitutional scholars and war heroes and wonderful personalities. Well?

Charles was a vast, meditating presence at the border of her mind, drawn into himself but still undeniably there. Unless she shielded she had little privacy with him, aside from what he chose to grant; it was both an unfamiliar and unwelcome sensation, one she quickly tucked away while Charles's attention was distracted. She had the sense that he was talking to someone else, a murmur of feedback over their connection, and then got a spike of annoyance. Raven, then.

All right, Charles said at last, as if she'd wrenched the agreement from him under torture, just one date, and vanished before Emma could say anything else.

"Any win is a good one," Emma told herself philosophically, and put the date as confirmed in her calendar. She tapped a manicured finger against her desktop, click-click-click, as she contemplated the rest of the week and how, precisely, to keep Tony Stark from hacking into her database to filch information on her clients.

She pulled Janos away from his Modern Mutant issue to look into hiring Ramsey and Cypher on the hacking matter. Ramsey was ridiculously expensive, but if anyone could keep Stark's nose out of where it didn't belong, it would be Doug.

Speaking of the devil, the devil was coming for his appointment. Late. Insouciantly so, but Emma chose not to make an issue out of it. Stark would only be even later next time, or else do something else to make her life difficult. With a grin that went straight to dancing on Emma's last nerve, Stark flopped down in his chair.

"So!" Tony said brightly. "Who do you have for me today? Tall, blond, and wholesome, I hope."

"Not as such," Emma said. She made sure the tablet was safe away from thieving hands.

"He could reform me, you know." Tony had his phone out and began to play with it, flicking his finger idly across the screen. Emma caught a faint caw and realized the man was playing Angry Birds. "Boy next door teaches libertine how to love, so on, so forth…"

"Perhaps you would like to talk about something other than your obsession?" Emma asked. "Or should I talk to Pepper about how you're using a dating service to get her off your back about toning down your public image?" She paused, then added, "And before you ask, no, I am not going to enlist Steve Rogers in your scheme to appear respectable."

"I'm listening," Tony said grudgingly, but actually looked prepared to pay attention.

* * *

Charles drew back into himself and wondered, not for the first time, if Emma didn't have some other mutation he didn't know about. The telepathy of course, and the diamond shielding, but neither of those accounted for the fact that he found himself going along with her suggestions without the faintest hint of persuasion or coercion or anything. He had touched her mind fully intending to say his piece – thanks but no thanks, I'm doing quite well and no I don't actually want a spouse and a houseful of mutant babies – and then leaving, perhaps with the agreement that she could keep the rest of his deposit.

What he had ended up saying had been yes to a date with Steve Rogers, who certainly looked pleasant enough and Charles would have any number of things to ask him about the super soldier program. His grandfather had been involved and Charles briefly wondered if he had left any notes on the topic that had escaped classification.

The man is your nominal date, not a science experiment. Charles returned to his planning. Talking – they would talk, Steve and Charles, then after an appropriate few hours, Charles could tell Steve that he was a nice chap and would make a lovely spouse for someone, some day, but that spouse would not be him. Steve was likely to be the sort of man who would take rejection gracefully. It would be nice, Charles reflected, to be the one doing the rejecting for once.

"I guess that was Emma?" Raven had curled around Charles's laptop and was now staring at it with a raptness that Charles saw through instantly. "What'd she have to say?"

"Another potential date," Charles said. He could always call and cancel; it was Tuesday, and if he called Thursday – or even Friday afternoon, unexpected food poisoning – he would be able to get out of it. He wondered if Steve knew he was a pawn in Emma's bizarre game, a pawn Emma was using to beat Charles over the head.

"Ooooh, a date!" Raven winked at him. "Tall, dark, and handsome?"

"Blond, actually." Charles thought wistfully of Erik, wondered if it would be too strange, too soon, to hunt through the sea of minds in the city to find him. He had kept the telepathy to a minimum the night before, enough to make things good, enough to let Erik know exactly what he liked, a complement to the small ways Erik used his own ability – flicking open metal buttons, locking Charles's door behind them.

"Two out of three isn't bad." Raven traced her finger across the trackpad and asked, with elaborate casualness, "When is it?"

"Never, because it's not going to happen," Charles told her as he liberated his computer from Raven's lap. "Now, how many obscenities do I need to remove from my reply before it's safe for Hank to see?"

Raven eyed him shiftily. "Not many."

Not many ended up being a two-page screed that would surely bring the FoH trolls out in droves and give Hank fits. Charles winced as he deleted most of one paragraph, which began with Are your friends just baselines and not telling you? and ending with fuck them anyway. "I had no idea you knew these words," he said. "For that matter, I had no idea some of these are words. I feel as if my laptop will never be the same again."

"Anger makes me inventive." Raven twisted sinuously and, quite before Charles knew it, had her sleek red head butted up against his thigh and nearly in his lap, her legs draped over the arm of the couch. "D' you think they'd really kick her out if she came out to them?"

She was thinking about herself and Irene; Charles could tell that without reading her mind, although the image of the two of them sat close to the surface. Raven was very nearly impossible to shut up when discussing anything about which she felt passionately – witness Sharkface Boss or most anti-mutant politics – but she kept Irene close, unless it was to talk about plans for the weekend or to tell him something Irene had said. Something left over from the days before she'd become part of Charles's family, maybe. Charles had never asked her about it, because that sort of conversation wasn't the sort of conversation to have with Raven.

"I'd hope not," Charles said after a moment and then, more daring than usual, asked, "Is that why you didn't tell me about Irene at first? You thought I wouldn't approve?"

"Since when have I needed your approval for anything?" Raven glowered up at him, eyes a belligerent, slit-pupiled yellow. Since never was the appropriate answer, but Raven had ended up seeking it anyway, until she'd said the hell with it and stopped. "I guess I didn't want you acting all concerned and British-older-brother about it, your little sister going out with an older woman."

"I didn't, though." He had, a little bit, in his head, but had enough sense to keep that to himself.

"No," Raven agreed, subsiding. "But I… oh, I don't know. I guess I was worried a little. That you wouldn't approve." Her voice dipped down into a fairly accurate impression of his accent, although more patronizing than Charles liked to think he sounded.

"You know I'm hardly in a position to criticize anyone for their relationship choices." Since he actually hadn't had one for years.

"That's never stopped you before."

The arch to Raven's scaly brow suggested he was supposed to take it as a joke and she didn't have the spiky anger that came with their older arguments. Still, Charles thought uncomfortably of what Emma had told him, Just because you can read minds doesn't mean you know your own, which was quite true. Just because he could read minds hadn't meant he'd known Raven well; selective perception wasn't only a baseline failing.

"Do you think I ought to give this a try?" He left the this carefully neutral, and tried not to think of Erik. "Even knowing what you know about… well, everything."

"I think your mom and Kurt screwed you up more than you want to admit," Raven said slowly. She'd twisted over onto her stomach so her chin dug uncomfortably into Charles's thigh before she resituated herself, the soft curve of her cheek rubbing against his trousers. It was old, Charles reflected, familiar despite how long it had been; they hadn't done this since she'd been eight and too terrified of Cain to stand up to him at first. Once she'd learned how, she hadn't once backed down. "And, you know, I want you to be happy… and distracted, so you don't worry about me all the time."

He felt her smile and, falsely annoyed, flicked her ear. Raven batted at his hand.

"But seriously, you were such a tyrant during high school. It was embarrassing, having my prom date telepathically vetted so you could make sure his intentions were honorable."

"Which they weren't," Charles pointed out. "No seventeen-year-old boy has honorable intentions on prom night." He hadn't; Lilandra hadn't had honorable intentions either, and the chaperones could only be in so many places at once.

Raven pinched him just above the knee, and over Charles's yelp said, "Still! Everyone's supposed to at least pretend the guy doesn't have condoms hidden in his wallet. They aren't supposed to say 'Aren't we the optimistic one?' and make their little sister want to die of humiliation." Raven squeezed his knee with an absent strength, nearly hard enough for Charles to wince despite the affection; these conversations usually ended in some sort of minor injury. "But for real, you know I'm happy with Irene and I'm okay. I have the life I want, and I want you to have the same thing."

Charles thought briefly, heart-wrenchingly, of Erik. I want that, he told himself. I want that, I shouldn't, I can't. "What if my happiness doesn't involve that white picket fence?"

"If that's what you want," Raven said dubiously. "But I don't think you should think you don't want something because you think you'll be bad at it, or that you can't do it. Or that you're obligated to… oh, god I can't even say it." She shuddered. "You know."

"Sow my wild oats?" Charles asked, since Raven's mind was practically shouting it.

Raven spasmed with horror, curling in on herself as if to hide from the sound of the words. "Oh god no, no, why did you have to say it out loud?"

"Because I felt this conversation wasn't uncomfortable enough." Charles shifted a bit where his left leg had gone to sleep. "Now, if we've embarrassed ourselves sufficiently – "

The phone rang. Charles grabbed for it, and only proximity and the barrier of his laptop meant he beat Raven to it.


He extricated himself out from under his laptop and Raven's head, ignoring her indignant yelp. Tucking the computer under his arm, Charles darted for his room, continuing to ignore Raven's demands to know who was on the other end, "we aren't done yet, Charles! Tell your lab to call you back!", and shut the door behind him.

"Charles?" Erik asked, sounding slightly more impatient and bossy than usual, as if he'd said Charles's name a few times already.

"Here!" Charles gasped. His bedroom door rattled against the force of three emphatic thumps.

"What's that?"

"Oh, my sister. She broke in to my flat to torment me." Charles sent a silent, but pointed, request for Raven to knock it off and go away. Raven retired sulkily back to the living room and Charles's DVR. "My apologies…" Charles slid onto his bed, trying not to think too much about what they'd gotten up to in it just last night. "Ah, yes. Apologies. What did you say?"

"I said, 'Hello, Charles,'" Erik said, and god even over the phone he made Charles's name drip with slow, sexy honey, rough voice purring around the syllables of it. "How was your day?"

Aside from agreeing to participate in more of Emma's insane plan to get him married, it had gone well. Charles left out the first part about Emma and went with the second. "Well, I woke up very happy, so the day started well. And yours?"

"It could have gone better," Erik confessed; even the confession was lazy, ironic. "I finally got out of the office, but I may have been…. distracted at various points."

"Distracted? Really? That's terrible, Erik, truly." Charles half-wished for an old-style phone, so he could twist the cord around his finger. The slim metal casing of his iPhone was not as satisfying, somehow. "Did you get anything done?"

"Not what I wanted to get done," and dear god. Charles swallowed heavily and double-checked telepathically to make sure Raven wasn't eavesdropping.

"Maybe you could take some work home with you?" he suggested. "I'm sure you'd be quite productive."

"Or I could come to your place and suck you off until you forget who you are, and then fuck you."

Oh god. Charles had to roll over on his back; it was either that or try to wedge his hand between his stomach and the mattress or just rut stupidly against his comforter. And the only thing that kept him from saying yes, yes please god yes, or suggesting that maybe they have a phone conference so that maybe Erik and his delicious, rough voice would tell Charles precisely what he'd do to him, was the sudden thought of Raven. Raven and what she would say when Erik turned up on Charles's front step and introduced himself as Charles's new go-to person for casual sex.

"How about," forming words was very difficult, "your work comes home with you?"

Erik gave him an address that wasn't too far away, a block of townhomes near Central Park that hadn't seemed much like the sort of place Erik would live. Charles reflected on that as he raced through straightening himself up, wondering what sort of place would he live in? and telling himself it didn't matter.

"You're scratching an itch," he told his reflection, peering critically at it as it peered critically back at him. He pushed his fringe out of his eyes. "You're an adult and you know yourself and you know what you want, so go take it."

Squaring his shoulders, he headed out the door to do just that – and to run the gauntlet of Raven's disapproval.

"Where are you going?" Raven said from the far side of the couch. "Rachel Maddow is totally emasculating Senator Kelly's aide about – hey, where are you going? Charles?"

"Very exciting lab results," Charles said, and if he sounded a bit giddy and anticipatory, well, he got that way about science sometimes. "Enjoy Rachel, love. I'll be back when I'm back."

"Riiiiight." Raven's head disappeared behind the couch again. "Have fun being blinded with, you know, science."

"Ta!" Charles said and grabbed his jacket and darted out.

* * *

He had told himself earlier he wasn't going to call Charles until Wednesday, or Thursday – Thursday, at least, to prove to himself he didn't have to see Charles again right away, or Wednesday to save appearances. Still, not three steps out his firm's door, he'd pulled his phone from his pocket and pulled up Charles's name in his contact list.

(The number had gone into his phone first thing after he'd left Charles's apartment that morning, after navigating through the cluttered, academical space that was Charles's study and living room, and through the barely-organized chaos of the kitchen. He'd kept the numbers Charles had scrawled across his palm until he arrived at work and had to wash them off before Raven noticed and asked questions.)

Erik felt Charles coming before he saw him, a sense of the brushed-steel watch with its minute and precise gears that Erik had picked out in the bar last night. He'd removed it from Charles's wrist as a minor, but still impressive, demonstration of his talents while simultaneously unzipping Charles's pants. Along with the watch came something that was like a quiet, invisible pulse – like wind, brushing up against him, that was anticipation and happiness and wanting, and it was all directed at him.

And then Charles was standing there on his front step, those clever, devilish eyebrows quirked in a way that said Charles knew – knew everything about him and knew exactly the thoughts that were going through Erik's head about last night, and what Charles had looked like straddling him and how he'd felt, and how very badly Erik wanted to feel that again. I know even more than that the peculiar tilt of Charles's mouth suggested.

"Erik," Charles said.

"Unless you want me to do something very indecent in a public place, you'll come inside," Erik said, tugging meaningfully on Charles's watch and belt buckle.

"Oh, when you put it like that," Charles said and stepped past Erik, a bit too close so when Erik looked down it was down into sly blue eyes.

"Dammit, Charles, come here," Erik said and slammed the door shut behind them.

Charles, very obediently, came and twined himself around Erik like a climbing plant, licking greedily into Erik's mouth, the hot fingers of his telepathy stroking over Erik's mind to transmit all of Charles's excitement, which had been building on the trip over. Erik appreciated a man who knew what he wanted and ignored the preliminaries to get to it, throwing himself into the kiss without reservation. The sound Charles made against his mouth was deeply gratifying, and the hand he had somehow – already – gotten up Erik's shirt did wicked things to Erik's control.

"This is a very nice hallway," Charles murmured, rocking back a little to give Erik the full benefit of hazy blue eyes and a damp mouth Erik was compelled to lean in and kiss again. "Very nice, as I said," Charles repeated, "but do you think we could go somewhere else?"

Erik had never paid much attention to his hallway, or most other parts of the townhouse. It was a reasonable distance to work and quiet, with neighbors who left him alone and wrought-iron bars over the windows and copper pipes that he found soothing. Now, he found himself considering it in more detail, how Charles would look spread out across the dark blue rug, or the marble counter top in the kitchen, or best of all in Erik's steel-framed bed – dark sheets, Charles's pale, strong fingers knotted in it…

"Oh, I do like that idea," Charles said, his breath humid against Erik's lips as he leaned in again, and it was only Erik's willpower that got them up to his room without – oh, another idea – Erik pushing Charles down on the stairs. Charles seconded that thought with an enthusiastic, telepathic yes, a frission of his expectation working down Erik's spine. As it was, the final walk down the hall became perilous, with Charles having to shrug out of his jacket, sweater, collared shirt, and undershirt – "Is cold-bloodedness your secondary mutation?" Erik asked – and Erik almost falling over trying to toe off his shoes and socks, because there was no graceful way to do that.

"I still think you're lovely," Charles said in a low, confiding tone to the thought Erik hadn't voiced but hadn't been able to keep himself from thinking. "Now, come here."

It was only after he'd done what he promised to do – because Erik always followed through on his promises – and Charles had faded to little more than a contented buzz in the corner of Erik's mind that he let himself think past the moment. It took some effort, because Charles had fallen asleep on Erik's arm, so Erik's arm was going numb, and Charles was warm and loose-limbed against him, his thoughts drowsy-soft with afterglow, but Erik extracted himself from bed and wandered into the bathroom to clean up.

The person in the mirror didn't look much like the person he saw most days; he was softer around the edges, disheveled. Happy, if that was actually a word Erik could apply to himself. Erik pointedly stopped looking at him and grabbed a washcloth.

"I can't believe you actually got up – out of bed," Charles mumbled. He let himself be rolled over so Erik could wipe various sticky, drying things off him. One eye slit open, a skim of dark blue underneath its lashes. "You're thinking very loudly for someone who forgot his name ten minutes ago."

"Do you ever get tired of hearing people's thoughts?" Erik asked, too curious to stop himself.

That got both eyes open, and a faintly amused smile. "What brought this on?"

"Forgetting my name, I suppose." Erik dropped the washcloth on the floor and folded himself back into bed again. Charles made an approving noise – you're very tall, good for spooning – and tucked himself into the curve of Erik's body. "Do you?"

"Only if you get tired of feeling metal." Charles yawned and stretched distractingly. "I don't think about it much, unless I'm concentrating or wanting to hear something." He twisted a little, a pleasant shift of muscle and bone, to look over his shoulder at Erik. "Most of the time it's merely knowing people are there; it's as if their presence gives shape to mine. You weren't annoying me, if that's what you were afraid of."

"I'm not afraid of annoying people." Generally he preferred terrifying or intimidating; it produced better results than annoyance. "I was just wondering."

"All right." Something brushed at him – inquisitive, hesitant, before moving away just before making contact like an animal shy of being touched. Charles continued, "But you know, I have given it some thought – in a professional capacity of course – and I believe there are, and probably have to be, certain mechanisms that prevent those of us who have a sense beyond the five baseline senses from overloading or experiencing the equivalent of sensory fatigue. Our own form of habituation, if you will."

"Yes, Professor," Erik said with what sarcasm he could manage. Charles huffed, but let Erik wrap an arm around him anyway. "Are you usually this articulate after sex, or am I just not that good?"

"Oh, you're very good," Charles purred, a rumble that transmitted itself to Erik's chest and directly downward. "But I can talk about things that interest me in almost any situation, even post-coital. It may be a secondary mutation."

"We'll have to test the limitations of that, then," Erik said, nipping and nuzzling into the strong, sweaty curve of Charles's shoulder and making Charles shiver deliciously against him.

By the time morning came around, Charles had somehow rolled onto Erik's arm, which made getting up very nearly too difficult to bother with. He had his face pressed into Erik's chest, lips soft and moving in absent dreams while he breathed.

It was something, Erik thought without the usual panic, he could get used to. He pushed away the image of waking like this every morning, not going to happen, Lehnsherr, and it shouldn't, and began to work out how to extract himself without waking Charles.

He managed it at last, Charles rolling over into the small hollow left by Erik's body and appropriating the pillow for himself. Charles slept as enthusiastically as he did everything else, furrow-browed and determined, a soft sigh as if he were sinking deeper into sleep – but no, he was stretching, which Erik could watch forever and very much wanted to, twisting his body lazily. The sight of him reminded Erik he was still open and slick – that Erik, in fact, needed a shower if he didn't want to offend Irene.

Oh, I don't know, Charles's sleep-hazy voice said, trailing Erik into the bathroom. That's delightfully kinky, you still being covered with my come and lube and all.

"I hope you're not planning on more of that talk while I'm trying to shave," Erik said, wishing his voice were far steadier than it was. Not trusting himself with his razor – something that hadn't happened since he'd been a teenager, since before his abilities had stabilized – he stepped into the shower. His hands on himself were a poor substitute, even with Charles's amused, hazy warmth looking over his shoulder.

Do you have anything better to do than spy on me in the shower?

Not at the moment, Charles replied, a ripple of delight coming through with the words. Do you mind?

"When I'm trying to get ready to go, yes," Erik said, loud enough to carry over the rush of the water. Mind-to-mind was intimate, a tie, a most definite string between the two of them. He turned away from thinking about the ease of it, how easy it was to want.

Drying off and shaving now that he was steady enough to manage it pulled his attention away from Charles. His clothes became armor, heavy but important, even with Charles's eyes shut and his presence faded into half-sleep, like a creature idly tracking movements through its territory but not bothering about it much.

His phone beeped at him once before he silenced it. With a sigh, he saw Raven's cell number on the display but took the call, a silent speak of the devil directed to himself and a quickly-mouthed "My assistant" to Charles, who nodded and, with a final brush of will let myself out, let Erik get on with it.

"I hope this is important." He fished his shoes out from under Charles's boxers and took them with him down the hall, but not without pausing to look at Charles one more time, warm and contented wrapped up in Erik's sheets. The sight did something complicated to Erik's heart, knotting it before he could breathe enough to release it and let it go.

"Your wake-up call, sir," Raven said. "Irene's already at the airport and wants to know if you're planning on coming or not."

"I… yeah, I'm coming. I'm almost out the door. I…" He'd overslept, so thoroughly distracted by Charles he had forgotten to set his alarm. The microwave clock glowed accusingly at him. This is why you don't let things get serious. Charles had distracted him from Shaw, of all people. Erik reached for anger.

"Is this the person from the other night?" Raven asked.

"Is your job that unimportant to you?" Erik floated a travel mug out of his cabinet and summoned the iron-accented sugar jar from its corner.

"No, it is," Raven said quickly, "it's just… you're never late for these things. And you've wanted to get your teeth into Shaw for a while now. I figure you wouldn't miss your alarm for just anyone. Is it – "

"Don't ask that question," Erik snapped. His hand shook as he poured the coffee and stirred sugar in. "Is there a driver waiting for me?"

"Yeah." Raven said this far more gently than she'd ever said anything to Erik in his life. "He's circling the block."

"Then get off the phone." Erik hung up, grabbed his waiting carryon, and left.

He didn't want to leave. The knowledge made the coffee, on its first swallow, taste bitter. The fall air closed cold around him, damp on the back of his neck where he'd forgotten to fasten his scarf. Charles wasn't anywhere in his mind that Erik could tell, and maybe given what had happened only now, it was for the best to be apart.


Chapter four

After a day of students agonizing over their looming finals – meaning a day of students "just stopping by" on the off-chance he was in his office outside of office hours, and a day of constantly having to shield or suffer a minor anxiety attack – Charles sighed with relief as his apartment door shut behind him. The only sound that greeted him was the thump of his briefcase on the tiles and his shoes scuffing as he kicked them off, a reminder that Raven was chained to the office while Sharkface Boss was out of town terrorizing some jerk who wanted to steal his company. Not that he didn't love Raven dearly, but his head ached with the pressure of anxious, frazzled thoughts pushing up against him, and he still had a column to write for Hank -- and the date with Dr. Rogers tomorrow – and even Charles's brain considered those quite enough to handle without tossing Raven into the mix.

Infuriatingly, she'd been home when he'd returned to fetch his computer and meeting notes, forgotten when he'd left for Erik's. She'd been hovering anxiously over the coffee maker, but even before her first caffeine infusion Raven was capable of withering sarcasm.

"Oh, how were the lab results?" she'd asked, taking in yesterday's clothes and Charles's failure to shave. "Exciting?"

"I don't recall asking for your commentary," Charles said.
"Considering I found a pair of boxers that weren't yours in the hallway and a condom in a place I do not want to think of a condom being, you've more than earned it." Raven flailed at the coffee maker when it beeped and thrust her mug under the spout. "Well?"

"Would it help to know it was the same person?" Charles asked. He'd found himself reluctant to talk about Erik, anxious to keep him close.

"It would intrigue me," Raven said. She'd examined him closely before rocking back a little and saying, with far more surprise than Charles felt necessary, "Wow, it was the same person. That's practically a record for you."

"Again, unasked-for commentary," Charles had said.

"Says the advice columnist."

"People ask for my advice, is the difference." Charles had shouldered Raven out of the way and reached for a mug of his own and Raven, defeated, had temporarily conceded the field.

Most of the time, Charles rather enjoyed the advice column. It provided sufficient justification for avoiding the kinds of romantic entanglements that would lead one to write to an advice column, it spoke to what Raven referred to as his obsession with telling other people how to manage their lives, and – Charles rarely admitted this to himself – it gave him some of the attention that one usually did not get as a professor of genetics. In another dimension he would have been some kind of activist, Charles supposed, one of the pioneers of change, a warrior, a prophet, a hero forging new paths to mutant acceptance.

"The comic book dimension," Raven would say. "Face it, you just want an excuse to run around in tight clothes."

Running around in tight clothes did have appeal. Imagining Erik running around in tight clothes had even more, especially when Charles was trying to finish a column and staring down the barrel of the gun that was his date tomorrow night, and Erik had dragged himself from their bed to leave on a two-day business trip to Miami.

"Are you sure I can't drag you away from your students? Or away from this terrible weather?" Erik had asked at some point between rounds two and three. He'd been lacing kisses across Charles's shoulders so Charles hadn't seen his face, and the breathlessness with which Erik had asked the question could be put down to the fact they'd been tormenting each other with foreplay for the past half-hour.

Now, picking through his Professor X email account for an interesting letter, listening to the rain batter itself against the windows, Charles bitterly regretted the virtuous answer he'd given. If I didn't have young minds to shape this week, I would come with you in a heartbeat.

"You can still come with me now," Erik had said throatily, and slid a slick finger into him, and Charles had forgotten about everything else.

You've slept with him twice, Charles told himself, although he immediately wondered if having sex five times on those two occasions actually meant sleeping with Erik twice or five times. Was there an equation for this? Was it a matter of definition? Either way, he had known Erik for a grand total of… a handful of hours, and that meant Charles's visions of spending the next forever with him were purely the product of serotonin and endorphins and oxytocin. Bonding hormones talked loudly, and right now they were prophesying about some hazy future that Charles could not precisely define, but which was nonetheless Erik-shaped.

It was just as well Erik was leaving. Between the date tomorrow and a moment of near-miscalculation last night – god, he'd almost looked to see if there might be anything there beneath Erik's constant, straight-ahead litany of this is only sex, nothing more, only great sex, nothing beyond that, and he'd almost thought something irredeemably foolish and loud enough for Erik to hear. It had been something stupidly affectionate with hints of a longing Charles didn't want to properly articulate, and he'd snatched it back at the last second. If Erik had noticed or overheard, he hadn't said anything.

"Not thinking about that," Charles told himself, and firmly ignored the curl of warmth that worked its way through him at thinking of Erik wanting Charles to come with him. He could have stretched out on the beach and given himself a most unalluring sunburn, and tormented Erik with many indecent thoughts while he sat in a stuffy office somewhere. Then when Erik escaped they could have gone to get comprehensively drunk and then make out on the beach, and Erik's mouth would taste like sea salt. Or, more likely, after returning from a meeting that would have run overtime, Erik would have to be careful of Charles's sunburn, and soothe it by unsexily rubbing aloe onto it, instead of pushing Charles down onto the nearest surface and having his way with him.

"And you would get sand in uncomfortable places," Charles said firmly. Accordingly, his fantasy switched over to staying in Erik's hotel room and ordering room service, which would be disappointing and cold, but sand-free, and dragging Erik back to bed post-haste the moment Erik set foot in the door.

It's a good thing this isn't a serious relationship, otherwise you'd be in trouble. His laptop screen flickered preparatory to the screensaver coming on, pulling Charles's attention back to his work. The column was due in only a few more hours, and Hank got agitated if Charles was late.

My dear Professor X, said the next email.

I am a mutant who is, naturally, very proud of his mutation. However, I'm not too proud not to ask for advice when advice is needed, even if I sometimes feel that your column is too much like those baseline columns that obsess humans so much.

"Oh god, one of those." The flip side to the FoH and Purifier trolls was the mutant supremacists, who were useful mostly as the first line of defense against anti-mutant trollery in the comments section. They almost never wrote in, given that they loathed Charles's politics almost as much as they did the humans, but when they did, their letters, hysterical capitals, misspellings, and all, were troll-bait of precisely this sort. Charles took a fortifying swallow of his Scotch.

Some years ago, I was in love with a very beautiful woman whose mind was more brilliant than the finest diamond, so very clever and ruthless – everything the next stage of evolution needs. She discontinued our relationship because I, to my eternal disgrace, placed the cause of mutant superiority before the woman I professed to love. I'm also afraid that, before the end, I accused her of using her abilities to distract me from the pursuit of my goals, and I took steps to ensure that she knew that, while I valued her as a companion and a fellow soldier in the war against human bigotry and weakness, I did not trust her not to cause me to lose sight of our true priorities. The day I came home with the helmet on was the day she left, but not before she accused me of caving to the same kinds of base fears as the humans. My ability to absorb any kind of blow or strike leveled against me without any harm to myself was helpless against the sharpness of her words, which pierced my heart.

I have been alone for the past four years now, and I find to my consternation that I long for her touch more than the destruction of Homo sapiens inferior. I would sacrifice my dream for a mutant-dominated world if it meant I could hear her lovely, crystalline voice in my ear once more. I would even apologize if it meant she would look on me in the way she used to look on me. But I fear she won't allow me even to speak to her over the phone. I can live with the destruction of human society, but I can't live without her. How can I tell her that I would give up everything to have her back?

I am yours, most sincerely,

Loveless but still believing in mutant superiority in Las Vegas

Charles forwarded the email to Raven and had another drink while he waited for her to text back Not sure if trolling.

Hank would likely never forgive him for this, but… Charles began to type.

Dear Loveless &c. in Las Vegas,

Even though our politics are clearly very different, I believe we can agree on one thing: that being the one that admits to fault in the ending of a relationship is a bitter pill. But it's a courageous thing to admit, even if you must then face the unpleasant truth of acknowledging that the right to accept an apology – or reopen discussion at all – is wholly in the court of the other party.

From what you've written, it sounds as if you and your former partner were compatible politically and socially, and that you valued many things about her – but not, crucially, her mutation, which you perceived as a threat. As a telepath whose former partners always expressed reservations about psionic abilities, I can say from first-hand experience how much that sort of rejection from a fellow mutant hurts.

"You were lucky to escape when you did," Charles told Loveless' former girlfriend as he idly traced his finger across the trackpad. The reference to her using her abilities to distract implied some kind of psionic ability, if not telepathy as such then perhaps a form of persuasion or particular ability to influence and charm. Commenters tended to vent if Charles explicitly used the column as a platform for psionic rights, to which Charles tended to reply by pointing out that there were plenty of other advice columns in the world and if they didn't want to hear about the mutant community's own hypocrisy, they could go somewhere else.

If she decides not to hear you out, you'll have to let things go: she's under no obligation to listen to you, nor should you try to persuade her she owes you when you were the one in the wrong. However, if she does, your apology should include an explicit acknowledgment of your failure to embrace her mutation – and if you want to reestablish contact on a more permanent basis, you'll have to set aside your fears regarding her ability. If you can't do that, then you owe it to her not to try to revive what you once had.

That was considerably more restrained than what Charles usually wanted to write whenever psionics and relationship problems came through his inbox. Maybe that would be his next book, Charles mused as he watched the gray world beyond his window. Psexuality: A Guide to Relationships for Psionics. He could use himself as an example of someone who successfully sidestepped society's reservations regarding telepaths by hooking up with someone who was perfect for him and neither needed nor wanted a permanent relationship.

Which was a pity because, well, what wasn't there to love about Erik? He already had a list, ranging from the most shallowly carnal (Erik just this morning, not bothering with modesty as he stepped into his bathroom) to the intricate mind Charles could barely keep himself from exploring, the twists and turns of it like fine bronze interlace. He'd much rather have the contents of that list on a non-exclusive basis than not have it at all, and the fastest way not to have it at all would be to press the issue. Most psionics Charles had met – including Emma, for that matter, who spoke very little about her romantic life and had firmly discouraged Charles from prying into the details – rapidly discovered that innocent conversations regarding mind-reading or passive reception of emotion devolved into the non-telepath wondering if mind-control was involved, if they weren't being manipulated into a relationship they didn't actually want.

It got old very quickly, and while Charles had developed something of a thick skin when it came to rejection, he wasn't entirely sure it was thick enough for one coming from Erik.

* * *

Even with the inferno of summer faded into the lesser heat of fall, Miami was its own special kind of hell. Erik, who hated extravagance and ostentation in all its forms, especially hated Miami, living proof of the fact that money and taste did not always coexist. The representatives and president of Hellfire Engineering Limited had plenty of the former – far too much for Erik to ignore proposals from them – but a depressing lack of the latter.

One way in which we are depressingly human, he thought, remembering Charles's lectures, and then to his private embarrassment recalled a particular college party and a magenta cape.

"You should see Mr. Shaw's yacht," the assistant who'd fetched him and Irene from Miami International had told him. It had been the prelude to a twenty-minute monologue about the Caspartina that Erik had mostly ignored in favor of wishing he were back in his apartment with Charles, going back to bed instead of watching Charles put himself back together and slipping out of Erik's front door. Irene had made noises at appropriate places in the assistant's rambling, while frowning at Erik the entire time.

They had put him and Irene up in the same hotel as the meeting, a white whale called the Fontainebleau, bleached-bone concrete without and marble within. Erik had glimpsed the Atlantic as an assistant hustled him from his car to the conference room, but mostly he had seen other giant hotels and patches of drowsing palm trees and broiled-red tourists. Like the hotel – and the tourists – the Hellfire representatives were a disturbing mixture of whiteness and sunburn, several of them pulling uncomfortably at their collars and gazing wistfully in the direction of the bar. Erik could sympathize; they'd been here for four hours and even Irene, who existed with the infinite patience of one who knew all things must pass, seemed anxious to be away.

"I have to say, it does require some gumption to fly down here on my dime and tell me 'no' to my face."

Of all of them, Sebastian Shaw was the most extravagant and ostentatious, from the bright orange tie to the spa-cultivated tan to the blinding bleached-out smile he'd inflicted on Erik when they'd first met in person that morning. It would be perilous to dismiss him, Irene had said during the negotiations that had produced this meeting. Shaw in the flesh was not much of a surprise; the first thirty seconds in his company had only reinforced the impression of confidence bordering on arrogance, and a kind of patronizing there's a good boy air that made it clear where Shaw saw himself.

Apex predator, Erik had thought, very nearly in Charles's voice.

Only now, after Erik had opened the leather folder containing Shaw's prospectus and revised offer – an offer to buy Lehnsherr Aerospace for an amount that would have made Erik's jaw drop if he hadn't been so furious at Shaw's presumption – did some of Charles's words snap into focus. Like Charles they worked down deep.

"If I'd known you were taking our meeting as agreeing to your offer, I would have done you a favor and canceled," Erik said icily. He shut the folder and, with far more restraint than he felt capable of, pushed it back across the table towards Shaw.

"I don't ask for favors," Shaw said, his lips curving above steepled fingertips. "I express my expectations. And I'm not in the habit of having those expectations disappointed."

"You may have to be this time," Erik replied. "I'm not interested in working for you or anyone else."

The smile vanished into sorrow. Shaw leaned back; his chair creaked. The other executives eyed him anxiously. "So you'd rather Lehnsherr Aero and Hellfire work against each other instead of together? Two competing mutant-owned companies fighting it out one against another instead of against human dominance?" Shaw actually tsked at him and shook his head sorrowfully. "I have to admit, I'm quite disappointed in you, Erik. The last time I was so disappointed in someone was…" He shook his head. "Suffice it to say, I'd had such great hopes for us."

"And you'd rather buy out my company and gut it?" In the corner of his eye, Erik saw Irene's hand tighten on the arm of her chair. "Because according to my CFO, that's more or less what you're planning."

Shaw glared poisonously at Irene, who gazed back without expression. Behind Shaw, his minions shifted anxiously. Toynbee gulped.

"All right then," Shaw said at last. "If you're happy with watching the human contractors win all the major bids because the Army would much rather patronize them than us, then you'll be happy being second-rate forever. And," he paused and smiled, as if something pleasing had just occurred to him, "when you find you can't hope to stand against the humans on your own, you'll come to me. Me. Your savior."

"I don't think so, Shaw." Erik stood, and Shaw's eyes bugged out a little. Irene gracefully rose to her feet, collecting her cane and, with careful emphasis, pushing her own leather folder back across the table. "We won't be in touch."

"We're supposed to take over the world," Shaw said, actually sounding somewhat plaintive. "It's our destiny, Erik!"

"Keep telling yourself that, if it makes you feel better," Erik said. "Are we done?"

"For now," Shaw said.

Erik kept tabs on all the metal in the room, the paranoia crawling up his neck. Irene swept out regally, not so much as glancing at Shaw and the others; it was a battle for Erik to do the same. Behind him, he heard Shaw grumbling and snapping termination orders at Toynbee, a bit of "She would love me again if – " before he swung the door shut behind them.

"I'm proud of your restraint," Irene said, once they were safely in their suite. She said this with a certain dryness that would usually raise Erik's hackles, but they were already raised, so the sarcasm failed to accomplish much.

"Fuck him," Erik growled. He knew a little of Shaw's mutation, the ability to absorb and redirect kinetic energy, and towards the end he had started to think of ways to get around that. A pen to the eye, maybe, or strangling Shaw with the metal frame of his chair. "At least we don't have an excuse to stay through tomorrow."

"Did you eat them?" Raven asked when Erik called her to inform her of the change in plans.

"As if I would eat a human," Erik snorted. "I don't suppose you've actually gotten any work done all day."

"Oh, a few things."

"Good," Erik said briskly. "Then I suppose when Irene and I return tomorrow the office won't be a complete disaster area."

The pause that earned was highly gratifying. Almost as gratifying, Erik thought, as the sudden realization that he could see Charles tomorrow instead of Saturday.


Chapter five

"After you have scored this great triumph," Janos said, "will you go to Disney World?"

"I don't remember asking for sarcasm." Emma glanced at her watch, mostly to be sure the links and face were polished than to check the time. They glinted flawlessly up at her, Burberry silver with its quartz heart ticking away inside of it. "Make yourself useful and go order the car."

Janos wandered out, but not before sending a miniature whirlwind to tug Emma's hair out of its coif.

"But since you asked," Emma added, "perhaps I'll step up my game by getting Erik Lehnsherr married."

"Perhaps that is one impossible thing to do before breakfast," Janos said idly and, with barb set in Emma's flesh, picked up the phone.

Lehnsherr's obdurateness still rankled, but Emma refused to let herself think about that. Not on tonight of all nights. She straightened her dress, not that it needed straightening; the tan of it made her frown, but her usual blinding white would stand out like a beacon in the dim restaurant and she was already having to take more care than usual as it was.

The advantage to running a dating service was being the one who set up all first contacts and dates. Emma imagined there were some practical reasons having to do with liability that justified this policy on paper – or, at least, Janos made it sound practical – but really, she thought as she adjusted an earring and smirked at herself in the mirror, it also gave her the chance to observe the results of her handiwork. So far, even if her prospective couples had not become permanent, they had at least reached second- and third-date status, with a reasonably high percentage of them going on to a steady, exclusive relationship. It was, she reflected, as satisfying in its way as any of the grander plans she had entertained in her younger, less deliberative days, the pleasure of watching something she knew would happen finally coming to pass.

Watching Charles finally snap his string of one-night stands would be, by far, her greatest achievement to date. "And to think," she said, loudly enough for Janos, who was still lurking, "I once thought trying to precipitate a nuclear war was a coup."

"He will not thank you for eavesdropping," Janos said from his desk.

"Then it's a good thing he won't know I'm there, isn't it?" Emma asked. "Did you double-check the reservations at the Claremont?"

"One for the happy couple and your usual," Janos said. "And for the record, I would like to say that this is a terrible idea."

"You say this as if I care." Emma tossed her lipstick and cell phone into her purse. "I hope the car is here. If it's not, I might have to see about getting a new assistant."

The car was ready, and it whisked her down to the Claremont Club. The club was one of the few places that managed to cater to both mutants and humans without offending either, which made it ideal for the few mutant-human couples Emma had set up. It would appeal to Charles's politics, and given his eagerness to patronize any establishment so closely associated with mutant rights, he could not have had a single objection to going there. And, best of all, it had a small alcove on the second floor where Emma might, unobserved, look down on her handiwork.

Dr. Rogers arrived first, unfashionably five minutes early. Emma flickered to faint diamond, enough to keep Charles oblivious to her presence but not enough to register as a void around which other minds moved. A waitress bustled up with water and a gin and tonic, and nearly bumped into the hostess, who sat a woman at the table kitty-corner to Emma and promised to keep an eye out for the other member of the party.

Emma picked up her drink and settled in to wait.

* * *

Raven had tried to help Charles get ready, which resulted in Charles being five minutes late but, at least, presentable. His sister's idea of helpful had involved trying to help Charles into a pair of jeans instead of the khakis Charles wanted, and then doing things to his hair that were possible only when attempted by a shapeshifter.

The cab ride had dragged on for ages, slowed down by Friday traffic and by the speeches Charles kept running through his head. I apologize for Emma, but she doesn't really know what I want, and I'm quite sure you're a lovely, decent human, and I know you'll make somebody very happy, but you're not what I'm looking for… and well, we want the same things but I don't want it with you, if that makes sense. Charles had half made up his mind to recite this to Dr. Rogers verbatim when the cab jolted to a stop in front of the Claremont.

Erik is probably sleeping with someone tanned and fit as we speak, he said to himself as he handed the cabbie his credit card and fumbled a tip out of his pocket. Miami was infested with tan, fit people. There was probably a breeding facility there.

The thought of Erik in someone else's arms – Charles couldn't bring himself to imagine a face – suggested that Charles at least deserved to have fun tonight. He squared his shoulders, newly determined to enjoy himself, and got out.

Stepping into the restaurant instantly dispelled any hope that Dr. Rogers – Steve, Charles supposed – had decided to skip out. Even if he hadn't had photographic memory, with only Emma's headshot of him to go on, Steve was unmistakable and unmissable. He towered over the other people clustered around the bar although, when he spotted Charles through the crowd, he was deliberate and careful about extricating himself.

"Dr. Xavier, I presume." Steve's smile was blinding. He was also very well-pressed, in sports jacket and khakis and a plaid shirt strategically, although still somehow modestly, unbuttoned at the collar. "Steve. It's wonderful to meet you." He enclosed Charles's hand in a crushing grip.

"Oh, you are rather… rather," Charles finished. He attempted to reclaim his hand.

Steve beamed and let Charles have his hand back. "Nicest compliment I've gotten all day, Dr. Xavier."

"Charles," Charles said.

They sat down, and Charles had the uncomfortable sense of being watched by everyone, the table abruptly turning into an island spotlighted by the Chinese lanterns hung overhead. Romance or farce, Charles thought unhappily, before rallying himself and asking Steve how his day was.

"Oh, Intro to Constitutional Law," Dr. Rogers said. "We're finishing up term, so of course they're all revising and panicking about their grades."

"Universal experience, I suppose," Charles said, brightening despite himself. Of course Steve could relate. All academics could; it was either complain about research or students, or perhaps the administration. "It's never much fun being around so many people who have gotten, between them, about twenty hours of sleep in the past two days. Caffeine is a strange contact high as well."

"That sounds rough," Steve winced. "This one time, in boot camp, they made us stay awake for two days straight. One of my buddies, on the second day, he tried to make coffee and forgot the crystals."

"Some student, somewhere, has done that," Charles said. He barely registered the waiter beyond giving his drink order. Steve had a Budweiser, which was really… very all-American of him. "I hope you won't think I'm being, well – " No, Xavier, don't – "forward or anything, but I saw in Emma's file that you had been part of an, ah…"

"Super-soldier program?" Steve nodded. "I was. Made in America!" He flexed a bicep, impressive even under his sports jacket. "When the program got busted up – well, it didn't really, there was just talk of some other stuff going on," Weapon X Steve's mind whispered before he hushed it up, "they asked us what we wanted to do, all on their tab. I decided to go to law school. You know, keep defending America and liberty and all." He took a sip of his beer. "'Course, I'm sure you're interested in the program, seeing as you're a geneticist and all, though I imagine that program'll be classified until doomsday."

"The ethics of that program… well." Charles figured Steve didn't need anyone lecturing him on what had been done to him, and anyway, they were two academics talking to each other. Indulging mutual geekery, Raven called it. "I'm really more interested in evolution and adaptation, response of genes to environment, that sort of thing. For example," he leaned in a little, "did you know that you are a mutant? Even without the serum."

"Really?" Steve laughed. It was rich and full, a nice laugh. "I'm not psychic and I can't hang upside-down from ceilings."

"Blue eyes," Charles said very seriously. He took a fortifying gulp of his Scotch and reminded himself of his and Erik's arrangement, and Erik having G-string-attached fun in South Florida. "Let me explain."

* * *

The earliest flight Irene could get didn't get them in to New York until late afternoon, and back downtown until nearly six. Erik stalked through La Guardia in a dim frame of mind, still turning over Shaw's threats, the arrogance with which he had expected Erik to fall into line, as if he would simply… "As if I would just sell my parents' company to him," he snarled at Irene.

"I know," Irene said, because he had said this at least twenty times on the plane ride.

He dropped Irene off at her apartment and steadfastly refused an invitation in. Irene gave him an admonishing look and seemed on the verge of saying something before compressing her mouth into a firm line.

"Not everything is what it seems," she said at last as she waited for the cabbie to pull her suitcase out.

"Shaw is exactly what he seems," Erik snapped. "Unless he's even worse than I gave him credit for being. And we already knew that the contract he was offering us was duplicitous; you mentioned that in our meetings."

Irene made an exasperated noise and seized her suitcase. "Just don't fly off the handle like you usually do when things don't immediately go your way. And if you meet an enemy, bow your head and let him pass." With that, she strode away and through the door, feeling her way with her cane and careful on the icy pavement.

Considering that Erik was going straight to Charles's apartment and that Shaw was still in Florida, the odds of meeting an enemy were slim to none. Considering that Erik would never in a million years bow his head and let an enemy pass him unchallenged, Irene's advice was pointless anyway. She had to have known that even as she'd given it. As for the crack about his temper… Erik was perfectly capable of holding his temper, thank you.

He gave the cabbie the address for Charles's apartment and gave a brief thought to calling ahead, but the thought of the look on Charles's face seeing Erik standing outside his door when Erik was supposed to be in Miami… Erik could picture it, that lovely, red mouth curving upward in a smile that pushed joy into Charles's eyes and made them even bluer… Happiness would light Charles up all over, and then his expression would shift from happy to something else – to something slow and hot, and he would say something like "Can I help you with your coat, sir?" and Erik would be compelled to drag him upstairs and do terrible things to him.

The cabbie made a small, frightened noise, and Erik realized he was smiling very widely.

The smile did not vanish as he reached Charles's brownstone, although it waned somewhat after he had to ring the buzzer a few times. Surely Charles would have sensed him, or at least the want want want that steamed off Erik like his breath in the cold air, and surely he would hurry.

Finally impatient steps sounded behind the door, and Erik caught a glimpse of a dark, swift-moving figure behind the frosted glass before he sensed the chain rattle and the heavy deadbolts pulling back and the door wrenched open.



The smile slid right off Erik's face in favor of the utter, debilitating shock of seeing Raven's blue face staring at him through Charles's doorway. Raven, at least, seemed no less surprised than he was, her golden eyes round with it and looking over him as if she'd never seen him before.

"What," Raven recovered first, "are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here?" Erik snapped, forgoing shock in favor of irritation, "what are you doing here?"

"My brother lives here." Raven drew herself up; her abilities gave her an extra inch or two, the better to look Erik straight in the eye. "I have a key and everything."

"Your brother." Erik tried to remember if Raven had ever mentioned family. She might have; Erik generally didn't pay attention to anything the minions said unless it pertained to work. A memory came to him, of Charles telling him his sister had been busy trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. "You – you have a brother."

"Obviously." Raven was still blocking the door with her body, her fingers gripping the door and doorframe with nearly enough force to crack the wood.

"Your brother," Erik said slowly, as he searched for any kind of scenario that could explain this and not involve Raven and Charles being related. Maybe Charles had a roommate. Maybe Erik was at the wrong address. "Your brother Charles Xavier."

"Yes." Raven eyed him.

"But your last name's Darkholme."

"I went through a Goth phase when I was sixteen," Raven said. She was, Erik noticed, not summoning Charles, and Charles was – Erik stretched out mental fingers, seeking – not here. Erik had no sense of his watch or the peculiar shape that was the totality of the metal and metallic ions in his body. "Also," Raven continued, "I wanted to make my own way in the world, and not rely on my adoptive family's name. Now, why are you here? Are you stalking me to give me more work?"

"I was looking for Charles, if you must know – which you don't," Erik growled. "But he's not here."

"Why are you looking for – " Raven's jaw dropped as, apparently, the penny did. "Oh my god. You're him! You're… you're Mr. Lab Results! You left, oh my – Erik, you left a used condom – "

"I don't think the entire neighborhood heard you." Erik managed to inject some irritation into his tone, although inwardly, he reeled. Raven and Charles are related. "Since Charles is here, and since this is none of your business, I'm going to leave now."

"Wait!" Raven darted out and seized him by the cuff of his coat. "Wait, Erik, I know – I – " She cut herself off in favor of peering closely at him, her alien eyes keen in the half-light of a New York winter evening. "Oh shit. This isn't – this isn't no-strings-attached, is it."

"Like I said, it's none of your business." Erik twitched his arm free, or tried to, and considered appropriating the metal wall sconce to fend his assistant off.

"Charles is my brother, so it is my business, and," Raven drew a breath to steel herself, "it just so happens he's out on a date."

"A date?"

Erik told himself not to be maudlin, because he most emphatically was not given to anything resembling the world. He and Charles had slept together twice – or five times, depending on definitions – and it had been with the understanding that they were in it for nothing more than a night without romantic attachments, Charles because he found them bothersome and Erik because he found them annoying. They had mentioned nothing about exclusivity, and Erik – for the first time in memory – hadn't dared ask, or even think it. Or even think anything much beyond casual that's it, no commitments, it's what I want, nothing more as loudly as possible.

Not loudly enough, however, to cover up the insidious, whispering little voice that said no, more.

"Oh god," Raven was saying, oblivious to the painful series of epiphanies exploding in Erik's brain. "Oh god oh god, he's going out with this totally awesome guy right now. Erik, please don't order me to fuck this up for my brother."

Maybe he shouldn't, Erik thought. Maybe Charles deserved more than he believed he did.

The thought was a fleeting one, in and gone in a moment. Erik was not good at altruism.

"Raven," he began. "I'm going to order you to fuck this up for your brother, because…"

Raven was studying him now, yellow eyes keen and traveling over his face. You couldn't hide much from a metamorph under the best of circumstances, and now, unarmored and very nearly sore from the revelation of Charles, just Charles, all I want, Erik had no chance. He had no idea what she saw, only that it had to be made up of the same terrible mixture of hope, fear, longing, and impatience that clogged his heart and throat and that was making it impossible to speak.

"Oh, Erik," Raven said, gaze softening into something disturbingly like pity and, even worse, like mushiness. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Leave now, talk later," Erik snapped. He searched down the street for an approaching cab and felt the familiar contours of a large sedan, its suspension creaking alarmingly.

"He's just what Charles needs, although I guess you are too and fuck. I need to get my coat. My purse." Raven reached around the door and grabbed something.

"And then you're taking me to that damn – wherever Charles is having his date," Erik said. "That had better be the next step."

"Fuck," Raven said fervently. She struggled into her coat and shoved a fistful of keys and her phone into the pocket. "It's not far, but we need to hurry. Charles is probably pulling out his mutation line as we speak."

"He'd better not be," Erik grumbled.

"It's a statistical inevitability." Erik locked the door behind Raven for her. "And, before we go anywhere, I should say that what I'm about to do for you is going to require payment."

"Fine, I won't fire you the next time you decide to meddle in my life." They were in the cab now, Raven snapping out directions for the Claremont Club. The name filled Erik with a strange potion of fear and rage, because that meant Charles was with a mutant or one of the humans Charles had a depressingly large soft spot for, and therefore Charles absolutely would deploy the mutation pickup strategy. He tried to nudge the cab along faster.

"So, you and my brother." Raven sounded almost amazed – almost, if it weren't for the sly expectation coloring her voice. "You actually really truly fell for my brother. Probably in spite of yourself."

"He's interesting," Erik said, and suspected that Raven sensed far more in him than he was admitting to. Nothing for it, he decided; he'd have to resign himself to her seeing I want him written across his face and in the tense set of his shoulders. "And if you value your job, you won't say anything more about it."

Raven let them ride in silence for a minute. When they slowed for a red light, though, she turned to Erik again and said, "He's been through a lot, you know. People kind of give him shit, and I know it bothers him more than he says it does." She paused, and when she spoke again, it was with far more seriousness than Erik had ever heard from her.

"Don't hurt him, Erik. He's a package deal, telepathy and all. I… I had issues with that when I was a teenager, and he's okay with that now, but I don't think he could take it again."

"I won't," Erik promised, although I want him, I swear I won't hurt him he kept to himself. And, uncertain he could take more of Raven's heart-to-heart, flipped the mechanism in the traffic light to switch it over to green.

* * *

The woman at the table next to Emma had been waiting through Emma's escargot appetizer, and two rounds of Charles and Steve's drinks, tapping her high heel against the table leg and checking her watch. Armored as she was, Emma couldn't catch the woman's frustration, although it seemed acute enough that Emma worried Charles would sense it and look up.

After the third time the woman checked her phone for a text or message that had never come, Emma said, "Sugar, he – or she – probably isn't coming."

"Life of an investment banker." The woman was quite lovely, dark skin and eyes, her curly hair pulled back in a bun that, by the end of the day, had become artfully disheveled. Her mouth curved in a rueful smile, surprisingly soft against the aggressiveness of her suit and heels. "The problem with the guys I work with is they don't stop being dicks when they leave the office."

"It's true of so many men." Emma thought of Sebastian, who had perfected the art of not seeming like the dick he actually was. In the first undignified flush of love, she had overlooked it, and in overlooking it had proven that telepaths could seldom read their own minds. At least she was well shut of him; he was probably out in the Nevada desert, building a bunker in advance of the coming mutant-human war.

"Eh, the guy coming out with me is already sleeping with two other people," the woman said. "No big loss. Although he thinks I don't know because some idiot supposedly taught him some tinhat shielding techniques."

A fellow telepath? Better and better. Emma gave thought, as always, to her stash of business cards. She rarely handed them out because people were rarely of the variety of client she wanted to have, but a telepath who had tired of New York's cesspool of a dating scene…

"I was wondering," Emma began, and then quite before she knew what she was doing, changed if you would perhaps be interested in putting this nonsense behind you and signing on at Frosted Hearts to, "if you would perhaps like to have a drink with me."

"Why not?" the woman said as her dark, lovely eyes flicked up and down Emma. She stood to transfer her purse and wine glass to Emma's table.

"Emma Frost," Emma said, holding out her hand, careful to let it flash diamond the tiniest bit.

"Astrid Bloom," the woman said, and took Emma's hand in her own flawlessly manicured one.

* * *

Charles found himself rather rapidly revising his opinion of Steve Rogers. It could be due to the influence of two tumblers of the Macallan before the appetizer, or perhaps his innate appreciation for people who could handle their liquor. Steve downed his fifth Budweiser with no sign of difficulty, strange given the taste of the stuff, but perhaps his government-issued augmentation meant imperviousness to terrible beer in addition to no chance at alcohol poisoning.

"Oh, no chance they'll pass a registration act ever again," Steve was saying, his mouth half-full of chips. Cheeseburger and chips, Charles thought, where's the apple pie? Oblivious to Charles's distraction, Steve swallowed and continued, "For one, being a mutant is a protected status – even I could qualify, probably. And second, there are enough people who either have mutant kids or know mutants or are married to them that no legislator in their right mind would try to pass a law demanding that mutants identify themselves."

"I do worry about groups who share Purifier ideology," Charles said. His words, and his mind, felt blurry at the edges; he found himself reaching out, brushing against the other presences in the building and the streets just outside, as if to steady himself against them. "Granted, I understand the importance of First Amendment protections, and I recognize that they have nowhere near the power they had in the seventies, but we're still not in a place where I feel we can take Purifier threats as being empty. Or the possibility that they'll successfully scapegoat mutants for the recession or… or…" Charles's brain fell out from underneath him. "Mudslides."

"You said yourself the world inclines to acceptance," Steve said, and then turned becomingly pink. "I, uh, might've read your book when Emma set us up."

"Really?" Charles strongly suspected the smile on his face was sloppier than it should be. To correct it, he bent over his pasta, biting his lip as he tried to twirl it onto his fork. His mother had always said to use the spoon, balancing the fork tines against it to catch any sauce that might spray or drip from whirling noodles, but this was somewhat beyond him. "I do tend to go on."

"It was great," Steve assured him. "I've worked with a lot of mutants, in the Army and at NYU. It, uh," even his ears turned pink, it was quite charming and Charles hoped he wasn't projecting that, "it makes me feel better to know that we might finally be getting something right."

Through the haze of whiskey, Charles struggled to decipher the significance of the pronoun. We in the general, or we in the specific? Am I getting this right? He thought of Erik, who was only partly Charles's and not all of his, and that was terribly wrong. The way it was, and the way it probably always would be because Charles would rather have some of Erik than none of him at all.

* * *

The Claremont Club was irritatingly busy, busy enough for all the interference to prevent Erik from picking out Charles in the hubbub as they drew close enough for the familiar bits of Charles-metal to come into Erik's range. He considered using the parking meters as battering rams to clear away the tide of people shuffling down the walk, knots of them too busy talking to each other to get out of Erik's way. They'd left the cab a block back, hopelessly snarled in traffic caused by – Erik searched forward to confirm it – a ridiculously outsized limo with a heated pool, its heating coils alive with energy, sealed underneath some kind of landing pad.

"Please don't kill anyone," Raven pleaded, tugging at his coat to slow him down, although she kept up well enough. "And don't kill Charles's date, he's a decent person."

"No promises," Erik grunted. He used his abilities to push a glacially-moving man and woman aside. "What on earth are all these people doing out? It's a miserable December night in New York. And what is that asshole up there doing?"

The limo still hadn't shifted, and the crowd of gawkers was increasing by the minute by the time Erik and Raven finally got to the stretch of sidewalk in front of the Claremont. A few people, to Erik's immense annoyance, were admiring the limousine in all its gaudy ridiculousness – typical American excess, although Erik had to admit the monstrosity was a well-engineered one – but most were clustered around someone whom Erik could only see because he towered over most people there.

"What the fuck is Tony Stark doing here?" he hissed at Raven.

"Do I know everything?" Raven asked him. She elbowed a couple of tourists aside and then said, very loudly and deliberately, "It would be really nice if some people could get out of the way so some other people can get in the damn building some time tonight."

"Hey lovely," Tony said, instead of getting out of the way or apologizing. He ignored a woman who was clad in far too little for the weather in favor of smirking at Raven and then, infuriatingly, at Erik. "As it happens, I've been trying to get inside myself, but…" He gestured mock-helplessly at the crowd of infatuated idiots.

Erik scowled. "What are you doing here, Stark?"

"Looking for a bit of fun," Tony said blithely. Erik was fully prepared to magnet Tony to the nearest cab – he had that metal contraption in his chest, more than enough for Erik to get a grip on – and do something unspeakable, when Tony said, "And oh, hey, look, there he is!"

Reflexively, Erik looked over his shoulder and there, through the window – there he was, tousled hair unmistakable because at the end of the day Charles had run his fingers through it dozens of times, and by the end of a night in bed Erik had knotted his own fingers in it over and over or stroked through it just to feel the peculiar silk of it sliding against his skin.

And Charles was talking with someone whose face Erik couldn't see, face – what little Erik could see of it around an impressive set of shoulders – flushed with alcohol and high spirits. Charles was gesturing, lost in some explanation that Erik, if he had been there (as he should be right now) would only have half-heard, mesmerized by the particular cadence of Charles's voice and the dance of his hands, as if they were conducting the symphony of Charles's words.

"How do you know about Charles?" Raven was asking suspiciously, her scales bristling. Magneting Tony to anything was starting to sound better and better. Erik drew himself up and scowled as threateningly as he could.

"Oh, I hacked the server – Frost hired some guy to construct a new one, took some work – and saw he and Captain America were coming here tonight," Tony said. "Although…" He smirked. "I don't think I'm here for the same reasons you are. Why are you so worried anyway?"

"No reason," Erik said nonchalantly. "I'm going in."

"You have no idea," Raven said to Tony. Erik shouldered past her, reaching out to yank the door open, or pull it off its hinges.

"It's romantic!" Raven said, much more loudly than she needed to. Tony made an interested noise. "Come on, 'unattached, emotionally stunted loner makes public declaration of love' in a restaurant? It's like Love, Actually but with mutants."

"That sounds like my teeth might rot," Tony was saying, his words nearly lost in the swell of music as Erik opened the door. "But seriously, this is going to be worth seeing."

The crowd inside the Claremont swallowed him up, but Erik already had a lock on Charles's watch and the distinctive pulse of the metal in him, and also had no compunctions about pushing people out of the way. A woman spilled her drink on him, the sudden wetness of the liquor seeping through his trousers a flashpoint of clarity before it fell away, because right there – right there was everything.

"Charles!" Erik said, and at that moment the crowd gave way, the unyielding wall suddenly yielding so he tumbled through it rather gracelessly.

"Friend of yours?" the stupidly large, unnaturally attractive blond man said into the surprised silence of the room. He had no metal on him, save for a simple watch with a leather band. "I'm Steve."

"Steve," Erik said frostily, and then dismissed him completely from his awareness in favor of Charles, who was looking at him, the invisible tendrils of his telepathy brushing up against the contours of Erik's thoughts, careful, careful, as if afraid of bruising.

"Charles," Erik said, "I have – there is something I want to say to you."

"Oh?" Charles's eyes were very blue, incandescent in the warm yellow light of the restaurant. There were… good god, four empty tumblers in front of him, the ice obsolescing into water. "Erik?"

"Right." Erik drew a breath. "I know that you have very… definite ideas about the nature of our arrangement."

"Should I go?" What's-his-face asked, voice coming from very far away. "This doesn't sound like something I need – "

Tony was lurking somewhere nearby, recording the entire debacle on his cell phone. Erik sent out a brief pulse of energy, just enough to overload certain delicate components, which was followed shortly by a dismayed sound.

"I don't have any expectations from you, Erik," Charles was saying. "Although, really, frying Tony's cell phone?"

"That's the thing," Erik said, and drew breath to confess the rest to Charles and a roomful of gawking idiots, to say I would like to revisit the terms of our relationship, and significantly edit them to include some language about being for as long and as exclusive as possible. The words sat aching and heavy on his tongue, and Charles was close enough that Erik could grab him and kiss him, and the sense of yes yes please pouring off Charles was almost enough to make him do it.

He took one step forward, close enough to twine Charles's fingers in his.

"I think it's time that we end – "

Then the door banged open, hard enough to break the hinges and to scatter the people clustered around the hostess's desk. Screams and shouts, mostly indignant and demands for the asshole to watch his abilities, this isn't fucking comic-book world, screams and shouts that faded as the party responsible strode in.

"Emma, my love!" shouted Sebastian Shaw into the abrupt and cataclysmic stillness. "I've come to apologize, and beg for your forgiveness."


Chapter six

"Of course the amount of butthurt they put out whenever they realize they've been outsmarted by a woman is very gratifying." Astrid smiled around the rim of her wine glass. "I don't even have to be a telepath to predict what they're going to do."

"It's why I left finance." Well, more precisely, it was wanting to have as little to do with Sebastian as possible. She'd dumped the Hellfire portfolio before turning Frost Industries over to Christian; her severance had provided some very generous seed money for Frosted Hearts, and the slight hit the company's reputation had taken in getting rid of its Hellfire investments had been more than worth it to have her hands washed of Sebastian. Emma sent a telepathic reminder in the direction of the server about her gin and tonic.

Astrid caught it. "I've noticed you're shielding," she said, and it was to her credit, Emma decided, that she wasn't even trying to be casual. "You're not one of those…"

"Telepaths who have internalized psiphobia? Oh good lord no." Ah, a new drink, cold against the crowded, human-hot room. They would need to order something to eat, otherwise she might find herself doing something ill-advised, such as invite the other woman to see her again some time. "I'm here making sure a first date goes according to plan. One of the people involved tends to be difficult."

"And a psionic," Astrid said. She peered over the railing, down at the confusion of people filling the first floor. Emma registered the moment she caught sight of Charles and Steve, who were talking animatedly; she sensed Charles's smile, and if she looked, could likely see it for herself. "Oh, they're having such a good time. So adorable."

She said it with enough dryness that Emma had to approve, the way she approved of essentially everything about Astrid Bloom. The wicked sort of heat in Astrid's eyes suggested that she, at least, was not being shy about her ability – or that, somewhat distressingly, Emma had been obvious enough in her interest that Astrid hadn't needed her telepathy to register it. Emma let a smirk curl at the corners of her own mouth and sipped her drink as if to cover it up. Astrid's ankle brushed hers, startling enough very nearly for Emma to spill her drink.

It wasn't enough – Emma was far too self-possessed for that, smug brown eyes notwithstanding – but the door banging open and her name shouted at the top of a pair of familiar, much-hated lungs, was more than sufficient for her drink to end up all over her lap. It dripped off the tablecloth and ran, lukewarm from sitting unattended, across her skirt.

"Emma, my love!" shouted Sebastian, waving what seemed to be a gigantic bouquet of roses.

"Who is that?" Astrid's ankle stopped its teasing brush against Emma's calf. She peered down at Sebastian, who looked to be in yesterday's clothes and possibly drunk – Emma did not intend to find out – and oh for the love of god, Emma thought with a snarl, trust Sebastian to ruin everything. It had happened once before and now, right when Emma was about to enjoy dinner with an intelligent reasonable person, and perhaps enjoy some more if they had both decided on it, here he was.

"I've come to apologize," Sebastian was saying, his arms flung wide as if preparing for her to fling herself into them, or maybe as if preparing to blow up the place, "and beg for your forgiveness."

No. No, this was not happening. Emma held to all her self-restraint and the knowledge of the laws that had specific, negative things to say about psionic assaults of any nature. Those same laws also kept her from giving every single patron here a blinding headache that would make them forget the spectacle that was Sebastian Shaw, mutant radical and feared businessman, pleading for her forgiveness.

"What in the hell are you doing here?" Emma hissed, ignoring the hysterical babbling of the Claremont's proprietor, whose bald head was plowing through the consternated crowd.

Emma, what are you doing here? Lovely, Emma thought, another party heard from.

Not now, Charles, she sent back.

"My dear," Sebastian began, "as I said, I've come to apologize. I've seen the light, the error of my ways, and I know now that I could never be fully happy with the humans subjugated without you by my side. The entire earth could be the dominion of mutants and it would hold no joy for me if you were in it and angry with me."

"You have to be kidding me." Emma strangled her napkin for a moment before setting it down. "If you could excuse me for one moment?"

Astrid nodded, and Emma didn't need telepathy to feel positively drenched in the secondhand embarrassment pouring off her. She also didn't need telepathy to sense the gossipy interest from every single diner she passed as she stalked down the stairs. Their whispers rose up around her, and it was for this – being made the center of attention in a way she certainly did not want, and already hearing her name ("isn't that – " "yeah that's Emma Frost, all right, didn't you hear about when she and Shaw…") – that she was never going to forgive Sebastian.

Only when she shoved her way through the thicket of people at the bar, some of them turning to stare at her while others were riveted on Sebastian and the Claremont's owner trying unsuccessfully to kick him out, did she see Charles, Steve, and Sebastian weren't alone.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded of Erik Lehnherr.

"That is not your concern," Lehnsherr growled.

"I told you to stay away from him," Emma said, and poked Lehnsherr in the chest with a diamond-tipped finger. "And, Mr. Stark, I told you to stay away from both of them."

"Oh, Emma, you're so beautiful when you're forceful," cooed Sebastian. He wore a smile that might be besotted on someone else, but on him only looked maniacal, his eyes nearly shut and his teeth sharklike enough for Lehnsherr. "I should have told you that more often."

"Yes, well, it's rather a bit late for that, isn't it?" Emma asked. She ignored the flowers when Sebastian tried to press them on her. "Now, where's Azazel? I'm sure you have some plot or other to get back to."

"Oh, Emma," Sebastian sighed. "I know I told you we never hurt our own kind, but I'm afraid I hurt you terribly."

Despite herself, Emma found her train of indignation derailed. Sebastian never apologized, never once, unless it was the purely rhetorical kind of apology that was immediately followed by a but. No apologies, not for the late nights, not for that awful, ridiculous helmet – which, Emma realized, was not in evidence – and not for attempting to trample Emma's own hopes and dreams, which had depended on the Earth not being turned into a nuclear wasteland. Sebastian had never even apologized for their break-up, because it had been Emma's fault, or more precisely the fault of her breasts, which had been distracting Sebastian from his mission, or her telepathy, which had been trying to convince him his mission was a bad idea.

"This," she said at last, "is very new. Are you in a program?" Megalomaniacs Anonymous, maybe. " Are you dying?"

"I hope so," grumbled Lehnherr.

"For love of you," sighed Sebastian. He reached to take her hand with his free one and deflated a little when Emma refused it. "If you must know, I… I humbled myself for you. I asked someone for advice, and his words have burned themselves into my memory. He told me, However, if she does, your apology should include an explicit acknowledgment of your failure to embrace her mutation, and so I want to tell you, dearest Emma – "

The spike of shock projected from Charles Xavier would be enough to keep Emma's heart racketing in her chest for a week.

* * *

"You're Loveless in Las Vegas." Somehow only a statement of reality, however unbelievable, seemed to work; the fact of Sebastian Shaw's presence was beyond questioning.

Sebastian Shaw had written to him, and even worse had taken Charles's advice in the most histrionic way possible. Charles tried to push that to the side to process later, given that Erik looked ready to fling himself – or the Claremont's entire stock of silverware – at Shaw, and given that Emma was looking as murderous as he'd ever seen her. Specifically, she was looking murderously at him.

"I have a policy of anonymity!" Charles said. Besides, he sent, threading the thought through a narrow chink in Emma's shields, how was I to know that he would take my advice and do – this?

"You wrote into an advice column?" Erik asked, his long mouth flirting with a smile that still had something of the terrifying about it. He looked away from Shaw and at Charles. "And you – you write advice columns?"

"He's Professor X!" Raven said. This aroused an excited murmur and even more attention, the weight of it pressing palpably against Charles and nearly enough to make him step back.

"And what are you doing here?" Charles asked Raven, ignoring one woman at the next table who wanted his autograph.

"My dove, my ice queen, my heart unfroze only for you," Shaw was saying as he tried to get Emma to accept the roses.

Raven looked and felt shifty, her golden eyes darting around the restaurant and fixing on everything except Charles. "What, a girl can't go out for a drink by herself in the twenty-first century?"

"Not when you're going to the restaurant your older brother is at while he's on a date."

Emma said, "Sebastian, you're embarrassing yourself. And me. And the mutant cause."

"It's why I'm here," Sebastian said. "I knew you would take my appeal seriously if you saw me, the future leader of the mutant-only society, abasing myself in front of witnesses."

"And also," Charles added, "what are you doing here with Erik?"

"Sir, I don't want to be rude, but I think you're upsetting the lady," Steve said politely but very firmly to Shaw. He stepped up to insert himself between Shaw and Emma; Charles spared a quick thought to inform him of Shaw's abilities, which could handle anything Steve could administer. Thought I'd try diplomacy first, Steve sent back to him, and said to Shaw, "Look, why don't you head home and let all these folks get back to their evening?"

"I do like a forceful man," Tony purred.

"Go away, Mr. Stark," Emma said.

"There's no home without my Emma," Shaw said morosely. "Not Las Vegas, not my yacht, not my estate in Argentina… My heart has no dwelling, save with her."

"Raven came with me," Erik said. He eyed her crossly, but with a certain sort of reluctant approval. "She told me you would be here."

"On a date," Charles clarified. "And Erik, I'm sorry – "

"Don't," Erik said swiftly. He stepped closer, as if they weren't close already, but this was the kind of close that threatened to swamp Charles in his presence, to grab him in Erik's gravity and pull him down. "Charles, I'm the one who should be apologizing."

"No, Sebastian is the one who should be apologizing, for ruining my night," Emma said. "Although you are very welcome to excuse yourself, Lehnsherr. And you too, Stark. I'll give you three free dates, anything, if you would only leave. Now."

"I'm sorry," the proprietor said, trying to shepherd Shaw backwards out the door, "but if we could have this discussion outside?"

"No, we couldn't." Shaw stood his ground, not difficult considering his mutation and the proprietor. "Not until Emma gives me an answer."

"I told you, it's up to her whether or not she would like to hear you out," Charles said. He had the feeling Shaw, despite his apologizing, would have Charles hauled up on charges of psionic manipulation if Charles reminded him of what, precisely, Charles had written. "Sebastian – may I call you that? – Sebastian, I truly do think that you've done all you can and ought to do. And now you ought to go."

"Of course a psionic would support another psionic," Shaw said bitterly. "What more could I expect?"

"Yeah, see, that's a huge step backward," Raven told Shaw, before turning to Charles to say, "No, seriously, Charles, you have to hear what Erik has to say to you."

Charles didn't particularly want to. In his experience, "I'm the one who should be apologizing" was usually followed by "it's not you, it's me" and something about the other party's reservations regarding telepathy, or a confession of interest in another person that was a thinly-veiled excuse for the other party's reservations regarding telepathy. The whole point of meaningless sex was to avoid this specific scenario, only at some point meaningless had started to become meaningful, or had acquired the potential for meaning.

And now, Charles decided, was not the time and place to deal with it. Emma had gone diamond and sharp around the edges and Steve was going to get his head blown off if he didn't do something

It was quite illegal, but Charles was not the world's most powerful telepath for nothing, and one of the benefits of being the world's most powerful telepath was what he was about to do: send a silkthread-thin suggestion into Sebastian's cortex that he calm down, give his roses to Tony, and listen.

Shaw thrust the roses at Tony without looking away from Emma. That was something at least.

Listen to me, Charles clarified.

Shaw sighed, but cooperated.

"Remember what I wrote in my reply to you, Sebastian?" Charles asked. Shaw nodded grudgingly and tugged at his tie, his mouth compressed in a sulk. "You've apologized, and very handsomely I might add, but now you need to give Emma a chance to reply. And do you remember what I also said?"

"That I had to be satisfied with what she said, whether or not she chose to take my apology," Shaw mumbled.

"Very good." Charles patted Shaw on the shoulder, which made Erik tense and scowl. "Now, do you think you could give Emma a chance to speak?"

"I suppose."

"Emma?" He couldn't communicate with Emma telepathically, her diamond shielding blocking him off unless he wanted to talk to her more than she wanted to shut him away. Given the whisper-hint of suggestion to Shaw, Charles didn't feel like risking anything more, especially not with witnesses and especially not with Erik seeing first-hand what Charles could do to him if he felt like it.

* * *

Charles was magnificent, and unfairly good-looking, and at the moment – although, if Erik had his way, not for much longer – distracted by Shaw and Frost. And Erik was, as Raven muttered, "besotted." She elbowed him, and added a quiet command to stop ogling her brother. Erik ignored her.

At the moment, he wanted nothing more than for Charles to break all the rules and send everyone – Shaw, Stark, Raven, the wretchedly muscular and outsized man in the sports jacket – away, so Erik could show Charles how besotted he was without an audience. He was prepared to do that with an audience if necessary, because Erik was nothing if not determined, and he had determined that continuing with their arrangement – pointless, really, why had he even started out thinking of this as purely casual – was a waste of time when they could spend their lives much more productively together.

Although, judging from the sound of it, Erik was going to have to resign himself to waiting.

"Emma," Charles said gently, "I know I shouldn't pressure you, but do you think…?"

"There's absolutely no pressure, Charles," Emma Frost said briskly, "seeing as I've had my mind made up for some time now."

"Hey, roses are red," Tony whispered, tugging a rose free from the tissue wrap to offer it to the muscular sports-jacketed one, "violets are blue, sriracha is hot, et cetera et cetera."

"Thanks," Captain America said, and seemed unable to choose between looking at the rose or at Tony.

"My love," Shaw said, with a plaintiveness that set the schadenfreude bubbling warmly in Erik's heart.

"Sebastian, what we once had is very much over," Frost said. "I've moved on with my life, I may have found someone new," and here the inimitable Miss Frost actually turned to look up into the second floor, and light glinted off her many-faceted smile, "and I think it's time you accepted that."

"But I apologized," Shaw said, sounding honestly bewildered. He frowned at Charles and took a step forward, but froze before Erik could make him extremely sorry for advancing on Charles in such a way. Erik latched on to his watch in case, and wondered if Shaw's mutation would prevent Erik from using the watch to crush his wrist.

Charles, Erik thought, heat coursing through him, just as Charles said, "Remember what I told you in my column, Sebastian."

"Yes, but… I apologized expecting that she would forgive me!" Shaw protested. "And when I express my expectations, I expect that people follow through on them."

"Perhaps you shouldn't get too used to that," Erik said. Raven harrumphed something that sounded like "pot, kettle."

"Sometimes people don't do what we expect," Charles said, sounding far more consoling than Erik wanted him to sound. "But Emma is her own person, and ought to choose her own happiness freely. And if you love her, you'll want her to be happy."

"No, I want her to be with me," Shaw said obstinately.

"I can't believe you're appealing to his sense of honor and decency." Emma tapped a crystalline heel against the tile. "He doesn't have any, Charles."

Erik could have told Charles that as well, and Charles still would not have listened. Instead, Charles carefully took Sebastian by the arm and turned him around, murmuring things that sounded irritatingly comforting to Erik's ears, things about go back to your hotel, or call that lovely teleporter chap, and have a good drink and a cry, and remember that if you love something you must set it free.

"Astrid," Emma said as another woman came up. She flickered to flesh and blood again and, to Erik's everlasting astonishment, allowed the other woman – Astrid – to twine her fingers with hers. Sebastian, who had turned at Emma's voice, went pale. Possibly his jaw quivered, and Erik momentarily hoped Shaw would burst into tears.

"We're meant to be," Shaw said with conviction, even as Charles hustled him past the large rock-skinned person and into the Claremont's atrium. "She'll come back to me…" echoed disconsolately before the outer door swung open and shut.

"That was fun," Tony said brightly. "Doing it again would be awesome."

"Stark, I will take you off my client list," Frost said. "You too, Lehnsherr."

Erik very much hoped that was a promise rather than a threat. He had no intention of dating ever again, never, no matter how ruthlessly Raven harassed him.

"Now, I'll thank Charles properly later, but for now I think everyone would be best served if they went back to what they were doing before this fiasco started. Don't you?" Frost inclined her head, a dismissal if Erik had ever seen one, and said to her friend, "would you like to go someplace less filled with idiots and ex-lovers?"

"Let me get my purse," the friend said.

"I hope you're planning on letting him grow out of this phase he's gotten into," Emma said while she waited for her friend. The expression she fixed him with was very nearly kind, or as close to it as Emma ever got. Briefly, Erik wondered what she'd seen in him.

Not as much as you think I saw, but you did come storming into a restaurant while the man you've been sleeping with was on a date with somebody else. I think that says plenty.

"But I don't understand why you would help him," Charles was saying to Raven, whom he had finally cornered by the potted plant at the entryway. "It's not as if you've ever been in the habit of helping my one-night stands track me down."

"He's, well," Raven had gone faintly purple where her scales were thinnest. "He's – "

"Erik is Sharkface Boss?" Charles sounded a bit shrill.

"I'm what?" Erik asked.

* * *

Oh, what a debacle. Emma kept her tone carefully neutral as she kicked off her heels – Jimmy Choos tonight, she should perhaps be a bit more respectful of them but she was tired – and watched Astrid do the same. If Astrid caught any of Emma's embarrassment, which Emma had been keeping under wraps, she didn't say anything, and Emma had no sense of that knowledge from her.

You got rid of him, though. Astrid wandered into Emma's apartment, fingers drifting along the sandstone counter that ran between the kitchen and the living area, her touch against Emma's mind just as light, warm with approval. It felt odd against the coolness of her own thoughts, but not entirely unwelcome.

She still had some things to take care of. Stark and Rogers for one, even though she suspected she would have to leave both of them to their own devices. Rogers at least had sense, and probably sense enough to see through whatever screen of bullshit Stark flung up to impress him.

You don't need to worry about me, love, Charles had sent to her near the end. Emma rather thought she did, but Charles had earned a reprieve tonight. And Erik, if what Emma had read in him was true, could also be back-burnered for now.

As Emma opened a bottle of wine and washed a long-unused second glass, Astrid settled herself on the couch. Every line of her was mathematically precise, her skirt still sharp and her blouse precisely calculated to the subdued curves of her small breasts and her ribcage. She had the peculiar presence of a projecting telepath, which spread out and filled the space around her, and right now it filled Emma's space with satisfaction-attraction-interest, nothing deep, not yet – but, Emma decided, collecting the glasses and padding across the carpet to join Astrid, she wasn't yet back in the game. She didn't need it to be.

When she handed Astrid's glass to her, Astrid's fingers brushed against her own, and curled, long and graceful, around the stem.

* * *

Keeping Sebastian ignorant of Emma's departure had required very little effort and no scruples. Charles had sensed Emma's growing exasperation, not that Emma would ever admit it, even to herself. He'd also sensed that she was tired and desperately embarrassed, and Charles had weighed the possibility of Emma losing all patience against the possibility of Shaw putting the pieces together and accusing Charles of manipulation… and very subtly suggested that Shaw look the other way down the street while Emma and Astrid got into a cab.

It had Erik staring at him fixedly the entire time, and Charles had been worried that possibly Erik was going to launch himself, or something large and metal, at Shaw – there did not seem to be much love lost between them – and then, after Shaw had meekly allowed his teleporter to take him home, had kept staring at him. That had to be fear, Charles figured, and did not want to open his mind to touch Erik's and confirm it.

At any rate, he had to talk to Steve, and that was as good an excuse as any to avoid Erik – or it would have been, if he hadn't found Steve hopelessly entangled in Tony's coils. Well, Charles figured, the date was basically shot, and he did need to talk to Erik, as much as he didn't want to. He wouldn't have much left over after that, and while Steve seemed like a nice man, and the sort one would be friends with, he wasn't what Charles wanted.

It figures you work out what you want right when you can't have it, he thought, careful to keep that to himself. Erik was becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore, tall and brooding, silent but also inescapably present, like background music. It was something Charles could listen to all day, he thought, if he ever had the chance.

At last they found themselves ambling across the street from the Claremont. Alone in New York at eight at night was relative, but they had a corner of streetlight to themselves and Erik was beautiful in it, Charles thought with a sudden twist of want, the shadows and light on the hard lines of his face and his grey eyes, chiaroscuro tracing the crow's feet at their edges. Erik had on a thin jacket, something he must have traveled in, and "You were supposed to be gone all weekend," Charles said stupidly.

Erik smiled, curiously soft. He had his hands in his pockets, and he had to be cold. "We finished early… Shaw didn't have anything I was interested in hearing."

"I suppose the same was true for Emma," Charles said wryly. God, poor Emma, the victim of well-intentioned advice. He would have to make it up to her, somehow.

"But I hope," Erik began, more hesitant than Charles had ever heard him, "I hope you'll – Charles, I know we've only discussed – "

"Don't," Charles broke in, because he couldn't, could not, bear to hear anything fearful come out of Erik's mouth. "Erik, I swear, what I did just now with Shaw, I wouldn't ever do that to you. I hope… that is, I should hate for your opinion of me, and what you hope to get out of our relationship, to be influenced by what I did tonight. Rest assured, I only did that because it was either watch a friend suffer or watch that friend do something very regrettable, and not because I felt it was my right or that I don't view this sort of thing as – "

He would have kept rambling, spilling out the kind of pap usually fed to psiphobics, only he got the edge of a blast of purpose from Erik, laser-direct, and Charles had enough time to work out that the purpose was for him and involved what Erik was – well, what Erik was doing right now. And that was taking the lapels of Charles's coat and using them as leverage to tug him up and in, so Erik could bend and press his lips to Charles's. The kiss began awkward and closed-mouthed for a long moment while Charles's brain (which was usually very quick on the uptake) processed the disparity between its expectation of Erik running away and the reality of Erik kissing him, and when his mouth opened it was on a gasp – because telepaths were allowed to be surprised – and Erik licked in, and it was wet and filthy and perfect, with Erik's fingers in his hair now, pressing against Charles's scalp as if press Erik's wanting into Charles's cortex.

I, he tried, before cutting himself off. I don't –

"You don't what?" Erik was touching him, hands restless on Charles's face, his throat, expression utterly naked and so much softer than the hard planes of his face suggested it could ever be. "What, Charles?"

"I don't know why you're kissing me?" Charles tried. "Didn't you – you came to the Claremont to tell me we weren't sleeping together anymore?"

Erik pulled back slightly, but not far – not far, thank god.

"You thought I had come to tell you…" Erik shook his head and kissed him briefly, fiercely, long enough for Charles to moan and chase after it before he broke away. "I'm kissing you because you were… god, Charles, you were perfection tonight." Erik paused. "And I'm kissing you because I thought it was the last chance I would have to kiss you again."

Charles stared. The air didn't quite feel real, and only the reassuring solidity of Erik's mind against his said this wasn't a dream.

"I wanted to tell you," Erik said, and there was that determination again, that was less about courage and more about this was the way Erik had to be, "that even though we came into this relationship with very… specific ideas concerning what we wanted, I've already found myself wanting something else."

Something more, Erik sent, hot and full of meaning laced into the words – images of the two of them stretching into some hazy future, permanence, solid as a rock, comforting in a way Erik still couldn't examine too closely but knew he wanted, Charles's face every morning the same way it had been when Erik had had to leave for work. The pictures tangled up with older images, long locked away, that for Erik meant stability and family, and I want you, Erik thought, directly, very nearly sweetly and, aloud, added, "If you'll have me, Charles."

"I – " Charles had multiple degrees and an IQ that proved how irrelevant IQ tests really were, and he had no words.

So he settled for kissing Erik instead, and they kissed until Erik was holding on to Charles's coat mostly to warm his hands and Charles's nose had gone numb. Still they stood, Erik leaning happily up against the lamppost with his frigid hands buried under layers of wool and Charles's cheek pressed against the warm solidity of Erik's chest.

"You know," Erik murmured into Charles's hair, "your sister is going to be completely insufferable. I may have to fire her."

"You'll do no such thing," Charles said loftily, ignoring Erik's snort in favor of relishing the way it made the muscle under his chest rumble.


"Oh, shut up," Erik growled, and tilted Charles's face to his, to kiss him again and again, as New York City flowed on by.