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Nine Eleven Ten

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Watching what happened afterwards, Charles felt removed. As though he were observing something terrible, yes. But through a window.

The window was clear. Not frosted. Windows in Oxford had glittered with arcs and curlicues of ice on winter mornings, but this one … this one was completely clear. It ought to be, Charles thought, distant. All his veils were in place, and stronger than they had ever been.

But then again, Frost had not brought her full power to bear on him, surely. Not yet.

The adult teleporter - Azazel, that's the name - seemed greatly disconcerted, pale eyes darting between Frost and Charles. That mane of greasy black hair whipped round as he stared at the doctor, sagging against a wall. Then he turned back and started speaking urgently to Frost. Charles did not understand - ah. Because it was Russian. The child clung to his father, blue tail twisting in a figure eight round the taller mutant's ankles.

Frost lifted her chin. Spoke … very softly.

And Charles swayed on his feet at the cold he felt, rippling from her mind in precise, perfect circles.

He saw Azazel move to stand in front of his son, and incline his own head in a bow. One long strand of black hair fell out of its coif.

Then Charles had to focus on strengthening his shields.

Veil veil veil … all of them iridescent and tissue thin, but so many that they could become impenetrable. Like sparkly sheets, Jean had said in her mind, long ago - and had showed him an older red-haired woman hanging laundry, her smile making round dark eyes crinkle at the corners. Had that been Jean's mother? Had she had a parent, like Azazel … but now gone? Charles felt his lips part. Blinking back awake to stare at the hallway, he was surprised that he did not see his breath. The cold in his mind, pronounced and ominous; the memory of Jean, warm …

But all his veils were holding.

"You alternate between surprisingly capable and incompetent, Xavier." Frost's voice sounded far away. Charles looked round the hallway, slowly. The teleporters had gone. A group of Free West soldiers had rounded the corner, leveling stun guns at him. They all looked as disoriented as those he had seen earlier.

Instinct made Charles turn to the side. Dr. Vogelzang was still there, slumped against one of the hallway’s metallic panels. She was deathly pale.

“Mr. Xavier …” she slurred. “He’s ... ”

“He's what?” Frost flicked through papers held in her hands. A soldier had taken Vogelzang’s briefcase, jerkily opened it and let all of its contents fall on the floor. Then he had shuffled through them to find a manila folder, and had handed it to Frost.

She bent her eyes on the doctor, coldly. "Tell me."

“... Sick.”

“Are you, Mr. Xavier?” The White Queen did not look at him, staring instead at Vogelzang. “Sick?”

The moment of truth.

Charles closed his eyes. “No.”

At that point, he could have done something. He could have broken the hidden seal, released all of his power, tried to stun or immobilize Frost and her minions … tried to escape.

All of his birds would have helped, Charles knew.

Instead, he called his raven back from its vantage point. Smaller than a billiard ball - you can’t see me. Charles sent his bird flying to Vogelzang. Right in front of the White Queen's eyes - but she can't see - she can't see -

The bird carried the one fiery pendant remaining to him. The one that Jean had given him in her mind - long ago, now.

Find the memory of our conversation, he sent along with the pendant, on a banner. Both of them small enough - Frost would not see. Touch this jewel to it. Speak a word of your choosing; put the jewel around your neck. And the memory will be safe from Lady Frost. Hidden, until you speak the word again.

The raven let the pendant and banner fall into Vogelzang’s mind. Flew back to him - sparrow and hummingbird hiding behind it. Hide, he told them. In my mind - go. Hide.

There had only a small pulse of wonder and astonishment from the doctor, when the fiery pendant landed. But Charles did not have time to think about it.

Instead, he repeated to Frost:

“No. I’m not sick.”

“That’s exactly what young McCoy said,” she said coolly. “After looking at another copy of these results.” She paused. “We do have a fax machine, Xavier. In my office. Ways of communicating that aren’t medieval, unlike in your precious Oxford ... which does seem to be - on your mind. Hm.”

And Charles gasped as ice lanced into his veils. Cold was crystallizing around him; pain needling at the base of his skull - Frost’s power cradling his mind like icy fingers dipping up water - freezing it -

“Did you think yourself so very covert, just now?”

Charles swallowed hard. Took refuge in anger; ignored her power and her threats.“You gave McCoy the VD panel of a colleague? How am I supposed to look him in the eye?”

“Much as you normally do.” Frost smiled absent-mindedly, still gazing at the doctor. “When he returns from Dallas. I sent him there, after erasing this,” she flicked the topmost paper with one manicured nail, “from his memory.”

Charles stared.

Then Frost turned to stare back at him, the pale contour of her cheekbone and jaw immaculate. She had a necklace round her slender throat - clustered diamonds and loops of shining steel - and she was wearing a dress of white velvet. Charles blinked. He had never seen her in anything approaching a ballroom gown. Her hair was pinned up in a twist - emphasizing the elegant line of neck and collarbone, the ivory swell of cleavage …

She was beautiful. She was deadly. And she was still looking at him, eyes glittering.

For one vivid moment, Charles saw the diamond hawk mantling its wings. He slapped the image away and pushed more power into his veils. Don't let it in, his mind gasped; and he shuddered. Could it finds its way back in?  It was of his creation. Could it?

“I know the truth, Xavier. Now tell me: why would this doctor lie?”

He knew what Frost wanted to hear. He shaped the words - and it was not as difficult as he thought, to say them. It helped that they were true. Part of a larger picture … but true nonetheless.

“She lied because - I asked her to help me.”

“Exactly.”

He heard a moan. Turned slowly to look. The stubby, shorter woman was sliding to the ground, staring at nothing. All color had drained from her face, making her grey hair looked black.

Charles felt dread seize his gut. “Don’t hurt her.”

"And why not?"

"Because … because it wasn't her idea."

"And whose idea was it, Mr. Xavier?"

"Mine," he snapped, wheeling back and glaring. "It was my idea; it was my plan."

"… Plan."

Frost laughed. The sound clattered through the hallway; the soldiers swayed where they stood. Charles felt his face flush.

"Oh, my dear Mr. Xavier. This is what I meant, earlier. You are keeping me from your mind - well done, incidentally." He felt an icy touch slide over the veils; and then snag like cat claws on silk.

"But … you seem to think it tactical genius to cozen a faithful servant of mine into rebellion, to embark upon an escape in the dead of winter, and to believe that I would not find out about it all." She clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Very shortsighted of you."

Oh fuck you. "Shortsighted? Alas, my eyes are dimmed, but with tears, lady, for … I was so pleased you chose to speak to me, that it broke my heart to hear more of the same." Frost's eyes had narrowed; Charles didn't care. "You are competent, I am not; you are in charge, I am not; you have the power, I do not; et cetera - ad nauseam - lather, rinse, repeat."

That last he had heard on a Free West film broadcast, once; a bizarre commercial, everyone had looked so healthy and wholesome -Charles shook free of his mind's gabbling, tipped his chin at her hair. "Very nice, by the way. Is there a salon nearby? For I know I'm looking a bit unkempt, and you haven't given me a Quarter Gift since my arrival here."

Silence stretched.

After a long moment, Charles flicked his eyes away from her. Swallowed. That may have been a mistake, Professor, his mind whispered, and: too late now .. .

But the White Queen was speaking, almost musing: "I gave you your chain and shackle, however belatedly. But I have not given you a Fourth Quarter Gift … true enough." An arched eyebrow. "And you would like one, Mr. Xavier? What shall I give you?"

Charles shivered. What was she - but he kicked his thoughts away and snapped, before he could stop: "Don't hurt the doctor."

"Ah." Frost spared the other woman a glance. Tipped her head to one side, graceful. "You care so greatly for others, my dear boy. Consider it done."

My dear boy - what the everliving fuck?  His stomach churned.

"Dr. Vogelzang will return to Albany tonight; tomorrow, she shall resume her practice. I shall see the specifics of your interaction, of course -"

No you won't, he thought, savagely - but kept his face carefully blank.

"- but I'm sure I will find nothing surprising."

A pause.

Frost still had her head tipped to one side. Unexpectedly, she gave him a smile … that was almost - Charles' mind jerked to a stop, like a broken bicycle. Almost … sweet.

"I cannot tell you how pleased I am, now, Mr. Xavier. To know that you desire a Quarter Gift -"

"Really, the doctor's well-being is quite sufficient -"

"- and to know," Frost continued as though he had not interrupted, "that I have the power to bestow it upon you. Come along."

Charles felt the first stirrings of panic. He did not know what she was planning, but surely it was nothing he wanted. He darted a glance down the hallway.

"None of that." A gesture brought a half dozen Free West soldiers to close ranks around him. Charles felt the press of their guns and heard their synchronized breathing. "I shall escort you to your room, Mr. Xavier. And when we reach it, we shall have an hour to ourselves." She touched her hair. "No salon for me - I was disadvantaged growing up, you understand, so I practiced at home to perfect my skills. But I am happy to oblige you. And we shall have a lovely little chat."

Charles stood immobile.

"Move."

The soldiers began walking; he stumbled along with them. Oh god oh god - "Why -" he croaked -

"I shall explain in your room."

"No - no, why the soldiers?"

"Oh, Mr. Xavier." Another kind smile, bestowed upon him as they turned the corner and he almost fell. "Practice."


Don't panic. Don't panic. Charles focused on the echo of footsteps as he was escorted through the cold hallways. Frost had not blindfolded him. Perhaps she thought she could remove the memory of the route, easily enough … If she tried, Charles told himself with colder resolve: she would have another think coming.

When they reached the dormitory, he saw Frost raise an eyebrow. A few moments of utter silence passed, punctuated only by the soldiers breathing in time - and then another Free West uniform rounded the corner from the direction of the stairs. The soldier was twitching like a marionette and carrying an armful of white fur.

"Thank you," Frost said gently. She fastened the cloak at her neck, felt in one of its pockets - and smiled.

"After you, Mr. Xavier."

They had reached his door. One of the soldiers pushed it. Charles stepped in, automatically -

- and stopped, staring. There were other soldiers inside. And - and - he bit down hard on his tongue. There were boxes there, being filled with his books. His bed had been stripped and his clothes were on the floor -

"What the hell is this?"

"Really, you need not speak so. Not when I am giving you such an abundance of gifts. For you see …" and Frost stepped gracefully to one side, to allow a soldier to bring a high-backed chair into the room, "I am in a generous mood tonight."

" … Generous?"

"Yes." She sat down, smoothing her dress. The chair had lovely upholstery and broad armrests. The collar of Frost's fur cloak brushed up against her jaw. Charles stared at the contrast - warmth and ice - "I know, Mr. Xavier, that I have not been … kind to you, recently. What you do not know is that it was necessary."

"You're joking -"

"Mm. You flouted my authority on the night before our great victory … and though there were few witnesses, words can spread quickly here. For the White Knight," and she gave the title a delicate brush of contempt, "to raise his hand against his Queen … well. You understand that I cannot have that. Thus your absence from the celebrations last night. If it's any comfort," she soothed, "the attendees were mostly unwashed or intoxicated. Or both."

"But," and Charles heard his voice crack, "there was food."

Frost's eyes were kind, in the dimming light. "Not for one who behaves as you did."

Food, his thoughts echoed, sluggishly, recoiling from the memory of how hungry he had been, just last night. But then he had eaten the bread that the man had -

Shite, the knapsack. Veil veil veil … The knapsack full of food - she would find it, she would find out -

But Charles did not see it on the floor. The clutter had rapidly cleared; soldiers were carrying boxes out the door mechanically. The knapsack had to have been packed away. So far so good -

His knees trembled and his mind felt like lead. He was still so weak ... Nothing about this is good.

One soldier was building the fire into a blaze, another was carrying an armful of lacquered cases - well, three of them - into the room. Limp hands fumbled on silver latches. Frost sighed. "The largest one."

And then two of the blank-eyed men opened the largest and took out -

- Charles blinked.

Bedsheets.

Cotton, he observed, or linen. Colored in a vivid crimson.

He dragged his attention away from the men making his bed. Stared back at Frost. She was watching the soldiers, eyes languid. Then she inclined her head to him.

"I noticed those boxes," she gestured towards the wardrobe, "packed already. Had you been organizing, Mr. Xavier?" Frost smiled. "A squirrel in winter?"

Let her think him a squirrel, a rabbit, a god damned mouse, as long as she didn't look more closely. For he could see the drawstrings of the knapsack, peeking out from beneath the pillowcase containing Jean's gifts.

"Yes," he bit out.

"I see. Those are the most important to you, of your possessions?"

Charles closed his eyes. "… Yes."

"Then I see no reason you should not keep them." Frost smiled again. "Do move them out of the way, though, for the convenience of your servants."

"My … I don't have servants. That's ridiculous," he said, tiredly. He picked up the boxes - the odds and ends inside shifted and bumped - and shut them in the empty wardrobe. "If you want to play puppeteer with prisoners-of-war, feel free - but do please leave me out of it."

"They're servants. It suits them. They're fetching and cleaning -" she waved one hand through the air, "and even making your bed for you, my dear boy."

A pause. My dear boy, again, what the hell did she -

"Although you will be the one to lie in it. Ah," Frost snapped her fingers at one of the soldiers. "Tighter corners."

The burly man moved to obey. Charles felt his skin crawl. Having finished with the sheets, the soldiers returned to the largest case. And took out - oh ... Charles stared. It was a beautiful coverlet of crushed red velvet, gleaming with what looked like silver damask threads.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Opened them. Something about the coverlet was familiar … but also … deeply unsettling. His belongings taken away, except for two boxes; his bed refurbished with the leavings of - of a sodding harem. And he refused to believe Frost had taken it upon herself to be a fairy godmother, to load him down with riches and plenty.

Charles decided to take the bull by the horns. "Why are you doing this?"

Frost smiled at him. "Doing what?"

"This …" He gestured at the soldiers by the bed. They had finished their work, and were staring into space - along with at least ten more, on the threshold and in the hallway.

"I told you. Practice."

"Not the prisoners. This - for the bed. I've been getting along quite well without velvet and silk, thank you."

"Hm. Sit down."

He looked from one end to the other of the room, stripped-down, cleaned and polished. "Um."

She smiled. "On the bed."

Charles sat. The fabric beneath him felt exceedingly strange; the velvet caught at the palms of his hands. So he threaded his fingers together in his lap instead. Focused on the tough material of his jeans.

Frost looked long at him, her beauty shining in the firelight. Like a pearl, Charles thought. Edged in rose and gold. And when she spoke, her voice was gentle.

"I wonder if you understand, Mr. Xavier … just how untrustworthy I find you."

Well - the pearl had teeth. He gritted his own. "I think I do."

"Well … I don't think you do. You sit there, the picture of frailty, and you expect me to believe that you are not plotting against me? Even now?"

Frailty? She was the one who had starved him. And plotting - Charles glared, divided between anger and disbelief. Not surprising, that the White Queen would suffer from paranoia, delusions of grandeur. All he was plotting was how to get bloody well home. "I'm not -"

"Be silent," Frost hissed.

Around him, the soldiers swayed like reeds in a high wind.

He would be silent, Charles thought, for their sake. Not because she told him to. Indeed, her voice was cascading on and on, like an malicious icewater brook, but he was so furious that he hardly heard what she said, until he caught:

"- that tooth of yours."

His mind lurched to a halt.

"… What?"

"Were you not listening to me?" She gave him a small, cold smile. "You may answer my questions."

"No - I -" he gulped. "I didn't catch that last. What was it? About a - tooth?"

Anger at Frost, fear for the doctor, the will to weave his veils - even the pain of the failed escape, still twisting through his mind … they were all there, but he had to ignore them. Had to focus on her words.

"Do you remember, Mr. Xavier? Almost three months ago, now, when I gave you a belated Third Quarter gift. Your gift of chain and shackle ..."

Charles refused to look at said gift where it lay glinting in the corner. Likewise, he refused to nod or even blink.

"Do you remember why I gave it you?"

No. It was a small voice, to himself. Don't let it be … don't let her -

"You recall my prince, from the Finder. Yes?"

… Oh god.

"Of course you do. You must, for you yourself attempted to erase part of his short-term memory one night early in October. I reversed the erasure, because I would not have it so. But you must also understand, Mr. Xavier, that I was not concerned with what you had done - physically - to him." She curled her lip, just slightly. "He is a resilient creature. And of course, he is more than capable of returning injury. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth …

"And, at that time, I was not concerned with what he chose to do to you afterwards. You had proved yourself deceptive and insolent, Mr. Xavier, and thus I chained you … for him to do with you as he would. I only told my son that you were to remain mentally functional." She lifted an eyebrow. "Due to your success with the Finder that morning."

"Success." Horror was clawing its way up from his stomach. "Later - without me … I helped you win in Dallas - without me you would have -"

"Without you," and Frost's voice was dangerous, "I would have accomplished the very same things. It would just have taken more time. I was the first to use the Finder, and with it I saved the city of Stalingrad during the second World War. Do not think to flatter yourself, Xavier."

His mind presented him with the images, from Wars and their Leaders. No picture of Frost there, no, but of Stalingrad … the vast scale of destruction …

She had not continued. Instead, she was watching him - looking for all the world like her statue in the man's mind. A perfectly beautiful face, but one made of stone.

"The next morning, you were alive and well, for whatever reason. So I left you both well enough alone. My prince is an adult, and perfectly capable of making his own choices." A pause. "Usually, however, when faced with particularly drastic choices, he comes to me to be advised.

"Even so you may picture my astonishment, Mr. Xavier, when … just this afternoon … he came to me with a strange request. One which had never been broached to me, before."

Charles could only listen, numb.

"He had washed." Frost pursed her lips. "That was curious in and of itself; usually he has to be told to do so. So when I inquired after his health - and after a bit of discussion - he revealed that he wanted …" she laughed lightly, a girl's laugh. "Can you imagine?

"He - wants - you."

She waited for Charles to say something. Then she continued:

"He wants you. Why? I do not know, and neither do I care ... but I had to ensure that he was telling the truth. And when pressed, he did show me the memory of an extremely interesting interaction of yours. Involving that bed, a metal filling, and," she raised an eyebrow, "a good deal of blood."

Charles fought not to gag. He would not give her the satisfaction. The bitch. The bitch - and beneath that, he heard a howl of you bastard why did you tell her -

"So. He wants you as ... hm. It's impossible to say politely, really. So I shall not. But I shall say that - he has been so very useful to me that I see this as a fit reward. And you, Mr. Xavier …" Frost's voice descended into an icy whisper, "you have been such a thorn in my side that I see this as a fit punishment."

"Thorn?! I helped you win!"

"You defy me, Xavier," she hissed. "You flout my will whenever you can. And I have been striving for my victory far too long to brook any threat to my authority. That is why it gives me such pleasure to do what I am about to do to you. Or - arrange to have done to you. Behold, my Fourth Quarter gift to you …" She gestured with both hands. "The gift of my prince."

Charles half expected the man, so cued, to break down the door.

Instead, Frost half rose from her chair. Her eyes were blazing.

"And, through him, my dear Professor … the gift of finding out what it truly means to be powerless and abused."

Silence.

"Then, perhaps, you will think twice about defying me. Rebelling. Attempting to run away. Do I make myself clear?"

The soldiers in the room had, one and all, turned away or hidden their faces.

Charles felt faint. "Yes, my lady."

A vicious smile. "Good. Then -"

"Then don't do this -"

"My dear boy -"

"No, I mean," his voice cracked, "please don't do this -"

"Come, come," she said, gently. "I would not have my prince fight all these many days with no reward whatsoever. And since he seems to have taken a fancy to you ..."

"No." Charles whispered. To himself as well: the deal - their deal was bloody well called off if the bastard had introduced a third party to the terms. But Charles didn't know if -

He didn't know if she knew about the agreement. To protect the children …

But did that matter? To be given as a gift to someone - it was medieval, it was sick, and: Happy Christmas! Charles' mind shrilled, and he flashed to the image of a pig with an apple in its mouth. He wasn't as plump, of course; nor as pink, and oh god he was teetering on the edge of hysteria -

"Calm down, Mr. Xavier." Frost was watching him lazily. "There's nothing you can do. Except: do as I say, and I will tell him that you must be left alive after he's through with you."

He tried to reply. Couldn't.

"Now." She gestured at one of the soldiers, who brought her the second of the three lacquer cases. Medium-sized, Charles noted, but very thin, flat, with clasps more ornate than the case that held the sheets. The soldier held it out; Frost unlocked the clasps and traced her fingers over something.

Then she held it up.

It was - fabric. Spilling over her hands like dark blue ink. Indigo, Charles thought. Was it another sheet?

"Here is another gift for you, dear Professor. I received it only last night, from the Chinese delegation. These cases much earlier, from the Koreans, and the sheets from -" She smiled to herself. "From another life. But this I had intended to keep for Jean, in years to come. The fenghuang, you see …"

Frost held up the robe - for it was a robe, he saw - and curled her fingers round an embroidered bird. "But then it occurred to me that it might suit you just as well. And with rather less time to wait to wear it.

"Here."

Charles made no move to take it.

"Xavier." That same smile; cold. "You will take this robe. You will go into the bathroom and change out of your clothes. And you will return to me. No arguments."

"And if I don't?"

"If you don't … oh, dear. Your disadvantage, Professor, is that you care for certain people - and that their identities are hardly opaque to me. Divest yourself from these petty chains and you will find yourself infinitely more free. In the meantime, though, if you do not do exactly as I say, I will have Dr. Vogelzang shot."

He flinched. "But you said -"

"Ah, yes." Frost made a flicking gesture. "Her assistant, then. Quite ill-mannered, in any case, so it would not be such a -"

"Fine, fine." Charles got to his feet, grabbed the robe. "I'll do it. Just - just don't -"

But he could not speak anymore. Instead, he shut himself inside the bathroom.

It was easy to strip without thinking, in the dark. He had done so many times - October mornings, November nights. Charles folded his clothes automatically, shivering in the cold, and put everything in a corner. The same place that the man had put his own dirty clothes just the previous night -

Charles choked back a dry heave. There was very little in his stomach, luckily - just the packaged and canned goods he had had the chance to eat. And it was too dark to see himself in the mirror. He focused on his body with other senses instead. Hunger, yes, and thirst. A peculiar twisting to his stomach … nerves, perhaps. And that whole-body sensation of weakness, giddiness … He swayed -

"No. Come on." He unfolded the robe in the dark. "Get this over with."

Charles felt empty, only just aware of his fingers flicking from button to silk-wrapped button. He felt the piping on the cuffs, the embroidery crawling up the robe's front. The silk was surprisingly heavy. He supposed it must be worth … Charles shivered. He could not even hazard a guess. He had only ever seen a robe like this in a museum.

The dark blue of the robe would suit his eyes, he supposed. For one brief moment, he wished for a candle. Just so he could see …

Charles blinked hard. Smiled. It felt tight on his face. "Vanity, Professor Xavier." He fastened the button at the robe's collar.

Then he walked back out, as quietly as he could.

Frost turned to look at him. She smiled - almost … indulgently. Then her eyes moved down, and an eyebrow flicked up. "Shoes."

Grimacing, Charles slid out of his ragged trainers. He supposed the image had appeared rather foolish. He peeled off his socks as well, because it stood to reason that she would not want old cotton clashing with silk. But he hardly had the chance to roll them up before a soldier came up to him and - took socks and shoes away -

"I might need those," he gritted out.

"No." Frost's smile did not change. "You won't be leaving this room for a while. At least, if I understand my prince correctly. Come, Mr. Xavier."

She gestured at the floor in front of her. "Kneel."

Charles took a deep breath. Kept himself removed. Veil … Perhaps the veil could work both ways, and if he poured all his strength into it …

He did.

Frost could not sense his emotions. And now, neither could he.

The floor was cold beneath his bare feet. He knelt, and arranged the robe so that the silk was not caught beneath his kneecaps and shins. It would not do, Charles thought, distant, to spoil it.

"Very good," Frost murmured. His veils were aware of every breath of thought, so he felt the ice crackle through the room. Thus it was not surprising to see the soldiers cluster together and then file out the door. The one at the end of the line, awkward and vacant-eyed, gave the White Queen the last and smallest of the three lacquer cases.

Charles felt soft fur brush the nape of his neck - only barely, given the fall of his hair. He did not allow his skin to prickle as he heard a rustle and clink - Frost taking something from the pocket of her cloak. Nor did he flinch as her cool fingers gathered up his hair, twining through the tangled strands..

She had a comb, it appeared. Because … and Charles exhaled, remembering. He had done the same for Raven, when she was young. Combing her hair, working carefully through snarls. Keeping the touch gentle. Making it all look …

He blinked, tiredly. Making it all look beautiful. He supposed.

But of course, he had never put perfume on his little sister.

The scent was getting stronger as Frost added more. He could almost see it … uncoiling from his hair, curling round his cheekbones, just barely touching his lips. If he opened his mouth, he might taste it.

Charles kept his voice quiet. "Is perfume really necessary?"

"Mmm." The comb's teeth were still gentle. Frost alternated strokes with flicks of the perfume on his hair; he felt small drops on his scalp. The scent was that of … roses. Subtle, though; not too heady. For which Charles supposed he was thankful.

"My own mother told me to brush my hair one hundred strokes, every evening." Frost's voice sounded dreamy. "I found that the time it took did not justify the results … but it can be a useful time. To think. And I think, Mr. Xavier, that another necessity here is: a haircut."

She held up a long lock, combed it out from under. "Or at least a trim. You see, when one goes without cutting it for a few months, then the result - is split ends."

… How did one even reply?

Charles didn't know. So he said nothing.

If he thought about it completely dispassionately, though, he might say that it was relaxing. To have someone touch him so carefully. To feel the soft brush of a velvet dress on the nape of his neck; to sit in the warmth of the fire. To blink, sleepily; more and more … until he supposed he might be dozing. Which was all right.

His eyes had fallen shut completely, when he heard a faint tap on the door. Frost said something in Russian. Charles heard the door creak open … and felt a draft creep across his skin.

He could sense who it was with his power, he supposed. But … Charles sighed. Kept his eyes lightly shut. Of course he knew who it was. There was only one other person in this manor who would feel compelled to enter his room at this hour, on this day.

Well. Two other people. If Jean were afraid of the dark, or cold, he supposed, she would come to see him. Then again, had it been Jean, she would have hugged him immediately.

The man did not touch him. Instead, Charles felt the rustle in the air as the other stooped - carefully, given the leg injury - and settled on the hearth. That close, Charles could smell him. Not as he had the previous night; there was no overt stench. Just a scent that … he realized he knew.

Charles wasn't sure how to feel about that.

Frost said something else in Russian. This time, a low baritone replied. Same language. Charles sighed - he didn't understand. And unlike German, he lacked even a syntactical base on which to hazard a guess. He leaned, just slightly, as the comb worked at his scalp. Perhaps, Charles thought, the more he heard in Russian - and remembered - the more easily he could build a repertory of words, phrases, patterns for his catalogue to analyze. A project, perhaps. For the winter.

He noticed that, when he had tipped his head back onto Frost's knee … the man had stopped breathing.

Cool fingers touched his left temple. "To the right."

Charles obeyed, tilting. At the new angle he was conscious of both the hinge of his jaw and the pulse of his jugular. Before, knowing that the man's eyes would be locked on the vulnerable bend of flesh and bone, he would have been afraid. Now, though, he was so relaxed that he felt boneless.

The comb slid all the way down his hair on the left. He felt Frost pull the strands back, threading her fingers through them.

"I have one last gift for you, Mr. Xavier."

It was warm, he smelled roses, and he was tired. So Charles replied: "Mm."

He could almost hear Frost's smile. Then both comb and perfume vial were put down - he heard the faint clacks. Then he heard the click of hinges. The last lacquer case, his mind told him. Charles supposed he was mildly curious about what was in it. He heard a a faint rattle. It sounded as though Frost were tipping something into her hands.

He was also vaguely curious about why the man's scent had … changed. It was a very slight difference, but there. And Charles heard the quietest hiss of air through teeth. He wasn't quite sure what had the other's attention.

Charles also wasn't quite sure how to feel about the heavy necklace settling on his throat.

The stones in it were very cold, even with the fire - and he could feel that that the piece entire was rather more than five rows wide. Jewels of some sort, strung on wire and wrapping high around his neck in a priceless band. There was something important about this. Something he should remember.

He heard the snick of a metal clasp.

A pause.

Then: "Open your eyes," the White Queen whispered.

Charles' eyelids felt heavy. But he managed to open them.

Everything was clear, with the vivid quality of a painting. Outlined by firelight. Charles looked at the glowing fire grate, the yellow-orange light flickering on the plaster; sliding golden over the man's cheekbones and jaw. His hair looked very red. His eyes looked very green. And he sat an arm's length away from Charles - if it were a long arm. Long, and bony and …

Charles blinked. The other was wearing … white. A white linen shirt, almost blindingly clean, edged rose-orange-gold with the firelight. There was stitching at the neck and cuffs. Silver thread, in strange lines, curlicues. Quite like frost on a windowpane, if the window were white.

Well: white and grey. Grey trousers, which was good, because otherwise the ash on the hearth would dirty them. Except - the soldiers had polished the hearthstones. And the man's shoes were polished too. Charles stared at the firelight gleaming on black leather for a long moment, before giving in to his strange drowsiness and leaning back against the White Queen's knees again.

She was saying something. Her hands were curled around his shoulders. Charles listened.

"- have been moved to your library. I have made you a bed, my prince; and he will stay in it. For the return of his clothing, for his precious books; for food and drink; perhaps even for the chance to sleep … he will do anything you tell him to do." Frost must have bent down, for he felt her voice caress his ear. "Won't you, Mr. Xavier?"

His mind moved sluggishly. "… What?"

A delicate laugh. "I'll take that as a 'yes.'"

The man was … staring at him. Those green eyes had gone black; the pupils dilated. Frost was speaking in Russian now. Charles set his mind to remember the cadences, even if he did not understand the words. And in the meantime, he supposed he wanted to see what the man was seeing. He was curious.

So Charles called up his raven.

It took longer than usual to fly to him. Small, though, smaller than a billiard ball, she can't see you … It pressed into his neck, quivering. Its feathers felt cold.

"What is it?" he meant to say, in his mind. But it was too difficult. So he just sent the raven flying to the man, carefully - just to brush over his thoughts. To see what the other saw.

It was a lovely tableau, Charles reflected, distant. Raven saw how he, Charles, sat at Frost's feet: like a cat might, curled up and compact. Indigo silk pooled on the hearthstones, concealing everything but his slender white feet. His hair shone dark where it fell in a curtain over his shoulders. His eyes looked very blue, half-lidded; his mouth looked very red. And the firelight caught the embroidery on the robe, picking out glints of color all the more remarkable against the unrelenting white velvet of Frost's dress.

Then Charles, even twice removed - through the raven's eyes, watching through the man's eyes - felt confused. There was a strange light moving on the silk of the robe, moving with the rise and fall of his own breath. Not from the fire. This light was different: multicolored … like a prism.

Oh. The light had reflected off the wide band of diamonds tied round his throat. A king's ransom of jewels, all for him. The raven was immobile, staring; probably because the ornament shone so … And the man was staring - Charles looked slightly deeper into his mind.

The diamond glitter intensified; flashed. His raven saw it in the man's thoughts; not in the physical world - reflecting something familiar, something that glinted with sharp metal edges …

Charles flinched.

"- v Meksiku - oh dear." Cold fingers dug into his shoulders. "Now, Mr. Xavier … I'll have none of that."

But Charles was gasping for breath. It felt as though something had been dashed in his face; not cold water, no. Something hot, because the man's mind had been seething with that want, but magnified out of all control -

He flung his hands to Frost's wrists, tried to pull her away -

"Dushi ego, Erik."

But Charles did not hear, for the band around his throat rippled and pulled tight. His fingers flew to it, desperately; he clawed at the cold bite of diamonds and wire. No use. He tried to speak, and couldn't; tried to breathe -

"Dostatochno. Polozhi ego na krovat'."

Strong arms were picking him up from where he had slumped forward, and then Charles was being laid on his bed. He hardly registered the slithering clank of the chain, the close of the shackle on his ankle - the softness of the velvet coverlet, or the hands smoothing over his hair and just barely framing his face. Callused, part of his mind told him, but he couldn't hear over the roar of thank god breathe just breathe because the diamonds had loosened their hold.

And then the hands were gone.

More Russian. Frost was saying something. In a haze, Charles turned his head to look. The man was kneeling in front of her, silhouetted dark against the fire. She laid one hand on his brow. Then she smiled, caressed his hair … and gave him something.

Charles tried to catch a glimpse. The man had gone rigid, staring at it … a bottle? Small. Small, and glinting ruby-red in his hands.

"Oh god who cares -" he gasped, shuddering away from the sight of the two of them, wincing at the twinge from his throat. "This again. Not this again. No, no -"

And Charles was so occupied with trying to hook his fingers beneath the diamonds, hook and yank and break their hold, that he did not hear Frost leave.


Charles was focusing on his breathing, staring at firelight flickering on the ceiling and trying not to think, when the man loomed into view above him.

"Oh fuck, no," he rasped, and threw a punch.

The other caught it with no effort. Bastard. And stared down into his eyes.

"What," Charles took a deep breath, "are you looking at?"

The man smiled at him. Those green-blue eyes were shining. "… You."

Charles stared back. The ungodly fuckwit. Choke him again and then fucking smile? He made his voice as cold as he could. "Let go of my hand."

When the other did, Charles brought it down and massaged at his throat. "What the hell was that?"

A pause. "What do you -"

"No. You do not ask questions. You tell me. What was Frost doing here?"

"She - she gave you to me. I asked and she -"

Mother fucker. Charles sat up before he could second-guess; glared straight into the man's eyes. "Why the fuck did you ask her? Why did you tell her anything? What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I …"

The blighter looked wide-eyed, confused. Baring his teeth, Charles pushed at that chest. He left red fingerprints on the white linen - good, he thought savagely; he wanted to ruin it, because his throat was god damned bleeding from where the diamonds had cut.

"I don't - Xavier … I cannot lie to my lady."

"Cannot or will not?"

But the other stared from where he had stumbled back to the hearth. Stared, and made no reply.

Charles drew in another deep breath. Exhaled. "How, exactly, did she find out? What did you tell her? Can you remember - do you understand? Or do I need to use smaller words?"

"I -" The man shook his head like a dog after a run in the rain. "She summoned me to - to escort MacMurphy. And they both saw. Saw that I was clean."

Charles felt caught, despite himself. "MacMurphy? He's still alive? What was he doing -"

But the other had kept talking. "My lady asked if I was ill. And I … I didn't know …"

"What to say," Charles finished, wearily. "So she took a look in your head, did she? I suppose she has a standing invitation to that castle of yours?"

A pause.

The diamonds on their wires … moved.

Only slightly, almost nothing - but Charles shoved himself over the bed until his back hit the wall. "Bloody hell, don't you dare. Do you understand?" His breath was high-pitched, ragged. "If you even think about choking me again, I'll -"

"You'll what, Xavier?"

The band tightened. The man watched with glittering eyes from where he crouched on the hearth.

"You'll run away again? Or … try to run away again? My lady told me just now, when you were flopping on that bed like a fish. What you did. Trying to run away?" His voice had turned louder, thickening with rage. "You promised me. You said - anything I wanted, and I want - I want -"

Greedy, Charles' mind offered. Selfish. Pig. But he couldn't say anything. His back was arching up from the wall. He couldn't speak, he couldn't breathe - but his mind flashed to a memory of combat training and he slapped his right hand against the plaster, hard. And again. Shite take a hint -

And the man did. The necklace - choker, how appropriate - loosened, and Charles could breathe again.

The other looked like nothing more than a shadow, hulking in front of the fire. "I want you, Xavier. I want your heart where I can feel it -" the diamonds undulated over his jugular, "and I want your blood where I can touch it."

Charles felt a drop of blood trickle down his neck from the ligature marks, as if on cue. But the monster didn't even stop talking to admire his handiwork. "You'd never be able to hide from me - you'd never be able to escape - so why even run in the first place?"

And all Charles could do was laugh.

"Why run?" He dragged a hand over his neck, blotting. It would be a shame for blood to stain the silk. "This is why. I don't even know how many times you've inflicted pain on me, you bastard - but do you think I want to be throttled? Have you forgotten so quickly what I told you? You ask before you do things to me. If you only listen to me when I'm screaming in pain, then I might as well run, hm? I'd scream if you caught me, I'm sure. But at least I'd be away from you. Not penned up like a rabbit in a hutch, waiting to be killed."

Silence.

Charles watched the shadow, narrowly.

"And I'd scream if I were out in the stables and you were fucking me there. That was what you said you wanted when you thought you had to kill me to have sex with me, remember? You said you would ask your precious lady; you said you would take your time torturing me to death. I told you: no, you adorable little psychopath - we can shag like we're in heat if you protect the children - and you don't even have to tell Frost -"

He was breathing heavily. "That was what I said. And you told her anyway."

"But -"

"You told her, and you hurt me again. So, you can see that I am having an entire cornucopia of second thoughts."

"An entire - what?"

"… Never mind."

Charles slumped back against the wall. It might have been amusing, were he not hyperaware of the dried blood on his neck and the scent of roses in his hair. And aware of - memory. The previous night - not even twenty-four hours ago, he realized - he had been having what amounted to an existential crisis on this very bed. Now things would change, he had thought, and had flagellated his own mind while staring at the stars in agony -

- what utter tripe.

Now, aside from being come on, twice, and being manhandled … and aside from Frost knowing … now? He ran a finger beneath the diamonds, searching for the clasp. Nothing had changed. Nothing: down to his own tendency to forget the obvious. There - something as simple as undoing a clasp, and he hadn't done it. It was the trauma, the stress, the tension crackling through the air that had made him forget. He brought both hands to the simple mechanism -

And the man growled. "Don't."

Something simple. Flinging his hands to his sides, Charles shut his eyes. The man had been motivated in the first place by a simple enough bargain: sex for the safety of the children, for Charles' friends. Charles knew him to react to insults like a tiger and to caresses like a house cat. Fine. Then Charles would keep it simple for now. Simple would help the blighter actually understand that - that actions had consequences.

"If you don't want me to take off this bloody thing - and it is actually bloody, if you haven't noticed yet - then tell me: what did you tell Frost?"

"I could just melt the clasp, you know."

"I do know. And I could just do my best impression of a corpse all night." Charles stared in frustration at the shadow in front of the fireplace - a shadow, he saw, but one clothed in a white shirt. It was surreal … but then again, it was not the most surreal thing that was going to feature in the next few hours. For example: his words. Charles opened his mouth; took the plunge.

"Which reminds me: how do you want this to proceed?"

There was no answer.

Maybe the blighter had not understood him. "Our … interactions." Charles raised an eyebrow. "If you will."

Still no answer.

The worst tutorials he had ever had the misfortune to witness had been like this. A patient teacher leaning across a table; a student glowering and silent. But Professor Xavier had only offered advice on how to improve the interactions; he had never been fumbling for what next to do, himself. And he would not start fumbling now.

"Think back," he murmured, "to the times that we have … been together. So far. I can think of three. There was last night; there was the last night in October; there was -"

"You forgot - three nights ago. Before the battle's end."

The man's voice had caught. Charles pursed his lips. He had forgotten nothing of the sort; what on earth was the blighter -

"I … slept well. There was a white bird." A pause; then the other continued, dogged. "I thought it was you. Wasn't it?"

Charles pitched his voice to cut. "It must have been your imagination. So. Last night, Halloween night, and - the night you ripped out my tooth."

"And - when I ... your eyes."

"Verbs are your friend. What about my eyes?"

"When you were slipping me a note." A low breath - had that been laughter? "I wanted your eyes … You were - on the library door -"

"Right," Charles spoke over him. The idiot was thinking of the times they'd touched, apparently. Not just sex. "All the incidents in the library that did not involve fellatio - let's lump those together, shall we? And besides, I'm not talking about -"

"The night you first came here."

Charles went still. "… What?"

"The night my lady brought you here. The first in September. You were asleep -"

"I was drugged."

The man had gone quiet again - but it had a different quality. Charles couldn't put a finger on it. He saw the other wrap long arms around bony knees and shins, hugging close. Was the idiot actually smiling? He looked like a child about to be told a story.

Really, this was intolerable.

"Tell me that you did not molest me in my sleep."

"I only … I saw you. Your eyes -"

"Fine. To clarify," Charles snapped, "I mean the times we have interacted sexually. All three of them."

The man shifted. "Four."

"Can't you count? What do you mean, four? "

"… When you were in my head."

And for one long moment, Charles could not speak at all.

Shame clutched his gut, twisting. It's in the past, he told himself, and: it was the influence of his thoughts. It hadn't been him, Charles. Not really. He had been under duress. He had been half-crazed with pain and fear - and in someone else's mind, and - "Stop," he hissed under his breath. It was in the past, it was over, and he'd never do it again.

"That?" He firmed his jaw. "I hardly remember it."

"Convenient," the man said. "I, on the other hand, remember everything. Everything you did - and everything you said. I remember it perfectly. You'd do well to consider that, Professor."

"Well, even if you do," Charles replied, pushing shame away, "you got your own back, didn't you? With my filling. We're even now."

The other was silent. Watchful, from his crouch on the hearth.

That knee must be giving him a good deal of discomfort - but who cared, really? "Now, one happy stroll down memory lane later, you still haven't answered my question. Which did you prefer: the night you pulled out my filling, or the night I sucked you off in the library?"

He heard the man's breath catch. Happy memories indeed. Charles controlled his own shivering with an effort - really, though, he was cold, even with the robe. He shifted and turned. Could he wrap the velvet coverlet around himself? Perhaps. It was tucked in quite tightly, on the corners of the bed, but if he could at least warm up his -

"No."

Charles ground his teeth. "Beg pardon?"

"Leave the blanket alone." A pause. "I want to see you."

"You and the combined population of Oxford and Cambridge, yes, but I'm cold."

A grunt. Charles saw the man shift; stand up - he heard the pop of his knees - and the other took some chunks of wood from the pile in the corner, and laid them on the fire. Then he turned and leaned against the mantel. Stared.

Charles stared back. Ridiculous. He wasn't even naked. Deliberately, he flexed his toes, and then crossed one bare foot over the other. The chain clinked as it moved; and the man went absolutely still in a way that really, really did not bear thinking about. Charles dragged his mind back to the question, still unanswered … Easy enough for any civilized person, but it appeared a reply was not forthcoming. He hoped, rather desperately, that it was not because the blighter couldn't make up his mind. Best to continue the tutorial.

"Consider. I believe Lady Frost has the underlying principle of our first interaction more in mind: I do whatever you say or you'll hurt me. You demand various things from me in return for basic necessities. And you get to fuck me whenever and however you want, because my consent does not enter into consideration. What a charming prospect."

Silence. And the slightest movement of the man's head to one side - as if he were considering … oh god, was he actually considering it? Weighing the positives and bloody negatives of something so horrible; Charles shuddered and hurried on.

"Now, our second action was rather more to my - taste." No reaction to the innuendo; no surprise there. "And the underlying principle there is more civilized. We both want something, and we negotiate to get it. And, more importantly, you ask me whether you may do certain things to me. You ask me for permission. Just like I told you last night. Did you enjoy yourself last night? Hm?"

A long pause. Then a nod.

"Then … just think about it. Everything we could do together. Like I told you, that night in the library." Charles swallowed the saliva pooling in his mouth, and infused his voice with sex. Like cherry cordial, he thought: sticky syrup injected into chocolate. "I could show you so many things … I've told you so. But what you have to tell me," and there was the pill in the sweet, "what you told Frost."

"I …" The man sounded dazed. "She asked me - what I did with you. Before."

"And?"

"And I showed her the time - here. With the metal."

Charles felt a surge of nausea - she had seen it. The White Queen knew how he had wept and bled. And she had smiled, and dressed him up for more of the same; the absolute bitch. "What else?"

"Nothing."

And his instincts caught the word. "'Nothing'? You mean to say that all she knows is - is of my taking a trip through your head and your yanking a tooth out of mine … and that's all?"

"Yes."

Charles sucked in a breath. "She doesn't know about our - arrangement?"

"No. I -" And he saw the man shift from foot to foot. "My lady saw the one memory. And she was well content with it."

"I'll wager she was."

The venom was there, but the greater part of his mind was clicking over the realization, the possibilities. Frost didn't know about the deal. She didn't know that Charles and her precious prince had reached an accord; that Charles had licked Scotch off the floor and sucked the other's cock and tangled around him in bed and made him moan …

The White Queen had seen only what she wanted to see. Amused, presumably, she had refrained from investigating further. And that …

Charles stared into the fire. The leaping flames, red and orange, cast dark shadows.

That … had been foolish of her.

"Say something."

He flicked his eyes from the fire to the man. Raised an eyebrow. "What shall I say?"

"My lady - I," the voice was bewildered, almost pained. "Did I need to - tell her about what we -"

"No." Charles thought quickly. What tone to take? Stern, angry, kind, seductive ... He settled on the last. "No, I rather think not. In fact, I think you should talk to me first in future, before you talk to her. About - us."

"Why?"

He curled his lips into a smile. "Because it no longer concerns only you. It’s about the two of us … together."

"… Oh."

Charles smirked to himself. The man sounded dazed again. He could not see, but he would bet that that iron line of jaw had fallen slack.

"Together?"

Certainly slack. The other might even be drooling. Charles reached up, combed his fingers through his hair, languid. "Yes, together. Come here."

The man obeyed instantly, limping up to the side of the bed. So the leg had cramped. Charles filed the information away; looked up at him from where he sat. He knew that his eyes would glint blue under his eyelashes; that the line of his own throat would show very white - well. Where it wasn't streaked with blood. Bastard. But Charles shunted his anger to the side and smiled again, gently.

Green eyes shone down, luminous. Charles watched them travel over his face, down to the indigo folds at his neck and shoulders, back up to the choker. And darken.

Oh, he would have none of that.

"So. Frost said that I need ask you for food and water, for my clothes and books … for everything. Hm?"

The man's eyes were very dark. And hot. "You heard her."

"Well, for all I know she added: 'Belay that, old chap; give him the royal treatment' when she went into Russian. But …" and Charles sighed at the other's quirk of a smile. "But apparently she didn't. So. Consider yourself asked." He made a sardonic gesture, unfurling his right hand. "For food. I am rather hungry."

There was no answer. Just that smile, widening, moving the cuts on the right side of the man's face. The skin surrounding the scabs looked less inflamed than the previous day. Charles tightened his own lips. He could hold out hope for septicemia, he supposed.

In the meantime ... that smile did not abate. Charles felt sweat prickle on his neck; he ignored it. And waited.

The man finally spoke. "What will you give me, then, for some food? Professor?"

"Why, the pleasure of my conversation, of course."

A low sound of contempt; Charles feigned an injured look. "I'll have you know that I am an excellent conversationalist. If walls could talk - but there is no 'if', because I can converse with bricks and rocks. And even with you."

The man fell silent.

"Unless, of course, you're in a rush to prove me wrong, and really - ah!"

The diamonds had given his throat a vicious squeeze. Charles gasped, scrabbling at his neck; the man leaned forward - and oh shite he had fallen back on the bed, and there were those broad hands, pressed against the velvet coverlet on either side of Charles' shoulders. The flare of relief he felt when the squeezing stopped was outweighed by the panic of having the other god damned growl into his face.

"A brick, a rock - I'm not stupid, Xavier -"

"Oh, I know that." He dragged in a breath. "Someone stupid would have no way of understanding what I say now -"

"And what is it," the man hissed, "that you say?"

Charles lifted his chin. "I say to you: that if you act like a killer, like a rapist, like an animal with no self-control whatsoever … I'm going to treat you like one."

He waited. The other was staring at him, eyes wide. Wide and - something flickered in their depths. A strange spark -

But whatever it was, it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

"To treat … Really, Professor - you made a treaty with this mindless animal," lips curled back from white teeth, "didn't you? Whatever I wanted, you said. What's to prevent me from leaving you and finding your precious friends, and tearing them limb from li -"

The man stopped talking. Charles wished it was from an attack of conscience. For: staring down at another's fingers on a trouser placket - staring while those same fingers stroked and moved to take a handful of cock, even through fabric - that came a distant second to anything civilized. But at least it had shut him up.

"You're going to leave me?" he murmured. Rubbed his fingers down in a strong stroke. "Really? I'm hurt."

"You -" the man tried, voice thick, "what -"

Charles rested his hand over the hard heat. That prominent, already, and through trousers - good lord. But: "I am hurt," he said, pleasantly. "You hurt me. And if you do so again, I'll stop doing this -" he twisted his hand; the man gasped, "and do this instead."

And it was easy enough to rest his head, let his hand fall, and retreat into his mind.

The reading room was very cold. And somehow ... opaque. Charles saw his breath puff white in the air - and realized: his veils, drawn tight over the window, had been frozen. Or at least chilled to such an extent that they were heavy, immobile.

Frost. "It makes sense," he said to the room, darkly. "Can't attack the mind? Then work away at the shields; long enough and they'll defeat themselves … God." Charles shuddered, turning away. Paced to the immense golden chair and hung over it, resting his chin on his armored gauntlets and staring down at the pile of feathers on the cushion. Even his penguin was quiet. One would think that it would like the cold. But one would be wrong in this case, thanks to the White Queen. God, he hated her. Hated the bitch, with every fiber of every page in every book of this reading room -

"My." Charles drew a calming breath as he gazed down at his raven. The bird had poked its head out of the huddle and was gazing up with intelligent eyes. "Such hyperbole, hm?"

The raven croaked at him.

"Well. Be careful," he told it, trying for another deep breath. It came easily. "Mind the books for me; stay warm. You could try beating your wings."

He did not know if it would work - he had to tell them something, though. So: "When I sleep tonight, I'll have a lovely dream, and time to spend with you." Charles gazed at the veils. "I'll fix this all then." <em>He would</em>.

But in the meantime …

With a sigh, Charles brought himself back from his mind, to the room. Ironic, how the environment was reversed from the previous day. His mind felt cold and sluggish. In contrast, the room with the man in it … felt almost cozy now. The fire crackled high in its grate, the velvet wrapped round him was snug, and the callused hands pressed close to his cheekbones were warm -

Charles felt a gasp hot on his face, and then he winced at the scrape of that beard on his chin, at the frantic shove of a kiss against his mouth. Then the other mouth jerked away and he felt words:

"You, are you - du -" Another gasp, and then a fierce: "Don't do that again -"

"Then you don't do that again. With this necklace." Charles tipped his jaw down. "No choking, no hurting. You understand?"

"Yes - oh please -"

"Oi." Frowning, Charles pushed at the other, who was wrapped round him like a straitjacket. "Move back a little. I can't breathe."

"You were gone," the man said, almost ... frantic? Strange. "You were so still - I couldn't wake you -"

"Not even with a kiss, though I am the sleeping beauty. What a handy little trick." Sitting up, Charles smoothed the silk where it had crumpled under the other's weight. "Well. I'm still hungry."

"Ja," the reply, and those eyes glittered strangely, "was möchtest du - I," a dazed shake of the head, "I mean: what do you want to eat?"

He blinked. That had been quick. So, now that the lesson had been taught, perhaps it was time to replace discipline with judicious affection. His mind calculated. Not too much, not too quickly. Charles found the correct, warm tone of voice. And used it.

"Tell me. Before Frost spoke to both of us; before she summoned you here; before she even found out about our having met in this room previously … Did you have something in mind, for how this evening would go?"

Eyes wide, the man nodded.

Charles rewarded him with a smile. "Did any part of it involve giving me food?"

"Yes - I," a hard swallow. Charles heard the click of it. "I have food - downstairs. I brought it from the feast." A pause. "It might be cold by now."

He made his words soft. "That doesn’t matter. It sounds lovely. Why don’t you bring it to me, then … And we'll speak some more."

And when the man shoved his lean body off the bed and staggered to the door, Charles could only stare after him. The door swung open; the darkness of the hallway was absolute. The other had not even taken a candle.

What …

Charles held the velvet coverlet close. That had been - strange. But … he focused on his breathing. On keeping it regular, calming. The man's actions rattled through his memory, just like the Russian words he had heard. Too much information; too much to catalogue. Charles resolved: he would remember, keep careful track - and he would analyze … tomorrow. When he was not running the risk of a panic attack of his own. God, it was like being a lion tamer in the circus; except without the music and the crowd, the bright lights and good cheer … Right. Rather nothing like a circus, actually. Perhaps he would just focus on not panicking.

Five minutes of deep, calming breaths later, he heard footsteps. Charles blinked. Two sets - one with a slight hitch, and the other … quicker?

And then his jaw dropped as Jean ran into the room.


Mr. Xavier!!

"Oh, Jean!" She had cannonballed into him; he let the velvet cover drop and gave her a desperate hug. "Oh - how are you? I've missed you -"

I've missed you too! And a kaleidoscope of images whirled through his mind: bright fires in the stadium, warm sun on an open field, Frost enthroned in diamonds on the clouds; smiling adults, laughing children, dancing and food and fireworks -

"Good lord." Charles felt dazed. "Slow down. Slow down, you're making me seasick."

Another image: himself, on an undersized boat with an oversized admiral's hat. Then he acquired an eyepatch and a crystal sword and - Charles felt his hackles go up - a taller companion pirate with a rakish, toothy grin -

Jean blinked up at him.

She must have sensed his mental cringe. "Never mind," he said. "It's fine. But when did you see a pirate, my dear?"

In my book. She sent him a picture of the library, and the man, holding the volume out to her -

- even as the same man limped into the room and closed the door.

Jean turned in his direction. She must have sent him something, for the other arched an eyebrow and replied: "Nur ein bisschen."

And Jean gave her fern-curl of a smile and turned back to Charles. Her eyes landed on the diamond choker. And she tipped her head to one side.

Shite - the blood, she could see the blood. As quickly as he could, Charles dragged up power for a physical veil - a real veil, in the real world - He had to concentrate much harder to create it, but once wrapped round his neck, like a scarf, it was easier to maintain than the ones he had made for his whole body. He let the glitter of the diamonds shine through, still; all he hid was the blood.

And it seemed there was some sense of telepathic etiquette regarding these shields, because - even though he thought she might be able to break it, Jean looked away while he put the veil up. Then looked back, eyes serious. Excuse me, Mr. Xavier.

He waved his hand. "You're excused, dear. Now - what have you been doing recently? How are you?"

She answered the first question. I got to see the feast.

"Did you -" Charles started; then he gritted his teeth. And sent: Did you?

I thought - when there are other people with us … Her brow puckered. Shouldn't you talk out loud?

He made his voice as warm as he could. Well, I thought that we could practice like this instead. It's been quite a while, you know, since I have had the chance.

But Lady Frost says she was practicing with you -

Charles controlled the surge of rage with an effort; even so, Jean blinked. It's more pleasant with you, child. So. He raised an eyebrow. How did you enjoy the feast? Did you see - and he sent a picture of MacMurphy.

Mr. Xavier … Can you talk out loud instead, please? Jean sent a picture of the man. He'll feel sad if we leave him out.

… Sad?

And that burst of anger broke the wall; he took a deep breath -

Jean whimpered.

A small sound - but audible. For, near the hearth, where he was setting out ceramic and metal containers, the man's head came up with a snap. And those eyes pinned him.

A pause.

"Really, Xavier." The voice was cold; the look in the green eyes was even colder. "For all that you place such importance on children's safety, you seem somewhat careless to me."

Charles gulped. "Sorry," he told Jean; his voice shook.

That's all right, she returned. I'm fine.

But: "Maidele - komm hierher," the man said. He held up a bowl.

And Jean scrambled off the bed and made a beeline for the hearth, sending Charles the picture of tables laden with dishes, framed with the word in steam: Hungry.

"Well." Charles swallowed hard. "Bon appetit."

"Das bedeutet: guten Appetit. Also, möchtest du Ente oder Gemüse?"

And the one-sided conversation continued. Charles narrowed his eyes. Even though he understood - the general gist was easy enough - Charles did not have the facility that the other had, or the crisp intonation. And he definitely did not like Jean standing easily there, within breaking distance, choking distance. Even if she seemed happy enough. Even if she …

Charles bit his lip. Jean had carried a dish over to the bed. The porcelain bowl was brimming with vegetables and meat, in some sort of sauce, over rice. She held it out to him, along with a pair of chopsticks. His stomach sent up a desperate gurgle.

Jean beamed. This is for you.

"Thank you." He took the bowl and chopsticks; his hands were not trembling.

It was difficult to wait until Jean clambered back up beside him, holding what looked like a dumpling wrapped in a napkin. But she did, and Charles started to eat. In another life, he might have told her to be careful of getting grease on the luxurious bedclothes. But in this life, he was far too occupied with trying to keep from a moan at the taste of - oh god it was duck. Rich and juicy, and he could hardly hold the pieces with the chopsticks. It didn't help that he was unfamiliar with them - but Charles supposed he was a quick study.

Chewing, he thought to dart a glance up and over to the hearth. The man was watching him, eyes half-lidded.

Charles swallowed. "Are you -" and licked his lips. "Are you going to eat something?"

A grunt. "Why not?" and a look at Jean, "Warum nicht?"

"You speak German to her? Why?"

A shrug. The man was flicking vegetables into a dish; he wielded the chopsticks as easily as breathing. "The more languages heard when one is young -" he raised an eyebrow, "the greater the capability later. Thus my lady says."

"Your lady." Charles grimaced. "She speaks Russian to her, I suppose."

"Yes." That voice was low and calm. "Russian for work -"

"German for reading?"

The man stared into the bowl. "German for children."

Which made no sense, but the other had fallen to, and Charles was annoyed to see that facility with languages and chopsticks was accompanied by perfectly serviceable table manners. Who would have thought? 

But he tried not to think. Far better to concentrate on the food.

There was silence, punctuated by the clink and scrape of utensils. Charles ate everything he had been given, making only token protest when Jean brought the bowl back to the man to be refilled. One corner of that thin mouth quirked up - the scar moved - as the man snagged a piece of duck with his chopsticks and held it out for her to eat.

"Where did you learn to use chopsticks?"

"Manchuria."

Charles had to admit he was curious - but since no further information seemed forthcoming, he focused on his food.

A few moments later, he only just picked up the image of water from a faucet, framed with thirsty, when there was a thunk from his wardrobe. Charles turned his head so quickly that he felt a vertebra pop. He heard a clinking noise - and then the metal cup from the previous night floated across the room and to the bathroom. There was the squeak of a tap, water running and stopping, and the filled cup moving through the air to Jean. Surreal.

Jean giggled. The man arched an eyebrow as she plucked the cup from midair. She took a drink; offered the water to Charles.

"No, thank you," he said, and snapped at the other: "Really, you might ask before rummaging around in my things."

He realized his mistake as soon as he saw the man's shoulders straighten, and those eyes spark. Charles gave the metal cup a jaundiced look. Far better to give it back, he supposed. But for now - it was useful, so he would use it. Just not to fill with -

"Then you're not thirsty at all?"

"Not for water, no." Charles sighed. "There's a bottle of Shiraz in the same box, if I could just take two oh-so-trustworthy steps to fetch it." He rattled the chain and sneered -

Only to stop, staring, as the shackle parted. Had he -

Except: the man had gone tense, staring as well.

Is that better, Mr. Xavier?

Charles gulped. "Yes," he murmured. "Yes, Jean; quite. Thank you." And before the other could trap him again, he slid off the bed and padded to the wardrobe. "I actually have a gift for you, dear. Fourth Quarter, you know."

She shoved the last of the dumpling in her mouth and began to chew frantically; despite himself, Charles smiled. "It will keep. Don't choke."

And he moved quickly to shift both boxes. The one with his own possessions - all that's left, his mind whispered, and Charles shut down that line of thought, moving the box to its original place between the metal headboard and the wardrobe. And the other, empty except for the pillowcase, he decided to place on the velvet. Then he stood still, not wanting to go back onto the bed. It would be accepting what Frost had decreed for him - putting the apple in his own god damned mouth -

"Here," he said, voice hoarse, with a gesture at the box. "Inside. Take a look."

Eyes wide, Jean made her way to the box, and peeked. Then, with a bounce, she took out the pillowcase and scrambled to go sit on the hearth.

Charles bit his lip. She wanted to … share, perhaps. He sighed: admirable, but really, that just meant he had to sit on the bed and try not to think about what would happen when the glee of gifts was over and Jean was gone; try not to think about sex with every single brush of the velvet coverlet on his fingers -

Unless ...

Before he could change his mind, Charles walked across the room and looked at the high-backed chair. Frost's.

Instinct made him turn to look down over his shoulder - to see the man, staring up from his own place on the hearthstones. Charles tried to read his expression; couldn't. With one pass over the other's mind he could; but, tiredly, Charles realized that he didn't really want to know. So he merely smoothed out the silk of the robe and his own expression. And sat.

The chair didn't belong to Frost anymore. He was laying claim to it. So there.

Can I, Mr. Xavier?  from Jean, clanging like a fire engine. Please please please?

Whether Christmas or Fourth Quarter or Chanukah - Charles felt a smile curl the corners of his own mouth - children were the same, it seemed. "Go ahead."

"Das bedeutet -" the man began, but Jean was too busy rummaging through the pillowcase, her mind a fiery pinwheel of excitement.

"Somehow, I doubt she's thinking about German vocabulary at present," Charles murmured, looking at the other and raising one eyebrow.

The only reply was a flat glare. Except: then the glare turned into a glint, and those thin lips quirked up -

Oh shite, and Charles flicked his eyes away, feeling his stomach lurch. What the hell had that been? Whatever it had been, he wouldn't have it. He would focus on Jean instead.

He saw Ororo's makeup, Bobby's gumball machine - "Oh, I forgot, Jean. Most everything there is from the others - Bobby and John were Sworn, you know."

I know. I saw. Another beam up at him; then the box of playing cards accidentally fell open and Jean scrambled to pick them all up.

"So … the only thing in there from me," Charles swallowed, "is the book."

Jean paused at his tone. Then she got up, quickly. Trotted over to the bed, retrieved the empty box, and promptly put all of her gifts inside. All except …

Charles waited, biting his lower lip, as she looked inside the pillowcase. He watched her take the book out. Her hands seemed very small on its broad cover. She touched it, hesitant, and then opened it carefully.

Charles heard her draw in a breath of wonder.

He would not remember all the presents he had given Raven, over the years. Once the Bank of Britain had been reestablished, renamed, he had gone through the legal motions to retrieve his inheritance. It had no longer been a fortune, what with reconstruction taxes levied by the government, damn their greedy eyes … but he had set enough aside to be sure of giving his sister the best gifts each year. Compared to that …

One book did not seem like much.

Except then Jean looked up at him. Charles saw her grey eyes shine. And he saw her mouth the words: Thank you.

"Why, Jean -" he steadied his voice with an effort. "You're quite welcome."

She held his gaze for another minute, then turned back to the book. Reached out -

The man made a low tsch, between his teeth. She looked at him; he looked back, seriously. "Erst mußt du deine Hände waschen."

Charles blinked as Jean jumped to her feet and scurried to the bathroom. Could she reach? But then Charles heard water running, and remembered. Telekenisis. Very determinedly, he stared into the fire. Did not meet the man's eyes.

Jean came back, and picked up the book. She walked up to Charles' chair. Will you read to me?

"Of course," he said. Shifted to make room. "If you can stand my bony knees. Here."

It was like having a little sister again, he reflected, as Jean turned the heavy cream-colored pages from her seat in his lap. Charles scanned the table of contents. "Choices, choices. You pick."

Jean nodded, and thought. Then she pointed to Sleeping Beauty.

And Charles felt a shiver creep down the back of his neck, as she looked at the man and tilted her head.  

The other spoke softly. "Das ist Dornröschen."

Briar Rose, Charles' mind translated, and: No. Stop. He moved all of his attention to the book. Focused on the texture of the paper, the slide of pages as Jean turned them. On the ornate colored plates, the illuminated capitals, and the sound of his own voice.

But try as he might, one prickle on the back of his neck was hyperaware of the man picking up the dishes and rinsing them in the bathroom sink. Moving quietly to lay more logs on the fire; to put clean ceramic ware, metal containers and chopsticks back in the canvas bag in which he had carried them. And then - really, was he compulsive? One would expect him to relish squalor, given his issues with personal hygiene - but he was carrying the pile of Charles' clothes out from the bathroom, and placing them in the box outside the wardrobe.

Charles heard the can of mandarin oranges fall out with a clatter, followed by a soft curse. Odd. The man hadn't caught it with his ability - but really? He, Charles, couldn't care less.

The room was soon neat as a pin again. A few more quiet steps - Charles heard running water, and then the man placed the metal cup on one of the chair's flat armrests.

Then all that remained was for the man to fold up his lean form, sink back down to the hearth, and listen along with Jean. So, clamping down hard on his own nerves, Charles took the fairy-tale lovers to perfect felicity as quickly as he could.

"… And they lived happily ever after. The End."

Thank you. Jean snuggled close. Then she yawned.

Charles' stomach lurched. He had forgotten: the faster the story ended, the sooner Jean went to bed, and -

"Möchtest du schlafen, maidele?"

Jean nodded, scrubbing the back of one hand across her eyes.

"Really," Charles said, quickly. "I would very much enjoy reading another one to you, Jean."

He could pull a Scheherazade, he thought, desperately. One story after another, as long as the other didn't -

"She looks a little tired to me, Xavier."

"Jean?" Charles bent his head to meet her eyes. "Are you tired?"

A nod.

"Oh, but - there are so many more in here," and his voice had cracked, he knew it, and he made a grab for the pages, to flip to the table of contents.

Mr. Xavier, and her eyes were grave, your hands are dirty from dinner.

He swallowed. "I'm sorry."

That's O.K. It's just that I wash my hands before I touch the pretty books, is all.

"And that's very good of you, Jean."

You're pretty too, Mr. Xavier. Can you show me how you made your hair so shiny?

He gritted his teeth. Said nothing. Jean had only just begun to look slightly anxious when Charles regained his self-control, and forced a smile down at her. "One hundred strokes a night - brushing hair, I mean."

Really?

He felt a laugh catch in his throat; swallowed bitterness. "No, dear. I'm afraid I'm not quite sure how."

Then how did you -

"Come on. Take your book." Jean did; Charles glanced at the box of her other presents, and then gave the man an impassive stare. "I'll put her to bed."

He busied himself with standing, hoisting Jean to put her feet on the floor - she did with a drowsy mumble - and picking up her box. Tucking it under one arm. His throat was parched, but he refused to look at the glass of water.

There was only silence.

"Really," he exhaled. "You can trust me to - to walk across the hallway and put her to bed. Can't you?"

The other treated him to just as impassive a stare in return. Then one corner of that mouth curled up into a smile. "Only if you hurry back."

Charles did not grace that with a reply. Instead, he ushered Jean out of his room and across the hallway to hers.

He expected - well, he hadn't really thought of what to expect. Cold, perhaps; frigid darkness. Like his own room had been, before the man had built a fire for him. But … Jean's room was warm enough, with flames crackling away in the fireplace and three blankets on the bed.

Charles was not jealous, he told himself. Not at all. Merely - he sighed. Merely tired. Sick and tired of the whole rigamarole that had begun with them treating him like a student, and ended with them making him envy a six-year-old, for god's sake -

Mr. Xavier? Jean's thoughts were anxious, through her sleepiness. Are you O.K.?

"Fine." He smiled down at her. "Go brush your teeth."

And he watched the fire as Jean did so. As she placed the book on her tiny bedside table, as she pushed blankets back and cuddled up in them, holding - he grimaced - Frost's gift of white furs close. But, Charles was satisfied to see, she held the bear closer.

"I don't know whether that bear belonged to Bobby or John," he said, "but I will tell them both 'thank you' for you, when next I see them. Shall I?"

I can tell them 'thank you.' I'll see them tomorrow.

Charles swallowed. "Will you?"

Yes. Lady Frost is going to Dallas. Then she's going to Mexico City, but I get to stay in Dallas with Hank and Logan.

But Charles hardly heard.

The fire was blurring in his sight, into a rose-gold smear. "Ah."

For a long moment, Jean was quiet. Then - he felt the faintest brush of her thoughts. The small animal that he remembered as edging out from inside the conch shell … The shell, Charles realized, that he had not seen in months. That was a good thing, he supposed.

But … Jean had sent an image.

It was himself, Charles realized. His dark hair and indigo robe blending into room's shadows. Diamonds glittering at his throat, even through the veil; his pale, gaunt features blank as he stared at the fire.

Except … there was a glittering on his cheekbones, too. And that glitter coalesced - threaded silver to frame the image with: Mr. Xavier …

... Why are you so sad?

Damn. Charles made the veils surrounding his mind flutter; Jean's touch slid away. He swiped one of his sleeves across his face and turned to give her a bright smile.

"I miss them, dear. So: tell them I miss them, won't you? Ororo, Bobby and John, Sean … Hank, Angel and Alex, and Logan; everybody." He made his voice light, waggled his eyebrows comically as he tucked the blankets under Jean's chin. "What a long list."

I'll tell them. Jean's eyes shone beneath her drooping eyelids. I'm sure they miss you too.

"I'm sure." He straightened. "Sleep well, hm? Happy Fourth Quart - oh really. Happy … Solstice, Yule, Chanukah, Christmas. Whichever." He swallowed against the ache in his throat. "And a very happy New Year, too."

Happy ...

She was falling asleep.

Charles stood there, quietly. Then he bit his lip, and reached out a careful hand. He tucked a lock of Jean's red hair behind her ear. And sent a tendril of thought, the most gentle suggestion.

Sleep well. Sleep deeply. And sleep until tomorrow morning, hm? Whatever you may hear, in your sleep … is a dream.

Starting, Charles told himself, with the soft sound of the door as he closed it. He did so. Dropped the veil, sent that power back into his mind. Except for enough to waft Jean one final thought, as he leaned his forehead against the wood.

Tomorrow is a journey.

Seven is a journey, Raven had told him. And were his sister here, he would say to her what he sent to Jean:

Be safe. I love you. Be safe.


Charles made no fuss about walking back into his room, no grand entrance. It was his space after all - not Frost's, not the man's. No matter how much the one might gloat and the other might -

Might stare, god damn it. He could feel those eyes boring into his back as he closed the door; as he sighed and strode over to his bed. He reached in the box remaining to him, rummaged through his belongings until he found the bottle of wine.

And kicked, sharply, to get the touch of cold iron away from his ankle. "Don't."

A low growl. "Why not?"

"Because I showed I can be trusted without it. I put Jean to bed and returned in all due time," he paced back to the chair in front of the hearth, turned on one heel and stared down at the man, "and now, I just want to sit and not be chained."

Charles set the bottle of wine on the floor next to the chair. Then he picked up the metal cup on the armrest, drained the water in one gulp - his throat was dry, after all - and sat down, flipping the silken sleeves out of the way. "Besides. That thing bloody well chafes, and that chafe? Hurts."

“If you stopped yanking at it, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”

“If it weren’t on my ankle, I wouldn’t yank it.”

“If you hadn’t taken your trip through my head, it wouldn’t be on your ankle -“

“And if you hadn’t tried to kill me, I wouldn’t have taken that - trip.”

A pause.

Then the man growled: “Well, you shouldn’t have been in the West Wing.”

Charles met his eyes fearlessly. “Well, you should learn to control your temper. Oh, and - just maybe? Not kill people.”

Another growl. But the other had looked away, turned to the fire instead. And … Charles glanced to one side of the chair. There, in the shadows, the chain lay curled up. Like a metal viper, waiting to strike …

He dismissed the image and picked up the wine. Opened the bottle smoothly enough, given how out of practice he was with a corkscrew. A metal corkscrew, he noted, and gave the back of the man's head a poisonous look. The blighter could have offered to do it for him. Not that Charles would accept it, but it was the principle of the thing.

Pouring out a generous amount, he sighed. Stared at how the wine cast purple-red glints onto the bright metal. The cup was more polished on the inside; he didn't know how the other had managed it.

Charles swirled the alcohol and stared at the man, who was gazing into the fire in turn. The light reflected in his eyes, just like it would in those of a cat. In fact, he seemed more feline than anything at the moment - the lines of back and shoulders relaxed beneath the white shirt, grey-clad legs tucked beneath himself, head tipped just slightly to one side.

Then he turned, looked back at Charles - those eyes glowed green and the illusion was complete. Charles tightened his grip on the cup; sent mental thanks to Angel again. If he was going to get through this, he would need every single drop of that alcohol. A pity he had knocked over the vodka that morning. Or maybe not: even with enough food to take away his hunger, he wasn't quite sure if it would have cut the impact of harder liquor -

Food. He blinked at the man, remembering. The blighter had actually brought him - food - oh shite. He had missed the chance for positive reinforcement.

"'Never too late, I suppose," he muttered, and: "Here." He held out the cup. "You have some first."

"… Why?"

"Because," and Charles tried a tight smile, "you brought me a feast. And I didn't say 'thank you.' So: thank you," he gestured with the cup, "and: have some."

A dubious glance into the brimming cup as the man plucked it from his fingers. "How much is 'some'?"

Charles shrugged. "However much you like. I am all prepared," he tapped the bottle with one finger, "for a good deal of holiday cheer."

"Mm."

The silence was nowhere near comfortable; Charles' nerves were strung too tight. Blood had dried in streaks on his throat - he could feel his skin catch on the diamonds. Still … as he took the cup back after the man's careful sip, and slowly drained it … he felt somewhat more centered. And if it took alcohol to achieve that? Such was the way of one Charles Xavier, Oxford Casanova.

"Long may he reign," he muttered to himself.

"What?"

"Nothing." He raised his voice for the man's benefit. "Just thinking."

And he stared at the other … just thinking. Watching the man turn back to the fire and relax again.  The tutorial had been mildly successful so far, he supposed. The other had stopped choking him; had brought him food, fetched water, had even tidied. All he needed was the sex, Charles thought, cynically - and he'd have the perfect spouse. Spouse. He was not so traditionally minded that he automatically thought 'wife' - certainly not. The Party of Purity was strong in Oxford, and rather worse in Coventry… but really, Charles had always thought that if they were so keen on traditionalism, they'd do better to move to the Free West. They were on Stryker's sodding bankroll already anyway.

He brought his mind back to the issue at hand. Sex. Charles poured himself more wine and drank, staring at the man. It had not been precisely terrible, so far; the incident with the tooth excepted. The other was just naturally aggressive, rather to an extreme. But when manipulated by his own adolescent desires, and when coaxed and soothed - hell, outright controlled - through touch … well. He could be calmed, somewhat.

So … Charles would have to touch. Fair enough. He took another drink. It was not that tedious a chore, touching.

Not as tedious as having that bloody chain round his ankle had been, these many months. Smiling, Charles flexed his ankle. Then felt the smile vanish as the scab cracked. Oh, right - just last night he had yanked at it, trying desperately to get to the door … The man had put a bandage on it; an excellent idea. He set the cup down and got up -

The man twisted round where he sat, smoothly. Like a cat. Charles' skin prickled even as he made his voice soothing, "Stay - just stay. I'm only getting my first aid kit. You look comfortable," he smiled, "so don't get up."

He fetched the kit, and snatched up Logan's container of bear grease from the cardboard box as well. But when he returned to his chair the other was still twisted in place, the better to watch him. "Really." He sat and flipped the case open, took out the gauze. "If you stay like that, your back will cramp."

No reply.

Who cared? Charles opened the container. He scooped up sufficient grease and stretched to put it on his ankle - damn - changed his mind and hoisted his right leg up. It was easier to get at the wound with his ankle propped on the opposite knee, even if that did mean he was flashing a bit of leg …

Instinct made him pause, and listen. Then Charles rolled his eyes. Of course the blighter had stopped breathing, and - Charles checked - of course he was staring - Charles checked there, too. At his sodding shin, for god's sake. It looked like a bloody stick. What was so attractive about that?

"Really, this isn't a Victorian novel," he drawled, smearing the grease on the chafe. "Are you so overcome by a bit of ankle, that you have to gawk like that?"

The man did not reply. Instead … Charles clenched his teeth. He was not going to shiver, he was not. Even when the other flicked those green eyes to his face, then back down … and -

Charles felt his mouth go completely dry. The sod had not gotten up; no. But he looked just as comfortable prowling on hands and knees as he had looked sitting still and attentive - and he had reached Charles' leg, and had brushed the side of his face over one calf before Charles could flinch away.

That beard scratched.

"Hnh," Charles dragged his eyes away; started wrapping the chafe in gauze. The grease made his fingers slip. It was not because his hands were trembling. He tied a tight knot. Thought. Then reached down, flicked one button open and slid his hand into the robe, and moved beneath his upturned right leg, to the right of his left leg, and - ha - placed his fingers on the side of the man's face. And pushed.

"Move away a little, please."

The man obeyed, staring. Actually, he looked quite poleaxed - which Charles supposed made sense. He smirked, drawing his hand back and rebuttoning the robe. It wasn't every day that someone sprouted fingers from the calf. One point to him. But … and Charles slid his right leg back down, feeling the whispering slide of silk. But. What to do now?

It seemed the other had considered the same. His voice was a scrape: "May I?"

Charles raised an eyebrow; reached for the cup and took a slow sip of wine. "'May you' what?"

"May I be - closer?"

A hand grazed his shin, through the silk. Then the man leaned forward again, and pressed his face back into Charles' calf - again - through the god damned silk. Shite. Charles loosened his death grip on the cup, took a deep breath.

"Of course you may." He covered his mouth with the back of his free hand, tried to make his yawn as unobtrusive as possible. It was not completely a lie - the wine was making him sleepy. But Charles smiled to himself at the flash in the other's eyes, as those callused hands came up and settled on his own knobby knees - as the man pushed gently, just so, and shouldered his way in between Charles' legs -

- oh.

Charles felt his eyebrows climb up. He couldn't be thinking - the crazy sod couldn't be thinking of ...

"I want to do what you did." That gaze was bright, fixed on his face. Then the man looked down - Charles looked, too; he wasn't tenting the robe or anything, thank god - but the other's breath was warm through the fabric as he drew closer. "With my mouth. I want to do that. May I?"

"Oh …"

It was odd. The words, the look … all had set off a warm twist in his gut, and Charles acted like he were back in Oxford with a lover before he was able to stop himself.

"Oh, my dear." He saw his free hand reach out, stroke over the roughness of the man's hair. Saw the other's eyes go half-lidded; felt the sharp angles of cheekbone press into his palm as the man leaned into it. The scabs felt hot against Charles' skin. "… Really ... you've never done that before. Have you?"

A warm breath against his hand. "No. But I want to."

Charles tried to concentrate; the lipping at his fingers was making it difficult. A problem: he didn't want the other to be traumatized. He stroked that hair again, meditatively. "Hmm …"

"Please? May I?" It was too low-pitched to be a whine, but the tone was - oh god, was this really happening? Charles double-checked the level of wine in the cup; leaned over to look at the bottle. He wasn't drunk. So it really was. Happening.

… If he wanted it to happen.

Charles felt the slow surge of heat tingle in his fingers and toes. He might have been breathing faster, because he supposed he did. Want it.

"Well, then." He gave the cup to the man. "Put this on the floor, would you?"

The other did. Not with his power, Charles saw. And those bony hands were trembling.

"I have to know …" Charles rolled his shoulders and shifted where he sat, making himself comfortable. He touched his other hand to the man's head too; ghosted his palm over the short hair. "Can you do as I tell you? Just for advice." He smiled. "You understand."

The man nodded. His eyes were wide.

Distantly curious, Charles slid fingers down to the other's throat, and pressed to check - oh. The man's heart was hammering away. And Charles could feel each breath rattle in the trachea under his fingertips.

"All right." He laid both hands on the man's shoulders. Squeezed. "Buttons first."

The other leaped to it - Charles gave him a light tap on one deltoid. "Slowly. I don't want anything torn."

So the man went slowly.

Charles focused on his own breathing. In, out. In, and out - even if he only had to crane his neck slightly, to see the other's head bent as he started with the buttons nearest the hem. And went up. Slowly. The man pressed closer in between his legs; Charles felt them fall apart just a bit further, felt the brush of linen against his thighs, and -

He touched the man's shoulder. "Shirt off, please."

The other drew back with what sounded like another whine - no, a moan. And practically tore his own shirt off. Charles watched the linen land on the floor - hope it's still clean, it'd be a shame to - oh, and the slide of warm skin against his own was really so much better …

So much better than the open air of the room. Charles hissed. Although it stood to reason: even though the fire had heated everything, of course the air would be chilly on his cock. The man had managed to unbutton everything up to his sternum, and was staring. Charles couldn't help it; he smiled to himself. Usually the dumbstruck expression appeared on his partners' faces only after he had finished doing whatever - or whoever - begged to be done.

On second thought … His smile faded, just a bit. That look was more - curious. And it stood to reason, Charles supposed, and he wasn't comparing or jealous; no, he was not.

Besides, it was only because the man was taller.

A tilt of the other's head to one side. Charles saw the jewel hanging down on the man's chest glint - but his attention was taken away from it, as the other reached out - then stopped and drew back gracefully, like a cat from a puddle. Looked up at Charles. "May I?"

"Go ahead …" Charles knew his voice was languid; he didn't care. "Treat yourself."

And then there was only hot breath on his cock - oh - and the other had taken the words to heart, because he was -

Licking.

Lapping, really. Like a deer with salt.

"Oh, that's -" Wonderful, Charles' mind supplied, and: "… good," he managed. He was in control. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. "Very good."

He spared the man another glance; and when his eyes met green ones, the blighter drew his tongue back and grinned.

Oh dear. There were far too many teeth in that smile, and Charles felt a frisson of unease. What would happen if -

- but then the other latched onto his cock greedily and Charles had to groan. "That's it." He savored it for a moment; then blinked. "Wait - here." Stopped the man with a gentle touch to his forehead. "Use your hand; just - make a circle, like so," he curled his free hand around his shaft, drew back so that the other could copy the motion, "and make the grip tight - ah, not that tight - all right, good. Like that. And then, you see," he slid his fingers over those stark cheekbones, over the planes and angles of the other's face, "it makes it easier to suck it."

Charles let the words settle in the silence of the room. He liked the way they had sounded.

"Because," he whispered, "that's what I want you to do. Go on."

Charles bent his fingers into the man's scalp, and scratched. "Suck my cock."

And - god - the man grinned at him again, teeth gleaming, before he dove for Charles again and clamped his lips around - "Fuck," and Charles did his best not to thrust up into the wet heat of that mouth. "Mother of god -" Except the other was Jewish, so that perhaps was not the best phrase. Charles set part of his mind scrambling for a good one - he happened to be distracted, somewhat. His thoughts were starting to shiver apart, overheated, so he was extremely proud of the fact that he eventually gasped: "Lord god of hosts."

He felt a growl, and oh, the vibration was bloody amazing around his cock. But Charles screwed his eyes shut, trying for self-control; he was in control, in control, and he wouldn't ask the blighter to repeat anything, ever, because that would indicate he - Charles - wanted something - from the other - god, it was getting harder and harder to concentrate. Harder. Ha. Charles slitted his eyes back open, looked down; the man's features were contorted, and really, it would serve him right if Charles just slapped both hands on the back of his skull and fucked his face. Wouldn't it?

How fortunate that he was more civilized than that.

So civilized that he wasn't even moving. Charles just sat in place - well, sprawled in place - and watched, fascinated. The other was going about it as if he were starved for cock. It was sloppy and inexpert - and more than once Charles felt him gag as he tried to get the head past the back of his throat …

Well. Practice made perfect. There was potential in that hot lash of tongue, in that hungry slide of lips; hm, perhaps if he - but - ohno no -

"Fuck!" Charles yelped, and shoved the man away.

The other lay sprawled on the hearth, arms akimbo. He stared up at Charles; then winced. "I … forgot."

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph -" and who cared about canon or creed? "Forgot what?"

The man's lips were very - pink, Charles saw, stupefied. Pink and swollen, as he said: "May I bite you?"

"No, you absolute idiot - you do not bite someone's cock! Ever!"

"You ... don't?"

"Absolutely not - and you want to know why? Because it hurts like hell." It hadn't, really; it had just been more of a surprise to feel a god damned nip like that. Charles flung the robe closed, and shoved himself back to sit upright. It was the principle of the thing. He had bloody well been sliding down the upholstery, like molasses, and then the sod had bitten him. "Didn't that ever occur to you?"

"… No."

Of course not. Moron. Catching his breath, he looked up to snarl at the other again - but paused.

The man had turned crimson to his ears. He wouldn't meet Charles' eyes.

Charles blinked.

Every single instinct in him flared. The other was - what? Angry? Embarrassed? Ashamed? Whatever it was, it was there for Charles to use. Just the tiniest bit of human kindness and he could have the bastard eating out of his hand.

Use it.

Charles heaved a sigh. "Well." He reached for the wine and the cup, poured some out. "Come here."

The man stared at the hearth. Dispassionately, Charles noted the firelight glinting off the crystal hanging on his chest, shining off the metal ring on his thumb.

"Come here," he repeated. "I'm not angry; I'm not hurt. Really, I'm just -" and despite his instincts telling him: no no… the tiniest crack split his self-control, and he gulped back a snicker. "I was just surprised. That's all."

He let his head fall to the back of the chair; gave the man a lazy smile. "But we all get carried away, once in a while. Don't we? Was that it? What was it - were you just curious? I know you're circumcised, but the ritual requires more of a ceremonial apparatus than we have here, hm?" Another laugh, bottled up. "What was it? Why nibble on someone's cock?"

"You taste good," the man mumbled to the hearthstones.

"Ah, well. I'm flattered. Just - bite me someplace different next time." Charles paused, softened his voice. "You were doing very well, truly. Now: come have a drink."

The other shuffled closer, face still flushed. Charles held out the cup. "Take a sip."

"Why?"

"Well, you might want to clear the taste out of your mouth."

"I like it," the other growled, but obeyed.

"That's right," Charles said, softly. "You licked my come off all of your fingers just last night - didn't you?"

A look from beneath dark eyelashes; Charles felt his stomach lurch. "Fine. Then - you can have all of the come you want next time. All right?"

The man put the cup back on the floor and went for Charles' thighs again; one movement of the knee, though, and he stopped in mid-grab. "'Next time', I said," Charles said. "Not just now."

The other looked crushed. "But I -"

"- want to know what to do," he said, "and who better to show you? Go on." Charles tipped his head to the left, directing. "Bed."

A moment in which the man just gaped at him; his woebegone expression being swept away by a wave of dazed lust - and then he got to his feet.

"Right. Pick up your shirt and fold it."

Familiar territory, Charles thought, as he watched the muscles flex in that back ... as the man bent to obey him. This, at least, the other knew how to do. Obey him, bite back curses and moans as Charles wrecked him .… Yes. They could have quite the routine down by the time the sod had to ship out wherever Frost ordered. If Charles wanted.

He bit back a smile. The man was standing in front of him, holding out the folded shirt like an offering.

"Give that here."

Charles decided to smile sweetly after all - the man's eyes glowed - as he flicked the shirt out of those big hands and laid it beneath the chair. But then a glint caught his eye as he straightened in his seat.

Frost. He narrowed his eyes at the jewel on the man's chest. "Next: your lady's token?"

"Yes?"

"Comes off too."

A pause: "I …"

"No arguments. And besides," Charles thought back, then continued: "I didn't see it last night. Where did you put it?"

"In my coat pocket."

"Well, you have a trouser pocket tonight; put her there."

Something strange coiled into his stomach and settled there as the man obeyed. Light glinted off the crystal facets - but then only off warm skin and tattoos as the jewel disappeared into cloth.

"Good. Now sit down."

Charles retrieved the cup from the floor - or started to, when he had to snort. The idiot had gone for the floor himself.

"Sit down on the bed."

The other obeyed him without a sound. Sat, placed a hand on each knee ... and stared.

Charles sipped at the wine. He was definitely feeling its effects; a pleasant buzz in his mind and a warmth in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with lust. No: the lust had moved out to new territory; Lebensraum …

Oh, what the fuck. Now was not the bloody time to think about the Second World War - where the hell had that even come from? Frost and Stalingrad? Eretz Galut, perhaps - from association with the tattoo on the man's shoulder. Charles looked at the lion, more familiar now - at the skin made golden by the firelight. And he swirled the wine in the cup.

He hadn't gotten off yet … so: why not?

He took another sip of wine. Aspirated, swallowed - smiled. "May I ask you something?"

The man's eyes were wide. "Yes."

"Would you … ah." Charles trailed off. "Well. You probably wouldn't want to do this … but if I asked you to …"

"Ask me."

"I'm not sure -"

"Ask me. I want it."

He was probably still talking about Charles' cock; certainly he was staring where the robe covered it. Poor dear; so confused. Charles ran the cup's rim over his lower lip, gave the man a sly smile. "Could you please take off the rest of your clothes for me? I'd like to see what I'm getting."

"You …" The man focused on him. It took a moment. "You want to - see?"

"Yes, please."

"Even though you saw me this morning?"

"Well, that was only a bit - before I hid in the bathroom. Remember?" One corner of the man's mouth curled up, and Charles smirked. "Besides, it was cold."

The ensuing silence spoke volumes.

"You don't know what happens in the cold? Really?"

"I know ... with snow, you forget -"

"With cold," Charles interrupted, "things get smaller. So. Go on." He relaxed where he sat. "I want to see. But -" he held up a finger, "you don't need to stand. I won't have you straining that leg."

It was fascinating, watching the man obediently strip. Not a single motion was wasted, as he slid the polished leather shoes off his feet and set them at the foot of the bed. Socks and belt followed. He had no false modesty or shrinking shyness; he merely peeled off the grey trousers and folded them, and did the same with his briefs. And Charles' eyes dragged down the long line of back as the other leaned forward to place the clothing by the shoes - and damn, there was no more wine in his cup. His mouth had gone dry again. Mostly because the man had leaned back, and -

"Lie down."

The other blinked at him.

"You can - turn to look at me, if you'd like. But …" and Charles licked his lower lip. "Lie down."

Yes, his mouth was definitely dry. Parched, really.

"Well, well." Charles got to his feet, smoothed the silk down his front. He was relieved to find that the bite hadn't damaged anything; only … set him back, briefly. But with this sight, he could make up for lost time. He padded over to the bed, gazed into the man's eyes, and then let his own wander leisurely over that body.

"It's a pity," he mused, after a long moment of quiet, "that this holiday is not a celebration of springtime."

"You want me to bring you flowers?" the man growled.

"Oh no," Charles said. "But I do want to dance around the maypole a little." He grinned his most lascivious grin, went to one knee by the side of the bed, and leaned forward to dip his tongue into the man's navel. "How lovely you are."

"I -" and the other was edging towards incoherence already; excellent. "I - don't -"

"Think you're lovely? But you are." Charles kissed up his abdomen, dragged the flat of his tongue up the sternum, over collarbones - and then kissed the man's pulse. "Rather deadly, certainly. But a well-balanced sword can be beautiful."

The other said nothing.

Charles leaned back to look into his eyes. They were wide; fixed on him and glowing. The man's lips were parted.

He flicked his glance away and continued. "Well-balanced; that's the key. You have a nasty temper and a belief that pain is your bosom friend - but really, you've been doing quite well with asking permission and not hurting me … except. This."

Charles laid a hand on the diamond choker. "Please take this off."

Silence.

He slid his eyes back to the other; the dazed look had been replaced by a sharp one. Damn. "Please," he began again, "take it off."

"It is my lady's gift to you, Xavier -"

"Not precisely. You, apparently," he shoved at the tattooed shoulder, "are your lady's gift to me. The rest is just accessories. Gravy. But you are the important thing."

"… I am?"

"If I'm her gift to you, then you're her gift to me," Charles explained. "It's logical. Now, given that nobody ever asked whether I wanted Father Christmas to stuff a metal-melter of a telekinetic sod in my stocking … well. I think it would be polite if you took this off. Or," and he touched the clasp; huh, the man hadn't yet fused it. "Or let me take it off."

He stared into the man's eyes. "… Please."

The moment stretched.

And then Charles felt his skin prickle, as the diamonds around his neck slid and slipped down his chest into his hands, with a rustling sound. A priceless rustling sound, he knew - but he was too busy taking breaths as deep as he could possibly make them.

Another pause, and: "Thank you," Charles whispered.

Time for reinforcement.

He leaned up, found the man's mouth and gave him a kiss. He let the quick gasp in response serve as an opening; he nudged his tongue between the other's lips and started a nice snog - all the while thinking, desperately, where he could put the god damned diamonds so that he wouldn't have to worry about being strangled with them again.

The man murmured against him, slung one wiry arm around his neck to draw him close. The chain was in the corner. There were metal knick-knacks in his box of gifts; there were metal containers in the canvas bag with dinner … hell, there were metal faucets in the bathroom. If it was death Charles was worrying about, the man had a hundred different ways to kill him ready to hand.

So Charles let the necklace drop to the floor, and shoved it beneath the bed. And focused on the kiss.

It was slow and sensual, wet and hot as Charles let his tongue tease and slide. He could kiss like this all evening - could probably keep the man enthralled in such kisses for days. But: positive reinforcement, Charles' mind whispered, and he had promised to show him, after all …

He broke the kiss and dragged in a breath; then placed his fingers at the man's mouth when the other craned his head to follow Charles' retreat. "Ah. No."

"Why not?"

"Because …" and Charles bent to kiss the man's chest, and his navel, "I did say I would show you. And besides - this will take the edge off. For later."

"What happens late - oh -"

The rough voice had cracked into a groan as Charles skipped any preliminaries and sucked the man's cock deep into his mouth. He thought it better to do so, really, than to second-guess himself by staring at it any longer. Because it was warm enough in the room now, so that neither of them was chilled, even on top of the bedclothes. There were no trousers or blankets to obscure sight. And so it was enough to swallow around the hot, heavy weight on his tongue and the back of his throat, and enough to bring his own left hand up and slick it with the spit he sent runneling down.

The man wouldn't really notice if he was drooling, after all; and Charles couldn't care less. One couldn't have any sort of sex without the body coming in to muck things up - the key, then, was to find the perfect fit, sit back and enjoy, and use the mind only to come up with an exit strategy -

Charles blinked, and drew his mouth away with a slurp. "What is it? Are you cold?"

The man was shivering.

"Hm. Let me build the fire a little," and Charles got up to do so, even as the other gasped a protest. He put two more logs on it, then considered, and added another - and carefully moved the wine bottle out of the way, lest someone trip over it in the night. He shut up the first aid kit and laid in on the chair, along with Logan's container of bear grease. Then, taking a deep breath, and staring at nothing in particular - the fire grate, the upholstery - Charles flicked his hands over buttons that remained shut and let the robe slide off. He carefully draped it over the chair. It would not do to have the silk sullied, after all.

Naked, he almost immediately felt goosebumps ripple down his back. And it wasn't even that cold …

Instinct made Charles look back over his shoulder.

The man had raised himself on one elbow, the muscles in arm and chest and flank knotted. His mouth had dropped open and his eyes were wide and staring. Charles raised an eyebrow in reply; then turned slowly on one heel.

And the man looked almost - confused? Thunderstruck, perhaps - with gibberish undoubtedly rattling through his head. Charles looked down at himself. Really, he was far too thin; the jut of his hipbones was pronounced, and his ribcage looked as though it might separate from his body. He shrugged and strolled back to the bed.

"Take a closer look," he suggested. Then - and why not, really? - he laced his fingers through one of the man's hands, tugged it from where it lay slack on the bed, and brought it back to his own cock. "And think about what I'd like you to do to me when I've finished showing you - showing -"

Charles trailed off. "Um."

For the other had yanked his hand away, gasping, and turned to one side. Squeezed his eyes shut - and - and it sounded as though he were in pain, as he whimpered and -

God. He suppose it was a compliment, but really … this was starting to get excessive.

"Do you know how to get come out of velvet?" Charles sighed. "I know I don't."

He waited a moment, and then tugged the coverlet away, moving the man's weight off it little by little. That body felt limp enough to be boneless. Charles then carefully draped the velvet over the bedframe to ... dry. In places. He supposed.

Then he turned back to the man. "Hello?" he asked. Then he tapped one muscled shoulder. "Are you alive?"

He heard only a mumble in reply; looking closer, he saw how the man's ears had turned crimson. Again.

"Don't worry. It's perfectly understandable, if you haven't had the opportunity to see many people naked in a sexual context. Or … ah." He smiled. "Perhaps it's some heretofore undiscovered mutation of mine. I'm like the Medusa, only with sex. One glance? And you come."

The man had turned back towards him. "I'm sorry - I didn't … I couldn't …"

"It's quite all right, really, and I - wait." Charles blinked. "Wait. Did you just say you were sorry?"

A nod.

"I didn't know you knew the word. Well," and Charles pushed off from where he was leaning on the bed. "I believe that deserves a reward in and of itself."

He walked back to the chair; gave Logan's container of grease a long look. His friend would never forgive him for using it to … but then again, Charles would never tell him. So. It would be slick, having spent time enough on the hearth. And it would either be this, or Ororo's moisturizer, or good old-fashioned saliva. Easy choice.

Charles gripped the container tightly, walked back to the bed, and straddled the man in a move as casual as he could make it.

"Are you awake?"

The man bared his teeth up at him. Charles raised his eyebrows in reply. Not only awake, but recovered, it would seem - for the other growled and clenched his abdomen to sit up. Except - then he blinked heavily, eyes almost crossing. Ah. That tendency to fall asleep; perhaps he was not so recovered after all. Charles shoved him, hard, with a hand to the chest. Hypothesis confirmed: the other flopped back onto the bed.

"God, you look drunk," and Charles took the lid off the carved container, "but you need to pay attention. Because what I'm about to show you is important."

Charles rocked back, slightly; there was no way the blighter could be - all right, there was some improbable way he could be getting hard again, already, but it would certainly take at least five minutes to get back in fighting trim. He hoped. Because he definitely needed some time …

"What is it?" The man reached out, curious as a cat. A sleepy cat.

"Bear grease." Charles offered it. "Feel it."

The man did, then sniffed his fingers and blinked.

"This goes both ways, you know." Charles ground his hips, experimenting; the other hissed and let his hand fall to the bed. "I'm not going to be the only one here ending up smelling like Ursa americana. Also," and he moved his hips again, "I'm telling you right now. Every time you come early, I'm going to assume you have more in you and then start all over again."

"You're going to kill me."

"Nonsense," Charles said briskly. "If I wanted to kill you, I would have shagged you to death in the library, instead of letting you strangle me."

"Letting -" the man ground out. Charles flinched at the tone, and looked - and immediately regretted it. The daze had gone in a flash. The man's eyes were glittering, his teeth hideously bared, and oh god he was about to fuck a dragon, or a lion or some monster out of myth - and Charles had to shove his forehead against the man's shoulder and try not to scream.

A feather-light touch brushed his hair. "What is it?"

He shuddered. "Let's not talk about strangling."

A pause. "All right."

"No," and with a deep breath, he pushed off the trapezius and made his voice casual again. He was in control. He was in charge. "Let's talk about fingering instead. Have you ever heard of it?"

"My lady - in Russia, she played the piano."

Charles' mind had started gabbling nonsense to drown out the words, as soon as "my lady" had passed the other's lips - because … Frost and fingering just - he never wanted the two associated; never ever. But …

"Well. There is indeed that definition of fingering, for those who play musical instruments. I'm talking about a different sort."

Slowly, Charles lifted himself from where he straddled the man. Reached down, and glided exploring fingers over the other's cock - now half hard again, dear lord, and taking interest in the proceedings. He slid back just slightly, to make sure they had enough room. "This. This here. Feel with me."

The man obeyed him. It was strange, to have their fingers entwining there, but judging by the other's hard swallow and the strong teeth digging into that thin lower lip - to say nothing of the twitch of Charles' own cock - strange was not necessarily unpleasant.

Before he could lose his nerve, Charles swiped up a hefty dollop of grease with his index finger. Reached down again, dragged his finger over the man's, and hitched his upper body forward, bracing himself with his free arm. "Now - feel here."

And he moved the man's hand back.

Well technically, Charles' mind point out, he was moving the man's hand forward, and his own had to move back around his hip because it would be difficult to get there with his own cock in the way, straddling someone like this - and the Oxford Casanova was not a shrinking violet, and what he really needed to communicate to himself was that he was guiding the man's fingers between the cheeks of his arse … and just leaving them there, brushing the hole. There.

Now, he just needed not to hyperventilate.

Easy enough; Charles found his self-control again and drawled: "Feel."

There was no motion whatsoever. He frowned, dragged his gaze away from where it had focused on the bedstead, and to the man's face.

The sod was looking absolutely flummoxed.

Charles sighed. "Feel. Right there. Press in a bit." And he did so, with his own greased finger. "Like that."

"… Like this?" the voice rasped, and Charles bit his lower lip at the careful touch alongside his own fingertip.

"Exactly. Now then," and he rocked back just slightly; felt the man shiver beneath him. "Please tell me that you are aware of the logistical issue at hand. So to speak."

I think I've put my finger on it - his mind supplied the admittedly trite witticism for the other … but said other just stared at him, pale.

"Does that mean: 'yes'?"

A long pause. Then a nod.

"Fine. Then this is what needs to happen. Penetrator, or the soon-to-be-penetrated - or both - makes or make use of a generous amount of whatever lubricant is available, loosens up the soon-to, you know which I mean - and then utter depravity ensues. 'Depravity,' that is - " and Charles raised an eyebrow, "if I am to believe Free West propaganda."

"Free West propa - wait." A line had appeared between the man's own eyebrows. "This is what they mean, when they - when they say: degenerate acts?"

"Lord, you're an absolute innocent." Charles smiled. "A bloodthirsty babe in the woods. There's a whole spectrum to it but - traditionally? Yes. This is rather the jewel in the degenerate crown."

"Oh." The man fell quiet, staring at nothing.

But then he looked up at Charles again. And grinned - like a god damned shark. Charles gulped despite himself.

You're in control, he thought, shivering. Covered it up with bravado. "Come on, then. Strike a crushing blow against reactionary tyranny. Finger me."

The press of the other's finger was more directed, this time. Charles focused on the lion tattoo, since it was right in front of his eyes. Murmured encouragement - and, after a few long moments: "You need to go deeper. And move it around."

"I -"

The blighter was being far too cautious. Charles was getting impatient. "Like this," and he pressed in himself, sliding well down. It was a bit of a stretch to get past the man's finger there, but everything was slick. "It's important to loosen the muscle; otherwise things tear, and I really don't think they'd be too pleased to hand out Archangel's blood for peritonitis."

"For what?"

"Inflammation of the peritoneum from rupture. It can kill you, you know."

The man's hand went absolutely still.

"None of that." Charles leaned in, slid a kiss over his mouth. "I know what I'm doing. Now: put your finger in deeper, and move it."

"But …"

He sighed, hot, against the man's lips. "Like this. Feel what I'm doing, and do it too."

Charles closed his eyes and focused on the slow, twisting press of his own finger. Once, twice - the blighter was in the way, otherwise he'd have a better angle - three times, and - Charles squeezed his eyes more tightly shut. The sensation was uncanny: to have another fingering him, too, and to feel the rough bumps of knuckle against the smooth skin of phalanges, all of it hot and slick and close.

He leaned his face closer to the man's, then moved to press into his neck. The other was sweating; he could smell it - Charles flicked his tongue - and taste it. And his breath was speeding up. No: their breath was speeding up.

"Add another one," he mumbled. And: "Wait -" as the man moved to obey. "Grease it first." Charles took his free hand and batted at the bedclothes - there was the container; he shoved it at the other. "Do it."

He only just had time to feel dissatisfied as man pulled his hand away, before it was back, and two - oh yes, that was lovely. "Move them in the same way. Follow my lead."

Ballroom dance, his mind giggled, and Charles shut the thoughts down. The crook and twist, the stretch - and even the burn was good. It had been too long. How long had it been? He wasn't sure.

But he was sure this would be sufficient - with one more finger of the other's and some grease applied … He had done this countless times, and he knew exactly how to relax, when to squeeze and push and when to relent, how to keep from hurting. And there was no way the blighter could last for longer than two minutes.

Charles pushed off where he had braced himself - the man gasped as he rocked back onto their fingers - but stayed kneeling there and touched the man's cock. Just enough to confirm that: yes, things were ready to move. So to speak. "Put another in," he said. "Just one."

The other took the two out instead - Charles drew in breath to remonstrate, but: oh. He was only fumbling for the container. Then Charles heard some sounds that were almost ... wet. He swallowed hard. A fine backdrop, those sounds, to his own breath. He wasn't panting; he wasn't a bloody dog. Just - almost breathless. Somehow.

He did not stop to think about what animal the other sounded like. What did it matter, now? Charles slid his fingers out quickly - and there was the man's hand, fingers almost too slippery, and trembling.

"Go on," Charles muttered.

The man pressed in. Not too fast, which deserved a reward, Charles thought, distant. He squeezed at the strong hand just once, and then got a last swipe of grease to smear on his palm. To slick up the man's cock.

As soon as he wrapped his palm round it, though, the other gasped again. Kneeling - god, his thighs were sending up a terrible ache - Charles held onto a bony shoulder with his free hand while gripping that cock tightly at the base, keeping his own eyes shut. "So help me, if you come now I really shall kill you."

A hiss: "Verdammt - stop that."

"That is the only thing that's keeping you from coming, you wanker."

A low growl, and the fingers in him twisted and slid up further, exploring, pressed forward and rubbed and -

"Ohfuck," Charles gasped. "There. That there, do that again."

Hot breath gusted over his brow. "This?"

Charles kept his eyes tightly shut. There was the motion again, and: holy god, at least there was nothing wrong with the sod's short-term memory, because that was it, exactly -

"God, god, all right. Fuck me. Go on."

"What -"

"This." He squeezed the man's cock. "In me, put it in me. I want you." He slid his hand away, left a trail of grease up the man's torso and neck as he searched for his jaw with blind fingers; found it. Then Charles placed his other hand there. Kissed at the corner of that mouth, felt hot panting against his own lips. He kissed him again. "I want you."

"Oh," a mumble, and the other sounded almost - wrecked, already. "How …"

"Just …" he bit his lower lip. "Slowly. All right?" And Charles canted his body up. "Take your fingers out, and -" he reached back down again, feeling that hand palm his arse, fingers slick and quivering - he grabbed at the man's cock, "- let me -"

It was strange, he thought distantly, lowering himself ... that the man was completely silent. The room was silent, except for the hiss of Charles' breathing, and the sounds of the flames crackling in the fireplace. Except then the sound of Charles' groan, because it hurt - a good hurt, it was good but it had been too long. Since - and his mind presented him with an image: a man behind a bar in Coventry, when he had attended the celebrations for the first fifteen years of Her Majesty's reign - god, he hadn't even known that man's name, and had let him fuck him into the wall - had he been drunk? maybe he had, but it had been in May -

"May," he croaked, and: "ah," because it did not so much hurt anymore as stretch, so wide - it hadn't been this way in May, "May -"

There was a quiver in the muscles beneath his hand; a flex of jaw. Then whipcord arms flinging themselves round his back, and - "mmph -" he was pressed close against all that sweat-slick skin, and he could hardly breathe.

But: "Yes," the other choked out, "yes yes please -"

Groggily, Charles searched back through what he had said. Moan, and gasp and the month of May - may -

His breath caught.

The fucker thought that he, Charles Xavier, was asking permission.

"God damn you," he hissed, and opened his eyes. The tattoo was right in front of his nose; he saw the blue-black lines of the lion's mane. Panting, Charles hit his head against the man's shoulder. "Damn you," and he forced his body down, then back up. Down, then back up. The man was gasping, almost wheezing for breath - and then, god, he was kissing at the bruise on Charles' own shoulder. With those arms locked so tight round him Charles could hardly twist to move, could hardly breathe - could not escape. "Bastard," he panted, and bit; the man shuddered, head kicking back -

This couldn't last long. It couldn't. Every single time Charles had gotten his hand or mouth on the man - or he had gotten his hands on Charles - things had finished in less than five minutes. So it couldn't be long. Please let it not be long. He tasted sweat, he smelled sweat - and smelled come from earlier and the smoke of the fire; and three months ago or so this man had been the one to try to kill him, and not quite four months ago he had seen Charles taken away from everything he knew, drugged and dreaming no doubt, but not of the nightmare to come. And everything he knew had contracted to the size of this prison cell of a room, with the fire in it flickering on limbs slippery with sweat - knots of muscle, angles of bone, the light and dark of two men twisted together on a bed.

"Let me," the man gasped, hands plucking at his back, "Charles, I have to -"

"No -" And Charles reared up and punched him as hard as he could. 

His arms felt like rubber, he felt the hot throb where the man's cock was thrust deep in his arse - and he was shaking with the instinctive movements the other was making, rocking up, shallow  …. And they were too close. Far too close for him to put real strength behind it, let alone aim. As it was, he got the man square on one cheekbone: watched his head snap to one side before the other snarled and yanked him close - closer than before and tighter - But Charles wasn't afraid.

"You don't - call me that, you bastard -" he clawed into the man's shoulders and shook him. "Don't -"

Teeth flashed white as the man glared into Charles' eyes, his own hot and glittering. "Xavier," he spat between gasps, "Professor. Let me come - let me -"

"Do it, then." Charles let his body sag; he felt his breath catch as he turned his face into the man's neck. "Damn you." His voice cracked, but he would not break. Not here, not now. "Do it."

And the man wrenched him closer still - buried his own face in Charles' hair - and groaned something incoherent, too loud to be a mumble and too slurred to be intelligible. Those hands gripped Charles' shoulders from behind, pulling him down, down

Charles was quite sure they would leave bruises.

He felt every shudder beneath him, every jab of sharp hipbones with each erratic thrust; and then the sudden easier slide of the man's cock - such a slick slide out and then back in even as Charles felt a grunt - surprised - puff hot on his scalp.

He stayed still, waiting for his breath to slow.

It was difficult. All of him felt drenched with sweat - he could smell its stink. Charles bit down on the inside of his mouth, hard, as he turned his face away. As he fought not to start shivering.

He flinched at the wandering brush of a hand over his cock.

"You didn't …" the man was slurring. "You - you need to -"

"No," Charles said, calmly. Professor voice. "No, that's quite all right." He stared determinedly at the fire grate. "Go to sleep."

"But …"

The same hand, trembling, pawed at his shoulder.

"Stop it." Charles felt empty. Even with - he winced at the thought. "Go to sleep."

As if he wanted to, anymore. As if he wanted to come. No … Charles drew in a deep breath and let it out. He felt as though he had been pummeled with a cricket bat. At least so far the ache was rather more in his quads than his arse; small blessings. And he wanted to sleep as well. But he'd be damned if he dropped off before the man did.

Another touch of the hand to his face.

"Stop." Charles pushed him away. "Leave well enough alone. Go the fuck to sleep."

"I don't want to sleep -"

"How old are you? Really," he sighed, tugging against the grip on his chin, "Seven? Six? I've known six-year-olds who don't behave as poorly as -"

" - without you," the man finished.

Charles closed his eyes.

His skin prickled as he felt a puff of warmth on the side of his face. Pressing his lips together, he yielded to the light pressure of that hand; turned his head.

For a long moment, he felt only the same breath. And then a careful kiss, of all things - there and then gone from his mouth, like a kiss a ghost might give.

Charles opened his eyes to look.

The man looked just the same as he always had, beneath him. The lines of bone and muscle, the tattoo and golden skin, the green eyes beneath eyelids falling shut, the lips parted to show a hint of teeth. Nothing had changed - if one didn't count short-cropped hair having turned darker, damp with sweat.

There he was, the same creature.

And no wonder, Charles thought. This had just been sex. It would take more to change someone than one round of fucking; much more than something as stupid as a kiss on the lips. Charles closed his eyes wearily. It had been what it had been … and here he was, still. No escape. Just sex with a monster, in his own prison, pain or death lurking round every corner.

He wiped his forehead with the back of one hand. He would have to start planning -

The man's palms brushed his cheekbones, reaching, and slid over his brow, smoothing out sweat. "Sleep?"

"You go ahead."

"No," and the voice was insistent, if groggy. "Sleep with me."

Charles sighed and flicked his eyes open, in time to watch the ripple of muscles in the man's abdomen as he eased back onto the bed, lying down. Strong hands tugged at Charles' shoulders, and then - oh - Charles was draped on top of him, and the pressure off his thighs felt marvelous.

"Will you sleep with me?"

"Yes," Charles lied. "Yes, of course."

And he observed the other's dozing smile, and watched the man's breathing even out into slumber.

It was only when he knew that slumber was deep that Charles braced himself, pushed against the mattress and angled so that the slide of that cock out of his body was as painless as possible. And really - it was more of an ache. Not pain. Charles knew that it would take much more to hurt him. And the man had been crestfallen when denied another chance at sucking him off, because of that nip. It would be easy enough to keep him from inflicting pain sexually ... Charles hoped.

The sounds of the fire were still very loud in the silence. This time there was an undertone: the man's breathing. Charles thanked whichever deity responsible once again: the blighter did not snore. The near-silence, the warmth, the residual ache in his own body … it gave him space to think. He raked his fingers through his own hair - his hands were not shaking, Charles told himself. Not at all. And now he had space to think, and to plan.

So. That had been all. And really, Charles thought, it hadn't been so terrible. Nothing truly painful; nothing unforgivable. And now … he touched his neck, bare; glanced down at his ankle, also bare. Now, it appeared he had been given a gift or two of his own.

A gift …

Charles stared down at the sleeping man. Sleeping Beauty … well. The contours of that face and body were too spare to be conventionally beautiful. Dornröschen … Briar Rose. Hardly. Charles had been the one smelling like a rose - though that was long worn away by sweat.

… But the man had a castle, surrounded by thorns. In his mind.

And if Frost had given him such a gift, surely she would not object if Charles ... unwrapped it.

Charles lay down on his side. And grimaced, as the other turned in his sleep to face him.

So, Charles was looking at the man as he tried to fall asleep. It was odd. He had never seen him this boneless, this relaxed. Except perhaps in the library, falling asleep on top of him, after Charles had plundered his mind ... with a wince, Charles shoved that memory away.

He looked closer. The scabbed cuts on the right side of the man's face had cracked and bled in a few spots. But ... lines etched in his brow had smoothed out; the tension in shoulder and flank had gone. Charles reached out and touched a fingertip to the scar above the man's lip, below his nose. That mouth twitched in the direction of the touch. Like a smile. And sex - he grimaced again - sex, brought to the man by one Charles Xavier, had done it all.

... That was an interesting observation. Charles considered it.

He thought for a long while.

It was growing cooler in the room. Absent-mindedly, he got up and built the fire. Walked slowly to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and gave himself a quick scrub with a washcloth. He retrieved the man's white shirt from the floor and placed it on the pile of his other clothes. Then Charles limped back to bed, tugged the crimson sheets out from beneath the man's dead weight - and lay down next to him before pulling the bedclothes up around them both.

And thought.

Sex had done it … Charles was a historian, and he knew: sex had been used to bring powerful men to heel for centuries. He had had glimmerings of that idea already. Break him down, build him up. Make the other do what he, Charles, wanted him to do. Change him. Civilize him.

But with such a one, brought to heel …

Charles inched closer. And prodded the muscle of the man's right shoulder with one finger.

The other woke with only a blink - shadowed lids, then glittering eyes.

"I'm cold," Charles whispered.

The man blinked again. And then, without hesitation, he reached out and tugged Charles into his arms. Holding him close, checking to see that the bedclothes were wrapped tight around him, and falling asleep again. Almost in an instant.

Charles was very warm then. He blinked at the man's mouth, felt the warm breath from where his own hair brushed right up against the other's nose. Then he eased himself up on the pillows - only enough to make eye contact, should the other wake.

And Charles touched the man's hair. Stroked it, gently.

"Fetch," he whispered. "Go. Sit, stay … heel." A pause. "Kill."

Finally, he sighed. "And sleep."

Easy to say, less easy to obey. The man had, it seemed; but Charles stayed awake for a long while, even in the warmth and light fading to dark. Thinking, and then thinking of nothing.