"I think I should be seen with you more in public," Warren said thoughtfully. "Good for public relations with a personal interest story, you know. Besides, it would establish my heterosexuality beyond any doubts."

He was lying on his side in the grass, propped up on his left wing. The right one was fully extended to provide some shade against the afternoon sun and swayed gently to and fro like a giant fan. He had taken off his dress shirt and shoes, but kept the slacks on. Betsy, who was lying on her stomach pulling petals off daisies, had a splendid view of his perfectly sculpted upper body with its unusual musculature. Gorgeous was the word.

"Warren, you're bi," Betsy pointed out. "And you're wearing pink in public. The heterosexual image is quite beyond you. Now, what's wrong with your public relations?

Warren looked offended.

"There's nothing wrong with my public relations," he snorted. " I'll always be the guy who funded Hodge, since even my best spin team say they can't go back in time and fix that, but between my stylist and what "People Magazine" refers to as my own dazzling looks, I'm the man. The heterosexual man."

He flashed her his best photo op smile, the one that showed off his teeth to best advantage and put a twinkle in the azure eyes. Oh my, gorgeous was just the beginning of it. And he had hardly had any dental work at all.

"You could talk to Sulven," she suggested. "About Hodge, I mean."

He shrugged dismissively. The wings exaggerated the movement, fluttering all the way out to the tip.

"I already did, but my crashing into the ocean and coming back as Death was apparently a major event in the timeline. Imagine that."

Betsy looked at him quickly. She could detect no sign of tension in his face and or the lazy Manhattan drawl, but something wasn't quite right. While unfailingly polite and even-tempered, even charming, he had seemed distracted all day. Not wanting to intrude on what was doubtlessly very personal brooding, she had slowed the flow across their link to a mere trickle, to give him the opportunity to snap out of it by himself or confide in her, but so far he had done neither.

"Shouldn't mess with anything connected to Apocalypse," she agreed. "It makes the Askan'i nervous. Speaking of which, what did Nathan say about Genentex Unlimited?

As soon as the consequences of the Merge had become clear, Warren had gone on his own fierce crusade to clean up the murky waters of mutant gene research. He referred to it as buying XSE a little time so legislation could catch up. In effect, it meant acquiring a controlling interest in any company with questionable products or ethics. Most of the companies were integrated later into Worthington Enterprises and Industries. Genentex Unlimited had turned out to be more difficult than most to buy out or bring down, and that in itself was a concern.

"He put it on his list. Until there are actual laws that Genentex are breaking, there's nothing else he can do."

Betsy nodded, thinking that Nathan had a pretty long list. So had all of them, these days, and every mistake was costly. Genentex had been one of Warren's rare slips. He had tipped his hand too early and given Genentex time to muster a defense. WEI's legal department had been pulling overtime for two months to make up for it.

"It isn't a military problem. It won't have a military solution," she said, careful not to sound as if she was passing judgment on either of Nathan or Warren.

"No, and we have to try our damnedest to keep it that way. If anything would destroy the image of the XSE as a peacekeeping force, it would be our troops storming the Genentex Labs. Talk about hostile take-over. Mix in a few telepaths and the XSE would never regain politic credibility again."

He scowled darkly and kicked an innocent dandelion with his bare toes. The seeds went flying. Betsy watched them soar through the air, recalling parachutes blooming all over Akkaba.

"You've been thinking about it, though," she said.

"Yes. I'm very uncomfortable with the patents they're getting and how fast they're getting them. Of all the companies and facilities we've charted, Genentex could be the one that will blow up in our faces a few years from now if we miss our chance of interception. And I haven't told anyone X-affiliated about this yet, but the last report from my market analysis department indicates that WEI has an overextension problem."

That was news. Betsy sat up abruptly, daisies and dandelions forgotten.

"You should have talked to me," she said in a low and furious voice. "Tell me, tell me now."

"I didn't want to worry you," he said softly. "I hoped I was wrong. There's nothing I would have done differently anyway, I knew from the start that liquidation was never an option. It wasn't just the companies I wanted in my control sphere, it was the people working for those companies as well. But I might have to pass up my chance at getting Genentex, or else I'll send our stocks plunging... I'd probably end up crashing Nasdaq and most of the North American economy in the process and then where would the Academy be? Where would any of us be?"

She knew too well where they would be: in a depression where fear and hate would flourish. With WEI unable to provide ready funds, the Academy and the XSE would have to choose between scaling back or accepting federal funding with all its obligations. Other organisations would rise to challenge them and they would have no control over the fate of mutant children, either nationally or globally.

"What about Nathan? The Xavier Foundations?"

"Nathan can't raise this kind of capital on such short notice and the foundations are our investment for the Academy's future. Plus, they won't cover it, or I would have used them anyway, future be damned."

He smiled crookedly, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. She opened up the link a little and regret came crashing down on her in a big giant wave. She must have looked stricken, because Warren touched his finger to her cheek in a gesture of apology, maybe attempted mollification.

"I'm sorry, love," he said. "I didn't mean to ruin this afternoon. We get so little time together as it is."

He was sorry he had failed her. He, who had bought back her life from the Undercloaks, was sorry for failing her. And she, like everyone else, had with more or less good reason sat back and watched him fight the corporate wars for their sake, since it needed to be done. Since he was the best at what he did and it was his fight. She swore to herself that this was the last day he would be fighting alone.

"Marry me, Warren" she said and because he was sputtering something inarticulate that sounded like a protest: "No, wait, hear me out. I'll talk to Brian about an eventual merger, but starting tomorrow, Braddock Inc. backs WEI, with all its resources. That should tide you over and if it doesn't, why, I'll liquidate my shares."

Warren shook his head no.

"You're noble and magnificent and I'd rather slit my own throat than risk your assets in this venture," he said.

Well, there you go, Betsy thought. Offer someone a few millions' worth of stocks and your hand in marriage and the ingrate tells you he'd rather kill himself. She broke off a grass stalk and tied the ends neatly together. It was more of a pentagon than a circle but it would do

"Let's see, how does it go...oh yes," she said. "With this ring, I thee wed and besides the loving and honouring, I'll endow on you my worldly goods and half of Braddock Inc .for the greater mutant good and the North American economy."

She thrust out the misshapen grass ring at him, daring him with a lightning purple glare to turn it and her down. He didn't. He hesitated for a breath or so, but he took it and put it on her left ring finger, kissing her hand as he did.

"You're more than I deserve," he said and the smile he gave her now was one that no photographers had ever seen. It was full of sad tenderness and love and it almost broke her heart.

"No more, no less," she said, leaning over to kiss him and to take the sadness off his face.

She had also meant to mention that the lawyers in the Manhattan branch of WEI were still in their offices and that they could fly down and sign the papers at once, but Warren pulled her down beside him and somehow she forgot they weren't done.