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1

Genosha was a weird name for a bar but it seemed no one minded what the name meant so long as they could get the quality drinks and relaxed ambiance of the place. It was a Saturday and patrons were slowly coming in merry groups. Darwin, the bartender, greeted them warmly and worked quickly to serve everyone. The night was cold but definitely buzzing.

Charles was sitting on a stool on the bar, nursing his scotch while he continued to scribble down notes for his next article. As a promising young writer, he had learned to keep his notebook handy just in case inspiration struck which could be anytime. He wrote his last sentence and pocketed the notebook before hastily looking around the rapidly crowding bar. He swallowed and automatically reached out for the novel he was reading and opened the unfinished page, trying to block out the sound of people talking all around him. He just needed for the first round to pass and he’ll be able to talk to Darwin again.

But Darwin only got busier as a rowdy group of office workers walked in, apparently celebrating a birthday. He gave an apologetic smile at him which Charles returned. Judging by the number of people now crowding up the bar, he wouldn’t be able to talk to Darwin again for the whole evening. Sighing deeply, he gathered his bag and drink before making his way to a secluded table in a corner to give them space.

He had been coming in every Saturday for the past two months and still, Charles has never mustered the courage to actually talk to anyone. That’s not really true though. Unless he counted Darwin who was obligated to talk to him, the drunk guy he met a month ago who had been laid off and demanded that Charles drink with him and the girl who mistook him for his cousin (“Oops! Sorry! I thought you were my gay cous—someone else.”), then Charles really had not talked to anyone, let alone flirted with anyone.

It was painfully obvious that his whole body screamed at him to get out of this place but he did his best to relax and look friendly. In truth, he felt ridiculous and for the nth time, he questioned his purpose for subjecting himself to this kind of pain. He stared at the page of his book, not really seeing the words, but thinking about the conversation that landed him in this ‘social experiment’ of his.

 

“Let me be honest with you, Charles. You’re a talented writer. Really talented. I’d even bet that you’d be able to publish your own book in a couple of years’ time if you put your mind into it.”

“But?” Charles urged, looking straight at his editor, Emma Frost. He leaned on her dark mahogany desk, clenching his fists at the sides. “Why won’t you entrust the capsule story project to me then?”

Emma sighed then adjusted her long fingers so they were elegantly interlaced under her chin. “The capsule story project, though would benefit from your deep research and analytical treatment, needs more than that. It is, for the most part, a human interest section.”

“You said I’m the best writer you have. Fiction is my life! Why can’t—y”

“Because you don’t know how to write a love story,” Emma interjected.

Charles stared at her in disbelief. “Oh, Emma. Really? A love story? Of course I can write a bloody ‘love story!’”

“See?” Emma said shaking her head. “That, right there. Your derisive tone towards love as if it’s some fool’s hallucination is exactly why you can’t write a convincing love story.”

He huffed, unable to help himself because, really ? “Well, isn’t it? But no, I’m not here to debate the existence of love. And besides, my personal view on the subject is irrelevant to this. I don’t see why—”

“It is one hundred percent relevant,” Emma argued. “I don’t I need to tell you that all human relationships revolve around love or some form of it. Family, parents to their kids, men to women, women to women, men to men. All your stories, Charles, they are flawless but your attempts at love stories are quite lackluster, honey. They’re too clean, rational. It’s painfully obvious what the problem is.”

Charles bit his lower lip and looked away. He knew what she was going to say.

“Look,” Emma began, her voice a lot softer, “I mean it when I say that I truly believe you’ll be a successful writer. That’s why I’m telling you, you have to improve in that area so you can grow.”

“How does one do that?” he asked rhetorically. “I guess I’ll drown myself in Shakespearean tales of tragic love then?”

“Or you can try to learn first-hand.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, genuinely perplexed because surely, she didn’t mean what he thought she was thinking, did she?

“You’re smart. Figure it out. Until then, I’ll personally hold on to the capsule story project.”

 

She might as well should have just setup his online dating profile somewhere. But Emma wouldn’t do something as obvious as that. She’d just hint at it and let you do the rest.

So Charles had been documenting his trips here for him to report Emma his progress. Because really, this was just to keep the woman happy. She could believe whatever she wanted but Charles was her best writer and nothing was going to change that.

In fairness, he did see quite a lot of interaction in this place, snippets of conversations and arguments that inspired Charles to extrapolate from the given words and invent the rest of the story. Who were these people? What led them here? Where were they going after?

But still he failed to meet the primary objective of this exercise.

He discreetly looked around the bar, sweeping the place for someone who looked like he could approach and immediately stopped. He felt awkward and horrible, like he was some sort of killer out to find a target. Only he didn’t intend to murder anyone and he was terrible at finding a target for anything. But he did manage to make a friend here, right? Darwin was something even though Charles had no intention of sleeping with him…

Having zero experience in having a relationship, Charles wasn’t really sure who he was even looking for. That is to say: a woman or a man? He had always gotten physically attracted to women but he wasn’t sure how to approach a girl. But it seemed he didn’t need to as someone approached him .

“I’d say that you are sending quite a mixed signal, being here and bringing a book with you but—y”

“You just did,” Charles said before he could stop himself and looked up to the fourth person who approached him in the bar.

“I did, didn’t I?” the man, a tall one wearing a casual shirt and jeans, said uncertainly. “Pardon me for interrupting your reading but I was very… curious. And I was going to say that you would have been sending a mixed signal, playing hard to get, if you didn’t look genuinely miserable being here.”

Charles blinked, staring at the man’s green-blue eyes. This man was talking to him . A person has finally approached him for some reason and it wasn’t a woman but it was definitely a start. He had been preparing himself for this moment so naturally, Charles said, “That’s because I’m waiting to meet someone. And he’s… terribly late.”

Wonderfully social, Charles. Good job.

The other man stared at him with wide eyes for a moment and then he was laughing. “Of course,” he said.

Charles had meant to say something along the line of ‘I’m looking for company actually. Can I get you a drink or two? ’ as rehearsed in his apartment numerous times but the excuse he usually used to fend people off just slipped out without him noticing. Now he had no idea what was going through the other man’s head. He sipped from his drink, watching the guy in front of him laugh until he calmed down.

“Sorry,” he said before pointing at the empty chair opposite Charles, “but do you mind if I join you?”

“Err… no,” Charles replied, a bit surprised at the turn of events, before glancing around to try and find out where the other came from. It didn’t look like he was with other people from another table.

“I’m Erik,” the other said and extended his hand.

“Charles,” he replied and took it.

Erik’s grip was firm, hands warm and bigger than his own. He smiled with what might be too much teeth but overall, Charles thought the man looked good, someone a lot of girls from his workplace would gush over. Erik took a sip from his beer bottle and then fixed him with a stare.

“Do you mind telling me why you’re here?” Erik asked.

“I am not miserable being here,” he said defensively. “I come here for the same reasons other people are coming here for.”

Erik grinned and placed his chin against his palm, leaning on the table they were sharing. “And what reasons would that be?”

“To get out. Talk to people. Have a drink,” he replied before pointedly taking another sip.

Erik’s smile said he was finding something extremely amusing but Charles thought he had given quite a bland answer. It was unsettling.

“Are you sure that’s all?” Erik asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I think you are lying, my friend.”

“Excuse me?”

“Just an observation,” Erik said with a shrug. “Face like yours, I wouldn’t have believed it myself.”

Charles stared at Erik, confused. This guy was accusing him of lying. While maybe flirting? He wasn’t really certain. Given that he was lying but still…

Erik laughed, seemingly delighted by his perplexed expression. “It was a compliment.”

“I don’t think being called a liar is,” he countered.

Erik nodded. “But it’s the truth,” he said and leaned in closer to Charles. “I’m afraid your efforts will be in vain though.”

“My efforts?”

“When you said you were waiting for someone, a man, you obviously meant Darwin and since it’s a busy night, I don’t think he’ll be able to entertain you. Darwin does in fact, swing that way but sadly he is already taken.”

Charles’ mouth hung open as he stared at Erik. He abruptly closed it when he recovered. “I wasn’t... It’s not like that.”

“Don’t deny it, Charles,” Erik said easily, deliberately using his name. “You’ve been watching him since you came in. You avoided talking to anyone else.”

It was Charles’ turn to laugh, feeling a little more at ease now. “And you’ve been watching me, apparently.”

Erik paused before giving him a sly smile. “Maybe,” he said.

“Alright then. Let’s just say you’ve caught me,” he said. “I was biding my time to approach Darwin. I was thinking of a way I could do so.”

Erik frowned. “But as I’ve said, he’s taken.”

“Yes,” he said. “Thank you for the advice.” Charles licked his lips and downed the rest of his drink. “And now I retreat. Nurse my broken heart and all that.”

A bubbling laughter suddenly erupted from Erik that Charles was slightly caught off guard. “You are full of surprises, Charles,” he told him. “But please don’t leave just yet. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”

Charles checked his watch. It was about the time that he usually ended these ridiculous outings of his, which usually turned up mostly fruitless. But now there was this man and he was asking Charles to stay. He looked around the bar, aware that the other was watching him before finally making his decision.

“Sorry, but I really have to go now.”

 

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Erik was a contented man, for the most part. He lived in a nice apartment. He had a well-paying job as an engineer. His career was looking bright with his dream of making it as a partner in the company seeming like it would come at any moment with the way things were going. He had no shortage of beautiful people calling him, throwing themselves at his feet, just for a chance to warm his bed at night. One could say that he was living the perfect life. He could not ask for more.

Until last night.

He methodically prepared his coffee and brought out his phone as he recounted the events from his trip to Genosha . Azazel and the others had been adamant that he joined them for drinks after their company won the big contract to renovate the city’s stadium. It was a big project, one that he and his colleagues had worked hard to obtain, so he decided forgoing meeting with one of his ‘buddies’ to share alcohol with his team.

And what a surprise it turned out to be. Erik and his friends stumbled upon Genosha and were pleasantly surprised at the place. Not only did it turn out to be the bar his high school friend, Darwin, owned but it was also a nice place with good alcohol. They usually frequented another establishment in the city, one that had louder music and rowdier crowds but Erik was glad they made a different choice that night or he wouldn’t have met him.

He had spotted the man drinking, reading, and writing alone on the bar wearing his god-awful cardigan that made him look like a pathetic nerd hunched over a book while watching, pinning for the bartender. That is, until he got up and turned. Erik’s slur of mental insults at the poor guy immediately halted as he saw his stunning blue eyes partly hidden by wavy locks of brown and lips so red it took several minutes of observation before, having watched the shorter man sinfully lick his lips several times, he was sure that the other man was not wearing lipstick. The man was beautiful.

It was only natural that he left the table him and his friends shared to approach him, feeling like a man on a mission. His skin was tingling as he walked, anticipating the feeling of that pale skin against his hands when he’d run them all over that body. And he would. Or would have if Charles hadn’t turned out to be such a... He wasn’t really sure what Charles was, only that he had caused Erik a lot of inconvenience. He could still feel the indignation, annoyance, and just pure shock as he watched his conquest brush him off and walk away, heading right towards the doors without as much as a glance back.

Now Erik had his fair share of people playing hard to get, pretending to be uninterested to be different in his eyes and he enjoyed the chase. But it wasn’t like that with Charles at all. Charles’ eyes looked at him with distaste, like he saw right through Erik and he absolutely didn’t want anything to do with him. That did not make sense since he had not done anything to put the guy off. Quite the contrary, really. He had been on his top game and still he failed. It was frustrating.

Erik was a proud man but he was also practical and he usually had enough sense to know when he should retreat and cut back his losses but Charles had become an itch that drove him mad. Erik groaned at the pathetic memory of his actions last night.  After the smaller man left the bar, Erik spent the rest of the night trying to get drunk with the intention of taking someone home with him and fuck the itch away. Only, he wound up to be too irritable for flirting so he stumbled in his apartment later that night and masturbated in his bathroom with the thoughts of blue eyes and red lips.

Drinking his morning coffee, he searched for Darwin’s number on his phone. Despite closing up late last night, as every night, Darwin picked up his call on the third ring.

“Good morning, Dar. Yeah… I’m just wondering what time you’ll be opening Genosha tonight. Can I drop by later to catch up?”

 

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“The food will get cold.”

“Yep, I’ll be right there,” Charles muttered as he continued to type on his laptop. The words were flowing out of his fingers, weaving an imaginary world that at the moment, even he did not know where would lead. “Just… a bit…more,” he murmured, eyes set on the screen.

He was thoroughly absorbed until his laptop was suddenly pushed closed. Charles blinked and stared up at his sister who was looking sternly at him.

“You’ve said that. Seven times. I came all the way here to cook you dinner and the least you could do is eat it while it’s still hot,” she said and then she was walking out of his study.

Charles sighed. “Sorry but I was working on that. Don’t you know writers can suffer long bouts of lack of inspiration and be unable to write anything?” he called over the sounds of plates and cutlery coming from the kitchen. He followed Raven out and was greeted by the wonderful smell of pasta. It was his favorite, a recipe she learned from the time she lived a few months in Italy: it was a delicious mix of fresh tomatoes, basil with a hint of hot pepper that always made Charles shiver when he swallowed it.

She hurried him over to his chair and served them both with generous helpings before she said, “You were in a trance. You’d never come out of your office if I hadn’t done that. Besides, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you suffer a writer’s block.”

He smiled at her. “Don’t jinx me. And this story is different. I have to give it my best shot,” he said. He took a bite of his food and hummed in appreciation. “This is really good, darling.”

“Thanks,” she said smiling.

“How was the fashion show?”

“Really great,” she said. “They really love my walk. And I met two designers who want to book me for their runway next month.”

Charles smiled. “A front cover, makeup campaigns, and now runway model too. You are doing really well, love.”

Raven stood, walked over to him and gave him a tight hug before going back to her seat. “It’s so great, Charles. I was so scared at first but everything is just going so wonderfully, I can’t help but think that this is all a dream.”

“Nonsense,” he told her. “You are amazing and it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world sees it too.”

“This is why I make it a point to see you and cook for you. Nobody can build my confidence like you, Charles,” she said. “But enough about me. How is your work?”

Charles’ smile soured. “Fine.”

“Is Emma still denying you the capsule story project?”

He nodded. “Unfortunately. She still thinks that just because I may not be a believer of romantic love, I am incapable of writing a good love story.”

“I don’t know, Charles. She kinda sounds like she has a point,” she told him.

“You’re supposed to be on my side.”

“Well, you’ve always told me that you wrote from the heart, right? How can you write about something that you don’t believe in?”

“It’s called perspective,” he said, motioning his fork dramatically in the air. “I don’t need to believe in a serial killer’s logic to be able to write a thriller. I can just imagine what it’s like to be a killer.”

Raven shrugged. “That’s a good point too.”

“Thank you.”

“Though being the brilliant writer that you are, for Emma to deem your past love story as subpar must mean that your imagination of being in love is lacking.”

Charles stared at her. “I’ve had this exact conversation with her before, as you are well aware. Can we please change the subject now?”

“Gladly,” she said almost giddily. “I have news.”

“Looks like a pleasant one judging by how happy you are.”

“The guy I’m seeing, we just decided to be exclusive!”

Charles smiled. “That’s great news, Raven. I’m happy for you.” He may not understand why she was so happy but seeing her like that genuinely brought him joy.

“Thank you,” she said returning his smile. “He called me last night. He told me his team landed a big project and asked me to become exclusive. I didn’t think he liked me as much as I like him because I really like him and he seems like a serious kind of person who might think modeling is shallow. But he respects me and my work, and oh Charles…”

“Oh, is this the engineer? What is his name again?”

“Azazel,” she supplied. “God, which reminds me, you haven’t even met yet, have you? I’ve been seeing him for almost six months. I can’t believe I haven’t introduced you to him yet.”

“Wow. It’s that serious? Already introducing him to your family, eh?” he joked, raising an eyebrow.

“Shut up. He’s a great guy,” she said, smile soft and eyes twinkling.

“I bet. You’re the mirror of what might Emma will finally believe a convincing representation of a person in love. Maybe I should just write about you and this Azazel.”

“I said shut up, Charles.”

They continued to eat while Raven recounted how she met Azazel. Charles listened to the story, feeling warm and contented. Though they were not related by blood, Raven had been the only person who showed him what having a family felt like. They had both erased themselves from the Xavier mansion since the moment they were old enough to live by themselves and Charles had never been happier. The food was cheaper and at times tasteless. The bed wasn’t as big. There were no servants attending to him. Despite all these, he felt finally at peace. Things just started to fall into place since last year as Raven finally got her own apartment at the other side of the city where she worked in a big modeling agency.

He indulged in Raven’s happiness and continued to listen to her talk about Azazel as they washed the dishes until the topic inevitably changed.

“When are you going to start seeing someone?” Raven asked suddenly.

“Raven.”

“I’ve shown your picture at work earlier and a lot of girls… and guys are quite interested, if you are. I don’t want to sound snobbish, but they’re models and they think you’re hot.”

Raven.”

“Well we don’t know what will make that frozen heart of yours melt, do we?”

He sighed. “We’ve been through this before.”

“Not all people are bound to end up like Sharon and Bryan, Charles. Some people do find love.”

“I know that,” he said impatiently. “I know there are people who are good, who have good intentions and won’t want to hurt others. I know some people stay together for a lot of years, Raven, but as I’ve said, I also believe that it’s not the ‘magic of love’ but rather the hard work of two people trying to work around each other.”

“Isn’t that what love is about?” she asked him, pinching his cheek fondly, “sticking together even if it’s not all magic and rainbows?”

He swatted her hand away and rubbed his cheek. “You’re the one in love. You tell me.”

 

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It had been a week since his last visit so Charles started to get ready to head down to Genosha again. Preparation to going in that place entailed mostly mental priming, closing his laptop, and putting his notepad and book in his bag. He never bothered to dress differently though and as he caught glimpse of his reflection on the mirror as he walked to the door, he thought there may be where the problem was.

So he went back to his room and fished out a dark blue sweater that Raven gave him on his last birthday from his closet. He put it on, combed his hair before deeming himself ready for the night and finally heading out.

Tonight, Charles would do things differently. He had been observing for the past three months and he had decided that it was time for a change in his approach. It was time for him to be more proactive, be the one to start things going. He surveyed the bar as he walked in Genosha , scanning the crowd for someone who looked friendly and would possibly entertain his first attempt at courting.

His feet carried him towards his usual seat at the bar and Darwin greeted him with a smile.

“You look nice,” he told Charles.

“Thank you.”

“The usual?”

“Yes please.”

Charles waited until two girls went in, talking and giggling as they settled down a table near a window at the left side of Genosha. He sighed. They were pretty and looked like they were in a good mood. He’ll do it. No more excuses. No more delays.

He drank his scotch as he watched them talk. He took note of the drinks they were ordering and the way they would survey around the place every now and then. That bode well for him as it seemed like they were looking for a hookup tonight. Charles breathed deeply, calming his nerves as he prepared himself to take the plunge.

He stood up, ran his fingers through his hair and was about to take a step forward when a hand caught him by the upper arm. It took him by surprise that it made him stumble backwards and slightly lose his balance until he was leaning against a sturdy chest. Another hand supported him on his elbow, steadying him on his feet.

It was the man he met the other night, Erik, if he remembered correctly. He was smiling at him like something was amusing. He abruptly pulled his arms free and stepped away, straightening his sweater and not bothering to hide his annoyance. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The other man just shook his head and took a seat, elegantly gesturing a hand for Charles to take the other. “Humor me,” Erik said seriously.

Charles glanced at the two girls who were still talking at their table and then at Erik. He breathed deeply and reluctantly took the seat in front of Erik. “Alright, I’m humoring you. Care to tell me why I should keep doing it?”

Erik raised a hand, patiently telling him to keep quiet. He looked at the two women and said to Charles, “Just wait.”

Charles had half a mind to just stand up and leave until a burly man suddenly approached the girls’ table. He watched as he kissed one of them in welcome before joining them.

That is Tommy,” Erik told Charles. “The girl he kissed is his girlfriend, pretty little thing she is. The last guy to approach her in a bar ended up in the hospital with three broken ribs.”

Charles’ eyes went wide. Tommy was now chugging down a beer bottle, looking like an MMA fighter with those muscled arms and strong jaw. Charles had done some boxing and was in a physically fit condition but he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight with a man like that.

“What were you even thinking?” Erik asked suddenly. He looked elegantly annoyed.

Charles suddenly felt embarrassed, like he was a child caught doing something wrong and was now being told off before he huffed and thought, why should he even have to explain himself to Erik?

“I don’t think what I’m doing is any of your business.”

Erik snorted. “I just saved you from a lot of pain, humiliation, and a trip to the hospital. Now answer me.”

His jaw dropped at the commanding attitude he was showing and Charles stared at him pointedly. Erik just stared back, waiting for a reply and Charles rolled his eyes.

“I wasn’t even thinking of approaching her,” he said, glancing at Tommy’s girlfriend. “I was aiming more for her friend.”

Erik’s hand clenched into a fist. “So you were going to hit on one of them,” he said almost accusingly and looked at Charles from head to foot. “Tommy doesn’t care if you hit on his girl or not, he only cared that you are in close proximity to her. And don’t even bother with Stacey, she has more kinds of STDs than your pretty head can think of.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“I have my sources.”

Charles just stared at him, clearly unimpressed.

The place continued to buzz with loud chatters, laughter, and clinks of glasses as both of them fell into silence. Charles licked his lips and sighed before checking his watch. fifteen minutes more before this trip’s supposed end.

“Thinking of retreating again?” Erik asked.

Charles looked at him and he almost smiled. Almost. Erik was looking at him with such intense eyes and tense posture that he expected to see a pout next. But Erik wasn’t the type to pout, not when he was trying to look so nonchalant while obviously feeling annoyed at something. It was unexpected. Charles couldn’t help but be reminded of a sulking child. He gave up and smiled, tapping Erik’s arm on the table.

“No, my friend. For all your troubles, I can keep you company for a little while.”

The look of surprise on Erik’s face made him chuckle until the other glared at him. He amiably shook his head and bought him a drink.

“So now you can tell me why you helped me.”

Erik smiled. “Did I? I was under the impression that you didn’t think I was helping.”

“You came out of nowhere, Erik. How did you think I’d react, really. Now tell me.”

“Alright,” Erik said, taking his bottle from Darwin, “what were you thinking? Your hair, those pants, that shirt… Really, Charles?”

He just shrugged. “My sister happens to have good judgment on this things, fashion and whatnot, and she gave me this sweater.”

“For that I respect her but I wasn’t questioning your fashion choice, rather why you chose to wear it tonight,” Erik said, leading them across the room towards the bar.

“I thought it was obvious.”

“Oh it was,” Erik said as they settled on the bar.

“Then I don’t see what you’re asking.”

“Last week, you were here at exactly the same place and the same time. Only, you were different. You didn’t talk to anyone but Darwin and you looked so miserable, like someone coerced you into spending time here,” Erik explained. “You didn’t really want to be here and then tonight, you show up looking different. And you were looking around the place more.”

Charles swallowed. “So?”

“Why?”

“To find a date? A hookup? I don’t think you’re asking something you don’t already know the answer to.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” Erik said, shaking his head. “The way you were last week, that was the real you. This,” he gestured in Charles’ general direction, “is something else. You were looking for someone but what I don’t understand is why you were going to hit on someone you didn’t find attractive.”

“And you would know who I find attractive?”

“I know that your eyes shone brighter while reading the book you had last week than when you were watching those girls,” Erik said confidently.

“Oh, are we talking about eyes shining now?”  Charles asked sarcastically. “What’s next? You’ll tell me how sparks should fly while you sprout invisible wings when one lays eyes on his one true love?”

Erik was slightly taken aback but he recovered quickly. “Oh I don’t believe in love either,” he said, leaning close. “At least not at first sight.”

Charles stared at him before bluntly asking, “Sorry but… are you… hitting on me? By any chance?”

“I’ve been practically stalking you. Please don’t tell me that I’ve misjudged your intelligence,” he said rolling his eyes.

Charles wasn’t able to stop the laughter from spilling from his lips. “You could have been just being nice, on the lookout for the next unsuspecting victim of Tommy’s rage. Community service of sorts,” he said. He did not mention that he wasn’t used to people hitting at him so this was all new.

“I don’t do community service,” Erik informed him.

“You say that,” Charles returned.

“What can I do to spell my intentions more clearly then? Dinner perhaps?”

Charles shook his head. “I’m afraid I… this is new, being hit on by a guy, I mean,” he said.

“Ah,” Erik replied, waiting. When Charles did not say anything else, he added, “And do you find it… disgusting?”

His eyes went wide and immediately shook his head. “No, my friend. On the contrary, I find it quite flattering actually.”

Erik grinned at him.

“Not in an egotistical way… or anything like that. I mean—I”

“Relax. I understand.”

“Thank you,” he said. He was about to ask Erik something about his work when his phone suddenly vibrated in his pocket. He thought of ignoring it but fished it out after five more rings. It was Raven.

“Sorry, I have to get this,” he said before he was already standing and walking to the bathroom.

“Alright,” Erik said though he was fighting the very strong urge to drag Charles out of here and haul him into his car.

Charles found an empty cubicle in the men’s room and slipped inside. “Raven?” he muttered on his phone.

“Charles! Where the hell are you?”

“I’m out. Why are you calling me? Did something happen?” he asked anxiously, feeling unpleasantly on edge. “Please tell me you’re alright.”

“I’m fine. I’m at your apartment now.”

“Why didn’t you say you’re coming over? I wouldn’t have left had I known you were coming,” he said, relieved.

“Sorry but I… Azazel and I had a fight earlier and I’m trying to avoid him so I thought I could crash here?”

“Oh my dear, yes, of course. I’ll be right there. I’m heading home now.”

“Are you sure? I can wait for you. I’m alright—”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll go home now.”

“Thank you, Charles. You’re the best.”

He pocketed back his phone and walked back to the table where he left Erik. The man was still there, waiting for him and looking a bit anxious as he retook his seat. “Everything alright?” he asked.

“Yes, but unfortunately I need to head home now,” Charles said, genuinely sorry.

“Is it an emergency? I can drive you or go with you if you want.”

“Thank you, Erik,” Charles said with a smile, “but that won’t be necessary. I’ll be comforting someone so I’d just lend an ear for the night. Nothing serious.”

Erik raised an eyebrow. “Comforting someone?”

“She gets easily emotional sometimes,” he said, nodding absentmindedly. “Anyway, I got to go.”

Erik’s words were stuck in his throat as he watched Charles walk out of Genosha for the second time, trying to ignore the dull ache somewhere in his chest. He forced a smile when the other man looked back at him and waved before stepping out into the night and disappearing. Erik stared at the door after Charles was gone.

 

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Raven was already in his sofa, eating a tub of ice cream when Charles came home. On the television was some cheesy rom-com movie that Charles never understood the appeal to, and Raven had her eyes glued to the screen as the couple walked in the park in that generic romantic movie scene that all others like it had. She glared at the happy couple accusingly before standing and burying her face into Charles’ sweater.

“Azazel is such a jerk!” she said, voice muffled by his clothes.

“I’m sure he is,” he said and led them back to the sofa, patting her back. Raven let herself be guided back and they both sat down. “Now tell me what happened.”

She went on a long rant about how her boyfriend failed to make it to their supposed dinner date tonight. It was apparently due to work but Raven thought that he should be giving more effort and whatnot.

Charles dutifully listened to everything and offered comments and suggestions when he thought was appropriate. It wasn’t the first time Raven had come to him with relationship problems and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. Even though he didn’t personally believe two people could really love each other forever, he really wanted for his sister to find a man who would be with her for at least a few years. That at least, he could believe, especially since Raven’s happiness was on the line.

“I don’t know. It’s just so stupid...” she said, sobbing a little after pouring her heart out. “And I know I’m pathetic and selfish but I can’t help it!”

“Nobody can help the way they feel,” he said, rubbing her back as she blew her nose. “You both are just having a bad day, you clashed, and said some stupid things that you’ll both forget come morning.”

Raven finally smiled a bit. “Yeah… We’ll be okay.”

“Call him when you’ve blown off some steam,” he said, smiling back. He kissed her forehead and moved to put the ice cream back into the fridge.

“Where were you anyway?” Raven asked suddenly.

“Oh, I was just out,” he said with a shrug, as we walked to the kitchen. Raven followed him.

“Yes, but where ? You never go out. Unless it’s a library or to interview someone for an article… by the way, that doesn’t count as ‘going out’, Charles. I told you that,” she said, tailing him. Her voice was amused now that she felt better about her own problem. It was her reflex, fussing about his life once whatever it was that was distracting her was gone.

“That’s not true,” he protested. He deposited Raven’s spoon in the sink and started to wash it along with his used dishes from this morning. “I do go out, in conventions—”

“That doesn’t—”

“And this time, I was at a bar.”

“A bar?”

“Yes,” he said, almost proudly.

Raven stared at him. “What is going on?”

“Nothing,” he replied, focusing on rinsing a plate.

“And I’ve applied for graduate school in a university downtown,” she said.

“Raven, I’m a working adult who is perfectly capable of—”

Charles, you going to a bar on your own is like… the equivalent of a six-year old starting to get hooked on drugs.”

Raven!”

“I know you, Charles,” she insisted. “What is going on?”

He sighed. “Fine. It’s an assignment. Well, not really. Sort of?”

Raven just raised an eyebrow, tapping her foot for good measure.

“Emma—”

“I knew it. Of course it’s her. That editor of yours will one day either bring you an early death or make you the next big thing,” she said gravely. “Whichever comes first.”

“Quite right,” he said. “Remember the capsule story project?”

She nodded and started to dry the plates with a towel.

“Basically, she wouldn’t let me handle it until I get… err, emotionally involved with anyone,” he added uncertainly. It sounded dumb even to his own ears.

Surprisingly, Raven just nodded. “The deal with your fragile, pessimistic heart being incapable of believing in true love, eh? The one that is stopping you from writing a believable love story? Makes sense.”

Charles rolled his eyes. “That’s the one.”

Raven smiled, suddenly looking at him from head to foot. “Is that why you’re looking hot tonight? Oh my god, Charles! Did you—Don’t tell me you were on a date!” she said, face full of excitement.

She grabbed his arm and shook him. Hard.

“It’s not like that!” he said, trying to push her away but Raven had always been the more physically fit between them and her strength was directly proportional to her excitement. “I was just doing some sort of social experiment. I visit the bar once a week for an hour, have a drink, watch people, and then leave. That is all.”

Raven immediately grabbed his face with two hands and started to pinch his cheeks.

“Ow! Raven!” he complained, batting her hands away.

“That is so cute!” she exclaimed before letting go. “I can just imagine you in your cardigan, ordering a drink, getting hit on by someone hot and you not knowing what the hell you’ll do! Since when has this been going on?”

“I don’t know, three months?” he said nursing his cheeks which by then were surely red now. “That hurt. Please stop doing that, we’re not kids anymore.”

“Hmmm,” she said thoughtfully. “I will forgive you for not letting me know sooner, but I still feel mad at you.”

“Mad? Why?” he asked incredulously.

Raven stared at him like it was obvious. “I could have dressed you! Goodness Charles, I could have made you into every patron in that bar’s walking wet dream! You should have told me sooner! You are one hot piece of meat hidden in all those… cardigans,” she said, hands mimicking one of the said cardigans around her torso.

Charles sighed again. He finished up the rest of the dishes without Raven’s help as the other had completely distracted herself. “Is there any use in me saying that that wasn’t the point of this exercise?”

“So did you meet someone? Come on. Don’t tell me no one at least bought you a drink,” she said, ignoring his comment.

Charles immediately thought of the tall, handsome guy he had been seeing for the past two weeks. Erik, his perfect memory supplied. Now that he thought about it, he didn’t sound American…

“Not really, no.”

Raven rested her chin on her palm as she leaned on the kitchen counter, watching him work with knowing eyes. “Not even with my gift?” she asked staring at the sweater he was wearing. “That shade really brings out the blue of your eyes, you know. And your eyes were what caught Howard’s attention before.”

Charles winced. Howard was a male model working with Raven at her agency. She showed him his picture and apparently had gotten a crush on him ever since. “Please don’t remind me.”

Raven’s smile widened. “Then tell me who you met.”

“There was no one.”

“Charles.”

“Really.”

Really?

“Why would I lie to you?”

“You have none but you still would, when it comes to these things.”

“Raven...”

“If you don’t come clean now, I’ll have to accompany you on your next visit and I’ll find out for myself,” she threatened sweetly.

He stared at her, trying not to blink and it was unfair as she did staring for a living (or so she would always say whenever they got into a staring contest) so he was inevitably the first one to look away. She gave out a dramatic “ha!” and dragged him back to the living room where she sat him down. “Details, Charles. Tell me everything.”

“It’s nothing. He just—”

“Oh, a guy! This just confirms what I’ve been suspecting all along. Don’t worry, Charles. I love you just the way you are.”

“Raven,” he sighed, tiredly. He didn’t even want to ask. “He just found me weird. I was reading at the bar since I don’t really feel comfortable in such a place, you know how I can get, and he saw me. So, he talked to me and was wondering why I was there. I guess it was painfully obvious that I was uncomfortable.”

Raven’s smile was so big it was frightening. “Yeah, just curious about why a cute guy like you is alone in a bar. Right, of course. It wasn’t at all like innocent, Little Red Riding Hood being approached by the wolf in the forest. Nothing like that.”

“I would appreciate it if you could use less effeminate analogies,” he tried to say but was once again ignored.

“What does he look like? Hot?” she asked.

Charles unconsciously licked his lips and propped one of his legs up so that he was sitting on it while the other one dangled on the sofa. He knew she wouldn’t stop until she got what she wanted so he gave up. “Tall, short hair, might be ginger, slender. The lights were a little dim so I’m not sure about his eye color.”

She nodded happily. “How old do you think he is?”

He shrugged. “He might be older than me but not by much. Early thirties maybe? He had an accent but I can’t quite place it. He must be living here for a while now but he’s definitely not born here.”

“He’s perfect,” Raven decided giddily. “Oh Charles, I’m so happy for you! You got to introduce me soon. I’ll bring Azazel along and we’ll have a double date.”

“Whoa. Hang on,” he said. “You’re way ahead of yourself. Let’s not get carried away.”

“You’re twenty-seven, Charles. If it were up to me, I’d put you up for auction already,” she said, waving him off when he started to protest. “And I know, I won’t set you up with any of my friends without your consent again.”

“Thank you,” he said, genuinely relieved. She had set him up in four blind dates without him knowing. Given that they were all attractive men and women, he was still mortified at the prospect of having to do small talk for more than ten minutes.

“What’s his name?” she asked. “Tell me you at least got his name and his number.”

“Erik. I did not get his full name and his number,” he said.

She winced and then nodded. “Of course you didn’t. But hey, if he got enough courage to talk to you despite your antisocial aura, I think he’s worth a shot.”

“I’m not going to date him just because he approached me.”

“Why not?” she asked.

It was Charles’ turn to look at her like it was obvious, only, it really was. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because I don’t date? And he’s a guy. Raven, I haven’t even dated a girl before. How would I know how things would go with a guy? Besides, he was obviously just bored. Maybe antisocial is the breath of fresh air in social situations nowadays.”

“But do you find him attractive?”

“I don’t think—a”

“Just answer the question, Charles,” she cut in.

He sighed. “He is… objectively what people might say is attractive,” he admitted grudgingly.

“Then I don’t see why you shouldn’t at least try,” she said triumphantly. When she saw him rolling his eyes, she grabbed his head and pushed him down until he was lying on her lap. He tried to fight but she just shushed him, saying ‘Auntie Raven’s here. It’s okay.’ He rolled his eyes again but went along with it.

“I’m not asking you to marry him. I just want you to at least feel what it’s like to be with someone, you know, to be on a date with someone you find attractive. It’s really something.”

Charles snorted but he let her stroke his hair soothingly, thinking about how ridiculous it was that she was the one cradling him on her lap now, lecturing him about dating when he practically raised her when they were still kids. “Maybe it’s not as pleasant as everyone is making it seem to be.”

“That’s why I want you to try, so you can decide for yourself,” she told him. “And Emma can never tell you again that you don’t write well because you haven’t dated anyone before. Think about how satisfying that will be.”

The whole thing still seemed ridiculous but he had to agree with her on that.

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