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Chris wasn't surprised by the argument. It was usual these days, when he visited his mom and Taylor, for there to be some kind of insurgence of the Asserting Myself As A Teenager type. Chris wasn't even listening for the most part when it happened. Taylor wanted a dress, or to go over to her friend's on a school night or was making some demand to which Bev obviously wasn't feeling the need to accede.

"You're always saying no!" Taylor was yelling, although, if Chris hadn't been glad to see his sister or had been feeling a bit less charitable, he most likely would have classified it as whining.

"Yeah, well, if you wouldn't always ask for things, maybe my ratio of negative answers would be lessened." From her expression, Bev was firmly of the whining persuasion.

"You're a total liar! You don't have anyone else around that you can boss so you take it all out on me!" Taylor slammed her palms down on the counter that Chris was currently leaning over, playing spectator for the two women's sport. He felt the ripple and lifted his elbows, slightly confused, to discover that what had been a finished Corian surface only seconds before was now what looked to be steel.

Both women stopped yelling, Taylor's hands still pressed to the counter, trembles running through her body. "Oh shit."

Bev chided, "Taylor, language," albeit somewhat absent-mindedly.

"I'm sorry mommy, I didn't mean-"

Bev wrapped her youngest child in a hug, prying her away from the countertop. "No sweetheart, I know, it wasn't your fault."

Taylor struggled, trying to get back to the counter. "Lemme try, I can maybe-"

Chris, who had done a project on mutant evolution for one of the college psych classes he had taken before dropping out, knew that the countertop would just have to stay as it was for the time being. "Tay, it's all right, we'll get it fixed, there's nothing you can do."

"But I, you saw what I did, I ruined the counter." Taylor's lower lip was trembling and it was obvious that in roughly three seconds she was going to be over the shock and onto the hysterics.

"It's not ruined, baby," Bev said. "It's just changed."

With that, Taylor started sobbing and Bev mouthed, "One second," to Chris, who nodded. Bev walked Taylor out of the room and somewhere where Chris could no longer hear them. Most likely her bedroom. Roughly half an hour later Bev reappeared and interrupted Chris's not-so-eager investigation into who had made the best-dressed list for the year. Bev closed the "People" with one hand and Chris looked up. "So, that the first time something like that has happened?"

Bev shook her head. "She turned a dress she really wanted that I wouldn't let her get from silk into rayon. Not an easy thing to explain away, I tell you."

"How often?"

Bev took a seat next to Chris. "Mostly just when we have fights. Once when a boy she really liked asked her out. I'm terrified, Chris. I see what they're saying on TV about people like her. They want them to register, be taken away from their families. 'For their own good.' Their own good my ass. She's my baby." Bev bit her lower lip.

"Look, mom," Chris fidgeted in his chair, "how would you feel if we sent her away?"

"Are you crazy? She's not some stranger just because she can do weird things Christopher, she's your sister, Taylor, the sister you sat twenty-two hours in a waiting room to be able to meet first. Ringing any bells?"

Chris shook his head. "I, uh, mutant growth and development has actually been something of a hobby of mine since I first became interested in it when I was at Rollins."

Bev looked at him as if he had grown two heads and four tap-dancing feet. "You never said."

"Well, no, people assume that if you're interested, you must be one, and the band didn't need that kind of press."

"Okay," Bev ran a hand through her hair. "Okay, so what do you know?"

"There's a Mutant Rights Advocate, Dr. Charles Xavier. He runs a school in upstate New York. According to the school's press, it's a school for the gifted, but the word on that for anybody who wants to look a bit further is that 'gifted' is a euphemism for 'showing mutant abilities.' The school provides a place for her to learn how to control her abilities while being around kids her age who are dealing with a lot of the same difficulties."

Bev sniffed. "Upstate New York?"

"Ever been? It's really pretty." Chris soothed his hand down his mother's back.

"I dunno, Chris. I just…I'd have to meet this doctor person. And see the school. And maybe meet all the teachers, too. I don’t like the idea of sending her off because of a little problem."

"Would you prefer she stay here, where someone will eventually find out and she'll become the target of anti-mutant prejudice?"

Bev scowled. "You know I wouldn't."

"What say you give me a chance to get in touch with Xavier, see if he'll have us up for a weekend so we can check the place out?"

"You'll come with, right?"

"What're never-ending hiatuses good for if not to spend some time with family?" Chris asked. Bev's responding smile was decently ironic.

*

Bev took one look at the front of the school and whistled. "Fancy much?"

Chris was feeling equally intimidated by the somewhat austere appearance of Xavier's School for the Gifted, but he hooked one arm around Taylor, the other around Bev and said, "Like we would accept anything less for the youngest of the Kirkpatrick clan."

Taylor giggled a bit, but didn't say anything, a sure sign of nerves and Chris decided to start walking forward before they all got stuck to the spot. When they made it to the door, he pushed it open and held it that way for his mom and his sister. "Ladies first."

They had only just made it in the door when a tall black woman who nonetheless gave the impression of being albino approached them. "You must be the Kirkpatricks. Sorry I was running late. I'm Ororo Munroe."

She offered her hand to Taylor first, then Bev and finally Chris. "You must be Chris. Dr. Xavier told me that you and your family would be here to tour the school today. It's not generally procedure for families to come to us, most of the time we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to convince families that this is the best place for their children. It really is a pleasure to have you here, willing to look into our services. I'm going to show you around and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask."

Ms. Munroe was very thorough. She showed them the classrooms, most of them currently hosting a class, the athletic facilities, the grounds, and the dormitories. She answered Bev's torrent of questions with an assurance and ease that made Chris wonder exactly how long she'd been with the school. She suggested that Taylor, "Meet some of the students who she would be working with before making her decision."

Taylor was hesitant. "They're probably all ahead of me and don't do stupid things with their powers."

Their guide smiled. "I would suspect that rather than doing stupid things with your powers, you do things that are out of control. I nearly killed someone when I was your age through a distinct misuse of my abilities. It didn't make me stupid, merely untrained."

Taylor's eyes widened. "You almost killed someone?"

That prompted a full-out laugh from the woman. "It sounds more melodramatic than it was, I assure you. It's not all that hard to cause serious damage when one can control weather patterns."

Thankfully Taylor blurted out, "Can you really?" before Chris had the chance.

"Yes, I really can. Now I can even control them in a rational and safe manner, thanks to training and the help of several people at this school."

On the other side of Taylor, Chris could see his mother thinking carefully about this admission. Ms. Munroe asked, "So then, would you be up to seeing your classmates?"

Taylor dug her toe into the ground and looked uncertainly at Bev. Bev managed a smile, "What're you waiting for?"

Ms. Munroe led them to a recreational room where several teenagers were hanging out, playing pinball, watching television and arguing over the results of an ice hockey tournament. She took Taylor inside and introduced her around, leaving her as soon as one of the girls wrested the responsibility for Taylor's happiness from her.

When Ms. Munroe made her way back to Bev and Chris, Bev asked, "What's the cost?"

"It's based on family income. If you find that you're definitively interested we can sit down and talk about that. Before you make any decisions though, I suggest you spend some time with Dr. Xavier himself."

Chris said, "Lead the way."

*

Dr. Xavier offered them refreshments and when they had all settled said, "It must be hard, thinking of sending off your youngest."

Bev gave him a look that was a brittle as nails and three times as sharp. "Indeed."

Xavier nodded. "You've been shown around my school, told of its benefits, Taylor has been introduced to other children. It's time for you to tell me what I can do to reassure you that this is the best place for her."

Chris knew they were both thinking, promise us she'll be safe and happy and graduate to become powerful and self-sufficient. He also knew that regardless of how powerful this man was, there were promises that could not be made.

Instead, Bev said, "Tell me why you want her."

Xavier smiled a little at that, as though it had been the right question out of so many possible wrong ones. "Because she deserves a chance at safety, and, in that safety, happiness."

Chris, who had learned better than trusting men-who-would-be-father-figure's altruistic words, narrowed his eyes. "But why should you care?"

Xavier took a sip of his tea. "If I have the ability to help others like me and choose not to, what right do I have to call myself human?"

Chris had to give it to him, in the political atmosphere of late, with mutants clinging by their fingernails to the label, it was a compelling argument. He nodded and turned his head slightly to watch Bev. She was contemplating the milky depths of her coffee. Finally, she looked up. "What is your mutation, sir?"

Softly, Xavier said, "I'm a telepath as well as having the ability to manipulate objects by telekinesis."

Bev frowned slightly, more a wrinkling of her eyebrows than anything. "Oh."

Xavier continued, "When I was a child a little younger than Taylor I started to realize that I could hear others thoughts. It was…not as exciting as one might think. For the most part it was intrusive and embarrassing and then it got to be overwhelming. At that time, mutants were unheard of, let alone places like this, which, as you probably realized, still take some effort to find without us finding you first. I was left on my own to understand my powers and control them so as to be able to live around others without being driven mad."

At the known risk of pissing Xavier off, Chris asked, "May we assume by our having to ask questions, then, that you're not utilizing that power on us?"

Rather than becoming angry, Xavier met Chris's eyes evenly. "If I wanted to see what you were thinking, I would ask your permission before I took a peek. My rules about treatment of other people do not extend only to people who are like me."

Chris felt the mild rebuke. He acknowledged it with a small tilt of his head. Bev said, "And if she's unhappy here?"

Xavier said, "Then we will do our utmost to fix that, and if we can't, we shall consider our options at that point. You must realize that right now she's a danger to herself and others without some modicum of control."

Bev bit her lower lip. "Yes, I know."

Chris wondered what he hadn't been told.

Xavier said, "We welcome parents visiting whenever they're able. And once a measure of control has been learned, the children whose families want them often take their breaks at home."

Bev drew herself upright in the chair. "Right. I'll need to speak to her, of course."

"Of course." Xavier finished his tea and set the cup to his side. "Take all the time you need."

Chris was pretty sure Bev was going to take him at his word on that one.

*

Taylor had pretty much made their minds up for them by the time they got back to her. There was a girl named Valena who had, "The best taste ever in music, oh, and she wears the coolest shoes, but she's not stuck up at all! And she says some of the professors -- they call them professors, can you believe it? -- are really hot, but I think this other kid, Dom, is pretty hot, and he can make water do anything he wants, seriously, he can cause a flood if he wants to, all he has to do is think about it. I mean, he probably gets pretty tired, because when I do stuff it's a lot of work and I bet it's the same, but-"

And so on.

Bev and Chris let her talk until she was hoarse and trying to keep her eyes open, laying on the bed in the hotel room they had rented. When she finally accepted Morpheus's invitation, Chris looked at Bev. "Guess that settles that."

"Even I'd be afraid to say no to her now," Bev agreed.

Chris stood up. "There's a bar a few miles away. I saw it while we were coming back. I'm gonna go have a few, play some pool. You mind? You're welcome to join but I dunno how you feel about leaving her here."

There were cabs waiting when Chris got downstairs, as Westchester wasn't a terribly hopping town and particularly not at this time on a weeknight. Chris gave the driver the name of the bar, tucked into his memory at a moment of insight into the fact that he might just need it, and let himself be taken. There was a time, back before Chris could afford even the shortest cab ride, when it had seemed weird being driven somewhere.

It had taken nearly a year of hiatus to remember that it was normal to drive himself places, to be in a car by himself, to get out of his car when he got to his destination, all of ten minutes away.

Chris tipped the cab driver generously when they arrived. He made his way into the bar, ordered a domestic beer and went to see if he could charm his way into somebody else's pool game, or, failing that, find another person with whom to start his own.

It turned out to be an easier task than Chris had been expecting. Granted, Chris hadn't done this in a while. He generally did the pool-at-local-bars thing while on tour and when he was doing that, Justin was almost always willing to come along, or Lance, or Joey. JC would play, but despite appearances, JC was a fucking shark when it came to pool and it was really just depressing to go head to head with the man.

There was a man, a perfectly normal (translation: damn fine) looking man shooting pool by himself at a table. Well, perfectly normal if Chris discounted the blue skin. Which he did. Hi, his sister had turned faux-granite into sheet metal. There were the wings to overlook as well, but hey, what was a blue man without his wings?

Chris said, "Fancy a game?"

Blue Man missed a shot by a mile and said, "Sorry?"

Chris held up his cue. "Game. Me. You." Blue Man was still looking at him blankly so Chris elaborated, "See, this is a pool table. Those balls that you're poking around with that stick are meant-"

"I know how to play pool."

"You seemed confused."

Blue Man looked at him for a long second. He held out a hand. "I'm Warren."

Chris shook his hand. "Chris. Does this mean you're willing?"

Warren smiled and it was only then that Chris realized he had passed some sort of test. His brain kicked in a second later when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the two other pool tables, both being played on, both with crowds around them. It was only this table that was being ignored. Studiously.

Warren set the balls up. "Wanna break?"

Chris nodded his thanks and lined his cue up with the apex of the triangle. "You work at Xavier's?"

A solid sank. Chris moved to a better position for his next shot. Warren asked, "What do you know of it?"

Chris caught the note of cold caution in Warren's question. "My sister's gonna start there. We were visiting."

Chris's ball missed the pocket by a quarter inch, and Warren set to obliterating the stripes. Six shots later he finally missed one. Chris said, "It's always the good looking ones."

Warren's laugh was sudden, a little bit shocked. Chris thought maybe he shouldn't have said that aloud. Warren said, "Try playing by yourself week after week. Brushes your skills up in no time."

There was bitterness under the comment, well-hidden, but there all the same. Chris sank two balls with one shot, straightened up and asked, "Why don't you play at the school? There's a table there, I saw it."

Chris went back to plotting his (neigh impossible) victory, forgetting he had even asked anything until Warren answered, "Sometimes fear is easier to deal with than history."

Chris could appreciate the truth in that statement, so he shut up and let them play some pool.

*

Chris ordered himself another beer and requested, "Another of whatever my pool partner was having," figuring that the bartender wouldn't be too hard-pressed to remember what the only blue guy in the place drank.

Warren was hesitant to take the Guinness from Chris's outstretched hand until Chris said, "I took over your pool table, it's a thank you. In bottle form."

Warren took the beer.

"Guinness," Chris said.

Warren looked a bit guilty. "Only beer I can drink. Not really much like beer."

Chris had enough Irish in him to know that, "Some people would tell you it's all the other beers that aren't much like beer."

Warren reset the balls. "Some people probably would." There was amusement in his voice.

"Is it scary to fly?"

Warren's eyes came up to meet Chris's.

Chris shrugged. "I'm afraid of heights. Just curious."

"How do you know I can fly? All kinds of birds who have wings can't fly."

Chris let Warren break this time. "You don't look comfortable on the ground."

"Maybe it's this place."

Chris didn't think so. "Could be."

"When I first could," Warren hit the white ball too hard and the shot went wide, "I loved it. Now…hit and miss. Depends on why I'm doing it, how I'm feeling."

Whole legions of information about Warren were waiting in the alcove of that pause, ready to march out. Chris wasn't about to ask anything that would have him ducking for cover. "Fair enough."

"What's your sister do?"

It took Chris a moment, his brain first wondering what sister, then thinking, cheerlead but then he realized what was being asked. "Alters the chemical properties of stuff."

Warren looked impressed. He also looked as if this was in spite of his desire to be apathetic. "We had to hunt down a boy four months ago whose skin creates toxins that react with other surfaces, including people's skins."

Chris had the odd feeling that the example was used to make him feel better. "Is he…can he control it?"

"The professor's working on it. In the meantime, he wears protective gear and has made friends regardless."

An eye for an eye, Chris knew the saying went. "We're scared of leaving her."

"With us, or just leaving her?"

"The leaving. She's the youngest of five. When I was growing up things weren't so great and it would've been really easy for our mom to dump us at any time but she never did because we were her kids and she's never let us go, not really, not even me and honestly, thirty-two's well past the age of independence. It's hard."

Warren took an alarmingly large chug of beer. "It's nice that you care. Different. Good."

"She's my sister," Chris said, and he knew that other people sometimes abandoned their family for things that couldn’t be controlled but he couldn't understand it, simply couldn't, and really had no interest in doing so.

"And you don't care that I look like some kind of demented Picasso-drawn angel," Warren observed.

Chris tilted his head, hoping that he hadn't had too much to drink and misjudged the situation. Warren seemed like the kind of guy who could kick Chris's ass. "Well, don't care is probably a strong sentiment."

Warren's cue completely missed the ball for which he was aiming. He met Chris's eyes and said, after a long second. "Oh."

Chris agreed heartily, "Oh."

Warren said, "Oh," again and then set to kicking Chris's ass in a metaphorical, game-of-pool-between-two-blokes kind of way.

*

With his mom back at the hotel, a nice night-long fling was out of the question, so when they were being thrown out at around two in the morning, Chris said, "Thanks for the game. Games."

Warren leaned against the outside wall of the bar. "What's your sister's name?"

"Taylor. She'll be the new girl who, thankfully, doesn’t look a thing like me."

The quick flicker of Warren's eyes suggested that perhaps that wasn't the blessing Chris seemed to deem it. "I won't be her teacher. Scott and the professor only trust me to teach the oldest kids, but I could look out. Make sure she's doing all right every once in a while. If you think she'd like that sort of thing."

"Depends, is the trust issue on account of any previous molestation record?"

The harsh orange lighting from the overhang on the bar turned Warren's blue skin into an odd dark-green tint. It went a little paler and Chris laughed. "It was a joke. Of course I'd appreciate you checking up on her."

There was a challenge in Warren's stance as he said, "I did go crazy and morph into a bit of an evil killing machine for a bit. Is that going to worry you?"

Chris asked, "That why they don't trust you with the youngers?" instinctively knowing that it wasn't. There hadn't been the shade of bitterness that situation would have warranted in Warren's voice when he had made the announcement.

"No. That would be because teaching isn't really my forte and only the older kids have the patience to put up with it and actually get something from me."

"All right then. You think you could manage to teach her pool? I've never really been around long enough in the years when she's been able to actually lean over the table. If not, that's cool, but it's one of my general rules that every girl should at least know her way around a pool table. It's an all around useful skill."

Warren's smile was shuttered, but he smiled. "I'll see what I can do. I'm warning you, if she can't figure out which way the stick is aimed-"

"Taylor's pretty quick on her feet, I don't think it'll be an issue."

Warren tipped his head. "If you say so."

Chris leaned in for a kiss, cautious of the fact that he hadn't been invited, either implicitly or explicitly. Warren planted a hand on Chris's waist and didn't object either with his body or with his mouth. Minutes later, when it was either stop or go go go and Chris wasn't prepared to take on the latter, Chris drew back. "I'll maybe see you when I visit her?"

"I could go for that."

Chris grinned.

"So," Warren asked, "you have a ride back to the hotel?"

So much for glamorous exits, Chris thought. "Uh, you mind?"

Warren started toward the only car left in the parking lot. "Not at all."

*

Chris dropped Bev back at her house from the airport. He then turned around and headed to the only place he could go of late when in need of a little friendly support and distraction: The Commune. The Commune was actually not much of a commune at all. It was a house in the middle of a suburban neighborhood with a gate at the entrance and homes that started at half a million. Chris called it that due to the fact that Joey and Lance, The Most Stable Couple Known To Mankind, lived there with Kelly, The World's Most Down Beard And Surrogate Mother, and Briahna, The World's Most Excellent Not-So-Baby Girl.

Chris figured that arrangement was really as progressive as anyone needed to get to consider himself part of a commune.

He parked in the driveway and rang the doorbell, it not being too late. Lance answered the door. "I see your plane got in."

Chris stepped inside. "Don’t wanna talk about it. Flying contraptions of horror and death."

"In that case," Kelly yelled from what sounded like the kitchen, "get yourself in here and tell us about Taylor."

Chris followed Lance into the kitchen, where Briahna was coloring at the table, Joey was putting dishes in the dishwasher and Kelly was reading the back of a brownie mix box. She asked Joey without turning, "What do you think? Disaster waiting to happen, or chocolate goodness at the end of the road?"

Chris said, "Jeez, even I can manage those things." Actually, Chris could handle quite a bit of cooking out of sheer necessity, but he tended not to admit to it.

"Yes, but it will be Briahna's first try at baking," Joey said, clearing that mystery up.

Briahna looked up from where she was coloring Disney's Beast a bright fuscia. "I can do it!"

Kelly still looked as though she had her doubts. "You have to be really good and promise to follow the instructions that mommy tells you or else the brownies will taste yucky and we'll make you eat all of them."

Briahna thought about this for a second. "I'll listen carefully."

Kelly gave in. "All right, finish your picture, mommy's gonna get the stuff we need. Chris, gimme a summary and then you can take the guys and monopolize their time and attention."

Chris knew better than to deny it. "She already made friends, I met a teacher who promised to look after her, the head of the school seems like a stand up guy and the rest of the kids appear to be pretty well adjusted. We figure a semester'll work as a trial run and then we'll reevaluate."

Kelly set a pan on the counter and doused it in cooking spray. "Good enough, I'll get the rest from them later."

Joey closed the dishwashing machine and pecked Kelly on the cheek before ducking out of the room. Lance and Chris followed him into the recreational room. Joey offered, "Game of pool?"

Chris said, "I'll pass."

Lance raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. He took a cue from off the wall and Joey sighed. Lance sucked at pool.

Lance chalked the head of the cue suggestively. "Watch what direction you sigh in, mister."

Chris could remember the days when Lance's dangerously murmured "mister" would have been "asshole." Ah, the magic of being parental. Joey didn't respond, just let Lance take care of set up. "Fill in the blanks, Chris."

Chris did, starting with the way the school looked and the tour, telling them about the interview with Xavier, and Taylor's excitement when they had gotten back to her. Lance put two and two together and asked, "And who'd you get to watch after her?"

"The guy I played pool with for about four hours at the local bar."

Lance leaned over Joey, who was trying to take a shot, completely unconcerned with how much of Joey's movement he was hampering. "Just some pool-playing guy, huh? Entrusted with your baby sister."

"Shut up," Chris opined.

Joey laughed and took the shot, evidently not caring that he had grown an extra body with a weight all of its own. The ball sank anyway. Lance's laugh was low and warm and private, but Chris didn't mind. He'd heard it.

Joey, detail oriented in odd ways, asked, "What'd he look like?"

Chris shifted. "Um, blond. Athletic. Handsome."

Lance managed to sink a shot and gave a little growl of triumph. "Not really your type."

Lance had a point. If Chris had been describing a girl that would have been perfectly in his attraction template. As guys went it was a bit odd for him. "He's blue."

Joey paused in the act of bending over to line up his cue. "Blue?"

"Like the color in Briahna's crown box. Not really, exactly, but very blue."

Lance narrowed his eyes. "I suppose that could make him a little more in the realm of who I would expect you to look at. I dunno, haven't really had any precedence on that one. Okay, though, I mean, whatever."

Chris waited until Joey had taken his shot. "And he has wings."

Joey looked at Chris. "Now that, my friend, rocks."

Chris was unsurprised by this. "Somehow I thought you'd see it that way."

Lance was eyeing Joey contemplatively. "Wings would be hot."

Chris recognized when it was just about time for him to be leaving. "Yeah. Well."

Joey grinned. "So basically you have a Not Boyfriend looking after The Taylor until you can get back?"

Chris nodded. "In twenty words or less."

"And, in five words or less, it's gonna work out." Lance wasn't asking.

Chris watched as Joey demolished Lance without breaking a sweat and as Lance demanded loser's sex. He let himself out when he was pretty sure they had forgotten about him.

*

Taylor emailed: "This totally hot professor here asked about me. He only teaches the older students, but he said that you guys met, or something. He said he'd teach me how to play pool. Val's parents sent her a care package with fudge in it, and she's sharing with me, which is awesome. They don't know about her. They think she's just at some school for really smart people. She's pretty smart, but I mean, yeah, I think her parents are a little delusional. I mean, she can literally make people do anything she wants with her voice. It's kinda scary. Sometimes she won't talk at all because she'll get angry or something and do something she didn't mean to do and then she feels bad so she just stays silent for like, daaays. I know how she feels. Sometimes I'm afraid to touch anything. Somehow that doesn't seem as bad as not wanting to talk.

"I'm way in love with my math teacher. He's a full-fledged X-Man. That's the team that Professor Xavier heads. They work to promote mutant and human cooperation, but I really think they do more than that. There's, like, a training room here. I mean, what are they training for if they're just negotiators, right? Unsurprisingly, I seem to be motivated to make an A in that class. *snickers*

"Neways, thought I'd give you an update and then sneak in a question about Mr. Blue. When he says you met, he's speaking in a subtly gay way, right? Just wondering. Your gorgeous sister, Taylor."

Chris hit the reply button. "You, Taylor Kirkpatrick, are making an A in a subject that deals with numbers and odd signs that mean you have to add and subtract things? I've already alerted the presses, be looking for them.

"That was sweet of Val to share her fudge with you. When I send you a big ol' package of crap with refined sugar in it I expect you to return the favor. Also, there may or may not be something else coming with said package. We'll see.

"Hot Professor and I played pool at a bar, Miss Thang. I swear, if I didn't know better I'd think you'd been raised by werewolves. As it is I suspect you got your mischievousness and other completely undesirable qualities from the times when I would visit, rather than siphoning them off of mom.

"Miss you baby sis. Love, Chris."

Taylor shot back, "In that case, Hot Professor is jonesing for you and you are either purposely ignoring him for no reason that I can see or you're playing innocent because you think you have to protect me.

"Speaking of protecting me, Dom asked me out!! The hottie who can manipulate water? Yeah, we're going on a date. I mean, we have to have a chaperone and everything because something could happen and blah blah blah, but still, date! And he's sooo cute. He's like what would happen if the infamous They genetically engineered a cross between Orlando Bloom and Sean Biggerstaff. Tragically, he is American and has neither of their accents. Oh well, a girl can’t have everything. The most adorable sibling in the world, Taylor."

Chris learned that he was woefully lacking in knowledge of teen pinups of late and had to go look up who Sean Biggerstaff was. After doing so he decided that if Taylor was telling the truth, she had netted herself some kind of deity among men. Nonetheless, as an older brother it was his duty to say, "If this Dom kid lays so much as a wayward finger on you, not only will I be down there momentarily to avenge your honor and protect your innocence, the four other masked avengers will be as well. Don't make me follow through on that, you know how pissy JC gets when I pull him out of a recording session.

"Speaking of those hoodlums, Joey and Lance ask about you constantly, and Kelly says she's totally envious and that she wishes she could have lived in upstate New York with no parental supervision for her latter teenage years. Kelly, by the way, being a completely independent woman who neither needs nor desires any men in her life and has managed to have a baby by only mildly connecting herself to one, hint hint wink wink. Quite the role model, eh?

"Justin wanted me to point out that he's probably going to be performing in Albany at some point and that if he doesn't see you there it's going to cause him, a grown man, to cry pitifully. Should you wish to be the cause of this (and really, my pride would know not boundaries if that be the case) he says he'll set some time aside so that he can get to where you are and visit. I'll tell you more when I know more.

"Hot professor is not jonesing for me. Perhaps my awesome skills on a pool table… Love, Chris."

Taylor obviously got busy, because her final email consisted of, "You're a pain in my ass. You don’t play pool that well.

"Friends said they would go see Justin with me, so just tell me dates when you have them. Tickets wouldn't be amiss either, there's no way to make money out here. Tell Joey and Lance and even JC (if you can get him out of the studio long enough) hi for me. Oh, and tell Kelly the professors are worse than parents. Kelly is cool. Maybe too cool. Your considerably less feministic and more codependent sister, Taylor.

"P.S. Call me, you cheap idiot. I'll tell you how the date went."

*

Just for the cheap comment, Chris decided to one up Taylor and visit rather than call. He called Xavier to make sure that a surprise drop in was all right, and, getting the go ahead, showed up on a Friday afternoon. He stepped inside the front doors and struck out in the direction wherein he remembered the recreation room being. It was as good a place as any to start his search for her, not knowing where her dorm was located.

He was right in the middle of getting horrifically turned around when a familiar voice asked, "Chris?"

Chris turned slightly and smiled. "Warren, fantastic, where the fuck am I?"

Warren returned the smile. "Heading in directions you probably aren't meaning to go."

"I'm trying to find Taylor. Surprise visit."

Warren brought his wrist up to peek at his watch. "The kids'll probably be out of class soon. I haven't a clue as to which class she has on Friday afternoons, but if you want I could take you to the kitchen. It's a big congregating area this time of day."

"Sounds like a plan." Chris fell in step next to Warren. "So."

Warren huffed in amusement. "So."

Chris had found, in situations like this, that so long as it wasn't anything horrifically embarrassing, it was best to just say the first thing that came to mind rather than let awkward silence reign. "How's Taylor at pool?"

Warren hesitated. "Awful."

Chris sighed. "Tragic, but I expected as much. My mom taught me and Kate and we both took to it, but Molly and Emily never could get the hang. Taylor really only had a fifty-fifty chance."

"Better than sixty-forty."

"Only marginally."

Warren said, "She's really good at working with her powers."

That brought Chris up short, having nothing on which to base his knowledge of that arena. "Is that unusual?"

"In girls of her age, yeah. Too much emotion. It's not really even their fault, just a hormonal thing."

"Tay's surprisingly level-headed." She took after Bev in that way. "She just doesn't like to let on."

"Maybe she's afraid she'll get overshadowed. Can't be easy, having a brother with millions of fans."

Chris reminded himself to keep walking, lest he lose track of Warren and never find his way out of the school again. "Did you know the whole time?"

Warren snorted. "Hardly. I'm not pop culture illiterate, but my knowledge of it can oft leave something to be desired. I…one of the girls wouldn't believe Taylor that she had a brother named Chris. I thought it was kind of an odd thing not to believe, but then it became evident why Trina wouldn't."

Chris tried to focus in on what had started this whole line of conversation. "It's my day job. I try not to let it interfere with who I am when I'm around them. My mom's really good about helping with that."

Warren stopped, revolving slightly toward Chris. "I get that, but she's still a teenager, and every teenager wants to be famous. Instead she'll be stuck hiding who she is for the rest of her life."

Chris rubbed at his eyes. "Being famous involves more hiding than you'd think."

Warren's look was considering. "Would you have flirted if you'd thought I did know who you were?"

Chris's head hurt. "Maybe. You're blue, in case you hadn't noticed, I might've figured I could always threaten to make your life a living hell in the case of a double cross." Then, "Probably not."

The skin around Warren's eyes tightened. "And now?"

Chris floundered. "What are my options?"

"Well, there's pool followed by good coffee and slow sex, or there's unresolved sexual tension."

"Why coffee?"

Warren lowered his eyelids. "I like the way it tastes on other people."

"You expect me to take the second choice?" Chris asked.

"No, and had you, I would've figured out some other tactic to get you in bed."

"Even knowing that it'll have to be a secret?"

Warren's voice had an edge of bitterness to it. "Wouldn't be the first time I've been someone's secret. At least you have a reason I can understand."

It made Chris's stomach flip a bit, but he swallowed and took it in stride. "I'm going to go see Taylor first. I came to visit her."

"Taylor," Warren drew out the name, "has been trying to hook you and me up since I introduced myself to her."

"She'll just have to wait a few hours longer, then." Chris wasn't budging on this issue.

Warren didn't seem to expect him to. "I see you know how to build anticipation. I like that in a fuck buddy."

That told Chris a lot.

*

Taylor gave the matter obvious consideration for all of three seconds before running and throwing herself into Chris's arms. Chris caught all five feet and seven inches of her -- Taylor's dad had been tall and she just kept sprouting -- in a hug. "Hey brat."

"Big brother."

Chris let her go before what remained of any cool image she had managed to cultivate was completely destroyed. "Came to hear about your date."

Taylor rolled her eyes. "Man, I wish I had a job where I sat around all day doing nothing."

Chris knew she hadn't meant it, and so refused to show how much the sentiment felt like a direct hit to his kidneys, sharply painful and overwhelming. "I'd get you a place in the band except for the fact that you have a voice like a dying carrion bird."

Taylor took this assessment in stride. "Sweet of you. C'mon, I'll introduce you to people."

Taylor turned around and pointed to people as she said their names. Val was a tiny thing with the curliest hair Chris had ever seen, even knowing Justin. She wore surprisingly classy clothes for a teenager and despite this managed to appear cool rather than dorky. Her accent when she extended a hand and a, "Nice to meet you," betrayed her as Southern and most likely wealthy.

Dom was, well, a deity among men. Chris wasn't even sure Taylor had done him justice. This worried Chris. Men who were phenomenally good looking were usually trouble, unless they were Justin or JC. In fairness to Dom though, his eyes smiled along with the rest of his face when he was introduced and he was wearing a completely geek-chic retro shirt that didn't really match his pants. Chris would give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

There was also the younger-but-smarter-than-the-rest of them Miguel, the slightly-ditzy-but-terribly-sweet Shane, and the hyper, cynical Trina. The latter eyed him discerningly upon introduction and said without much tact, "Holy shit, you actually are Taylor's older brother."

"It sounds to be a worse fate than it actually is," Chris consoled her.

She giggled. "My sisters are never gonna believe me, yo."

Miguel suggested, "A picture. They say they're worth a thousand words."

Taylor hid her laughter behind her hands. Trina shot him a look. "Smart ass."

Dom asked, "So basically, you came to gossip about me?"

Taylor went a bright red that wasn't so attractive on her and Chris was glad that all of Dom's attention seemed to be focused on him. Chris said, "Actually, I came to make sure that I don't have to hire someone to kill you."

Dom's snort of laughter was goofy and easy-going. "Better warn them about the water thing. I can be kinda dangerous when scared."

The way he admitted it, with shame that was almost hidden behind the noble attempt to sound cool and assured, went a long ways toward making Chris feel better. "I'll mention that. Treat her well and we can avoid the whole assassin thing. They're pretty expensive."

"Really?" Shane asked.

Val sighed and shook Shane lightly from behind. Chris thought it was probably morally unsound to continue in this line of joking and so was glad when they were all interrupted by another person entering the room. And by person, Chris meant enormous blue biped with glasses that were strangely out of place on his nose, but went perfectly with the eyes they framed. Miguel perked up at his presence. "Hey Doc."

Doc smiled at the boy. "Good afternoon Mr. Santos. I see you have a guest."

Taylor said, "He's my guest Professor. This is my brother, Chris."

Chris held out his hand and repeated, unnecessarily, "Chris Kirkpatrick."

"Pleasure to meet you Mr. Kirkpatrick. My name is Henry McCoy, but I answer to the designations of Hank, Beast, Professor and even, in some cases, Doc."

Miguel glowed. Chris chose, "Hank sounds about right."

Hank released Chris's hand. "I came for a beverage and to see if I might find Mr. Santos, which, having done so, I must request that he leave your presence for a time and come with me."

The rest of the kids shrugged or gave tiny gestures of allowance. Hank pulled a ginger ale from the refrigerator and Miguel followed him out of the room with a, "Nice meeting you, Chris, see ya later."

Taylor clarified, "Mig's always working on something or other with the professors. Professor McCoy is his favorite, though. He's super nice."

Chris smiled at Taylor in a way that carefully did not intimate, it's always the blue ones.

*

Chris took Taylor off school property for dinner to hear about her wild and woolly adventures with the offensively good looking Dom. The wild part was long in coming as the two had gone to dinner and a movie, Dom letting her pick the movie but surprising her with his choice of dinner places. Dom had paid for both with the assurance that Taylor could pick up the check the next time.

Chris had to give it to him, not only had he worked in the assumption of a second date, he hadn't offended her by relegating her to "little lady" status. All this and he had managed the role of a gentleman. So far so good.

Taylor admitted that she had picked a movie that she only mildly wanted to see so that she hadn't been at disappointed when they had, "Made out a little in the movie. Just a little, though, I swear. And he totally didn't try to feel me up or anything."

Taylor sounded too disappointed to be telling anything other than the truth. "Is he easy to talk to?"

Taylor nodded. "We kinda have a lot in common. I mean, well, not in the normal way. Like, he's the youngest of four kids and his mom died of cancer when he was still really young, so we both kinda get that whole last-child-in-a-large-single-parent-family thing. We have pretty different tastes in music and TV and stuff, but neither of us minds each others tastes. He can kick my ass at video games and I can kick his ass at baseball. It works."

Chris heard the unstated for the moment and was deeply reassured that Taylor was still as world-aware as he remembered her being. He hated having to tell people he cared about how reality worked.

Taylor interrupted his relief fest with, "Warren brought you to the kitchen."

"Tay," Chris said warningly.

"No, shut up."

Chris, to everyone's surprise, did.

Taylor gaped for a second but recovered before he could. "Look, I know you're my brother and that means family and that family loves family no matter what. I get that. Which is why I've always just been happy for you no matter who you were dating, except that one time with that bitch after Dani, but that's because she was just using you and you were rebounding and it was a bad idea. Still, guys, girls, whatever. But me suddenly doing shit that could hurt people, shit that I can't control, that's not like dating whoever I want to date, that's dangerous. If you think I don't hear the stuff they say about us in the news then you're either underestimating me or hopelessly optimistic. So you looking at Warren, you not even really noticing how…visibly different he is, it makes me happy. That's all."

"I notice," Chris admitted softly. Then, to his great shame, "It just makes him hotter."

Taylor exploded into laughter. "You're such a freak."

"You're telling me that you, The Great White Observer Of The Living Male Populace, have not noticed this fact?" Chris didn't bother hiding his doubt.

"Well, I noticed, but I haven't really got a lot of room to throw stones. I know you get all 'they just wanna sleep with J' when I mention this, but you do have about a bajillion fans, men and women, who would sell their souls and their entire panties collection for one night with you."

Chris forewent mentioning that most of them did just want an in with Justin. "Having hundreds of people be infatuated by an illusory image of who you really are doesn't really build the bricks which give you the right to throw stones at other people's glass houses."

Taylor sighed. "Chris. It's. It's good for me, that you like him. It helps. But you don't have to do it if that's what this is about. I'll stop harping."

"You can look at him almost daily and still think this is about me wanting to make you feel better? Honestly."

Taylor grinned. "Yeah, okay, maybe not."

"Probably not," Chris insisted.

"Definitely not."

Chris let her have the last word.

*

Warren found Chris hanging out with the kids right before lights out and asked, "Pool? Twenty minutes?"

Chris got directions from Taylor as to how to get back to the rec room before kissing her goodnight and promising her a day on the town when they both woke up. The instructions were good and he came upon the room easily, only to notice that there were considerably more people than Warren hanging around.

Warren smiled and motioned for him to come over. "You wanna meet people, or no?"

Chris debated. His practice at being someone's fuck-buddy was a bit rusty. Touring leant itself more readily to one night stands and not touring leant itself to Chris spending a lot of time wanting play and not really doing anything about it. Chris took his cue from JC who always, without fail, made sure that the guys had met his slightly-more-than-temporary hook ups. "Sure, sounds good."

The red haired man with a New Orleans drawl and a cockiness that made Chris want to introduce him to Justin was Remy. The woman who was beating the pants off him at table ice hockey was Rogue. The man on the couch with a visor on his eyes that made Chris suspect his name was Geordi was actually the more sedate Scott and his wife, sitting next to him, was Jean.

Chris had already met Hank, who was engaged in a discussion with the two, but not Logan, who was technically speaking to them, but more than anything was knocking back a beer and scowling.

Finally, there was Bobby, whom Warren introduced with a tone that Chris recognized from when he introduced his sisters. Too familiar and deeply fond underneath the casual attitude. Bobby abandoned a video game to join them at the pool table. Chris asked, "Where are Ms. Munroe and Xavier?"

Warren looked at Bobby, who shrugged. "I think Storm had a date. The Professor's probably out on business."

Warren said, "This isn't the whole team anyway. Kurt's somewhere in Europe visiting old friends, Ric's sick and already in bed, Kitty's on outreach and Bishop's been gone for weeks, but since the Professor seems to know where he is, none of us are worried."

Suddenly, Chris was feeling a little inadequate, only having four people to introduce. "Bobby, you playing?"

"Sure, I'm in." Bobby set up slowly, taking his time. In exchange for doing all the work, Chris and Warren let him go first. He and Warren played on a team, Warren containing all the skill, Bobby all the determination. They won easily.

Warren sank the eight ball and Bobby said, "Right. I'm gonna go ask Hank for a game."

He set off. Chris laughed. "Subtle."

"As a mac truck," Warren agreed. "That's Bobby."

"How long have you known each other?"

Warren tilted his head. "Forever. Since I came here."

Chris wondered how equivalent the two statements really were. He wondered if that was the "forever" of his association with NSYNC or a forever that indicated Warren had been schooled here. Xavier hadn't given them a founding date for the school. "The rest of them?"

Warren shook his head. "The team shifts. I've left and come back more than once. So has almost every single one of us. Sometimes there are new mutants, and sometimes it's just the core of us. Right now I've known everyone for a considerable length of time, but it changes."

Chris had to consider if one of these days Taylor would wander in and out of the profession of making the world a better place. He offered, "We had a guy drop out of the band in the beginning. He didn't think we were going anywhere."

"Ever get any pleasure out of how much it must suck to be him?"

Chris doesn't really get any pleasure out of how mean he can be sometimes, but Warren makes it easy to say, "Kinda, yeah. I mean, he was a total dick about leaving, too. Besides," and this was a truth Chris held very dear, "I don’t think it would have happened with him. I mean, it's not that Lance is what makes the band, but it's Lance as a part of the band that makes us. I'm pretty sure that didn't make any sense."

"Frighteningly enough, it made perfect sense." Warren tucked a hand into his pocket.

Chris drew the hand out. "My place or yours?"

"Yours."

Chris respected the class of doing something like this in a place that neither of them would ever have to see again. "Let's get going, then." He started walking, Warren's hand still captive in his.

*

Warren left in the early hours of the morning, both of them having decided against spending the night together. As this was something more than a one-night stand and something less than dating, it seemed the only logical way to handle things.

Chris immediately found his cell phone. Joey and Lance (and what's more, Briahna) would be asleep at this hour and Justin was on tour and actually needed the sleep he was getting, so Chris resigned himself to getting whined at, and told his phone he wanted to call JC. Surprisingly, JC picked up on the first ring. Chris grinned. "Get lucky, Chasez?"

"Chris!" JC always made it sound like they hadn't talked in years. Chris clearly remembered them speaking two days before. "Um, no, not exactly, what's up?"

Chris made a mental note to find out what JC had been doing, if not having bouts of copious monkey sex to keep him up this late. Of course, it was three hours earlier there, and a Friday, so it wasn't inconceivable that he had just been out. "Well, I did."

"The blue guy you were telling me about? Walter, no, William?"

"Warren, and yes."

"What's wrong?"

Chris frowned. "What's wrong? I just said I got some."

"I know, but you're not really the kiss and tell type."

Chris cursed himself for calling the one guy out of four who actually paid attention to these trends in their individuality. Joey would have forgotten that it was Justin who did that, and Lance would have just assumed it was catching and Justin would have been too interested in details to care. But he had called JC. "You're making a bigger deal of it than it is."

"I'm making a bigger deal of the fact that you are sleeping with a man who happens to be a mutant who teaches at a school that your sister attends because she's a mutant and you're wigging out about it but unwilling to say anything? Okay, sure."

Another problem with JC, Chris was quickly remembering, was that it was unlikely that he would ever let this go. Ever. Still, Chris had to struggle against attempting to ignore him in the hopes that he would give up and go away. "I don't know what's going on, C. I can't tell you anything because…because I agreed that he shouldn't stay here for the night, and I thought I meant it."

"And now?"

"I dunno. I still mean it, at the moment. It feels momentary though. And all I can think about is Taylor telling me that it made her feel happy, and the way he was playing pool by himself. He'll only drink Guinness and his best friend's name is Bobby, his code name is Archangel and he wears clothes that say he has money but doesn’t much say anything about having it. It's not much to know about a person."

JC's, "It's a place to start," was entirely too thoughtful.

"I shouldn't get involved with someone who could matter so much to Taylor." Chris hadn't known that was what this was all about until it he had said it, but now he wondered how he could have missed it.

"Britney and I've been hanging out," JC announced. "With the intention of probably doing more."

Chris stopped breathing. "Um."

"I told J."

Which at least restarted Chris's respiratory functions. "He was cool?"

"Sorta. Not exactly. It took a while." The last admission seemed ripped from JC's mouth.

"But you're willing to do it, knowing that it could fuck things six ways to Sunday?"

"J's family. If he'd said no, definitively, unquestioningly, I wouldn't have gone there. He didn't, though. I think in some ways he's always felt that if they couldn't work she should have one of us. As far as she goes, it's too damn good when I'm with her, just with her, not to try." JC paused. "That help?"

"Sort of in the way a lobotomy would, but yeah, I think I'm good."

"Tell Taylor hi."

"'Course. Um, tell Britney hi."

Faintly, "He says hi," and then a more feminine, "hi back."

Chris said, "I'm gonna go before I have to yell at you."

"Later babe."

Chris hung up.

*

Chris took the kids to the mall, mostly because it was the only place to go in Westchester for anyone under twenty-one. It took a while and some clever maneuvering, but he managed to get Dom by himself sometime after they'd hit the food court and before Taylor managed to convince him that she needed the cartilage on her ear pierced.

Before Chris could even start, Dom said, "I haven't done anything, man."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "I haven't even accused and you're proclaiming innocence. See why I might be worried?"

"First off, you've been giving me the glare of death so heavily that I'm beginning to think Cyclop's got nothing on you. Secondly, I have sisters. Older ones, but sisters. I know the drill."

Chris relaxed slightly. "I wasn't around for her as much as I should've been. Not nearly as much as I was for the other girls. I sometimes try and compensate."

"It's cool, I get it. But seriously, if anything's gonna happen, it's gonna be me getting my heart broken. There's at least two other guys at the school who are lined up in case I fu- screw things up."

"Taylor and I both know what the word fuck means, you can use it around me."

Dom grinned an eager, over-exuberant grin. "Anyone tell you how I ended up here?"

Chris shook his head. "I was under the impression that kinda stuff was confidential."

"It is, I thought Taylor mighta said something."

"Taylor. Well, Taylor knows how to keep her mouth shut."

Dom looked at Chris but didn't ask the obvious question. "I nearly killed a guy I played basketball with."

"Water?"

"Yeah, showers after practice, and he was saying stuff about this girl I liked at the time, calling her slut and spreading rumors, I mean, maybe they were true, I dunno, but he was being a jerk and I was just mad."

"Taylor did stuff when she got angry."

"I caused all the shower heads to burst open and the water to come out at hurricane-induced speeds."

Chris took a deep breath. "She remodeled our kitchen."

Dom managed a small laugh. "Nobody at my school would come near me even once the suspension was over. By that time, though, the professor had found me. My dad didn't know what to do, he was so relieved that there was someone who could…take me off his hands. I mean, it's not that he doesn't love me, he does. It's just, well, he's got enough to handle without dealing with a kid who tends to accidentally commit near homicides."

"Things are better?" Chris asked.

"My control is. It's a slow thing, becoming a functioning mutant."

"Professor Worthington says Taylor's better at it than most." Chris tried restraining himself, but there was only so much bragging about Taylor that he could reasonably be expected to avoid.

"She rocks at it. We're all completely jealous."

"Hoping to pick up on whatever's doing it for her?"

Dom looked confused for a second. "Oh, no. This is, well, I mean obviously it's about what I can get out of it, all dating is. Just, have you seen how she looks at people?"

Chris wrinkled his forehead.

"What I mean is, when she looks at someone, she doesn't see what's wrong with them, only what's right."

Chris was pretty sure that was how his mom had ended up dating and marrying so many losers, but it was still one of his favorite features in her. He couldn't regret that Taylor had ended up with it. "Yeah, I've seen that."

"Then you should understand."

Chris was about to say that he did when Trina wondered back, the first to return from a trip to the bathroom. "Sorry, the line was long. Others not back yet?"

*

Joey and Lance came to pick Chris up from the airport, neither understanding the fact that he still wouldn't pay for overnight parking, but both too used to it to bother kicking up a fuss over it. Joey drove and trusted Lance to get details. Lance wasted no time, turning in his seat to face Chris. "Scale of one to ten, go."

"Ten for absolutely no hero or roadie-type worship. Seven for experience and technique. Eight point five for overall experience."

Joey whistled. Lance interpreted, "Damn."

Chris nodded solemnly. Lance laughed. "Fine, whatever. How's Taylor?"

Chris knew he wasn't actually getting off that easily, but he'd take reprieve where he could get it. "Really good. Warren says she kicks ass at all her mutant stuff, and she's making friends, nice friends. She's kinda dating this guy who's way too hot for his own good but pretty down to earth despite this handicap. She's pretty much got things under control."

"We weren't worried," Joey said. This did not surprise Chris. Even as a dad, Joey wasn't a worrier. If something needed worrying over, Lance could always take care of it. Lance was a better worrier than anyone Chris had ever met.

Chris was formulating something smart to say when his cell phone rang. He looked at the phone number on the screen. The area code was Westchester, but it wasn't Taylor's phone. Chris answered anyway. "Hello?"

"I shouldn't have asked Taylor for your number, but I did."

Chris was glad that it wasn't exactly an apology. "That's cool. Hey."

Warren said, "If you wanna keep this in the bedroom, I can hang up."

Despite the fact that they were using daytime minutes, Chris gave himself a second to think about that. He was a big believer in not passing up possible outs when presented with them. "I don't know you well enough to say that I want that."

"Am I to presume that means you know me well enough to know that you could be interested in knowing more?"

Chris repeated the question to himself. "Yes, that."

"I can call you, then?"

"Permission granted."

"I wouldn't mind you calling me, either. I assume my number showed up on your screen?"

"I'll put it in the memory banks." Chris hoped he could remember how. If not, he was sure Lance could re-teach him. Yet again.

Warrren asked, "Do you have any idea how much information is available about you that can be found with a really simple web search?"

Chris knew all too well. "A lot of it's not true."

"I should hope not. I can't be wasting my time on a man who's favorite food is Taco Bell."

"Oh, uh, that kinda was true until this time that involved a lot of alcohol and too much Taco Bell and well, you probably don't want to hear the details."

"Probably not," Warren agreed. "Next time you're in town, I take you out for real Mexican food, yeah?"

"Where the fuck are you gonna find that in Westchester?"

"Who said anything about Westchester? I have a car. Several, in fact. I've been thinking about getting a motorcycle. Cyke's been giving me pointers but it says on quite a few of the sites I hit that you own six. So maybe I've been talking to the wrong guy."

"Maybe. You take me out for dinner, I'll take you to a dealership."

"Motorcycles turn you on?"

"What do you think?"

"Good. It would've been a shame for only one of us to be ready for action after all that."

"Nah, I'm easy. Even cheap, sometimes."

"I'm neither."

Chris believed him. "I'll call you."

"Sure," Warren said, and hung up.

Lance raised an eyebrow. "Dinner and a ride?"

Chris held up two fingers. "Two rides."

Joey told Lance, "Kirkpatrick's got himself a boyfriend."

Lance told Joey, "I noticed."

*

Normally when Chris's phone rang at two in the morning and woke him up, Chris ignored it. Justin's number flashing across the screen the night that he would've been in upstate New York made Chris flip the cell open. "J."

"Taylor and Jonathan would make a good couple, right?"

"Jonathan's a little young for Taylor, and she's dating someone."

"Why the fuck do you have to be so lucid right when you wake up?"

Chris dropped his head back onto the pillow. "Survival instincts. Even if I'd made some sort of stupid promise I'd've found my way out of it. I've taken on scarier than you, Timberlake."

In all fairness, they'd taken on those monsters together, but Justin wasn't the sharpest when he was tired, which the timbre of his voice gave him away as being. "How's she doing?"

"Good, she's good. She looks awesome, I can't believe you let her out of the house. She seems happier than the last couple of times I was around."

Chris didn't bother to suppress his exhalation of relief. Justin had what they all thought of as "younger sibling radar." They suspected it had been developed out of guilt that he'd been around for so very little of his younger brother's life and the need to understand what his sibling needed immediately. It worked on nearly all of the younger parties though, Tyler and every single one of Chris's sisters and even Steve. "Dom still treating her right?"

"If he wasn't we would've started this conversation with me getting tips on where to hide the body."

Chris preened in the dark over the thought that Justin trusted him to know something like that. "Right."

"Chris, uh. One of their professors came with them as a chaperon."

Chris snorted. "Lemme guess, Warren?"

"I didn't think you guys were serious."

"I'm not entirely sure we are," Chris said.

"Dude, he's trying to meet your friends."

"That might be a caution thing on his part. He's not the trusting type."

"At least we know you two have something in common."

Chris pulled the covers entirely over his head. "You sound worried."

"It's my job to be worried when my best friends start dating people that have the potential to completely fuck with them."

Quickly, hoping Justin wouldn't notice, Chris asked, "Are we talking about me or C?"

"You. Both. I dunno. At least she's like a…what's it called, known quantity."

"C says she's grown up. Maybe she's not as known as you're comfortable thinking."

"Probably not." Justin sounded surly, like he'd already thought about all of this and made the decision not to admit to any of it.

"I'm not sure Warren has anything to gain by selling me out. He smells like money."

"A brick shitload of it, surely. But there are other things that people get out of giving us up."

"He has more of a reason to keep his face out of the papers than I do." Realizing that he believed this, Chris threw the covers back and breathed the colder air.

"I need a girlfriend. I get overprotective when I go this long without one."

Chris was well aware of this. It was one of the many reasons he and JC had made a pact years ago to keep Justin well-supplied with viable options. They were falling down on the job, too preoccupied with their own love lives. He'd have to put in a call to JC, an emergency council of war. "I'll see what I can do."

"Please don't," Justin begged, blissfully unaware just how much of his relationship life was thanks to Chris and JC.

"Night, kid."

"Ancient immortal." Justin hung up.

*

Chris's doorbell rang right as he was finally getting some actual work done. He was at his computer, papers spread out around him, his thinking glasses on and the small, purposely non-intrusive ping of the bell sounded through the house.

He thought about ignoring it. Joey and Lance were really the only people who dropped by without calling first, but they both had keys. Briahna had a key. Chris got up and made his way to the door, looking out the window that made it easy for him to see who was at the front door but almost impossible for them to see him. The blue was unmistakable.

Chris flew the rest of the way to the door. He opened it and stood back, going for cool with, "Uh, hi."

"Nice day you're having today," Warren said.

Chris stood back. "Wanna come in?"

Warren took him up on the offer. "I realize this is a bit abrupt of me."

"How'd you find me?" Chris didn't want to be mean, but the location of his house was something he preferred be kept on the down low.

"Taylor. She knows where you live."

Chris smacked his forehead. "Sorry, paranoia builds over the years."

Warren didn't seem too offended. "I know something about that."

"Is this a break or something? I thought classes were still in session."

"I don't teach normal classes, remember? And I just needed some time away. Or, in the ever tactful words of the Professor, 'Perhaps a visit to somewhere sunny would help ground you.'"

Chris had been at that point too many times not to smile. Generally, he got the Joey version which was, "Kirkpatrick, do us all a favor and go get yourself laid. Preferably several times."

"So you came here."

"It's sunny here," Warren said with an expression of logic-is-clearly-on-my-side.

Chris was pretty sure he wouldn't care if it wasn't. "Very sunny. And I have a pool."

"Water therapy is excellent for rejuvenation, I've heard."

Chris smirked. "Probably."

"Just so this is out there, you don't have to say yes to my being here. I have hotel reservations."

"I have to ask you a really offensive question before I respond to that."

Warren looked cautious but all he said was, "Ask away."

"Other than the normal I-like-you-you-like-me thing, is there some kind of angle you're working here that I can't see?"

Warren's responsive, "Would I tell you if there were?" came back too quickly to have been constructed.

"No, but your reaction to that question would've." Chris had learned how to weed people out.

"So I'm staying?"

"Far as I'm concerned. Fair warning, Joey and Lance'll probably be dropping by at any and all hours with or without the women of their house and that situation can only end in a severe vetting, possibly twice. Justin and JC are both in different states, so we should be safe on that account so long as you don't answer the phone."

Warren shrugged. "Friends or family?"

"What's your line of differentiation?"

Warren nodded. "Something more than either, then."

Chris quailed in panic for a moment. In the end it had always been the five of them who understood that. Everyone else smiled understandingly and then whispered behind the group's back. "Yeah."

Warren tilted his head. "I do risk my life for every one of the people I introduced you to back at the school on a semi-regular basis. That takes a certain kind of bond."

Chris supposed he had a point. "It was just a first, that's all."

"Most of us don't date outside the team."

"That's gotta make for some seriously awkward situations."

"And enough drama to sweep the Oscars on our own every year, but it's better than the alternative."

And again, "I get that."

Warren smiled. "I was thinking I'd take you to dinner. A sort of thanks for the hospitality."

"The hospitality is free."

Warren raised an eyebrow.

"Excepting sexual favors, of course."

"Consider me a class act, then."

Chris wasn't really used to dating those, but he was willing to give it a shot.

*

Chris and Warren were very busy when Joey called up, "Just me and Lance. Brought you manicotti!"

The offer of baked cheesy and pasta goodness was almost enough for Chris to postpone the bedroom festivities. Almost. Instead he yelled down, "Ten minutes!"

It was twenty by the time the two of them stumbled downstairs. Chris met Lance's eyes as he made his descent. "Hi honey, how's your day been?"

Lance caught Chris as soon as he was in range and gave him a rather forceful noogie. "Care to introduce me to your friend?"

Chris rubbed at his head. "Not anymore. C'mon," he signaled with a hand curl to Warren, "my nice friend is in the kitchen. This is Lance, my mean friend."

Warren nodded as though he knew all about nice friends and mean friends. He followed Chris into the kitchen. Joey was taking the manicotti out of the oven, where he had evidently been keeping it warm. He straightened and shook Warren's hand with his own, firmly encased in a heating mitt. "Hey, I'm Joey Fatone. Warren, right?"

Chris was tempted to kiss Joey. The man had a talent Chris had never quite managed to achieve at getting just the right tone of voice to say, "Yes, my friend here has talked about you muchly, and all of it good," without ever once vocalizing the thought.

Warren shook the mitt. "Nice to meet you. Lance as well."

Chris bit back a sigh. Manners were such a turn on. "Dinner. You three can talk while I'm stuffing my face. Did you make this, or your mom?"

"You think my mom would let me handle dinner with you having a boy in town?"

Much of Chris's goodwill toward Joey dissipated. "How many people have you mentioned this to? How do you even know?"

"Your maid is our maid," Lance reminded him.

"She doesn't even speak that much English!" Chris had just gotten finished with his squeak of indignation when he remembered what she did speak. Russian. "Bastard. That's why you recommended her to me, isn't it? So you could spy."

"Well that and the fact that she needed more jobs." Lance wasn't really one to back down from an accusation of cleverness.

Joey handed four plates to Chris. "March."

Chris did as commanded, but only because he was really hungry. Warren and he hadn't been terribly good about paying attention to how regularly they ate. There were more important things on their minds.

When they were settled, Lance running to get the forks and Joey dishing out large pieces of culinary heaven onto each plate, Joey asked, "You're a teacher?"

Warren finished chewing and swallowed. "Not really. I teach, but it’s more that I train. I'm part of a team promoting unity between mutants and humans. We call ourselves the X-Men. I work with future members of the team to help build skills they might need."

"Taylor's thinking of joining up, after gradation," Chris said. Not that Taylor hadn't gone through a million dream careers from fashion designer to neurosurgeon to dog breeder, but somehow, she seemed more intent on this one. She spoke about it in real terms, how much training there was, the expectations of an X-Men, how she wasn't really sure she could trust herself not to snap and just start killing stupid fuckheads if they pissed her off.

"So you'd be training her?" Lance asked.

"I'd be one of several people working with her," Warren said. "I hope she does, she's really promising."

Chris liked how Warren didn't turn to him as he said it. Somehow, it made the statement cleaner. He liked how Warren cut his manicotti into tiny pieces so that it wouldn't make a mess, but didn't eat daintily, like a girl on her first date. He probably liked too much about Warren, all things told.

Lance started talking about some market venture he was thinking about, the vetting over for the moment. Warren jumped in, obviously the most informed person of the other three in the area. Lance warmed up quickly after finding out that Warren read the Wall Street Journal daily from an online subscription, so that he could get it even while working away from home.

Leaving the two finance geeks to their own pleasures, Chris caught Joey's eye. So?

Joey smiled and took a bite that was three times as large as his mouth. Surreptitiously, Lance smacked his thigh. Chris nodded. Good, thanks.

*

Taylor phoned him about a week after Warren left to go, "do real-life things." She flitted through a whole bunch of preliminaries before saying, "Look, Chris, there's something I'm gonna need your back up on, with mom."

Chris loved Taylor, but his mom had a spot in his heart that was nearly impenetrable. "Tell me why and I'll think about it."

"I wanna stay here for the summer."

Taylor had been the first kid that the Kirkpatrick clan could afford to send to summer camp, so it wasn't as though the concept of her being gone for several weeks in the summer was a new one. However, that had been before she had lived away from home all the rest of the year, and had never been for all three months. "What? I mean, why?"

"It's not that I don't miss mom," Taylor rushed to say. "I'm, like, constantly homesick for her."

"So come home for the summer. Three months of mostly just you and her. It's not just mom, Tay. Kate, Molly and Emily are all waiting for you to return. Even their kids miss you."

"I know, Chris. I know. But." Taylor sighed. "Things are better here for me. If I screw up, I don't have to worry as much that I'll hurt anyone or destroy anything. People don't freak out when I do weird things and they either like me or they don't, but the mutant thing doesn't have anything to do with it."

"Tay. You…you can't stay there forever." Although, Chris realized that on some level, that was exactly what Warren and the rest of the X-Men had done.

"I know that. I've only been here a few months. I'm asking for a few more months and another school year. We're not talking a lifetime. I'm a teenager and I know that, Chris."

She had a point, and Chris had to concede the fact that things were better now than they had been. For her and for Bev. The two of them were getting along the way they had before all this started, when they had actually seemed to like each other. "I'll back you up, but you're pitching the suggestion."

"Thank you, Chris." The words all came out in one long gush of relief. "Thank you, of course I'll pitch, you're the best older brother in the entire world."

Chris could come up with the name of three better ones right off the top of his head, but he didn't contradict her. "Yeah, yeah."

"Um, right, I shouldn't ask but Warren disappeared to your place, didn't he?"

"I'm not going to discuss one of your faculty with you like this."

"Seriously, he asked for your address and then he just up and went away for over a week. I'm not gonna tell anyone. Dom doesn't even know I gave him the address."

"He was here." It was tell now or tell later, he figured.

"And?" Taylor didn't sound as though she really expected to get more.

"Lance is gonna steal him away if I'm not careful."

"I'd worry for Warren, but in a fight between him and Joey, I'd say the ability to defy gravity might give him the edge. Not to mention the, y'know, years of combat training."

Chris could grant her that. "With three of us on board, Justin's starting to rethink his misgivings."

"He was pretty good about not acting psychotic while we were all actually with him."

"JC deigns to trust us for the moment, but is holding out for a personal vote at first available chance."

"Did you enjoy it?" Taylor asked, not altogether confidently.

"I wanted him to stay," Chris said.

"Really? I mean, in your space and everything? Like one of the guys?"

No, it was nothing like that. Warren would get that. Chris wondered if Taylor would someday function as an X-Man and understand as well. "Really."

*

Chris and Taylor managed to convince Bev that Westchester was the Place To Be that summer, but only barely. Among the concessions made were that Bev would be up there to visit come Memorial Day. Her date of departure was left up in the air.

Seeing as how NSYNC wasn't making any undue demands on him (make that any demands at all) Chris decided, unsurprisingly, to accompany her. He told Warren, "We're gonna have to sex it up at your place. I'm not doing it with my mom watching."

As Chris figured it, he'd already given over his space to this dating thing they were evidently doing, Warren could put out. Warren evidently agreed as he didn't hesitate before saying, "Well, yeah."

Val, Trina and Miguel all went home for the summer, which left Shane and Dom of the original friend group to whom Chris had been introduced. Dom had stayed the summer before as well. It made it easier on his family. "Plus," he told them all over dinner the first night two sixths of the Kirkpatricks arrived, "You get close with people you just didn't meet over the year for whatever reason. Because they're older than you or your powers aren't particularly compatible, whatever. Last summer was awesome."

Taylor smiled at Chris. Chris carefully did not check under the table to see if his sister was playing footsie. The suspicion was more than enough.

Warren's grin was a mild type of evil. "And it gives me more time to work on Taylor here's pool skills."

Taylor groaned. "I hate you. You're not allowed to see my brother anymore."

Chris whispered, "See what you've done? Now we have to sneak around. This will end badly, with potions that seem to kill but don't and double suicide, I tell you."

Warren's look was considering. "Will it unite mutants and humans?"

Chris wanted to kiss him. "You are so fucked up."

Warren's expression made it evident that he was taking that as a compliment. "Besides, c'mon, it's not like we aren't already sneaking around, what's one more person?"

Chris's eyes flickered across the table. "She's my sister."

"A tough one, I grant you."

Bev snorted. Despite the fact that Chris and Warren had been unofficially "dating" for months now, this was the first chance she'd gotten to actually meet him. Bev had visited the school before, but either it had been before things had been settled between Chris and Warren, or it had been while Warren was away on business. Chris was mostly glad for this, as he preferred that his mother meet his boyfriends in his presence, but the first meeting was always the hardest, unless she didn't like the guy and then every meeting was the hardest.

Warren caught on beautifully, "Of course, I would never carry on with your son sans your permission."

Bev rolled her eyes. "No, of course not."

"I've been told parents can be quite vindictive."

Bev's gaze shot to Chris quickly. Chris wished he had something for her, but this, like so many other areas of Warren's life, was a black hole of some magnitude. Bev wavered for a second before asking, "Been told?"

Warren swallowed the bite he had strategically taken after dropping that piece of not-so-polite conversation. "Orphan."

Chris's brain hurt. The more he knew about Warren the less everything made sense. Chris bit back the questions. Literally. He was tasting blood within seconds.

Dom, in an attempt to change the conversation and alleviate any tensions, opened up whole new boxes of questions. "Professor LeBeau says you’re a healer."

There was a dark flash of humor underneath Warren's eyes. Chris couldn't decide if it was because he was going to have to kill a teammate for giving out information where it wasn't warranted or because, as Warren had told him, Remy hated titles. "Of late, yes. It was a bit of a surprise. I'm still working on those abilities, much in the same way the two of you are working at yours."

Warren didn't hold to the information tightly or explain it away, so Chris could only guess that the humor had been due to the latter issue. Remy seemed the type who could betray and probably had, but who only would at this point given severe provocation. It reminded Chris of Lance, if the types of danger threatened were wholly different. Chris sensed that giving away knowledge of others undeveloped powers might be considered a betrayal, but Warren wasn't overly upset so far as he could tell, so it was mostly likely something of an open secret.

Chris added some more questions to his mental list. When he was ready, he joined a conversation that had been safely steered into urbane topics while Chris had been busy not paying attention.

*

Chris said, "My middle name is Alan, I have an AA degree in Psychology but I never managed my BA because I was too impatient to get through the four years, I wanted something that I worked on while it was happening. I went to high school in six different places because my mom kept breaking up with men who owned the places we were living in. In between, we had a car that all six of us called home. The four people I'm closest to in this universe are not related to me by blood, but they might as well be, because I would step in front of a fucking train for them and be happy about it."

Warren sat on his bed, toeing off his shoes. "I suppose you want something in return for all that."

Chris sat down next to him. "You can ask questions, as many as you want, about anything, but yeah, I'm going to expect the same treatment."

Slowly, Warren spread his wings, careful not to hit Chris. "These burst out of my back one day when I was young. I was trying to get away from some other kids, bullies, and they were just. There. It meant more people to run from, but I loved them. They were soft and pretty and I knew that if I worked hard enough at it, I could use them to get away."

"Did you learn here?"

Warren shook his head. "Mostly on my own. I was older when I came here. I learned other things, finesse, fighting, how to stay calm."

Chris sensed danger in whatever Warren was about to tell him and nearly called a stop to the confession, nearly said, "later, let's fuck," but by the time he had managed to actually start forming the words, Warren was already talking again.

"We -- the team -- took action to stop a massacre. We failed and somewhere in all the fighting I ended up pinned to the walls by my wings. Crucified, really, is the best way to think about it."

Chris thought Warren's definition of "best" needed some fine-tuning.

"They were completely ruined." Warren took a breath. "Then someone offered me an alternative pair and all I had to do to get them was sell my soul."

Chris touched the edge of one wing.

"Not these," Warren said softly. "These are mine. But for a while…I didn't think I had a soul left to lose, so I gave it over for a pair. The feathers were metal, able to be used as projectiles with a sedative in the tips. Poison."

For the first time ever, Chris felt saying, "I did something like that once too. Without the y'know, metal and poison. Just the selling my soul part," was inadequate.

Warren looked interested though, so Chris continued, "To get a contract. Signed on with a guy without paying attention to the terms. Nearly ended all five of our careers."

Warren frowned and seemed about to say something. Chris stalled with, "I'm the oldest. It wasn't just my soul, y'see."

"You didn't know."

That was the worst part. Chris bit the inside of his cheek. "I'm pretty sure I did."

Warren's wing came down, curling as much as it could over Chris's back. "I did. No questions asked."

The soft down of the feathers settled over Chris's bare arm. "You got it -- them -- back."

"Someone I loved jolted me out of it." There were whole galaxies of pain contained in that one statement.

Chris knew that feeling. "I almost lost one of them."

"You didn't." Warren sounded bitter and relieved all at once.

"I was lucky."

Warren brought a hand up, threaded it through Chris's hair. "I'm bad luck."

Chris closed his eyes. "I'll take my chances."

The pressure of Warren's hand increased for a brief second, as though he were fighting himself. Then he asked, "Mind a bit of good ol' fashioned sex?"

Chris was more than ready.

*

Chris was in Texas, where it was infernally hot and not enough was happening for Chris's taste, when Taylor emailed him: "JC and Britney? And why didn't you mention this?"

Ignoring the question that forced him to consider why he had conveniently forgotten to tell her that information, Chris asked, "How'd you find out?"

The email that came a day later said, "They're visiting."

Chris flipped his cell phone open so fast he thought it would rebound closed. Luckily, the catch worked well enough to deal with his careless treatment of it. He told it he wanted to call JC and it dialed obligingly for him.

"Hey," JC sounded pleased with himself, "you'll never guess where I am!"

"Westchester by any chance?"

"No fair, who told?"

Chris rolled his eyes. "Three guesses, C."

"Fuck you, there are at least two possibilities, and that's assuming you haven't made friends with any of the other faculty, which, considering how much you and Bobby have in common, really isn't that far-fetched."

All right, Chris could give him that. "Taylor. She was surprised about you and Brit. You guys must be doing pretty well. Y'know, I mean, if you're traveling together."

"We were out of town to see J's show. We figured we might as well hop another plane while we were at it."

Chris took a minute to decide which of the two conversations that were inevitable he wanted to have first. He asked, "Is she there?"

"Britney?"

"Yeah."

"Right next to me, wanna talk to her?"

"Please." It felt oddly polite, given what was about to follow.

Britney headed him off. "I know, Chris. If I so much as think about hurting him, there won’t be a place on this earth that I can flee to for fear of your wrath. J already did a pretty impressive hellfire and brimstone thingie when C was chatting with Christina after the show."

Chris didn't care, she didn't get off that easily. "Give me one solid reason why I should trust you and be happy with this situation."

Britney's long-thought over, "Because everyone deserves a second chance," wasn't quite what Chris had been expecting.

He hated her for the fact of it being true. He hated her more for the utter sincerity in her claim, "I'm completely fucked up for C. Seriously, Chris. Completely."

Chris sighed. "How's J?"

Britney seemed to realize this was as much tacit approval as she was going to get. "The show's a fucking piece of art. Have you seen it? You should. He's sick as fuck because he's not sleeping, stupid ass, but he seems pretty happy, all the attention you know, right up his alley."

The last was relayed fondly enough that Chris was able to smile. "Yeah. Well, he worked for it."

"He always does."

"And Taylor? How's she?"

"She has superpowers and a boyfriend who's second in cuteness only to mine, how bad could she be?"

"Brit." In spite of himself, Chris had always trusted Britney's intuition about other women.

"Relax, she's awesome, this is a good place for her. Don't you think that would have been the first thing I'd've said if it wasn't?"

Chris wasn't sure. The Britney he'd known had played games when it suited her, but the girl he was talking to felt only vaguely familiar.

"Anyway, I told her I'd comp her tickets for when I come here on tour, then we can hang some more."

"No parties."

"For fuck's sake, I do have a baby sister, Chris."

"In the biz," was all he felt the need to say.

"No parties," she reassured him.

This satisfied Chris. He didn't think she'd risk lying about something like that at this juncture. "Gimme back to C."

She complied. JC said, "You cats have gotta stop threatening my girl."

"Joey and Lance too?"

"As a team." JC sounded morose.

Chris jotted down a mental reminder to kiss the two of them the next time he was in kissing distance. "So you've met Warren."

JC was always more honest when taken off guard. This time was no disappointment. "Why do you always pick the screwed up ones?"

"Hi, my name is Christopher Alan-"

"Shut up. I like him, Chris, he's a lot of things that I wish I was, but I mean, you've seen his eyes. Do you know what all that's about?"

"Some of it." Chris didn't know if this was a secret, but JC never tattled anyway, "He lost his wings once."

JC said, "Oh," with such depth that Chris knew he had probably substituted "music" in for "wings."

"And I think he lost someone, too. At the very least, something very bad happened to a person he loved. He understood about Lance. Actually, he understands about all of you and me and how we-"

"Yeah." JC's voice was a bit awed. "You're probably going to have to keep him then. Like, forever."

JC was one of the few people Chris knew who understood the meaning of forever perfectly.

*

Warren called Chris at two in the morning and sounded too exhausted for Chris to even bother pointing out that he had, in fact, been asleep. "Your sister's kind of a drama queen sometimes."

Chris yawned, trying desperately to wake up now that he knew it was about Taylor. "Yeah, well, she is related to me."

"Her and Dom had a fight. A big one."

"Shit." Chris rolled onto his back. "What about?"

"About the fact that they've both been training way too hard and need more sleep than they've been getting and Taylor accidentally ruined one of Dom's shirts with her powers, so Dom turned around and flooded the bathroom that she shares with a few other girls. Before you say anything, yes, there were consequences for that and yes, they have made up and they're fine. I just thought you'd wanna know."

"Are you gonna let them sleep in tomorrow?" Chris asked.

"Fuck yeah. Bobby had to go in and freeze a lot of the mess that Dom made so we could get it cleared out easier and Ororo and Jean spent most of the day dealing with weepy teenagers. Yeah, they can sleep till the New Year if it helps them figure their shit out."

Chris laughed a little bit. "Thanks for calling. Even if it is ass o'clock in the morning and the dream I was having about you was a little more action-heavy than this conversation."

Warren snorted. "I miss you. I haven't had a second free or I wouldn't've waited until I had an excuse to call now, which has been the only time I've managed."

"You guys the mutants who showed up in the Ukraine last week?" Chris had learned how to read newspapers and listen to news reports to find out what the X-Men were doing, even if they were never mentioned by name and oftentimes only vaguely alluded to.

"And Bali the week before that and North Dakota this week. It's been hellish. The Children's Home and School Protection Act comes up for consideration this fall and we're working double time to make sure that piece of tripe doesn't get passed."

The Children's Home and School Protection Act basically said that mutants weren't capable as parents or teachers and should not be allowed around children younger than the age of majority. In between a whole bunch of legal jargon that made it look good and like something that people should get behind, regardless of prejudice.

"You want me to come up there? I've got a charity golf tournament thing coming up, but other than that I'm wide open."

Warren made an indecipherable sound. "I don't like it that with the exception of one time, all the effort has been on your part."

Chris understood, but, "That's because you're busy saving the world and I'm patently not busy waiting in the vain hopes that my band decides to get back to work."

"I've met the rest of your band, I don't think your hopes are that vain."

Just for that, "I'll come up next week. Tuesday, probably."

"Taylor'll be thrilled."

"That was some type of creepy displacement, right?"

Warren coughed. "Disgusting. No, that was statement of fact. Of course I'm going to be happy to see you. Asshole."

"Nothing inspires love in me like name-calling."

Warren only went silent for a second before he said, "I'll be sure to cut it out then."

Chris released a breath he'd very carefully held. "Yeah, watch it."

"Night, babe."

Chris made loud, obnoxious kissy noises into the receiver and hung up.

*

The anger pouring off of Warren when he came to pick Chris up at the airport was so intense that Chris forewent a hello kiss, even when they were in a safe enough location. Instead he skipped straight to, "You okay?"

Tightly, Warren shook his head. "Sometimes, I hate non-mutants."

Fair though it was, Chris couldn't help but be a little hurt. He didn't say anything.

Warren started up again anyway. "They tried to kill Scott. He went to a conference in good faith, he'd been fucking invited to speak and he got ambushed outside the hotel by protestors. The conference organizers swore that something like that wouldn't happen."

"Is he…"

"Broken arm and some severe bruising, but you should see what the mob looks like. Still, he was lucky. The professor decided to send some of our own security last minute, basically to sit across the street and make sure everything was all right. Kitty said if her and Logan had been much later Scott would've been a goner. Mutant powers or no, there's only so much you can do when you're outnumbered fifty-something to one."

"Jean handling it all right?"

Warren's fingers tightened around the steering wheel. "As well as can be expected."

"Whatever you’re thinking right now, do me a favor and don't think it."

Warren ignored him. "This isn't fair to you, Kirkpatrick."

"Don't call me that, Worthington. And fuck fair. Like you never getting to actually go out with me is fair?"

"More fair than you constantly having to worry about whether I'll come home from my day job or not. At least Jean takes equal risks."

"I'm sorry I'm not one of you," Chris growled.

"Fuck," Warren said.

"If I could, I'd-"

"I don’t want this for you. I don't want this for your sister or me or anybody."

"What you have is-"

"Hatred engendering."

"I wouldn't give up being in love with you for the comfort of being straight, would you really give up your wings, your abilities to heal, for the ease of being a non-mutant?"

"Sometimes." It was more sob than word.

"Warren."

Warren stopped at a red but didn't look to his side, staring straight ahead. "I hate seeing any of them get hurt, but Scott is a brother. He's one of my oldest friends, and Jean right there alongside him. Both of them in one shot, that's always the way it is and it's…awful."

Chris heard the way that one word wasn’t nearly enough to encompass everything that Warren actually felt when something like this happened. He remembered the odd crunch of Joey's leg and the paleness of Lance's face as he sat by Joey staunching the blood-flow. "Would you have them apart to spare you that pain? To spare them that pain?"

Warren opened his mouth and then closed it. "Damn you."

Chris remembered Briahna being born, the way Lance had looked at her, then Joey, and couldn't speak for the happiness of it all. He remembered Joey asking if the two of them could share a bus alone together. Chris had never seen Joey so timid and so happy all in one moment before or since. "There are things that are worth the risks."

"We haven't known each other long enough to know that we're one of those things."

"No, but we've known each other long enough to know that it's probably worth it to try."

Warren didn't say anything for the rest of the ride, but by the time they got to the school and he politely carried Chris's bag for him, Chris could feel the silent pull toward him, where before there had only been walls stronger and thicker than concrete.

*

Chris impressed himself by finding the infirmary while Warren was in a training session. Jean looked to be asleep in a chair but she opened her eyes the second Chris walked in the room, so he suspected she'd been playing 'possum. Scott was out cold. Chris inclined his head toward the patient. "How's he doing?"

Jean's smile was a bit wan, but it was real. "Warren worked some of his magic and Hank worked some of his and he's doing fine. Just needs to rest."

Chris was only mildly surprised to see a chair fly up beside him and set itself down. Jean gestured to it and he took it.

"Warren try and back out on you?"

Telepath, Chris thought. Then, probably more accurately, friend. "Here I was feeling special."

"He's very noble." Jean's tone indicated that she wasn't entirely sure whether to be fond of that trait or disgusted by it.

Chris said, "He's very scared." Not that Chris was one to talk, but that was where things lay.

"I'll assume the fact of your presence is testament to you being very stubborn?"

"One of Taylor's least favorite of my qualities."

"And one she holds herself with some abundance."

Chris didn't bother trying to cover his pride. "Nobody in this world is just going to hand over what you want. Not even him, and for all intents and purposes, he pretty much wants the same thing."

"You figure you just have to hold on until he accepts that."

"Tell me if I'm wrong, because I hate wasting time."

Jean pursed her lips. "He's worth the time invested."

"Only if the end result is the one I'm aiming for."

"Nothing is that predictable."

"You're his friend, I'm asking for an honest opinion, that's all." Chris wondered silently if he'd answer the same question were it asked about one of the guys. He decided it would probably depend on who was asking it. He hoped he had been deemed worthy.

"Warren thrives on others. And you…you're the first other he's even so much as glanced at outside of us in a while. In some ways, Warren really isn't at all ideal for what we do. He holds bitterness that can't be sugared inside and like all hurts, it finds its way to the surface from time to time. His shields are as much to keep things in as to keep them out and they're heavily armored both ways."

"All I did was ask him to play pool," Chris said.

"All you did was spend a little time with him," Jean disagreed. "And for whatever reason, he let you."

"So you think it stands to reason that he'll probably continue to let me?"

"I think it stands to reason that you have more of a chance than anyone else who's tried in a long while. Is that enough for you to keep it up?"

Chris smirked. "Those are probably the best odds I've been given in my life."

*

Chris pounced a few mornings later, when Warren had just woken and was hardly in top form to be having Important Life Conversations. Which was all part of Chris's world-class plan. "I've fought harder for things less important than you, y'know?"

Warren looked at him, muddled, and said, "No."

Chris would just have to fix that. "I got a job on my uncle's farm when I was hardly a teenager. He didn't want to let me because I was a fucking runt and he needed someone who could really work, but my mom and my sisters needed the money and so I just kept showing up, kept pitching hay and milking cows and tilling and cleaning out the stalls and anything else that needed to be done because I needed the job. I talked and talked and talked at our then boss to get Lance even a couple of tiny solo spots on our first album because his ego really needed the boost with everything that had been going on in reference to his place in the band. When he wouldn't listen to my talking, I told him I was willing to forego part of my salary for a few months in exchange for what I wanted. Cheap bastard agreed to that. I could barely afford food."

"Family and friendship," Warren said.

"Love," Chris contended.

Warren thought about that, which was reassuring, because Chris had needed to think about it at first too. The line wasn't that clear still but Chris knew it was there. Besides, he hadn't mentioned other examples, times when he had fought for those people that it had been this important. "It's not like I can just leave the mutant community to its fate anyway. Taylor, remember?"

"Is that why you want-"

"I want this because you play a kickass game of pool, you laugh at my jokes, even when they're bad, you understand the NSYNC closer-than-blood thing, you have good taste in clothing, you have money but you know what to spend it on and that it doesn't mean everything, your wings are sexy, you read and comprehend the Wall Street Journal, you're hella good in bed, you care about my sister and me in completely different but equally valid ways and, by popular consensus among my family and friends, you're really hot."

Warren looked slightly disconcerted. "Does that last include Taylor?"

"What, you never had a crush on any of your teachers?"

"I'm not usually… Around here Remy and Scott are the big too-fucking-old-for-you catches. Logan for the more rebellious ones. Just taken by surprise."

"Taylor's an equal opportunity type of gal. I'm pretty sure she'd take Bobby and Ric on top of the others you mentioned."

Warren smiled, still sleepy but coming around. "Teenagedom. Wow. I only understand some of the articles in the Journal."

"More than me, it's like archaic Pig Latin, as far as I'm concerned."

"And she's my student, I have to care about her."

"You don’t have to spend extra-curricular time with her."

"You're going to have an argument to everything I say, aren't you?"

Chris didn't bother to answer.

Warren blanched. "I'll fuck this up."

"I might before you get a chance to."

"Oh," Warren paused, "good."

"I'm staying."

"Here?"

The statement had really been meant metaphorically, but for the moment, Chris didn't really have anywhere else he needed to be, so, "Yeah, right in this very spot."

*

Warren hunched over Taylor from behind, hands over hers, guiding the cue. "Don't think about anything except the fact that you want the white ball to hit the blue ball."

"Not even that I want the blue ball to go into the pocket?" Taylor asked.

"Not even." In one smooth motion, he leaned in, causing her to tip the cue forward and poke at the white ball. It rolled lazily toward the blue and nudged at it. The blue ball begrudgingly rolled a bit.

Taylor sighed. Warren laughed. "It's a step in the right direction, missy."

"Maybe you should just give up." The words followed on Warren's, but her gaze was directed singly at Chris.

Chris shook his head. "Never." He was surprised to hear Warren echo him precisely. He caught Warren's eye and grinned.

Taylor shook her head. "Fuck."

"Taylor Kirkpatrick," Warren scolded. Chris didn't bother. He'd taught her the word.

Taylor wasn't particularly phased. "Yeah, yeah. Can I go now? Dom and I were gonna swim this afternoon."

Warren shrugged. Chris made a slight dismissive gesture with his hand. Taylor brightened a little, but her, "Thanks," was facetious. Nonetheless, she clipped Chris affectionately on the head as she passed by him.

As soon as she was gone, Warren said, "I can't imagine how your mom managed for so long. She's a handful all by herself and having met the both of you, I'd be shocked to find the other three all that different."

Chris acknowledged the comment with a wry twist of his mouth. "Not in that area, no." He got up from where he had been sitting, watching, backseat teaching. "Play me a game?"

Warren tossed him the cue he was currently holding by way of answer and went to get one for himself. Chris racked the balls. When Warren returned, Chris held a beckoning hand out to the table. "You first."

Warren cracked and signed himself on as solids. It was another few shots before Chris was allowed anywhere near the table. Chris worked his way from side to side, taking his time with his shots. Warren said, "Someone's been practicing."

"Been teaching Briahna."

"Isn't she two, or something?"

Chris affected innocence. "Never too early."

"They say that about reading, not games known to cause dissolution in the mind."

"Pool's a great game," Chris said.

"But it's always played in shitholes."

"Joey and Lance own a pool table. Bri ought never to know that."

Warren seemed to accept this logic, taking over as Chris missed a shot. "You'd be a good uncle."

"It comes and goes."

Warren said, "Uh huh," but Chris could tell it was just for the sake of agreeing.

Instead of arguing, Chris counter-attacked. "You make a good teacher."

Warren grimaced. "On my best days." He missed his shot.

Chris kept his turn short, that hadn't been fair. Warren leaned over the table, cue all pointed up. "You make an excellent boyfriend."

Chris let Warren win the game before locking the rec room doors and taking him over the pool table. When Warren was flushed and jelly-limbed and somewhat trepidatious over having made love somewhere wherein the children spent time, Chris soothed everything with a firm grip to one of Warren's wings, a kiss to his jaw and a, "You too."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile